It's one of the most famous screams in theater history. Stanley Kowalski, the anti-hero of Tennessee Williams's play A Streetcar Named Desire, stands below the balcony of his New Orleans flat. Drunk and miserable, he looks up to the home from which his wife has just kicked him out. He throws back his head and lets out a cry so primal, so full of naked rage, fear, and desire, that the hair stands up on the back of your neck and you feel like you've never heard anybody cry out before.
That's what it's like to watch a Tennessee Williams play. In a career that lasted more than forty years, Williams established himself as an icon of American theater by giving a voice to the emotions that everyone else suppressed, exposing the secrets that had been hushed up. In addition to Streetcar, his plays include Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie, The Night of the Iguana, and dozens more. He won Tonys, Pulitzers, and just about every other award that an American playwright can receive. The films made of his works are themselves classics, proving that his words are more enduring than the many gifted actors who have performed them.
Williams's real life confronted many of the same issues he explored in his plays. He was born into a wildly dysfunctional Southern family, whose turmoil he revisited on the stage. Williams spoke openly of his homosexuality, substance abuse, and depression, and allowed his characters to grapple with those issues as well. Friends and relatives said that he could be a bit too flexible with the truth, often describing things as he thought they should be, rather than as they actually were. But for Williams, the stage was the only place where the truth could really be told. "I still find it somehow easier to 'level with' crowds of strangers in the hushed twilight of orchestra and balcony sections of theatres than with individuals across a table from me," Williams once said. "Their being strangers somehow makes them more familiar and more approachable, easier to talk to."3 And doesn't it make sense that the man who created Blanche DuBois relied on the kindness of strangers too?