The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Camino Real is an untraditional play. An innocent stranger, Kilroy, arrives in the town of Camino Real only to be tempted by the lures of its degradations—including prostitutes hanging out of windows—a world where he is promptly robbed, beaten, and left for dead. Yet it is the character of Gutman, the expatriate, bellowing out the window and announcing stage changes like a surreal town crier, who breaks down the play’s imaginary fourth wall and invites the audience to consider the true horror: This is no “play,” no predictable exposition-climax-denouement farce, but rather, this is the mind itself (if not in the throes of death, then at least confronting them). It depicts a situation in which Kilroy confronts the facts of his existence: A former boxing champ facing his life’s choices for the very last time, wondering if he has really done his best after all.

Camino Real is divided into a prologue and sixteen “blocks,” scenes with no perceptible time lapse between them. There are intermissions indicated after blocks 6 and 11. The play is set in an unnamed Latin American country at a bustling tropical seaport, Camino Real, which bears a resemblance to such widely scattered ports as Tangiers, Havana, Casablanca, or New Orleans. When the curtain rises, there is a loud singing wind on a darkened stage accompanied by distant, measured reverberations like pounding surf or distant shellfire. The town plaza is seen fitfully by this light. On stage left is the luxury side of a street, containing the facade of the Siete Mares hotel. Its great bay window holds a pair of elegant “dummies” with painted smiles—one seated and one standing behind looking out into the plaza. Opposite the hotel is Skid Row, which contains the Gypsy’s gaudy stall, a loan shark’s establishment, and the Ritz Men Only, a flea-bag hotel.

The sixteen street blocks that make up the Camino Real are stretched between two worlds that are the creations of the human beings inhabiting them. On one side are the attractions of the Siete Mares, a place of luxury but one also underlaid with corruption and evil. Dominated by the threatening and sinister Gutman, the Siete Mares is soon revealed as a place of mysteriously appearing unclad female figures of...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

One dramatic technique of Camino Real is its setting, outside of time, in a place of no specific locality. In creating this figurative setting, Williams makes the play an elaborate allegory in order to derive philosophical import from the play’s fantasies. The play remains a record of Williams’s conception of the time and world he inhabited, the confused, repressed postwar world of the 1950’s. The people of this world are mostly archetypes distilled from “real life”: individuals whose characteristics are exaggerated until they become colorful grotesques. Accordingly, the play is unusual in its degree of freedom and its divorce from linear plot structure.

As Williams noted, Camino Real entails the construction of another world, a separate existence. Accordingly, the play is divided not into traditional acts but into “blocks,” a construction that represents the modern conception of time; one that is not linear, but one that is fragmented. This fragmentation of experience suggests the momentary focus on the instant, the episode caught in time and frozen in space. Here the audience may linger in the hidden corners of human motivations, where behavior is as clear as it is complex. The play refuses to accept time as sequential or as something that all human beings experience uniformly.

Williams’s aim, then, was to provide audiences with a sense of something wild and unrestricted, a portrayal of nature’s chaos, as in the changing shape of a storm or the continually dissolving and transforming images of a dream. Yet this sort of freedom does not point to a carelessness in Williams. On the contrary, the playwright took great pains in crafting the play, giving conscious attention to form and structure so as to render the wildness of human emotion. In a foreword to the play, the author expresses his belief that freedom is not achieved simply by working freely.

The play was first directed by the legendary director Elia Kazan, who was attracted to it for its mobility of form. Indeed, both the playwright and the director saw the play as a metaphor for flight, for the impulse to take wing and escape. Accordingly, with Kazan’s work in staging and Williams’s work in cutting and revising, both artists worked toward a common goal: the achievement of a continual flow. Monologues were mercilessly cut wherever they seemed to obstruct or divert this flow.


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Tennessee Williams. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Carr, Virginia, ed. Studies in the Literary Imagination. Atlanta: Georgia State University Press, 1988.

Leverich, Lyle. Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams. New York: Crown, 1995.

Londre, Felicia. Tennessee Williams. New York: Ungar, 1979.

Rader, Doston. Tennessee, Cry of the Heart. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985.

Rouse, Sarah. Tennessee Williams. Jackson: Mississippi Library Commission, 1976.

Williams, Tennessee. Three Plays of Tennessee Williams. New York: New Directions, 1964.