“It is only in his work that an artist can find reality and satisfaction, for the actual world is less intense than the world of his invention and consequently his life, without recourse to violent disorder, does not seem very substantial,” Tennessee Williams wrote in the 1948 essay “The Catastrophe of Success,” eventually added as a preface to the “memory play” that catapulted him to stardom, “The Glass Menagerie” (1944). Prophetic words of a man who drew heavily on his own experience, on life in the economically depressed South, homosexuality, alcoholism, physical and mental infirmity, violence, passion, desire, love and loss, but most of all his profound sense of humanity and his understanding of the drama of everyday life to create Dragon Country, that uninhabitable and yet inhabited world, that land of unendurable but nevertheless endured pain (also the title of a 1970 collection of plays) of unforgettable pieces such as “The Glass Menagerie,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947), “Summer and Smoke” (1948), “The Rose Tattoo” (1951), “Camino Real” (1953), “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1955), “Orpheus Descending” (1957), “Suddenly Last Summer” (1958), “Sweet Bird of Youth” (1959), “The Night of the Iguana” (1961) and “Not About Nightingales” (set in 1938 but only brought to the stage 50 years later).
Born Thomas Lanier Williams to an overbearing, hard-drinking, abusive, frequently absent father and a doting mother, Tennessee acquired the sobriquet he later chose as his first name in university, where his Deep South accent made him an easy target for his classmates. A writer since his youth, he saw his first short story (“Isolated”) published in a high school newspaper; and after several other prose publications, his second play “Cairo! Shanghai! Bombay!” was produced by a Memphis amateur company in 1935. (His first play, the unstaged “Beauty Is the Word,” had been a 1930 University of Missouri drama class assignment which, submitted to the school’s Dramatic Arts Club contest, won the first honorable mention ever to be awarded to a freshman). After a stint with his father’s shoe company, where he had gone to work at parental insistence, he graduated from the University of Iowa with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1938. His big breakthrough came with “A Glass Menagerie;” the story of fading Southern belle Amanda Wingfield (who, like many of Williams’s most memorable characters, frantically clings to the illusion of a world gone by), her crippled daughter Laura (the owner of the titular glass figurine collection), “gentleman caller” Jim (Laura’s suitor), and Amanda’s son Tom, Williams’s thinly veiled alter ego who, like the playwright, sees his vocation as a poet crushed under his daily job at a shoe factory. Yet, looking back at his struggling life preceding “Glass Menagerie,” Williams later came to regard that time as more real than the life made possible by fame and fortune: in fact, “it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created,” he wrote in “The Catastrophe of Success.”
The present compilation, one of two volumes in the magnificent “Library of America” series, brings together the more significant works of Williams’s early years and of his peak as a playwright through 1955, including besides “Glass Menagerie” inter alia his two Pulitzer Prize winners (“A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”), the only recently-rediscovered “Spring Storm” (1938) and “Not About Nightingales,” the initial, unsuccessful version of “Orpheus Descending” (“Battle of Angels,” 1940), as well as excerpts from the one-act play collection “27 Wagons Full of Cotton” (originally from 1945, augmented and republished 1953), among them the collection’s title piece plus “The Lady of Larkspur Lotion,” “Something Unspoken,” “This Property Is Condemned,” and others. The second Library of America volume covers Williams’s creative period after 1955. Neither tome is all-inclusive; a fully comprehensive compilation would easily have required three volumes for the plays alone, not to mention his poetry and prose; and a 1955 caesura certainly does make sense. Still: completists will have to look elsewhere in addition. Among the more significant omissions in this first volume are “Cairo! Shanghai! Bombay!” (which I would have liked to see included if only because it was his first-ever staged play) as well as the modestly successful “American Blues” (1939) and the remaining one-act plays from “27 Wagons Full of Cotton.” Volume 2 similarly focuses on Williams’s more significant later plays; omitting, e.g., “Gnädiges Fräulein,” “In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel,” “The Red Devil Battery Sign,” “The Notebook of Trigorin” – his adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “Seagull” – and his infamous “Baby Doll” screenplay, as well as its stage adaptation “Tiger Tail.”
Although many of Williams’s works reached audiences not only on stage but also on the silver screen, beginning in the 1950s he came under increased scrutiny due to his unconventional lifestyle. Even in his plays’ most successful screen adaptations, the more controversial elements, such as Brick’s unavowed homosexuality in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and the sexual tension between Stanley and Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” were either muted or censored entirely; and particularly in later years, criticism leveled against his plays was often truly motivated by objections against the man himself. – “The bird that I hope to catch in the net of this play is … the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent – fiercely charged! – interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis,” Williams wrote in a stage direction in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” But while his own life’s thunderstorm did eventually prove fatal (he choked to death on a medicine bottle cap in 1983), over the course of his life he revolutionized Southern drama in a way only comparable to Faulkner’s impact on literary fiction, and set a shining example for generations of later playwrights. All-encompassing or not: the Library of America’s collection of his works is an excellent place to begin a journey of appreciation into his Dragon Country.
A Selection of Quotes
The Glass Menagerie
“Time is the longest distance between two places.”
“The scene is memory and is therefore nonrealistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart.”
“Every time you come in yelling that God damn “Rise and Shine!” “Rise and Shine!” I say to myself, “How lucky dead people are!”
“You are the only young man that I know of who ignores the fact that the future becomes the present, the present the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don’t plan for it.”
“People go to the movies instead of moving. Hollywood characters are supposed to have all the adventures for everybody in America, while everybody in America sits in a dark room and watches them have them.”
A Streetcar Named Desire
“Don’t you just love those long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn’t just an hour – but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands – and who knows what to do with it?”
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
“What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof? – I wish I knew … Just staying on it, I guess, as long as she can …”