Tennessee Williams and Classics

Janice Siegel

Illinois State University

Scholars point to Hart Crane, Anton Chekhov, D. H. Lawrence, and even Oscar Wilde as having influenced the work (and life) of Tennessee Williams. But despite the well-known fact that as a boy he read virtually every volume in his grandfather's extensive classical library, the influence of the literature of antiquity on his art has remained largely unexplored. Its time has come. And plays by Tennessee Williams such as Suddenly Last Summer (which resonates strongly with Euripides' Bacchae) and Orpheus Descending (with its obvious classical theme) are only the tip of this iceberg.

Williams' very first published short story (in Weird Tales in 1928), "The Vengeance of Nitocris," is an elaboration of a tale he read in Herodotus' Histories (2.100). Also, the names of characters in Williams' early short stories often owe themselves to classical tales which somehow reflect their circumstances. While the Lucretia of Roman lore is known to have been raped by the son of the last King of Rome, Williams' Lucretia is a deluded spinster who believes she is the victim of repeated rapes by a spurned lover ("Portrait of a Madonna"). Just as the mythological Ariadne's brother (the Minotaur) is locked away to hide the truth of offensive sexual misconduct (he is born of his mother's affair with a bull), Williams' Ariadne is asked to protect the destructive family secret of homosexuality ("Lord Byron's Love Letter").

In early plays Williams repeatedly uses the image of the ruins at Pompeii as a metaphor for a dead present, the ruins of someone's life. His characters' dialogues are often peppered with classical allusions: Amanda calls for "Spartan endurance" in The Glass Menagerie, Blanche seeks but does not find the Pleiades in the night sky in Streetcar, a prisoner-turned-informer agonizes about "what Plato said about Truth" in Not About Nightingales, and the romantic hero in You Touched Me! devises a trick to gain entry to his lover's room, a trick he calls his "wooden horse." And Williams' propensity to judge masculine physical beauty by the standard of Greek classical art is evident in his poems, private correspondence, short stories and plays.

But even more interesting than cataloguing these instances of classical reference is tracking their lessening significance in his works over the course of his career. As Williams' success increased and he began writing for a wider audience (and not just for the literate theater-goers of the 1940's and 1950's), his work became less and less classically oriented (some attribute this to his growing romantic streak). The shift is easy to trace since years after the fact he often reworked plays written in his youth. All Gaul is Divided, for example, is an early "teleplay" clearly informed by Williams' own experience in a St. Louis high school Latin class. The story of a lovelorn Latin teacher, it contains much Latin (rather inexpertly) quoted and translated by the author. In 1978 Williams published a revised version of this play entitled "A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur." In the new play, the Latin teacher has become a teacher of civics and the whole sub-theme of defeat and stagnation (of both the Helvetians and the teacher) is sacrificed.

Tennessee William's corpus is a goldmine for scholars seeking classical elements in American literature.

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