Tennessee Williams: Plays 1937-1955
There are some American writers who have the ability to give ordinary American English poetic beauty. These same writers also have the ability to give typical American instances the operatic drama of Shakespeare. One such writer was the playwright Tennessee Williams. The Spooner Memorial Library happens to have a Library of America edition of Williams’ early plays in its non-fiction section. Many of his most famous plays are contained in this edition.
The style of Williams’ plays has been described as part realism, part expressionism. Like many literary styles, expressionism has its origins in painting. Expressionist painters claimed that they were superior to painters who used a more realistic style. They said that realist painters only portrayed the detailed outside appearance of things, while they themselves showed the actual emotions of their subjects. They did this by using unusually vivid color and dramatic brush strokes.
Although Williams was not a painter, his dramatic methods were similar to those of the art style. Williams would use lighting and music to accentuate the symbolism in his plays. He would also make use of minimalist sets to represent vast areas.
Williams explained in an introduction to his play “The Glass Menagerie” that modern literature must be flexible enough to show the abstract qualities of how reality is processed in our minds. The results of this non-linear style are works that are worthy to hold a place with the great literature of the past.
Williams’ first hit play was “The Glass Menagerie.” The play begins with a narrator who gives a poetic introduction that describes the nature of the play. He also claims to be a character in the play, and sure enough, he enters the house to have a meal with his family when his mother calls him.
The play deals with a family living in the city who are dealing with the dream-shattering reality of the Great Depression. The narrator poetically alludes to the oppression and illusions of this tragic period in American history. This theme is amplified by the story of the three individuals, including the narrator, who make up the family.
There are many parts in which the stage lighting is focused on the character of the daughter Laura, who is the greatest victim in the story.
The play “A Streetcar Named Desire” takes place in the steamy, colorful city of New Orleans and deals with themes of masculine brutality and lust and the nature of beauty. The story depicts a conservative-minded, narcissistic woman named Blanche Dubois who comes to New Orleans to stay with her sister Stella. She is shocked to find out that Stella has married a raw, blunt working-class man named Stanley and even more shocked to realize that Stella is all right with her living conditions.
The plot thickens as Stanley begins to develop a vendetta against Blanche and starts to undermine her already unstable condition.
This book also includes some lighthearted plays with elements of fantasy and hilarious slapstick humor such as “Camino Real” and “The Rose Tattoo.” If you are interested in great modern American theater, check out this book to appreciate the great pathos and humor of an American master.
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