Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2952
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 stories. For all its interest in light of the later play, the pace of “The Night of the Iguana” is curiously desultory and enervated, which might not have been true if the story had been written from Edith’s point of view. Williams does indeed prove adept at handling first-person narration in several autobiographical tales, whose content seems hardly distinguishable at times from the sections of the Memoirs (1975).
“The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin”
He can, however, become annoyingly self-conscious when, in authorial intrusions analogous to the nonrepresentational techniques that deliberately destroy the illusion of reality in his dramas, he breaks the narrative line in a dozen or so stories to interject comments about himself as writer manipulating his materials, sometimes apologizing for his awkwardness in handling the short-story form, or for playing too freely with chronology or radically shifting tone. At times these stories provide some notion of Williams’s aesthetic theories and practice, as when, in “Three Players of a Summer Game,” for example, he discusses the method by which the artist orders experience by a process that distorts and “yet may be closer than a literal history could be to the hidden truth of it.” These “metafictional” asides might indicate his conception of character portrayal. On that point—while without qualms at employing clinical details when necessary—Williams insists, in “Hard Candy,” on the need for “indirection” and restraint rather than “a head-on violence that would disgust and destroy” if he is to remain nonjudgmental and respect the “mystery” at the heart of character.
An almost identical comment occurs in “The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin,” part of a small group of rites de passage stories in the Williams canon. The story centers on a love triangle of sorts as the young narrator faces the destruction of the “magical intimacy” with his pianist sister as she enters adolescence—that “dangerous passage” between the “wild country of childhood” and the “uniform world of adults”—and turns her attentions towards a fellow musician, Richard Miles. It is as if she has deserted the narrator and “carried a lamp into another room [he] could not enter.” He resents the “radiant” Richard, but also feels a frightening prepubescent physical attraction for the older boy. Like many of Williams’s adult neurotics whose libidinous desires rebel against their Puritan repressions, the narrator longs to touch Richard’s skin, yet recoils in shame and guilt from the boy’s offer of his hand as if it were somehow “impure.” Seeing Richard play the violin, however, provides an epiphany as the narrator “learns the will of life to transcend the single body” and perceives the connection between Eros and Thanatos. For the narrator equates the act of playing the phallic violin with “making love,” and the violin case to “a little black coffin made for a child or doll.” He mourns the loss of youth and innocence and the birth of the knowledge of sin and death.
Tom, the authorial voice in The Glass Menagerie, confesses to “a poet’s weakness for symbols,” and one of Williams’s own hallmarks has always been an extensive use of visual stage symbolism—“the natural speech of drama.” As he remarks in one of his essays, it can “say a thing more directly and simply and beautifully than it could be said in words”; he employs symbols extensively, however, in only a handful of stories, although he does rely heavily on figurative language. In the earlier stories the imagery is ordinarily controlled and striking, as, for example, in this line (reminiscent of Karl Shapiro’s “cancer, simple as a flower, blooms”) describing the doctor’s tumor from “Three Players of a Summer Game”: “An awful flower grew in his brain like a fierce geranium that shattered its pot.” In the more recent tales, however, Williams’s diction frequently becomes overwrought and demonstrates some lack of control, falling into what he criticizes elsewhere in the same essay as “a parade of images for the sake of images.”
If the mood of “The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin” is tender and elegiac, the tone of a much later rite de passage story, “Completed,” is chilling, but no less haunting and memorable. Miss Rosemary McCord, a student at Mary, Help a Christian School, is a withdrawn debutante subjected by her unsympathetic mother to a pathetic and bizarre coming-out dance. The onset of menstruation has been late in coming for Rosemary, and when it finally does arrive, she is pitifully unprepared for it. Ironically, the fullness of physical development in Rosemary coincides with a death wish; her only “purpose in life is to complete it quick.” Her one understanding relative, the reclusive Aunt Ella, deliberately retreats from the external world through morphine; the drug brings her comforting apparitions of the Virgin Mary and tears of peace. Rosemary goes to live with her, aware that she has been taken captive and yet willingly submissive, ready to be calmed through drugs and her own reassuring visions of the Virgin. Her life—apparently the latest of several variations on that of Williams’s own sister—is over before it began. Perhaps it is, however, only in such a sheltered, illusory life that this fragile, sensitive girl can exist.
“Sabbatha and Solitude”
The other “passage” that threads through Williams’s stories is that from life to death, obsessed as he is with what he terms “a truly awful sense of impermanence,” with the debilitating effects of time on both physical beauty and one’s creative powers, and the sheer tenacity necessary if one is to endure at least spiritually undefeated. In “Sabbatha and Solitude,” the aging poetess (undoubtedly semi-autobiographical) finds that the process of composition is a trial not unlike the Crucifixion that results only in “a bunch of old repeats,” while in the picaresque “Two on a Party,” the blond and balding queen and hack screenwriter exist at the mercy of that “worst of all enemies the fork-tailed, cloven-hoofed, pitchfork-bearing devil of Time.”
“Completed” is one of Williams’s few later stories—“Happy August the Tenth” is another—that can stand alongside some of his earliest as a fully successful work. Just as there was a noticeable diminution in the power of his later dramas compared with the ones from The Glass Menagerie through The Night of the Iguana, so, too, each successive volume of short fiction was less impressive than its predecessor. As Williams’s vision of the universe darkened and became more private, the once elegiac tone acquired a certain stridency and sharp edge; and as Williams developed a tough, self-protective shell of laughter as a defense against his detractors, some of the dark humor—what he once called the “jokes of the condemned”—became directed towards the pathetic grotesques who increasingly peopled his works, whereas once there was only compassion.
“Desire and the Black Masseur”
Thus, two of the most representative stories, “One Arm” and “Desire and the Black Masseur,” neither of which, significantly, has ever been dramatized, appeared in his first collection. Unquestionably the most macabre of all his tales is “Desire and the Black Masseur,” which details the fantastic, almost surreal sadomasochistic relationship between the insecure, sexually repressed Anthony Burns and an unnamed black masseur at a men’s bath. Burns, whose name blends that of a Christian saint with the suggestion of consummation by fire—here metaphoric—suffers from an overly acute awareness of his own insignificance, as well as of his separateness and lack of completeness as a human being. Williams views the latter as an inescapable fact of the human condition and proposes three means available to compensate for it: art, violent action, or surrendering oneself to brutal treatment at the hands of others. Burns chooses the third path, submitting himself as if in a dream, finding at the punishing hands of the masseur first pain, then orgasmic pleasure, and ultimately death. Although the masseur thus secures a release from his pent-up hatred of his white oppressors, this tale should not be construed as a social comment reflecting Williams’s attitude toward black/white relations, hardly even peripherally a concern in his work, despite his being a southern writer.
Blacks figure importantly in only two other stories. In the ribald “Miss Coynte of Greene,” the title character’s long-frustrated female eroticism erupts into nymphomania, her pleasure intensified by the dark skin of her sexual partners. In “Mama’s Old Stucco House,” Williams’s gentlest foray into the black/white terrain, the failed artist Jimmy Krenning is cared for physically and emotionally after his own mother’s death by the black girl Brinda and her Mama, the latter having always functioned as his surrogate mother.
That “Desire and the Black Masseur” is to be read on levels other than the literal appears clear when Williams places its climax at the end of the Lenten Season. The death and devouring of Burns becomes a ritual of expiation, a kind of black mass and perversion of the sacrifice on Calvary, even accomplished in biblical phraseology. Indeed, counterpointed with it is a church service during which a self-proclaimed Fundamentalist preacher exhorts his congregation to a frenzy of repentance. What Williams has written, then, is not only a psychological study of man’s subconscious desires and an allegory of the division between innocence and evil within all men but also a parable exposing how excessive emphasis on guilt and the need for punishment at the hands of a vengeful God have destroyed the essential New Testament message of love and forgiveness. So Burns’s strange rite of atonement stands as a forceful indictment of a Puritanism that creates a dark god of hate as a reflection of one’s own obsession with evil, which is one of the recurrent emphases in almost all of Williams’s important dramas, especially Suddenly Last Summer (1958) and The Night of the Iguana.
Something of the obverse, the possibility for transcending one’s knowledge of evil and isolation, occurs in “One Arm,” the quintessential—and perhaps the finest—Williams story, in which can be discerned nearly all the central motifs that adumbrate not only his fiction but also his plays. Oliver Winemiller, a former light heavyweight champion who in an accident two years earlier lost an arm, is one of Williams’s “fugitive kind,” a lonely misfit, cool, impassive, now tasting, like Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, “the charm of the defeated.” Since all he possessed was his “Apollo-like beauty,” after his physical mutilation he undergoes a psychological and emotional change; feeling that he has lost “the center of his being,” he is filled with self-loathing and disgust. He enters on a series of self-destructive sexual encounters, finally committing a murder for which he is sentenced to die.
While in confinement awaiting execution, he receives letters from all over the country from his male lovers, confessing that he had aroused deep feelings in them, that he had effected a “communion” with them that would have been, if he had only recognized it, a means of “personal integration” and “salvation.” If it was not until very late in his dramas that Williams openly treated homosexuality with sympathy, in his stories his unapologetic and compassionate attitude existed from the very first. Oliver’s epiphany, that he had been loved, liberates him from his self-imposed insularity; ironically, however, this rebirth makes his approaching death harder to accept. On the eve of his execution, he recognizes that the Lutheran minister who visits him has used religion as an escape from facing his own sexuality, and he desperately hopes that by forcing the minister to come to terms with himself and his “feelings” he can thereby somehow repay his debt to all those who had earlier responded to him with kindness. The minister, however, recognizing a forbidden side of himself and still suffering guilt over his adolescent sexual awakening during a dream of a golden panther, which Oliver reminds him of, refuses to give Oliver a massage and rushes from his cell. Oliver goes to his execution with dignity, gripping the love letters tightly between his things as a protection from aloneness.
The doctors performing the autopsy see in Oliver’s body the “nobility” and purity of an “antique sculpture.” Yet Williams reminds his readers in the closing line that “death has never been much in the way of completion.” Although the work of art is immutable, it is not alive as only the emotionally responsive person can be, for the true artist in Williams is the person who goes out unselfishly to answer the cry for help of others, and the real work of art is the bond of communion that is formed by that response. Thus “One Arm” incorporates virtually all of Williams’s major attitudes, including his somewhat sentimental valuation of the lost and lonely; his romantic glorification of physical beauty and worship of sexuality as a means of transcending aloneness; his castigation of Puritan repression and guilt that render one selfish and judgmental; and his Hawthornian abhorrence of the underdeveloped heart that prevents one from breaking out of the shell of the ego to respond with infinite compassion to all God’s misbegotten creatures.
Although Williams’s stories, with their frequent rhetorical excesses, their sometimes awkward narrative strategies, and their abrupt shifts in tone, technically do not often approach the purity of form of Oliver’s statue, they do, nevertheless—as all good fiction must—surprise the reader with their revelations of the human heart and demand that the reader abandon a simplistic perspective and see the varieties of human experience. What in the hands of other writers might seem a too specialized vision, frequently becomes in Williams’s work affectingly human and humane.
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