Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8685
If the weight of critical opinion places Tennessee Williams below Eugene O’Neill as America’s premiere dramatist, there should be no question that the later playwright is without peer either in the diversity of genres in which he wrote or his impact on the cultural consciousness of mid-twentieth century America. In the course of his long career, Williams wrote essays; letters; memoirs; music lyrics; original screenplays, including that for the controversial Baby Doll; poetry; short stories; and novels, one of which, the bittersweet The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, was made into a major motion picture. However, it is as a playwright that Williams’s genius shines most brightly, particularly from the early 1940’s to the early 1960’s, a period comprising The Glass Menagerie, Summer and Smoke, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Orpheus Descending, Suddenly Last Summer, Sweet Bird of Youth, and The Night of the Iguana. These plays encompass an unrelenting exploration of the dark underbelly of human experience: frigidity and nymphomania, impotence and rape, pedophilia and fetishism, cannibalism and coprophagy, alcohol and drug addiction, castration and syphilis, violence and madness, and aging and death. These themes place Williams squarely in the gothic tradition and reflect his early interest in the bizarre and grotesque. As a child he was fed large doses of Edgar Allan Poe by his grandfather. Tormented by a sense of existential loneliness, Williams was able to sublimate his dark vision into plays that bring to life such iconic characters as Big Daddy, Stanley Kowalski, Blanche Dubois, and Amanda Wingfield in language that has been compared favorably with William Shakespeare’s. Williams is second to none among American writers whose works have been successfully made into major films. His plays have been translated into more than a score of languages and continue to be performed in theaters throughout the world.
The Glass Menagerie
Williams’s The Glass Menagerie was regarded when first produced as highly unusual; one of the play’s four characters serves as commentator as well as participant; the play itself represents the memories of the commentator years later, and hence, as he says, is not a depiction of actuality; its employment of symbolism is unusual; and in the very effective ending, a scrim descends in front of mother and daughter, so that by stage convention one can see but not hear them, with the result that both, but especially the mother, become much more moving and even archetypal. The play is also almost unique historically, in that it first opened in Chicago, came close to flopping before Chicago newspaper theater critics verbally whipped people into going, and then played successfully for months in Chicago before finally moving to equal success in New York.
One device that Williams provided for the play was quickly abandoned: A series of legends and images flashed on a screen, indicating the central idea of scenes and parts of scenes. This device provides a triple insight into Williams: first, his skill at organizing scenes into meaningful wholes; second, his willingness to experiment, sometimes successfully, sometimes not; and third, his occasional tendency to spell out by external devices what a play itself makes clear.
The Glass Menagerie opens on a near-slum apartment, with Tom Wingfield setting the time (the Depression and Spanish-Civil-War 1930’s); the play’s method as memory, with its consequent use of music and symbol; and the names and relationships of the characters: Tom, his sister Laura, his mother Amanda, and an initially unnamed gentleman caller. A fifth character, Tom says, is his father, who, having deserted his family years before, appears only as a larger-than-life photograph over the mantel, which on occasion—according to Williams’s stage directions, but rarely in actual production—lights up.
Tom works in a shoe warehouse, writes poetry, and feels imprisoned by the knowledge that his hateful job is essential to the family’s financial survival. Apparently, his one escape is to go to the movies. His relationship with his mother is a combination of love, admiration, frustration, and acrimony, with regular flare-ups and reconciliations. His relationship with his sister is one of love and sympathy. Laura is physically crippled as well as withdrawn from the outside world. She is psychologically unable (as one learns in scene 2) to attend business college and lives in a world of her phonograph records and fragile glass animals. Amanda, a more complex character than the others, is the heart of the play: a constantly chattering woman who lives in part for her memories, perhaps exaggerated, of an idealized antebellum southern girlhood and under the almost certain illusion that her son will amount to something and that her daughter will marry; yet she also lives very positively in the real world, aware of the family’s poverty, keeping track of the bills, scratching for money by selling magazine subscriptions, taking advantage of her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution. She is aware, too, that she must constantly remind her son of his responsibility to his family and that if her daughter is ever to marry, it must be through the machinations of mother and son. Yet, on the other hand, she is insufficiently aware of how her nagging and nostalgia drive her son to desperation and of how both son and daughter act on occasion to protect her illusions and memories.
Scene 1 provides a general picture of this background; scene 2 is a confrontation between mother and daughter. Amanda has discovered that, rather than attending business college, Laura has simply left and returned home at the proper hours, spending her time walking in the park, visiting the zoo, or going to the movies. Amanda must accept the fact that a job for Laura is out of the question, and she therefore starts planning for the other alternative, marriage. The scene introduces a second symbol in a nickname that Laura says a boy gave her in high school: “Blue Roses.” Roses are delicate and beautiful, like Laura and like her glass menagerie, but blue roses, like glass animals, have no real existence. Scene 3 shows Amanda trying unsuccessfully to sell magazine subscriptions on the telephone and ends in a shockingly violent quarrel between mother and son, concluding with Tom throwing his overcoat across the room in his rage and unintentionally destroying some of Laura’s animals. One of Williams’s most notable uses of lighting occurs in this scene. A pool of light envelops Laura as Tom and Amanda quarrel, so that one becomes aware without words that the devastating effect on Laura is the scene’s major point. Scene 4 shows Laura talking Tom into an apology and reconciliation, and Amanda taking advantage of Tom’s remorse to persuade him to invite a friend from the warehouse home to dinner, in the hope that the “gentleman caller” will be attracted to Laura.
Scene 5 is long, building up suspense for Amanda and for the audience. Tom announces to his mother that he has invited a warehouse friend, Jim O’Connor, to dinner the next evening. Amanda, pleased but shocked at the suddenness of this new development, makes elaborate plans and has high expectations, but Tom tries to make her face the reality of Laura’s physical and psychological limitations. Scene 6 shows the arrival of the guest and his attempt to accept Amanda’s pathetic and almost comical southern-belle behavior and elaborate “fussing,” and Laura’s almost pathological fright and consequent inability to come to the dinner table. Dialogue between Tom and Jim makes clear Jim’s relative steadiness and definite if perhaps overly optimistic plans for a career. It also reveals Tom’s near failure at his job, his frustration over his family’s situation, and his ripening determination to leave home: He has joined the merchant seamen’s union instead of paying the light bill. The scene ends with the onset of a sharp summer storm. Laura, terrified, is on the sofa trying desperately not to cry; the others are at the dinner table and Tom is saying grace: a combination remarkable for its irony and pathos.
At the beginning of scene 7, the lights go out because of Tom’s failure to pay the light bill, so the whole scene is played in candlelight. It is the climactic scene, and in it, Williams faced a problem faced by many modern playwrights: What kind of outcome does one choose, and by what means, in a situation where if things go one way they might seem incredible, and if they go the other, they might seem overly obvious? It is perhaps not a wholly soluble situation, but Williams did remarkably well in handling it. By Amanda’s inevitable machinations after dinner, Jim and Laura are left alone. Jim—who has turned out to be the “Blue Roses” boy from high school, the boy with whom Laura was close to being in love—is a sympathetic and understanding person who, even in the short time they are alone together, manages to get more spontaneous and revealing conversation out of Laura than her family ever has, and even persuades her to dance. Clearly, here is a person who could bring to reality Amanda’s seemingly impossible dreams, a man who could lead Laura into the real world (as he symbolically brought her glass unicorn into it by unintentionally breaking off its horn), a man who would make a good husband. For the play to end thus, however, would be out of accord with the facts of Williams’s family life, with the tone of the whole play up to that point, and with modern audience’s dislike of pat, happy endings in serious plays. Jim tells Laura that he is already engaged, a fact made more believable by Tom’s unawareness of it. Laura’s life is permanently in ruins. What might have happened will never happen. When Amanda learns the truth from Jim just before he leaves, the resulting quarrel with Tom confirms Tom in his plans to leave home permanently, abandoning his mother and sister to an apparently hopeless situation. Yet as he tells the audience—who are watching a soundless Amanda hovering over Laura to comfort her by candlelight—his flight has been unsuccessful. The memories haunt him; Laura haunts him. Speaking to her from a far-off world, he begs her to blow her candles out and thus obliterate the memory. She does, and the curtain falls.
A Streetcar Named Desire
Williams’s next successful play, A Streetcar Named Desire, is generally regarded as his best. Initial reaction was mixed, but there would be little argument now that it is one of the most powerful plays in the modern theater. Like The Glass Menagerie, it concerns, primarily, a man and two women and a “gentleman caller.” As in The Glass Menagerie, one of the women is very much aware of the contrast between the present and her southern-aristocratic past; one woman (Stella) is practical if not always adequately aware, while the other (Blanche) lives partly in a dream world and teeters on the brink of psychosis; the gentleman caller could perhaps save the latter were circumstances somewhat different; and the play’s single set is a slum apartment.
Yet these similarities only point up the sharp differences between the two plays. A Streetcar Named Desire is not a memory play; it is sharply naturalistic, with some use of expressionistic devices to point up Blanche’s emotional difficulties. Blanche is not, as is Laura, a bond between the other two family members; she is, rather, an intolerable intruder who very nearly breaks up her sister’s marriage. A more complex creation than anyone in The Glass Menagerie, she is fascinating, cultured, pathetic, vulgar, admirable, despicable: a woman who, unlike Amanda, cannot function adequately outside the safe, aristocratic world of the past, but who, like Amanda, can fight almost ferociously for what she wants, even when it is almost surely unattainable. Her opponent, Stella’s husband, Stanley Kowalski, is also a much sharper figure than Tom Wingfield.
One of the major critical problems of A Streetcar Named Desire has been whose side one should be on in the battle between Blanche and Stanley. The answer may be one that some critics have been unable to accept: neither and both. Blanche’s defense of culture, of the intellectual and aesthetic aspects of life, may be pathetic coming from one who has become a near-alcoholic prostitute, but it is nevertheless genuine, important, and valid. Life has dealt her devastating blows, to which she has had to respond alone; her sister has offered no help. Yet she herself is partly responsible for the horrible world in which she finds herself, and her attempts to find a haven from it are both pitiable and (because she is inadequately aware of the needs of others) repellent. Stanley, the sort of man who might, in later years, be called “macho,” uncultured and uninterested in culture, capable (as Blanche also is in her own way) of violence, is nevertheless an intelligent man, a man who functions more capably than do any of his friends in the world in which he finds himself, a man who loves his wife and would be pathetically lost without her. Stanley would find any intrusion into his happy home intolerable, but he finds it doubly so when the intruder is a woman who stays on indefinitely, a woman with Blanche’s affectations, her intolerance of any lifestyle other than that of her own childhood, her obvious dislike of her sister’s marriage, and her corrupt sexual past, which makes her attempts to attract one of Stanley’s best friends more than Stanley can tolerate.
It is ironic that the play should end on a “happily-ever-after” note for Stanley and Stella (though surely Blanche can never be wholly forgotten), but this is life, not a model of life. Indeed, the life that both find, apparently, wholly satisfying and sufficient is itself a sort of irony. Stella has had to give up everything that Blanche believes in, everything from her own past, in order to accept it and welcome it.
The setting of A Streetcar Named Desire is the street and outdoor stairs of the building in which the Kowalskis live, and the interior of their two-room apartment. As scene 1 opens, neighbors are out front talking. Stanley and Mitch come in, prepared to go bowling. Stanley is carrying a package of meat. Stella comes out. Stanley throws the meat to her, and even the neighbors are amused at the symbolism. Stanley and Mitch proceed to the bowling alley, and Stella follows. Then Blanche comes around the corner, with her suitcase, dressed all in white—another ironic symbol—in a fashion appropriate to an upper-class garden party. In a stage direction, Williams compares her to a moth, and throughout the play, she fears the alluring but destructive light. She fears people seeing how she really looks. She fears facing the truth or having other people learn it. As she later says, she fibs because fibs are more pleasant; symbolically, she covers the overhead light bulb in the apartment with a paper lantern. Paper, indeed, is a recurring symbol throughout the play. For example, two of the melodies one hears from a distance are “Paper Doll” and “Paper Moon.”
Blanche has never before seen Stella’s apartment or met her sister’s husband. To mark her progress through New Orleans to get to the apartment, Williams took advantage of actual New Orleans names (or former names); Blanche has to transfer from a streetcar called Desire to one called Cemeteries in order to arrive in the slum, called Elysian Fields. While the first of the streetcars gives the title to the play, Williams wisely makes use of the names only once after the opening scene. Blanche’s progress in the play is from a wide range of desires (for culture, security, sex, and money) to a sort of living death, and while the slum may be an Elysian Fields for Stanley and Stella, it is a Tartarus for her. Williams also, like many earlier dramatists, gave some of his characters meaningful, and in this case, ironic names. Blanche DuBois is by no means a White Woods (though the name is a reminder of Anton Chekhov’s Vishnyovy sad, pr., pb. 1904; The Cherry Orchard, 1908, and hence of the sort of life she has lost), and Stella is no Star. Such devices can be overdone: The name of their lost plantation, Belle Reve, may be an example.
A neighbor who owns the building lets Blanche into the apartment, and another neighbor goes for Stella. Blanche is alone. Like Laura on the night of the dinner, she is skittish, but her reaction is different: She spots a bottle of whiskey and takes a slug. Stella rushes in and, as is common in plays that begin with an arrival, the audience learns a great deal about both sisters as they talk—learns about their past, about Blanche’s hostile attitude toward her environment, about the grim string of family illnesses and deaths, about the loss of the plantation. The sisters love each other but are obviously at odds in many respects. Blanche has been a schoolteacher, but one may doubt the reason she gives, a sort of sick leave, for being in New Orleans in early May while school at home is still in session. Stanley comes in with Mitch and another friend. Williams’s description of him here, as the gaudy, dominant seed bearer, is famous. With Stella in the bathroom and his friends gone, Stanley encounters Blanche alone. He is surprised, but he tries to play the friendly host. Presently, he asks Blanche if she had not once been married. Blanche says that the boy died, promptly adding that she feels sick. The scene ends.
A prominent feature of this first scene, one that continues throughout the play, is the use of sound effects. There are sound effects in The Glass Menagerie, too, such as the glass menagerie thematic music and the music from the nearby dance hall, but in A Streetcar Named Desire, the sound effects are much more elaborate. As the curtain rises, one hears the voices of people passing and the sound of the “Blue Piano” in the nearby bar, and the piano becomes louder at appropriate points. Twice a cat screeches, frightening Blanche badly. As the subject of her husband and his death comes up, one hears—softly here but louder when Blanche reaches a crisis—the music of a polka, clearly a sound inside Blanche’s head and hence an expressionistic device. At the end of scene 2, in which Blanche and Stanley have had a conversation that is both hostile and covertly sexual, a tamale vendor is heard calling “Red-hot!” Similar effects, notably of trains roaring past, occur throughout the play.
Scene 2 begins with a dialogue between Stanley and Stella. It is the next evening. Stella is taking Blanche out to dinner in order not to interfere with the poker night Stanley has planned. Stanley learns of the loss of the plantation and is angry, especially after he examines Blanche’s trunk and finds it full of expensive clothes and furs. Stella has postponed telling Blanche that she is pregnant. Blanche enters and, seeing the situation, sends Stella on an errand so that she can have it out with Stanley. Stanley must accept the fact that the plantation has been lost because it was heavily mortgaged, and the mortgage payments could not be made. Blanche grows playful with him, and Stanley implies that she is being deliberately provocative. Stanley comes across Blanche’s love letters from her dead husband, and Blanche becomes almost hysterical. Stanley tells Blanche of the coming baby. The men begin to arrive for poker. Stella returns and leads Blanche away.
Scene 3, entitled “The Poker Night,” opens on a garish and, Williams says, Van Gogh-like view of Stanley and his three friends playing poker. Stanley has had too much to drink and is becoming verbally violent. The women return from their evening out. Blanche encounters Mitch at the bathroom door—she wants to take another of her endless hot baths—and they are clearly attracted to each other. Stanley, hating the presence of women during a poker game, becomes physically violent, and (offstage) hits Stella. The other men, who are familiar with this behavior but feel great affection for Stanley, subdue him and leave. Blanche, horrified, has taken Stella to the upstairs apartment. Stanley realizes what has happened, sobs, and screams for Stella, who presently joins him on the outside stairs. They fall into a sexual embrace, and he carries her inside. Clearly, this series of events has occurred before; clearly, this is the usual outcome, and is one of the attractions that Stanley has for Stella. Blanche comes down the stairs, even more horrified, and Mitch returns and comforts her.
In scene 4, Blanche returns from upstairs the next morning and is shocked to learn that Stella accepts all that has happened and wants no change in her marital situation. With some justice, Blanche describes Stanley as an uncultured animal in a world in which culture is essential—a speech that Stanley overhears. He comes in, and to Blanche’s horror, Stella embraces him. It is in this scene that Blanche, uselessly and desperately, first thinks of an old boyfriend, now rich, as a source of rescue from her plight, a futile idea that she develops and tries harder and harder to believe in as her plight worsens. Scene 5 contains an example of Williams’s occasionally excessive irony: Stanley asks Blanche her astrological sign, and it turns out that his is Capricorn and hers is Virgo. The major import of the scene is that Stanley confronts Blanche with stories he has heard about her life back home—and afterward Blanche admits to Stella that some of them are true. Blanche and Stella agree that marrying Mitch is the solution to Blanche’s problem, and Blanche is left alone. A young newsboy comes to collect money, and Blanche comes very close to trying, consciously and cynically, to seduce him. Clearly, sex, like alcohol, has been both a cause of and a response to her situation. Mitch arrives for a date, holding a bunch of roses, and the scene ends. Scene 6 opens with the return of the two from their date. Its major import is Blanche’s telling Mitch about her dead husband, whom she encountered one evening in an embrace with an older man. Later that evening, while they were dancing to the polka she now keeps hearing, Blanche, unable to stop herself, told him he disgusted her. A few minutes later, he went outside and shot himself. Telling the story is a catharsis for Blanche and deeply enlists Mitch’s sympathy. They are in each other’s arms, and he suggests the possibility of marriage.
In scene 7, several months later, with Blanche still there and with the marriage idea apparently no further advanced, Stanley tells Stella of his now detailed and verified knowledge of Blanche’s sordid sexual past, including her having seduced a seventeen-year-old student. As a result of this last action, Blanche lost her job, and Stanley, as he explains to Stella, has told Mitch the whole story. Stella is horrified, both at the facts themselves and at their revelation to Mitch. It is Blanche’s birthday, there is a birthday cake, and Mitch has been invited. Scene 8 shows the women’s mounting distress as Mitch fails to show up for the party; Stanley gives Blanche a “birthday present,” a bus ticket back home for the following Tuesday; he makes it clear that Blanche’s presence all this time has been almost too much to endure. Stella develops labor pains and leaves with Stanley for the hospital. Scene 9, later that evening, shows Mitch coming in with very changed intentions, tearing the paper lantern off and turning on the light to see Blanche plainly for the first time, telling her she is not clean enough to take home to his mother, and trying to get her to bed. She reacts violently, and he runs out.
In scene 10, the climactic scene, Stanley comes back. Blanche has been drinking and is desperately upset. With Stanley, she tries to retreat into fanciful illusions—Mitch has returned and apologized, her rich boyfriend has invited her on a Caribbean tour. Stanley exposes her lies, and her desperation grows, as indicated by lurid, darting shadows and other expressionistic devices. Their confrontation reaches a climax, and after she tries to resist, he carries her off to bed. In scene 11, some weeks later, one learns that Blanche has told Stella that Stanley raped her, that Stella must believe that the rape is merely one of Blanche’s psychotic illusions if her life with Stanley is to survive, and that Stella has made arrangements to place Blanche in a state institution. A doctor and nurse come to get her. Blanche is terrified. The nurse is cold and almost brutal, but the doctor gains Blanche’s confidence by playing the role of a gentleman, and she leaves on his arm, clearly feeling that she has found what she has been seeking, a man to protect her. All this occurs while another poker game is in progress. The play ends with Stella in Stanley’s arms, and with one of the other men announcing, “This game is seven-card stud.”
The brutes have won, and Stella has permanently denied her heritage, yet one must remember that the “brutes” are not without redeeming qualities. Stanley has displayed intense loyalty to his friends, genuine love for his wife, and a variety of insecurities beneath his aggressive manner. The other men have displayed loyalty to Stanley, and Mitch has shown much sympathy and understanding. As Blanche has said early in the play, Stanley may be just what their bloodline needs, and that point is emphasized when, near the end of the final scene, the upstairs neighbor hands Stella her baby. Life must go on; perhaps the next generation will do better; but long before the play opens, life has destroyed a potentially fine and sensitive woman.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Of Williams’s four plays analyzed here, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, his next big success, is the only one that falls into a special Williams category: plays that at some stage or stages have been heavily revised. Williams has said that, because of advice from Elia Kazan, the director of the first Broadway production, he made changes in the third act. The changes include the appearance of one of the main characters, Big Daddy, who had been in the second act only, and adjustments changing the bare possibility of an affirmative ending to a probability. Revisions of considerably greater scope than this were made by Williams in other plays, including plays that were completely rewritten long after their original productions (Summer and Smoke into The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, and Battle of Angels into Orpheus Descending).
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is famous for its somewhat expressionistic set, the bedroom of Brick and Margaret (Maggie) Pollitt. The two major pieces of furniture, both with symbolic value, are a large double bed and a combination radio-phonograph-television-liquor cabinet. The walls are to disappear into air at the top, and the set is to be roofed by the sky, as though to suggest that the action of the play is representative of universal human experience. The powerful expressionistic psychology of the play recalls the theater of August Strindberg, but Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is deeply embedded in revealed reality, with one major exception: One does not know the truth, one cannot know the truth, behind the crucial relationship between Brick and his dead friend Skipper; the degree (if any) of Brick’s responsibility for Skipper’s decline and death; or of Maggie’s responsibility.
The bedroom, outside of which is a gallery running the length of the house, is in the plantation mansion of Brick’s father, Big Daddy, on his twenty-eight-thousand-acre estate in the Mississippi delta. The first act is largely a monologue by Maggie, talking to a mostly inattentive and uninterested Brick, and interrupted only by brief appearances of Brick’s mother, Big Mama, and his sister-in-law Mae and two of her five, soon to be six, children. Maggie, like Amanda and Blanche before her, is a loquacious and desperate woman who may be fighting for the impossible; unlike her predecessors, she lives entirely in the present and without major illusions, and hence fights more realistically. She wants Brick to return to her bed: She is a cat on a hot tin roof, sexually desperate but interested only in her husband. As the largely one-sided conversation continues, one learns the circumstances underlying Brick’s loss of interest in her. Maggie tells Brick the news that his father is dying of cancer. Brick and Maggie have been living in the house for several months. Formerly an important athlete, a professional football player, and then a sports announcer, he has given up everything and lapsed into heavy drinking. He is on a crutch, having broken his ankle attempting, while drunk the previous night, to jump hurdles on the high school athletic field. Mae and her husband, Brick’s older brother Gooper, a lawyer in Memphis, are visiting in hope, as Maggie correctly guesses, of Big Daddy’s signing a will in Gooper’s favor, because, while Brick is Big Daddy’s favorite, he will want the estate to go to a son who has offspring. Maggie is from a society background in Nashville, though her immediate family had been poor because of her father’s alcoholism. Big Daddy himself is a Mississippi redneck who has worked his way to great wealth. Brick and Maggie met as students at the University of Mississippi. Formerly, according to Maggie, an excellent lover, Brick has made Maggie agree that they will stay together only if she leaves him alone. Unable to bear the frustration, Maggie is ready to break the agreement and fight to get Brick back.
The roots of Brick and Maggie’s conflict are fitfully revealed when Maggie begins to speak of Skipper, their dead friend, any mention of whom greatly upsets Brick. In Maggie’s version of the story, from college on, Brick’s greatest loyalty was to Skipper. She says that Brick’s standards of love and friendship were so pure as to have been frustrating to both Skipper and Maggie; that on an out-of-town football weekend when Brick had been injured and could not go, Maggie and Skipper, out of their common frustration, went to bed together; that Skipper could not perform, and that Maggie therefore, but in no condemnatory sense, assumed that he was unconsciously homosexual, though she believes that Brick is not. Maggie told Skipper that he was actually in love with her husband, and she now believes that it was this revelation that prompted Skipper to turn to liquor and drugs, leading to his death. Maggie now tells Brick that she has been examined by a gynecologist, that she is capable of bearing children, and that it is the right time of the month to conceive. Brick asks how it is going to happen when he finds her repellent. She says that that is a problem to be solved.
Act 2 is famous for consisting almost entirely of a remarkably effective and revealing dialogue between Brick and Big Daddy. The act opens, however, with the whole family there, as well as their minister, the Reverend Mr. Tooker. The minister is there ostensibly because of Big Daddy’s birthday, and there is to be cake and champagne. From the family’s point of view, he is also there because after the birthday party (which is as big a failure as Blanche’s), they are going to tell Big Mama the truth about Big Daddy’s cancer, and they want his help in the crisis. From his own point of view, he is there to hint at a contribution, either now or in Big Daddy’s will or both, for ornamentation for his church. He is totally useless in the crisis and is therefore, in spite of Williams’s deep affection for his own minister grandfather, typical of Williams’s ministers.
The birthday party will take place in Brick and Maggie’s bedroom because Brick is on a crutch: an ingenious pretext for limiting the play’s action to a single setting. Big Daddy is one of Williams’s most complex characters, and the contradictions in his nature are never fully examined, any more than they are with Blanche, because, as Williams says in a stage direction in act 2, any truly drawn characters will retain some mystery. Big Daddy is a loud, vulgar, apparently insensitive man who was originally a workman on the estate, then owned by a pair of homosexual men. He is now in a position of power and worth many millions. Desperately afraid to show any real feelings, he pretends to dislike his whole family, although in the case of Gooper and Mae and their children, the dislike is genuine and deep. One never learns his real attitude toward Maggie. Near the end of his talk with Brick, with great difficulty, Big Daddy expresses the love he has for him. His real attitude toward Big Mama remains uncertain. He has always teased her, made gross fun of her, and in his ostensibly frank conversation with Brick, he says that he has always disliked her, even in bed. He is clearly moved, however, when at the end of the family-scene part of the act, she, who is in her own way both as gross and as vulnerable as he, yells that she has always loved him. The conversation with Brick reveals his sensitivity in another direction: his distress over the intense poverty he has seen while traveling abroad and particularly an instance in Morocco when he saw a very small child being used as a procurer.
The motivation for the long father-and-son talk is that Big Daddy, hugely relieved at having been told, falsely, that he does not have cancer, wants to find out why Brick has given up working, given up Maggie (as everyone knows, because Gooper and Mae have listened in their bedroom next door), and turned to heavy drinking. Apparently, he has attempted frank talks with Brick in the past, with no success, even though each clearly loves and respects the other, and because of Brick’s lack of interest and determined reticence, it would appear that that is how the conversation is going now. Having just gone through a severe life crisis himself, however, Big Daddy is determined to help his son. He gets the beginning of an answer out of Brick by taking away his crutch so he cannot get at his liquor. Brick’s answer is that he is disgusted with the world’s “mendacity.” Finding that answer insufficient, Big Daddy finally brings himself to make the climactic statement that the problem began when Skipper died; he adds that Gooper and Mae think the Brick-Skipper relationship was not “normal.” Brick, at last unable to maintain his detachment, is furious.
In a stage direction, Williams says that Skipper died to disavow the idea that there was any sexual feeling in the friendship, but whether Skipper did have such feelings is necessarily left uncertain. Brick himself, in his outrage, makes painfully clear that the very idea of homosexuality disgusts him. The relationship, he believes, was simply an unusually profound friendship, though he is finally forced to grant the likelihood that, from Skipper’s point of view, though emphatically not his own, sexual love existed. (Whether Brick is himself bisexual is left uncertain, but it is clear that he could not face this idea if it were true.) He grants that liquor has been his refuge from a fact that Big Daddy (who has no prejudice against homosexuals) makes him face: that Brick’s unwillingness to believe in the possibility of a homosexual reaction in Skipper, and to help Skipper recognize and accept it, is the major cause of Skipper’s death. In a statement strongly reminiscent of some situations in the plays of O’Neill, Brick says that there are only two ways out: liquor and death. Liquor is his way, death was Skipper’s. Then, in a state of strong emotional upheaval, Brick makes his father face the truth as his father has made him face it: He is dying of cancer. There is justice in Brick’s remark that friends—and he and his father are friends—tell each other the truth, because the truth needs to be faced. As the act ends, Big Daddy is screaming at the liars who had kept the truth from him.
In the original version, as act 3 opens, the family and the Reverend Mr. Tooker enter. Big Daddy, one must assume, has gone to his bedroom to face his situation alone. The purpose of the gathering is to have the doctor, who presently comes in with Maggie, tell Big Mama the truth. Brick is in and out during the scene, but—in spite of appeals from Maggie and from Big Mama—he remains wholly aloof and is still drinking. If the shock of his conversation with Big Daddy is going to have an effect, it has not yet done so. After much hesitation, the doctor tells Big Mama the truth, to which she reacts with the expected horror. He tells her that Big Daddy’s pain will soon become so severe as to require morphine injections, and he leaves a package.
Big Mama wants comfort only from Brick, not from Gooper. The Reverend Mr. Tooker leaves promptly, and the doctor soon follows. Gooper tries to get Big Mama to agree to a plan he has drawn up to take over the estate as trustee. Big Mama will have it run by nobody but Brick, whom she calls her only son. She remarks what a comfort it would be to Big Daddy if Brick and Maggie had a child. Maggie announces that she is pregnant. Whether this lie is planned or spontaneous, one has no way of knowing, but Brick does not deny it. Gooper and Mae, whose behavior throughout the scene has been despicable, are shocked and incredulous. Big Mama has run out to tell Big Daddy the happy news. Gooper and Mae soon follow, but just before they go, a loud cry of agony fills the house: Big Daddy is feeling the pain the doctor has predicted. Maggie and Brick are left alone. Maggie thanks Brick for his silence. Brick feels the “click” that results from enough liquor and that gives him peace, and he goes out on the gallery, singing. Maggie has a sudden inspiration and takes all the liquor out of the room. When Brick comes in she tells him what she has done, says she is in control, and declares that she will not return the liquor until he has gone to bed with her. He grabs for his crutch, but she is quicker, and she throws the crutch off the gallery to the ground. Big Mama rushes in, almost hysterical, to get the package of morphine. Maggie reiterates that she is in charge and tells Brick she loves him. Brick, in the last speech of the play, says exactly what Big Daddy had said earlier when Big Mama said she loved him: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true.” Apparently, he has yielded. The curtain falls.
The ending is dramatically effective, but in a different way from Williams’s earlier endings. The Glass Menagerie’s ending is final in one way, because it is all in the past, and A Streetcar Named Desire’s in another, because Blanche is escorted off, and Stanley and Stella are reconciled. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, one can only assume that Brick will “perform,” that the result will be a pregnancy, and that the eventual effect of Maggie’s use of force and of Big Daddy’s shock tactics may be Brick’s return to normality. Even in its original form, as here described, that is what the ending suggests, and Williams’s instinct to leave an element of uncertainty seems correct.
The Night of the Iguana
The Night of the Iguana was Williams’s next (and last) unmistakably successful play, after a series of plays of varying degrees of stage success but with more or less serious flaws. Unlike all of his earlier plays except Camino Real, The Night of the Iguana is set outside the United States and does not in any significant sense concern Southerners. It also differs from almost all the plays after The Glass Menagerie in being free of serious violence. Besides A Streetcar Named Desire, with the suicide of Blanche’s husband, Williams had used castration, murder by blowtorch, death by cannibalism, and other extreme acts of violence, prompting the accusation, at times with some justice, of sensationalism.
The Night of the Iguana takes place on the veranda of a third-rate, isolated hotel in Mexico, in a rain forest high above the Pacific. Like several other Williams plays, it grew out of what was originally a short story. Unlike any of the others, except possibly the expressionistic Camino Real, its ending is affirmative, suggesting hope not only for the three major characters but also for humanity in general. The central male character, a minister who has been locked out of his church because of fornication and what was regarded as an atheistic sermon, may be prepared in the end for a life of self-sacrifice—which may turn out to be richly fulfilling, because the woman to whom he may “sacrifice” himself is a woman who knows what genuine love means. The other woman, who is the central character, is Blanche’s opposite: a New Englander instead of a quintessential Southerner, she is in no sense handicapped by the past; she retains a sense of humor; she sees things clearly; and she accepts her situation. She is tied to an elderly relative in a wheelchair but she is not bitter about it; the relative is neither a frustration nor an embarrassment. Finally, she uses whatever weapons she must to keep her grandfather and herself able, if sometimes only barely, to survive. Without being an obviously fierce fighter like Amanda, Blanche, or Maggie, she has come to terms with her circumstances and has prevailed. She is the first and only Williams character to do so, a new conception in his gallery of characters.
At the opening of act 1, Lawrence Shannon, the former minister, arrives at the hotel with a busload of female teachers and students on a Mexican tour for which he is the guide. He is in one of his periodic emotional breakdowns and has chosen to bring his tour party to this hotel in violation of the itinerary in order to get emotional support from his friends, the couple who run the hotel. It turns out, however, that the husband has recently drowned. The wife, now the sole owner, the brassy Maxine Faulk, clearly wants Shannon as a lover and may well be genuinely in love with him. Throughout the tour, and indeed on some previous tours, Shannon has ignored the announced tour route and facilities, leading the group where he chooses. He has also, and not for the first time, allowed himself to be seduced by a seventeen-year-old girl. The women are in a state of rebellion. Their leader, another of Williams’s homosexuals, though an unimportant one, knows of the sexual liaison and later in the play reports the whole story to the tour company for which Shannon works, with the result that in act 3, he is replaced on the spot with another guide. He has the key to the tour bus, however, and refuses to relinquish it, so the passengers (most of whom never come up to the hotel) are helpless.
Shannon’s situation is in some ways similar to, although milder than, Blanche’s: He was pushed out of the church as Blanche was dismissed as a teacher; he is seriously distraught, and confused in his sexual orientation, he is attracted to young girls, as Blanche was to boys. Presently, there is another arrival at the hotel, Hannah Jelkes and her ninety-seven-year-old grandfather, whom she calls Nonno. She has pushed him up the hill and through the forest in his wheelchair. They are without funds, and she is desperate for a place for them to stay. Maxine, for all her rough exterior, cannot turn them away in their plight, but she is upset over their literal pennilessness. She is also upset over Hannah’s desire to earn money, as she has done all over the world, by passing through hotel dining rooms so that, on request, her grandfather may recite his poetry or she may make sketches of guests. The only other guests at the hotel, because it is the offseason, are a group of Nazis, whose presence in the play may seem puzzling, as they have nothing to do with the plot. They are in and out at various points, a raucous group, delighted with radio news of German successes in bombing Britain. Totally without feeling, they are probably in the play for contrast; their lack of feeling contrasts with Hannah’s genuine sympathy for anything human except unkindness, with Nonno’s sensitive artistry as a recognized minor poet, with Maxine’s apparent ability to love, and with the growing evidence, as the play develops, of Shannon’s potential for overcoming his self-centered and almost uncontrollable desperation.
The major focus in both act 2 and act 3 is on the dialogues between Hannah and Shannon, which, in revelation of character and effect on character, resemble the dialogue between Big Daddy and Brick. Indeed, act 2 and act 3 are so intertwined as to make it difficult to separate them. One learns about Hannah’s past, about her having suffered from emotional problems similar to Shannon’s, from which she recovered by sheer determination. In a sense, she has sacrificed her life to caring for her grandfather; she feels only pride and love for him, and concern over his age, his periods of senile haziness, and his inability to finish his first poem in twenty years. In a moment of symbolism, one sees that she is capable of lighting a candle in the wind. Seeking for God, she has so far found him only in human faces. In sharp contrast, Shannon’s view of the world is summed up in a memory of having seen starving persons searching through piles of excrement for bits of undigested food. Hannah’s insight into Shannon’s problem is deep, and she is adept in techniques, from sympathy to shock, to help bring him out of his somewhat self-indulgent despair. At one point in act 2, the Mexican boys who work for Maxine bring in an iguana and tie it to a post, planning to fatten it and eat it: a normal occurrence in their world. It escapes once and is recaptured. Maxine threatens to evict Hannah and Nonno but relents when Hannah makes her understand that she is not a rival for Shannon. Nonno provides embarrassing evidence of his intermittent senility. The act ends in the early evening with a heavy thunderstorm.
Early in act 3, later in the evening, Shannon’s replacement arrives, and the bus key is taken from him by force. Shannon, growing more and more hysterical, tries to pull the gold cross from his neck and threatens to go down to the ocean and swim straight out to sea until he drowns. Maxine and her Mexican boys tie him in the hammock. Maxine tells Hannah that Shannon’s behavior is essentially histrionic, and Hannah soon sees for herself that he is deriving a masochistic pleasure from the situation. She tells him, in a key speech, that he is enjoying an ersatz crucifixion, thus denying Shannon the role of Christ-figure that Williams had tried unsuccessfully to give his central male characters in certain earlier plays. Hannah as model and as psychiatrist begins to have an effect. He releases himself from the ropes, as she has told him all along he is able to do, and their conversation reveals enough about Hannah’s past to make him admire her stamina, her hard-won stability, and her love of humanity, and to make him want, perhaps, to emulate her. He learns of the minimal, pathetic encounters she has had with male sexuality—in one instance, a man with a fetish for women’s undergarments—and while they in no way disgusted her, since nothing does except cruelty, she is nevertheless a permanent virgin who is comfortable with her virginity.
Shannon suggests that they should travel together, platonically. She rightly refuses, and puts in his mind the idea that Maxine needs him, as Nonno needs her, and that he needs to be needed in order to achieve stability. Hannah persuades Shannon to free the iguana, which is, as he has been, “at the end of its rope.” Nonno wheels himself out of his room, shouting that he has finished his poem. He reads it, and they find it moving. Maxine persuades Shannon to stay with her permanently, though Williams seems undecided as to whether one should regard Shannon’s acquiescence as a sacrifice. In any case, however, it is evidence that he may no longer be sexually askew and that he may be capable of living a life that has some kind of meaning.
The change is quicker than the change that may occur in Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, though both plays take place in a few hours, and though Williams says in a stage direction in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that even if events have occurred that will result in changing a person, the change will not occur quickly. Perhaps one may say that the difference is justified in that Big Daddy, for all his love and honesty, is no Hannah—there are very few Hannahs in the world. Hannah’s own trials are not over: After Maxine and Shannon go off together, as Hannah prepares to take Nonno back to his room, he quietly dies. Hannah is left alone. No one needs her any more. The curtain falls.
The play is notable for its atmosphere, its memorable characters, its compassion, its hard-won optimism. The ending of The Glass Menagerie is devastating. The ending of A Streetcar Named Desire may represent the best solution for Blanche and happiness for Stanley and Stella, but there is nevertheless a sense in which all three are victims. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, it is possible that the future will bring happiness to Brick and Maggie, but it is far from certain; the future means a horrible death from cancer for Big Daddy, a life deprived of much of its meaning for Big Mama, and wholly meaningless and despicable lives for Gooper and Mae. The contrast with The Night of the Iguana is enormous. With his poem, Nonno has at last, like his granddaughter, “prevailed,” and one must assume that he is ready for death, a death that, in contrast to Big Daddy’s, is swift and peaceful. Maxine is no longer alone and has someone to love. Shannon seems on the road to psychological recovery and a useful and satisfying life. Hannah, to be sure, is left alone, as Tom and Blanche are alone in their worlds, but the contrast between her and those others is sharp and unmistakable. She has faced previous crises, survived, prevailed. Happy endings in modern drama are rarely successful at a serious level. In The Night of the Iguana, Williams wrote that rare modern dramatic work: a memorable, affirmative play in which the affirmation applies to all the major characters and in which the affirmation is believable.
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