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About this book

A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) are major plays by Tennessee Williams, one of America's most significant dramatists. They both received landmark productions and are widely-studied and performed around the world. The plays have also inspired popular screen adaptations and have generated a body of important and lasting scholarship.

In this indispensable Reader's Guide, Thomas P. Adler:

• charts the development of the criticism surrounding both works, from the mid-twentieth century through to the present day
• provides a readable assessment of the key debates and issues
• examines a range of theoretical approaches from biographical and New Criticism to feminist and queer theory.

In so doing, Adler helps us to appreciate why these plays continue to fascinate readers, theatregoers and directors alike.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
Although critics might disagree about the precise ranking of Tennessee Williams among the pantheon of major American dramatists of the twentieth century—along with Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, and Edward Albee—no one disputes that he is the most important playwright to emerge from the South. As such, one of the hallmarks of his works is the conflict between nostalgia for a mythically conceived agrarian South and the critique of a more pragmatic industrialized North. Just as indelible is his kinship, as a gay writer whose homosexuality had to remain hidden on the commercial stages of his time, with all those whom he termed in an early poem ‘the strange, the crazed, the queer.’1 His empathetic connection extended to all outsiders who were somehow marginalized or Other because of either their racial, sexual, or ethnic identity or their artistic gifts—misfits all who became a favored subject throughout his career. As Williams would proclaim in one of his many essays, theatre becomes most vital ‘through the unlocking and lighting up and ventilation of the closets, attics, and basements of human behavior and experience.’2
Thomas P. Adler, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter One. Producing Performance Texts

Abstract
From the mid-1940s through the 1950s, the dramatist/director/stage designer triumvirate formed by Tennessee Williams, Elia Kazan, and Jo Mielziner was not only one of the most creative and productive teams that the American theatre had ever known but, more importantly, one of the most influential in establishing a production style blending naturalism and expressionism, poetic lyricism and gritty realism, that would be a dominating force in theatre staging for years to come. For his part, Williams—despite some sense of what he called ‘psychic violation’ over acceding to Kazan’s suggestions for revising Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—had the greatest admiration for the man he called ‘the most brilliant director we have,’ one who ‘brings to bear an intensely creative imagination,’ who ‘magnified [any] play in a good way.’1 He cherished the director for recognizing the centrality of a prodigious work habit as the very essence of the playwright’s being:
■ But my work—I don’t think anyone has ever known, with the exception of Elia Kazan, how desperately much it meant to me and accordingly treated it—or should I say its writer—with the necessary sympathy of feeling.2
Thomas P. Adler, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Two. Mythic Patterns—Southern, Classical, and Christian

Abstract
Put simply, among writers of the American South, Tennessee Williams is to the drama what William Faulkner is to the novel. But whereas Faulkner created the mythical Yoknapatawpha County, several actual locales in the South have long been associated with Williams. There are, first, towns or regions in Mississippi: Columbus where he was born, Clarksdale where he spent much of his childhood years, and the Delta, setting for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Next, there is New Orleans, the city he most loved, in whose French Quarter he lived for long stretches of time, and where A Streetcar Named Desire is set. Finally, there is Key West, Florida, where he had a home with a writing studio to which he often retreated from his forays around the world. Yet along with these geographical places, there is for Williams a nostalgically remembered South of myth and tradition that proves every bit as vital in adumbrating his major plays. As Esther Merle Jackson has written in her 1965 book:
■ As a Southerner, Tennessee Williams has had advantages of consequence: the symbolism of the South, a region separated from the mainstream of the American society by an intricate complex of political, cultural, and economic factors, has greatly enriched the language of the arts…. Its primordial interpretation of man’s struggle in an unfriendly universe has produced a highly developed iconography.1
Thomas P. Adler, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Three. Political, Social, and Cultural Contexts

Abstract
When Williams cast his only ballot ever in a presidential election in 1932, he voted for the Socialist candidate Norman Thomas, testifying to his ‘interest in the discovery of a new social system …, an enlightened form of socialism, I would suppose.’ And in an essay that appeared between Streetcar and Cat, he asserted ‘I don’t think any writer has much purpose back of him unless he feels bitterly the inequities of the society he lives in’—although he does go on to disavow any ‘acquaintance with political and social dialectics. If you ask what my politics are, I am a Humanitarian.’1 His political stance tends to be practical rather than theoretically oriented, and so it comes as no surprise that in the narrative sections providing the social and historical background of even so personal a play as The Glass Menagerie he will reference everyday facts like the economic hardships of the Depression, the labor unrest of the frustrated masses, and the mood of isolationism in the face of events in Spain and Germany that portend the coming conflagration. In spite of this, critics for a long time chose to speak of Williams as if he were an apolitical writer.
Thomas P. Adler, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Four. Williams and Literary Canonicity

Abstract
Until fairly recently, dramatic literature was marginalized or, at best, only grudgingly accepted as an object of serious academic inquiry within English and critical theory departments, existing under the veil of such sobriquets as the ‘ugly stepchild’ or ‘unwanted bastard child’ among American literary genres.1 As C. W. E. Bigsby has remarked in Modern American Drama 1945–1990 (1992), ‘Any account of American drama must begin by noting the casual disregard with which it has been treated by the critical establishment.’2 In an essay dating from 1989, Susan Harris Smith put forth a number of reasons that might explain this dismissive attitude: the visual nature of a medium meant initially for performance and popular consumption; the collaborative nature of theatre art that might occlude identifying a single author; and drama’s proclivity to take ‘an adversarial and critical position toward dominant ideologies’ and to resist ‘existing proscriptions about the style and function of literature.’3 So ingrained is this antitheatrical prejudice that the flagship journal American Literature has published only a handful of articles on drama. Its first notice of Tennessee Williams in 1979 takes the form of a rather self-evident argument that his dramas leech over into the fictional mode in his stage directions, wherein the playwright ‘tells’ information to readers of the text rather than ‘shows’ an audience characters in action.
Thomas P. Adler, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Five. Dramatic Form, Style, and Genre

Abstract
When Jo Mielziner undertook to create the set designs for Tennessee Williams’s plays, he understood that he was involved in a grand experiment to dramatize human consciousness on the stage. As he wrote: ‘My use of translucent and transparent scenic interior walls was not just another trick. It was a true reflection of the contemporary playwright’s interest in—and at times obsession with—the exploration of the inner man.’1 In essence, Williams’s visionary stagecraft brought about a revolution akin to Henry James’s use of the first-person point of view or Virginia Woolf’s experimentation with subjectivity in narrative fiction. Trying to define better the precise nature of Williams’s dramaturgical method, one critic has even drawn on Woolf’s own writings to speak of the playwright’s development of an ‘androgynous form,’ one that marries characters presented in a realistic manner to effect great psychological probity (the masculine technical element) with a nonrealistically handled poeticized stage space that impacts kinesthetically on a multiplicity of the audience’s senses (the feminine stylistic element) in order to rejuvenate what Williams came to see as a worn-out naturalistic mode that valorized surface verisimilitude over inner truth.2
Thomas P. Adler, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Six. Feminist Perspectives

Abstract
Much of the first two decades of serious academic criticism about Williams was dominated by discussion of his enormous understanding in drawing women characters and his unusual sympathy for their predicament. In 1997, in a useful overview of those studies, Jacqueline O’Connor took this criticism to task for its tendency to conflate characters with one another and thus reduce salient differences and complexities by categorizing them as variations on the Southern gentlewoman, whose desire to perpetuate the values of a genteel aristocratic past results in sexual frustration and maladjustment evidenced in promiscuity, hysteria, and even insanity.1 Even given the centrality of women in his works, this is not to say that Williams would ever have thought of himself as a (proto-) feminist—just as the artist Degas, concentrating on the female figure of young women in the ballet or older women in the bath would not have either. At the same time, however, feminist critics can find Williams deconstructing categories of masculine and feminine identity, subverting patriarchal discourse, normalizing transgressive behavior, and otherwise critiquing the oppression, powerlessness, economic dependency, and sexual objectification of women.
Thomas P. Adler, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Seven. Queer Theory as Lens

Abstract
Tennessee Williams famously outed himself, publicly admitting to cruising ‘the waterfront,’ during a television interview with David Frost in 1970, and wrote even more openly about being gay in his Memoirs published a half-dozen years later. But long before that, his homosexuality was widely known, as he did nothing to keep it particularly secret among acquaintances, fellow workers, and those who wrote about theatre. Among commentators, it has become a critical commonplace that he was able to be more candid about sexuality in his fiction and poetry meant for private consumption, something he was prevented from doing in his dramas intended for the commercial theatre during the moderately repressive era of the 1940s and 1950s.
Thomas P. Adler, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Eight. Contemporary Critical Theory and Streetcar

Abstract
In the same way that the academy was hesitant at first to accept dramatic texts as a legitimate subject for exegesis as literature, so, too, were scholars much slower in applying contemporary critical theory to drama than they had been to narrative fiction. In the particular case of Williams, Michael Paller has suggested that the playwright’s distinctive emphasis on ‘the behavior of individual humans’ may itself have made his works more recalcitrant to heavily theoretical inquiry:
• This dedication to human action, and his skill at portraying it, makes Williams’s plays especially resistant to poststructuralist and postmodern criticism, more interested as it is in constructions and theories than in human beings behaving in concrete circumstances for specific reasons.1
Thomas P. Adler, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Nine. Film and Television Adaptations

Abstract
It seems safe to wager that most people’s first introduction to Tennessee Williams comes not through reading one of his plays or seeing one onstage, but rather through watching a cinematic version, either on the movie screen or television. The commercial film industry has been particularly drawn to his works as source material for fifteen major movies, seven of them appearing in the period between 1950 and 1968; and another half-dozen were produced for showing on television between 1975 and the end of the century. Included among them are notable adaptations of Streetcar and Cat intended for one or other media. Williams, of course, had a longstanding connection with the movies, going back to his brief time as an usher in a theatre and his days as a Hollywood screenwriter before his first success as a dramatist; in fact, as has been shown, an awareness of filmic techniques probably helped account for such elements of his playwriting as the episodic structure of Streetcar and the spotlighting of characters to simulate close- ups during the monologues in Cat.1
Thomas P. Adler, Nicolas Tredell

Conclusion

Abstract
It is no small measure of Williams’s achievement as a dramatist that, in the variety and depth of his characters and the range and largeness of his themes, he can be spoken of in the same breath as Shakespeare. A Streetcar Named Desire seems as close to Hamlet as any American playwright is likely to come, just as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof does to King Lear. More than one critic has compared Blanche to the Danish Prince, and not just in the difficulty the role presents for the actor; it is true as well of her psychological complexity and the moral and ethical dilemma she faces. And what else is her paean to ‘poetry and music’ and ‘tenderer feelings,’ coupled with her ‘dont hang back with the brutes!’ warning against the possibility of humankind’s backsliding if not Williams’s ‘What a piece of work is man’ speech?1 Cat, too, is Lear-like, not only in the magnitude of Big Daddy’s passion as he divides his kingdom and relinquishes power preparatory to facing death, but also in the breaking and restitution of bonds between parent and child.2
Thomas P. Adler, Nicolas Tredell
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