Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1695
The legend of Orpheus and Eurydice has fascinated poets, playwrights, and composers from the Renaissance to the modern era. Since a central element of the myth is the power of music, it has not surprisingly been the subject of numerous operas, including a version of Williams's Orpheus Descending, with libretto by J. D. McClatchy and music by Bruce Say lor (1994). Plays such as Eurydice by French dramatist Jean Anouilh, and Orpheus by Jean Cocteau (1926; made into a film by Cocteau in 1950), and films such as Marcel Camus's Black Orpheus (1959) are testament to the enduring nature of the myth.
The Orpheus story was not, however, part of Williams's original concept of the play, which initially emerged as Battle of Angels. In this play, one of Williams's earliest, Val Xavier was not a singer but a writer, and therefore no Orpheus. But when the play failed so miserably in 1940, Williams refused to abandon it. Over the course of seventeen years, he rewrote it five times until it reemerged as Orpheus Descending in 1957. Williams's typescripts show that the new title did not appear until 1953, and it is clear that the playwright was intrigued by the Orpheus and Eurydice myth.
Orpheus was a minstrel, the son of the god Apollo. He learned to play the lyre with such beauty that he could charm wild animals, and even trees and stones. The trees would uproot themselves and move, just to be nearer to his music. Orpheus' s story is told most fully in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Orpheus married the nymph Eurydice, but on the very day of their wedding, Eurydice was bitten by a snake in a field and died. Orpheus mourned her but was determined to bring her back from Hades. Descending into the underworld, he reached Pluto and Persephone, the shadowy realm's king and queen, and appealed to them, accompanying his words with the music of his lyre. As he made his plea, the ghosts were in tears and everything else in Hades stood still. Moved, Pluto and Persephone granted Orpheus his request to take Eurydice back with him to the world of the living. There was only one condition, which was that Orpheus should not look back at her until they were safely home. As he led his wife back almost to the surface of the earth, Orpheus became afraid that Eurydice's strength was failing, and he also desired to see her. So he looked back. At that point, Eurydice faded away, dying for a second time, and was lost to Orpheus forever.
Williams's interest in the myth is apparent from the poem he wrote called "Orpheus Descending,’’ which was published in his collection of poems In the Winter of Cities (1956). In this poem, Orpheus's attempt to bring Eurydice back from the underworld is doomed to failure:
for you must learn, even you, what we have learned, that some things are marked by their nature to be not completed but only longed for and sought for a while and abandoned.
And so it is that Val Xavier must fail. He is Williams's modern-day Orpheus who descends to the Hades of a small southern town where Lady Torrance, the equivalent of Eurydice, is enduring a living death. Although the parallels with the myth should not be pushed too far (Lady Torrance, for example, is a highly emotional and spirited woman, far removed from the passive Eurydice of the legend), they do explain the significant role ascribed in the play to music. As in Shakespeare's plays, music often has significance beyond its immediate context,...
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as a symbol of harmony. It is also used as an indication of the kind of "lyric space'' (a term used by Jack E. Wallace in his essay "The Image of Theater in Tennessee Williams'sOrpheus Descending") in which deep and sincere feelings can be expressed, and life reaches upwards to a fleeting glimpse of freedom and transcendence. Furthermore, music is a symbol of purity, as Val's comment to Lady about his guitar makes clear: "It washes me clean like water when anything unclean has touched me." The power of music is also conveyed when Val explains to Lady about the autographs of musicians on his guitar. He points to the signature of Leadbelly (1885-1949), the legendary blues artist, and says, "Greatest man who ever lived on the twelve-string guitar! Played it so good he broke the stone heart of a Texas governor with it and won himself a pardon out of jail.'' Leadbelly is thus presented as a thoroughly authentic Orpheus figure, with the Texas governor playing the part of Pluto. And Val's having Leadbelly's autograph, as well as those of others, on his guitar has the effect of linking Val to a tradition of music-making that is larger than himself as an individual.
There are at least five moments in the play when music asserts itself and becomes part of the play's thematic texture. First, Val sings Williams's own song, "Heavenly Grass," or part of it, several times. It begins with the following verse:
My feet took a walk In heavenly grass All day while the sky shone clear as glass, My feet took a walk In heavenly grass.
Through the ethereal image of "heavenly grass,'' the song echoes the theme of freedom, which is embodied in all the main characters. Val, Lady, Vee, and Carol all long for "heavenly grass," each in his or her own way.
Music again adds weight to the freedom image in the second example. As Val gives his lyrical speech about the tiny legless bird that lives its whole life on the wing, music (details unspecified) fades in. Val accompanies the faint music on his guitar as he says,"They sleep on the wind and never light on this earth but one time when they die!'' So like that mythical bird of paradise, music too can give expression to an unearthly reality, quite removed from the corruption of human life.
Third, music has the power to make people speak truthfully, or at least to highlight when they are doing so. In act 2, scene 1, music fades in as Carol, in a moment of tender sincerity, confesses to Val that she would love to hold something as tenderly as he holds his guitar. She then says, "Because you hang the moon for me!" This startling image well conveys how Val, and the music from which he is inseparable (his guitar, after all, is his "life's companion"), gives Carol the feeling that everything is right on earth and in the heavens. Everything is in its place, with the moon hanging exactly where it should be in an orderly cosmos.
For Renaissance composers such as Monteverdi who set the Orpheus myth to music, this cosmic dimension of music was an important part of their conception of the myth. In Monteverdi's opera Orfeo (1607), for example, Orpheus sings in praise of his lyre:
When you play, the stars fall silent at music so celestial, and all the constellations dance in measure with swift or slow gyrations.
In other words, Orpheus "hangs the moon." His lyre is an expression of a cosmic harmony, what the poet Shelley called in Prometheus Unbound, "the deep music of the rolling world,'' as quoted in Shelley's Poetry and Prose, edited by Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers.
The fourth moment when music makes a significant contribution to the play's themes comes at the end of act 2. Lady and Val have quarreled over the money Val borrowed from the cash register, and he is about to leave the store for good when he is stopped by Lady's passionate outcry that she needs him just to go on living. Guitar music, "Lady's Love Song," fades in and continues during their tender reconciliation in the tiny alcove. This is a fine theatrical moment because visual and musical elements combine to reinforce the theme. The alcove is lit up, making the curtain that covers it, with its bizarre design of white birds and scarlet fruit, translucent. The alcove becomes a kind of sacred space in which love can triumph.
Finally, music accompanies Lady's dying moments as she walks unsteadily to the confectionery, having been shot several times by Jabe. Williams's stage direction is telling: "Music rises to cover whatever sound Death makes in the confectionery." In a contest between music and death, music triumphs.
At the personal level, of course, the tragedy is inescapable. Lady and Val die violent deaths. Val's demise, burned to death by a mob, has some vague similarity to the fate of Orpheus. The minstrel was torn to pieces by a group of Ciconian women, who were angry because Orpheus, after losing Eurydice, had renounced the company of women. And yet despite this grisly end, the ancient myth is not ultimately dark, because the principle of music survives. In Ovid's version of the story, after Orpheus has been killed, his head and his lyre are thrown into the river Hebrus. Miraculously, the lyre still plays, the tongue of the dead singer still moves to the melody, and the riverbanks echo in lament. Orpheus is dead, but music lives on.
And so it is with Val Xavier. At the end of the play, his snakeskin jacket remains, and is gathered up by Carol. She runs off with it, in spite of Talbott's shouted order to stop. The jacket symbolizes a whole complex of meanings that it has accrued during the course of the play. It is the longing for "heavenly grass," for the bird that never touches the earth, for creative and sensual "wildness," for beauty, for authenticity in feelings, for an end to loneliness—and also for music, since the jacket was part of Val's identity as a singer in New Orleans, when he was known simply as Snakeskin. As Williams (quoted by Wallace) put it in a draft that was intended as a foreword to the play, the "impulse of song ... breaks out of confinement and goes on despite all order to halt.’’
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Orpheus Descending, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003. Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1800
Orpheus Descending occupies a unique place in Tennessee Williams's body of work. Orpheus Descending, in fact, descends from Williams's first produced full-length play, Battle of Angels, which opened to disastrous reviews in 1940. Both Orpheus Descending and its antecedent concern the arrival of a virile stranger in the midst of a repressed Southern community. While the psychosexual dynamic that fuels most of Williams's work was present in the earlier play, a surfeit of incident coupled with an excess of religious and pagan imagery threatened to overwhelm it. This welter of sex and symbolism proved too much for early audiences and Battle of Angels was forced to close shortly after its opening. The playwright was undaunted and for the next 17 years, a period that witnessed his greatest artistic and commercial triumphs, he continued to rework the original material of Battle of Angels. The result of this relentless effort was Orpheus Descending, which premiered on March 21, 1957.
As Williams pointed out in the introduction to the published script, the basic plot of Battle remained intact. Orpheus Descending, he wrote, was "the tale of a wild-spirited boy who wanders into a conventional community of the South and creates the commotion of a fox in a chicken coop.'' Benjamin Nelson has pointed out in his study Tennessee Williams that "Much of the naive plot pyrotechnics have been eliminated in transition," and, he adds, "the physical plot is considerably tightened." Yet, despite these changes, Williams stubbornly clung to the surplus of symbolism that so baffled and infuriated Battle of Angels's critics. Orpheus Descending did not fare much better. The play received poor notices and closed after a short run. Williams expressed his disappointment to Don Ross in a 1958 interview that ran in the New York Herald Tribune:
I was terribly shocked by its reception....I had invested so much of myself in it. I had worked longer at it than any other play. I thought it had lyricism, the feeling of tenderness, the striving to understand, the longing, but I did feel that the ending didn't come off quite right.
To best judge the play on its intrinsic merits, independent of the strengths or shortcomings of any given production, one must look at the elements woven into the fabric of the play, particularly on the promiscuous use of symbolism from conflicting traditions. The success or failure of the play can, in large part, be measured by the degree to which Williams has been able to fuse both pagan and Christian imagery.
The play abounds in symbols. There is an excessive commingling of motif from the pagan and Christian traditions. The weight of these symbols threatens to founder the play, freighted as it is with too many allusions. If, as Williams claims in the introduction to Orpheus Descending, the play is "a lyrical play about memories and the loneliness of them" he risks burying these memories under an excess of symbols. It would be well, then, to discuss some of the motifs, both Christian and pagan, which Williams employs in his story of light against dark, life against death.
There is a marked Mediterranean aspect of the play, rich in classical allusions. The fallen debutante Carol Cutrere has evolved from the character of Cassandra Whiteside, who appeared in Battle of Angels. In classical mythology, Cassandra was a seer whose prophecies were not believed.
In act 2, scene 3, a fugitive from a chain gang is pursued by dogs offstage. Val and Lady listen as the dogs' baying "become almost a single savage note." "They're tearing him to pieces!" says Val. This both illustrates Val's affinity for the fugitive kind and foreshadows the tragic denouement that closes the final act. It also carries with it the connotation of the rending of Actaeon by his own dogs, after he spied the goddess Diana bathing. Again, Williams has demonstrated his ability to load—or overload— a scene with multiple layers of meaning. As the baying of the dogs dies out, following a single gunshot, the couple make the first tentative steps towards the coupling that will both rejuvenate Lady and threaten her life.
Dolly, Beaulah, and the Temple Sisters function as a sort of Greek Chorus, commenting on events as they happen and providing the audience with background information.
The character of Lady Torrance, an Italian immigrant whose father was burned alive, along with his wine garden, for selling wine to blacks, is derived from Battle of Angel’ s Myra Torrance. The shift in Mrs. Torrance's ethnicity and the manner and place of her father's death serve multiple purposes. On the level of plot, the immolation of Lady's father presages the violence of act 3. The vines of Papa Romano and the wine made from them also evoke the wine-wreathed Dionysus, god of excess, inebriation and, incidentally, theater. Dionysus, who gave wine to humankind, is associated with orgiastic revels, unbridled passions, and irrational violence. The effect the god has on his female followers, the Maenads, is akin to the effect that Val has on the town's women, from the nymphomaniacal Carol Cutrere, to the visionary Vee Talbott, to the repressed Lady Torrance.
The title change is, perhaps, the most telling. In the Greek myth, adopted by the Romans, Orpheus descended into Hades to retrieve his beloved Eurydice after she had been bitten by a deadly snake. He so charmed the guardians of Hell with his lyre playing that he was allowed to lead Eurydice out of the Underworld with the condition that he must not look back at her until he had left Hades. He, of course, looks back, with the fatal consequence that she is lost to him forever. Grieving over the loss of Eurydice, he sang of his love for her until Maenads tore him to pieces. The classical scholar Michael Grant points out in Myths of the Greeks and Romans that Orpheus, who was first associated with Apollo, who gave him his lyre, later came to be contrasted with him, "So Orpheus combined both Apolline and Dionysiac tendencies in Greek religion."
Val Xavier, a writer in the earlier version of the play, is now a guitar-toting drifter in a snakeskin jacket. The change of occupation emphasizes the identification of Val with the lyre-strumming Orpheus. He is now something more than a mere "fox in the hen house." Val's arrival has an intoxicating effect on the local womenfolk, inciting the jealousy and resentment of the town's men. As Nelson points out in Tennessee Williams "Val's music does not affect everyone but his presence certainly does. He descends into the under-kingdom to help Eurydice but his mission goes awry. The enchanted minstrel descends into the under-kingdom and is defeated."
Yet, in classical mythology, Hell is not a place from which no one may return. Michael Grant points out that there have been many Harrowers of Hell, including Heracles, Theseus, Dionysus, Orpheus and Aeneas. And, of course, the Christian tradition begins with Christ's own descent into Hell. Perhaps most pertinent to this play, however, is the example of Persephone. As the queen of Hell she welcomed Orpheus into the Underworld. According to myth, she was carried off by Pluto and forced to spend half the year underground. Her time underground was associated with the germination of seeds and the regeneration of spring, thus becoming an important symbol of rebirth.
While evocative of the temptation in the garden, Val's snakeskin jacket also resonates as a symbol of rebirth. The snake sheds its old skin, to make way for the new, just as the fallow time of winter makes way for the renewal of spring. And, as will be shown the thematic of rebirth or resurrection is the central element of the Christian symbolism, which shares, or competes for space, in this play crowded with symbols.
The Christian motifs commence with Val Xavier's name, "pouring symbolism through every letter," as Nelson states in Tennessee Williams. Val is short for Valentine, a Christian martyr whose feast day, February 14, is associated with romantic coupling and links, in one image, both death and regeneration. While it is clearly intended that Val be associated with the Orpheus of the title, it is worth noting that, according to Grant in Myths of the Greeks and Romans, "the Christians identified him with the Prince of Peace in Isaiah." Nelson remarks of Val's descent, "once in the Underworld his role as Orpheus becomes conspicuously confused with Christian symbolism and he is presented as a Christ figure, raising up the local Magdalenes." The violent denouement of the play evokes both Greek tragedy and, most scandalously, the Passion of Christ.
While Cassandra's prophetic vocation has been downplayed with the name change to Carol, another seer, the religious visionary Vee Talbott is highlighted. Vee is another of the frustrated women suffocating in this small Southern town in whom, as Nelson points out "sexuality has been so perverted that it is hopelessly confused with religious exaltation." It is a running gag that the visions of apostles that Vee commemorates with her religious paintings all bear the likeness of local men. In act 3, scene 2, Vee has a vision of Christ in the cottonwoods, evidently in the form of Val Xavier, which helps precipitate the play's final crisis. Vee has witnessed the sky split open: "I saw, I tell you, I saw the TWO HUGE BLAZING EYES OF JESUS CHRIST RISEN!—Not crucified but Risen! I mean Crucified and then RISEN!—The blazing eyes of Christ Risen!" Vee's ecstatic religious passion exceeds even Carol Cutrere's erotomania, and when Vee places Val's hand on her chest to show her how Christ touched her, his fate is sealed. The fact that the play has two seer figures, each representing a different tradition, rather than settling on a single figure that could fuse the two traditions, demonstrates some of the problems presented by Williams's design. Whether this doubling of the visionary motif deepens or confuses the concept is open to question.
The play's climax occurs between Good Friday and Easter, deepening the association of Val with Christ: the fox has now become the lamb. In a recurrence of the Orpheus motif, Val tarries when he learns that Lady is bearing his child, thus losing the chance to save himself. This Eurydice, evidently, has no plans to abandon her Hell.
Val is not torn apart by Maenads; instead, he falls prey to the lynch mob. Yet, his demise manages, in its characteristic excess, to jumble together the disparate imagery that has both marred and enriched the play. As Nelson notes,"Val's destruction at the conclusion is symbolic of many things: the crucifixion of Christ, the destruction of the bringer of light, the rending asunder of Dionysus, the god of fertility and rebirth, and the punishment of Orpheus."
Source: Kevin O'Sullivan, Critical Essay on Orpheus Descending, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3033
Tennessee Williams's first professionally produced play, Battle of Angels (1940), failed during its Boston tryouts. However, the play did not die. Williams continued to rewrite, to add, to modify and in March, 1957, with the great successes of Glass Menagerie (1945), Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) behind him, he committed Battle of Angels, now titled Orpheus Descending, to another Broadway production. "I honestly believe," Williams wrote, "that it is finally finished. About 75 percent of it is new writing, but what is much more important, I believe that I have now finally managed to say in it what I wanted to say..." Few plays have been so long meditated and so staunchly believed in by their creators, yet after seventeen years of perpetual revising by America's most successful playwright and one of the most influential figures in the international theater, Orpheus Descending played only sixty-eight performances.
The purpose of this essay is to suggest through an analysis of the myths creating the dramatic structure that Orpheus Descending is a better play than its dismal performance record suggests, a play which has yet to fulfill its potential in production but which even in the printed text represents a significant attempt to recreate myths in the context of our own time.
Although I will consider only those myths with obvious referents in the text to the exclusion of whatever subconscious archetypes we might posit, Williams' autobiographical impulses are important, as he superimposed and strengthened the Orpheus myth upon the myth of the battle between light and dark, the good and evil angels who war in heaven. Williams does not suppress this battle-in-heaven myth, as Hugh Dickenson clearly demonstrates in his comparison of the two published versions of the play. Rather, Williams comes to emphasize the responsibility which love places upon the poet/singer Orpheus and the pull toward life and fruitful-ness that the Orpheus figure creates in those dead souls he meets in the hades of the Torrance Mercantile Store. Williams himself always considered Orpheus Descending autobiographical. "Well," he wrote, "nothing is more precious to anybody than the emotional record of his youth, and you will find the trail of my sleeve-worn heart in this completed play..." The hero/savior Orpheus or Val, as Williams calls his hero, embodies the playwright as he chooses to see himself, heart on sleeve, "a wild spirited boy who wanders into a conventional community of the South and creates the commotion of a fox in a chicken coop."
In the play itself we are able to distinguish five separate myth patterns: the loss of Eden, the Battle of Angels, Christ, Orpheus, and Adonis. The setting of the play is the Torrance Mercantile Store, from late winter in Act I through the dark night before Easter dawn at the end of Act III. Throughout the play we are aware of rain, occasionally in torrents and at points accompanied by thunder and lightning, perceived through a giant "dusty" window looking out on "disturbing emptiness." Dogs, the hounds of hell, bark with varying degrees of menace. The store interior is almost entirely bare, but does contain "the black skeleton of a dressmaker's dummy" and "a sinister-looking artificial palm in a greenish-brown jardiniere." A much smaller bedroom alcove contrasts with the larger set. Across the alcove hangs an oriental drapery picturing two major myth motifs of the play, "fantastic birds" and a golden tree with scarlet fruit, a tree of life. Before the action of the play begins, the conflict is clearly announced in this set: life, fruitfulness, freedom against sinister artificiality, barrenness and death. The conflict will be played out within the mercantile hell where there are only the ones who are bought, the buyers and those few who have never been branded.
The setting is completed by a prologue "treated frankly as exposition", in which two of the local inhabitants act a Chorus filling in background and emphasizing the myths. The play is set in Two River County, at once introducing the Eden motif. We learn the power in the play, Jabe Torrance, embodies sterile impotence—he and his wife have money instead of children and do not sleep together—and is dying of a spreading cancer. Jabe "bought'' his wife, Lady, and brought her into his hades from a different country and race. She is a "Dago"; her father, Papa Romano, was a "Wop from the old country" who built a garden of wine, music, and love. Lady had known love "like a fire" in her father's "wine garden," but the garden and with it Lady's father were burned by the local vigilantes, the Mystic Crew, led by Jabe Torrance, when Papa Romano violated their commandment and "sold liquor to niggers." Lady now plans to recreate her father's wine garden by opening a confectionary adjacent to the store on the Saturday before Easter. The Chorus introduces their husbands, two slouching, red-faced henchmen of death, Dog and Pee-Wee, and the Temple sisters, two old maid vestal virgins who prowl about the store. In both the store and the living quarters above it, they tell us "everything is so dingy and dark..." Surrounded by all this death, Beulah discovers the olives set out for the funeral-like reception for the dying Jabe are not stuffed but have seeds in them.
The action of the play begins with the entrance of Carol Cutrere, the outcast member of the oldest and most distinguished family in the county. In the earlier version of the play her name was Cassandra and she retains her function as a prophetess. At her behest the Negro Conjure Man gives the magic Choctaw cry and Valentine Xavior materializes in his snakeskin jacket and carrying his guitar. Almost immediately behind him is Vee, short for Veronica, wife of Sheriff Talbott. Her entrance fixes Val in the Christ role, for like Saint Veronica, who gave Christ her veil to wipe his forehead on his journey up Calvary, Vee dispenses mercy. She has sheltered Val and hopes Lady will accept him as a clerk in the store. Like Val, she is a creator, a primitive painter, capable of visions. She comes bearing gifts, pineapple sherbert for Jabe. Symbolically, her effort to bring together the pines of sterility and the apples of fruitfulness is "reduced to juice."
As the play progresses, Vee clearly identifies Val as a savior, painting him as Christ in her long contemplated picture of the Last Supper. Val understands her visions, which seek to metamorphose the horror and corruption of life among the living and dead into something of beauty. In their final confrontation, Val kneels to her as she sits in the shoe-fitting chair, symbolically reenacting the ritual washing of the feet of the disciples. She recognizes him as the figure of Christ in her vision, a vision of such brilliance it has nearly destroyed her physical sight by an influx of spiritual insight.
—I heard this clap of thunder! Sky!—Split open!— And there in the split-open sky, I saw, I tell you, I saw the TWO HUGE BLAZING EYES OF JESUS CHRIST RISEN!—Not crucified but Risen! I mean Crucified and then RISEN!—The blazing eyes of Christ Risen!
Like Saint Veronica, who received her veil back from Christ with the lasting impression of His face upon it, Vee—who "was born with a caul! a sort of thing like a veil" and who on the Saturday afternoon before Easter meditated on the "mysteries of Easter, veils!"—recognizes Val Xavior as the Christ of her vision, Christ harrowing the hell of Jabe Torrance's store in Two River County. "She collapses, forward, falls to her knees, her arms thrown about Val. He seizes her to lift her." Vee's recognition of Val as Savior ensures his destruction; from this moment in the play he is turned over to the forces of corruption, the devils, to be tormented by Sheriff Talbott, Dog, Pee-Wee and then by Jabe before he is hung upon the tree and lynched by blowtorch, tying together both sacrifice and purification.
However, the legend of Christ and Saint Veronica as embodied by Val and Vee is fraught with ambiguities. Vee paints her Church of the Resurrection with an all too blatant red phallic steeple. Although Val kisses her "soft woman hands" that paint "as if God touched your fingers", in her vision Val/Christ touches her bosom. Their whole relationship is one of highly charged, barely repressed physical desire.
Structurally, the Val/Vee confrontations appear in the second scene of each act and always during the daylight hours. Vee is intensely aware of the light, "a blaze of light" outside the store, while Lady complains of darkness inside the store in an early speech. "We always had a problem with light in this store." Vee and Val agree that "a world of light and shadow is what we live in, and—it's— confusing..." While Vee is associated with daylight, Lady belongs to the dark night in hell.
Val's function as Orpheus is less ambiguous than his function as Christ. In their first meeting, Lady, unaware of Val's presence, mutters, "I wish I was dead, dead, dead..." to which Val responds quietly, "No, you don't, Lady." Lady cannot sleep. She is obsessed with the fire which destroyed her father and his wine garden, and with her desire to recreate it in the confectionery. She is also "cold."
Val immediately gives Lady the snakeskin jacket, symbolic of regeneration, to wear and introduces the guitar, a phallic life-giver. He also tells her he is a light-bringer. "I do electric repairs." His supernatural qualities are quickly established. His temperature is always "a couple of degrees above normal" and he is above such human needs as sleep, breathing, and elimination."I can sleep on a concrete floor or go without sleeping, without even feeling sleepy, for forty-eight hours. And I can hold my breath three minutes without blacking out...And I can go a whole day without passing water." And, ominously, Val can "burn down . . . any two-footed woman.'' Against Lady's wish for death, Val juxtaposes the vision of the transparent birds with no legs who soar in the high blue sky near the sun and sleep on the wind, touching earth only in death. In the Orpheus myth, Orpheus is reincarnated as a swan, thus the transparent birds associated with both the dove of the Holy Spirit and the Orphic swan help to fix Val in the roles of Christ and Orpheus. Lady accepts the vision of life Val offers and although at first she is not interested in anything but a "working relation" with Val, she would "give this mercantile store and every bit of stock in it to be that tiny bird the color of the sky."
Val and Lady establish the sexual liaison which creates life in the depths of hades when Lady/ Eurydice realizes Val/Orpheus offers life. "I NEED YOU!!!" she cries, "TO LIVE ... TO GO ON LIVING!!!"
He looks up gravely at her from his guitar. She closes the curtain behind her. Its bizarre design, a gold tree with white birds and scarlet fruit in it, is softly translucent with the bulb lighted behind it. The guitar continues softly for a few moments; stops; the stage darkens till only the curtain of the alcove is clearly visible.
With his music and his vision of earthly life and love, Val is almost able to bring Lady out of Hades. But Lady refuses to leave until Jabe is destroyed and the wine garden recreated. She tells Val, "I guess my heart knew that somebody must be coming to take me out of this hell!...—but DEATH has got to die before we go..." But Death survives. Lady/ Eurydice will not escape hades nor will she bear life within it. Her suspected pregnancy confirmed by Jabe's nurse, Lady dismisses Val—"You've given me life, you can go!"—and, in a lovely image, compares herself to the barren fig tree in her father's wine garden:
Time went by it, spring after useless spring, and it almost started to—die... Then one day I discovered a small green fig on the tree they said wouldn't bear!... I ran through the wine garden shouting, "Oh, Father, it's going to bear, the fig tree is going to bear!"—It seemed such a wonderful thing, after those ten barren springs, for the little fig tree to bear, it called for a celebration—I ran to a closet, I opened a box that we kept Christmas ornaments in!—I took them out... I decorated the fig tree with glass bells and glass birds and stars and tinsel and snow!... I've won, Mr. Death, I'm going to bear!
The fig tree brings together the pagan and Christian myths. The difficulty of fertilizing fig trees led to symbolic marriages between human representatives of male and female fig tress and human sacrifice among the ancient Greeks. Adam and Eve used fig leaves to cover their nakedness after eating the fruit of the Forbidden Tree (Genesis 3:7) and Christ cursed the barren fig tree (Matthew 2:19). The shape of the fig has lent itself to symbolic associations with both the testicles and the womb. By hanging Christmas decorations on the fig tree Lady celebrates not only her fertility, but foreshadows resurrection and eternal life. Among her decorations are the transparent "glass birds" but also "icicles and snow" of death. In her triumph Lady has stopped to look back at Jabe and Val has stopped to look back at Lady. The strangely rejuvenated Jabe shoots Lady and sets the waiting vigilantes on Val. What happens to Val is never completely clear. The vigilantes take rope and a blowtorch from the store and they repeatedly expostulate "—Christ!" However, we also hear dogs and remember that Vee and Val have seen chain-gang dogs tear fugitives to pieces, and Val and Lady actually hear a convict torn as the Maenads torn Orpheus.
The ambiguities in the Val/Orpheus—Lady/ Eurydice myth are not entirely the result of an overlap with the Val/Christ—Vee/Saint Veronica or the wine garden/Eden myths. Val is an extremely handsome young man appearing for the first time on his birthday. His attraction to the older Lady seems less strong than her's to him. He becomes almost a prisoner unable to escape Lady's need for him. We are reminded here of Adonis, so handsome at birth he is loved by Aphrodite. Aphrodite entrusts her mortal lover to Persephone, but Persephone, Queen of Hades, loves him too, and refuses to give him up until Zeus intervenes, giving him half the year to Love and half the year to Death. Surrounded by hunting dogs, he is eventually gored to death by a maddened boar...
Both Romano and Val are outsiders, superior to the local population of Twin River County; and both have descended into a hell in Twin River County through the traditional pattern. They have crossed water to reach Twin River County; they confront there the spirits of the dead. Both do battle with the monstrous tyrannical figure of Death, Jabe Torrance, and a host of demi-monsters, the Mystic Crew, the Sheriff, Pee-Wee and Dog. Both are associated with the beautiful Lady and each loses her to the monster as she, through her unborn child, is about to triumph over death and sterility. Val, whose descent is more fully chronicled, receives aid from the traditional helper with more than human powers, Carol Cutrere.
Unlike the cyclical heroes, Campbell's hero with a thousand faces, neither Romano nor Val rises from his descent. Death prevents their crossing the second river and Carol Cutrere's sky-blue Cadillac waits for Val in vain. The play ends in the dark night before Easter dawn. While Williams does not complete the expected pattern in his hero's quest, he does transfer the symbol of reemergence and regeneration to Carol Cutrere, the embodiment of the transparent bird symbol, who knows love and life are "unbearably painful" and "dangerous." Carol also knows dead people chatter like birds, "but all they say is one word and that one word is 'live..."' Her exit from the hell of the store is perhaps as close as Williams can come to assent and affirmation. "Wild things leave skins behind them, they leave clean skins and teeth and white bones behind them, and these are tokens passed from one to another, so that the fugitive kind can always follow their kind..."
Occasionally, the relationship between the myth and its referent within the naturalistic context of the literal action becomes tenuous. For example, we can accept Val as Jesus or Orpheus but can we also accept him as Adonis without completely reassessing Lady's character? Jesus, Orpheus, and Adonis never physically consummate their love. Can we accept physical love as analogous to divine love? Jesus, Orpheus, Adonis, and Adam all have divine progenitors, Val is a drifter with hazy origins, something of a reprobate, who, although he refuses Carol's offered ride back across the water to safety, still poses a problem as to how willingly and deliberately he sacrifices his life. While Val's jacket associates him with the ancient's snakeskin symbol of regeneration, it also carries overtones of both the serpent's bite which sent Eurydice to hades, and the snake disguise assumed by Satan in the Garden of Eden. Val thus becomes a fallen angel, but his function in the Orpheus and Eden myths becomes ambiguous. Jabe is so viciously a god of death that even the most Romantic reading of Genesis cannot easily relate him to the God of fiery justice in the myths of Eden and the fallen angels myths. Despite such ambiguities, the myths of Orpheus Descending are integral to the dramatic structure, never imposed on the naturalist action or introduced selfconsciously. The emphasis and shading of a direction and cast have overcome far more serious ambiguities in far less worthy plays. Even if we approach the play as text rather than production, Williams has managed, to a remarkable degree, to integrate five major myths into a dramatic structure.
Source: Nancy Baker Traubitz, "Myth as a Basis of Dramatic Structure in Orpheus Descending," in Modern Drama, Vol. XIX, No. 1, March 1976, pp. 57-66.