Harold Clurman on Tennessee Williams: Poet and Puritan

Harold Clurman, Tennessee Williams, and Maureen Stapleton in rehearsal for Orpheus Descending, 1957.

(This piece was first published in the New York Times of March 29, 1970.)
Though our playwrights are frequently celebrated, few are truly known. It is 25 years now since Tennessee Williams made his Broadway debut with “The Glass Menagerie,” on March 31, 1945. Since then he has written more than 15 full‐length plays, a good number of shorter ones, a screenplay, a volume of poetry, three volumes of short stories, and a novel. Our most prolific playwright, Williams has received three Critics Circle awards and two Pulitzer Prizes. Drama students undoubtedly list him as one of the four or five most important playwrights our theater has produced. Yet one may query whether he has been wholly understood.
We are in the habit of judging our playwrights piecemeal. As with cars, we think in seasonal models. Last year's issue was a triumph, this year's is bust. When several flops follow one another, we pronounce the erstwhile wonder “finished,” or “dead.” We may even question whether the golden boy's glitter was really as bright as we had once believed it to be. Racine's tart reply to his contemporary detractors, “The critics have vanished, the plays remain,” applies here.
Williams is a dramatist of lost souls. His work describes a long laceration. No American playwright is altogether a pessimist. The conclusion of “Camino Real,” “the violets in the mountains have broken through the rocks,” simply means that idealism will ultimately smash the battlements of villainy in which we are immured. But this thought only marks pause along the road. Williams's path leads to no final statement. He has no doctrine, unless it be the need for compassion. He traces a chart of the fevers that he has experienced in looking at the world outside and within himself.

Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie, 1945.

The picture is muted and tender in the fragmented memories of “The Glass Menagerie.” Because of its gentle qualities, many folk prefer this play to all the others. It is the seedbed of his future work. Amanda, the mother, establishes the tone of a life gone by. She is a fading personality, the idealist become foolish for want of a foundation in the present. She remains wistfully hopeful as she recalls a time of greater stability and grace. Here too we find her daughter Laura, an injured girl withdrawn from life because of the visible handicap of her lameness. She consoles herself with playthings which will not endure. The memorable Gentleman Caller is the first example of Williams's ability to depict the average uneducated “good guy” with both truthfulness and sympathy. And there is her son Tom, oppressed by the lack of vitality in the meager maternal nest. He is eager to escape it and explore long distances. “I seem dreamy,” he says, “but inside—well, I'm boiling.”
Amanda is a Puritan. She shies away from instinct. “It belongs to animals,” she says. What people like herself want are “superior things! Things of the mind and the spirit.” This note is struck again and again, developed at length and more eloquently by Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and by Alma in “Summer and Smoke.” The yearning to transcend the senses is sometimes viewed as comic or pathetic but is never extinguished. It finds its purest expression in Hannah Jelkes, the poet's daughter in “The Night of the Iguana.”
The Puritan seeks God as do all good poets, Williams intimates in “Suddenly Last Summer,” and Williams is both poet and Puritan. The world he has entered on his long journey is grotesquely harsh, depleted of sacred values; where they seem to obtain, they exist only in travesty. Specifically, Williams's milieu is usually the tense and still unreconstructed South, but that is only locale typical of an environment we all inhabit.

Jessica Tandy and Marlon Brando in the stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire, 1947.

Blanche DuBois, Williams's most representative character, has been exiled through the loss of the ancestral site into a society in which she can no longer be “a young lady,” that is, a whole person. The world she now finds herself in is self‐sufficiently and complacently brutal. It is a world in which “superior things of mind and spirit” are scorned. Innocently and achingly, she depends on the “kindness of strangers.” But most of these strangers are the devil's surrogates. They spell death. Bearing flowers, death haunts Williams and terrifies him.
The opposite of death is desire-- the will to live, the need for the most intimate contact with those outside us. It inspires us with a sense of beauty. Blanche gives herself to desire in ignorance, confusion, dismay. She does not know that desire and beauty, through their simulacra, frequently lead to an impasse, to destruction, to death.
With only a few exceptions, Williams characters are lost souls because they are torn between the godseeking impulse and the pull of desire. In the shambles of our civilization, desire has been debased into raw carnality. Sex without the blessedness of love is death-dealing corruption. In this corrupt atmosphere — always captivatingly colorful in Williams, even to the very names of the vicinities in which his dramas take place — his men and women are destroyed by the poisons which emanate from it. The lacerations they suffer are the result of their bodies and souls being at odds. The sharpness of this division is characteristic of Puritan consciousness. Unity of spirit is achieved only by the chaste Hannah in “Iguana” and the impassioned and therefore utterly loyal Rosa in “The Rose Tattoo,” in which sex becomes glorified through its pure flame. But Rosa is a Sicilian — a foreigner to our way of life.

Maureen Stapleton in a study during the time she played Serafina in The Rose Tattoo, 1951.

When we speak of the world and of society, we imply a realm beyond the strictly personal. Sex, it is commonly held, is Williams's major theme. This, I believe, is only partly true; when this preoccupation with sex in Williams is insisted upon as the determining ingredient, such insistence leads to a falsification. Williams is also very much a social playwright. Sex being a central factor in existence, it becomes the area in Williams's plays where the social battles as well as the battle of angels rage.
It is in a fatal incapacity to integrate the conflict of body and soul, or, to put it more concretely, the struggle between power and love, egotistical acquisitiveness and social generosity, that we find the thematic core of 
Williams's work. The tension in these forces creates a split in the social order as well as in the individual personality. It causes his people to grope, trembling and bewildered, between that light and shadow to which he repeatedly refers. It also gives rise to personal self‐deception and public hypocrisy.
The duality in Williams assumes many guises. It is merely a sidelight on his character, but those who have worked with him (myself among them) have noted that he wavers even in the judgment of his own creations and more especially in the matter of their performances. He may say, for instance, that Stanley Kowalski in “Streetcar” points to America's future. This may mean that he fears that the gorillas will inherit our earth or, on the contrary, that he prefers the primitive drive of such folk to the palsied sensibilities of the super‐esthetes.

Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951.

He will praise totally diverse interpretations of his plays and tell various producing companies in turn that they alone have done his plays as he envisioned them. This is not merely professional politesse but a sign of an inner uncertainty.
The doppelganger or second self ascribed to Alma in “Summer and Smoke” is his own. The accusatory ferocity in regard to our society, which becomes a debilitating fixation in his later plays, alternates with a certain calm or balance in “The Night of the Iguana” or even takes the form of good-natured comedy in his “Period of Adjustment.”
There is a salutary humor in all his work. It is quizzical and given to grass-roots laughter. His violence too is softened by the colorfulness and musicality which bathe his plays in glamour. “A kind of lyricism,” a stage direction in “Streetcar” reads, “gracefully attenuates the atmosphere of decay.” There is magic in Williams realism.
In the illusionist sense of theatricality, he has no match in American dramatic writing. The rhythms of his colloquial speech are seductive. His dialogue excels in euphony and ease has a fragrance like that of a tropical flower planted in a northern soil. The diction is at once limpid and elusive, achieving both mystery and suspense.
Williams writes rich roles for actors. They are gratifying because they represent people who mirror some of his own ambivalence, assertive and tremulously vulnerable, staunch and retreating. His particular nature has enabled him to fashion several of the most perceptive and touching portraits of women our drama has produced. He is one of the few dramatists among us who writes genuine love scenes.
He is no intellectual. Some of his views and sentiments — as in “Camino Real” — are couched in terms which betray an almost adolescent sentimentality. His weaknesses, however, should not dim for us his mastery of stage poetics, his immense gift for theatrical effect and, above all, his vital contribution to the understanding of formerly undisclosed phases of American life.
Through his fascination with sin and his affinity with sinners, Williams, even more than O'Neill, has opened our eyes and hearts to the victims of our savagely mechanized society, the company of the “somehow unfit,” the fragile, the frightened, the different, the odd and the lonely, whose presence in our world we have so long sought to avoid thinking about and recognizing as our kin.
Williams is nothing if not honest. He has acknowledged the tension induced by the dichotomy of his spirit which has led him to the verge of permanent breakdown. He dramatized this state bewilderingly in his 1969 play “In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel” and in the unjustly neglected “The Gnadiges Fraulein” — part of his 1966 “Slapstick Tragedy” — where the romantic dreamer in the entertainment business, the leeches of publicity, the callous public, the profiteer and exploiters of talent are symbolized with originality and wit.
Breakdown, as with Strindberg, is sometimes the springboard for rebirth. At 58, Williams is still capable of renewal and growth. I look forward to his further progress in a career which has brought distinction and honor to our stage.

© 1970 The New York Times


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