Legendary playwright Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) was the kind of larger than life, tormented American artist who tried to transcend human suffering through the magic of his craft. As Tom in his groundbreaking 1944 play The Glass Menagerie put it, by combining memory with “artistic license,” Williams attempted, time and again, to turn back time and erase the wounds his sister endured at the hands of their mother after he left them behind for New Orleans’ French Quarter in his late twenties. But both mother and sister lived on, in body and spirit — as well as metaphorically via stage and screen — for many decades to come.
Williams grew up in a complex new century — one which, despite its new technological wonders and scientific breakthroughs, often left the individual unable to confront the dark undercurrents of life. Despite the new “science” of psychoanalysis, with its franker examination of such “vices” as homosexuality, Oedipal conflicts, addiction, and sexual desire, most of Williams’ contemporaries were simply not culturally evolved enough to digest the truth about life’s seamy underbelly served up on a tarnished platter.
Williams was as just as much a product of this repressed sensibility — if not more so — thanks to his genteel Southern background and early Episcopal upbringing. Thus, one of the great conflicts of his life and work was the attempt to reconcile the sacred and the profane elements that coexisted in himself and in all of us.
Like other great artists who endured great pain, Williams did not suffer in silence. Via his plays, he gathered together the lemons he had accrued in life and concocted vast pitchers of lemonade palatable enough for audiences of any age to eagerly ingest. Granted, he may have taken surreptitious swigs from a bottle of fine Southern bourbon under cover of the serving tablecloth, and those who were mature and aware enough to take the unvarnished truth were welcome to join him and consume the undiluted drink he offered for those who could stomach it.
Emily Arrington in Thank You, Kind Spirit
Williams himself probably realized that some of his work was quite ahead of its time. The playwright, who died in 1983, left behind an incredible legacy which seemed to include every manuscript he had ever written. The sheer quantity of his offerings is formidable indeed — for this was a man who wrote through triumph and tragedy, lean years and great. All of these obscure or even undiscovered works lie safe within the private libraries of various university collections throughout the country.