A Student Handbook to the Plays of Tennessee Williams

A Student Handbook to the Plays of Tennessee Williams. Katherine Weiss, ed. London: Bloomsbury, 2014; Pp. 290.

The book opens with a quote from Tennessee Williams: “truth is something you need to deserve,” a statement that volume editor Katherine Weiss asserts “fl[ies] in the face of the imaginary worlds so many of his characters create” (1). From this nucleus emerges A Student Handbook to the Plays of Tennessee Williams, analysis of four plays that attempts to reconcile the contradiction between Williams’s “truth” and his characters’ fictions. The second release in Bloomsbury’s A Student Handbook to the Plays of… series, the text aims to provide a study guide to the most studied dramas from this celebrated American playwright.

In her introduction, Weiss lays the dramaturgical framework from which the rest of the volume springs. She posits that the plays from the late 1960s and after lack “the tension and the need to express topics that were considered taboos,” leaving students and scholars to focus on Williams’s early works that explore topics such as “ageing, loneliness, and time’s devastation” (7). In the chapters that follow, scholars Stephen J. Bottoms, Patricia Hearn, Michael Hooper, Philip C. Kolin, and Weiss herself offer in-depth investigations of Tennessee Williams’s most produced and critically favored plays, The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959).

Following the introduction, the volume divides into four sections dedicated to plot, commentary, production history, and notes for each one of Williams’s major plays. The plot breakdowns vary in length from Streetcar’s four-page summary to Glass Menagerie’s eighteen-page dissection, divided scene by scene. The dramaturgical commentaries connect the plays to contextual history, culture, Williams’s biography, and contemporary playwrights and their works. These sections also offer insights into character arcs and specific actions in the plays’ pivotal moments. In addition, the scholars clarify their arguments by examining the dramatic structure and language of each play. Commentaries conclude with a history of significant productions and adaptations on stage and screen. The notes section for each play reads like a glossary of words and phrases that a layperson might find useful in understanding the plays, and that a theatre scholar or practitioner might use for closer study. Finally, a list of questions for further research opens up opportunities for more in-depth thinking.

Stephen J. Bottoms, who specializes in contemporary theatre, probes The Glass Menagerie. Bottoms notes the usefulness of looking at Menagerie as “a series of inter-related paintings, each one of which presents a key component in a much bigger narrative, and which together build up to create an impression—but perhaps not a conclusive understanding—of that ‘whole story’” (19). As such, he breaks down each scene into multiple parts dealing with each character’s role in that scene, a specific hour, or a sub-title (such as Scene Five’s “Annunciation”), lending itself to the “impression” of the scene as a whole, a sort of pointillist view of the play. Bottoms suggests that had Menagerie not been the success that it was, Williams would never have achieved the sort of recognition that allowed study of him as one of the great American playwrights.

Patricia Hern and Michael Hooper, who frequently collaborate on Williams scholarship, tackle A Streetcar Named Desire. The crux of their chapter lies in the “close connection between [Williams’s] writing and the circumstances of his own life” (89). For example, Hern and Hooper reference Williams’s need to hide from pain and sorrow while searching for contentment and happiness—no matter the cost to those around them—as a piece of Blanche DuBois’s “fall from grace” (92). Closely reading specific textual examples, they also link the works of Williams to playwrights such as Chekhov, Strindberg, Ibsen, and Miller, as well as authors Edgar Allan Poe and D. H. Lawrence.

Author of several books about Tennessee Williams, Philip C. Kolin contributes to this volume commentary and notes on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. His synopsis contains, like the play itself, act breaks, electing not to divide each act into sub-sections for readability. Two levels of history, “the long tradition of ante- and post-bellum (Southern) customs and their literary expression and the more recent history of the 1950s in American political life” (177) form the foundation of Kolin’s analysis. After glossing these two historical periods, he discusses the structure, drafts, and language of the play, though most of his work centers on the nuances of each character and how they “reveal various sides of Williams’s own personality,” from the “melancholy Brick” to the “sexually frustrated Maggie” (190). Kolin makes character comparisons across the Williams canon: he refers to Big Daddy as an “older Stanley Kowalski” (197), parallels Maggie’s demeanor with that of Serafina in The Rose Tattoo instead of with Amanda or Blanche, and aligns Brick’s “deliberate cruelty” (192) of rejecting Skipper with the behavior of Blanche.

Sweet Bird of Youth falls to Weiss. Her summation adheres more to the model of Kolin in providing a broad overview of the events of the play as opposed to running commentary. Using examples from Williams’s play and extra-theatrical writings, Weiss addresses several themes including “The Catastrophe of Success,” “Preaching Hate,” and “The Korean War.” She evaluates the play’s structure, language, and style before analyzing the characters that Williams was “never quite satisfied with” (252). In her estimation, however, Weiss contends that they are “much more complicated than Williams realised [sic]” (253). The section ends with not only a glossary and questions for further consideration but also a list of additional resources.

This handbook casts a wide net to capture all definitions of students, as per the title. If only the same wide net had been cast for the definition of “plays.” By limiting the evaluation to Williams’s four best-known and commercially successful plays, the volume leaves a desire for more study, particularly into those works that do not usually receive the same level of attention. Yet Weiss can hardly be faulted for not including the entirety of Williams’s extensive canon. Practicality and familiarity trump a comprehensive study, but one can hope that this will generate more investigation into his works. Although there are other studies of these texts available, what Weiss has done here is sculpt a text that, despite its limitations, provides an in-depth primer to one of the United States’ most decorated playwrights. Ultimately, A Student Handbook to the Plays of Tennessee Williams will be useful for students and professors who are searching for an easily navigable and digestible analysis of Williams and his early work.

Shane Strawbridge
Texas Tech University

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 31, Number 2 (Winter 2019)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2019 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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