Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton

by Tennessee Williams
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What should the audience feel when the curtains rises for Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton?

Tennessee Williams's Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton may at first inspire a sense of peace, welcome, and serenity in the audience as the curtain rises to reveal an attractive cottage. This feeling, however, quickly changes to curiosity as Jake, carrying a can of oil, runs around the house and drives off. When the explosion happens and Jake returns, the audience feels horror and disgust at the fire (which seems to be connected with Jake) and with Jake's violence.

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As the curtain rises on Tennessee Williams's one-act play Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton, the audience sees the front porch of a Mississippi cottage. It has white pillars and a Gothic theme to it with a peaked door and a stained glass window. The windows are filled with white curtains and blue bows. This looks like a comfortable little house and suggests a peaceful serenity and perhaps a feeling of well-being.

However, the action on stage immediately belays this peaceful, welcoming scene, and the audience wonders what is going on. Jake, a heavy-set man about sixty years old, dashes out the front door and runs around the corner. He is carrying a can of oil. Apparently, he gets into a car and drives off. The audience is now curious about what he is doing and why he is in such a hurry. This abrupt action without explanation has caught their attention.

The first words the audience hears are from Flora, who is calling for Jake. Then there is an explosion and a glow. The audience is more curious than ever now, for it is easy to connect Jake with his can of oil to the fire that has broken out, even though no one knows the details or the reasons. Voices then ring out, saying that the Syndicate Plantation is on fire. Flora panics, for she, too, seems to connect Jake with the fire. Suddenly Jake himself reappears, and the two argue. Jake becomes violent as he insists that Flora, if asked, must maintain that he has been on the front porch with her the whole time. The audience is now appalled, and the sense of peace brought on by the cottage scene has completely dissolved into a growing horror and contempt.

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As is often the case in the works of Tennessee Williams, in Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton, we're given insight into a world that, though recognizably situated in a particular time and place, nonetheless has more than a hint of unreality about it.

When the curtain goes up for the opening scene, we're introduced to a house which, in Williams's detailed stage directions, is described as "not unlike a doll's house." With its fluffy white curtains gathered in the middle by baby-blue satin bows, that's precisely what the Meighans' place resembles. Even before we've been introduced to Jake and Flora Meighan, we sense that they live in a world of their own, somewhat apart from other people.

In particular, the doll's house façade of the house hints very strongly at what kind of person Flora Meighan is. As we will discover throughout the rest of the play, Flora is something of a doll, the plaything of the men in her life.

The house in which she lives and to which we're introduced right at the start of the play should therefore be seen as a symbol of the childlike state in which Flora is kept by her husband Jake. Confined to a narrow domestic environment, Flora, like Nora Helmer in Ibsen's play A Doll's House, is unable to develop, either emotionally or intellectually.

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