Who can forget the plaintive bellow of a desperate Stanley Kowalski as he attempts to put together the pieces of his marriage to Stella in “A Streetcar Named Desire”?
Or the magnetic, manipulative and totally dysfunctional relationship between Maggie and Brick, that trainwreck of a couple in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”?
The gritty characters with damaged psyches who populate the works of Tennessee Williams reflect his own angst, acquired from a life fraught with unhappy family dynamics, according to T.R. Johnson, associate professor of literature at Tulane University and director of the university’s writing program.
“He dealt with themes that were hot-button issues … sexuality, mental illness, cannibalism,” Johnson said. “He was on the cusp of the things that people could talk about publicly. Remember, this was the 1940s and 1950s.”
The plays of the Mississippi native and sometime New Orleanian are in the spotlight starting Wednesday as the annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival kicks off with performances, panels and workshops. (For information, go to tennesseewilliams.net)
Born in 1911, Wllliams was the son of an extremely distant and critical father, C.C. Williams. His sister, Rose, suffered from schizophrenia and was lobotomized, spending much of her life in a mental institution.
Williams once described his family as “full of eccentricity and lunacy.” but if, as Oscar Levant said, there is a fine line between genius and insanity, Williams put that adage to marvelous use in his disquieting exploration of the human condition.
For Williams, fame was a mixed bag. His first taste of acceptance came with “The Glass Menagerie,” a drama based on his own life with a histrionic mother and a mentally ill sister. It won the praise of critics in Chicago, where it initially was performed.
But when “A Streetcar Named Desire” premiered on Broadway, Williams was suddenly propelled into the stratosphere.
“The night the play opened, when the curtain came down there was a 30-minute standing ovation,” Johnson said. “Success on that scale shifts your relationship to the world. He went blockbuster.
“In the history of the American theater, there is hardly anything quite like it. But early success can be a pretty dangerous thing, as for the rest of your life you’re going to be asked to deliver on the level of ‘Streetcar,’ and it’s assumed that unless you do, you’re a flop. From that moment on there’s a lot of pressure.”
For Williams, life was already pressure-filled. As a teenager, he realized he was attracted to his sister’s boyfriends, and being gay in the 1930s was far from universally accepted. Even in the 1940s and ’50s, he kept his personal life private.
But with success he became more open and was willing to risk the wrath of those who were, perhaps, ready to judge him.
“He was revolutionary in that he was coming out decades before any other celebrity would discuss such issues,” Johnson said.
He often raised eyebrows.
“Around 1970, he would hit the talk-show circuit, discussing his lifestyle, and when asked for specifics, he would respond, “Let’s just say I’ve covered the waterfront.”
Tennessee Williams was inspired by Anton Chekhov, emulating the Russian playwright’s craft.
“Chekhov’s plays are crafted with surgical precision,” Johnson said. “Not one single utterance is extraneous. His words are like jewels, where every aspect is wired to deliver the ultimate effect. Williams was consumed with Chekhov’s laser focus. Williams believed he could bring this ice-cold … precision to these roaring, red-hot topics, and hone in on their essence. He succeeded, and that’s what makes him the stuff of immortal American literature.”
“He is special because stylistically, he is very accessible in a way that others of his time period were not,” Johnson said.
But success, in Williams’ mind, was fleeting.
In the final 20 years of his life, he wrote another 20 plays, yet none of them were optioned for films, they were never performed and they are not taught.
“The affliction of loneliness follows me like a shadow,” Williams once said.
While he may have been uncomfortable in his own skin, he was always comfortable in New Orleans.
“This town is tolerant of so many different lifestyles, and eccentric characters, so it’s a very free kind of existence,” said Johnson. “And he was enraptured by the beauty and the decrepit charm which resonated with his soul. It drew in his theatrical imagination.”
In his later years, Williams’ increasing reliance on drugs and alcohol, along with bouts of mental illness, may have made it impossible to bring his A-game to his writing, Johnson said.
But Williams’ body of work will stand the test of time.
“His writings explore the depths of human morality,” Johnson said. “His plays are about courage and honesty and the flip sides of those coins — about what people can do to one another, and how they manage to survive.”