Tennessee Williams shatters societys facade of women in his plays, A Streetcar Named Desireand Sweet Birds of Youth. In both plays, Williams develops his characters to show the reader that women are not always able to live up to the stereotypes and standards that society creates. He presents women, like Blanche DuBois and the Princess Kosmonopolis, and shows that they are no longer capable of being the women society wants them to be. They are in fact past their prime and are being rejected by society. Tennessee Williams, born Thomas Lanier Williams, grew up in the South which accounts for most of his plays taking place in the South.
He was born on March 26, 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi to Cornelius Coffin and Edwina Dakin Williams. Cornelius was a traveling and was was out of town for a majority of Tennesses childhood. When he was home, he was very unsupportive of his sons creative interests, especially his writing. He would even call Tennessee Miss Nancy to poke fun at his sons desire to write instead of play sports like the stereotypical boy should. Tennessee was able to receive support from his mother who encouraged him to write. He attended the University of Missouri where he received high honors in all his courses except for ROTC which he failed.
After school, he worked in a shoe factory and wrote during the night until 1934 when he had a nervous breakdown and had to quit his job in order to recuperate. In 1938, he attended the University of Iowa and was awarded a Bachelor of the Arts degree, after which he began writing as a career. His major works, some of which were turned into films and many performed on Broadway, include A Glass Menagerie(1943), A Streetcar Named Desire(1947), The Rose Tattoo(1951), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof(1955), Sweet Bird of Youth(1959). , and Night of the Iguana(1961).
Tennessee died in February of 1983 on 24 or 25 of February at almost 72 years old after quite a successful literary career. Williams presents his female characters as classically beautiful, distinguished and extremely feminine. They are supposed to be the ideal woman. Their clothes, hair, disposition are flawless. An archetype of Tennessee Williams Southern gentlewoman is Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire.
When she first enters the play, her description fills every stereotypical Southern belle characteristic. … e is daintily dressed in a white suit with a fluffy bodice, necklace and earrings of pearl, white gloves and hat… her delicate beauty must avoid strong light… (Williams, Streetcar.. , 15). The more that the reader is introduced to Blanche the more her character tries to convince her readers that she is the perfect Southern woman. She is polite: Stanley: You going to shack up here? Blanche: I thought I would if its not too inconvenient for you all. She is concerned about her appearance and wants to look good if she is to be in the presence of men: Blanche: I feel so hot and frazzled.
Wait till I powder before you open the door. She also gets across the point that she is fragile and pure and therefore does not want to be spoken to harshly: Stanley:(booming) Now lets cut the re-bop! Blanche:(pressing her hands to her ears)Ouuuu! Blanche tries very hard to prove that she is the Southern belle she used be. Blanche desperately wants to be a creature of culture, refinement and gentility. (Adler,31). Through her efforts she also reveals that she is incapable of being that Southern belle of long ago. This is how Williams desire to break her stereotypical facade can be seen.
Her feverish talk, her attention to her figure and to the showy clothes she brought and her frequent returns to the whiskey that she later says she never touches, give an early clue to her state of mind. (Falk, 54) From the beginning of the play there are clues to her state of mind which all contradict the Southern gentlewoman characteristics that she is trying to portray to the other characters. When she first arrives at her sisters apartment , she is alone. While nervously waiting for her sister to arrive she pours herself a glass of whiskey and says faintly Ive got to keep a hold of myself! (Williams, Streetcar.. 8).
Tennessee also tells the reader in a stage direction that even after her sister arrives … she is shaking all over and panting as she tries to laugh… (Williams, Streetcar.. , 19). So it is obvious that she is not as together as she would like people to believe. As the play progresses, her mental instability becomes more apparent. She is constantly needing reassurance on her appearance and her nerves are high. Shes [Blanche] soaking in a hot tub to quiet her nerves. Shes terribly upset. (Williams, Streetcar.. , 32). It is also revealed that she is highly dependent on fantasy and illusion.
In scene 5, after being rejected by her sister, she calms herself by resorting to an imaginative memory of her old boyfriend. Although there was once a relationship, its importance … has been distorted by the passage of time and memorys tendency to embroider.. (Adler, 21). These fantasies and her desperate attempts to be the perfect Southern belle, draw her further and further away from being able to form human connections with people. They also draw her further away from sanity. Blanche appears to believe in her role of the proper Southern lady, and that way her madness lies.
Stanton, 47). Her character finally falls apart in the last scene and true inbalance is shown. When the scene begins, Blanche is eagerly awaiting the arrival of Shep Huntleigh, her old beau. She is convinced that he is coming to take her a way to the country, which of course in reality is not the case, considering the fact they have been out of touch for years. Again she is living in a fantasy. When the doctors arrive to take Blanche to the asylum, she is at first confused but then she breaks down and her true insanity is revealed. [Blanche extends her hands toward the doctor]…..
I have always depended on the kindness of strangers…… [She allows him to lead her as if she were blind](Williams, Streetcar… ,141-142) So Blanche is finally able to release herself and is no longer needing to be this Southern belle. The Princess Kosmonopolis from Sweet Birds of Youth is another example of a woman past her prime, like Blanche. Unlike Blanche though, she is aware of it, but she realizes it too late. The Princess… tardily recognizes what the camera records: she is becoming an old woman. (Falk, 110). She was once a beautiful actress.
She was talented, a legend in her words. And then came her downfall. She tried to make a comeback and realized it was no longer possible because she was old and couldn’t live up to the standards that society needed her to. For years they all told me it was ridiculous of me to feel that I couldn’t go back to the screen or the stage as a middle aged woman. They told me I was an artist, not just a star whose career depended on youth. But I knew in my heart that the legend of Alexandra del Lago couldnt be separated from an appearance of youth…. (Williams, Sweet Bird, 36-37)
After her failure, she escapes by forgetting her old self. She wants to pretend that her failure never happened and even that she never was Alexandra del Lago, the famous, beautiful actress. I want to forget everything, I want to forget who I am… (Williams, Sweet Bird, 26). The only way she feels safe is through pretense, which is the basis of her relationship with Chance. She wants to be with him intimately in order to help herself feel young again. Desperate for the illusion that they are young lovers, she orders him to draw the curtains, turn on the radio, and prove himself.
Falk, 119). Part of her illusion is shown through the fact that she still has some of her old movie star traits. She is bossy. Chance: You like to give orders, dont you? Princess: Its something I seem to be used to She is also aware of her appearance and concerned about it like any movie star would be. Princess: Why do you call me that? Have I let go of my figure? The twist in the Princess character is how she uses her knowledge of failure against Chance in the end of the play. Her philosophy is that … a decline in artistic power is inevitably linked with waning physical beauty…
Adler, 84). She believes that once you are old, you are finished. At the end of the play, she finds out that she has in fact made a successful come-back and then tells Chance that he has no hope of getting famous now because he is too old. Chance, youve gone past something you couldnt afford to go past; your time, your youth, youve passed it. Its all you had and youve had it. (Williams, Sweet Bird, 120). This is somewhat twisted considering the fact that only hours earlier she was telling herself the same thing. It is also obvious that she is heavily influenced by society.
She let them tell her she was too old and now she is letting them tell her she is young again. Through these two complex female characters, Williams is able to shatter societys facade of women. He shows that women are not always capable of being the beautiful, distinguished females that they are expected to be. Blanche tried so hard that she finally broke down and was taking to an asylum. Princess let society lead her from fame to failure and then back again, probably to repeat the same pattern. Both were strongly influenced by society and Williams proved, especially in Blanches case that a woman can only live up to so much.