5 of the Best Plays Written by Tennessee Williams

Explore the Best Dramas From a Modern Playwright Legend

From the 1930s until his death in 1982, 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 seen too often upon the stage).

During his lifetime, he created over thirty full-length plays, in addition to short stories, memoirs, and poetry.

His golden age, however, took place between 1945 and 1961. During this time, he created his most powerful plays.

Among those are five 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 Williams’ most comedic play. Originally on Broadway in 1951, "The Rose Tattoo" tells the story of Serafina Delle Rose, a passionate Sicilian widow who lives with her daughter in Louisiana. The play explores the theme of newfound romance after a long period of loneliness.

The author described "The Rose Tattoo" as “the Dionysian element in human life.” For those of you who don’t wish to run to your Greek mythology book, Dionysus, the God of Wine, represented pleasure, sexuality, and rebirth. Tennessee Williams’ comedy/drama exemplifies all of the above.

Interesting Tidbits:

  • "The Rose Tattoo" was dedicated to his lover, Frank Merlo.
  • In 1951, "The Rose Tattoo" won Tony Awards for Best Actor, Actress, and Play.
  • Italian actress Anna Magnani won an Oscar for her portrayal of Serafina in the 1955 film adaptation of "The Rose Tattoo" .

#4 – "Night of the Iguana"

When I was 12 years old, I stayed up late to watch what I thought was going to be a midnight monster movie about a Radioactive Iguana who destroys Japanese cities.

Instead, I ended up watching an adaptation of Tennessee Williams' play "Night of the Iguana ."

There are no oversized lizard creatures, but there is the compelling main character, Ex-Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon. Expelled from his church community, he has turned from a respected minister into an alcoholic tour guide who leads his disgruntled group to a small Mexican resort town.

Shannon is tempted by the lustful widow, Maxine, who owns a seedy hotel. However, it seems his true calling is to emotionally connect with an impoverished, gentle-hearted painter, Miss Hannah Jelkes. They form a bond more complex and fulfilling than Maxine could ever offer.

Interesting Tidbits:

  • The original 1961 Broadway production featured Betty Davis in the role of the seductive and lonely Maxine.
  • The 1964 film adaptation was directed by the prolific and versatile John Huston.
  • Like the main character, Tennessee Williams struggled with depression and alcoholism.

#3 – "The Glass Menagerie"

Many argue that Williams’ first major success is his strongest play. To be sure, "The Glass Menagerie" exhibits the playwright at his most personal. The play is ripe with autobiographical revelations:

  • The absent father in "The Glass Menagerie" 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, she 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 feels 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 to blow your candles out! -- For nowadays the world is lit by lightning! Blow your candles out, Laura -- and so good-bye...

Interesting Tidbits:

  • 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 presented as a heartwarming triumph for the character – a rare beam of light in an otherwise gray and weary world.

#2 – "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, Marlon Brando, and Vivian Leigh, it 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. Personally, I think he’s a just big jerk.

(I know it’s not very academic – but that’s how I feel!)

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 Tidbits:

  • After debuting the role of Blanche on Broadway, Jessica Tandy was originally supposed to play the role in the film. It seems that she didn't have the 'star power' to attract movie goers. Olivia de Havilland turned down the role and 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 Brand, however, did not win Best Actor though he was nominated. That title went to Humphrey Bogart for "The African Queen" in 1952.

#1 - "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"

This play blends elements of tragedy and hope, earning its place as the most powerful work of Tennessee Williams’ collection.

The taciturn protagonist Brick Pollitt struggles with alcoholism, the loss of his youth, the death of a loved one, and several other inner demons, not the least of which might be his repressed sexual identity. 

Brick is devastated over the suicide of his friend Skipper who killed himself after he tried to discuss his feelings. When Brick and his father finally determine the source of his angst, the protagonist learns about self-forgiveness and acceptance.

Cat represents the most headstrong of the playwright’s female characters. Like other women in Williams’ plays, she experiences adversity. But instead of verging on insanity or wallowing in nostalgia, she “claws and scratches” her way out of obscurity and poverty. She conveys unbridled sexuality, yet we learn that she is ultimately a faithful wife who lures her husband back to the marriage bed by the play’s end.

The third major character in  "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is Big Daddy, the wealthy and powerful patriarch of the Pollitt family. He exhibits many negative traits. He is gruff, callous, and verbally abusive. Yet, when Brick and the audience learn that Big Daddy is on the brink of death, he gains out sympathy. More than this, when he overcomes despair and bravely embraces the little remainder of his life, he earns our solemn respect.

The inevitable death of the father awakens a long-overdue sense of purpose with the son. Brick decides to return to the bedroom with the ambition of starting a family. Hence Tennessee Williams shows us that despite the unavoidable losses throughout our lives, loving relationships can endure and a meaningful life can be attained.

Interesting Tidbits:

  • "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955.
  • The play was adapted into a 1958 film which starred Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, and Burl Ives, who originated the role of Bid Daddy on Broadway.