Tennessee Williams Short Fiction Analysis
Although during his lifetime Tennessee Williams was commonly held to be without peer among America’s—many would say the world’s—playwrights, he began his career writing short fiction, with a story entitled “The Vengeance of Nitocris” in Weird Tales in 1928. As late as 1944, when his first theatrical success was in rehearsal, George Jean Nathan reportedly observed that Williams “didn’t know how to write drama, that he was really just a short-story writer who didn’t understand the theatre.” In proportion to the worldwide audience familiar with Williams’s dramas, only a handful know more than a story or two, usually from among the ones later transformed into stage plays. Seven of Williams’s full-length dramas, in fact, had their genesis in the fiction: The Glass Menagerie in “Portrait of a Girl in Glass”; Summer and Smoke (1947) in “The Yellow Bird”; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in “Three Players of a Summer Game”; The Night of the Iguana and Kingdom of Earth (1968) in stories of the same names; The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore (1963) in “Man Bring This Up Road”; and Vieux Carré (1977) in “The Angel in the Alcove” and “Grand.”
“The Night of the Iguana”
The play The Night of the Iguana is sufficiently different from its progenitor to indicate how Williams rethought his material in adapting it to another medium. Both works portray a spinsterish artist, Miss Jelkes; but while Hannah in the play has fought for and achieved inner peace, Edith’s harsher name in the story belies her edginess, neurosis, and lack of “interior poise.” Having channeled her own “morbid energy” into painting, she discerns in the contrasting “splash of scarlet on snow a flag of her own unsettled components” warring within her. When a servant at the Costa Verde hotel tethers an iguana to the veranda, Edith recoils hysterically from such brutality against “one of God’s creatures,” taking its suffering as proof of a grotesque “universe designed by the Marquis de Sade.”
This picture of cosmic indifference, even malevolence, occurs in a handful of Williams’s stories, most notably in “The Malediction,” in which the lonely Lucio exists in a meaningless universe verging on the absurd, ruled by a God “Who felt that something was wrong but could not correct it, a man Who sensed the blundering sleep-walk of time and hostilities of chance” and “had been driven to drink.” Edith finds God personified in a violent storm “like a giant bird lunging up and down on its terrestrial quarry, a bird with immense white wings and beak of godlike fury.”
Her fellow guests at the hotel are two homosexual writers. Squeamish and yet attracted by the forbidden nature of their relationship, Edith insinuates herself into their company only to become the object of a desperate attack on her “demon of virginity” by the older of the two. Although she has earlier hinted that she always answers, with understanding, cries for help from a fellow sufferer, she ferociously fends off his pathetic advances, metaphorically associated with the predatory “bird of blind white fury.” Afterward, however, once the younger man has mercifully cut loose the iguana, Edith feels her own “rope of loneliness had also been severed,” and—instead of drawing back in “revulsion” from “the spot of dampness” left on her belly by the older writer’s semen—exclaims “Ah, life,” evidently having reached through this epiphanic moment a new acceptance and integration of her sexuality. Yet, unlike Hannah, whose compassionate response to Shannon in the play is for him a saving grace and who can affirm, along with Williams, that “Nothing human disgusts me unless it’s unkind, violent,” Edith’s inability to answer unselfishly the older man’s need—the cardinal sin in Williams—may have permanently maimed him by destroying his self-respect.
Williams does not always capitalize fully on his gift for writing dialogue in his...
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