- The Theatre of Tennessee Williams by Brenda Murphy
Brenda Murphy’s The Theatre of Tennessee Williams is a beautifully written book, one brimming with fresh critical insights. What is most immediately obvious is her utter command of her material. As part of the Bloomsbury Methuen Drama Series, the book is designed to appeal to college and university students, but in fact, it also appeals to veteran scholars long familiar with American Drama and Tennessee Williams. In an assessment of Williams’s career from 1936 to 1983, Murphy discusses some 25 plays in roughly chronological order. Murphy, long one of the best critics of American Drama, has produced yet another valuable book, one that is essential reading for those interested in one of the giants of the modern stage. Although, like Murphy, I’ve been teaching Williams for three decades, I still came away from this book with a much deeper appreciation of the plays and the broader social contexts underpinning the original productions.
Murphy’s organization of the book is sensible. Her concise introduction spells out the scope and aims of her study. From the mid-1990s onward, Murphy rightly notes that there has been a “new wealth of information” on the playwright available to students and scholars. As she puts it, “the standard narrative of Williams’s life, essentially beginning with the failure of Battle of Angles (1940) and the triumph of The Glass Menagerie (1945), and ending with the 20-year decline after The Night of the Iguana (1961), is gradually being revised” (2). Murphy stands on the cutting edge of such a revision. As such, she succeeds in fulfilling one of her goals, which is “to place the familiar narrative of Williams’s career” in light of “his roots in a theatre of social engagement… and to consider his better-known plays in the context of his earlier and later work” (3). Murphy is particularly aware of and sensitive to the critical insights offered from Gay and Queer Studies. As she explains, “the last two decades have seen an explosion of interest in Williams’s treatment of sexuality, gender, and sexual identity, subjects that are central to much of his writing, especially beginning in the mid-1950s, when he was actively considering his identity as a gay man in the homophobic culture of mid-twentieth-century America” (3). By way of foregrounding her study, Murphy alludes to sister Rose, God, and the many fellow artists to whom Williams alludes throughout his theater (Lawrence, Crane, Byron, Camille, the Fitzgeralds, and, among many others, Hemingway).
Another valuable aspect of The Theatre of Tennessee Williams concerns its treatment of American cultural poetics. Murphy does an excellent job of placing Williams within a larger, ongoing narrative history of the American stage and global politics. And she is at her best when discussing the lesser-known plays, plays that are now being rethought as part of the revisionist project that animates Williams scholarly debates today. In this regard, Murphy’s book is a foundational work—work that changes, for the better, our understanding not only of Williams, [End Page 117] but of key public issues of a nation as reflected through the private anxieties of the individual. Her work on Williams, that is, emerges as much more than an account of a major American writer; it is equally a compelling account of a nation thinking (or not thinking) in front of itself, and takes us deeply into the complex world of American politics, art, and culture.
Murphy’s latest book is the achievement of a fine and mature scholar; her work will be read and admired for years to come. The Theatre of Tennessee Williams is, when appropriate, characterized by interpretive audacity, chastened only by sound scholarly scruple. As any serious scholar knows, it is difficult to write with authority on such a well-known author as Tennessee Williams, but Murphy has done the job with remarkable rigor, tact, and critical penetration. Her book is a multifoliate endeavor that locates a playwright and his major works in delightful ways...