David Mamet describes William’s plays as “the greatest dramatic poetry in the American language”. Indeed, Thomas Lanier Williams – born on 26 March 1911 in Columbus Mississippi and named Tennessee after his father who, as a traveling salesman had descended from ‘pioneer Tennessee stock’ – brought to the language of the American theatre a lyricism that was difficult for others to compete with, be inspired by, and later, spoken through the heroines (himself never accepted the characterization of somebody as a ‘hero’, “only right or wrong ways that individuals have taken, not by choice but by necessity or by certain still - uncomprehended influences in themselves, their circumstances and their antecedents”) of his plays.
As a Southern writer, he captured the natural rhythm and melody of the Southern female speech and, behind alliteration, onomatopoeia and assonance, he did his bits and pieces of which great literature consists. Furthermore, he used speech to emphasize his character’s individuality – the least educated ones being the most poetic, in a special way: Amanda in The Glass Menagerie talks a lot because she is desperate; Vee’s dialogue in Orpheus Descending is “breathless”, a sign of her sexual frustration. In that same play, Val has a simple lyric speech about a little bird that matches her own nature, she is pure, yet strange. Alma’s dedication to the spirit in Summer and Smoke is reflected in a nonchalant monologue about the Gulf Wind. Serafina in The Rose Tattoo uses monosyllables. All of them are so convincing that are apt to analysis and speculation because they are memorable not only as individuals but in their contrasting relationships as well. And despite the fact that critics view Williams as morbid and pessimistic, or else shocking, his compassion for his characters – especially the female ones – is great: they seek protection – after all, they are fugitives – however, they face their fate with spirit and bravery, even though defeat may be inevitable.
Most importantly, Williams lets them unlock and light up the closets, attics and basements of human behavior and experience. They bring up subjects formerly considered taboo, including homosexuality, nymphomania and rape (all spoken out in A Streetcar Named Desire) but that are really universal. They share fears and are exploited – the sensitive and weak ones – by the crude and strong. And Williams recycles symbolism, found in everything: in Sweet Bird of Youth, a play that as its title signifies deplores the passing of time, as far as youth is concerned, a clock is heard ticking in the play’s final moments. Chance (a symbolic name), remarks: “I didn’t know there was a clock in the room” to which the Princess answers “I guess there is a clock in every room people live in”.
Tennessee Williams wrote about himself and the people he knew. That is why he managed to draw the picture of human tyranny and passion so distinctively. Since his life was scarred by the dominant figure of his mother and the tragic disorder of his sister Rose, his women – having similar or almost identical traits – are particularly inviting to our unfolding of their unique stories. One of his most memorable characters, Blanche Dubois of A Streetcar Named Desire is a woman longed to be acted out by many prevailing actresses of today, “a relatively imperishable creature of the stage”, as Williams himself once said…
Read also: Blanche Dubois, a review on her character as viewed by Tennessee Williams (Part II)