On His 100th Birthday, Tennessee Williams Gives Us a Happy Ending

A trio of previously unperformed plays premiered this weekend at Williams' centennial. One of them offers new insight into his classic The Glass Menagerie.


Charles K. Feldman Group

Tennessee Williams wrote a lot of plays, and some of them were great. Others were not. Last week, he turned 100 years old as the City of New Orleans celebrated his work and life with a four-day festival of performances, workshops, and galas. But the festival organizers had saved an unusual event for Saturday, the day of the playwright's centennial: the world premiere of three never-before produced one-act plays.

There was of course, a reason these plays were previously unperformed. They are early works, and it shows. Every Twenty Minutes, a play designed as a quick sketch to be put up before the main play, sat on stage like the actors had decided to perform notes as a finished product. The Magic Tower, a quintessential Williams story about a dramatic woman living out a fantasy in drab surroundings, had all the trappings of some of his well-known plays but none of the substance and only hints of the style he would later develop.

The highlight was The Pretty Trap, a small piece of the vast revision process that eventually yielded The Glass Menagerie, Williams' iconic story of the Wingfield family: a shy girl, her literary-minded but industrially bound brother, and their overbearing whirlwind of a mother, a steel magnolia of the old South moved by the quest to acquire a "gentleman caller" who could marry her daughter and secure the family's future.

All of the moving parts of The Glass Menagerie are in play in this earlier version of the story, but the tone of The Pretty Trap skips off the top of the lyrical, dismal depth of The Glass Menagerie towards a more hopeful place, unfettered by all that came to burden the play before the final product premiered in an oppressive Chicago blizzard in 1944. The audience only sees glimpses of Tom, the flighty brother character Williams based on himself. Laura, crippled and painfully introverted in The Glass Menagerie, is still nervous but stronger and physically able in The Pretty Trap.

And in a welcome departure from most Tennessee Williams plays, there's a happy ending: Laura—left alone at the end of The Glass Menagerie—runs off with the gentleman caller at the close of The Pretty Trap.

The playwright who wrote The Magic Tower and The Pretty Trap, as well as other unperformed one-acts published in a recent collection, bears a striking resemblance to the Tennessee Williams of legend. But he's a long way off from A Streetcar Named Desire.

For Aimee Hayes, who directed the premieres, working with the one-acts was like working with any young playwright—he just happened to later become Tennessee Williams. He hasn't quite yet found his voice, he borrows tone from other works, and he doesn't explore alleys that would later yield the true emotional content of his greater plays.

Williams hated The Pretty Trap. For him it was just a rough comic sketch without any substance. In a way, that assessment is accurate: The play leaves with Amanda Wingfield on stage—Laura gone off with the gentleman caller—saying how girls are a "pretty trap": neither a great emotional moment nor a particularly shocking insight.

But the meat he added to the play, of course, was largely of the soul-crushing, hopeless, and despairing variety. Laura gets beaten down, Amanda is an insufferable busybody, and Tom's loneliness comes to frame the entire play. Williams was right: The Glass Menagerie is, ultimately and objectively, a better play. But The Pretty Trap has a kind of vitality and hopefulness to it that is welcome as well.

The Glass Menagerie is widely considered to be an autobiographical work, and these works swirl around Williams' troubled relationship with his sister Rose, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and given a frontal lobotomy. Williams, whose given name was Tom, had left St. Louis like the Tom in his play.

Williams felt enormous guilt and great love for his sister, whom he cared for until his death in 1983. The guilt dominates The Glass Menagerie, while the love sparks up in The Pretty Trap. The Pretty Trap dos not have the richness of the full play, and would never have garnered the ecstatic critical reception. But when viewed, it offers a window into a part of Williams' brain where it didn't have to be all bad.

On Saturday night, for Tennessee Williams 100th birthday, his friends and colleagues took to the stage in New Orleans' Le Petit Theater and read from his journals, letters, stories, and plays. Tennessee Williams has a way of seeming encased in amber, but that night, The Pretty Trap showed a side of the man high school students don't see when they read his works in English class. He hadn't found the voice that came to define him, but he's kind of fun without it.