Critical Overview

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In 1957 Orpheus Descending ran for sixty-eight performances in New York City; it was also produced in 1959 in London and Paris, and had an off-Broadway production in 1959. Critical response, however, was often harsh, and many considered the play to be a failure. Critics were ready to acknowledge the excellence of the poetic language and the touches of humor, but there were complaints about what was seen as a badly constructed plot, and the fact that Williams appeared to be repeating themes he had explored in earlier plays.

Henry Hewes argued in Saturday Review that the many revisions Williams had made to Battle of Angels, the play which in much revised form became Orpheus Descending, resulted in unnecessary complications to a simple tragedy, which made the action seem chaotic. Hewes did have praise for the occasions "when this play glows with Williams's magnificent awareness of the battle between the forces of life and death," and for the excellence of the language. Yet the play

runs into trouble when it attempts to fly its poetry through a conventional stage atmosphere thick with gossiping old ladies, thefts from the cash register, and Saroyanesque comedy and pathos. The action becomes casual and accidental, a happy ending just as possible as the sad one.

When the play was revived two years later in New York at the Gramercy Arts Theater, Judith Crist in the New York Herald Tribune wrote that the play lacked β€˜β€˜the complexities, the shadings, the broader implications so clearly defined in earlier Williams works and in the subsequent Sweet Bird [of Youth].’’

Orpheus Descending has been revived in major productions several times since its early days. In 1989 Peter Hall directed a production at Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre. According to Robert Brustein in the New Republic, Hall charged the play with Freudian significance, treating it as an oedipal revenge story. By this he meant that Val and Lady, the younger man and the older woman, embodied the oedipal complex, in which a man is sexually attracted to his mother. Lady's husband Jabe then becomes the avenging father figure who punishes the symbolic son for his transgressions. This production won some high praise from audiences and critics, but Brustein was a dissenting voice, arguing that Vanessa Redgrave was miscast as Lady Torrance, and that the necessary electricity between her and Kevin Anderson's Val was entirely absent. As for the play, Brustein regarded the plot as "never far removed from gothic soap opera."

Nearly half a century after its premiere, Orpheus Descending is still not regarded as one of Williams's best plays, although it does reflect his typical themes and characters. In 2000 a major revival of the play was staged at London's Donmar Warehouse, directed by Nicholas Hytner. Catherine Bates in the Times Literary Supplement singled out Helen Mirren's Lady for praise: "Helen Mirren plays Lady to perfection, casting off her false selves as so many skins to reveal the despair behind the shrieking nerves, the pride behind the despair, and the girlishness behind the pride." John Lahr in the New Yorker also had praise for Mirren's "superbly controlled performance," and he had a positive view of the production as a whole, which allowed the audience "to see beyond the play's showy exterior to its compelling internal drama." For Matt Wolf, reviewing the production for Variety, "Hytner's is a surprisingly by-the-book reading of a defiantly showy play that flirts with melodrama and yet can, in the right hands, seem majestic."

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Essays and Criticism