Historical Context

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Racism in the 1950s South In the 1950s in the American South, discrimination against black people was commonplace. In Orpheus Descending, Carol mentions that she protested against the execution of a black man named Willie McGee. This was an actual case that occurred in 1951 in Mississippi. McGee was accused of raping a white woman, although in fact he and the woman had a long-standing sexual relationship. McGee's defense counsel challenged the fact that blacks had been excluded from the jury, and that the death penalty for rape was used only against blacks, never against whites. During the trial and appeal, white supremacist groups threatened violence, and although the Supreme Court twice ordered a stay of execution, McGee was eventually put to death.

At this time in the South, many white people were vehemently opposed to any sexual relationships between blacks and whites. The practice was referred to as miscegenation, and many states had laws that banned it. During the 1950s and 1960s, fourteen states repealed those laws, but sixteen others, including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas, kept their antimiscegenation laws on the books until the Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional in 1967.

The routine mistreatment of black people is obvious in the play, in which they are referred to by white authority figures such as Talbott and Jabe as "niggers." When Val is told to leave the county, Talbott mentions a county where a sign says,"Nigger, don't let the sun go down on you in this county." Carol and Val are the two characters who are keenly aware of these injustices. Val has the name Bessie Smith inscribed on his guitar, and he says, "Jim Crow killed Bessie Smith, but that's another story." He is referring to the fate of a famous black blues singer named Bessie Smith, who was known as the "Empress of the Blues.'' In 1937 Smith was involved in a car accident in Tennessee. What happened next has not been established beyond doubt, but some historians say that she was taken to a hospital that refused to admit blacks, and she died on her way to another hospital; other versions of the story say that the black hospital she was taken to was too poorly equipped to save her life. Either way, the story of Bessie Smith passed into local legend as an example of the injustices done to black people.

During the 1940s and 1950s in Tennessee, however, there were already signs that things were changing. In 1948 a branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was formed in Jackson-Madison County, Tennessee. In 1952 four black students were admitted to graduate programs at the University of Tennessee.

In 1954 the Supreme Court handed down its historic decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which declared that school desegregation must quickly be brought to an end. Earlier in that same year, however, Frank Clement became governor of Tennessee with the promise that he would never integrate the state's schools. And in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, there was much resistance to desegregation in the South, and this led to a resurgence of the white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan.

But the tide towards integration and civil rights for blacks was inevitable. From 1955 to 1959, Memphis State University began gradual desegregation, and in 1956 Clement called out the National Guard to integrate schools in Clinton. In 1959 the Federal government sued Tennessee's Fayette County Democratic Executive Committee after its officials refused to let blacks vote in a Democratic primary. It was the first lawsuit of...

(This entire section contains 693 words.)

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its kind filed under the Civil Rights Act of 1957. In 1960, as the civil rights movement gathered momentum, black college students in Nashville, Tennessee, began sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters at Kress's, Woolworth's, and McLellan's stores.

It was not long before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. Many challenges remained for the civil rights movement, however. In 1960 only 29 percent of blacks of voting age were registered to vote in the southern states, compared to 61 percent of whites. The problem of disparities in opportunities to vote was addressed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Literary Style

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Imagery The principal imagery in the play is that of birds and wild animals. Both are symbols of freedom. The bird image first appears in Val's extended poetic speech in act 1, scene 2, in which he tells Lady there is a kind of tiny, almost weightless bird that has no legs and so spends its entire life flying. Since these birds are the color of the sky, they are transparent and are invisible to the hawks: "[T]hey live their whole life on the wing, and they sleep on the wind... they just spread their wings and go to sleep and... never light on this earth but one time when they die!’’ The image suggests a kind of freedom, to which human life may aspire but not be able to reach. Lady, who knows that such a bird exists only in Val's imagination, responds, "I don't think nothing living has ever been that free."

The bird image occurs again in Val's reminiscence of the first time he made love to a girl. As he looked at the girl from afar, a bird flew by and made a shadow on her body, and he heard its call, "a single, high clear note." He interpreted this as a signal of the girl's willingness to make love—an act of freedom for both of them.

The stage set contains a visual image of a bird, visible throughout the play. It is on the drapery which covers the tiny bedroom alcove where Val and Lady get together. On the drapery are depicted fantastic white birds—suggestive once more of freedom, and a stark contrast to the dullness of the general store. This is particularly noticeable at the end of act 2, when the drapery, lit from behind by a bulb, becomes translucent.

The allusions to wild animals also suggest freedom, although of a wild, untamed kind that is certain to attract predators. At the beginning of act 3, scene 2, for example, Val stands stock-still "in the tense, frozen attitude of a wild animal listening to something that warns it of danger." Like a wild animal, Val has been hunted all his life, even when he was a teenager growing up in Witches' Bayou.

The image returns at the end of the play when Carol picks up Val's snakeskin jacket after it has been torn off him by the lynch mob. A snake renews itself by shedding its skin, and Carol takes the jacket as a sign that the wild, free spirit embodied in Val has indeed not been snuffed out but has been passed on:

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.

Earlier in the same scene, Carol had taken up the image of wildness and extended it, linking it to positive human values and contrasting it with the artificiality of the modern world:

The country used to be wild, the men and women were wild and there was a wild sort of sweetness in their hearts, for each other, but now it's sick with neon, it's broken out sick, with neon.

Religion and Myth There are various hints of a religious dimension to the play in the many allusions to Christianity. Val's full name, Valentine Xavier, contains the names of two Christian saints, hinting perhaps at another element of his nature. It might seem that the sensual Val is an unusual candidate for sainthood, but he does boast of his capacity to overcome the demands of the physical body—a self-denying asceticism characteristic of some forms of saintly life. For example, he tells Lady that he can sleep on a concrete floor or go without sleep for forty-eight hours if he wishes.

Another religious element in the play is Vee, a visionary artist who paints representations of the Holy Spirit and of the risen Christ. The latter points to the significance of the fact that the play takes place near Easter; and Lady's plan to reopen the confectionery the night before Easter Sunday suggests an allusion to the resurrection of the dead. This is emphasized by the way she decorates the confectionery so that it resembles her dead father's wine garden; it is her way of showing that she is not defeated, just as Christ's resurrection showed that he had triumphed over death. This is shown visually on stage in the last scene, when the lights are switched on in the confectionery. It is as if, on the eve of Easter Sunday, light has entered the dark world. Up to that point, the confectionery has been, as Williams expressed it in his stage directions at the beginning of the play, "shadowy and poetic as some inner dimension of the play."

The play also has a mythic dimension, in that it alludes to the classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus was a Greek demigod, whose songs were so beautiful that he was able to charm all of nature. When his bride Eurydice dies after a snake bite, Orpheus goes down to the underworld to bring her back. In the play, Orpheus is analogous to Val, who enters the underworld of the small southern town, to rescue Lady, who is enduring a living death in her partnership with Jabe.

Compare and Contrast

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1950s: The American South is largely segregated, with many public facilities designated for "whites only." During the 1950s, the modern civil rights movement begins.

Today: Overt racial discrimination has largely ended and laws are in place to ensure that it does not recur. However, race relations remain problematic in many ways. Minorities complain of the practice of "racial profiling," in which African Americans or Hispanics are sometimes targeted by police just because of their race, not because there is any evidence linking them personally to a crime.

1950s: Sexual attitudes throughout American society are conservative, especially in the so-called Bible Belt in the South. Pre-marital sex is frowned upon.

Today: After the freedom of the 1960s and 1970s, sexual mores once more tilt to the conservative, largely because of the risk of contracting the deadly disease AIDS. However, American society has not returned to what many regard as the sexually repressive 1950s. Sex before marriage is no longer universally viewed with disapproval, and single mothers whose children are born out of wedlock are no longer subject to the social stigma that occurred in former generations.

1950s: For decades, American theater has been dominated by realism. Williams, the leading playwright of the decade, goes far beyond these realistic conventions, particularly in his highly lyrical style and his use of cinematic effects through music and lighting.

Today: Realism is no longer the dominant dramatic form. Theatergoers now regularly enjoy absurdist works by playwrights such as Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett, the surrealism of Edward Albee, and the minimalism and unusual dialogue in the plays of David Mamet.

Media Adaptations

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The Fugitive Kind, a film version of Orpheus Descending, opened in December 1959 in New York, starring Marlon Brando as Val and Anna Magnani as Lady and directed by Sidney Lumet. The film is available on VHS.

Orpheus Descending was made as a movie (shown on television) in 1990, starring Kevin Anderson as Val, and Vanessa Redgrave as Lady Torrance.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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SOURCES Bates, Carolyn,"Anger, Oh Yes," in Times Literary Supplement, July 7, 2000, p. 21.

Brustein, Robert, "Orpheus Condescending," in New Republic, October 30, 1989, pp. 25-27.

Crandall, George W., ed., The Critical Response to Tennessee Williams, Greenwood Press, 1996, pp. 143–49.

Crist, Judith, "Orpheus Descending in Revival at Gramercy Arts," in New York Herald Tribune, October 6, 1959, sec. 2, p. 6.

Falk, Signi Lenea, Tennessee Williams, Twayne, 1961.

Grant, Michael, Myths of the Greeks and Romans, Mentor Book series, New American Library, 1962, pp. 239, 266-73.

Hewes, Henry, "Tennessee Revising," in Saturday Review, March 30, 1957, p. 26.

Lahr, John, "Heavenly Itch," in New Yorker, July 17, 2000, pp. 84-86.

Monteverdi, Claudio, The Operas of Monteverdi, English National Opera Guide series, No. 45, Riverrun Press, Inc., 1992, p. 50.

Morley, Sheridan, "Eerily Prophetic," in, July 8, 2000, pp. 43–44.

Nelson, Benjamin, Tennessee Williams: The Man and his Work, Ivan Obolensky, Inc., New York, 1961, pp. 224-31.

Ovid, Metamorphoses, translated and with an introduction by Mary M. Innes, Penguin, 1975, pp. 225-28, 246-48.

Reiman, Donald H., and Sharon B. Powers, eds., Shelley's Poetry and Prose, W. W. Norton, 1977, p. 200.

Wallace, Jack E., "The Image of Theater in Tennessee Williams' s Orpheus Descending," in The Critical Response to Tennessee Williams, edited by George W. Crandall, Greenwood Press, 1996, pp. 157-58.

Williams, Tennessee, Battle of Angels, in The Theatre of Tennessee Williams, Vol. 1, New Directions, 1971.

----, Eight Plays, Nelson Doubleday, Inc., 1979, p. 540. -, In the Winter of Cities, New Directions, 1956, pp. 27-28.

----, In the Winter of Cities, New Directions, 1956, pp. 27-28.

----, Orpheus Descending, in Four Plays, Signet Classic, 1976, p. vi.

Wolf, Matt, "Orpheus Descending," in Variety, Vol. 379, No. 7, July 10, 2000, p. 33.

FURTHER READING Griffin, Alice, Understanding Tennessee Williams, University of South Carolina Press, 1995, pp. 172-96. This is an in-depth analysis of nine of Williams's most successful plays, including Orpheus Descending. Griffin considers language, characters, themes, dramatic effects, and staging.

Hirsch, Foster, A Portrait of the Artist: The Plays of Tennessee Williams, Kennikat Press, 1979. Hirsch analyzes Williams's play Battle of Angels and shows how it developed into Orpheus Descending.

Jackson, Esther Merle, The Broken World of Tennessee Williams, University of Wisconsin Press, 1965. Jackson describes the major characteristics of Williams's dramatic form and emphasizes the changing idea of theater that is reflected throughout his work.

Kataria, Gulshan Rai, The Faces of Eve: A Study of Tennessee Williams's Heroines, Sterling Publishers Private Limited, 1992. Kataria studies Williams's plays from an archetypal, Jungian perspective and views Lady Torrance as an example of the amazon archetype.




Critical Essays