Constructive Writing: Sweet Bird of Youth, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Glass Menagerie three plays by Tennessee Williams

Schudder: Sit over here so I don’t have to talk loud about this. Come over here. I can’t talk loud about this. [Schudder indicates the chair by the tabouret. Chance crosses and rests a foot on the chair.] In this letter I just told you that a certain girl we know had to go through an awful experience, a tragic ordeal, because of past contact with you. I told you that I was only giving you this information so that you would know better than to come back to St Cloud, but you didn’t know better. (Sweet Bird of Youth)

Tennessee Williams works one trick better than most, he creates backstory to make you feel like you experiencing only the climax of a play, particularly with Sweet Bird of Youth and A Streetcar Named Desire.

This approach gives the reader (though it is intended for a viewing audience) a slight sense of missing out on something, something good, but that the best bits are coming. And questions of each character’s past are slowly answered, the problems, hopes and expectations of the characters rise. An approaching conflict or meeting seen as a point that will break, more than create, one or more of the characters.

Tom: I am the narrator of the play, and also a character in it. The other characters are my mother Amanda, my sister Laura, and a gentleman caller who appears in the final scenes. (The Glass Menagerie)

Basically: you are intrigued to learn more, and then want see what happens.

But each Williams play does not stay on a steady track.  There are frequent upheavals, creating peaks and troughs in the spirit of the characters and, in doing so, the audience. This is consistently due to a lead female character.

Blanche: I was so exhausted by all I’d been through my – nerves broke. [Nervously tamping cigarette.] I was on the verge of – lunacy, almost! So Mr Graves – Mr Graves is the high school superintendent – he suggested I take a leave of absence. I couldn’t put all of those details into the wire… [She drinks quickly.] Oh, this buzzes right through me and feels so good! (A Streetcar Named Desire)

Blanche, Princess (in Sweet Bird of Youth), and Amanda all are manic women. They expect or predict unreal highs and lows, which eventuate or fail – both to their disappointment.

One could think Tennessee Williams had a resentment towards women (honestly I don’t know, it should be irrelevant to the words in the play), or perhaps believed a delusional male character was too unbecoming for the audience ceria 1950. (Chance, in Sweet Bird of Youth, an exception.)

There are constant difficulties for the central character in each play to overcome, either physiologically or physically. They must struggle to achieve a better quality of life (the raise in their status). Dealing with their history or their crazy family or friends (their ‘shit’), acting as the problems to the solution.

That is worth a note: showing how people deal when confronted with problems is, perhaps, the key to captivating writing. While school for many is/was a bore, the learning of how to deal with situations though story telling has been entertaining for thousands of years. Essentially if the question is how does one solve a problem, be it a social or physical one. (You don’t read a quiz book just for the questions).

Anyway, this is an interesting collection of plays. Of the three, The Glass Menagerie was Williams’ earliest work (copyrighted 1945) and it is the most experimental in production and setting, and lest gripping as a story. A Streetcar Named Desire (copyrighted 1947) is more intriguing, and has terrific dialogue for character, though it is complicated in production with eleven separate scenes. While A Sweet Bird of Youth (1959) is the most complete, constantly presenting historical mysteries, problems, raising the risk for the characters, and building expectation on the climax; with the production of its three acts easiest to manage.

These dates are important to note, as the collection is presented in reverse chronological order. It could be daunting to think Williams was near perfect to start with, and then experimented. Fact is, he seems to have practiced writing and gotten better, as most hope to do.


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