Monday, December 13, 2010

Tennessee Williams-Making the South Dirtier Since 1938

My semester is almost over (praise be to Lord Xenu) and despite having some painfully boring and just plain awful assignments I did have one that I actually didn't mind...writing a paper about my one of my favorite playwrights Tennessee Williams for my TA 471 class which is The History of Theatre from 1950-present. I have always been a huge fan of Williams' works (I love that trashy Southern stuff). Unfortunately, I have never been in a Tennessee Williams play despite constantly begging my theatre teacher at Somerset Community College for years. Last week I did perform a Maggie monologue from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for my final performance in my acting class. I was actually successful considering I really can't do drama.Could they have picked any hotter people than this? Don't think so.

One of America’s most beloved playwrights, Tennessee Williams is best known for his disturbing and paradoxical interpretation of the American South. Williams helped bring harsh realism to the stage of world theatre and succeeded in creating some of the most adored and critically acclaimed plays in theatre history. His plays also introduced some of the most memorable and tragic characters ever performed onstage. Not only did Tennessee Williams bring contentious issues to the forefront of theatre, he gave the rest of the world a deeper insight into the American South which before had been looked upon with shame and regret due to its sordid history. The film versions of his plays A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are both considered milestone achieves in American cinema and revolutionary in the struggle with film censorship. Williams is also responsible for his enhancement and contributions to the sub-genre of Southern Gothic literature (my favorite genre). Williams is also known for the autobiographical influence on his works. According to Williams’ close friend and famed theatrical and film director Elia Kazan "Everything in his life is in his plays, and everything in his plays is in his life." It takes a lot of balls to write about your own life and admit it so one up, Tennessee! His life was pretty tragic. His father was an alcoholic and his mother and sister suffered from mental illness. Like his parents, Williams’ would later suffer from mental illness, alcohol and barbiturate addiction, and some issues with gambling. He later admitted to have written some of his plays while under the influence of alcohol and drugs. This makes me want to watch Streetcar drunk now. Before he was a successful playwright Williams' wrote screenplays for MGM. He submitted The Glass Menagerie to MGM in 1943 and it was rejected (a FAIL which later turned into a huge WIN). Williams' less popular works are overshadowed by his three big plays Streetcar, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Glass Menagerie. I have read a little of his lesser-known works and they are good but do not live up to his more popular works. One of my favorite Tennessee Williams work is the 1956 film Baby Doll based on his play Twenty-Seven Wagons Full of Cotton. The film was also directed by Elia Kazan. The film tells the scandalous story of a nineteen year-old girl named Baby Doll and her middle-aged cotton farmer husband, Archie. The couple has yet to consummate their marriage due to the fact that Baby Doll promised her now deceased father that she would remain a virgin until her twentieth birthday which happens to be two days away from the start of the film. The title character sleeps in a crib-like bed separate from her husband who peeps at her through a small hole in the walls between their separate rooms. The forbidden issues of the films including sexual repression, voyeurism, and juvenile seduction shocked both audiences. The Legion rated the film a “C” or condemned and many theatres were required by the Legion of Decency film censorship committee to cancel showings of the film. Time Magazine noted the film as being “Just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited". It's one of those movies that after you watch it you need to take a shower. It's still creepy as hell today.

The film Baby Doll was not the first time that the Tennessee Williams/ Elia Kazan team had trouble with the Hollywood censorship laws of the day. In 1951, the graphic subject matter of A Streetcar Named Desire was so shocking to many in the Hollywood community that it almost was never produced, which was mainly because studio heads feared a film that controversial would be a box-office failure. Karl Malden, Kim Hunter, Marlon Brando, and Jessica Tandy starred in the Broadway production which opened in 1947. Warner Brothers agreed to make the movie as long as they had a star to carry the film. Enter Vivien Leigh. Exit Jessica Tandy (who was pissed!) Get over it Tandy, you lived to be at least 1,000. If you Google Jessica Tandy the phrase "Is Jessica Tandy still alive" shows up. I swear.


Tennessee Williams’ agreed to re-write his play to accommodate the censorship issues. This was mandatory to get the film produced but many audience members, critics, and several of the actors in the film complained that the screenplay was too difficult to understand due to the cut and re-imagined scenes (Agreed!). While this film was important to the fight against censorship in film, it was also the first film to popularize the use of Method Acting (which is COMPLETE BULLSHIT) and launched Marlon Brando’s career. The Method technique was used by Brando, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden. While Vivien Leigh was from the old school show-up-and-do-your-fucking-lines school of acting (as am I). Despite the backlash of the film, A Streetcar Named Desire is a classic film that showcases some of the finest acting ever put on film and is considered one of the greatest play adaptations ever.

The Brady Bunch Williams style.

Williams’ often focused on was homosexuality. At the time his work was published and being performed, the mention of homosexuality in American theatre was almost unheard of. As a homosexual male and a writer, Williams’ felt that it was his assumed responsibility to create positive images of homosexuals for the theatre-going public. Williams’ has created some of the great male roles of the twentieth-century but it is his female characters that have generated the most attention and caused much of the controversy with his work. . Williams’ relationships with the women in his life mainly his sister, Rose and his Aunt Belle who was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois proved to be vital to his writing. Early on in his career, Williams’ was criticized for the female characters he created. Many theatre critics felt that they were idealistic and according to Williams’ in a 1975 interview “All my relationships with women are very, very important to me. The most stupid thing said about my writing is that my heroines are disguised transvestites. Absolutely and totally none of them are anything but women”. (A Blanche drag queen? I think so!)

That being said, many thought that Williams’ supposed incapacity to write women was based on his homosexuality. Williams’ was extremely open about the fact that he based almost all of his plays on his own life. He is quoted as saying "It's true my heroines often speak for me”. Audiences and critics alike were concerned that he was writing his plays to target a specific audience. In this case being the gay community. This proved false when his plays became international Pulitzer Prize winning successes. No one was more aware of this than Williams’ himself who said “I do not have a faggot, a homosexual, or a gay, audience. I write for an audience”. You tell 'em!

Tennessee Williams will forever be remembered for his unleashing his daring and provocative work on the world when it was needed the most. When Tennessee Williams died on February 25, 1983 at age 71 in New York City by mistakenly swallowing a bottle cap, the world lost one of its greatest inhabitants. His work is still being read in English classes and performed in acting classes and stages all over the world. By simply reading his work one can tell that Williams was extremely passionate about his writing and truly loved his occupation. Known for his sinister stories, when Williams’ memoirs were published he originally wanted to entitle the book “Flee, Flee This Sad Hotel.” Instead he changed is mind when he realized “my life is as much a merry tavern as a sad hotel. My God, I've gotten a lot of laughs out of life”

1 comment:

  1. Awesome post Emily. I will just add that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is my favorite of Tennessee's works.