The powerful social criticism of Tennessee Williams’ plays is communicated by his characters’ lack of self-control. This lack of control expresses Williams’ feelings about the decline of morality in American society. In the plays, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, and The Night of the Iguana, the characters express their lack of self-control through promiscuity, mendacity, alcohol and drug abuse, and violence. The two main characters in the play Sweet Bird of Youth show a lack of self-control in their sexual behavior. Chance Wayne is a young man whose multiple affairs with wealthy women exhibit his promiscuity. He befriends a movie star Princess Kosmonopolis, who similarly lacks self control, frequently using drugs and alcohol excessively. Each of them deceives the other in order to help himself or herself. Williams uses characters like these to express his criticisms of American society and its decaying morality. Women are no longer pure, and sex is no longer sacred, violence continues to spread, and more and more people resort to drugs and alcohol rather than dealing with their problems.
Tennessee Williams spent a few summers in Provincetown, Massachusetts as an active member of the gay community there. In the late twentieth century Provincetown became known as a center of gay culture, but before this happened, it was known for being the home to other groups of people. The Pilgrims landed in Provincetown in 1620, followed by the Portuguese, then artists, and finally gays. All of these groups of people participated in the creation of Provincetown’s melting pot, a foundational dynamic in the immigrant experience throughout American history. Immigrant groups in Provincetown followed the steps of assimilation and dealt with conflicts that they encountered with the native people as well. Both conflict and assimilation are recurring themes in immigrant experiences and are what led to an American society that resembled a melting pot of varied groups. Provincetown could be seen, as Katharine Dos Passos and Edith Shay stated in their travel guide called Down Cape Cod, as “the history of the United States in little.”
Major Works Consulted:
Dos Passos, Katharine, and Edith Shay. Down Cape Cod. New York: Robert M. McBride, 1947.
Smith-Howard, Alycia, and Heintzelman, Greta. Tennessee Williams: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2005.
Krahulik, Karen Christel. Provincetown: From Pilgrim Landing to Gay Resort. New York: New
York UP, 2005.
Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. New York: New Directions, 2004.
---. Sweet Bird of Youth. New York: New Directions, 1972.