From the 1930s until his death in 1982, Tennessee Williams crafted some of America’s most beloved dramas. His lyrical dialogue drips with his special brand of Southern Gothic -- a style found in fiction writers such as Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner (but not seen too often upon the stage).
During his lifetime, he created over thirty full-length plays, in addition to short stories, memoirs, and poetry. His golden age, however, took place between 1945 and 1961. During this time, he created his most powerful plays.
In my humble opinion, the following are the five finest plays by Tennessee Williams. But remember, if you disagree, share your opinion in the Plays / Drama forum.
#5 – The Rose Tattoo
Many consider this Williams’ most comedic play. Originally on Broadway in 1951, The Rose Tattoo tells the story of Serafina Delle Rose, a passionate Sicilian widow who lives with her daughter in Louisiana. The play explores the theme of newfound romance after a long period of loneliness.
The author described The Rose Tattoo as “the Dionysian element in human life.” For those of you who don’t wish to run to your Greek Mythology book, Dionysus, the God of Wine, represented pleasure, sexuality, and rebirth. Tennessee Williams’ comedy/drama exemplifies all of the above.
- The Rose Tattoo was dedicated to his lover, Frank Merlo.
- In 1951, The Rose Tattoo won Tony Awards for Best Actor, Actress, and Play.
- Italian actress Anna Magnani won an Oscar for her portrayal of Serafina in the 1955 film adaptation of The Rose Tattoo
When I was 12 years old, I stayed up late to watch what I thought was going to be a midnight monster movie about a Radioactive Iguana who destroys Japanese cities. Instead, I ended up watching an adaptation of a Tennessee Williams’ play.
There are no oversized lizard creatures, but there is the compelling main character, Ex-Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon. Expelled from his church community, he has turned from a respected minister into an alcoholic tour guide who leads his disgruntled group to a small Mexican resort town.
Shannon is tempted by the lustful widow, Maxine, who owns a seedy hotel. However, it seems his true calling is to emotionally connect with an impoverished, gentle-hearted painter, Miss Hannah Jelkes. They form a bond more complex and fulfilling than Maxine could ever offer.
- The original 1961 Broadway production featured Betty Davis in the role of the seductive and lonely Maxine.
- The 1964 film adaptation was directed by the prolific and versatile John Huston.
- Like the main character, Tennessee Williams struggled with depression and alcoholism.
#3 – The Glass Menagerie
Many argue that Williams’ first major success is his strongest play. To be sure, The Glass Menagerie exhibits the playwright at his most personal. The play is ripe with autobiographical revelations:
The absent father in The Glass Menagerie is a traveling salesman – like Williams’ father.
The fictional Wingfield family lived in St. Louis, as did Williams and his real-life family.
Tom Wingfield and Tennessee Williams share the same first name. The plawright’s real name is Thomas Lanier Williams III.
The fragile Laura Wingfield was modeled after Tennessee Williams’ sister, Rose. In real life, she suffered from schizophrenia and was eventually given a partial lobotomy, a destructive operation from which she never recovered. It was a constant source of heartache for Williams. Considering the biographical connections, the regretful monologue at the play’s end feels like a personal confession.
Tom: Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes... Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger-- anything to blow your candles out! -- For nowadays the world is lit by lightning! Blow your candles out, Laura -- and so good-bye...Interesting Tidbits:
- Paul Newman directed the 1980s film adaptation which starred his wife Joanne Woodward.
- The film contains an interesting moment not found in the original play: Amanda Wingfield actually succeeds in selling a magazine subscription over the phone. It sounds trivial, but it’s actually presented as a heartwarming triumph for the character – a rare beam of light in an otherwise gray and weary world.