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Tennessee Williams: The American Shakespeare

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When the Puritans closed the theaters in 1642, they destroyed a theatrical world we have since come to cherish. With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, play going resumed but the age of Faustus and Hamlet had come to an end. An artistic community is a living entity and two decades of barrenness had taken its toll. It would take time and care for fruit the equal of Shakespeare to once again ripen. For that to happen the spirit of the English Renaissance had to cross the Atlantic and come to America. There in a new land it took root and grew. Finally, four centuries after Shakespeare, the world once again saw truly great English drama.

Shakespeare, of course, did not work alone. Each of his fellow playwrights had different strengths. No one could shock a crowd as Marlowe could. No one wrote with more comic sophistication than Jonson. And as for Shakespeare? In contemporary records, he is most frequently praised for being "honey tongued." Simply put, no one could turn a phrase better than Will.

And the same can be said for Tennessee Williams, whose centenary we are now celebrating. Arthur Miller's Death of Salesman possesses profound moral power. Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a drama of gut wrenching psychological intensity. But when it comes to the sheer beauty of language, Tennessee Williams could not be topped. He is our honey-tongued Shakespeare.

Simply saying the titles of his plays proves my point: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Street Car Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie. If Williams had not been born a poetic genius, his plays would never have worked on stage. A Williams' play does not really progress as the action unfolds. Things happen on stage but these events serve to force the characters to confront past truths that they wish to forget. What we remember in a Williams play is the moment when a character must stop and finally tell us what happened. In Cat on A Hot Tin Roof, Brick and Maggie bait each other until finally we learn why their marriage collapsed. In Street Car, Stanley torments Blanche until she breaks and shares with us what exactly destroyed her. Any creative writing teacher worth his paycheck would have told Tennessee to dramatize his back stories. After all, it's drama. The important actions are supposed to happen on stage. Don't say it, do it. But not Tennessee. Having the characters simply say it is what he did better than anyone.

And this is why actors such as Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando wanted to perform his plays. Because nothing is harder for an actor to pull off than simply telling a story. In such moments, success or failure depends on the words alone. No swords or guns. No special effects. Nothing but language. It must enchant and that is what Tennessee Williams did. In an ironic twist Williams would, no doubt, have appreciated, he is now best remembered for a scene built around one word--Stella. And as long as film is preserved, the world will remember Marlon Brando as Stanley coaxing his wife to return to him by repeatedly yelling her name. But the same play features some of the most sublime poetry every delivered on an American stage. Listen to Blanche (wonderfully played by Vivian Leigh), pleading with her sister to leave Stanley: "What we are talking about is desire, brutal desire, the name of that rattle trap street car that bangs through the quarter, up one street and down another." To which Stella replies, "Haven't you ever ridden that street car?" We know though that we are not talking about riding a street car, just as we know we are not listening to realistic conversation. We are listening to poetry passing itself off as dialogue and it works as only Williams could make it work.

Today, critics too often dismiss Williams as passé. They say his works are period pieces best appreciated for their documentation of outmoded attitudes towards homosexuality and mental illness. This judgment could not be more wrong. This is America and we are still bitterly split over such polices as "don't ask, don't tell." This is a country where we know popping pills is not enough but therapy is now increasingly being limited to the wealthy who can pay for it out of their own pocket. Most importantly, Williams' exploration of the southern myth, that fantasy of a genteel plantation where white men kneeled before their ladies and the black slaves worked in contentment, has yet to be dispelled. Indeed, it now haunts all of us. Because it is not just the south's ruling class that has fallen on hard times. It is the entire nation that now finds itself lost in a dream of a vanished time when we were young and powerful. Today we need Tennessee more than ever.

Matthew Biberman is a professor of English at the University of Louisville, where he teaches English literature with a focus on drama from Shakespeare to contemporary American playwrights. He is co-editor (with Julia Lupton and Graham Holderness) of the forthcoming collection Shakespeare After 9/11. He is the author of Masculinity, Anti-Semitism, and Early Modern English Literature and Big Sid's Vincati. Read his blog on Red Room.