Is It All Relative?

         One thing that all great artists have in common is a distinguished style that lets the viewer instantly recognize a piece of his or her work. It is almost impossible to gaze upon the surreal paintings of Picasso or Van Gough and mistake it for a classical styled Renoir or de Vinci. It could be said that the same holds true for great writing, where the artist uses symbolism instead of brushes and word play instead of paint to ultimately express their ideas. One of the most distinguishable of all writers is Tennessee Williams, whose use heavy symbolism and ability to make characters seem real set him aside as one of the greats. The heavy use of symbolism in Williams' work helps the reader to decipher the writing as his own; but his character development is what lets the readers know, without a doubt, that what they are reading is indeed the great playwright Tennessee Williams. A great example of two separate Williams's characters developing and still holding a common thread is Blanche DuBois from 1947's A Streetcar Named Desire, filmed in 1951 by Elia Kazan, and Amanda from his 1944 The Glass Menagerie. One could almost argue that these two characters are related due to their southern roots and the narcissistic tendencies that seem to control their actions. By using these two simply variables as a starting point in character development, Tennessee Williams took two similar characters and showed the truth of human adaptation.

         In Tennessee Williams' 1944 play, The Glass Menagerie, the mother of Tom; a dreamer locked into a difficult situation, and Laura; a shy girl with braces on her legs, is Amanda; a self-proclaimed ex-southern bell who only wants her daughter to have gentlemen callers. It is quickly realized that the past revealed to the readers by Amanda may only be stories read in her book club, and the search for a husband for Laura is only a chance for her to recapture lost youth. The character Amanda is a character of pretension and narcissism that leads one to believe she is a controlling force in the life of her daughter and son. Through underlying themes Amanda is exposed as a character that is at the mercy of her daughter's youth because without it she has no hopes of recapturing her own in the 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire the equivalent character, played by Vivien Leigh on the screen, is a pretentious, narcissistic southern bell named Blanche Dubois that has lost her family, fortune, and husband. These troubles have sent Blanche into a world of prostitution and drinking that she is longing to recover from with a trip to her sister's (Kim Hunter) in New Orleans. By taking almost the same character and letting them evolve from different situations, Tennessee Williams shows a common link in all humanity and gives Amanda and Blanche a then unheard of sense of realism that the audience can empathize with, even if they do not like or agree with what the character stands for.

         After one reads both critically acclaimed plays written by Tennessee Williams, it is obvious that he was a writer who took a simple formula and let it grow into a much deeper expression. Williams does this by taking characters like Blanche and Amanda; southern bells with a tainted past in a narcissistic existence and puts them in different situations where they grow in the writing through necessity. It is my feeling that if the two characters were switched and put in each other's position the plays themselves would not change because the environment would change Amanda to Blanche and Blanche to Amanda. By keeping the characters simple, Williams makes them more accessible; and through this accessibility we are able to enter the narcissistic, pretentious psyches of Blanche and Amanda becoming vulnerable to the fact that we as readers or viewers may be just like them.

Dennis H. Robison

Table of Contents