Dramatizing Dementia: Madness in the Plays of Tennessee Williams

Dramatizing Dementia: Madness in the Plays of Tennessee Williams

Dramatizing Dementia: Madness in the Plays of Tennessee Williams

Dramatizing Dementia: Madness in the Plays of Tennessee Williams

Synopsis

Jacqueline O'Connor examines how Tennessee Williams portrayed society's treatment of the mentally ill. The critical approach is eclectic and the author draws on a variety of psychological, literary, and biographical sources.

Excerpt

This book began from an interest in literary representations of madness, especially dramatic representations. My original impulse was to explore the topic in the works of a number of American playwrights, for in reading and viewing modem American plays, I had seen in many of them madness as both a theme and a character motivation. I became particularly interested in dramatic works in which a character's instability or unconventional behavior resulted in institutionalization, or works in which the mental institution itself was the play's setting, usually acting as a metaphor for a loss of freedom or control. My reading led me to A Streetcar Named Desire, a play that dramatizes just such a loss of freedom. Blanche's departure at the conclusion of the drama, accompanied by state hospital staff and threatened with a straitjacket, epitomizes the dangers that mental instability poses for the unprotected. Further exploration of Williams's drama convinced me that his plays alone might form the basis of study for my book: from the beginning to the end of his long career as a dramatist, he created characters and situations that touched on this theme.

The dementia of my title is not clinical. Rather than attempting to psychoanalyze the characters, as others with more expertise have done, I have used the social situations within the dramas themselves to define the terms of my argument. Literary madness shares with literal madness one terrifying similarity; it is often defined by comparing the behavior of one suspected of madness with those around them. For that reason it is not surprising that dramatic representations of madness often reflect and deflect the question of sanity onto the play's world: Shakespeare knew this when he wrote King Lear.

My approach to the material grew naturally out of the material itself, as clear patterns began to form early in my research. As a result, I have organized my analysis of the plays according to several recurring themes: confinement, women, language, artists. In many ways, these were major concerns of Williams in all his work, so that the intersection of these topics with the more pervasive topic of madness is not surprising. Other critics have demonstrated the ubiquity of the topic in Williams's oeuvre, but this book is unique in its total devotion to the subject.

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