The American Dream of Tennessee Williams: the Social Dimension of Williams’s Drama

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The American Dream of Tennessee Williams: the Social Dimension of Williams’s Drama

Nadezhda Krylova

Karelian State Pedagogical Academy

Petrozavodsk, Russia 185035

January 6th , 2012

Prepared for the Washington Business Research Forum in Collaboration with Howard University and the National HBCU Business Deans Roundtable, Washington, D.C, January 6-7th, 2012


Anyone’s success in a hierarchical or economic institution depends on the ability to handle various situation and tensions. Students need to develop the ability to confront ambiguous, ill-defined situations and interpret what they know creatively. Thus a background in the humanities can be excellent preparation for business, perhaps even better than a technical or business education. This is particularly true of language and literature. This paper shows how dramatic works of Tennessee Williams serve as a clue to understanding the relationship of people to the organizational and corporate world. The analysis of the two major plays – Camino Real and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - is hoped to prove that modern corporation, however powerful as an institution, cannot maintain its existence without the values of high culture.

The American Dream of Tennessee Williams: the Social Dimension of Williams’s Drama

“Even in the actual world of commerce, there exists in some persons a sensibility to the unfortunate situations of others, a capacity for concern and compassion, surviving from a more tender period of life outside the present whirling wire-cage of business activity.”

(Tennessee Williams, The Timeless World of a Play)


In practice, managers are seldom confronted with neat, well-structured problems. This might bring to light the importance of problem solving skills in business education. Focusing on content only within narrow discipline boundaries limits potential learning. Students need to develop the ability to confront ambiguous, ill-defined situations and make sense of them. The information required to manage and solve a problem is seldom packaged and provided to the student. During the process of confronting and processing the ill-structured information, students are required to interpret what they know creatively.

A serious analysis of the symbiotic relationship between high culture and corporations was given by Morse Peckham in his essay The Corporation’s Role in Today’s Crisis of Cultural Incoherence (9). The author raises the concept of “meta-directional level”, or, in other words, the theoretical level, which explains why corporations have become increasingly interested in the arts: “The processing and innovation of meta-directions require problem exposure and solution postponement, and these in turn require situations in which decisions can be postponed until theoretical manipulation is exhausted and information is processed, sifted, and integrated into theory” (9:277). He convincingly describes how high-corporation policy making benefitted from humanistic education as the key to success as corporation executives: “ … individuals with a humanistic background tended to continue developing beyond that point at which those with a purely technological background tended to level off, even though the former might move at first more slowly” (9:278). The success of the individual in a hierarchical or economic institution depends on his ability to handle various situations and tensions. Thus a background in the humanities happens to be very good preparation for business, perhaps even better than a technical or business education. It is particularly true for education in literature and language. Language is the universal code providing us with a great variety of directions. The universal characteristic of language is polysemy, or multitude meanings of the same word. Effective communication is essential for success in business. Literature presents simultaneously the most complex mode of linguistic behavior and the most difficult and complex problems of encoding and interpretation (9:279).

The epigraph for this paper reflects Tennessee Williams’s thoughts on Arthur Miller’s most famous work The Death of a Salesman – the iconic piece of drama about success and failure in success-driven America. The hero of the play was lost trying to live the American dream, worked all his life by the spirit of free enterprise and was then spit ruthlessly out. The play can be therefore viewed as commentary about the society and an interesting case study for business education. Another outstanding American playwright, Tennessee Williams, was also well-known for the depiction of the danger of illusion. His characters usually proved unable to solve the reality versus illusion problem, which eventually brought about the protagonist’s downfall.


Most research on Williams has been focused primarily on the idiosyncrasies of his artistic method, the concept of “plastic theater”, and his unique poetic language. Almost 30 years after his death the emotional content of his dramatic work is still powerfully valid and the critical reviews are still controversial. In a world torn by various religious, political, ethnic, social discords, the all-encompassing human values of tolerance, love and understanding so quietly and brilliantly proclaimed by Williams, serve to cement a foundation for the diversity of contemporary cultures. Another popular aspect of research emphasizes sexuality in his plays and in his own private life. However, this aspect of his troubled inner life does not exhaust Williams’s cosmology – linguistically, aesthetically or socially. Indeed, the fabric of Williams’s social life is an exceptionally interesting subject of study and speculation. The social and humanitarian dimension of his plays; the study of the peculiarities of national character and American myths, the influence Williams’s aesthetics had on American drama and American mores beg for closer exploration. The current reassessment of many traditional values now occurring in America, combined with the many concomitant social and political cataclysms of the beginning of the 21st century make this study especially timely.

Charles Bigsby, one of the best critics on Williams, supports this suggestion in his brilliant analysis of The Glass Menagerie. Acknowledging the political and social dimensions of Williams’s plays, he concludes “At the same time [Williams] was wedded to art, whose power does lie in its ability to outlive even the traumas of history” (5:43). The choice of society’s outcasts as the subject was not accidental. Not only is it connected with his own “inner immigration” caused by family dramas and homosexuality leading to the theme of escape in his plays, but, more importantly, it reflects his message to contemporary society, his profound existential despair.


The plays that best illustrate this point are Camino Real and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Camino Real is the play that was greatly underestimated and severely criticized during Williams’s lifetime. In The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams, edited by Matthew C.Roudané, Jan Balakian describes Camino Real as an “allegory about the fifties” (4:67), the time when the romantic ideals of valor, nobility and honor gave way to desperation. Interviewed on the subject, Williams said that the play had presented the dilemma of an individual caught in a fascist state and was an expression of his belief in the difficulties of romanticism in a predominantly cynical world (8). The play was attacked and labeled as anti-American and leftist. For Williams, however, the Red Scare became analogous to the “real road” in his play, where fascism crushes outcasts, rebels, homosexuals, prostitutes, dreamers, writers, idealists, and simply those who are weak, lonely or emotionally disturbed.

Camino Real’s plea for compassion was a message for the contemporary society. The message was either misunderstood or rejected; the play received vitriolic reviews, was derided for its symbolism, language and one-dimensional characters. Williams records that at each performance people would “stamp out of the auditorium, with little regard for those whom they have had to crawl over, almost as if the building had caught on fire, and there have been sibilant noises on the way out and demands for money back if the cashier was foolish enough to remain in his box” (3: 69).

Regardless of its aesthetic properties, the play might be looked upon as a metaphor for the United States (7:105) or for any consumer society at large. We find here allusions to consumerism, mass media and bureaucracy shown in the sad context of deep existential despair. We come across a series of paralleled rhetorical questions parodying pseudo-psychological commercials: “Do you feel yourself to be spiritually unprepared for the age of exploding atoms? Do you distrust the newspapers? Are you suspicious of governments? … Does further progress appear impossible to you? Are you afraid of anything at all? Afraid of your heartbeat? Or the eyes of strangers! Afraid of breathing? Afraid of not breathing? Do you wish that things could be straight and simple as they were in your childhood?...” It is quite ironic that the hard sell advertisement belongs to the gypsy who was offering her daughter to strangers. The satiric tone of the passage is reinforced later on as Kilroy finds out he is swindled by the fortune-teller:

Kilroy: How about my change, Mamacita?

Gypsy: What change are you talking about?

Kilroy: Are you boxed out of your mind? The change from that ten spot you

trotted over to Walgreen's?

Gypsy [counting on her fingers]: Five for the works, one dollar luxury tax, two for the house percentage and two more pour la service! - makes ten! Didn't I tell you?

Kilroy: What kind of a deal is that?

Gypsy [whipping out a revolver]: A rugged one, Baby!

Williams in his plays raises issues about the relationship of people to the organizational and corporate world symbolically and indirectly. Other dramatists explore these issues directly To what degree do corporations have a relationship, one that goes beyond business, to people? Or does the fact that businesses have turned people from customers into consumers change the nature of person-to-person relationships between people as representatives of a profit-making organization and the people who consumer goods and services? If consumer culture is such that the relationship between a business entity and a consumer is limited to mechanical, scripted interaction, then the role of outside influences on business decisions and transactions is minimal. In short, literature has nothing to offer. If on the other hand, the relationship between business enterprise and consumer is viewed as an interpersonal relationship, then the kind of spirituality that is expressed in literature and other arts becomes really important.

Despite the play’s seemingly dreamlike qualities and characters, Williams gives his allegory a conscious purpose which he articulates mostly through the characters of Don Quixote, of Kilroy and Casanova. Jacques Casanova speaks harshly of the imaginary society where “any exchange of serious questions and ideas between persons from opposite sides of the plaza” is inconceivable, and if “you have a spark of anarchy in your spirit” it will not be tolerated as “nothing wild and honest is tolerated here.” It is only natural that the airplane everyone wants to escape on is called The Fugitivo, as no one wants to live on the Camino Real: “Its disposition depends on what the Streetcleaners happen to find in its pockets. If its pockets are empty as the unfortunate Baron's turned out to be, and mine are at this moment – the “stiff” is wheeled straight off to the Laboratory.” The idea of success, or rather its detrimental effect on a human being, is deeply encoded in most of Williams's plays. As the Camino protagonist is buried, he is encouraged to be thought of “as he was before his luck failed him”, during the time of his “greatness, when he was not faded, not frightened.”
Particularly interesting –in the light of ideas of consumerism - would be an analysis of Esmeralda’s behavior as it ironically portrays social and cultural stereotypes. A child of the mass media, she models her interactions with Kilroy based on TV soap operas (“I am sincere” , “if you will be gentle”), commercials (“Noche en Acapulco” is her perfume), talk shows (“How do you feel about the class struggle? Do you take sides in that?”, “They say the monetary system has got to be stabilized all over the world”). Williams gives an ironically prophetic social critique of the end of the 20th century and even of the beginning of 21st century, when the brainwashing effect of mass media became obvious.


Cat on a Hot Tin Roof proved to be one of the most popular and commercially successful of Tennessee Williams’s plays despite the controversy over the subject of homosexuality in it. George W. Crandell singles out a few central themes in the play: a story about an empty marriage (Maggie and Brick), a father and son’s inability to communicate (Big Daddy and Brick), a possibly homosexual relationship or an idealized friendship (Brick and Skipper), and a family squabble over inheritance (Brick and Maggie/Gooper and Mae) (6: 117). Most certainly, the fight between the two rival sons for Big Daddy’s money and estate is the play’s central force bringing all the diverse elements of the plot together. All the characters revolve around the issue of the family fortune. Brick, the favorite son of a rich plantation owner, takes to drinking, unable to forget his infatuation with his college roommate. Brick struggles to define himself as either heterosexual or homosexual. Brick is an ex-athlete, still attractive and well-figured, but already having “the additional charm of that cool air of detachment that people have who have given up the struggle” – a bright character reference. His elder brother Gooper, a dreary, talentless married man, has been busy producing heirs to his father’s fortune. Maggie competes against Gooper and his wife Mae for an inheritance and independence that promise economic security in a materialistic society indifferent to the needs of the poor. She is childless and desperate to escape any memory or reminder of her past, full of poverty and deprivations. She sizes up her in-laws immediately and her references to them are ruthless: “.. your bother Gooper still cherishes the illusion he took a giant step up on the social ladder when he married Miss Mae Flynn of the Memphis Flynns”, their kids are nothing but “no-neck monsters” to her. Maggie seems obsessed with inheritance issues: she had been left without a cent after her rich Aunt Cornelia had died, and she has been hating her for that ever since. She would not give Brick a divorce, nor is she willing to have a lover (even though her husband encourages her to do so), only not to let the family money slip through her fingers : “..I am not going to give you any excuse to divorce me for being unfaithful or anything else …” She spits out the summary of her life’s desperation to Brick: “Brick, y’know, I’ve been so God damn disgustingly poor all my life! – That’s the truth, Brick!” (my italics). Maggie’s key word is money (“You can be young without money, but you can’t be old without it”). In the end she is ready to have a child by the man who is in love with liquor because her loathing of her brother and sister-in-law is stronger than her contempt for her spineless drinking husband. This may be why she sincerely appreciates Big Daddy – they are both fighters, both materialistic.

The major figure is that of a dying millionaire planter, Big Daddy - the most full-blooded character in the play. He is a self-made, strong-willed man, with Titanic patience, who worked himself up from nothing to millions and now wonders if it was all worth it. The pivotal point is the news about Big Daddy’s health – it changes everything twice during the play. The first time is when he is relieved to know he does not have cancer, or rather deceived into believing it. His worst instincts come to life. He makes explicit what has been suppressed for many years – his dislike of his wife, of his elder son and his family, of the atmosphere of mendacity and hypocrisy that always accompanies big money. His language comes right from the barnyard. But Big Daddy is not an aristocrat; he calls a spade a spade, causing the sympathy and understanding only of his younger son and Maggie – for different reasons though. The conversation occurring between father and son is central to the play, as it reveals the personal dramas of these characters, as well as their inability to communicate their true feelings for each other. Big Daddy’s language is the one of commerce, trade, and money – the only realm in which he feels at ease and in which he succeeds. He speaks of a human being as of “…a beast that dies and if he’s got money he buys and buys and buys and I think the reason he buys everything he can buy is that in the back of his mind he has the crazy hope that one of his purchases will be life everlasting!” (my italics). He makes the saddest confession to his son about the only loves in his life: “ You and being a success as a planter is all I ever had any devotion to in my whole life!” Yet even in that last attempt to reach his son, he cannot help resorting to the only means he is best equipped with: “I’ll make a bargain with you. You tell me why you drink and I’ll hand you one” (my italics). Another character from another play by Tennessee Williams, Val Xavier, (Orpheus Descending) gives a similar classification of human beings: the bought and the buyers, adding a rare category – the ones who have never been branded. We do not find representatives of this third category in Cat. They have all been “branded” by either avarice and mendacity, or infantilism and alcoholism.

The news of cancer changes the situation in the family for the second time when the truth is spoken. Big Daddy leaves in a rage at the whole world full of liars, while his relatives resemble a flock of vultures tearing apart the flesh of the plantation in front of Big Mama. Maggie gives a fairly precise definition: “This is a deliberate campaign of vilification for the most disgusting and sordid reason on earth, and I know what it is! It’s avarice, avarice, greed, greed!”

Big Daddy deemed materialism to be almost the sum total of life. Ironically it is he who eventually admits, before he leaves at the end of Act II, on the doorstep of death, that “a man can’t buy his life with it, he can’t buy back his life when his life is finished …” (my italics). Ultimately the family patriarch is left with only one question: “Why is it so damn hard for people to talk?” As he faces the stage in Act II, he comes up with the answer to his own question: “One thing you can grow on a place more important than cotton! – is tolerance! - I grown it”. Thus Williams gives the play a more positive ending, transforming the man’s rage into wisdom and reconciliation.

In the character of Big Daddy, Williams, like so many before him and after, provides us with a character who is forced to examine the quotidian values represented by all that is material and monetary against the backdrop of an examined life. Such conflicts form one strand of stageplay that populates the dramaturgical landscape, whether explicitly in films like Wall Street to more subtle and serious works like Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which uses sales only as a device to present larger psychological and sociological issues, or Chekhov, whose Cherry Orchard examines the psychology, even soulfulness of people who, without realizing it, are standing on the borderline between the lyricism of a lifestyle that is fast becoming obsolete as it faces encroaching modernity, represented by the conversion of an estate into plots with condominiums. In play after play, characters must balance the demands of the everyday familiar world of work and commerce with the less familiar, less comfortable, and oftentimes suppressed needs stemming from their psychological interactions with that real world.

Drama is inherently characterized by its incomparable impact on the audience members by implicitly putting them on trial. Thus the audience finds itself in a mousetrap: we are forced to face truths about ourselves and about the society, which we do not want to admit even to ourselves. Theater reveals the true content of who we are and deprives us of the self-deceptive and illusory exits we tend to prepare for ourselves in real life. Drama becomes very dangerous as it publicly stages the truth about us and engages everything we do not want to see enacted. In Cat the superior forces against which the characters battle are biological, psychological, economic and social (6:121). Williams succeeds in creating a tragedy of mundane life on the level of a classical tragedy. I can completely side with George Crandell’s conclusion on the importance of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, as well as of all major Williams’s plays: “Emphasizing the tragic in contemporary problems such as mendacity, alcoholism, cancer, and death, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof compares with Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman as a distinctive and significant work in the genre of modern domestic tragedy” (6: 121).


So what is the place of literature in the business school? Literature cannot be expected to provide directly axioms or maxims that then become prescriptions for business decisions. However, interestingly enough, one of the main vehicles of decision-making pedagogy, the business case, takes its format from neither the dry composition of, say, stock reports, nor the breathless telegraphic scripts of advertising, but rather from a literary genre – the short story. Like all other experiences of life, literature informs our behavior in a variety of spheres. In short, it humanizes. Literature packs psychological conflict and issues of ethics into a small space between two covers of a book. The author’s retelling of weeks, months, and years of conflict is compacted into a few hours of reading. Literature leads us to the examined life – an integral part of a full participation in modern society. It would be hard to prove that business decisions made by people with a broader experience in literature and the arts display a higher level of ethical considerations or come about in the spirit of highly enlightened self interest. But imagine an educational system that took eighteen-year-olds and placed them directly into business curricula with no exposure to any additional “irrelevant” topics. Is that a bet we as a society would be willing to take? If we are not willing to take that bet, then we must ask ourselves at what point in the business curriculum do we stop considering the wider world? My own wager is that we never do.

Williams’s politics are humanitarian, not partisan. All his plays call for a deep human bond between people, for romantic quixotry. By romanticism he meant the ability to feel tenderness toward another human being, the ability to love. His romantic characters are often in conflict with the harsh material world, which brings about a collapse of culture and its myths. Yet their tragic sensibilities are humane and creative. The working title for Orpheus Descending was The Battle of Angels. In that battle the angels were defeated. Williams’s characters seldom win. It is not the victory but the struggle itself that counts. In framing this paper, I would like to quote the words of the character from Camino Real who poetically rephrases the meaning of the epigraph: “The violets in the mountains can break the rocks if you believe in them and allow them to grow.” In terms of business education, this means that though the modern corporation is a powerful social institution, it cannot achieve its potentiality – or perhaps even maintain its existence – while ignoring the values of high culture (9:283).

While this idea would seem to be far away from the philosophy that drives those in the day-to-day world, we need only to look at the peak of the corporate mountaintop to see its reflection, whether in the “captains of industry” of the 19th and early 20th centuries or those who have created recent wealth. In case after case, once the fortunes are made, those at the top refuse to step down and slink into an idle retirement. For them, the struggle is still what counts.

Moreover, the innovators in the world of commerce did not, as a rule, get their training in standard business courses. They came from various walks of life, often without formal education. They brought with them an ability to confront the challenges presented by ambiguous and ill-defined situations — as ill defined as those facing the characters of the world’s greatest dramas.

  1. Williams, Tennessee. Camino Real. New York: New Directions Book. 2008.

  2. The Theatre of Tennessee Williams. Volume 3. New York: New Directions Book. 1990.

  3. Tennessee Williams. New selected essays: Where Live. Introduction by John Lahr. Ed. by John S.Bak. New York: New Directions Book, 2009.

  4. Balakian, Jan. “Camino Real: Williams’s Allegory about the Fifties.” The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams. Ed. Matthew C. Roudané. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 67-94.

  5. Bigsby, C.W. Entering “The Glass Menagerie”: The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams. Ed. Matthew C. Roudané. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 29-44.

  6. Crandell W. George. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. .A Guide to research and Performance. Ed. by Philip C. Kolin. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. 109- 125.

  7. Fisher, James. Camino Real. Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance. Ed. by Philip C. Kolin. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. 100-107.

  8. Leverich, Lyle. Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams. New York: Crown. 1995.

  9. Peckham, Morse. The Corporation’s Role in Today’s Crisis of Cultural Incoherence, in Romanticism and Behavior Collected Essays II. Columbia, SC: South Carolina University press, 1976. 263-284.

  10. Robinson, Marc. The Other American Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

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