Philip C. Kolin, ed. The Influence of Tennessee Williams: Essays on Fifteen American Playwrights.
As Tennessee Williams's centenary approaches, scholars have been opening new lines of enquiry into a playwright who is most associated in the public mind with the plays he wrote before 1960--The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo, and particularly Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The later plays are being explored and championed for their radical experimentation and alleged embrace of poststructuralist or postmodernist methods; New Directions, Williams's authorized publisher, is systematically bringing out previously unpublished work, new editions of the familiar plays, and volumes of his letters; Yale has published a scrupulously edited edition of his notebooks. It makes sense, therefore, that a volume that examines his influence on fifteen American playwrights of subsequent generations, paying special attention to those who would seem on the surface to have been influenced the least, including Adrienne Kennedy, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Anna Deavere Smith would appear.
What is influence? How is it measured? What is the difference between being influenced by an artist and simply being aware of referencing him? Does one writer need to know the work of another in order to be influenced? If there's a drawback to this volume, it is that these questions often go unanswered, and that many of the essayists settle for comparisons and similarities rather than uncovering deep connections that allow us to say, "Yes, without Williams, this writer's work would lack a significant quality," as one can say about D. H. Lawrence, Hart Crane, and Chekhov, three writers who influenced Williams. Many of the essayists catalogue correspondences between Williams's biography and their particular playwright, and while this may suggest broad, cultural influence, it does not advance the book's argument. However, the authors of almost every essay detail the ways in which these playwrights have benefited from Williams's pioneering sexual frankness; they have adopted, in varying degrees, his notion of a "plastic theater" that rejects the Bellasco-like realism of the Broadway that preceded The Glass Menagerie. Indeed, thanks to Williams these influences are so ubiquitous in American theater as to be almost invisible. In this sense, knowingly or not, all of the playwrights represented owe Williams a debt. Yet, at the same time, the essayists writing in this volume barely mention his groundbreaking use of heightened prose, an odd oversight for a volume that discusses, among others, Edward Albee, August Wilson, Sam Shepard, John Guare, and Tony Kushner, not to mention Parks and Kennedy, whose remarkable, non-naturalistic use of language is inseparable from their dramaturgy.
The book begins with William Inge and proceeds chronologically, examining fifteen American playwrights of various importance, skill, and subject matter, and ends with Parks. Williams's influence on Inge, both personal and professional, is well known; Michael Greenwald deftly suggests the possibility of reverse influence: following Inge biographer Ralph Voss, he speculates that Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth borrowed from the plot of Inge's one-act "Bus Riley's Back in Town" and that while Inge appropriated the basic situation of Battle of Angels for Picnic, Williams, in response, revised that early play into Orpheus Descending. Their relationship is the one among the playwrights covered here that was intimate; the fact that the influence was mutual is not surprising given Inge's neediness and Williams emotional complexity, which combined genuine caring, professional jealousy (he was always happy to assist the younger playwright until Inge had four Broadway hits in a row), and a cagey eye for the main chance. That he was thrilled to have snagged Warren Beatty, the young star of Inge's Splendor in the Grass, for his own The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is quite likely. It is true, as Greenwald says, that Williams wrote a moving homage to Inge on the latter's death and Williams's sentiments were certainly authentic. So is the fact that they were the first kind words that Williams had written about Inge for years. Being nice about the dead is easy; they can no longer compete.
One would expect to find an essay on Inge in a book on Williams's influence on American playwrights; it is surprising to read one on Neil Simon. Susan Koprince contends that Neff Simon adapted Williams's expression of humor through character and situation to his own uses. I was dubious about this, especially as Koprince opens her essay with a quote from Simon's 1993 Laughter on the 23rd Floor, in which the writers of a Sid Caesar-like comedy show write a parody of Marlon Brando in Julius Caesar'.
Brian: And by what name does this cluster be called, oh, Caesar?
Max: It is called Stelluh ... Steluh! ... Stelluh for Stahlight! (31)
Is this influence? Or was Simon merely using Williams the way any commercial writer trolls pop culture for recognizable references? However, Koprince does make the defensible case that by refracting Williams's plays through his own Jewish experience, Simon turned situations that Williams treated dramatically into comedy (Blanche in Streetcar becomes Felix in The Odd Couple, and Brighton Beach Memoirs "is really a lighthearted parody of The Glass Menagerie"). Simon also learned from Williams, she writes, the importance of discipline: of getting up every day and writing, no matter what. This is useful influence, indeed.
The possibility of reverse influence also exists between Williams and Edward Albee, as David Crespy suggests, pointing to young male characters who "simultaneously symbolize death and ... male libido" in The Sandbox (1961) and The Mutilated (c.1964). Crespy points out that Albee's experimentations in form may have given Williams impetus to continue his own experiments, but then, so too did Beckett and Pinter and before them, Pirandello). Crespy makes clear the debt that Albee owes Williams for his heightened theatrical language, although he skirts the important influence that Suddenly Last Summer, with its extended monologue, had on the young Albee just before he wrote The Zoo Story. Arvid F. Sponberg contends that Williams's "influence" on A. R. Guerney consists in a common theme of the difficult relations between fathers and sons, but does not demonstrate how this "influence" which seems more like similarity, can be traced to Williams rather than to Eugene O'Neill or Arthur Miller.
In one of the collection's more nuanced pieces, Nancy Cho shows similarities between Williams and Lorraine Hansberry--both were "social playwrights" whose view of human interactions as multilayered affairs rife with contradiction and ambiguity made each something more than "political playwrights:' However, Cho also wants to make it clear that Hansberry did not feel "directly influenced by Williams." Harvey Young, in his piece on Anna Deavere Smith, goes further, not only by making sure we understand that Williams did not influence Smith ("Such an approach would deny Smith's original contribution to the theatre"), but also by wanting to show how Williams "behaves and sounds like Smith" (188). However, this book is called The Influence of Tennessee Williams, so it is strange that some contributors are reluctant to draw that influence out. For example, Sandra Shannon, in her essay on August Wilson, shows similarities (both playwrights eschew naturalism, embrace elevated language; both were, in their ways, "sons of the South" and had complicated relationships with their fathers). Nonetheless, she seems reluctant to delineate specific influences, as if there may be something unseemly in even implying that this formidable African-American writer directly absorbed anything significant from his white predecessor. Indeed, Shannon takes two pages simply to justify writing the essay. It is disturbing that these three contributors appear to be so cautious about considering the influence of a white American playwright on three prominent African-American ones. Reading them, I felt as though I were hearing one halfhearted side of a debate among academics of color as to whether an endeavor such as this is proper. It is dispiriting if this debate is indeed happening. Great creative writers write what an inner need compels them to and rarely with regard to an external agenda. Critics ought to do the same.
The editor's own essay convincingly argues that Adrienne Kennedy is a writer who, at first deeply influenced by Williams, had to reject him in order to find her own voice. Kolin suggests Williams's work as a "context" for Kennedy's, in which she, after absorbing much of his technique (crucially his "multivalent symbols"  and externalization of internal conflict), then took fragile, divided characters like Blanche Dubois and blew them into postmodern shards and fragments. While he recognizes the "gulf of cultural and racial differences" (82) that separates Williams and Kennedy, he finds common ground in the ways in which they each dramatize themselves in their work ("The characters are myself" , Kennedy has said, and Williams identified himself with several of his characters on many occasions). Did Kennedy learn this from Williams? At the least, perhaps, she saw that autobiographical expression through invented characters was possible.
Like Kennedy, John Guare has spoken of his debt to Williams in his self-described "war against the kitchen sink" (95). Thomas Mitchell strains, though, to lay out similarities in their careers: they shared Audrey Wood as an agent; Guare had some success with musicals (although after two Gentlemen of Verona he chose to write straight plays over musicals), while Williams "hoped" to make Stairs to the Roof into a musical; both won numerous prizes. Surely what matters more is the actual influence, which Mitchell illuminates while discussing Guare's sense of the ridiculous, his fascination with extravagant gestures, and characters with big dreams and bigger flaws. Annette J. Saddick concentrates on the importance of myth for both Williams and Sam Shepard, although it would not be unfair to say that its use is more consistent and obvious in the work of the younger playwright. More telling is their shared rejection of stasis as a strategy for living. Their characters, Saddick says, all crave the stability of a fixed identity but ultimately "realize that freedom is possible only through fluidity, instability, movement.... Stasis signifies death or confinement (a kind of death)" (111). Certainly, Shepard has benefited as much or more than many playwrights from Williams's influence as it is felt in non-naturalistic form, elevated language, and frank sexual content, whether he is aware of it or not.
Brenda Murphy begins her essay on David Mamet with a quotation from the early work "The Blue Hour" (1979) that clearly shows he had read The Glass Menagerie and to some degree absorbed its rhythms and images. However, in comparing portraits of artists in extremis in Williams's work to artists in similar straits in other of Mamet's early plays, she does not suggest any direct influence (and Mamet's own statements about Williams have been ambivalent). Clearly, though, Williams's lyrical language made room in the theater for Mamet's angular, muscular patois. If anything, Murphy's examination of Mamet's Squirrels and A Life in the Theatre shows a negative influence, not on form or content, but through the impatience of youth, as younger artists summarily dismiss their elders. Verna Foster suggests that while Beth Henley had little knowledge of Williams's later plays, she has benefited from the space Williams has opened up in them for the grotesque characters and absurd situations in her own work. The essay thus demonstrates that one writer can be influenced by work she does not know directly. However, when Foster discusses the fact that both playwrights created many characters with disabilities, she is on somewhat shakier ground. One writer can certainly occupy ground opened up by a predecessor without knowing his or her work; but since most of Williams's disabled characters appear in the later work which Foster says that Henley is likely not to have known, we are in the land of similarities rather than influence.
Christopher Durang has appropriated Williams in his parodies For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls and Desire, Desire, Desire (is this influence, or merely material?), which John Clum fruitfully explores, but then compares Durang's The Marriage of Bette and Boo with Williams's Period of Adjustment, which is close to Boo in its satire on marriage and suburban values. He establishes that their real point of contact is in their shared pessimistic view of marriage. Kirk Woodward's essay on Tony Kushner successfully demonstrates Williams's influence on Kushner's use of language, the abandonment of naturalism for a more theatrical language and, of course, Kushner's freewheeling embrace of sexuality as subject matter. Woodward locates the origin of the "fantasia" of Angels in America in that of Camino Real, but his suggestion that Williams portrayed gay characters for the first time in Small Craft Warnings is off by nineteen years: that came in Camino Real, as well (even, one can argue, as early as The Glass Menagerie in 1944).
By her own admission, Suzan-Lori Parks says she writes from the gut, and this alone connects her to Williams. Harry J. Elam, Jr., proposes that both writers get to their gut through the gutter, through revelations of "sexual indiscretions and transgressions," and he explores how Williams's critiques of heterosexual hegemony paved the way for Parks's in plays such as In the Blood. Parks has mentioned Williams as one writer who influenced her work (along with James Baldwin and William Faulkner); Elam also points out how both reject realism and embrace theatricality while questioning "what constitutes the real" (200). Like many other writers examined in this volume, Parks has benefited from and developed in other directions Williams's heightened language and "plastic theatre" making both very much her own.
Despite a few misgivings about the way some authors discuss similarities rather than influence, overall, these essays lead one to conclude that what Kolin writes in his introduction is correct: "Many dramatists welcomed and shared [Williams's] characters, themes, and techniques in their works, extending, celebrating, and further empowering what Williams wrote about sexuality and the performativity of self. Others reshaped and recast him, borrowing but parodying his art.... Still other playwrights radicalized and racialized him, resisting and subverting his white male Southern gentility, his nostalgia, and his color-coded images, characters, settings, and resolutions" (6). If this isn't influence, what is?
American Conservatory Theater
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
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