PLAYBILL PICKS: Tennessee Williams' Five Most Memorable Divas

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18 Apr 2012

Nicole Ari Parker as Blanche DuBois in the new Broadway revival of <i>A Streetcar Named Desire.</i>
Nicole Ari Parker as Blanche DuBois in the new Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Photo by Ken Howard

Tennessee Williams' Blanche DuBois, living on the fumes of the romantic past, is back on Broadway in A Streetcar Named Desire. It seems a perfect time to choose five of our favorite Williams women, with comments by Shirley Knight, Elizabeth Ashley, Emily Mann and other artists who have shaped the characters over the years.


"All my relationships with women are very, very important to me," Tennessee Williams once said. "I understand women, and I can write about them."

Many playwrights are known for their towering male characters. A smaller number are extolled for their female creations. Ibsen has his Nora and Hedda. Shaw gave us Mrs. Warren, Major Barbara, Candida, Saint Joan and Eliza Doolittle. And Chekhov brought to life three sisters (not to mention a couple monstrous mothers). Among American writers, arguably no dramatist has more of a way with women than Tennessee Williams. As indelible as Stanley Kowalski, Big Daddy and Tom Wingfield may be, they would lose in a duel of personalities with Blanche DuBois, Maggie the Cat and Amanda Wingfield. Williams armed his ladies with all the style and wit he himself possessed, while also imbuing them with his knowledge of emotionalism, vulnerability and heartbreak. Novelist Gore Vidal, who rarely has a kind word to say about anyone, claimed, "there is no actress on earth who will not testify that Williams created the best women characters in the modern theatre."

Shirley Knight, an actress, and a renowned interpreter of Williams, does not dispute it. She believes Williams' female characters are so unforgettable that, "We receive our information about the South from 'Gone with Wind,' from Faulkner, but mostly from Tennessee Williams. When we think of Southern women, we think of Tennessee's women."

"Tennessee had an extraordinary understanding of women," said Emily Mann, who is directing the new Broadway staging of A Streetcar Names Desire. "It's rare to have a writer of such stature to have such a repertoire of amazing women." scanned that repertoire and named the five women who could stand out among their sisters. Read on.


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