Today marks the 100th birthday of the late playwright Tennessee Williams. We look at how his work continues to inspire nearly 20 years after his death.
When he died in 1983 at the age of 71, Tennessee Williams was the most widely acclaimed American dramatist of his day, winning the Tony Award, two Pulitzer Prizes, four New York Drama Circle Awards and even a Presidential Medal of Freedom. His plays had been adapted into blockbuster films helmed by directors like Elia Kazan, Sidney Lumet and Joseph Mankiewicz, starring the likes of Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Wyman, Katherine Hepburn, Kirk Douglas, Karl Malden and Marlon Brando.
"There is no more influential 20th-century American playwright than Tennessee Williams,” wrote University of Texas theatre scholar Charlotte Canning to kick off an exhibit commemorating his 100th birthday this year. “He inspired future generations of writers as diverse as Suzan-Lori Parks, Tony Kushner, David Mamet and John Waters, and his plays remain among the most produced in the world."
Yet by the time of his death, his reputation had suffered greatly. His biggest Broadway successes – The Rose Tattoo, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire – had all occurred in the 1950s. His last commercial success was 1961’s Night of the Iguana and though Williams continued writing six hours a day for the next twenty years plus, his later plays were more often than not panned (assuming they were produced at all). The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore was the first of his flops, opening and quickly closing in 1962. Tennessee Williams quickly rewrote the play, but the new version didn’t fare any better.
By his own admission writing grew more difficult after Streetcar became hugely popular (the “catastrophe of success” he called it), and his substance abuse problems may well have weakened his quality filters while having little effect on his quantitative output. When Elia Kazan left the theatre to concentrate on working in Hollywood, Williams lost his best onstage interpreter. The 1963 death of his longtime companion, Frank Merlo, came as an even bigger blow. The six Williams plays that appeared on Broadway between 1962 and 1983 ran only 100 performances in total. Off-Broadway his work fared no better. Critics dismissed his later work as grotesque, overwrought and melodramatic. The Red Devil Battery Sign received some of his harshest reviews, one critic writing the 1975 play “teeters and totters eerily between true tragedy and mawkish melodrama.” Critics and scholars began revisiting even his classic work with a more skeptical eye, wondering if they had just been hoodwinked all along.
Still, as the years passed, Williams became canonized as part of an American holy dramaturgical trinity that included Eugene O’Neil and Arthur Miller. But perhaps this lionization made it harder to get ambitious young dramatists excited about his best work. Who, after all, wants to put on a Broadway show of a play they’d been forced to read in junior high? And what actor would risk treading the floorboards in shoes worn by an icons like Marlon Brando or Elizabeth Taylor?
But as Williams approaches his centenary, the theatre establishment seems ready to re-evaluate and embrace the Tennessee Williams legacy. Sweet Bird of Youth, a successful 1959 play turned into a movie starring Paul Newman, will return to Broadway later this year in a new production starring Nicole Kidman and James Franco. Chicago’s prestigious Goodman Theatre will be opening a production of 1953’s Camino Real. A Streetcar Named Desire will be playing in Paris at the Comédie-Française.
And some of the more daring productions are visiting those very works critics dismissed in the 1960s and '70s. New York’s Studio Theatre recently staged his 1972 play Small Craft Warnings. Olympia Dukakis is starring in an Off-Broadway revival of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, Williams’ first flop. The Wooster Group is taking on 1974’s racy Vieux Carré. There’s even been a new Tennessee Williams film made from the long-lost screenplay The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond starring Bryce Dallas Howard and Ellen Burstyn.
All works of art are products of their time, and how they are interpreted and received often have more to say about society than the quality or merit of the work itself. Who knows – by the time Williams reaches his 150th, perhaps we’ll have forgotten about Streetcar and will be celebrating 1980’s Clothes for a Summer Hotel as his truly visionary work...