Orpheus Descending Summary
by Tennessee Williams

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(Drama for Students)

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

(Drama for Students)

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 pester Val, and reveals to him some of her past. She used to be a civil rights campaigner, and once went on a protest walk wearing nothing but a potato sack. She was arrested for lewd vagrancy, and a vigilante group warned her to stay out of the county. Val picks up his guitar and leaves the store as the women continue to gossip.

Act 1, Scene 2
Two hours later, Val and Lady talk. Val complains about Carol's earlier attempt to seduce him. He shows Lady his guitar, which has been autographed by famous blues singers. Lady agrees to hire Val as a clerk, while insisting she has no wish to become sexually involved with him.

Act 2 Summary

(Drama for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1,507 words.)