Orpheus Descending, a play by Tennessee Williams (New York, 1958, currently in print, published by Dramatist's Play Service), opened in 1957 in New York City. Although Williams was at the time an established playwright, having had huge success with The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and other plays, Orpheus Descending was harshly criticized and widely considered a failure. It was a play that Williams had labored over for more than seventeen years. The earliest version was called Battle of Angels, and was first produced in 1940. After Battle of Angels was almost universally condemned by critics, Williams rewrote it five times, reshaping it as a modern version of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.
In Orpheus Descending, a young charismatic musician descends on a small, repressive southern town. He forms a relationship with a passionate woman who is trapped in a bad marriage and who has a tragic past. The play exhibits many of the playwright's typical themes: loneliness and desire, sexuality and repression, the longing for freedom. Violence lurks just below the surface, and it bursts into the open at the play's end. The play is also rich in imagery, lyrical language, and symbolism. It is now recognized as one of Williams's weightier plays, although perhaps not on the level of his finest work.
Act 1 Summary
Act 1, Prologue
Orpheus Descending is set in a dry-goods store in a small southern town. It begins with Dolly and Beulah laying out a buffet supper. As they talk they reveal that Jabe Torrance has had surgery in Memphis but he is dying. Beulah recalls how he had in effect bought his wife, Lady, when she was eighteen and had just had her heart broken by David Cutrere. Beulah also recalls that Lady's father was an Italian immigrant who during Prohibition acquired an orchard and made a wine garden of it. But he made the mistake of selling liquor to a black man, and the incensed locals burned down his orchard. He was killed in the blaze. Beulah wonders if Lady knows that her husband, whom she hates anyway, was the leader of the mob. Beulah also explains that Lady is planning to reopen a "confectionery'' (which will serve as a kind of nightclub) in another room in the store.
Act 1, Scene 1
Carol Cutrere makes a telephone call, while the Temple sisters gossip about her. Val Xavier enters, and shortly afterwards Vee Talbott arrives with one of her paintings. But it is Val, the stranger, who is the center of attention. Carol insists that she has met him before, in New Orleans, but Val denies it. Carol suggests they go out together, but Val, who is looking for a job, is not interested. Lady and Jabe enter. Jabe looks sick and goes upstairs to bed, but not before he and Lady reveal their mutual dislike. Carol continues to...
(The entire section is 372 words.)
Act 2 Summary
Act 2, Scene 1
A few weeks have passed. Val, who has been falsely accused by a woman of making a sexual advance on her, explains to Lady his past in New Orleans, where he indulged in wild living. He says he has now put that behind him. Outside, Carol constantly sounds her car horn, because the gas station refuses to serve her. Then she goes to a pharmacy, while Lady says she will provide Carol service if she comes into the store. Carol enters, and her brother David calls to say that he is coming to fetch her. Lady says she will refuse to allow him, her former lover, in the store. Carol once again makes romantic declarations to Val, which he again shrugs off. It transpires that he did know Carol during his New Orleans days. When David enters, Lady sends Carol and Val out of the store, and confesses to David that she had been pregnant with his child when he discarded her, and she had an abortion. She tells him never to return.
Act 2, Scene 2
Val and Vee discuss Vee's painting, Church of the Resurrection, and Val understands her artistic gift. Vee's husband, Sheriff Talbot, arrives and visits Jabe upstairs. Vee and Val continue to talk, as Val shows great understanding of her work. He takes her hands in his and lifts them to his mouth. At that moment, Talbott comes down the stairs. He sees the gesture and angrily tells them to stop.
Act 2, Scene 3
Val tells Lady that he wants to stay in town,...
(The entire section is 460 words.)
Act 3 Summary
Act 3, Scene 1
Early Saturday morning, just before Easter, Lady tells Val to get dressed and come out of the alcove, since Jabe is coming down and he does not know that Val lives there. Jabe sees the new confectionery and dislikes the way it has been decorated. At that moment, a circus calliope is heard, advertising the opening that night of the Torrance Confectionery. Jabe cruelly reminds Lady of her dead father, and then makes it clear that he was part of the mob that was responsible for his death. After he has gone back upstairs, the nurse returns saying that he is having a hemorrhage. Lady is stunned by Jabe's admission.
Act 3, Scene 2
At sunset, Vee enters the store and says she has been blinded by a vision of the risen Christ. She falls on the ground and as Val tries to lift her, her husband enters, furious. He orders Val not to touch his wife, and then interrogates him while Dog and Pee Wee point knives at him. Talbott asks to see Val's guitar, but as Dog touches it, Val jumps on the counter and kicks at the men's hands. Talbott tells him he has until sunrise the next day to get out of the county.
Act 3, Scene 3
Half an hour later, Beulah and Dolly discover that the confectionery has been decorated to resemble the orchard of Lady's father. Carol enters, trying to find someone to drive her across the river. She has heard that Val is leaving that night. Lady expresses surprise,...
(The entire section is 462 words.)