Williams, Tennessee 1914–
Twice a winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, Williams is one of the most important American playwrights of the twentieth century. His work is characteristically concerned with the conflict between illusion and reality, most notably in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire. Because loneliness and disappointment are recurrent in his work, Williams has often been criticized for having a limited perception of the human condition. His later work is generally considered to be of uneven quality, none of it meeting the standards of his prize-winning plays. In addition to drama, Williams also writes novels, short stories, and screenplays. His fiction has often been criticized as being sketchy and undeveloped. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5, 7, 8, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Orpheus Descending is a better play than its dismal performance record suggests, a play which has yet to fulfill its potential in production but which even in the printed text represents a significant attempt to re-create myths in the context of our own time.
Although I will consider only those myths with obvious referents in the text to the exclusion of whatever subconscious archetypes we might posit, Williams' autobiographical impulses are important, as he superimposed and strengthened the Orpheus myth upon the myth of the battle between light and dark, the good and evil angels who war in heaven…. [Williams emphasizes] the responsibility which love places upon the poet/singer Orpheus and the pull toward life and fruitfulness that the Orpheus figure creates in those dead souls he meets in the hades of the Torrance Mercantile Store. Williams himself always considered Orpheus Descending autobiographical…. The hero/savior Orpheus of Val, as Williams calls his hero, embodies the playwright as he chooses to see himself, heart on sleeve, "a wild spirited boy who wanders into a conventional community of the South and creates the commotion of a fox in a chicken coop."…
In the play itself we are able to distinguish five separate myth patterns: the loss of Eden, the battle of angels, Christ, Orpheus, and Adonis. (pp. 57-8)
The play is set in Two River County, at once introducing the Eden motif. We learn the power in the play, Jabe Torrance, embodies sterile impotence—he and his wife have money instead of children and do not sleep together—and is dying of a spreading cancer. Jabe "bought" his wife, Lady, and brought her into his hades from a different country and race. (p. 58)
The action of the play begins with the entrance of Carol Cutrere, the outcast member of the oldest and most distinguished family in the county. In the earlier version of the play her name was Cassandra and she retains her function as a prophetess. At her behest the Negro Conjure Man gives the magic Choctaw cry and Valentine Xavior materializes in his snakeskin jacket and carrying his guitar. Almost immediately behind him is Vee, short for Veronica, wife of Sheriff Talbott. Her entrance fixes Val in the Christ role, for like Saint Veronica, who gave Christ her veil to wipe his forehead on his journey up Calvary, Vee dispenses mercy….
As the play progresses, Vee clearly identifies Val as a savior, painting him as Christ in her long contemplated picture of the Last Supper. Val understands her visions, which seek to metamorphose the horror and corruption of life among the living and dead into something of beauty. In their final confrontation, Val kneels to her as she sits in the shoe-fitting chair, symbolically re-enacting the ritual washing of the feet of the disciples. She recognizes him as the figure of Christ in her vision, a vision of such brilliance it has nearly destroyed her physical sight by an influx of spiritual insight. (p. 59)
However, the legend of Christ and Saint Veronica as embodied by Val and Vee is fraught with ambiguities…. Their whole relationship is one of highly charged, barely repressed physical desire. (p. 60)
Val's function as Orpheus is less ambiguous than his function as Christ. In their first meeting,...
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Tennessee Williams is a good storyteller, as theater audiences have long known…. Unlike most playwrights who try their hands at different forms, Williams is a remarkably strong prose writer—his fiction perhaps even more consistent in quality that his drama. (p. 647)
[Williams' first collection, One Arm and Other Stories,] provides an interesting and characteristic sampling. "The Poet," "Chronicle of a Demise," and "The Yellow Bird" are clearly the experiments of a young writer. "The Yellow Bird" has some fine comic moments, but the prose is too jerky and the ending too garbled to sustain the broad humor. The other stories in the book, however, are skillfully written: in particular, "One Arm," "Desire and the Black Masseur," and "The Night of the Iguana." (pp. 647-48)
While "One Arm" succeeds as compelling narrative, it also is an early catalogue of Williams' concerns: an openly homosexual theme, the fascination with mutilation and its attendant psychic loss, the power of words … to effect change, the theme of guilt and atonement, and the importance of sex both as a means of human communication and as a channel to awaken acceptance of one's existence.
Williams' fiction often serves as a drawing board for themes and characters later amplified in drama…. (p. 648)
Occasionally, the works are quite similar, as with the full length play and the story of the same title: Kingdom of Earth. Both are set against the loneliness and violence of the Mississippi Delta at flood level; the play is an expansion of the characters and images from the story. Both describe a pathetic-comic love triangle, and both use raw images of nature as backdrop to the elemental emotions.
Williams' ability to approach his material from such differing vantage points enables us to examine both his narrative and his dramatic strengths—and weaknesses. An easy judgment of quality is impossible; comparative discussions are most likely to yield interesting differences rather than deficiencies. The two versions of The Night of the Iguana are illustrative.
The playwright's remarks on setting and characters for the play are a more detailed account of the descriptions which open the story. The play, a full three acts, contains many more characters and thereby more conflicts and secondary motifs than the twenty-seven page story. The drama centers on Shannon: his disintegrating emotional condition, his intellectual attraction to Hannah Jelkes, his various physical lapses, and his relationship to Maxine. In the story, Maxine is called simply "the Patrona," Shannon is not presented at all, and Miss Jelkes (a painter, here called Edith) is the focal point. Perhaps because of Williams' talent in presenting sympathetic women characters—especially southern women—the story version seems the more satisfying and complete. (p. 649)
In both story and play, the iguana is captured, left tied up all night, and finally released. Miss Jelkes of the play requests Shannon to cut it free: he recognizes the lizard's tethering as a "parallel situation" to her elderly grandfather's "dying-out effort" … to finish a last poem. But Williams does not include the grandfather in the story; the iguana as a metaphor therefore applies solely to Miss Jelkes…. The story ends with a sense of resolution: Miss Jelkes has grappled with a problem and found some understanding. In contrast, the play ends on a flabby note. Dramatic tension and excitement run down, with Shannon still taking the path of least resistance. Knowledge, understanding, acceptance are absent—perhaps impossible, given Williams' portrait of the minister. At any rate, Miss Jelkes of the story seems a more unified and interesting central character than Shannon in the play. The play attempts perhaps too much….
Another story from the One Arm collection, "The Malediction," and the short lyrical play, The Strangest Kind of Romance, are slight variations on rather than separate treatments of a theme. Both center on a little man and his loneliness. (p. 650)
In the play, the little man tries to communicate the desperation of his solitude…. This tortured message echoes through much of Williams' work. But the "body as shell" motif is left an intriguing fragment; neither play nor story is fully developed. The "Malediction" is an uneven story, but it ends with a strong sense of decision. The play is more unified but ends on a garbled and weak note. Together, however, they demonstrate Williams' skill in evoking the loneliness and terror of a vulnerable individual. (p. 651)
Clearly, Williams' plays and stories are not drastically separate artistic efforts, but subtle variations of the same voice:...
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Critical dissatisfaction over Tennessee Williams' plays of the seventies has been almost unanimous….
[Critics charge that] Williams repeats himself by going over and over the same territory and … that his plays, for better or worse, are autobiographical. (p. 815)
Both charges against Williams do his plays an injustice by failing to take them on their own terms. Deflection of our interest from an author's work to his life, particularly in Williams' case, too often reflects a taste for lurid sexual detail rather than for art. Further more, the artist's work relates not to the outer details of his life but to the inner world of his imagination, so to jump from an account of...
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