Portrayal of Tennessee Williams’ Life Experiences in his Works
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To many, Tennessee Williams is just another playwright, but to others he’s a playwright with interesting views. Williams, “One of the most prominent playwrights in United States after World War II”(Liukkonen), inserted many of his own personal experiences into his writing. It is the haunting and powerful life experiences included in Williams’ writing that makes him one of the greatest playwrights in the history of the American drama. Tennessee Williams’ plays were influenced by the events of his life. Many of his writing included his involvement with his sister Rose and her relationship with their parents, as well as his homosexual lifestyle. The personal events that took place in his life were depicted in his setting, events, themes, and characterization in his plays.
In Clarksdale Tennessee was struck by two serious illnesses, Diphtheria and then Bright’s disease, which left him with weak kidneys and paralyzed legs (Leverich 42). Tennessee’s illness led him to the characterization of his play A Glass Menagerie. In this play one of the characters, Laura, also suffers from Bright’s disease. She is crippled, walks with a limp and wears a brace. This character is basically composed of himself and a mixture of other people, including his sister, Rose.
In the play, Laura is a shy introvert who spends a lot of her time playing with her glass figurines. Her mother, Amanda, is constantly “on her case”, trying to persuade her to find a husband. The relationship between Laura and Amanda is identical to that of Rose and her mother, Edwina. “Rose should have gentlemen callers, as she herself had had, and should marry the right man, as she had not” (Leverich 142). This perpetual nagging from their mothers is one cause of both Laura’s and Rose’s eventual mental breakdown.
Tennessee Williams also included the relationship between Rose and their father in some of his writings. Cornelius was not an ideal parent. He was scarcely ever home, was an alcoholic, and did not show much affection or approval toward Rose. This left Rose feeling helpless and unwanted. “The more he rejected her, the more Rose tried to win his acceptance, until finally, she was left defenseless and vulnerable” (Leverich 60). Rose’s father’s lack of affection was another factor that led Rose to her eventually mental breakdown. The relationship between Cornelius and Rose can be compared to that of Stanley and Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. Both relationships lacked affection and understanding of one another. Stanley was so bent on proving Blanche was a liar that he did almost everything to prove it and wouldn’t accept any explanation from Blanche. Stanley ended up raping her, which drove her over the edge and caused her to be sent to the mental institution. This is basically what Williams’ father was doing to Rose. He was basically raping her by making her feel insecure about herself, making her thinking she had done something wrong. This lack of approval and fatherly endearment could have led Rose to her mental insanity.
However, it is also possible that the rape scene was directly taken from another experience of Tennessee’s childhood. Like the rest of the relationships in his family, his mother’s and father’s marriage was a dysfunctional one. They fought all the time and after Edwina suffered from a miscarriage and a hysterectomy she refused to have sex with Cornelius, but that did not stop him.
“Her miscarriage resulted in two subsequent operations and finally a hysterectomy. After that she resisted Cornelius’s sexual advances more and more. What began as Edwina’s crying protests, Tennessee remembered, now became screams emanating from the bedroom; the impression he had was that of rape” (Leverich 61)
Williams writing about Stanley raping Blanche could have been Williams’ way of alleviating some of the frustration or trauma he felt when his father raped his mother.
Another event in Rose’s life that Tennessee Williams writes about in The Glass Menagerie is Rose’s failure in school. Rose was enrolled in Rubicam’s Business School because Rose’s doctors decided that she needed something to occupy her time. However, the overbearing work caused her to drop out shortly after without her mother’s consent (Leverich 116). In The Glass Menagerie, Laura drops out of Rubicam’s Business School after only going to class for a few days and her mother doesn’t find out until she checks on her daughters progress. The similarities between this scene and Tennessee’s real life are amazing. Williams’ uses the same business school in both cases and neither daughter told her mother. He directly uses Rose’s failure and attributes it to Laura, implying that they could be the same person.
Williams had the ability to write his sexual desires and practices silently in his short stories, but was unable to speak them openly in his works for the stage or the screen. Williams still pressed on and discovered a way to accommodate his plays. In A Streetcar Named Desire, the homosexual male never physically appears on screen, he dies before the movie starts. Despite his absence, the character lives on through Blanche, and the body of the movie surrounds the deceased character (A Streetcar Named Desire). His death and Blanche’s resulting obsession with boys is why she was fired from her job and moved down to New Orleans.
Tennessee Williams’ depiction of homosexuality also comes through in Small Craft Warnings. This work is Williams’ own dramatic view of homosexuality. Quentin, a middle-aged gay writer, speaks darkly of homosexuality. Williams expresses the harsh times of his life in a speech that Quentin makes:
There’s a coarseness, a deadening coarseness, in the experience of most homosexuals. The experiences are quick, and hard, and brutal, and the pattern of them is practically unchanging. The act of love is like the jabbing of a hypodermic needle to which they’re addicted but which is more and more empty of real interest and surprise. (Williams 260).
Williams, is once again using his characters as an outlet for his homosexual frustrations. He used Quentin to show his views on homosexuality. He reveals a world of human frustration, in which sex and violence, are unveiled.
Much of Tennessee Williams, and his homosexual lifestyle, can be seen in his alter ego, Tom from The Glass Menagerie. The blatantly obvious relationship between these two characters is their name. Williams’ was born Thomas Lanier Williams III but later changed his name. In using the same name he is directly relating himself to his character. Tom is also Laura’s brother, as Williams is Rose’s brother. However, you have to pay much more attention to Tom to catch some other similarities. In the play, Tom goes to the movies very often and explains to his mother that he goes for adventure, which he can not get at work. Tom may have been going to the movies for a different kind of excitement. Gay men, in the 1940’s and 1950’s, often went to movie theatres to get together and find other gay men (Bronski 94).
This was a way for Williams’ to express his homosexuality without flagrantly putting it in his play and offending the “straight” edged society. Tennessee Williams even explained how he used his symbolic writing to include homosexual aspects in his plays without the audience knowing. Toms opening line in The Glass Menagerie, “Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion” (Williams 4). This sums up Williams’ whole style of writing in four short sentences. He disguised all his life experiences, the truth, in fictional plays.
Few people have been more publicly revealed and more richly rewarded then Tennessee Williams. Although Tennessee Williams denied that his writing was autobiographical, elements from his life appear frequently in his work. Tennessee Williams experienced many conflicts with his family and with sexuality and society and he used these conflicts to write some of the best plays of his era.