Three Plays by Tennessee Williams

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The three plays by Tennessee Williams that I’ve read in the past few weeks all dealt with loneliness, the fragility of dreams, and the masks we all wear as we go through life. Given these themes, it’s no wonder a thread of discontent and depression seemed a hallmark of Williams plays. But add a stupendous talent for capturing dialogue and setting, and I found Tennessee Williams’ plays to be a candid look at human nature, from the shattered world in The Glass Menagerie, to the trapped iguana of The Night of the Iguana, and finally to the more subtle and perfectly captured frustrations the characters deal with in A Streetcar Named Desire.

I first encountered Tennessee Williams in my high school ninth grade English class, and I loved the play I read. It’s taken me 15 years to try some other plays, and I’m glad I did.

The Glass Menagerie

I first read The Glass Menagerie as a high school freshman, and I loved it from the beginning. I was a rather shy girl, and I related to Laura’s shyness. The family is rather dysfunctional, though, and so I’d say that’s where our similarities end.

Nevertheless, Tom’s frustration in his dead-end job and life, Amanda’s unrealistic dreaming, and Jim O’Connor’s positive encouragement of shy Laura all resonated with teenaged me. Ultimately, the dysfunctional family’s collapse and the obvious symbolism of the breaking glass menagerie just made the play magical to my 14-year-old self. It was so clear and yet so beautifully rendered in setting, character, and dialogue. I loved the dialogue (I still have passages memorized), the darkening set, and the concept of the entire play being a “memory” play.

To begin with, I turn back time. I reverse it to that quaint period, the thirties, when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. Their eyes had failed them, or they had failed their eyes, and so they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy. …  The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.  (Tom, Scene 1)

As an adult, I still hold on to the memories of reading it the first time, and that may be why it remained the favorite of the three Tennessee Williams plays I read in the past weeks. I love the sentimentality.

The Night of the Iguana

Although The Night of The Iguana deals with similar issues of loneliness and being trapped, it adds a thread of sexuality into the mix. The cast is no longer a tightly knit dysfunctional family but a cast of lonely people in various stages of life, full of unhappiness and frustration. The action takes place in a rundown 1940s resort in Puerto Barrio, Mexico. Widowed hotel owner Maxine welcomes to the hotel former Reverend Shannon, who is now leading a tour group of women. Added to the mix is the elderly spinster Hannah Jelkes and her centenarian grandfather, the “oldest living poet” who has also unfortunately lost his hearing.

The underlying symbolism in the play is that of the iguana that the Mexican hotel workers find and trap under the porch. Like the trapped iguana, Reverend Shannon, Hannah, and Maxine are trapped in their lives. As Reverend Shannon and Hannah talk, the two very different people come to a little bit of understanding with each other.

Shannon: How’d you beat your blue devil?

Hannah: I showed him that I could endure him and I made him respect my endurance.

Shannon: How?

Hannah: Just by, just by … enduring. Endurance is something that spooks and blue devils respect. And they respect all the tricks that panicky people use to outlast and outwit their panic. (Act III)

I fully grant that there is a lot in this play that I missed on my first and only read. Because I read it shortly after rereading The Glass Menagerie, I was a bit disappointed. I don’t know why; I guess I prefer dysfunctional family. While the setting was intriguing and the ending just wonderful for the play that it was, there was something unsatisfying about the play as a whole for me. I wanted more depth or symbolism or something. It seemed to lack subtly in the dialogue and the symbolism that had so delighted me in The Glass Menagerie.

A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire is the most polished and certainly the most intense play of the three plays I read. It treats another disturbed family, this time in New Orleans, in a small apartment. Although I loved reading it for its intensity, I am positive that, as with The Night of the Iguana, there is a lot I have missed. This is play that I need to revisit to fully appreciate. I think it’d be all the more powerful to watch it live, or at least one of these days I’ll watch the Marlon Brando movie. There is so much underneath the surface of the words, underneath the surface of the characters. One read of the play has barely introduced them to me. (Although I should add that in some cases, I’m not sure how much more I want to know about the characters!)

In the play, Stella and her husband Stanley are visited by Stella’s sister Blanche, who at first appears to be an outgoing and impressive personality. As the play progresses, it becomes clear that Blanche is distressed at the dismantling of the life she’s dreamed up for herself; she’s wearing a type of mask to cover her increasing disappointments. Stanley is a cruel man, and watching his cruelty to his wife (including his beating her) and to Blanche was unpleasant. A Streetcar Named Desire is not a pleasant or happy play.

The back cover of the edition of the play that I read indicated that Stanley pushed Blanche over the edge. Reading the play once, I am still not sure what happened in the end. Was Stanley lying, or had Blanche lied? Was Blanche crazy, or was Stanley simply trying to make her life miserable? I am at a loss to truly explain it. But given the emotional draw of the entire play, I am certain there is more to be discovered as I revisit it in the future.

As for the title, I think it reflects the dreams that Blanche and others harbor. Blanche arrived at Stella’s home by taking a streetcar named “Desire.” And her entire life, it seems, has been lived by dreaming and hoping and desiring. Stanley’s sensual flirtation with Blanche adds another dimension to “desire.” The play is sexually charged and the characters in it – from weak Blanche to violent Stanley – are emotionally manipulative.

Yet, the play as a whole doesn’t seem manipulative. It seems complicated and real, as humans really are. Although I didn’t like it as much as I did the clearer Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire still stands out as the most accurate portrayal of human nature. Since I didn’t quite understand it after one read, that seems quite appropriate: human nature is in many ways complex and unpleasant.

I definitely need to reread that one.

How did you interpret A Streetcar Named Desire? What should I look for as I watch the movie or read it again?

Reviewed on August 30, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I don’t know if it helps with interpretation or not, but the acting in the Kazan movie is so good. Not just Brando, either – everyone. A landmark in the history of American film acting blah blah blah.

    Often a performance has to pick an interpretation to allow the actors to do their jobs. It does not necessarily mean that it is the only one possible, or the best one. A reader can potentially juggle multiple interpretations.

    • Amateur Reader » good point about the multiple interpretations! A reminder that I should read this play a few more times — and check out the wonderful acting in the Kazan movie. Lots to think about.

  • I’m glad to hear you still loved The Glass Menagerie. I found out a local group will be performing it in a few months and I am dragging Matt to go see it with me.

    I’ve never heard of the second play, but I am very intrigued.

    A Streetcar Name Desire is one that I have been looking at recently. I think I might just have to read it and get it over with. That way I can make an intelligent comment. 😉

  • Streetcar is my favorite of the Williams plays I’ve read (basically these three, though I’ve seen Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and might have read it and a couple of others in college). I love the messiness and unpredictability of it all. And I’ll second Amateur Reader’s recommendation of the film. It’s tremendous.

  • I have mixed feelings about Tennessee Williams. I like aspects of his work, and I’m happy they exist to influence our culture, but I don’t always take a lot of pleasure in them when I read or watch them. At least not so far. I’m optimistic that Tennessee Williams and I can be friends one of these days. And my God, the man could do titles. He has an occasional dull title but most of them are just fantastic. Orpheus Descending, The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin — I wish I had that particular skill. That is an excellent skill to possess.

    • Jenny » I would have to agree that I can’t always take pleasure in a Tennessee Williams play, but then, I don’t always read for pleasure — but I did love the intriguing “messiness” as Teresa put it about STREETCAR, even though it was a depressing as hell play. And wow, yeah, those are some awesome titles!

  • I absolutely loved The Glass Menagerie but I didn’t care for A Streetcar Named Desire. I do think I need to reread it, or see it performed either on-screen or in-person. You make a very valid point about its trueness to reality — you’re right: it is quite honest and believeable.

    • Jillian » I think GLASS MENAGERIE is much easier to enjoy, and I too can honestly say I loved it. STREETCAR is so depressing. But also so deep. I enjoyed the deepness of it, and I can see myself rereading it (or watching it…)

  • In a Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche always hides in darkness. At the end of the play, her face is illuminated for the first time, and I think that says a lot about her character. I think, in the end, Stanley really did rape Blanche, and pushed her over the edge…

    • Darlyn » ah, see I didn’t see the Blanche hinding in the darkness. I really do need to watch the movie to see at least how Kazan interpreted it. I thought Stanley raped Blanche too, I just wasn’t sure how it all fit together. Definitely need to revisit sometime.

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