The very name Tennessee Williams, who would have been 90 on March 26, conjures up that fictional landscape we've conveniently labeled "Southern Gothic," a world of tropical twilight imbued with violence, decay and danger, a world spread beneath such a tranquil indigo sky that we are momentarily lulled while we view the trauma, tragedy, madness and savage comedy that ensue. Despite his Southern roots, Williams was not a strictly regional writer, nor was he bound to any one genre, though his work in the theater has overshadowed all else. As a playwright, he was both social realist and lyric poet; he was also a sometime screenwriter, a master of the short story, a novelist, poet, memoirist and inveterate letter-writer.
The Library of America has published his essential "Plays"--33 of them--in two volumes totaling about 2,000 pages. Not every play is included here, but these two volumes constitute all the plays that matter, the works of a master of his craft, with all the author's introductions, notes and pertinent essays. Also, New Directions (Williams' longtime publisher) has brought out Volume 1 of "Selected Letters: 1920-1945," which traces his childhood and years of obscurity, up to the huge success of "The Glass Menagerie." This beautifully designed and finely bound book contains generous, clearly written notes, an index and many black-and-white photos from Williams' early years. The dust jacket features a torn-sweater portrait of the young playwright by George Platt Lynes that wouldn't be out of place on a GQ cover or an Armani billboard.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 25, 2001 Home Edition Book Review Page 2 Book Review Desk 2 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
The names of the editors for the plays and the selected letters of Tennessee Williams (Book Review, March 18) were inadvertently transposed. "Plays: 1937-1955" and "Plays: 1957-1980" (Library of America) were edited by Mel Gussow and Kenneth Holditch. "Selected Letters: 1920-1945" (New Directions) was edited by Albert J. Devlin and Nancy M. Tischler.
The plays--and the movies made from them--have become a fixture in our national mythos. We see more than vivid characters in a Williams play; we encounter mythic figures: Big Daddy, Blanche, Maggie the Cat in her satin slip, Stanley and Stella, Baby Doll, the Princess Kos and Serafina. We recognize them the way we recognize Huck Finn, Lolita, Romeo and Juliet, Scarlett O'Hara. They are fictions who inhabit an intensified reality; they are larger than any single personality or impersonation can make them. And they are part of an astonishing body of work. In the decade and a half between 1944 and 1961, Williams produced 11 brilliant plays back to back: "The Glass Menagerie," 'A Streetcar Named Desire," 'Summer and Smoke," 'Sweet Bird of Youth," 'The Rose Tattoo," 'Camino Real," 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," 'Orpheus Descending," 'Suddenly Last Summer," 'Period of Adjustment" and "Night of the Iguana." Indeed, these were Tennessee Williams' golden years, glowing with a string of "hits" one after another.
To read or reacquaint oneself with these plays is to recognize their truth and transcendence. One can also, to a degree, get a sense of this from the movies made of these plays. Most of them are available on video, starring such luminaries as Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Vivien Leigh, John Malkovich, Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Taylor and Joanne Woodward. These performances give an idea of how powerful the plays can be onstage, cinematically transformed by directors such as Elia Kazan, John Huston and--in the case of "The Glass Menagerie'--Paul Newman.
In his essay "The Timeless World of a Play," Williams wrote: "Great sculpture often follows the lines of the human body: Yet the repose of great sculpture suddenly transmutes these human lines to something that has an absoluteness, a purity, a beauty which would not be possible in a living mobile form.
'A play may be violent, full of motion: yet it has that special kind of repose which allows contemplation and produces the climate in which tragic importance is a possible thing.... In a play, time is arrested in the sense of being confined. By a sort of legerdemain, events are made to remain events, rather than being reduced so quickly to mere occurrences. The audience can sit back in a comforting dusk to watch a world which is flooded with light and in which emotion and action have a dimension and dignity that they would likewise have in real existence, if only the shattering intrusion of time could be locked out."
Reading the plays is, of course, less immediate than seeing them onstage or onscreen, but it is an experience that allows one to savor the language and emotion more intimately. Away from the exigencies of the stage, the characters come to life on the printed page and Williams' precise and evocative stage directions, put the reader into the scene.