5 of the Best Plays Written by Tennessee Williams

"The Glass Menagerie" or "A Streetcar Named Desire?"

Tennessee Williams
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From the 1930s until his death in 1983, Tennessee Williams crafted some of America’s most beloved dramas. His lyrical dialogue drips with his special brand of Southern Gothic—a style found in fiction writers such as Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner, but not often seen on the stage.

Over his lifetime, Williams created over 30 full-length plays in addition to short stories, memoirs, and poetry. His golden age, however, took place between 1944 and 1961. During this period, he wrote his most powerful plays.

It is not easy to choose only five plays out of Williams' craft, but the following are ones that will forever remain among the best dramas for the stage. These classics were instrumental in making Tennesee Williams one of the best playwrights of modern times and they continue to be audience favorites.

#5 – 'The Rose Tattoo'

Many consider this to be Williams’ most comedic play. Originally on Broadway in 1951, "The Rose Tattoo" is a longer and more complicated drama than some of Williams' other works.

It tells the story of Serafina Delle Rose, a passionate Sicilian widow who lives with her daughter in Louisiana. Her supposedly perfect husband dies at the beginning of the play, and as the show develops, Serafina's grief destroys her further and further.

The story explores the themes of grief and madness, trust and jealousy, mother-daughter relationship, and newfound romance after a long period of loneliness. The author described "The Rose Tattoo" as “the Dionysian element in human life,” since it is also very much about pleasure, sexuality, and rebirth.

Interesting Facts:

  • "The Rose Tattoo" was dedicated to Williams' lover, Frank Merlo.
  • In 1951, "The Rose Tattoo" won Tony Awards for Best Actor, Actress, Play, and Scenic Design.
  • Italian actress Anna Magnani won an Oscar for her portrayal of Serafina in the 1955 film adaptation of "The Rose Tattoo."
  • The 1957 production in Dublin, Ireland was interrupted by the police, as many deemed it to be "lewd entertainment,"—an actor decided to mime dropping of a condom (knowing it would cause commotion).

#4 – 'Night of the Iguana'

Tennessee Williams' "Night of the Iguana" is the last of his plays to become critically acclaimed. It originated as a short story, which Williams then developed into a one-act play, and finally the three-act play.

The compelling main character, ex-Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, who has been expelled from his church community for heresy and philandering, is now an alcoholic tour guide leading a disgruntled group of young women to a small Mexican resort town.

There, Shannon is tempted by Maxine, the lustful widow, and owner of the hotel where the group ends up staying. Despite Maxine's obvious sexual invitations, Shannon seems to be more attracted to an impoverished, gentle-hearted painter and spinster, Miss Hannah Jelkes.

A profound emotional connection forms between the two, which is in stark contrast with the rest of Shannon's (lustful, unstable, and sometimes illegal) interactions. Like many of Williams' plays, "Night of the Iguana" is profoundly human, full of sexual dilemmas and mental breakdowns.

Interesting Facts:

  • The original 1961 Broadway production featured Betty Davis in the role of the seductive and lonely Maxine and Margaret Leighton in the role of Hannah, for which she received the Tony Award.
  • The 1964 film adaptation was directed by the prolific and versatile John Huston.
  • The other film adaptation was a Serbian-Croatian production.
  • Like the main character, Tennessee Williams struggled with depression and alcoholism.

#3 – 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'

This play blends elements of tragedy and hope and is considered by some to be the most powerful work of Tennessee Williams’ collection.

It takes place on a Southern plantation owned by the protagonist's father (Big Daddy). It is his birthday and the family gathers in celebration. The unmentioned element is that everyone besides Big Daddy and Big Mama knows that he suffers from terminal cancer. The play is thus full of deception, as the posterity is now trying to win his favor in hopes of lavish inheritance.

The protagonist Brick Pollitt is Big Daddy's favorite, yet alcoholic son, who is traumatized by the loss of his best friend Skipper and unfaithfulness of his wife Maggie. As a result, Brick is not in the least concerned with the sibling rivalry for a spot in Big Daddy's will. His repressed sexual identity is the most pervasive theme in the play.

Maggie "the Cat," however, is doing everything she can to receive the inheritance. She represents the most headstrong of the playwright’s female characters, as she “claws and scratches” her way out of obscurity and poverty. Her unbridled sexuality is another very powerful element of the play.

Interesting Facts:

  • "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955.
  • The play was adapted into a 1958 film that starred Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, and Burl Ives, who also originated the role of Big Daddy on Broadway.
  • Because of heavy censorship, the same film didn't remain very close to the original play. Allegedly, Tennessee Williams walked out of the movie theater 20 minutes into the film. The drastic change was that the film entirely neglected the homosexual aspect of the original play.

#2 – 'The Glass Menagerie'

Many argue that Williams’ first major success is his strongest play. Tom Wingfield, the protagonist in his 20s, is the breadwinner of the family and lives with his mother Amanda and sister Laura.

Amanda is obsessed with the number of suitors she used to have when she was young, while Laura is extremely shy and rarely leaves the house. Instead, she tends to her collection of glass animals.

"The Glass Menagerie" is full of disillusions as each of the characters seems to be living in their own, unattainable dream world. To be sure, "The Glass Menagerie" exhibits the playwright at his most personal. It is ripe with autobiographical revelations:

  • The absent father is a traveling salesman—like Williams’ father.
  • The fictional Wingfield family lived in St. Louis, as did Williams and his real-life family.
  • Tom Wingfield and Tennessee Williams share the same first name. The playwright's real name is Thomas Lanier Williams III.
  • The fragile Laura Wingfield was modeled after Tennessee Williams’ sister, Rose. In real life, Rose suffered from schizophrenia and was eventually given a partial lobotomy, a destructive operation from which she never recovered. It was a constant source of heartache for Williams.

Considering the biographical connections, the regretful monologue at the play’s end might feel like a personal confession.

Tom: Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes...
Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be !
I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger—anything that can blow your candles out !
- for nowadays the world is lit by lightning ! Blow out your candles, Laura—and so good-bye.

Interesting Facts:

  • Paul Newman directed the 1980s film adaptation, which starred his wife Joanne Woodward.
  • The film contains an interesting moment not found in the original play: Amanda Wingfield actually succeeds in selling a magazine subscription over the phone. It sounds trivial, but it’s actually a heartwarming triumph for the character—a rare beam of light in an otherwise gray and weary world.

#1 – 'A Streetcar Named Desire' 

Of the major plays by Tennessee Williams, "A Streetcar Named Desire" contains the most explosive moments. This is perhaps his most popular play.

Thanks to director Elia Kazan and the actors Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh, the story became a motion picture classic. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you have probably seen the iconic clip in which Brando screams for his wife, “Stella!!!!”

Blanche Du Bois serves as the delusional, often vexing, but ultimately sympathetic protagonist. Leaving behind her sordid past, she moves into the dilapidated New Orleans apartment of her co-dependent sister and brother-in-law, Stanley—the dangerously virile and brutish antagonist.

Many academic and armchair debates have involved Stanley Kowalski. Some have argued that the character is nothing more than an apelike villain/rapist. Others believe that he represents the harsh reality in contrast to Du Bois’ impractical romanticism. Still, some scholars have interpreted the two characters as being violently and erotically drawn to one another.

From an actor’s viewpoint, "Streetcar" might be Williams' best work. After all, the character of Blanche Du Bois delivers some of the most rewarding monologues in modern theater. Case in point, in this provocative scene, Blanche recounts the tragic death of her late husband:

Blanche: He was a boy, just a boy, when I was a very young girl. When I was sixteen, I made the discovery—love. All at once and much, much too completely. It was like you suddenly turned a blinding light on something that had always been half in shadow, that's how it struck the world for me. But I was unlucky. Deluded. There was something different about the boy, a nervousness, a softness and tenderness which wasn't like a man's, although he wasn't the least bit effeminate looking—still—that thing was there...He came to me for help. I didn't know that. I didn't find out anything till after our marriage when we'd run away and come back and all I knew was I'd failed him in some mysterious way and wasn't able to give the help he needed but couldn't speak of! He was in the quicksands and clutching at me—but I wasn't holding him out, I was slipping in with him! I didn't know that. I didn't know anything except I loved him unendurably but without being able to help him or help myself. Then I found out. In the worst of all possible ways. By coming suddenly into a room that I thought was empty—which wasn't empty, but had two people in it...the boy I had married and an older man who had been his friend for years...
Afterward we pretended that nothing had been discovered. Yes, the three of us drove out to Moon Lake Casino, very drunk and laughing all the way.
We danced the Varsouviana! Suddenly, in the middle of the dance the boy I had married broke away from me and ran out of the casino. A few moments later—a shot!
I ran out—all did!—all ran and gathered about the terrible thing at the edge of the lake! I couldn't get near for the crowding. Then somebody caught my arm. "Don't go any closer! Come back! You don't want to see!" See? See what! Then I heard voices say—Allan! Allan! The Grey boy! He'd stuck the revolver into his mouth, and fired—so that the back of his head had been—blown away!
It was because—on the dance floor—unable to stop myself—I'd suddenly said—"I saw! I know! You disgust me..." And then the searchlight which had been turned on the world was turned off again and never for one moment since has there been any light that's stronger than this—kitchen—candle...

Interesting Facts:

  • Jessica Tandy won the Tony Award for best performance by a Leading Actress for her performance as Blanch Du Bois in the play.
  • As such, she was originally supposed to play the role in the film as well. However, it seems that she didn't have the "star power" to attract moviegoers, and after Olivia de Havilland had turned down the role, it was given to Vivien Leigh.
  • Vivien Leigh won an Oscar for Best Actress in the film, as did supporting actors Karl Malden and Kim Hunter. Marlon Brando, however, did not win Best Actor though he was nominated. That title went to Humphrey Bogart for "The African Queen" in 1952.
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Bradford, Wade. "5 of the Best Plays Written by Tennessee Williams." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/best-plays-by-tennessee-williams-2713543. Bradford, Wade. (2023, April 5). 5 of the Best Plays Written by Tennessee Williams. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/best-plays-by-tennessee-williams-2713543 Bradford, Wade. "5 of the Best Plays Written by Tennessee Williams." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/best-plays-by-tennessee-williams-2713543 (accessed June 7, 2023).