Major Symbols in William's Play

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1557

As Philip C. Kolin observes in Tennessee Williams: A Tribute, The Rose Tattoo is ‘‘an experiment in comedy,’’ a blending of many comedic traditions. Slapstick, farcical, and bawdy elements are predominant, as the play is a strung together series of ridiculous events revolving around Serafina Delle Rose, a woman whose major preoccupation is her handsome husband’s virility. Williams’s play is a comic celebration of what the ancient Greeks or Romans would call the Dionysian elements of life, a celebration of eros, creative intoxication, virility, and regeneration. The play also celebrates fertility, however, and so Williams adds to the Greco- Roman mix.

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Williams’s idiosyncratic and playful experiment stands out within the context of his work as a whole, as most of his other plays are serious dramas shot through with tragedy and eruptions of violence. Yet, tying this play to Williams’s other works is its development of the sacred nature of life and love. This theme is never the primary theme in his other works, but Williams’s treatment of love and sexuality throughout his career is intense, usually revolving around religious and psychological themes. Also tying the play to Williams’s other works is its dense symbolism, which is the subject of this essay. Symbols are things, persons, events, names, or images in an artwork that evoke a number of related associations, and they reflect and inform a work’s themes.

In the published version of the play, Williams’s stage notes indicate that The Rose Tattoo opens with a view of what will be the play’s only setting, Serafina’s house and garden. Her cottage, he writes, is ‘‘in a village populated mostly by Sicilians somewhere along the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Mobile.’’ The setting is semi-tropical, with palms trees waving gently in a soft wind, ‘‘tall canes,’’ and a ‘‘fairly thick growth of pampas grass.’’ A folk singer at the edge of the stage sings and strums on a guitar as the curtain rises, and then, ‘‘in voices near and distant, urgent and tender, like the variable notes of wind and water,’’ the sound of mothers’ voices calling their children home to dinner is heard. It is just before dusk, ‘‘prima sera’’ or ‘‘first dusk’’ in Italian, and Venus, ‘‘the female star,’’ burns with ‘‘an almost emerald lustre’’ above.

Three of the children being called home to dinner are sitting on Serafina’s front steps; they are Bruno, Salvatore, and Vivi. One holds ‘‘a red paper kite,’’ one a ‘‘hoop,’’ and the third holds ‘‘a doll dressed as a clown.’’ The children are ‘‘in attitudes of momentary repose,’’ Williams writes, ‘‘all looking up at something—a bird or a plane passing over—as the mothers’ voices call them.’’ Bruno speaks first:

BRUNO: The white flags are flying at the Coast Guard Station.

SALVATORE: That means fair weather.

VIVI: I love fair weather.

The weather of comedy is spring, ‘‘fair weather,’’ which is mostly what the play delivers; yet, the statuesque stillness of these children announces what will be an accompanying, muted undercurrent of drama and even tragedy in the play.

Williams’s children, and birds and song, are recurring symbolic elements in the play’s evocation of life. The innocence of children, the flight and song of birds, and the song of humans are all things that connote life’s beauties and joys. These various symbols are suggestive of freedom, creativity, joy- ous rhapsody, and spontaneity, qualities that join Williams’s other evocations of life as those that are expressed in passions, emotions, and love.

The children’s toys also resonate symbolically. The hoop evokes the circle of life or nature’s unending cycle. It also refers to Serafina’s womb, the way she is a celebration of female fertility in the play. Contributing further to Williams’s evocation of sacred womanhood and fertility is the ‘‘female star’’ Venus and Serafina’s experience of conception as a miracle.

The second toy, the kite, reminds us of children’s play, of a gleeful immersion in play’s pursuit. The kite’s color refers to the redness of the rose flower and evokes, as well, the free flight of birds and the wind that carries the women’s songs. The third toy, the clown doll, is the first of the play’s many clowns. It works with Alvaro’s, Bessie’s, and Flora’s clownishness, not to mention Serafina’s, and evokes Williams’s comedic view of humanity in The Rose Tattoo. Clowns, traditionally, have sad faces and suffer hilarious mishaps. Even as Serafina suffers terribly the death of her beloved husband, Williams seems to say, she remains a mortal whose misadventures are also comic.

In a sense, Serafina’s task in the play is to see herself as a clown, to dispel all the illusions she has about herself. This self-delusion is shown in the way she elevates herself and her husband into living gods. She proclaims that her husband is royalty, a baron, and is convinced that the Christian goddess, the Virgin Mary, sends her signs. In fact, Serafina’s idea that her conceptions are miracles suggests how she puts herself on a par with the Virgin Mary, whose conception of Jesus Christ is a miracle in Christianity. Serafina believes, further, that the neighborhood women should recognize her exceptional qualities.

Serafina is simultaneously the heart of the play’s celebration of life and an element in the play’s comedic farce. Her self-aggrandizement is comic because she is, clearly, a very ordinary woman. She is vain, squeezing herself into over-tight girdles; her husband, sadly, is deceitful; and, she lives a modest life in a cottage. The neighborhood women’s derision puts Serafina in her place, showing up her ridiculous, overblown boasting.

The women in the play also contribute to the play’s celebration of life, however, because even as they are right in criticizing Serafina, it seems that Serafina is right to criticize them. She accuses them of having given up on love and romance. Serafina, and the audience by extension, see them as people who have lost touch with life’s sacred, joyous dimension.

The dressmaker dummies are symbolically the women’s doubles in the play, but more than this as well. Williams imagined a group of seven dummies on the set:

An outdoor sign indicates that Serafina, whose home the cottage is, does ‘‘SEWING.’’ The interior furnishings give evidence of this vocation. The most salient feature is a collection of dressmaker’s dummies. There are at least seven of these life-size mannequins, in various shapes and attitudes. [They have pliable joints so that their positions can be changed. Their arms terminate at the wrist. In all their attitudes there is an air of drama, somewhat like the poses of declamatory actresses of the old school].

These dummies’ immobility, stark forms, and truncated arms suggest death, and so they add to the undercurrent of drama and tragedy in the play. They are like statues, too, so they further suggest the children’s presence and postures in the play, postures that are similarly carefully choreographed so as to add a dramatic undercurrent to the play. In acting as a reminder of the group of neighborhood women, the dummies connote both Serafina’s unhealthy, deluded isolation and the women’s suppressed, death-like lives.

Williams, thus, does not banish death from his play about life. Rosario dies; there is a wake; the mannequins beckon as reminders of death; and Serafina is a widow. Also ominously juxtaposed against the play’s celebration of life is the presence of evil, conveyed by the play’s goat. Goats, especially in a Greco-Roman context, symbolize evil, death, eros, and sexual licentiousness. The play’s goat thus suggests that there are violent and excessive strains of love and passion, strains allied with death and not life.

In addition to symbolizing evil into the play, the goat adds to its comedy. The goat belongs to Serafina’s unlikable next door neighbor and frequently escapes, or is let loose, and marauds through Serafina’s yard. Its owner and numerous children flood Serafina’s yard on a mad chase for the goat, with Serafina orchestrating events from her porch. These bursts of chaos and boisterousness are comic, classic farcical chase scenes.

The central symbol of the play, however, is the red rose flower, to which the symbol of wine is related. Serafina only drinks of the wine of the red grape from Sicily, and she parades in scenes in a pink slip with its bodice stained with wine. Wine is the gift of the god Dionysus, the drink of creative intoxication and the elixir of love. Serafina’s stain is like a big rose on her chest, and so she has a rose tattoo like Rosario and Alvaro. She is bursting with life and is an embodiment of the life force and sexuality. The deep red of the red rose flower is the color of blood and its scent is intense and sweet; it is associated with love, romance, and all manner of passionate life.

The rose flower is the central symbol in Williams’s densely symbolic play. It is a plethora of roses, a bouquet from Williams to the public at large.

Source: Carol Dell’Amico, Critical Essay on The Rose Tattoo, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2003.

Sentiment and Humor in Equal Measure’: Comic Forms in The Rose Tattoo

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When The Rose Tatto made its Broadway appearance on 3 February 1951, Tennessee Williams did not have a reputation as a comic writer. Quite to the contrary, his two hits, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, had, according to Life, established him as a dramatist who ‘‘could write only about doom-ridden damsels.’’ For his comic efforts in The Rose Tattoo, Williams was promptly whipped. As the reviewer in Newsweek put it, ‘‘there is an uneasy feeling that his new play is sometimes funny without quite intending to be.’’ Williams’ humor was labeled in the basest terms. The more serious events in act one ‘‘descend into cheap farce which must be seen to be believed,’’ wrote Margaret Marshall in The Nation. The reviewer for Time, contemptuous of the rapid changes of mood, renamed the play Banana Truck Named Desire. F. W. Dupee (‘‘Literature on Broadway,’’ The Partisan Review, May 1951, p. 334) quickly summarized the critical opinion of Serafina and much else in the play when he said it was ‘‘farced-up.’’

In the 1966 revival of The Rose Tattoo, Williams’ comedy had evidently changed for reviewers— it had become appropriately grotesque. If they could not assent to it as it was, they could at least praise the absurdist elements, in vogue in avant-garde theater both here and abroad. Williams’ play had been acceptably reclassified through making virtues of its earlier vices. Absurdity by any other name is just as meet for neurotically-conditioned audiences. Henry Hewes offered an explanation for the approval: ‘‘Now it very probably was not Mr. Williams’s intention to write The Rose Tattoo as a grotesque comedy, but that is what this new presentation seems, and that is why it appears not in the least bit dated’’ (Saturday Review, November 1966). Jan Kott, who has found Shakespeare so relevant to our ‘‘absurd’’ world, would readily have approved of the change. Yet, regardless of the revival, and perhaps because of it, critics, with a few exceptions, have dismissed The Rose Tattoo as one of Williams’ lesser accomplishments, better left on the rose heap. Ruby Cohn has given the play its death-knell: ‘‘He probably intended The Rose Tattoo to be something of a saturnalia, a joyous celebration of sex, but (when we are not simply bored) we tend to laughed at rather than with the celebrants. To his credit, though, the play was and is still good box office.’’

Why in 1950–51 did Williams write a work which seemed in so many ways to differ from his previous, and successful, plays? Biography provides a few clues. Williams had just returned from a sojourn in Italy, the land of warm sunshine and fiery passions, and said, ‘‘I have never felt more hopeful about human nature as a result of being exposed to the Italians’’ (quoted in Saturday Review, March 1951). While in Sicily Williams must have soaked up enough local culture to write knowledgeably about the folklore, language, and characters of the region and create the Dionysian elements he claims to have captured in the play (Vogue, March 1951). Birds, children, goats, sky, fruit, earth, sun, and air—all are found in The Rose Tattoo.

Biography aside, Williams’ neglect yet strong flair for the comic is found not only in The Rose Tattoo but elsewhere in his work. In a provocative article (‘‘The Comic Tennessee Williams’’), Charles Brooks calls Williams ‘‘an essentially comic playwright’’ whose ‘‘greatest power and appeal derive from a comic vision which he seems unwilling to trust fully.’’ In his review Hewes had said that comedy—even the more grotesque variety—could ‘‘open up a green territory in which Tennessee Williams might profitably exercise his talent.’’ Classifying Williams’ play by genres—tragedies or comedies—is gross oversimplification. Comedy is as difficult to define as tragedy. Socrates long ago said (in The Symposium) they were similar, often reaching the same ends; and Aristotle unfortunately never discussed that tragedy which, like a comedy, has a happy ending. The Rose Tattoo is easier to type than other Williams’ plays because of both its virtues and its faults. It successfully dramatizes the fulfillment of hope and love. The play is an experiment in comedy, a potpourri of comedic forms, sometimes blended and sometimes juxtaposed. Comic forms range from slapstick humor, including farce, music hall antics, and vaudeville to folk, satiric, and romantic comedy, and, occasionally, tragicomedy. Even sadness is assimilated into the comic vision.

The Rose Tattoo has characteristics of low comedy or farce. But within this broad category are elements of vaudeville, Chaplinesque humor, and vestiges of the commedia dell’arte. Though dissatisfied reviewers and critics have lampooned Williams for his cheap and unsophisticated displays, jests and clowning are part of his stagecraft from his early works to his middle ones (Camino Real) to his late ones (Gnädiges Fräulein). Williams is a shrewd man of the theater, keenly aware that laughs as well as tears sell tickets. He incorporates many comic gags, verbal and physical, to entertain and cajole his audience, and, at times, make them feel superior to his characters.

One of Williams’ greatest achievements as a comic dramatist is his use of dialogue, though Ruby Cohn observes: ‘‘Larded with Italian phrases and locutions, the English is surprisingly grammatical, the vocabulary extensive, and the emotions selfconsciously expressed.’’ Regardless of Serafina’s regular syntax, the play is fastmoving, speeded along by a series of one-liners that are the classic tool of the comedian’s art. These are hurled at and by Serafina, some of them as cutting as the knife she will use on Estelle, others as sharp as a courtier’s rapier.

These one-liners are well-suited to the Italian temperament. Angered by Serafina’s delay in sewing their daughters’ graduation dresses, local mothers pounce on her. One of them exclaims: ‘‘Listen, I pay in advance five dollars and get no dress. Now what she wear, my daughter, to graduate in? A couple of towels and a rose in her hair?’’ She thus makes sport of both the Delle Rose name (and emblem) and Serafina’s impoverishing profession. When Rosa stands naked in the window, her clothes hidden by her suspicious mother, Williams demonstrates his agility with an Italian pun when a neighbor says: ‘‘In nominis padri et figlio et spiritus sancti. Aaahh!’’ Figlio, the child of naked vulnerability, such as Rosa is judged to be, replaces the filio of the invocation. Later, Rosa catches her mother in an embarrassing lie when Serafina explains Alvaro’s presence by saying he was chased by the police. Rosa shrewdly inquires: ‘‘They chased him into your bedroom?’’ And the disarray in which Serafina finds herself after her boisterous fight with Father De Leo gives rise to even more humor because of the sham politeness with which the salesman addresses her: ‘‘I see directly to merchants but when I stopped over there to have my car serviced, I seen you taking the air on the steps and I thought I would just drop over . . .’’

Serafina’s verbal assaults match her muscular defenses. At the start of the play, Serafina can counter the potion-selling Assunta’s attempts to bring aphrodisiacs when they are not wanted by observing that it is not the sound of Venus that the old woman hears: ‘‘Naw, them ain’t the star-noises. They’re termites, eating the house up.’’ To those who say she is improperly, scantily dressed, Serafina proclaims: ‘‘I’m dressed okay; I’m not naked!’’ Her invectives are charged by her shrewish wit. High school for her is as ‘‘high as that horse’s dirt out there in the street!’’ Equally facile retorts face Jack Hunter, as Serafina, punning on his name, asks: ‘‘What are you hunting?—Jack?’’ But Serafina reveals her own narrow limits and calls down laughter on her head when she utters the understatement of the play: ‘‘But we are Sicilians, and we are not coldblooded.’’ Serafina’s claim to recognize religious denominations in body types is of course ridiculous. Yet she bounces back into control when she plays a game with Alvaro. When he tells her of his previous amorous mishap because he gave the girl a fake diamond (a zircon), Serafina responds that she too would have slammed the door in his face. Williams see the folly of his characters’ lives and captures it in their dialogue as well.

With Alvaro, Williams invents another comic portrait in prose. Alvaro’s description of this family and their petty vices sounds almost as if it came from Eudora Welty’s pen: ‘‘One old maid sister, one feeble-minded grandmother, one lush of a pop that’s not worth the powder it takes to blow him to hell.—They got the parchesi habit. They play the game of parchesi, morning, night, noon. Passing a bucket of beer around the table. . . .’’ Alvaro’s wry detachment from his inherited handicaps fills out the picture of his family. He asks Serafina what in his heritage as the grandson of a village idiot he has to be thankful about: ‘‘What have I got to respect? The rock my grandmother slips on?’’ Williams is at his best in these comic vignettes, as the comments exchanged between Bessie and Flora well illustrate. The two prigs, eager for some sexual titillation, discuss one such prank that may promise pleasure: ‘‘I heard, I heard that the Legionnaires caught a girl on Canal Street! They tore the clothes off her and sent her home in a taxi!’’ Of course they disavow any interest in this nonsense, but they obviously enjoy it.

The Rose Tattoo also shows a mastery of other standard comic conventions, including physical deformities. Serafina’s exaggerated ego and passion match the rotundity of her shape. Hers is a big, often stricken body, described as a ‘‘heavy, sagging bulk.’’ Her hips have exceeded their girlish limits, suggesting a comparison to a ‘‘parading matador.’’ Moving to the other side of the ring, Williams labels her a bull. She is like a ‘‘strange beast in a cage.’’ All these remarks suggest that Serafina is like an animal in heat, her plump body always charging her ene- mies or her lover. Her struggles with her girdle call attention to the incompatibility of her form and the restraint she seeks to impose on it. In these pantomimes, Serafina is both laughable buffoon and frustrated lover. The girdle represents an impediment to her passions; and the more she struggles, the funnier are her attempts. Nor has Williams spared other parts of her anatomy. Her hair is wild, greasy, always out of control like Serafina herself. No make-up, it seems, will help. Rosa’s ‘‘cosmetic enterprise’’ does not improve her mother; it leaves her only with a ‘‘dazed look.’’ Serafina’s deprecatory gestures, signs of her ethnic background and feverish anger, also make her look ridiculous.

Her new lover, Alvaro, and his body are also exploited for comedy. This clown seems like an appropriate visitor to the carnival booth that is Serafina’s house. He is as awkward as Serafina is accusatory. His ears stick out, he is short, and he hitches his shoulders—traits that certainly call attention to his comic torso. Williams refers to him as one of the ‘‘glossy young bulls’’ as if to emphasize his sexual powers. Alvaro is doubtless the bull in the dress shop. He is so clumsy that he drops everything from ice cubes to condoms. His trance after his first night with Serafina has ‘‘the pantomimic lightness, almost fantasy, of an early Chaplin comedy.’’ Like the silent movie star, Alvaro finds mischief where he least expects it. He collides with Serafina’s furniture and, finally, her daughter. Thinking he is raping her daughter, Serafina lunges at him, beating him all the way out of the house. Alvaro scurries around the house with ‘‘his shirttails out’’ much as Chaplin tries to evade the comic Furies hounding him.

The fight and the ensuing chase—the two most common and oldest comic tricks—fill up much of the action in The Rose Tattoo. Serafina tells Alvaro that ‘‘I had two fights on the street,’’ but she underestimates the number of her quarrels. She battles with her daughter, jerking her away from the window; she does much the same with her clownish customers, except she chases them out of the house with a broom. She is forever fighting with the Strega whom she orders ‘‘Getta hell out of my yard!’’ Not even the clergy is exempt; with Father De Leo Serafina is ‘‘on the point of attacking him bodily’’ when he is rescued by her neighbors. On stage these incidents elicit laughter. Yet they also point to the turmoil inside Serafina. She is out of control, as her anger and the shrewishness arousing it demonstrate. One beating, though, which does not fit with the rest is that given Estelle early in the play by Serafina’s neighbors. As she comes to see Rosario’s body, ‘‘The bouquet of roses is snatched from her blackgloved hands and she is flailed with them about the head and shoulders.’’ Though not comic, this incident precipitates and parallels other quarrels. Serafina’s revenge lasts so long and is so violent that we automatically seek a cause: The community punishment of Estelle anticipates Serafina’s punishment of the community. The difference between the two beatings shows how funny Serafina’s struggles have become.

These quarrels often result in chases among objects with people falling down or being torn apart. The slapstick humor is transparent; the angrier characters become, the less successful are their attacks. But when Serafina gets into the act, all discord follows. At first she locks Rosa in the house; then a little later Rosa is locked out of it, having to run around outside. The neighborhood children often flee in panic when Serafina threatens them. In her fury, she pursues her customers, Bessie and Flora, turning over a table. The most obvious flight, however, is the goat chase, a sign of Serafina’s passionate dilemma. Next comes Father De Leo, who is hounded by the widow. Then another goat chase. The pattern—chase after chase—characterizes the comic deception befalling Serafina and pinpoints Williams’s hilarious if conventional source of comedy. The opportunities for improvisational comedy are unlimited here.

Alvaro’s arrival brings more chases and even greater damage. His precursor, the salesman, signals further debasement for Serafina. The new product he offers ‘‘explodes in Serafina’s face.’’ The scene recalls Punch and Judy antics, but it prefigures the eruptions with Alvaro. While talking to him about vicious rumors, Serafina hurls a glass to the floor. Twice, in a few minutes, she explodes at Alvaro, both times chasing him for his life and crushing anything in her way. First, ‘‘she springs up and runs into the parlor. He pursues. The chase is grotesquely violent and comic. A floor lamp is overturned. She seizes the chocolate box and threatens to slam it into his face if he continues toward her.’’ After a few calm moments, Serafina disrupts the peace when she hurls the phone to the floor. She even addresses the Blessed Virgin with ‘‘explosive gestures.’’ The second time, the termagant flies at Alvaro ‘‘like a great bird, tearing and clawing at his stupefied figure’’ in retaliation for his bumping into Rosa. Alvaro is the butt; even when he walks he ‘‘topples over.’’

But this rampage provides no release for Serafina; nor was it meant to. These chases only increase her frustration and rekindle the fires of her anger. For it is herself Serafina chases most often. She lunges, plunges and trounces all over; but, as Williams deftly points out, ‘‘she swiftly and violently whirls about in distraction.’’ In desperation for clothes, she grabs at her dummies, one of which collapses. She tears things apart and threatens death to those who cross her. But she can have no honest release until she breaks the urn holding Rosario’s ashes. All the other acts may be gratuitous, there for the laughs pure and simple, but when she ‘‘seizes the marble urn and hurls it violently into the furthest corner of the room,’’ she finally can escape from the whirligig of the time past and confront the love Alvaro has to offer. She can break away from the comic captivity of her previous actions; she can stop being ‘‘dressed in the rags of a convict.’’ Inserted among the other humorous acts, destruction of the urn may at first seem to be the result of Serafina’s rage. But Williams has juxtaposed this act with other slapstick gestures to suggest how it differs from them and how, in effect, it points to the climax of the play. Within Williams’ slapstick comedy is more serious business, but an appreciation of the relationship between events, however foolish, reveals the unity.

Among the most obvious but, surprisingly enough, least valued elements in The Rose Tattoo is the folk comedy. The passions of Rosa Gonzales, her revengeful father, and the symbolic cock fight of Summer and Smoke are examples of Williams’ use of folk habits. Natives appear in both Camino Real and The Night of the Iguana. And insofar as his plantation caste in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Sweet Bird of Youth comprise separate, regional and rural subcultures, Williams reveals some knowledge of folk drama, twentieth-century style. Because of their obvious ‘‘foreignness’’ and importance, the Italians and Sicilians of The Rose Tattoo stand out most distinctly in Williams’ use of folk materials. Their language, religion, and superstitions give the play its zest and shape its humor. Their music permeates the play, since a folk player appears at all the major breaks. Although living in the American South, Serafina and her neighbors lost not a whit of their native hopes and fears in steerage. They are close to the earth and to the animals and the children bred on it.

The lingo of these southern Europeans—the patois of the peasant—is liberally sprinkled throughout The Rose Tattoo, often adding to both the romantic and the humorous depiction of Serafina and her neighbors. Born of ‘‘contadini,’’ Serafina becomes a ‘‘baronessa’’ even if her estate is no more than the sewing shop which is also her house. The Sicilian vocabulary makes Serafina’s ire even more passionate and her love more earthy. Alvaro is a ‘‘cretino,’’ a ‘‘buffone,’’ or, even worse, a ‘‘maleducato’’ when he alarms her, but he is her ‘‘amore’’ at the end of the play; and her once intractable daughter is her ‘‘carissimo.’’ The small house on Front Street, with the highway before it, is closer to Palermo than to New Orleans.

This language also reflects the many superstitions and taboos that prey so humorously on Serafina’s psyche. Her goattending neighbor is always addressed as the Strega, the witch. So foolish is Serafina that she believes this spindly, hairylegged creature possesses evil powers. She has ‘‘malocchio,’’ an evil eye according to Serafina, though to the less impressionable Rosa it is only a cataract. When the Strega touches Rosa, Serafina at once supplies a folk cure—the girl must ‘‘wash [her] face with salt water and then throw the salt water away!’’ The Strega takes her place alongside Williams’ other hags, comic and serious. She is part of the tradition which produced the blind woman selling flowers for the dead in A Streetcar Named Desire and Leona in Confessional; they serve as reminders impending doom. The Strega, moreover, infrequently serves as the play’s narrator, pointing out comically Serafina’s excesses—‘‘The Wops are at it again’’—while she and her rampaging goat are also grotesque. The ‘‘little procession’’ of her and the goat home really begins in her having let him loose in the first place. The superstitions associated with her must be judged against those of Assunta, the ‘‘fattuchiere’’ with her miraculous aphrodisiacs, and the more prosaic powers of the ‘‘imported Sicilian spumanti.’’ The artifacts of this culture— goat, potions, wine—are among the leading stage symbols, however much they are abused through repetition and obviousness. From them Williams tries to create a comic (and folk) atmosphere; they are the legerdemain of his dramatic artifice.

Even the plot of The Rose Tattoo reads like a series of folk motifs, many of them documented in the Stith Thompson index. A duped widow who strikes out at all around her because of their mockery of her love finds a solution to her problems with another man who, in many ways, is the muscular though comic reincarnation of her deceased husband. At first, Serafina is attracted to Alvaro because, as she claims, he has ‘‘My husband’s body, with the head of a clown!’’ Alvaro is the lover disguised as a fool, an old motif that Williams adopts for his own purposes by fusing suitor and fool into one role. Alvaro’s disguise is laughable to Serafina who at first fails to see the love he brings.

The mysterious attraction is demonstrated through the rose symbolism. The rose appears in folk beliefs as a magical love-producing object. In fact, it is the talisman which often draws a lover to a woman, though Williams uses it to draw the woman to the man. The sexual bonds between Rosario and Serafina need little comment. But an even more interesting folk motif about roses is associated with Alvaro. Even though Serafina is already aroused by Alvaro, when he has the patronymic emblem of her first husband emblazoned on his chest, she finds Rosario Delle Rose again, or a more faithful though less attractive version of him. In essence, her ‘‘rose’’ has been transformed into a human being, a folk motif which is at the center of Serafina’s discovery of self and the audience’s demand for comedic harmony. Folklore also associates sexual powers with roses. By eating a rose, according to one superstition, a woman could conceive. Serafina’s pregnancy by Rosario and her conception after sleeping with his humorous incarnation, the Tattooed Alvaro, recall the motif. As long as Serafina has a rose in her life, she does not need the sexual stimulation promised by Assunta’s potion.

Much in The Rose Tattoo derives from the conventions of romantic comedy. Williams, who elsewhere is the frustrated romanticist or the rebellious puritan, here successfully gives the upper hand to the forces of love and nature. The fecundity of nature and man, and the desire, voiced by all romantic comedies, to unite every eligible female with every suitable man, frequently appears. Williams’ pastoral setting—on the Gulf Coast between the magic city of New Orleans and the port of Mobile— displays a territory of passion and a land of sexual fulfillment. References to vegetation are numerous, and fruitful. The ‘‘Author’s Production Notes’’ call for ‘‘palm trees,’’ ‘‘tall canes with feathery fronds and a fairly thick growth of pampas grass.’’ Rosario hauled bananas for the Romano Brothers; and Alvaro arrives with ‘‘a great golden bunch of bananas.’’ The shape of this fruit leads Henry Popkin to see it as a phallic symbol, which seems appropriate for the context. Estelle Hohengarten’s last name, which literally means a high garden, likewise suggests the fruitfulness of sex. The young Jack Hunter gives Rosa a bunch of roses for her graduation. And Serafina more than once breaks open a bottle of spumanti, highly suitable for the Bacchic entertainment serving as a preamble to love. Above the fertility of the earth shines Venus, ‘‘the female star with an almost emerald luster,’’ and this star appears above Serafina’s porch near the end of the play ‘‘still undimmed.’’

The surge toward fertility—and reproduction— is even stronger among the characters for whom this vegetation serves as a background. The play begins and ends with Serafina pregnant, once by her unfaithful husband and once by her foolish paramour, Alvaro, Serafina’s rejection of the creative rhythms of life brings only reminders of how fruitful she should be. Father De Leo cautions her: ‘‘You are still a young woman. Eligible for—loving and— bearing again!’’ Later in the play, Alvaro tells her, in his awkward proposal, that his old maid sister wants nephews and nieces. Serafina can be happy only when she is loved and loving—whether it is every night with Rosario or not quite so often with Alvaro. Serafina’s comic problem rests in acknowledging and triumphing over obstacles to love. She must ignore Estelle’s illicit affairs and forgive Alvaro’s fumbling attempts to use contraceptives.

If the specific pastoral location lends itself to romantic comedy, so too does the particular time of the action. It is June, near mid-summer, the time of love passion, fulfillment, weddings. It is a highly festive day on the calendar. Even the clowns Bessie and Flora are eager to see the Veterans Parade in New Orleans. But it is also a highly symbolic day— Rosa’s graduation day and Serafina’s as well. This occasion suggests Rosa’s development, her commencement of sexual maturity. As Rosa tells Jack, ‘‘Just think. A week ago Friday—I didn’t know boys existed!’’ It is her initiation, so to speak, receiving the Digest of Knowledge and Jack Hunter’s pristine love on the same day. Their trip to Diamond Key (the place name suggesting some kind of engagement) in a sense charts their rite of passage into sexual maturity, soon to be concluded in a New Orleans hotel room. But on this very special day, Williams reminds his audience, they are the quintessence of young love. As Brooks Atkinson said in a New York Times review of the original production, their affair ‘‘has all the lyric rapture and sincerity of young poetry. As sheer writing, it is one of the finest things Mr. Williams has done.’’

But as in so many other romantic comedies, the young lovers are frustrated in meeting and marrying. Usually, a blocking figure, some pitiful and laughable parent, stands in their way. This is one dimension of Serafina’s role. She is the obstacle to their love as well as a blatant contrast to it. It is hard to agree with Charles Brooks who sees Serafina as ‘‘the healthy one in the play’’ and Rosa as the ‘‘sentimental’’ embodiment of her mother’s faults who ‘‘weakens an otherwise fine comedy.’’ If nothing else demonstrated how wrong this view of Rosa is, Serafina’s reactions to graduation day would certainly be enough. To the embittered widow, the festive day brings only anxiety and fear. She tries to spoil the holiday at first by locking her daughter up; the celebration, she thinks, is the public declaration of all the wrong things the high school did to Rosa. Even when Rosa is released through the intervention of Miss York [sic], Serafina still cannot participate in the ceremonies. She tries to attend, but she never does, for she is detained by her customers. And the music she hears does more to annoy than uplift her. When Rosa returns, elated by her honors, Serafina tries to fight off the future she brings with her diploma by saying: ‘‘Va bene.—Put it in the drawer with your father’s clothes.’’ Serafina hopes to keep Rosa in the stagnant past with the memory of Rosario. Rosa’s youthful innocence and Rosario’s faithfulness are tied together. Serafina does not want change. As she tells Jack Hunter: ‘‘Two weeks ago I was slapping her hands for scratching mosquito bites. She rode a bicycle to school. Now all at once—I’ve got a wild thing in the house.’’ Graduation day has caused all of Rosa’s problems and most of Serafina’s trouble.

But Serafina, like so many other foolish parents in comedy, has problems both more serious and more comic than those she anticipates. She tries to protect Rosa from sexual abuse and dishonesty. Yet she herself is the victim of one of the oldest and funniest deceptions of romantic comedy. She has been cuckolded by Rosario and refuses, until shown otherwise, to believe it. In setting up a shrine to her late and beloved husband, she makes a mockery of her injunctions to Rosa not to trust a boy. Her religious fanaticism is, therefore, not without humor. Even her name suggests some comic duplicity. Not only does it imply her own nocturnally amorous ability (‘‘sera fina’’—‘‘fine nights’’), as Ruby Cohn has pointed out, but Williams may have had an actual Saint Seraphina in mind when he decided to name his heroine. The Catholic Encyclopedia states that Saint Seraphina was a virgin who ‘‘led a religious life in her parental home and was an example of piety, charity, mortification, and patience during a long serious illness. . . . ’’

The Saints: A Concise Biographical Dictionary says she was associated with white violets, which ‘‘were found to be growing on the board on which she had lain.’’ The widow Delle Rose is hardly a young, suffering virgin, and the contrast between her activities and those suggested by her holy namesake emphasize the folly of her devotion. Her wifely piety and the shrine she erects come in for constant comic attacks. Her house is noted more for brawls than prayers. In fact, at one point it even turns into a kind of ‘‘casa privata.’’

But it is her opposition to Rosa and Jack that makes Serafina a foe to love. Only when she relents and sends her daughter off with a blessing does she overcome her own ignorance and accept love herself. Breaking Rosario’s urn and honoring Rosa’s desire to love Jack indicate the change. She moves from hostile enemy to confidant, from a blocking figure to a woman who can see the world romantically. Serafina graduates by throwing off the bonds of the past, which enshackled her in buffoonery, and accepts the love and promise of the future.

The use of festivity in The Rose Tattoo derives from some of the major elements of romantic comedy. These include the so-called ‘‘green world’’ which the lovers inhabit, the opposition of the parent to their love, the easy comic deception of the parent, the hypocrisy of the parent’s advice, and the holiday occasion giving rise to these opposing views. Unlike other comic butts, though, Serafina finally joins the lovers’ cause. Williams’ tone of satire is replaced by a strong and unmitigated sense that harmony will finally reign.

Much in The Rose Tattoo does not quite fit into the categories of vaudeville, farce, or romantic comedy. The serious moments of grief early in the play, the agony Serafina encounters in act two, and the union of Serafina and Alvaro at the end of the play amidst tears and laughter, defy comic label. Shifting tones and modes, many of them branded as Williams’ faults, suggest that The Rose Tattoo is a tragicomedy, a genre that allows comedy full and varied play, even giving it the last word, while acknowledging the undercurrent of tragic love and pain.

The playwright’s inability to write pure comedy throughout the play may explain why The Rose Tattoo is a tragicomedy. Williams may have explained his play as a Dionysian celebration, a dream of life’s juices flowing through herbs, children, and lovers, but his preface on ‘‘The Timeless World of the Play’’ turns the reader’s eye in another direction. There Williams speculates about ‘‘plays in the tragic tradition’’ and discusses his own version of catharsis by which ‘‘our hearts are wrung by recognition and pity,’’ a strange introduction for a saturnalian comedy. But perhaps these autobiographical assessments to some extent explain the work. Williams wants us to laugh and suffer with Serafina; she is both the dummy bride and the dummy widow. He wants ‘‘sentiment and humor in equal measure,’’ an almost impossible feat in an age grotesquely divorcing the two and a difficult task for a playwright whose comedy usually reflects irredeemable futility. Still, as Henry Hewes recognized when seeing the 1966 revival, ‘‘we laugh at the ridiculousness of the events at the same time that we recognize the characters’ agonizedly sincere involvement in them.’’ Laughter may provide a better catharsis than either pity or fear.

Coarse, vulgar, foolish love exists alongside more noble kinds. The Strega, Estelle, and the taunting children get billing with Alvaro’s shrewd recognition that Serafina laid her ‘‘heart in the marble urn with the ashes’’ and Rosa’s advice that ‘‘Everybody is nothing until you love them,’’ perhaps the topic sentence of the play. Serafina is likewise the nothing turned to everything, comic scapegoat and sympathetic heroine. Williams debases and enthrones her, often at the same time. She sinks into ‘‘comic desolation,’’ and her appearance is at once ‘‘comic and shocking.’’ Her former beauty is often mentioned, nowhere more poetically expressed than in Father De Leo’s description of her as being ‘‘like a lady wearing a—piece of the—weather!’’

But his view is challenged by her present appearance; she has become a hobgoblin scaring the children away. Williams seems to transfer some of his former heroines’ problems to Serafina. Statues (‘‘The Grotesque Children of The Rose Tattoo’’) has concluded that, ‘‘In terms of Williams’s typical character deployment, Serafina is actually a direct descendant of Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie and of Alma Winemiller in Summer and Smoke.’’ Although Serafina lives in her own world, a victim of her own dreams, the affinity with Williams’ earlier female characters is tenuous. Serafina is much more adaptable than, say, Blanche DuBois. Serafina throws off the deception in time to marry Alvaro. But it is too late for Blanche and her Alvaro (Mitch), whom she loses too soon and wants too late. In short, Serafina is a complex, often contradictory figure whose failures and successes in love combine farcical comedy with tragic implications. The rapid changes, especially after Alvaro reveals his rose tattoo in act three, are characteristic of and suitable for a tragicomedy.

Another major feature of tragicomedy is surprise, the unexpected resolution of the tragic dilemma that leads to a happy ending. Poorly used, this deus ex machina, the manipulation of events, can descend to cheap melodrama. But Williams has made some attempts to prepare his audiences, and characters, for the unexpected comedic resolution of events. The numerous references to the Blessed Mother, whom Serafina at first worships, then rebukes, then adores, suggest that these Sicilians feel providence can work out their problems. And Williams cautioned his crew and cast not to scoff at the ‘‘religious yearnings’’ these people feel. Everywhere, Serafina looks for signs. In sympathy with her, the audience should too. It is significant that the play begins and ends with Assunta saying that ‘‘it is impossible to tell me anything that I don’t believe.’’

The appearance of Alvaro is just that strange event which, on the face of it, seems incredible, for as he tells Serafina: ‘‘If strange things didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be here. You wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t be talking together.’’ Some have dismissed The Rose Tattoo as a contrived work, with Williams pulling all the strings in open view of the audience. And while there is some truth to the stricture that Alvaro is clumsy, and even stupid, his gift of love to Serafina does bring her out of despair and back into the world of love. Just as Serafina is filled with joy waiting for her first husband when the play begins, she is flowing over with excitement and love when running to meet her second husband as the play closes. That they rush to meet each other on the embankment signals their ascendancy over the neighborhood and the individuals who ridiculed and railed at them. Alvaro’s strange and comic visit to Serafina’s house results in the triumph of love.

The theme of time adds to both the tragic and the comic dimensions of the play. In his preface to The Rose Tattoo, Williams says that if time is arrested the events on stage acquire more tragic worth and contribute to the dignity of the characters. Were The Rose Tattoo pure tragedy, such observations might clearly apply. But the cessation of time for Serafina is both cause and effect of her comic debasement and our sympathy for her. When she is bound by time, or restlessly fights its pull, she is most pathetic and least likely to accept a new and fruitful life.

The time of the play may be the present, but for Serafina it is, until Alvaro’s successful wooing, always the past. Before she learns of Rosario’s death, she rapturously recalls her previous nights of love. All time is measured by and included in her husband’s embrace. ‘‘Each time is the first time with him. Time doesn’t pass . . ., ’’ she tells Assunta. But when Assunta reminds her of time’s witness, the clock, Serafina has only contempt for it: ‘‘No, the clock is a fool. I don’t listen to it. My clock is my heart and my heart don’t say tick-tick; it says lovelove!’’ The action reveals both how foolish and how sad Serafina’s sense of time is when Estelle imposes another interpretation on the same hours: ‘‘Tomorrow’s the anniversary of the day we met . . ., ’’ she tells Serafina, who is of course unaware of Rosario’s infidelity.

Serafina is not concerned with the future, despite reminders of time’s passing. She tells Assunta that Rosario will no longer conceal drugs under his load of bananas. ‘‘Tonight is the last time he does it! Tomorrow he quits hauling stuff for the Brothers Romano.’’ Tomorrow never comes, even though Williams manipulates stage time so as to make years pass between scenes three and four of act one. All of a sudden, it is ‘‘a June day, three years later.’’ (One recalls the passing of sixteen years between acts in Shakespeare’s tragicomedy The Winter’s Tale.) Williams admits that ‘‘The diminishing in- fluence of life’s destroyer, time, must be somehow worked into the content of . . . [the] play,’’ Serafina’s struggle against it or imperception of it causes her grief. Williams’ critical views are at odds with his dramaturgy, not an unusual conflict considering that sometimes his dramatic criticism fails to provide the most trusty guide to the work it discusses. When Serafina understands and appreciates time’s changes, she is saved. Until then, she has only memories, views of the past which remove her from time’s obligations and successes. As she tell Alvaro, ‘‘The memory of a love don’t make you unhappy unless you believe a lie that makes it dirty.’’ She clings to the lie because it protectively confines her in a beautiful past. She dwells on the social honors of the past. Rosario’s uncle was a baron; she is a baronessa. But this claim brings only ridicule. She forestalls giving the mothers their daughters’ dresses, promising them ‘‘Domani-domani-domani,’’ even though, ironically enough, the dresses are done. In front of Bessie and Flora, she speaks of her previous work for them but spurns future jobs. When Serafina snarls at Flora that she is ‘‘late for the graduation of my daughter,’’ the angular prig cruelly retorts: ‘‘You got plenty of time.’’ Serafina has plenty of time except that all of it is recounted in her past sexual feats.

It is with Rosa that Serafina’s distorted sense of time is more carefully treated. So harassed is Serafina that she never attends the graduation exercises; instead, she sits in the gloomy shadows of her house, surrounded by the manikins of both bride and widow, images of time past and time present. Ironically, the time-fettered Serafina buys Rosa a Bulova watch for her graduation present. But as Rosa leaves, the ‘‘gift still ungiven,’’ the action means Serafina’s sense of time cannot be transferred to her sexually unhindered daughter. That the watch does not work properly to begin with is further proof that this present represents Serafina’s own limits; she has been frozen in time and must be unlocked from the past. Starnes has argued that when the watch does work, ‘‘time’s passing and the transience of all meaning are now all she can see’’; and that when the watch ceases ticking ‘‘Time has been arrested for her again, and is significant of Serafina’s spiritual rebirth.’’ This view runs counter to the unfolding of events, for it is only when Serafina gives up on the defective watch that she can run to Alvaro who offers her a new love which relieves her from her past folly.

In this role as time’s new man, the new watchman of Serafina’s heart, some of Alvaro’s silliness vanishes, and much of his thematic significance is stressed. Though an awkward lothario, Alvaro plans for the future. Although his dreams are not as grand as Jim O’Connor’s, Alvaro seeks security in the household of an older, financially stable and physically developed woman. But his youth and sexual prowess make him attractive to Serafina; he can offer her new hours of pleasure in bed while granting her wish not to be saddled with ‘‘some middle-aged man, not young, not full of young passion, but getting a pot belly on him and losing his hair and smelling of sweat and liquor.’’ With Alvaro, Serafina’s heart will again be in step with the fluidity and fruitfulness of time. Licking the chocolate from her fingers, Alvaro reminds Rosario’s widow that ‘‘You’re as old as your arteries, Baronessa. Now set back down. The fingers are now white as snow!’’ This ridiculous gesture is symbolically an act of purification, or a preview of sexual delights awaiting Serafina. When she protests his advances, Alvaro says, ‘‘Is it my fault you have been a widow too long?’’; and he even agrees to ‘‘go out and come in the door again’’ if the day is wrong. Timing is important for Alvaro, for he is conscious of his past failures in love. Once Serafina exorcises the lie from her memory, comes back into time, and accepts Alvaro’s youthful love, she can escape the sadness of the past and the follow of the present. Giving assent to the passing of time shifts characters and audience away from tragedy and into the joy of comedy.

The Rose Tattoo is not one of Williams’ best plays, but it does show his ability to write fulfilling comedy, comedy which is indebted to a number of different dramatic traditions. From farce and slapstick humor, Williams takes the lively action of his play—fights, chases, one-liners, grotesque characterization. But he dignifies, or at least tones down, some of these antics by incorporating elements of romantic comedy. Rosa’s attempts to run away with Jack Hunter are successful only when Serafina finds love herself. That recognition is placed within a tragicomic frame, allowing Williams to introduce more serious moments into the play. All this action is set within a folk community from which Williams derives further comedy. If the play never won critical approval, possibly Williams was too ambitious, too eager to make sure his play left no comic form untouched.

Source: Philip C. Kolin, ‘‘‘Sentiment and Humor in Equal Measure’: Comic Forms in The Rose Tattoo,’’ in Tennessee Williams: A Tribute, edited by Jac Tharpe, University Press of Mississippi, 1977, pp. 93–106.

The Grotesque Children of The Rose Tattoo

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5420

That realism should be the convention fundamental to the work of Tennessee Williams is altogether logical. Until his late adolescence, Williams had little opportunity to see any form of theater other than the American cinema, and this form, of course, is firmly grounded in the realistic approach. Even the external shape of Williams’s theater shows especially clear evidence of this cinematic influence: a succession of episodes, ‘‘fade-outs’’ and ‘‘fade-ins,’’ background music, gauze scrims, and expressive lights focussed to simulate ‘‘close-ups’’— all devices immediately recognizable as film technique, itself a more poetic kind of realism.

Often clearly aspiring to the conditions of poetry, Williams creates for himself an advantage which is not always available to other dramatists who start from the realistic or naturalistic base: like Synge and O’Casey, he puts his words into the mouths of an essentially imaginative people who speak in the rhythms and colorful imagery of a region favorable to poetry. Even more to the point for our present subject, by staging his dramas in a realm just so much apart from ‘‘average’’ American life as the deep South and by having his characters speak in the distinctive language of that realm apart, Williams succeeds in distancing his plays from the purely realistic mode to a degree sufficient to justify and disguise a certain characteristic exaggeration and distortion of reality which permeates his entire canon. Under the speech of most of his characters there runs the faint but unmistakable thorough bass of grotesque folk comedy. The tone provided by this suggestion of the comic folk tale varies according to Williams’s intention, and, accordingly, the success of its effect depends upon the amount of distance he would have us put between the characters and ourselves.

Williams’s opening scene in Orpheus Descending, for example, is an excellent study of his use of regional elements for these ends; we have only to examine the craftsmanship in this Prologue to an imperfect play to perceive how ingeniously (and how meticulously) this restless perfectionist has always gone about the business of constructing the artistic reality he thought indispensable to the coming to life of his vividly theatrical people.

The set represents in nonrealistic fashion a general drygoods store and part of a connecting ‘confectionery’ in a small Southern town . . . Merchandise is represented very sparsely and it is not realistic . . . But the confectionery, which is seen partly through a wide arched door, is shadowy and poetic as some inner dimension of the play.

Then immediately, before this nonrealistic background, we hear language of such color that we realize the realm in which our action will take place is indeed very much apart.

DOLLY. Pee Wee!


DOLLY. Cannonball is comin’ into th’ depot!

BEULAH. You all git down to th’ depot an’ meet that train!

Pee Wee and Dog, ‘‘heavy, red-faced men,’’ verify the initial comic impression with a gag line as they ‘‘slouch through . . . in clothes that are too tight for them . . . and mud-stained boots.’’

PEE WEE. I fed that one-armed bandit a hunnerd nickels an’ it coughed up five.

DOG. Must have hed indigestion.

As Pee Wee and Dog go out the door, Beulah begins the play’s exposition:

I wint to see Dr. Johnny about Dawg’s condition. Dawg’s got sugar in his urine again, an as I was leavin’ I ast him what was the facks about Jabe Torrance’s operation in Mimphis.

When a few lines later Beulah begins her monologue, which ‘‘should be treated frankly as exposition,’’ Williams says, ‘‘spoken to audience . . . she comes straight out to the proscenium, like a pitchman. This monologue should set the nonrealistic key for the whole production.’’ The exposition is thus delivered in the idiom of folk comedy and takes advantage of the comedic possibilities in its theatricalist style. Beulah first describes with grim relish the circumstances of Papa Romano’s death; as she expounds at some length upon her convictions concerning the faithlessness of most marriages, her manner is that of back-fence gossip. But as she thus prepares a mordantly ironic background for our first view of Lady and Jabe Torrance, the tone of the scene modulates from what at first appeared to be cracker-barrel comedy to the extreme grotesque.

BEULAH. Then one of them—gits—cincer or has a—stroke or somethin’?—The other one—

DOLLY.—Hauls in the loot?

The comic grotesquery of these women is obviously essential to Williams’s initial exposition of both characters and situation. As a kind of comic chorus, they provide not only environmental context in terms of which we are to interpret events, but, in their comic hypocrisy, an objective view of both the appearance and the reality of the principal characters and their predicament as well. When Jabe Torrance, mortally ill with cancer, returns from the hospital they greet him with mendacity the ironic significance of which the audience immediately perceives.

BEULAH. I don’t think he’s been sick. I think he’s been to Miami. Look at that wonderful color in his face.

DOLLY. I never seen him look better in my life!

BEULAH. Who does he think he’s foolin’? Ha ha ha!—not me!

There are two groups of women, and two women in each group. Williams even arranges their lines so as to verify the comic effect he intends us to see in this visual repetition by having them echo each other’s words in almost music-hall style.

BEULAH. Lady, I don’t suppose you feel much like talking about it right now but Dog and me are so worried.

DOLLY. Pee Wee and me are worried sick about it.

LADY. About what?

BEULAH. Jabe’s operation in Memphis. Was it successful?

DOLLY. Wasn’t it successful? . . .

SISTER. Was it too late for surgical interference?

EVA. Wasn’t it successful?

BEULAH. Somebody told us it had gone past the knife.

DOLLY. We do hope it ain’t hopeless.

EVA. We hope and pray it ain’t hopeless. (All their faces wear faint, unconscious smiles.)

We are reminded of T. S. Eliot’s similar handling of verbal repetition in The Cocktail Party when Julia tells the story of Lady Klootz and her son who could hear the cry of bats. But Williams’s use of the device here, of course, is probably intended as comic suggestion of repetition as it is usually heard in the classic chorus.

It is obvious that Williams is nowadays more concerned than ever with this matter of distance between his characters and his audience. The recent unfortunate production of Slapstick Tragedy and Williams’s own remarks about his intentions in that work indicate that he is in the process of experimentation and is therefore, we should hopefully say, in transition. Some critics have gone so far as to argue that Slapstick Tragedy should not have been given professional production. The two short plays are indeed more clearly akin to thumbnail sketches than to finished canvasses, and each has been written with baffling incompatibilities of content and style. But whatever the aesthetic shortcomings of this latest effort, we are forced to observe in Slapstick Tragedy that Williams again instinctively seeks the freedom from the strictures of photographic realism that grotesque comedy allows him, and his natural antic gifts have always been such that we should be encouraged to believe that it is within the realms of such comedy that he may eventually find the new mode he seeks. The Rose Tattoo, which was first produced in 1951, endures as a model of Williams’s stylistic integrity, and it is appropriate that such a play should have been chosen for successful revival in the 1966–67 season at New York’s City Center. In this surprisingly profound play, Williams of course again resorted to the creation of his own realm and to the writing of the language of that world, both of which provided aesthetic distance for the characters inhabiting that realm and explained or justified their exaggerated behavior. His context was the South again—the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Mobile—and it was, moreover, an Italian community within that area. We were thus twice removed from ‘‘normal’’ reality, and Williams worked with extraordinary effectiveness within the self-imposed limitations of that reality.

In production, it would be unwise if not impossible to attempt to minimize the distancing effect that the national or regional characteristics of Williams’s central characters should have upon an audience. This ethnic identity is manifestly Williams’s keystone for the structure of his characters, and in The Rose Tattoo he stresses it repeatedly and purposefully in every scene of the play:

JACK. Mrs. Delle Rose, I guess that Sicilians are emotional people . . .

BESSIE. I’m a-scared of these Wops.

THE STREGA . . . They ain’t civilized, these Sicilians. In the old country they live in caves in the hills and the country’s run by bandits.

Williams wants us to see clearly that he is writing about a special people with a special set of given circumstances: ‘‘they ain’t civilized’’; they are ‘‘wild,’’ ‘‘emotional,’’ ‘‘childlike,’’ and they do everything ‘‘with all the heart.’’ So it is, then, that our introduction to Serafina Delle Rose takes place in ‘‘an interior that is as colorful as a booth at a carnival.’’ Indeed, we cannot avoid noticing the extreme and vivid uses of color; such Van Gogh audacities are apropos for the broader statement that Williams wants to make. Moreover, the set in which Serafina sits is scarcely more colorful than the lady herself. As vivid as a circus poster, she

looks like a plump little Italian opera singer in the role of Madame Butterfly. Her black hair is done in a high pompadour that glitters like wet coal. A rose is held in place by glittering jet hairpins. Her voluptuous figure is sheathed in pale rose silk. On her feet are dainty slippers with glittering buckles and French heels . . . She sits very erect, . . . her ankles daintily crossed and her plump little hands holding a yellow paper fan on which is painted a rose. Jewels gleam on her fingers, her wrists and her ears and about her throat.

This, it scarcely need be said, is exaggeration. It is enthusiastic—and not actually terribly extreme— intensification of an already intense person for the purposes of vivid theatrical examination of her being. Quite obviously, the actress entrusted with the performance of such a role should have at least a working knowledge of the bigger, more ‘‘operatic’’ styles of acting and should not, as was unfortunately the case with Maureen Stapleton in both New York productions, be circumscribed by an earthbound naturalism which allows few if any glimpses of the theatrical size ultimately attainable in this characterization. While the Serafina Williams describes has not actually left the realm of naturalism, those characteristics which mark her individuality are stressed to just such a degree that they verge upon or actually become both theatricalist and comically grotesque; and by this preliminary visual presentation of the character and the realm she inhabits, we are alerted to expect the comic incongruity which ensues in her subsequent actions.

And so it is that our introduction to Alvaro Mangiacavallo, Serafina’s thematic antagonist, is accomplished in a scene which borders upon farce and which makes heavy use of national characteristic for comedic effect. Alvaro, sobbing in pain and frustration because he has been kicked in the groin during a fight with an irate salesman, flees into the house to hide his shame, and Serafina, weeping in sympathy, offers to repair his torn jacket. The scene is audacious in its comedy—comedy which is, moreover, ingenious as expositional device—as the two characters continue a conversation which would probably be unexceptional if it were not for the fact that each of them is shaking with sobs. ‘‘Stop crying so I can stop crying,’’ Serafina says. ‘‘I am a sissy,’’ says Alvaro. ‘‘Excuse me. I am ashame.’’ At some point in our laughter, however, it might occur to us to ask if perhaps the exaggeration of national or folk characteristic had not been carried to too great an extreme and whether we might have passed altogether into the realm of the stage Italian and from thence into mindless farce. The question, surely, is not as primly academic as might at first appear, as upon its answer depend our interpretation of this play and our evaluation of the spiritual worth of these persons. Critical reaction to the play at its first appearance in 1951 was such as to provide reason to conclude—at that time, at any rate—that Williams’s work here was at least uneven or uncertain. For example, Margaret Marshall, reviewing the play in The Nation, said that ‘‘in the second act the serious mood quickly evaporates; and the proceedings descend into cheap farce which must be seen to be believed. The absurd and the vulgar contend for place . . .’’ Kenneth Tynan, always a great admirer of Williams, found ‘‘the play’s complex structure— short scenes linked by evocative snatches of music— too poetic for its theme,’’ and George Jean Nathan simply said that the play was ‘‘sensational sex melodrama, pasted up with comedy relief . . .’’ Such critics at that time, then, asked whether Williams had not indeed drawn his ironies and exaggerations with too bold a stroke in this play. They apparently assumed that to push the protagonist so far into comic or grotesque incongruity as to make this incongruity his or her dominant dramatic value was to risk making the character so childlike or of such an inferior level of sensibility as to become a target for the destructive laughter of superiority. A playwright of Williams’s genre is limited by his protagonist’s perception, they believed, and so, then, is the force of his play. The Rose Tattoo was thought by many at that time to be a less significant play—‘‘just a comedy’’—because Williams had resorted to farcical exaggeration which all but destroyed any serious thematic intent. Some writers went so far as to deny the probability of any really new or valuable insights into the condition of human suffering in the ‘‘vulgar farce’’ of ‘‘childminded Sicilians,’’ and others questioned the likelihood that ‘‘the psychological aberrations of the universe can be quickly settled on one big bed.’’ We can enjoy Serafina, they implied, and we can even sympathize with her on occasion, but we cannot see her as representative of anything significant in reality after having laughed at her shenanigans for three acts.

It is interesting and even a little amusing to compare such reactions with those of the writers who received the play with surprised enthusiasm when it was revived at City Center last season. Laughter which had in 1951 been deplored as destructive or emblematic of cheap farce was now seen to be either a mark of the play’s timelessness or the work of a skillful director who had managed through perceptive reinterpretation to bring the play up to date. Walter Kerr decided that the play had ‘‘outwitted time. Outwitted 16 years, anyway, and likely to improve the score further.’’ Henry Hewes, writing for the Saturday Review, perhaps best exemplified this new vision of the play when he said that it ‘‘probably was not Mr. Williams’s intention to write The Rose Tattoo as a grotesque comedy, but that is what this new presentation seems, and that is why it appears not the least bit dated.’’ Hewes said, moreover, that to emphasize the grotesquery, the director, Milton Katselas, concentrated on creating the ‘‘wild and irrational’’ surroundings for Williams’s fable, and, as a result, ‘‘everything that happens is ironic—so that we laugh at the ridiculousness of the events at the same time that we recognize the characters’ agonizedly sincere involvement in them.’’ And yet, in 1951, as Williams waited for his play to open at the Martin Beck Theatre, he had said, ‘‘I always thought of [The Rose Tattoo] as funny in a grotesque sort of way’’; and in his famed Preface to the play he had specified grotesquery or ‘‘a certain foolery’’ as the probable stylistic solution for the playwright who would satisfy the peculiar conditions laid down for him by his modern, skeptical audiences.

What Hewes and a surprising number of critics both in 1951 and in 1966 have failed to realize is that comedy is and always has been an essential part of the typical Williams drama. A certain amount of laughter may, or indeed must, be at the expense of the Williams protagonist, as it is clear that Williams has always meant us to see that even the noblest human being is often guilty of ridiculous incongruity and is thereby laughable. Most of the modern writers—certainly those of the so-called Absurdist genre—find that they have to reduce the protagonist (when there is one) to imperception in order to make the point they want to make. The concomitant feeling of superiority toward the protagonist in such case is, we recognize, a necessary part of Absurdist technique: we must be kept aloof and at a distance from the characters, because their actions and not the characters themselves are the important things, and our involvement with them as people would serve to establish the existence of values or of a coherence that the play was written to deny. But Williams does not typically concern himself with the faceless protagonist of Absurdist or surrealist farce. In The Rose Tattoo, he clearly wanted to acknowledge and accept the limitations imposed upon him by characters of ‘‘instinctive’’—rather than rational—sensibility, and to see this condition as altogether fundamental to his design. ‘‘Our purpose,’’ he said, ‘‘is to show these gaudy, childlike mysteries with sentiment and humor in equal measure . . .’’ In any but the most superficial reading of The Rose Tattoo, one cannot help but be struck with the frequency of references concerning the childlike qualities of these characters, and most particularly of Serafina and Alvaro. ‘‘Their fumbling communication,’’ Williams says, ‘‘has a curious intimacy and sweetness, like the meeting of two lonely children for the first time.’’ Serafina, having climbed upon a chair to reach a bottle of wine, ‘‘finds it impossible to descend . . . Clasping the bottle to her breast, she crouches there, helplessly whimpering like a child.’’ The acceptance of the childlike characteristics of Williams’s characters is not only fundamental to their proper interpretation and performance, but leads as well—almost syllogistically—to comprehension of the symbolism of the play, and from thence, as in any poetic work of integrity, back again to even deeper understanding of the characters. Having once conceded that most of Williams’s Romantic symbolism is appropriately akin to association psychology one finds the logic of this statement somewhat nearer to hand.

Thus, by way of penetrating Williams’s almost Wordsworthian concept of the importance of the childlike element in Serafina and Alvaro, it is, strangely enough, most pertinent to consider first the significance that he would have us see in the Strega’s black goat. Normally an easy ‘‘symbol’’ of sexual desire, the goat makes a significant appearance to objectify Serafina’s emotional situation at several pivotal points in the action—once, for example, when Rosario’s mistress, Estelle Hohengarten, appears to order the silk shirt; again after Alvaro and Serafina have discovered their attraction for each other in Act II; and as an offstage bleat when Serafina makes her desperate assignation with Alvaro in Act III. The device as staged is grotesquely comic, and each time the goat escapes to run wild in Serafina’s backyard the incident begins in farcical pandemonium and evolves finally into a ludicrous parody of a Bacchic procession, with a ‘‘little boy . . . clapping together a pair of tin pan lids . . . wild cries of children . . . the goat’s bleating . . . and farther back follows the Strega . . . her grey hair hanging into her face and her black skirts caught up in one hand, revealing bare feet and hairy legs.’’

Having once established an aural connection between the goat and the ‘‘wild cries of children,’’ Williams goes on to introduce these child sounds almost as choric amplification at subsequent points when something happens to stir Serafina’s wild passion for Rosario. Alvaro unwraps the rose silk shirt, and the cries are heard again; Serafina suffers the desperate urge to smash the urn containing her husband’s ashes as a little boy’s cries parallel her excitement outside the window. And at the end of Act II when Serafina lifts her eyes to the sky and begs the dead Rosario’s forgiveness for believing the ‘‘lie’’ about his infidelity, ‘‘a little boy races into the yard holding triumphantly aloft a great golden bunch of bananas. A little girl pursues him with shrill cries. He eludes her . . . The curtain falls.’’

Obviously then, the connection between children and goat is more than merely aural. For Williams, their significance is reciprocal and complementary; they are altogether thematic, and as lyrical devices they symbolize or objectify in tangible form both ‘‘lyric and Bacchantic impulses’’ which Williams sees embodied in their purest crystalline state in his Sicilians. The Rose Tattoo, he said,

is the Dionysian element in human life, its mystery, its beauty, its significance . . . Although the goat is one of its most immemorial symbols, it must not be confused with mere sexuality. The element is higher and more distilled than that. Its purest form is probably manifested by children and birds in their rhapsodic moments of flight and play . . . it is the limitless world of the dream. It is the fruit of the vine that takes earth, sun, and air and distills them into juices that deprive men not of reason but of a different thing called prudence.

Serafina and Alvaro are Italian, and, for Williams, ‘‘the Italians [reveal] a different side of human nature than any I [have] ever known. I think Italians are like our Southerners without their inhibitions. They’re poetic, but they don’t have any Protestant repressions. Or if they do have any, their vitality is so strong, it crashes through them. They live from the heat.’’

It follows, then, that Williams’s portraits of these Sicilians—and particularly that of Serafina— will reveal them as vivid embodiments of these impulses. These are Serafina’s special set of given circumstances; she is at the outset, like Williams’s Southerner, a more intense person than most, a creature from a realm apart. And, again like Williams’s Southerner, being thus unique, she excites Williams with motivation and material for the creation of another intensely theatrical person. As almost pure distillation of those elements of human character most meaningful to Williams she will necessitate from him a bolder stroke of the brush, a more daring use of color, a stronger contrast of light and shade—or, to vary J. L. Styan’s metaphor, a wider swing of the pendulum of dramatic balance on both sides of the neutral reality. And as crystallization of those grotesque human characteristics more typically instinctive than rational, more visceral than cerebral, and more childlike than mature, she will inevitably commit certain of the comic incongruities usually attributed to children and will be ‘‘criticized’’ accordingly by the corrective laughter of her ‘‘civilized’’ audiences. Our laughter at Serafina, then, is as Williams would have it: in our very act of laughing we are to verify her freedom from ‘‘prudence,’’ ‘‘empiric evidence,’’ and ‘‘civilization.’’

In the first few pages of the play, this Dionysian freedom is acknowledged immediately as we sense her gusty vitality and her intensely sexual devotion to her husband; we perceive that she is aware of life, that she reaffirms life and rejoices in it, and in so doing she prepares us for laughter that is free and full. Then, as we, the audience, realize that we see a reality above and beyond her limited or childish conception of it, we naturally react to her at first in much the same way that we respond to persons we recognize as being of inferior sensibility; as we realize that she in effect inhabits a world that is out of step or incongruous with ‘‘the everyday man’s’’ reality, we criticize her with the laughter of superiority and consider her as by definition comic. Henri Bergson would probably have described her behavior as ‘‘mechanical’’ as she ignores or is unable to recognize fact as it appears before her but rather chooses to continue to act upon the conventions and maxims peculiar to her world, even as they are disproved or denied:

JACK. It is a hard thing to say. But I am—also a— virgin . . .

SERAFINA. What? No. I do not believe it.

JACK. Well, it’s true though . . .

SERAFINA. You? A sailor?

SERAFINA. What are you? Catholic?

JACK. Me? Yes, ma’am, Catholic.

SERAFINA. You don’t look Catholic to me!

And, of course, Serafina’s vehement condemnation of her daughter’s passion for the young sailor is in ironic—and laughable—contrast to her own concern with sexuality. We soon realize, of course, that this comes about because of the fact that in her own world of intense sexuality she is led to see the same exaggeration in her daughter’s world, and she in effect flails out at chimeras which are largely of her own making. Moreover, the incongruous contrast between the enormity of the effort she expends and the size of the problem with which she is dealing—what Freud would term the ‘‘quantitative contrast’’—causes her to be seen as a grotesquely comic character. Thus, in her eyes, no sailor, regardless of how young, can be innocent; tight trousers must inevitably signify sexual license; a spring dance at a high school is manifestly given for purposes of sensual indulgence; and a school picnic chaperoned by teachers becomes a maenadic orgy: ‘‘The man-crazy old-maid teachers!—They all run wild on the island!’’ So Serafina forces the young man to pledge chastity while kneeling before the shrine to the Virgin—a shrine which she herself has dedicated to sexual love.

The scene at the beginning of Act III in which we see Serafina struggling frantically, ‘‘with much grunting,’’ to get the girdle from around her knees before Alvaro arrives is almost pure vaudeville; by Joseph Wood Krutch’s definition, our protagonist is here reduced to the status of a clown. Speaking of the typical farcical character, Krutch says that ‘‘the climax of our amusement coincides with the climax of his discomfort, or worse. The chief personages in farce usually are—or are put in a situation where they seem to be—clowns. And a clown is a butt, or victim. In high comedy we usually are laughing at ourselves; in farce, at somebody else.’’ But more to the point of our present discussion—in allowing us this glimpse of Serafina, Williams achieves another of his bold critical strokes whereby we are made to scrutinize the protagonist from the objective viewpoint that such grotesque comedy provides.

But to make endless catalogue of Serafina’s comic incongruities would profit us but little; most of them could be analyzed, if analysis were needed, by reference to the ‘‘quantitative contrast’’ idea, or some version thereof, and to the Freudian ‘‘release of inhibitive energy.’’ In any event, the resulting laughter is gratifying to Williams, as it is in all senses Dionysian. However, the essential fact concerning this laughter has yet to be said. It is simply that having criticized Serafina to such an extent and from such a superior vantage point, we end by retaining a clear image of her dignity and worth: she remains, when all is said and done, a person of some stature and significance. Of course, it must be said that it is altogether indicative of Williams’s success in this play that we are able to say of Serafina, after having laughed long and loudly at her, that we recognize her genuine and sizable capacity for love, and that it is in very point of fact this same extraordinary characteristic which is the significant element in her downfall. It is, in a sense, her hamartia, her tragic flaw.

In recognizing Serafina’s special stature in this respect, we perceive in her being a universal in which we all share, and we sympathize. Even as we are led to laughter by Serafina’s extremities of behavior in her loss of control after Rosario’s death—

[Rosa] crouches and covers her face in shame as Serafina heedlessly plunges out into the front yard in her shocking déshabille, making wild gestures . . . As Serafina paces about, she swings her hips in the exaggeratedly belligerent style of a parading matador.

—we recognize an extremity which is as peculiar to tragedy as it is to comedy. Even as we are made to laugh by the incongruity of her actions—or, as by them we see our own standards of ‘‘normal,’’ adult reality reaffirmed—we see the intensity of the grief which alone could cause such behavior; in our very act of laughing we seem almost heartlessly—but how effectively—to verify the extent of this visceral being’s feeling. Hers is a love and a grief so great they threaten her destruction; by this fact alone she suggests a greatness, and in that tragic flaw is centered the principal tension of The Rose Tattoo.

With Rosario’s death, Serafina’s predictable reaction was to attempt to continue her worship in as close an approximation to its former pattern as possible. In so doing, of course, she chose to continue in blind devotion to her dead husband and became a prisoner of her own self-deception. Instead of association with living beings, she chose the motionless dummies of the dressmaker; instead of love bestowed on the living, she chose adoration before the ashes of the dead; and instead of actuality and engagement in the present, she chose memory and nostalgia for the past. It is interesting, then, to note that in speaking thus of Serafina, we find her to be another of Williams’s variations of the ‘‘weak, beautiful people who give up with such grace,’’ and around whom he structures his every play. In terms of Williams’s typical character deployment, Serafina is actually a direct descendent of Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie and of Alma Winemiller in Summer and Smoke. But, on the other hand, like Blanche DuBois, she is an active protagonist rather than a passive, and to her in turn will come thematic antagonists—like Alvaro—who will contest her view of herself and who will thereby provide the means for a gradual, cumulative view of her character.

In our admission that Serafina’s remarkable capacity for love triumphs over her more comedic aspects—or, rather, by having us concede that those very childlike characteristics which make her comic also give Serafina stature—Williams succeeds in having us reaffirm for him that fact about human relationships which is woven somehow into most of the work of this avowed Romanticist and which, however phrased, expresses what remains for him man’s closest approximation to a dependable absolute: the human being transcends his own pathetic insignificance only when he puts himself aside to love another person. In loving another, Williams would have us see in The Rose Tattoo, man most nearly succeeds in conquering the ultimate enemy of all significance, time. Before Rosario’s death, Serafina says of her life with him:

Time doesn’t pass . . . My clock is my heart and my heart don’t say tick-tock, it says love-love!

At the end of Act I, however, after Rosario has been killed, Serafina winds her daughter’s watch before her shrine, and glaring fiercely at the watch she pounds her chest three times and says:

Tick-tick-tick! . . . Speak to me, Lady! Oh, Lady give me a sign!

With love gone from her life, time’s passing and the transience of all meaning are now all she can see.

Then, at the end of the play, when Serafina has re-entered life through the discovery of new love with Alvaro,

she holds the watch to her ear again. She shakes it a little, then utters a faint, startled laugh.

Time has been arrested for her again, and Williams, the supreme Romanticist, would have us see the stopping of her daughter’s watch as signifi- cant of Serafina’s spiritual rebirth.

Love is itself unmoving,
Only the cause and end of movement,
Timeless . . .

Source: Leland Starnes, ‘‘The Grotesque Children of The Rose Tattoo,’’ in Modern Drama, No. 12, February 1970, pp. 357–69.

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Critical Overview