Racism in the 1950s South
In the 1950s in the American South, discrimination against black people was commonplace. In Orpheus Descending, Carol mentions that she protested against the execution of a black man named Willie McGee. This was an actual case that occurred in 1951 in Mississippi. McGee was accused of raping a white woman, although in fact he and the woman had a long-standing sexual relationship. McGee's defense counsel challenged the fact that blacks had been excluded from the jury, and that the death penalty for rape was used only against blacks, never against whites. During the trial and appeal, white supremacist groups threatened violence, and although the Supreme Court twice ordered a stay of execution, McGee was eventually put to death.
At this time in the South, many white people were vehemently opposed to any sexual relationships between blacks and whites. The practice was referred to as miscegenation, and many states had laws that banned it. During the 1950s and 1960s, fourteen states repealed those laws, but sixteen others, including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas, kept their antimiscegenation laws on the books until the Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional in 1967.
The routine mistreatment of black people is obvious in the play, in which they are referred to by white authority figures such as Talbott and Jabe as "niggers." When Val is told to leave the county, Talbott mentions a county where a sign says,"Nigger, don't let the sun go down on you in this county." Carol and Val are the two characters who are keenly aware of these injustices. Val has the name Bessie Smith inscribed on his guitar,...
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The principal imagery in the play is that of birds and wild animals. Both are symbols of freedom. The bird image first appears in Val's extended poetic speech in act 1, scene 2, in which he tells Lady there is a kind of tiny, almost weightless bird that has no legs and so spends its entire life flying. Since these birds are the color of the sky, they are transparent and are invisible to the hawks: "[T]hey live their whole life on the wing, and they sleep on the wind... they just spread their wings and go to sleep and... never light on this earth but one time when they die!’’ The image suggests a kind of freedom, to which human life may aspire but not be able to reach. Lady, who knows that such a bird exists only in Val's imagination, responds, "I don't think nothing living has ever been that free."
The bird image occurs again in Val's reminiscence of the first time he made love to a girl. As he looked at the girl from afar, a bird flew by and made a shadow on her body, and he heard its call, "a single, high clear note." He interpreted this as a signal of the girl's willingness to make love—an act of freedom for both of them.
The stage set contains a visual image of a bird, visible throughout the play. It is on the drapery which covers the tiny bedroom alcove where Val and Lady get together. On the drapery are depicted fantastic white birds—suggestive once more of freedom, and a stark contrast to the dullness of the general store. This is particularly noticeable at the end of act 2, when the drapery, lit from behind by a bulb, becomes translucent.
The allusions to wild animals also suggest freedom, although of a wild, untamed kind that is certain to attract predators. At the beginning of act 3, scene 2, for example, Val stands stock-still "in the tense, frozen attitude of a wild animal listening to something that warns it of danger." Like a wild animal, Val has been hunted all his life, even when he was a teenager growing up in Witches' Bayou.
The image returns at the end of the play when Carol picks up Val's snakeskin jacket after it has been torn off him by the lynch mob. A snake renews itself by shedding...
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Compare and Contrast
1950s: The American South is largely segregated, with many public facilities designated for "whites only." During the 1950s, the modern civil rights movement begins.
Today: Overt racial discrimination has largely ended and laws are in place to ensure that it does not recur. However, race relations remain problematic in many ways. Minorities complain of the practice of "racial profiling," in which African Americans or Hispanics are sometimes targeted by police just because of their race, not because there is any evidence linking them personally to a crime.
1950s: Sexual attitudes throughout American society are conservative, especially in the so-called Bible Belt in the South. Pre-marital sex is frowned upon.
Today: After the freedom of the 1960s and 1970s, sexual mores once more tilt to the conservative, largely because of the risk of contracting the deadly disease AIDS. However, American society has not returned to what many regard as the sexually repressive 1950s. Sex before marriage is no longer universally viewed with disapproval, and single mothers whose children are born out of wedlock are no longer subject to the social stigma that occurred in former generations.
1950s: For decades, American theater has been dominated by realism. Williams, the leading playwright of the decade, goes far beyond these realistic conventions, particularly in his highly lyrical style and his use of...
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Topics for Further Study
Obtain a copy of the movie The Fugitive Kind, which is the film version of Orpheus Descending. Write an essay asserting whether or not you believe it effectively captures the spirit of the play. Does Marlon Brando make a convincing Val? Are the changes made in the ending justified and do they improve on the original or spoil it?
Orpheus Descending is in part about the place of the artist in society. What role should the artist play? Is the artist always likely to be marginalized, like Val, or misunderstood, like Vee, in a conventional, materialistic society? For what should the artist stand, if anything? What values do you believe should motivate him or her?
Williams wrote in his introduction to the play (in Tennessee Williams: Eight Plays) that Orpheus Descending is about "unanswered questions that haunt the hearts of people." Some of the characters simply accept prescribed answers, Williams wrote, but not the four main characters—Val, Lady, Carol, and Vee. They continue to ask questions. What might those questions be, and what answers, if any, do these characters find?
Research the history of race relations in the South from the 1950s to the 1960s. Who were some of the major historical figures of the time? What major changes came about during the period?
In the play, Carol bitterly recalls the execution of a black man for the rape of a white woman. Research the history of capital...
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The Fugitive Kind, a film version of Orpheus Descending, opened in December 1959 in New York, starring Marlon Brando as Val and Anna Magnani as Lady and directed by Sidney Lumet. The film is available on VHS.
Orpheus Descending was made as a movie (shown on television) in 1990, starring Kevin Anderson as Val, and Vanessa Redgrave as Lady Torrance.
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What Do I Read Next?
A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) is one of Williams's most famous plays. Readers will recognize in the character Blanche Du Bois some similarities to Lady Torrance from Orpheus Descending.
The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams (1997), by Donald Spoto, is the first complete critical biography of Williams. Spoto examines the close connections between Williams's dramas and his turbulent and finally tragic life.
Like Williams in Orpheus Descending, Canadian writer Alice Munro explores the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in her short story "The Children Stay,’’ which can be found in Munro's collection The Love of a Good Woman (1998).
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bates, Carolyn,"Anger, Oh Yes," in Times Literary Supplement, July 7, 2000, p. 21.
Brustein, Robert, "Orpheus Condescending," in New Republic, October 30, 1989, pp. 25-27.
Crandall, George W., ed., The Critical Response to Tennessee Williams, Greenwood Press, 1996, pp. 143–49.
Crist, Judith, "Orpheus Descending in Revival at Gramercy Arts," in New York Herald Tribune, October 6, 1959, sec. 2, p. 6.
Falk, Signi Lenea, Tennessee Williams, Twayne, 1961.
Grant, Michael, Myths of the Greeks and Romans, Mentor Book series, New American Library, 1962, pp. 239, 266-73.
Hewes, Henry, "Tennessee...
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