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Two Masters of American Drama

Fresh out of high school, I had the audacity to start a summer theatre troupe and direct three one-act plays by Tennessee Williams. (Ah, sweet bird of brazen youth!) He was and still is my favorite American playwright. While I certainly admire the works of America’s other great dramatist, Eugene O’Neill, I don’t like O’Neill’s style quite as much and I’ve always found his gloomy seriousness rather off putting.

These two masters of the stage play have approaches to writing drama which are polar opposites. O’Neill’s tragedies tend to employ a classical structure, with characters who have major flaws and very few redeeming qualities. Mourning Becomes Electra, for example, is a trilogy based loosely on the Orestia cycle by Aeschylus about the Greek myth of the woman who orchestrates vengeance for her father’s murder. In this modern adaptation set during the Civil War, we are given endless and rather tedious soliloquies which reveal the thoughts of the tormented main character. The overall effect of the autobiographical play that is considered O’Neill’s masterpiece, Long Days Journey Into Night, is to plunge the audience into the depths of despair as they watch the central character descend into drug addiction and madness.

Williams can be equally depressing at times, but the despair in Williams’ plays is relieved somewhat by his humor and the great lyricism of his poetry. In my favorite Williams’ play, A Streetcar Named Desire, first produced on Broadway in 1947, the suffering and final destruction of Blanche Dubois by Stanley Kowalski, when all her illusions have been shattered and she is led away by the kindly doctor from the asylum, is gut-wrenchingly painful for me. For her own survival, she has retreated into the world of the past, when she was adored by her many “gentlemen callers.”  “Whoever you are —” she tells the doctor, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”