A Streetcar Named Desire | Study Guide

Tennessee Williams

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Tennessee Williams | Biography


Born Thomas Lanier Williams on March 26, 1911, in Columbus, Mississippi, Tennessee Williams became one of the most prominent American playwrights of the 20th century. His father, Cornelius, was a hard-working traveling salesman. Williams's mother, Edwina, viewed herself as a Southern belle and often fought with her harsh, demanding husband. Williams also had an older sister, Rose, and a younger brother, Walter.

Williams began writing for himself at age five and continued this pursuit throughout his childhood. His mother encouraged Williams's aspirations and, as a token of her support, bought him a typewriter at age 13. However his father failed to understand his son, who, in addition to being artistic, was homosexual.

In 1928 his family moved to St. Louis, Missouri. Williams entered the University of Missouri, but his father soon forced him to leave and get a job as a clerk for a shoe company. Williams detested this work, but he continued to write stories and poems in his spare time. During this period his older sister, Rose, with whom Williams was very close, began to suffer from mental illness and was institutionalized. In 1935 Williams wrote his first play, Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay! Eventually, after years of working at the job he hated, Williams had a nervous breakdown. After recovering he enrolled at Washington University in 1937 and then transferred to the University of Iowa, where he majored in writing. Local theater groups produced some of his plays.

After graduating at age 28, Williams moved to New Orleans in 1939 and took the name "Tennessee" Williams. Williams loved the atmosphere of New Orleans, which inspired his writing. Soon Williams got an agent, Audrey Wood, who became a lifelong adviser. His play Battle of Angels was produced in Boston, but flopped. Then Williams wrote a play called The Glass Menagerie and spent years revising it. Finally, in 1945 The Glass Menagerie debuted on Broadway to rave reviews.

Williams followed this success with an even bigger one—A Streetcar Named Desire, produced in 1947. The play portrays a faded Southern belle named Blanche DuBois, who comes to New Orleans to live with her sister. However, she and her sister's husband, a brutal man named Stanley Kowalski, are in constant conflict. A Streetcar Named Desire intertwines several influences from Williams's life. Blanche DuBois combines the refined sensibilities of his mother with the mental illness of his sister. Williams's frustration with the job he hated is reflected in Blanche's feeling that she is caught in a trap that stifles her refined, artistic spirit. Domineering and brutal, Stanley Kowalski is drawn from Williams's father.

A Streetcar Named Desire received largely rave reviews upon its debut. Critics hailed it as being poetically written, insightful, and honest. The audience at its Broadway debut gave it a 30-minute standing ovation. Some critics objected to the play's frank depiction of sexuality, drinking, domestic abuse, and rape, accusing Williams of using this subject matter strictly for shock value. Since its debut, literary critics have written extensively about the play and tend to fall into three camps regarding the play's central focus.

Some critics see Blanche's internal conflicts, or the way she struggles with opposing forces within herself, as the heart of Streetcar. Other critics see the power struggle between Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski as the play's focal point, representing a showdown between different social values. A third group of critics sees A Streetcar Named Desire as being more ambiguous, claiming that the antagonism between Blanche and Stanley is not so clear-cut. They point out that neither character's behavior is dependably sympathetic. They also point to the play's unsatisfactory ending, which they claim confuses the audience who can't clearly identify whether Stanley or Blanche "wins" in the end. However others assert the play's ambiguity is its strength, arguing that Williams intentionally depicts the major characters as flawed and contradictory to reveal the paradoxes of life. For these critics the real tragedy of A Streetcar Named Desire is the failure of the main characters to truly understand each other.

A Streetcar Named Desire won a Pulitzer Prize and a Drama Critics' Circle award. Williams went on to write a series of hit plays, including The Rose Tattoo (1951), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955, also a Pulitzer Prize winner), and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959). His writing began to decline in the early 60s, as did his commercial success. He published his autobiography in 1975, claiming he needed the large sum of money advanced by the publisher.

Williams's plays often explore human vulnerability through controversial subjects such as mental illness, alcoholism, aging, and sexual desire, including homosexuality. While often hesitant to make a direct link between his life and his work, Williams had personal experience with many of these issues. He was openly homosexual during a time when homosexuality was not considered socially acceptable in mainstream American culture. He struggled with depression throughout his life, and he experienced another mental breakdown in 1969. By the 1960s Williams also suffered from drug and alcohol addiction that continued to haunt him until the end of his life. On February 25, 1983, he choked to death at age 71 on a bottle cap that had lodged in his throat. His body was found surrounded by wine and pill bottles.

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