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Tennessee Williams, Remembered

September 23rd 2011

Book Topics - Thomas Lanier Tennesee Williams

Tennessee Williams is the subject of a retrospective this October at the University of Michigan. 2011 marks the centenary anniversary of the birth of Thomas Lanier "Tennessee" Williams—one of the greatest and most influential of American playwrights and screen writers. Next month in celebration of Williams' career, the University of Michigan's Department of Theatre and Drama is sponsoring a conference about Williams from October 12 to 15, including a keynote address, panel discussions, and a production of the rarely staged "Suddenly, Last Summer." On October 15, there will be a screening of the 1959 film made from the play. Discussion of the film will follow the screening.

Tennessee Williams was born March 26, 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi, and reared in St. Louis, where his father moved to work in a shoe factory. He attended the University of Missouri before being forced by his father to withdraw and work in the shoe factory. In 1937, two of his plays were staged by a theater company in St. Louis, and the next year he graduated from the University of Iowa. In 1939 he moved to New Orleans to write for the federally-funded Works Progress Administration (WPA), and while in New Orleans he decided to use Tennessee Williams as his professional name—Tennessee being the state of his father's origin. He had a bitter defeat in 1940 when a Boston tryout of his play "Battle of Angels" failed. But then came success.

In 1944, when he was 33, Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" was produced in Chicago. The tender, family-inspired, four character play won both critical acclaim and popular success. The play moved to Broadway, where it received the 1945 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award as best play of the year. Then in 1947 came the Pulitzer-winning "A Streetcar Named Desire." The resounding success of this passionate, steamy drama secured Williams' position as a great, unique theatrical talent.

"The Glass Menagerie" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" also established Williams as a playwright committed to intense, emotionally-probing drama about human beings who are often lonely, frustrated and frail. These character traits define the frail Laura in "The Glass Menagerie" and the near-evanescent Blanche Dubois in "A Streetcar Named Desire." Blanche's wistful characterization as a lonely Southern woman living through her memories of a distant past had appeared earlier in the presence of the mother, Amanda Wingfield, in "The Glass Menagerie."

Needy, desiring Southern women populate Williams' subsequent works: Alma in "Summer and Smoke" (1948); Karen in "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone" (a novel, 1950); Serafina in "The Rose Tattoo" (1951); Maggie in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1955); Baby Doll Meighan in "Baby Doll" (1956) and Lady Torrance in "The Fugitive Kind" (1959).

All of those plays became feature films, some adapted by Williams himself. "The Glass Menagerie" was filmed in 1950 with Jane Wyman as the fragile daughter Laura, Arthur Kennedy as the caring brother Tom, and Gertrude Lawrence as the self-centered mother Amanda. Paul Newman directed another version in 1987, with Joanne Woodward as the mother, Karen Allen as Laura and John Malkovich as Tom. Newman's rendering was distinguished by superb cast members who had been performing the play in regional theaters.

I think that most critics and film-goers alike would agree that "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951) stands as the most enthralling and enduring of all the Williams' screen adaptations. Vivien Leigh had performed the role of Blanche on the London stage, and director Elia Kazan chose her to co-star with Marlon Brando, who had created the Stanley Kowalski role for the Broadway production. Rare has the screen emitted so powerful an erotic tension as that which emanated from a beefy, animalistic Brando and a sexually-nuanced Leigh, cowering behind the camera's soft-focused images. And never has there been a film title more appropriately metaphorical than "A Streetcar Named Desire." The film was re-released in 1993 with restored footage that had, because of its sexual candor, been censored out in 1951. Another version of the drama was filmed in 1984 with Ann-Margaret playing Blanche.

"Suddenly, Last Summer" was written by Williams in 1958 and because of its unconventional structure and content was a sharp departure from his earlier work. A long one-act play with two lengthy monologues, the drama is one of Williams' most poetic and compelling works.

Written when Williams was in psychiatric treatment, it is also a theatrical effort of dark, psychological tailoring. The plot centers around a wealthy woman (Violet Venable) and her efforts to protect her dead son's reputation by silencing (through lobotomy) her niece, Catharine, who has knowledge of the son's "lifestyle" and the unusual nature of his death. A psychiatric doctor is summoned to the Venable estate with the notion that he can be convinced of Catharine's insanity and legitimize her being "put away." As in earlier work, autobiography plays a part in the creation of Mrs. Venable. Williams' mother had authorized a lobotomy for his mentally-ill sister Rose—the inspiration for Laura in "The Glass Menagerie."

Of "Suddenly, Last Summer," with its brutal plotting elements, Williams said: "Man devours man in a metaphorical sense. He feeds upon his fellow creatures…. I use that metaphor to express my repulsion with this characteristic of man, the way people use each other without conscience." "Suddenly, Last Summer"'s dark, corrupt tenor is a creative treatment of these ideas.

Screen adaptations of Williams's plays, with their startling, candid treatment of human behavior, often fell victim to Hollywood's Seal of Approval code. Homosexual themes were particularly taboo, and the topic was most commonly made obscure on film by never being openly addressed. This had been the case in the film version of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," with the source of Brick's sexual aversion to Maggie unarticulated. A similar kind of muting occurred in the Joseph Mankiewicz film of "Suddenly, Last Summer." Bosley Crowther, in his New York Times review at the time, attacked the film's "go-easy-with-the-ugly-words" approach (i.e. its refusal to mention the word homosexuality), and complained that because of its emasculated ending "the point of it all is missed."

Still, the film was a box-office success, in large part because of outstanding performances by Katharine Hepburn as Violet Venable, Elizabeth Taylor as Catharine, and Montgomery Clift as the psychiatric doctor. In a rare occurrence, Hepburn and Taylor each received a Best Actress nomination for the same film (losing in the end to Simone Signoret of "Room at the Top").

The Williams' conference next month, with stage performances of "Suddenly, Last Summer" and a screening of the film, signals a lively, significant set of University of Michigan events centered on a great, provocative theater-film talent. For specific dates, times, locations, and conference participants go to the Tennessee Williams @ 100 website.  

Frank Beaver is a film historian and critic, and professor emeritus of Screen Arts and Cultures at the University of Michigan.


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