The Theatre of Tennessee Williams
Bloomsbury Methuen Drama
This study of one of the greatest twentieth century playwrights is one of the Methuen Critical Companions series (we have already reviewed members of this series on David Greig, Timberlake Wertenbaker and Sean O'Casey).
At a glance, the book looks like the sort of compilation of academic essays provided by the Cambridge Companions and others like it, but it is only partly this. The bulk of the book is part-biography—though very different in nature to John Lahr's new full biography of the playwright—and part critical analysis of the plays.
The plays are dealt with in a sort of chronology, which enables them to be tied to his biography, but, as the plays are dealt with individually, there are occasional jumps back in time where the development of more than one play occurred over the same period.
This works pretty well for a playwright who, famously, made a great deal of use of his own life and family members in his stories, notably himself and his sister Rose. Murphy shows these connections clearly and critically with reference to Williams's own words about these links.
Of course there are analyses of the major works that are still frequently revived, such as Streetcar and Glass Menagerie, but equal weight is given to the later, less accessible and less naturalistic plays produced after the great writer fell out of favour with the critics and the public.
It does help to know the plays to really understand the points that Murphy is making in relation to them, but she brings together some useful information from Williams's work, writings and correspondence to make this a valuable academic work for anyone studying the playwright or American theatre.
There may be points where the more general reader will find the text challenging, especially in relation to the more obscure works, but overall it may be of interest to a Williams fan. It isn't a comprehensive biography, however; elements from Williams's life are only included where they illustrate the analysis of the work, so his upbringing and relationships are looked at but his death is only referred to very briefly in a summarised chronology at the back of the book.
Murphy's analysis covers more than two thirds of the main part of the book, and so the four essays at the back from other authors seem like a last-minute addition to fill space, especially as each doesn't even start on a new page with a clear header.
In these, Bruce McConachie makes a brave attempt to link differing audience responses to Blanche in Streetcar in the original stage and screen productions with cognitive theory, John S Bak tries to examine how Williams and the critics started to go their separate ways from the 1960s, Felicia Hardison Londré looks at how Williams absorbed and changed reality in what she terms his "transitional" plays and Annette J Saddik analyses his characters through ideas of the "grotesque".
These essays may be hard going for the general reader and in some cases a little obscure for a general academic work that is trying to give a comprehensive study of the writer, but they provide some interesting perspectives.
As a whole, it is a a useful and well-written work that will prove very valuable to students of Williams or of twentieth century American theatre.
Reviewer: David Chadderton