Tennessee Williams - A Biographical Context For A Streetcar Named Desire
“Nobody sees anybody truly,” Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams III once said, “Vanity, fear, desire, competition - all such distortions within our own egos - condition our vision of those in relation to us. Add to those distortions in our own egos, the corresponding distortions in the eyes of the others - and you see how cloudy the glass must become through which we look at each other” (Paglia 4). According to Camille Paglia in her article, “‘Hey, there! Stella, Baby!’ A Streetcar Named Desire premieres at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in New York," this quote is derived from dialogue between Williams and the director of his play A Streetcar Named Desire. The opinion Tennessee Williams had on illusion versus reality is portrayed by his character, Blanche DuBois, in A Streetcar Named Desire. In defense of her constant lying, in Scene 2, Blanche tells Stanley that "a woman's charm is fifty percent illusion" (Williams 2166). She claims that by her lying about certain things, like her age, she is more attractive to men. The similarities between Tennessee and Blanche’s opinion on illusion is not the only time we see Williams’s personal life impact his work. Throughout Tennessee Williams’s pieces of work, it is evident his personal life and experiences heavily influenced the various characters, familiar settings, and specific conflicts present in his plays.
For starters, the most obvious parallel draw is between the people in Williams’s life and the characters portrayed in his plays. The unforgettable characters in A Streetcar Named Desire are undoubtedly based on his family. Cornelius Williams, his father, was a blue-collar shoe salesman. He was a violently drunk, abusive, and loud father who loved to gamble (Atkinson 3), with traits that mirror the boisterous Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire. His mother, Edwina Williams, grew up a rich Southern Belle much like the DuBois sisters. She was a loving mother but sometimes tended to smother Thomas and his sister, which his father grew to resent (Mann 1). Young Williams suffered through a difficult and sickly childhood. He grew up along with his older sister Rose who was mentally and emotionally unstable. According to Bruce Mann in his article about Tennessee Williams found in The Reader's Companion to American History, in 1937, Rose’s parents requested a prefrontal lobotomy, “which necessitated lifelong care in an institution” (Mann 5). Williams also believed that her condition was affected by “their parents’ unhappy marriage and his own insensitivity to her” (Mann 2). The playwright was deeply disturbed by this situation. His empathy towards his misunderstood sister modeled his character, Blanche. In regard to sexuality, Williams’s life reflects Allan (Blanche’s husband); however, according to James B. Atkinson in his article about Tennessee Williams in the Encyclopedia of World Literature, Tennessee is claimed to have said “I am Blanche DuBois,” (Atkinson 12). This could refer to his personal hysteria and time spent in the mental institution or the fact that like Blanche, he too had a tendency to lie. Both are recorded as lying about their age. Blanche never goes out before dark because she is self-conscious of her age and her appearance when searching for a suitor. When given the chance Mitch exposes her when the stage instructions state, “He tears the paper lantern off the light bulb” (Williams 2204) so he can take a “good and plain” (Williams 2204) look at her for once.Meanwhile, Williams at age 29 lied about being 25 so he could enter in a playwright competition (Atkinson 7).
In addition to the inspiration Williams draws from the characteristics of the people around him, many of his plays’ plots unfold in locations significant to him. While living with one of his lovers in New Orleans, Williams actually wrote A Streetcar Named Desire. Majority of the story unfolds in the Kowalski’s run-down apartment in New Orleans during the 1940s. He describes New Orleans in the stage directions as “poor” but with a “raffish charm” (Williams 2151). Blanche and Rose come from Laurel, Mississippi which is a rural town very similar to the city of Columbus, Mississippi where Williams grew up. Furthermore, at age 17, his family moved to St. Louis. This location influenced another one of his notable dramas, The Glass Menagerie. Due to his deep southern accent, many of his colleagues gave him the nickname “Tennessee.” He moved to New Orleans in 1938 where he officially renamed himself "Tennessee," supposedly in tribute to his father's home state. “At this time, he first used the name ‘Tennessee’ on a story he published in Story magazine” (Atkinson 1). As a constant traveler, Williams “often drew on his wide-ranging travels for the settings of his works” (Atkinson 5). Small towns in Mississippi and the French Quarter in New Orleans are just a few of the many places that influenced his settings.
Furthermore, certain conflicts that arise throughout his plays are based on specific personal experiences. After accusing her father of making sexual advances towards her, Rose was diagnosed with schizophrenia and eventually institutionalized, spending the rest of her life in a mental institution. Strikingly similar circumstances occur in A Streetcar Named Desire between Stanley and Blanche. After the birth of his baby, Stanley makes unwanted advances towards Blanche as he says to her, “Come to think of it--maybe you wouldn’t be bad to—interfere with” (Williams 2210). Blanche defends herself unsuccessfully with a broken glass bottle.Afterward, Stella sides with Stanley and refuses to believe Blanche’s false claims against Stanley. Like Rose, Blanche is institutionalized. Additionally, homosexual themes are prevalent throughout Williams's plays. Like in A Streetcar Named Desire, Annette Saddik in her analysis of influences of Williams’s within the Encyclopedia of Contemporary LGBTQ Literature of the United States, mentions themes are “often subtly woven in as subtext in his early work of the 1940s and 1950s” (Saddik 1). As the social culture of America progressed, by the 1960s Williams was able to address homosexuality more aggressively and personally as it related to him.
In conclusion, it is impossible to separate autobiographical elements from Tennessee Williams’s life from his work. This is especially evident in A Streetcar Named Desire. His life and personal experience are utilized repeatedly throughout his plays by his choice of characters, settings, and specific conflicts. Late in his life drug use continued to take a toll on him and on February 23, 1983, Williams died by choking to death on the lid of one of his pill bottles. One who did not personally know Williams in his lifetime could develop a good idea of who he was, the places he had gone, and the struggles he faced through his well-written dramas. When Blanche is taken away by the doctor she states she has “always depended on the kindness of strangers” (Williams 2217). Perhaps, though, the glass through which one sees someone is cloudy enough that is all anyone ever is to one another — a stranger.