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Modern Drama 101: American Theatre and Tennessee Williams


As a philosophical and art form, modernism arose as a result of upheavals in Western society during the late 19th and 20th centuries. In the face of a rapidly changing, urbanised culture, artists strove to self-consciously break away from traditional forms of art and to express themselves freely. From a theatrical perspective, modernism oversaw a dramatic shift that challenged the established representations of Romanticism, melodrama, and well-structured plays. Influenced by the findings of prominent psychologists, artists began to prioritise the inner workings of their characters and how to best represent them on the stage. This struggle for realism came to dominate British and American theatre in the 20th century and would foreground dramaturgy’s fidelity to real life. By mid-century, the violent disruption of society brought about by the world wars, propelled a counter art movement that rejected realism and focused primarily on symbolism and existentialism. Although opposing in many ways, these two art movements both fall under the category of modernism and would simultaneously search for innovative artistic forms to exteriorise a changed world view.

Modern Drama 101 will be divided into six chapters:

6. Modern Drama 101: American Theatre and Tennessee Williams

Modern Drama 101: American Theatre and Tennessee Williams

American theatre by the mid twentieth-century was influenced by European realism and focused on the construction of psychologically consistent characters with dramatic surfaces that reproduced reality. Characters aimed to mirror the language, dress, and behaviour of their predominantly middle-class audiences and their actions circumscribed to authentic domestic situations (Saddik, 2007, p.2). This article discusses the expressionist American dramatists that foregrounded contemporary American theatre, with a particular focus on Tennessee Williams.

In his seminal novel The Theatre of the Absurd, Martin Esslin noted a distinct lack of Absurd dramatists in America by the 1950s. Esslin posited that the disillusionment brought on by the Second World War in Europe culminated in a theatre that questioned the meaning of individual and social existence. America, on the other hand, was somewhat more detached from the direct domestic atrocities of the war and so contrarily emerged with a “continued belief in progress and a renewed sense of the possibilities of the American dream” (Saddik, 2007, p.35). It was only in the following decades that this sense of security was shattered by the political disillusionment brought on by such events as the Watergate Scandal and the Vietnam War that more experimental theatre flourished in the United States.

Figure 1: 1951 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams' 'A Streetcar Named Desire'

Therefore, it was only by the late 1950s and 1960s that a more anti-realistic theatre emerged in the United States that highlighted the limitations of conventional realism. Defined by Annette Saddik in the novel Contemporary American Drama, anti-realistic theatre “is concerned with eschewing the reproduction of surface reality, distorting these surfaces through stage settings that are not faithfully specific of a certain time or place, and presenting characters who, rather than representing a psychologically consistent identity, play with the boundaries between actor/character/real person” (Saddik, 2007, p.2).

The characteristics of this literary era, as defined by Saddik, include a focus on the inadequacy of language to accurately represent reality, a lack of any hierarchy or boundaries in the treatment of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, as well as an eschewing of the notion of identity — as identity became a series of layers “with no distinction between the artificial and the real” (Saddik, 2007, p.6). Drama that adheres to this modernist movement consists of experimental plays that resisted traditional narrative plot in favour of non-conventional structures and a more minimalistic style of dialogue. They tended to be more theme-centred, rather than plot- or character-centred- which marked the biggest deviation from both the nineteenth-century tradition of the well-made plays as well as early twentieth-century realism (Saddik, 2007, p.7).

Figure 2: Julie Harris as Amanda, Calista Flockhart as Laura, Zeljko Ivanek as Tom in a 1994 Broadway Production of 'The Glass Menagerie'

These experimental dramas found their venue in the off-Broadway theatre scene during the 1960s and 1970s. The off-Broadway movement was interested in exploring contemporary personal freedom and authenticity and preferred to avoid realism in favour of more abstract presentations of inner realities. Many of the works produced during this period illuminated a search for an individual essence outside of social conformity and this tension between inner reality and inevitable performance marked a tension that would characterise contemporary drama in the United States (Saddik, 2007, p.9).

Tennessee Williams was one of the major playwrights who, along with Arthur Miller, dominated the American stage during this period — initially writing for the Broadway scene and then for the more experimental off-Broadway venues. Both playwrights were interested in exploring the repercussions of post-war industrial capitalism as well as the contradictory nature of the American dream. Characteristic of American literature during this era, both Williams and Miller’s works responded to the state of American culture following the Second World War as they began to explore the tension between the individual and collective within that context, as well as the viability of the American dream and the inauthenticity of the culture (Saddik, 2007, p.40).

Figure 3: Tennessee Williams at his desk in 1940.

Williams’ work often illustrated how America’s capitalist obsession with materialistic success at the expense of emotional and artistic values “destroyed the sensitive and weak”, and created social outsiders who struggled to survive (Saddik, p.41). His plays examine the concept of American identity and an individual’s place within a commodity culture in which conformity is a requirement despite the promises of individual freedom. Both The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, two of his most successful plays, deal with the repercussions of society’s transformation from an agrarian to an industrial society, as individuals struggle to adapt and survive.

Although The Glass Menagerie is realistic in terms of its character and setting, its status as a memory play incorporates anti-realistic conventions. As written by Williams in the play’s preface: “Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic” (Williams, p.145). The play undermines realism in favour of Tom’s subjective memory of the past. This allows The Glass Menagerie a freedom from the objectivity of theatrical realism, and the play “can be presented with unusual freedom of convention” (Williams, p.131). Williams adds in the preface the reason for his rejection of realistic conventions:

“Everyone should know nowadays, the unimportance of the photographic in art […] truth, life, or reality is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest, in essence, only through transformation, through changing into other forms than those which merely present in appearance” (Williams, p.131).

Figure 4: Michael Mosley, Judith Ivey, Keira Keeley and Patch Darragh in a 2010 Broadway Production of 'The Glass Menagerie'

Along with scene designer Jo Mielziner, Williams depicted this subjectivity of memory by having Tom deliver his opening monologue to the audience in front of a brick wall which then becomes transparent, so that Amanda and Laura can be seen through. Then the wall slowly ascended, removing any form of distancing fourth wall between the audience and the characters (Krasner, p.169). The wall was only brought down again at the end of the play, once again becoming transparent as the inner stage goes dark on Tom’s final line “Blow out your candles, Laura- and so goodbye” (Williams, Scene 7).

The Glass Menagerie is described in the Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams as an “elegy for lost innocence” (Roudane, p.36). The Depression and the wars had destroyed the notion of the American dream, and Tom looks back on the events from an immediately post-war world. His first speech indicates the sense of struggle in American society: “In Spain there was revolution. Here there was only shouting and confusion. In Spain there was Guernica. Here there were disturbances of labour, sometimes pretty violent, in otherwise peaceful cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, and Saint Louis” (Williams, p.145). According to Tom, and therefore Williams, the middle class of America had “their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy” (Williams, p.145).

Figure 5: Blair Underwood as Stanley and Nicole Ari Parker as Blanche in the 2012 Broadway revival of 'A Streetcar Named Desire'

The protagonists of the play struggle to adapt with the transformation of society. Tom’s mother, Amanda, was raised in the agrarian South to “cultivate the feminine charm and grace that would ensure her survival through an economically successful marriage” (Saddik, p.42). However she finds herself deserted by her husband and is out of her element in the rapidly changing industrial capitalist society. She laments for her old admirers that she had rejected who embody the overnight success advertised by the American dream: “That Fitzhugh boy went North and made a fortune – came to be known as the Wolf of Wall Street! He had the Midas touch, whatever he touched turned to gold!” (Williams, p.149).

Amanda also struggles to find a husband for her shy and sensitive daughter Laura. Laura’s gentleman caller, Jim O’Connor, reflects the superficial values of contemporary American culture. He prioritises appearance by constantly checking himself in the mirror and values people for their possible connections. He claims to value Laura’s individuality, stating that being different is nothing to be ashamed of, yet he still rejects her in the end.

Figure 6: 2013 Production of 'The Glass Menagerie'

Tom and Laura are both pushed into careers that are incompatible with their temperaments for the sake of their economic survival. In The Glass Menagerie, Williams merges the personal and the social, as “all the characters are engulfed by the alienating powers of the American capitalist system in which they are expected not only to survive but to thrive and find happiness” (Saddik, 2007, p.44). Instead of finding autonomy in the individualistic culture of American society, the characters find themselves subjugated to the powers of the changing society. Tom manages to escape at the end by joining the merchant marines, however he is still trapped by his guilt at abandoning both his sister and his mother. The narrative is tinged through this “lens of guilt” as Tom recounts the play after having escaped to St. Louis (Krasner, 2007, p.179). The theme of escape inevitably pervades the play; Tom escapes to the merchant marines, Amanda fantasises about her childhood, and Laura escapes into the private world of her glass menagerie.

In A Streetcar Named Desire, the conflict revolves around Blanche, another displaced Southern Belle fighting to adapt to the changing world. Her old “aristocratic principles” no longer assure her survival in an “increasingly pragmatic urbanised world” (Saddik, 2007, p.43). Much like Amanda in The Glass Menagerie, Blanche’s background is futile in the capitalist restructuring of American society. Her family’s plantation is taken by creditors and Blanche is fired from her job as a high-school teacher, leaving her with no funds and no marketable skill. Her last attempt to enter the world of capitalism rests on her hopes that Shep Huntleigh, a college admirer who may be fictitious, will set her up with a shop. Williams referred to Blanche as a “sacrificial victim […] of society” explaining that she “was not adaptable to the circumstances as they were, that the world had imposed upon her” (Saddik, p.43).

Figure 7: Gillian Anderson in a 2016 National Theatre Production of 'A Streetcar Named Desire'

Blanche arrives in New Orleans to stay with her sister Stella and Stella’s husband Stanley. Stanley is a working-class labourer of Polish decent who views himself as “one-hundred-percent American”, emblematic of the changing urbanised society. Whilst Blanche dreams of a world of “poetry and music […] new light [..] tenderer feelings”, Stanley is unsympathetic and the two clash in what David Krasner labels “a battle between civilisation and brutality” (Krasner, 2007, p.181). Stanley maintains his power through intimidation and violence and attempts to subdue Blanche who desperately clings to “the romantic illusions that had allowed her to evade the sordid realities of life” including her compulsive drinking, promiscuity and finally her affair with a student that costs her job (Krasner, p.181). At the end of the play, Stanley rapes Blanche and this final act of brutality drives her to psychosis. As Blanche is being taken to the state hospital, the expressionism of the play shifts to that or realism as Blanche’s perspective is removed. Life in Stella’s household has gone back to normal however the tragedy, according to Krasner, is “Blanche’s, and perhaps American society’s, when the cultural and aesthetic values that she embraces are destroyed along with her fragile spirit” (Krasner, p.181).

Playwrights such as Tennessee Williams writing for off-Broadway venues would usher in a new era of American theatre that rejected the conventions of early twentieth-century modernist realism. As American culture shifted rapidly and political disillusionment grew, American dramatists echoed the anxieties of the culture: the struggle of individualism against the overwhelming demands of a capitalistic society.

Bibliographic References

Krasner, D. (2007). A Companion to Twentieth-Century American Drama. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Roudane, M. (ed.). (2003). The Cambridge Companion To Tennessee Williams. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Saddik, A. (2007). Contemporary American Drama. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Williams, T. (1989). A Streetcar Named Desire. North Yorkshire: Methuen Drama.

Williams, T. (2011). The Glass Menagerie. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation.

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Megan Maistre

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