Tennessee Williams (1911-1983)
Contributing Editor: Thomas P. Adler
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students may tend to respond to the heroines, especially in Williams's earlier plays up through the end of the 1940s, differently from what he intended because their value system is not the same. His sensitive, poetic misfits who escape from reality into a world of illusion/art are likely to seem too remote, too soft. The very things that Williams values about them--their grace, their gentility--nowadays may appear dispensable adjuncts of life in an age when competition and aggressiveness are valorized among both sexes. So students need to be sensitized to Williams's romantic ideals and to what he sees as the civilizing, humanizing virtues.
It helps to place Williams in context as a southern dramatist, and also as one who propounds the feminizing of American culture as a counter to a society built on masculine ideals of strength and power. Students also need to understand that Williams is a "poetic" realist, not simply in his use of a lyrical rhetoric but in his handling of imagery, both verbal and visual. If they attend carefully to his command of visual stage symbolism, they can oftentimes discover the necessary clues about Williams's attitude toward his characters.
Any discussion of "Portrait of a Madonna" will necessarily focus upon Williams's characterization of his sexually frustrated and neurotic heroine, whose upbringing in a succession of southern rectories, under the nay-saying and guilt-inducing "shadow" of the church and of the cross, has left her totally unprepared for life and prey to crazed delusions. Miss Collins becomes almost the archetypal unmarried daughter, restricted by the responsibility of caring for an aged mother, sensing the social pressure to be sexual and yet denied any morally sanctioned expression of these feelings, finally forced into madness as a result of unrealistic expectations. The image of the Madonna and Child becomes central to an understanding of the play: the Virgin and Mother whom Lucretia costumed for the Sunday School Christmas pageant; the children she visits twice a year on religious holidays with her scrapbooks of Campbell soup kids; Richard's many children; the fabricated "child" to be born of a woman virginal in body and heart, defiled only in her dreams.
Brief though it is, Williams's play is amenable to many critical approaches other than the psychological and feminist. A formalist approach might examine the way in which Williams structures his play--as he later will Streetcar--around a series of dichotomies: past/present; memory/fact; gentility/brutality; shadow/light; sanity/insanity; freedom/ repression; virginal/defiled; harmless illusion/harmful delusion. A literary-historical approach could place the work within the tradition of southern gothicism, while a sociocultural framework could explore the way in which the myth of southern chivalry curtails Lucretia's independence, as well as the way in which utilitarian technology threatens the artistic sensibility (elevator cage as machine played off against the music on the gramophone). A generic approach might consider the possibilities for seeing the play as a tragedy, while a biographical approach might trace the relationship between Lucretia and Williams's own schizo-phrenic sister Rose. For some considerations of various new theoretical approaches in literary criticism together with examples of their application to a dramatic text by Williams, you might consult Confronting Tennessee Williams's "A Streetcar Named Desire": Essays in Cultural Pluralism, edited by Philip C. Kolin (Westport: Greenwood, 1993).
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Central thematic issues include the question of illusion and reality, the relationship between madness and art, and the role of the artist in society, as well as the necessity to respond compassionately and nonjudgmentally to the needs of God's sensitive yet weak creatures who are battered and misunderstood. Historically, Williams's relation to the myth of the cavalier South should be explored. Finally, Williams's close identification with his heroines needs to be seen in light of his relationship with his schizophrenic sister Rose, as he admits in his Memoirs, the most intensely emotional attachment in his personal life.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Although "Portrait" itself is essentially a realistic, albeit somewhat poetic, play, Williams himself should be approached as an innovator of a new "plastic" theater, a practitioner, along with Arthur Miller, of what some have termed "a theatre of gauze." To handle this aspect of Williams's aesthetic, the instructor might either read or reproduce as a handout the dramatist's Production Notes to Glass Menagerie, along with Tom's opening narration in that play, which really differentiates Williams's practice--"truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion"--from the strict realism--"illusion that has the appearance of truth"--of others.
The choice of the one-act play form itself tells something about Williams's intended audience. Rather than aim at a commercial production, "Portrait" seems more appropriate for an amateur (academic or civic) theater presentation, where the interest will be largely on character and dialogue rather than production values. Thus, it appears intended for a limited audience of intense theatergoers. From the perspective of the dramatist, it serves partly as a "study" for larger work(s), in the same way a painter might do a series of studies before attempting a full canvas. And so, in a sense, the artist too is his own audience.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Lucretia Collins bears comparison with other Williams heroines in "The Lady of Larkspur Lotion," The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Summer and Smoke. Students might also contrast the way Miss Collins escapes from the sociocultural milieu that constricts her freedom with the heroines' responses in Susan Glaspell's short play "Trifles" and William Faulkner's short story "A Rose for Emily."
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. (a) Consider the dramatic function(s) of the minor characters, the Porter and the Elevator Boy, in the play.
(b) Could "Portrait of a Madonna" have been expanded to a full-length work? To accomplish that, what else might Williams have dramatized? Would anything have been lost in the transformation?
2. (a) The director of the original production of "Portrait" had Lucretia exit clutching a doll. What, if anything, would justify such an interpolation in Williams's text, and what might be the impact on the audience?
(b) Discuss the theater metaphor in "Portrait": the minor characters as onstage audience; the bedroom, scene of illusions, as stage; Mr. Abrams as stage manager/director, etc.
(c) In what way does Williams's characterization of Lucretia Collins lead the audience to conclude that he considered her story "tragic"?
Leverich, Lyle. Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams. New York: Crown, 1995.
Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985.