Southern Puritanism and Tennessee Williams

Exploring the influence of "Puritanism" on the development of modern American drama.


Key Staff

Primary instructor

Key Skills

Developing Arts Literacies: Understanding Genres, Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique


This lesson continues the exploration of "Puritanism" as an influence on the development of modern American drama by focusing on elements of narrative, theme and characterization in selected works of Tennessee Williams. Even though Puritanism went underground as time progressed in our country's history, it remained and still remains a strong influence in American Culture.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Participate in the reading and close textual analysis of one of America’s most valued plays.
  • Probe the way drama can be developed as an effective vehicle to indict injustice.
  • Explore the impact of dramatic theater as a catalyst for social, political, and cultural change.
  • Examine the damaging effects of rigid philosophical views being imposed on others.
  • Expand their experience in analysis of structural patterns of composition.
  • Deepen their understanding of drama as a cultural mirror.
  • Assess the evolving nature of the American "hero."
  • Consider the implications of entrenched attitudes and values in the shaping of the American character.
  • Identify what generates "guilt" in human society.
  • Probe the nature and consequences of "guilt" in American society.
  • Assess the responsibilities of the "poet" dramatist.
  • Broaden their experience in comparative analysis.
  • Experience growth in the writing process, oral skills, skills of research, contextual analysis, and collaboration.
  • Gain new insight into and appreciation for the distinctive American "voices" that emerge in 20th century drama.

Teaching Approach

  • Thematic
  • Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Discussion
  • Discovery Learning
  • Experiential Learning
  • Research
  • Reflection

Assessment Type

Informal Assessment


Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Read all of the student handouts and use some of the resources listed below to gain knowledge (or enhance your knowledge) of Puritanism and Tennessee William’s plays. Collect information on:

  • Background readings on Puritanism in America, with special attention to the Salem Witchcraft Trials; some suggestions may include:
  • Readings on basic tenets of Calvinist doctrine, particularly the doctrine of the "Elect"
  • Excerpts from William Bradford’s, History of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647, ed. W.C. Ford Boston 1912.
  • John Winthrop’s famous sermon, delivered on the ship, Arabella, A Model of Christian Charity; also, Winthrop’s "A Little Speech on Liberty"
  • Excerpts from Cotton Mather’s: The Wonders of the Invisible World London 1692.
  • Accounts of the Salem witchcraft trials, especially, Salem Witchcraft, Charles Upham (1867).
  • Excerpts from Jonathan Edward’s sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741).
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, and selected short stories (although written in the 19th century, these sources add range to the understanding of Puritanism and The Crucible.)

Prior Student Knowledge

  • Students may have some general knowledge of theater, but this is not necessary.

Physical Space



Small Group Instruction


Have a computer with an LCD projector and screen set up beforehand for the Introduction, Engage and Build Knowledge sections. Have materials and workstations arranged ahead of time when students begin printmaking in the Apply section.

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.



1. Distribute the three handouts to students and give them a chance to look over them. Answer any questions they may have about the key vocabulary. The three handouts exist within the Resource Carousel and are:

If you like, you can assign these to students to read ahead of time.

2. Initiate a discussion of Puritanism. Share with students the scholarly argument that, although Puritanism in New England, as a unified stronghold, "crystallized, cracked, and crumbled" on the surface, in actuality, Puritanism went underground, and has remained a strong influence in American culture

Initiate a class discussion of the assertion that Puritan attitudes and/or values still prevail in American culture by asking students to contribute their ideas about (1) what they consider to be Puritan "attitudes" and/or values and (2) in what specific ways do they think these attitudes and values have sustained in American culture.

Some possible responses include:

  • Valuing education
  • Valuing land ownership
  • Strong work ethic
  • Capitalism
  • The ideal of America as "the city on the hill" committed to "spreading the light" throughout the world even if the effort involves war
  • A tight community that "purges" itself of "outsiders" to remain "pure"
  • An embedded "guilt" complex (related to the idea of man depraved by Original Sin), manifested in public hearings (the stocks on the town green mentality) and the exposure of "sinful" behavior of public figures to "purge" American society
  • Some subjects are "taboo," the "banned in Boston" mentality
  • Censorship of some subjects taught in schools
  • The value put on material wealth, growing out of the idea that those who prospered were of the "Elect"
  • The psychology of "Sunday" as a day of worship
  • The "Blue Laws" that still prevail in some geographical areas of America
  • Town meetings
  • The references to "under God" and "God bless America" in various proceedings
  • Valuing the ten commandments as "laws" of behavior
  • Male attitudes toward woman
  • Attitudes about sex outside of marriage

3. Consider continuing the discussion around the following question:

Do you perceive any of the dramas you have read, viewed, or participated in to be a reflection of "rebellion" against "Puritan" strains embedded in the American psyche?

Some possible responses include:

  • Racial prejudice and the search for racial identity in a "closed society": Raisin in the Sun, To Kill A Mockingbird
  • Anti-war attitudes: The Road to Rome, Idiot’s Delight
  • The effect of overvaluing the "American Dream" of business success and material wealth: Death of a Salesman
  • The destructive power of a "demagogue" figure: The Crucible
  • The "lost" individual in a competitive, driven society: Death of a Salesman Zoo Story
  • The psychological complexities of living with entrenched ideas of what reflects "success": Long Day’s Journey into Night; A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie
  • The neuroses of sexual repression: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire

4. Have students discuss or write about the impact of American drama on society. Ask students the following question: Drawing on your knowledge of American history following World War II and your ideas about "rebellion" against "Puritan strains," do you think American drama has helped ignite the societal and cultural changes in attitudes and values that have occurred in America in the decades following World War II? Explain.

Build Knowledge

1. Share with students the assertion of some Tennessee Williams’ scholars that many of Williams’ characterizations, plots, and themes reflect a strong indictment of "Southern" Puritanism. They argue that many of Williams’ characters are "victims" of the "propriety" and "constrictions" of the traditional manners, mores, social and religious outlooks, and expectations of "Southern" Puritanism that prevailed, particularly in the Bible Belt of the New South, in the early decades of the 20th century. Part of this assertion stems from the view of some social historians that, as cultural behavior changed in the industrialized urban centers of the New South, ironically, the "Puritan" attitudes held by the traditionalists were absorbed into the "myth" of the lost "Old South."

One support given for the above argument is that many of Williams’ female characters are frustrated and neurotic in reaction to the sexual repression of "Puritan" attitudes about sex and seek psychological refuge in the "myth" of the Old South. Another is that Williams’ "virile" male characters and "willing" female characters, released from the rigid, prescriptive rules of Puritanism are happy participants in what Williams’ argues is "natural" and do not need such an escape route. One critic has commented, "[Williams] has again and again played variations on the conflict between flesh and spirit, the Cavalier and the Puritan, and the natural man and the overcivilized modern."

2. Ask students to reexamine the list of possible "strains" of Puritanism embedded in the American culture.

Divide the class into three sections; assign individuals in each section one of the following topics to be developed in a brief in-class essay: delineate any specific evidence in the characterization of the selected play(s) that you think could be used to support the view that, at one level, Williams’ plays are a reaction against "Southern" Puritanism.

Delineate any specific evidence in the narrative of the selected play(s) that you think could be used to support the view that, at one level, Williams’ plays are a reaction against "Southern" Puritanism.

Delineate any specific evidence in the theme of the selected play(s) that you think could be used to support the view that, at one level, Williams’ plays are a reaction against "Southern" Puritanism.

Give students the option to argue lack of evidence.

3. After collecting the essays, have students share their perceptions. Sum up the "findings" from the point of view: Is the "theory" about Williams’ reaction to "Southern" Puritanism valid?

4. Tell students that critics have been very divided in their response to Williams’ dramas. Many have decried what they considered to be Williams’ "obsession" with sex in the development of his plays, and have mounted a storm of protest; others cite Williams’ recurring sexual themes as evidence of his avowal to strip back the "artificial" layers of human behavior and tell the "truth" about human instincts and longings.

5. As a follow-up, divide the class into collaborative groups of three. Advise students that their task will be to research well-known critics’ reviews of performances of Williams’ plays, and his work in general, published in the late 40s, the 50s, and 60s. Inform them that the archives of The New York Times could be a good starting point. Other good sources: archives of Life magazine, The New Republic and The Nation.

To make the assignment manageable, consider giving each group one of the following critics to research: Brooks Atkinson; Joseph Wood Krutch; Eric Bentley; Irwin Shaw; Mary McCarthy. Advise each group to take notes and prepare a summary of their findings to share with the class.

Ask all groups to research the New York Times article (June 12, 1960), "Tennessee Williams presents his POV" in which Williams "defends" his use of themes that probe the "hidden facets of human behavior."

6. Use the assignment as the springboard for discussion of students’ opinions about (and further exploration of) the following questions:

How does current scholarship align with long held notions of Puritan attitudes about sex?

Do you think Williams’ plays could have been a strong influence in the igniting of the "sexual revolution" and the feminist movement of the last decades of the 20th century?

7. Explain to students the relationship between ideological conflict and theater. Arthur Miller comments, in his "Overture" statement at the beginning of Act I of The Crucible, that "it is still impossible for man to organize his social life without repressions, and that the balance has yet to be struck between order and freedom."

Great drama, like much great literature, is built off of conflict, and many of the world’s most valued plays are driven by the conflict and consequences that ensue in the confrontation with, the resolve to preserve, or the search for some kind of "order" something presumed to bring coherence and meaning to life—without repressing inner drives and individual freedom.

Modern American drama, formed in the "cauldron" of the American expectations of individual freedom, provides a rich laboratory for examining the "traumas" that can be generated in the reach to find the "balance" between "order" and "individual freedom." Tennessee Williams’ plays offer provocative opportunities for study of the above "conflict," particularly when considering Williams’ insistence, as stated in his "Person to Person introduction to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (and echoed his other essays) that he doesn’t "want to talk to people only about the surface aspects of their lives" but "as freely and intimately about what we live and die for as if I knew you better than anyone else whom you know."

8. Working in pairs, have students examine one (or more) of Tennessee Williams’ plays from the following perspective. Encourage each pair to take notes on their conclusions. As an alternative, assign the topic as an essay, asking students to develop the question in relation to one play of their choice. Another option could be to initiate the collaborative assignment on one play, followed by an essay assignment in which students could select one of the three choices left.

Dramatic issues in several of Williams’ plays revolve around the "imposition" of an "other" imposing his/her sense of "what should be" on another in relation to personal or societal expectations. Define what you consider to be the role of each of the following characters in the development of such "conflict" in the individual plays. Be prepared to support your conclusions with specific evidence from the play.

The Glass Menagerie A Streetcar Named Desire
Amanda Wingfield Blanche Du Bois
Tom Wingfield Stanley Kowalski
Laura Wingfield Stella Kowalski
Jim O'Connor Mitch
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Twenty-Seven Wagons Full of Cotton
Maggie Jake Meighan
Brick Flora Meighan
Big Daddy Silva Vicarro

9. Share ideas in class discussion and/or share papers. One approach could be to share the essays in small collaborative groups (perhaps peer evaluation) followed by each group presenting a summary of ideas developed in the essays shared.


1. Assign students a culminating essay of 5-8 pages based on the research you have done together (and their individual research). Essay topics might include:

The Dramatist as Poet

Coming through various commentaries that Tennessee Williams attached to and infused in the scripts of his plays, reinforced by articles he wrote and records of interviews he gave, is a vision of Williams’ perception of the dramatist as "poet." This vision encompasses the responsibilities that the "true" dramatist "poet" must fulfill and the "mandate" that the "poet" must operate in two realms—the "actuality" of this world and the ethereal essence of an "other" world. The "poet" dramatist must illuminate solutions that bring body and soul into some kind harmony, must lay bare the artificiality’s of this world that cut him off from communication with his "true" "natural" being as part of a larger consciousness. Williams’ vision, articulated in his term "poetic realism," and articulated in his "ethereal" properties of shadows, music, lighting, artifacts as images, seem to closely align with the outlook of 19th century Romantics.

Threaded through writings of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Emerson and others is the consistent message that the "true" poet is blessed with special insight and, therefore, must serve as an agent of a "correcting" moral force. The "true" poet inspires the individual to align his "worldly" self with his "transcending" self, and gain courage to fight societal forces that impinge individual freedom. In the words of Shelley, from his famous essay, "A Defense of Poetry," the poet "helps us find the being within the being...Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." Students should write on this theme as it pertains to the Williams’ work.

Comparative Essay - Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams

Consider assigning an essay that asks students to use Miller’s The Crucible, and their choice of a Williams’ play to develop a comparative analysis of their perception of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams as true "poets" from this Romantic perspective. To help students find direction on this topic:

Share with students some of the above comments about 19th century Romanticism and Romantic writers and encourage them to think through other background on Romanticism that might be in their experience (age of revolution; the Byronic hero, aeolian harp image, etc.)

Urge students to think in universal terms (for instance, not just limit their work on The Crucible to the McCarthy hearings, although the hearings could be used as evidence.)

Encourage students to ponder the questions: Does each writer serve as an "agent of a ‘correcting’ moral force"? If you think so, what is each writer trying to "correct"? Sum up what you consider to be the main force that helps the play achieve this goal. (the action of a character? the resolution of an inner conflict? the resolution of a conflict between one or more characters? coming to terms with one’s social environment? other?)

Select one character in each of the sources you are examining that, in your perception, finds his/her "being within (his/her) being"? Clarify where, in the text, you think that moment(s) occurs and define how the playwright articulates the "epiphany". (Give students the option to argue that no such moment occurs)

Encourage students, particularly seniors, to build an analysis of aspects of form (the way the play is crafted), as well as theme, clarifying how devices of form contribute to the "legislative" power of the dramas. For instance, does handling of time, sustained metaphor, use of a narrator, use of special effects contribute?

Is Miller also a "poetic realist" in the sense that Williams uses the term? How would you compare the form of the two from the perspective of "poetic realist" Explain advise students to support their arguments vigorously with specific textual evidence.


1. Collect and comment on student papers. Depending on your preference, students could rewrite the papers and incorporate your comments.

2. Once the writing process is complete, have students read each other’s essays in small groups and engage in a discussion of one another’s work.


Assess the students on the following criteria:

  • Level of serious and cooperative participation in research and collaborative assignments
  • Level of discernment in contributions from research and to collaborative work
  • Substantive contributions to class discussion and special projects
  • Range and depth in analysis
  • Evidence of creative thinking
  • Organization, meaningful substance, rhetorical skill, and poise in formal oral presentation
  • Thoughtful response in pre-writing, pre-discussion "brainstorming" activities seriousness of purpose in following through on creative writing assignments
  • Solid preparation for performance activities alignment of written performance with good practices of the writing process
  • Willingness to volunteer for special activities, especially general level of engagement in all activities and assignments
Suggestion for a Special Project

Students interested in drama and the history of dramatic theater could be encouraged to trace the background of some of the famous actors and actresses who have played the lead roles in performances of Miller’s and Williams’ plays.

Particularly interesting is the array of famous actors and actresses who played key roles in The Glass Menagerie, Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The list includes such luminaries as Tallulah Bankhead, Barbara Bel Geddes, Burl Ives, Jessica Tandy, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden, Marlon Brandon and others. Williams’ response to different "star" performances—especially that of Tallulah Bankhead as Blanche Du Bois—could be an added topic to pursue.

Topics and Suggestions for Additional Group Projects/Essays/Class Presentations
  • What are some purposes served by dramatic theater?
  • In what ways can history serve as inspiration for drama?
  • In what specific ways can drama mirror the cultural outlook and tone of a time period?
  • To what extent should the views of others be imposed on another?
  • What is the nature of the "heroic" in modern times?
  • How does the modern "hero" differ from the traditional "hero"?
  • To what extent has modern American drama contributed to social and cultural "revolution" in the 20th century?
  • What role does the "poet" dramatist fulfill in shaping and changing human endeavor and behavior?


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Jayne Karsten
Original Writer

Jen Westmoreland Bouchard

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