Historical, Social and Cultural context of Tennessee Williams on
‘A Streetcar Named Desire’.
Thomas Lanier Williams (later to be known as Tennessee) was born on March 26th 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi. He was the first of three children. He had a younger brother, and a younger sister named Rose. Their father was a shoe salesman, and their mother was the daughter of a minister. At the age of 14, Williams discovered writing as an escape from reality. This was at a time when Williams felt acutely uncomfortable. His father called him ‘Miss Nancy’, obviously not believing that a boy would rather read books, rather than play marbles or baseball. In 1929 Williams became a student at the University of Missouri. But during the Great Wall Street Crash Depression (1931-1934) Williams’ father insisted he leave university to work in the shoe industry with him. Although Williams held a secure job, he was unhappy and suffered a breakdown. In 1936 Williams once again enrolled at university, this time attending the State University of Iowa. Once Williams had finished university he continued to write, and travelled all over America whilst many of his plays were receiving awards. Tragically on 24th February 1983, Tennessee Williams died, after choking on one of his barbiturates.
- Although Tennessee lived through as many people would say, life-altering events, such as the American Civil War, and World War II, he failed to mention them in any of his plays. This may emphasise Tennessee’s ability to distance himself from reality when writing.
- In the American Civil War, the southern states tried and failed to oppose from the Union in order to preserve their ‘state rights’. Especially their slavery system which was giving many a reliable income, as this was what their cotton, and tobacco industries were relying on.
- The Second World War and the destructive political changes that followed, which led to America having an increased amount of power on the world seemed to pass Tennessee Williams by.
- He also appeared oblivious to the issue of gay rights, which was becoming less uncommonly talked about during his lifetime. Many would think this would have been close to Tennessee’s heart considering his sexual status, but he rarely mentioned it within his plays.
- Although homosexuality is so prominent in his private life, it was never the primary theme of his plays. This may be because of the majority of Williams’ life homosexuality was still illegal and not tolerated in most parts of America.
- Although he seemed to disapprove, he seemed to feel compelled to introduce homosexuality into his plays. Blanche could have found her husband in bed with another woman, but it was not likely to have the same shock reaction. He may have also used this to educate society more about homosexuality. If the audience felt like they had got to no Blanche’s husband, and liked him, then they may have come to realise that society is equal. This was very uncontroversial of the time.
- In an interview, Williams was accused of not dealing with his homosexuality openly, but Williams declared that ‘the main thrust of his work was not sexual orientation, but social issues’. This could show a conflict between his morality and sexuality, never to be resolved.
- Williams seemed to seek truth and beauty in a violent world. I think this is related to the American Civil War, and World War II as there was so many catastrophic, and historical events happening in a short period of time that he didn’t feel the need to mention them in his plays, this gave the audience the ability to forget real life and transport themselves. He tried to bring out the best in people no matter what was happening around them.