Bringing Life to Characters in Tennessee Williams’ Plays

Blanche is Tennessee Williams. And Laura is Williams. And so are Hannah and Alma. To devotees of the Southern playwright, the autobiographical nature of his characters provides a rich dimension through which to explore his works.

When Michelle Mount began work on her thesis, she wanted to branch out beyond the scholarship that relates Williams’ life to his plays. In her thesis, “An Approach to Acting Williams: The Philosophy of Endurance,” Mount explored how an actor could use Williams’ autobiographical materials as a companion—and inspiration—for developing a character’s background.

In this Q&A, Mount, a drama specialist for grade school students in the Waltham Public Schools, shares her experiences researching the famous playwright’s works. Mount also teaches Multiculturalism on the American Stage with the Urban Scholars Program at University of Massachusetts Boston. 

How did you decide to write your thesis on Tennessee Williams?

My introduction to Tennessee Williams came in the class Plays of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, taught by Sue Schopf. I was instantly captivated by Williams’ writing style. I love that it’s so nuanced and lyrical. Williams’ characters grapple for dignity with grit.

Although his characters are often caught in the trappings of their circumstances, the qualities of resilience are at the very heart of his characters.

What did you discover as you began your thesis at Harvard?

First off, I have to say that working with the original versions of Williams’ plays was amazing. Houghton Library houses over 45 boxes (20 linear feet) of his papers, including original drafts of some of his manuscripts. Harvard has early drafts of his plays, manuscripts with handwritten revisions, interviews, biographical papers, typescript signed letters, and much, much more.

I vividly remember when I encountered the first draft of The Night of the Iguana. I was in the library, sitting at one of the individual stations among rows of tables, and I was handed a box filled with folders.

As I opened the first folder, I had to catch my breath when I saw Williams’ handwriting and the stained hotel stationery he’d typed the manuscript on. It’s pretty incredible to realize you are holding the one and only copy of the very first draft of The Night of the Iguana. I was touching a piece of history, and I was stunned.

What did you discover about how an actor can draw inspiration from Williams’ scripts and autobiographical materials?

My research reveals resilience as a driving trait for both Williams and his dramatic characters. Examining Williams’ autobiography reveals insight into the strengths and resilience of his multi-dimensional characters, which may become visible on stage via nonverbal communication.

As a candidly autobiographical playwright, Williams’ characters are, at least partially, Williams. Williams has published letters, essays interviews, memoirs, and notebooks (his journal entries 1936–81, minus 1958–79).

In developing Williams’ characters with his nondramatic writing, actors benefit from additional context with which to interpret their characters’ identities, objectives, motivations, relationships, and personality traits.

For instance, it is generally accepted that Williams based The Glass Menagerie’s Laura Wingfield on his sister, Rose Isabel Williams. However, there is compelling evidence, which suggests that Laura Wingfield is rather a facet of Williams’ inner psyche than a portrait of his sister.

In Laura-esque fashion, Williams says he suffered from hypochondria, crippling shyness, and nervous indigestion. At age five, Williams contracted diphtheria, a life-threatening condition, which left him isolated and somewhat paralyzed for nearly two years.

Such struggles run parallel to the character of Laura Wingfield. When looking at Laura as a possible incarnation of Williams, it brings to light possibilities for her characterization.

Have you been able to apply your findings to any of your performances?

I performed Laura in The Glass Menagerie and Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. During table work for The Glass Menagerie, I had a conversation with the director to see if my interpretation of Laura might align with her vision for the production; she readily agreed to my characterization of Laura. Playing Laura as a portrait of Williams, I sought redeeming qualities in her resilience, such as her perceptiveness, creativity, and ingenuity.

The gift that performance gives to an audience is the same thing: an opportunity to live someone else’s experiences, which, if bridged by understanding and empathy, becomes part of the audience’s life story.

You are involved with True Story Theater, which also draws inspiration from autobiographical sources. Do you see a connection between that work and your thesis focus? 

Interesting. I hadn’t until now. But as a performance artist with True Story Theater, I help people share and witness one another’s stories.

During a show, members from the audience tell stories from their lives, then actors use numerous improvisational forms to play back the stories in front of an audience. Audience members take away new perspectives about their stories, and connect to one another through empathy and shared experiences.

I think it is an actor’s role to always identify with people around them, living that “if” possibility—if my circumstances were that person’s circumstances then maybe their story would be my story. That is what it is to be an actor. The gift that performance gives to an audience is the same thing: an opportunity to live someone else’s experiences, which, if bridged by understanding and empathy, becomes part of the audience’s life story.

Are there other Tennessee Williams characters that you want to portray?

I would like to play Blanche from A Streetcar Named Desire and Hanna from The Night of the Iguana. I admire the seemingly paradoxical ambiguity and resolve Williams writes in his characters.

Through every semblance of weakness, Williams praises endurance. His characters may or may not ultimately lose against their obstacles, but the quality of endurance is always present. As a larger theme, Williams’ philosophy of endurance points to his search for goodness within himself and also his characters.