Tennessee Williams: Five best plays by the iconic playwright

Tennessee Williams sits among the great American playwrights of the last century, alongside Arthur Miller, August Wilson and Eugene O’Neill.

With scores of full-length and one-act plays, Williams is one of the most influential modern playwrights, spawning film adaptations and commanding stages around the world.

Productions of his work are never far from the stage, though some plays go in and out of fashion over the decades. Last year, the lesser-performed Almeida’s Summer and Smoke was the talk of the season, and a recent production of Orpheus Descending saw Hattie Morahan shine.

This week, a new production of The Night of the Iguana starring Clive Owen, Lia Williams and Anna Gunn opens in the West End, and we’re celebrating the most iconic works from the prolific writer.

The Glass Menagerie


The Glass Menagerie was Williams’ breakthrough, taking him from obscurity to fame in 1944. It follows Amanda Wingfield and her two children, Tom, an aspiring poet who works at a shoe warehouse to support the family, and Laura, whose disability has isolated her from the outside world.It’s the most closely autobiographical of his works, with Tom, who narrates the story, resembling Williams (whose real name was Thomas). Williams’ real-life sister Rose was left incapacitated by a botched lobotomy, and he spent much of his life and royalties on her care.

John Tiffany directed a 2017 production in the West End starring Kate O’Flynn, who was nominated for an Olivier Award.

Who was in the film version? There are four versions of this film: the first, in 1950, starred Kirk Douglas and Jane Wyman, while the second had Shirley Booth and Barbara Loden. The third, a made-for-television movie, had Katharine Hepburn playing Amanda in her first TV role. The most recent, from 1987 was directed by Paul Newman, with Joanne Woodward playing Amanda and John Malkovich playing Tom.

A Streetcar Named Desire


Williams won a Pulitzer for A Streetcar Named Desire, and it continues to be cited as one of the greatest plays of the 20th century. Blanche Dubois is a recently penniless southern belle who leaves her home in Mississippi to move in with her sister and volatile brother-in-law in New Orleans. Laurence Olivier directed the original London production at the Aldwych, with Vivien Leigh playing the lead of Blanche.

It’s hard to keep track of all the actresses to have played Blanche. The part was written for Tallulah Bankhead, but she didn’t take on the part until a decade after the play debuted. Jessica Tandy originated the role, with Cate Blanchett, Faye Dunaway, Rachel Weisz, Maxine Peake and Isabelle Hupert all later appreciating the kindness of strangers. The Young Vic production starring Gillian Anderson in 2014 was the fastest selling show in the theatre’s history; it saw her named Best Actress at that year's Evening Standard Theatre Awards.

Who was in the film version? A Streetcar Named Desire was the breakout role for a virtually unknown Marlon Brando in 1951, who played the part of Stanley Kowalski opposite Vivien Leigh’s Blanche DuBois. Leigh, already a star following her performance in Gone with the Wind, won a second Academy Award for Blanche.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof


Death and deceit intertwine throughout Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which the family of wealthy cotton tycoon Big Daddy come together over the course of an evening on the estate. The play focuses on his son Brick, struggling with alcoholism, sexual repression and the suicide of his friend Skipper, and Brick’s wife Maggie “the Cat”, who escaped a life of poverty to marry into the family.

Debbie Allen directed an all-black production of the Pulitzer-winning play on Broadway, which transferred to the West End with James Earl Jones as Big Daddy and Adrian Lester as Brick and won an Olivier. Another revival in 2017 saw Sienna Miller and Jack O’Connell take on Brick and Maggie.

Who was in the film version? Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, and Burl Ives starred in the 1958 film directed by Richard Brooks. Another adaptation was released in 1984, with Jessica Lange, Tommy Lee Jones and Rip Torn.

Orpheus Descending

(Johan Persson)
(Johan Persson)

Orpheus Descending is a rewrite of an earlier play Battle of Angels, which, by his account, had “failed spectacularly”. He wrote the lead role of this for Tallulah Bankhead, who once again turned him down saying: “The play is impossible, darling, but sit down and have a drink with me.” Not happy to shelve the play, he reworked it and presented it again 17 years later.

The story is a very loose spin on the Greek myth of Orpheus – a woman in a loveless marriage is brought back from the brink of despair by the arrival of a charismatic musician. Hattie Morahan played the part earlier this year, the first time it had been revived since Helen Mirren’s turn in 2000 and Vanessa Redgrave’s in 1988.

Who was in the film version? The 1960 adaptation took the name of The Fugitive Kind, with Marlon Brando starring as the snakeskin-clad drifter. Lady was played by Anna Magnani, who had already won an Academy Award for another Tennessee Williams film, The Rose Tattoo.

The Night of the Iguana


Ex-Reverend turned alcoholic tour guide T. Lawrence Shannon is the central character in a motley crew holidaying in Mexico. Among them are Maxine, the lustful hotel owner, Charlotte, a 16-year-old girl who Shannon is discovered in bed with and Hannah, a penniless painter with whom Shannon develops a connection.

The original Broadway production was a starry affair, with Bette Davis in the role of Maxine. Hannah, first played by Margaret Leighton, gets more stage time though, and has been heralded as one of Williams’ greatest female characters, along with Blanche DuBois and Summer and Smoke’s Alma.

Who was in the film version? Richard Burton took the lead role as Shannon in the 1964 film, alongside Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr. Grayson Hall received an Academy Award nomination for her supporting performance as Judith, Charlotte’s chaperone.

The Night of the Iguana runs from July 16-September 28 at the Noël Coward Theatre.

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