Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 213
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.