Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1070
Tennessee Williams 1911-1983
(Born Thomas Lanier Williams) American playwright, novelist, essayist, short story writer, screenwriter, and memoirist. See also Tennessee Williams Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 5, 7, 8, 19, 30, 111.
While Williams is best known as one of the greatest American dramatists of the post-World War II era, he also wrote short stories that explore isolation and miscommunication within families and small groups of misfits and loners. These stories have often been viewed as simply apprentice works for his dramas, developing themes and characters that he later incorporated into his plays, but a number of critics have argued that they deserve to be considered on their own merits and have drawn comparisons between them and the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas Mann.
Born in Columbus, Mississippi, Williams was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents at an Episcopal rectory in Clarksdale, Mississippi; his father, a traveling salesman, was frequently absent. After a near-fatal bout of diphtheria, Williams remained a sickly child in the constant care of his overprotective mother. He also developed a close attachment to his older sister, Rose, who suffered from schizophrenia and, later, mental deterioration after an unsuccessful lobotomy. In 1923 his family moved to St. Louis, where his father was transferred to assume a managerial position. To relieve his sense of isolation in his new environment, Williams began to write poetry and short fiction. At the age of sixteen, he won an essay contest sponsored by Smart Set magazine; the essay, entitled “Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?,” became his first published work. In 1929 he entered the University of Missouri, though he was forced by his father to return home after failing ROTC in his third year. He took a menial job in a shoe warehouse and wrote short fiction and essays until suffering a nervous breakdown in 1935. During his convalescence, he collaborated on the comedy Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay! (1935). After that experience, he decided to devote himself to writing. He began taking classes at Washington University in St. Louis, but subsequently transferred to the University of Iowa. In 1938 he received his bachelor's degree in English. The next year he published “The Field of Blue Children” in Story magazine, his first work to appear under the name Tennessee. That same year, he received a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, which allowed him to write his play Battle of Angels (1940).
In the early 1940s Williams was offered a salaried position with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Hollywood; he produced several unaccepted screenplays, and was released at the end of his contract. His first major dramatic success, The Glass Menagerie, was staged in 1944 and won a New York Drama Critics Circle Award the next year. He followed this with several triumphs, including A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), both of which won New York Drama Critics Circle Awards and Pulitzer Prizes. In the late 1950s Williams underwent intensive psychoanalysis to treat his depression, providing material for Suddenly Last Summer (1958), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), and Period of Adjustment (1958). After Night of the Iguana (1960), his last notable success, Williams continued to produce numerous dramatic works of diminishing critical importance until the end of his life. His mental instability and increasing dependence upon drugs and alcohol worsened during the next two decades. In 1969 he was briefly hospitalized following another mental breakdown. On February 24, 1983, in New York City, he accidentally choked to death on the cap of a medicine bottle.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Like his drama, Williams's short fiction focuses on marginalized or outcast individuals struggling with their own fears and insecurities and is imbued with an air of melancholy and corruption. Critics identify the key thematic concerns in his fiction as decay, disease, dysfunction, abnormality, and the destructiveness of desire. Set in New Orleans, his story “One Arm” chronicles the downfall of the handsome Oliver Winemiller. After losing his arm in a car accident, Oliver must give up his career as a champion boxer and degenerates into a male hustler and alcoholic. He eventually murders a man who had paid him to participate in a pornographic movie. Awaiting execution, Oliver experiences an epiphany about his life, as well as regret over his actions, but he is put to death with “all his debts unpaid.” In “Desire and the Black Masseur,” which is considered an early version of Suddenly Last Summer, Anthony Burns visits a massage parlor and receives a rigorous massage from an African American masseur. Attracted to him, Burns returns again and again, forming a sadomasochistic relationship with the man. With his consent, Burns is tortured and eventually killed and eaten by the masseur, who gathers his bones in a sack and throws them into a lake. Critics perceive this story as an allegory for spiritual alienation and isolation. In “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” which Williams eventually adapted as The Glass Menagerie, Tom escapes the claustrophobic intimacy of his relationship with his mentally ill sister, Laura, by joining the Merchant Marines. “Three Players of a Summer Game,” an early version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, concerns the deterioration of Brick Pollitt, a weak, wealthy man who struggles with alcoholism and impotence as well as an emasculating wife. When his one comfort, his relationship with a young widow and her daughter, fails, he is bereft of hope and falls back into his dysfunctional relationship with his wife.
The critical reaction to Williams's short fiction has been mixed. Certainly his contribution as a short story writer has been overshadowed by his fame as a playwright, and scholars have often focused on how Williams developed his plays from ideas he introduced in his short stories. Some have regarded the stories as simplified and sharpened versions of his plays. Many reviewers have found his fiction morbid and grotesque and have compared it to that of Edgar Allan Poe. Detractors of Williams's work contend that he is a sadist who creates characters only to humiliate them, but his supporters assert that in general he treats his characters with sympathy and compassion. Some critics have seen in the stories' concern with the interplay of death and desire a similarity to works by Thomas Mann. Commentators have also examined autobiographical aspects of Williams's short stories, particularly his treatment of homosexuality and family dynamics. Recent studies have elucidated the role of women in his fiction, and have investigated his unconventional themes, experimental narrative technique, and use of symbols, particularly religious ones.
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One Arm and Other Stories 1948
Hard Candy: A Book of Stories 1954
Three Players of a Summer Game and Other Stories 1960
The Knightly Quest: A Novella and Four Short Stories 1966
Eight Mortal Ladies Possessed: A Book of Stories 1974
Collected Stories 1985
Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay! [with Doris Shapiro] (play) 1935
Battle of Angels (play) 1940; revised as Orpheus Descending, 1957
The Glass Menagerie (play) 1944
27 Wagons Full of Cotton and Other One-Act Plays (plays) 1946
A Streetcar Named Desire (play) 1947
Summer and Smoke (play) 1947; revised as Eccentricities of a Nightingale, 1966
The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (novel) 1950
The Rose Tattoo (play) 1951
Camino Real (play) 1953
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (play) 1955
Suddenly Last Summer (play) 1958
Sweet Bird of Youth (play) 1959
Night of the Iguana (play) 1961
The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (play) 1962
The Seven Descents of Myrtle (play) 1968; revised as Kingdom of Earth, 1975
Memoirs (memoirs) 1975
Where I Live: Selected Essays (essays) 1978
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SOURCE: Peden, William. “Broken Apollos and Blasted Dreams.” Saturday Review 38, no. 2 (8 January 1955): 11-12.
[In the following review, Peden offers a mixed assessment of One Arm and Other Stories.]
Tennessee Williams's One Arm and Other Stories contains some stories which have greatness in them; of some of the others, however, John Randolph's irreverent comment about Henry Clay seems appropriate: how like a dead mackerel in the moonlight [are they], that shines and stinks, and stinks and shines.
Characteristic is “Desire and the Black Masseur,” the story of Anthony Burns, a little man with “an instinct for being included in things that swallowed him up” who is eventually devoured—literally, figuratively, and symbolically—by his Nemesis, a gigantic masseur. Here we are transported from the world of accustomed responses to one which is uniquely Mr. Williams's special province, a dimension compounded of fantasy, surrealism, allegory, and Gothic sensationalism. With a pen that smokes and burns, Mr. Williams has created some horribly memorable chapters in the history of what one of his characters calls the “mad pilgrimage of the flesh.”
Mr. Williams, fortunately, does not always write with the almost subhuman detachment of “Desire and the Black Masseur.” In his title story he has created an equally disturbing but much more memorable figure. Oliver Winemiller had been light heavyweight champion of the Pacific fleet before he lost his arm in an auto accident. With his arm went the center of his moral being, and Oliver becomes, successively, a bum, a male hustler, and a murderer. In jail, awaiting execution, he feels finally the desire and passion he had for so many years aroused in others. But it is too late, and he goes to the chair incomplete, unfulfilled, “with all his debts unpaid.” Oliver exists both as individual and as emblem; as such he remains in this reader's consciousness.
Perhaps the most moving of Tennessee Williams's characterizations is found in “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” the story of the family he was later to make famous in The Glass Menagerie. In creating the girl “who made no positive motion toward the world but stood at the edge of the water, so to speak, with feet that anticipated too much cold to move,” Mr. Williams displays the understanding of betrayed and bewildered individuals which is the source of much of his power. If such a story makes us remember that Tennessee Williams was to become a major dramatist, “The Field of Blue Flowers” reminds us also that he began as a poet; and perhaps it is as the poet of the blasted, the doomed, and the defeated that he will be remembered.
At his best, as he is in at least two or three of these stories, Tennessee Williams is in a class by himself. Even at his worst he creates magical, terrifying, and unforgettable effects; his only limitations appear to be self-imposed. These stories make one pause. About them there is the same kind of paradox that makes the medical students hovering around the one-armed body of Oliver Winemiller (unclaimed after his execution) draw back in a half-understood and sorrowing wonderment: it “seemed intended for some more august purpose, to stand in a gallery of antique sculpture, touched only by light through stillness and contemplation, for it had the nobility of some broken Apollo that no one was likely to carve so purely again.”
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SOURCE: Grande, Luke M. “Metaphysics of Alienation in Tennessee Williams' Short Stories.” Drama Critique 4, no. 3 (November 1961): 118-22.
[In the following essay, Grande argues that humanity's metaphysical alienation is a central theme of Williams's fiction.]
Simultaneous with the New York Times advertisements for Tennessee Williams' latest (but short-lived) drama, Period of Adjustment, came prophecies of a new and happier direction to his writing. Such predictions seemed not only premature (especially in light of the rather strained comedy that Period turned out to be and also word that The Night of the Iguana, based on a far-from-hilarious short story, was next due for Broadway consumption), but also, in a sense, ominous; since, despite some critics' objections to his apparently obsessive preoccupation with seamy subjects, it is with his unhappy, fugitive characters that he has provided contemporary American drama with its most serious inquiry into the human predicament.
Tragedy has never yielded easy or happy solutions to man's essential problems, yet it has consistently illumined life, showing it to be perennially a fearful and awe-inspiring thing. Such an undertaking is too rarely embraced by the dramatist today when our stages are overflowing with glittering musicals or sentimentalized and superficial social comedy.
Any fears that Williams will join the “happy breed” may, I think, be laid to rest. Some critics have accused him of bartering his garbage can for a mess of pottage; however, from his first stories and one-act plays to his later full-length dramas, an underlying and fundamentally somber view of life has given to his work a unity that, fortunately, is “the man” and not merely a convention that can be artificially doctored to the tastes of his audiences.
The short stories (most of them are available in two collections, both published by New Directions: Hard Candy, a Book of Stories ; and One Arm, and Other Stories ) are particularly illuminating, for in them Williams' essential vision is evident even more clearly than in his dramas; the themes are simplified, sharpened, reduced to almost painful clarity. The dramas gain in complexity (if not in subtlety), but the short stories are the seminal stages, the theses, the eggs from which the dramas are hatched. His characters and themes germinate, stir, and metamorphose with the passage of time, producing multiple mutations, sometimes running the gamut of forms: from short story (stories) to one-act play to three-act drama.
One suspects, for example, that “Billy” (with overtones of “Oliver” in “One Arm”) of the story “Two on a Party” is the hero also of Battle of Angels, which became in succession Orpheus Descending and The Fugitive Kind; “Cora” of the same story is an embryonic “Blanche” of Streetcar Named Desire; “Brick” of “Three Players of a Summer Game” eventually becomes the impotent hero of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (even the fat child “Mary Louise” of the same story becomes a whole brood of “no-neck monsters” in Cat). Then, of course, there is “Baby Doll” of the one-acter “The Long Stay Cut Short, or The Unsatisfactory Supper” who reappears in “Twenty-seven Wagon Loads of Cotton” and eventually gives her name to the full-length movie version; “Portrait of a Girl in Glass” sketches the heroine of Glass Menagerie; and we may even see at some later date a new “Lucio” (the dispossessed victim of modern economics who finds consolation in a bedraggled cat), who has already made his appearance in a one-act play and two short stories.
To enter the world of his short stories is thus to come into Williams' study where he is preparing the public dramatic concoction from the distillation of his evolving thoughts.
Nowhere else, for example, than in the short stories does the theme of man's metaphysical alienation stand out quite so clearly as Williams' conception of man's major problem. The stories may be poetic or realistic, or, more probably, may verge upon the allegorical, yet each, while starting down a different road, arrives at the same universal conundrum: man, seeking happiness by understanding through love and union with someone or something, is perpetually lured down false labyrinths that leave him staring at the blank wall of his neurotic self; starting again and again on his lonely hegira, like Christian in the Valley of Despond, he is tricked into hope in a hopeless maze, the doors labeled “Answer” opening only into himself and he is ever alone. On no other psychiatric couch has the agony of man's isolation been so carefully analyzed.
Is this isolation simply self-dramatization, egotism, or a sentimental pose? Hardly. The uniqueness of each soul, the impossibility of its breaking out of its fragile box of flesh to find here a lasting city, is, after all, the temporal condition of man. His search is for the total communion, the total love for which he was meant; and his futile shifts at substitutes are eloquent hound-of-heaven reminders of every man's destiny.
Williams' intransigence then, in pursuing each individual search and its ultimately puzzled frustration, is what gives him his peculiar universality and power, and dictates, to some extent, his choice of subjects. For the complacent, the static, the euphoric “bourgeois” who rests happily in his ersatz heaven-on-earth, there is no problem: he has been adequately distracted from his ultimate goal by sex or success in Vanity Fair. But for the restless fugitives of Williams' nightmarish world, nothing as yet has solved the insoluble problem. And this is as far, perhaps, as Williams dares to go at present. The problem in spatial and temporal terms is insoluble and his dazed or dreamy heroes and heroines continue their journey or recognize that they will not end it with anything the world has to offer. For today's theater, so much is gain; and so much is very much.
Unlike the existentialist who concludes that the struggle itself is the meaning of life, Williams refuses to accept, gratefully, merely the pursuit of happiness, and recalls us (perhaps in rather tenuous and negative terms, it is true) to some transcendent end for which man was intended. He does not, therefore, seem to merit the facile epithet, “another twentieth-century pessimist,” simply because he repudiates the slick solutions offered by the humanitarians, the epicureans, the hedonists, or the pseudo-philosophers.
To claim a fundamental, that is a metaphysical, optimism for Williams is to raise the usual questions of those who find his characters—those degenerates and off-scourings of the earth—depressing or revolting or both. Nevertheless, it is with the human beings of the “lowest” common denominator that the dazzle of man's insatiable desire is revealed in stark black and white; they have not made, nor do they have anything to gain by making, the compromises which reconcile the distracted modern to finding his happiness in less than absolute happiness itself.
Unless a reader can appreciate this artistic necessity which dictates to Williams his use of characters from the moral underworld, perhaps it is better for him to leave the short stories unread. Abstracting from the superficially sensational subject matter, he can be profoundly moved by Williams' twentieth-century echo “Vanitas vanitatis …” and will at least find here a much more profound answer to the meaning of life than that offered by the various and currently popular versions of existentialist despair.
Of course, a sound idea and a basically vindicated technique do not necessarily excuse Williams completely from all responsibility for his aesthetic lapses—and lapses there are. His comments, in the story, “Hard Candy,” indicate that he himself is aware of the risk:
The grossly naturalistic details of life, contained in the enormously wide context of life, are softened and qualified by it, but when you attempt to set those details down in a tale, some measure of obscurity or indirection is called for to provide the same or even approximate, softening effect that existence in time gives to those gross elements in the life itself.
To some readers, obviously, he could use considerably more “softening.” Despite his caution, certain vulgarities, as well as insensitivity to good taste, whether the result of an inherent misunderstanding of the word honesty or a subconsciously exhibitionistic effort to tell “all,” manages to nibble away at a reader's supply of tolerance at times; but the net gain to the reader in insight can be more impelling than the loss in revulsion.
Are his heroes, indeed, heroes? Are they not merely case studies in the descent from the lower depths to the lowest? In “Two on a Party,” Williams suggests the question and at least his answer, when he says of the two “cruising” degenerates:
They're two on a party which has made a departure and a wide one.
Into brutality? No. It's not that simple.
Into vice? No. It isn't nearly that simple.
Into what, then?
Into something unlawful? Yes, of course.
But in the night, hands clasping and no questions asked.
In the morning, a sense of being together no matter what comes, and the knowledge of not having struck nor lied nor stolen.
The answer verges dangerously on the sentimental, but whatever the social or moral level of his subjects, their very aspirations tend to give them a dignity that at first glance they might not seem to deserve; it is their humane yearnings that give them human stature and make them worth investigating.
“Flora” and “John,” for example, in “The Important Thing,” two students who dabble in socialism and try, successfully, to shock the world, are typical Williams-outsiders. “Flora” belonged nowhere, “she fitted in no place at all, she had no home, no shell, no place of comfort or refuge, she was a fugitive with no place to run to.” The pervasive symbol of escape from the personal void into the world of belonging in Williams' stories is sex, but always abortive or frustrating: so here the fumbling attempt is made with the ultimate parting, both “knowing, each [to be] completely separate and alone”—one incident of the long search in “the effort to find something outside common experience, digging, rooting among the formless rubble of things for the one last thing that was altogether lovely” (the lost garden of Eden?). Almost identical plot and theme are used also in “Field of Blue Children.”
In “Night of the Iguana” (the story upon which the play is based), where a spinster invades the private world of two homosexuals in a neurotic bid to abolish loneliness, the crisis is reached in a sexual experience which forces each of the trio to face the nature of his own isolated unhappiness.
In Williams' gallery of broken Apollos, half-gods looking for their complements, stands the “fugitive” “Oliver Winemiller” of “One Arm” (“A personality without a center throws up a wall and lives in a state of siege. So Oliver had cultivated his cold and absolute insularity, behind which had lain the ruined city of the crippled champion”); the “lonely, bewildered” “Lucio” of “The Malediction” (who, when his only tie with life, the cat Nitchevo, is dying, crushed and festering, commits suicide, crying, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”); the artist-alien of “Angel in the Alcove” (“He lived in a world completely hostile to him, unrelentingly hostile, and no other being could enter the walls about him for more than the frantic moments desire drove him to”); the infantile “Donald” of “The Vine” (“There was a whole world of things to which he had no entrance, and though he was vain, he was humble at heart, and never scoffed at enthusiasms to which he was an outsider”)—and on and on: pimps, prostitutes, homosexuals, nymphomaniacs, a whole confessional of untouchables encased in themselves.
Inevitably the key to unlock their personal prison is sex. For the lush “Cora” and the queen “Billy” of “Two on a Party” it “dissolved loneliness, any reserve and suspicion … you got the colored lights going” (shades of Streetcar Named Desire); for grotesque “Mr. Krupper” of “Hard Candy” (and “Mysteries of the Joy Rio”), hunting in the darkened movie theater, it is a moment of communication, “a pursuit of a pleasure which was almost as unreal and basically unsatisfactory as an embrace in a dream.”
Searchers. Searchers. And always the tentative exploration and always the failure. They make the discovery that happiness is transitory, satisfaction elusive and impermanent.
In his own voice we hear Williams in the autobiographical “The Mattress by the Tomato Patch” musing philosophically:
What a cheap little package this is that we have been given to live in, some rubbery kind of machine not meant to wear long, but somewhere in it is a mysterious tenant who knows and describes its being. Who is he and what is he up to? Shadow him, tap his wires, check his intimate associates, if he has any, for there is some occult purpose in his coming to stay here and all the time watching so anxiously out of the windows.
Williams has pictured all men's restless vigil at the windows of the soul—the house may be in a sad state of repair, the windows broken, the sash unpainted, but the tenant is every man, and his desires are infinite. Williams' compassion for the inhabitants of the “cheap little packages” belies the pessimism which is frequently attributed to him. Man, whatever he is, is important, he seems to say, even in the most unwholesome setting and beset by the most fantastically wrong-headed desires.
Such a painter of mankind deserves respect, encouragement, and gratitude for not taking the rosy way out—and, perhaps, some day he may even learn to see beyond the problem of here and now to the only inevitable solution—a God of infinite love and understanding.
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SOURCE: Peden, William H. “Mad Pilgrimage: The Short Stories of Tennessee Williams.” Studies in Short Fiction 1, no. 4 (summer 1964): 243-50.
[In the following essay, Peden elucidates the defining characteristics of Williams's short fiction.]
The short stories in Tennessee Williams (1914-), collected in One Arm (1948) and Hard Candy (1954),1 have been largely overshadowed by the author's continuing success and notoriety as a playwright. In addition to possessing special interest as occasionally being the first or early versions of characters and situations eventually developed into full-length plays,2 Williams' stories are important in their own right and are at their best a permanent addition to the “sick” fiction of the forties and fifties.
The world of Williams' stories possesses considerable variety of method, yet at the same time it is as limited and circumscribed as Poe's, which in some ways it resembles. His stories are alike in their preoccupation with what one Williams character speaks of as the “sense of the enormous grotesquerie of the world.”3 They are permeated, too, with an air of profound melancholy, and iridescent with a faded beauty and corruption which recalls John Randolph's irreverent simile of a rotting mackerel in the moonlight, that “shines and stinks, and stinks and shines.” Similar character types appear and reappear throughout Williams' stories: disillusioned or frustrated artists and intellectuals, sex-starved virgins or nymphomaniacs, faded gentlewomen and hypocritical clergymen, homosexuals and alcoholics, destructive women and likeable adolescents. Recurring motifs include decay, disease, abnormality, and above all loss, loss through the inexorable process of time and the subsequent fall from grace, a fall more often physiological than spiritual.
With almost no exceptions, Williams' people are adrift, unloved, and unwanted. Heredity often plays an important part in their alienation from “normal” or “approved” standards of conduct; their deterioration is hastened or precipitated by ironies of circumstance over which they have no control; they are exploited by their friends or family, or are slowly and often passively strangled by their own weaknesses and fears. “To love is to lose,” Williams once wrote,4 and in one way or other his characters are losers, not winners. To alter his statement to “To live is to lose” would suggest the common chord of his short fiction.
With few exceptions, Williams' best stories are those concerned with basically non-exceptional characters who are depicted with an understanding, sympathy, and compassion which makes ridiculous the comment that Williams, like Hardy, is a sadist who creates his people only to humiliate them. Perhaps the most memorable and the most moving of these stories is “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” with its depiction of the shy and introverted Laura, the “petals” of whose mind had simply closed with fear and who could make no “positive motion toward the world but stood at the edge of the water, so to speak, with feet that anticipated too much cold to move”5 and who was to become the most appealing character in what still seems to be Williams' most moving play, The Glass Menagerie.
Characteristic, too, of this group of quiet, non-sensational stories is one of Williams' earliest, the first published under his own name, “The Field of Blue Children,” an account of a transitory love affair between a young poet, Homer Stallcup, and an undergraduate sorority girl with minor literary aspirations. Homer, an “outsider,” is encouraged by Myra, an “insider.” They come together for a moment of love in a field of blue flowers, and subsequently drift apart. Myra marries an unexciting fraternity boy and slips into a humdrum marriage, and Homer simply fades out of her life.
Yet the memory of the incident in the field of blue flowers persists. Myra seldom feels “restless anymore” and abandons her verse writing; her “life seemed to be perfectly full without it.” But she is impelled, one late spring evening several years after her marriage, to return to the scene of her first encounter with love.
The field was exactly as she had remembered it. She walked quickly out among the flowers; then suddenly fell to her knees among them, sobbing. She cried for a long time … and then she rose to her feet and carefully brushed off her skirt and stockings. Now she felt perfectly calm and in possession of herself once more. She went back to the car. She knew that she would never do such a ridiculous thing as this again, for now she had left the last of her troublesome youth behind her.6
With its muted lyricism and its lowly diminishing cadences—“The whole field was covered with dancing blue flowers. There was a wind scudding through them and they broke before it in pale blue waves, sending up a soft whispering sound like the infinitely diminished crying of small children at play”7—the story reminds us that if Williams achieved fame as a playwright, he began his career as a dedicated and essentially traditional poet.
Equally memorable and depicted with similar understanding and compassion are the brother and sister of the presumably autobiographical story of adolescence and death, “The Resemblance between a Violin Case and a Coffin,” which is a moving study of the loss of innocence and youth and beauty. Almost as impressive are Williams' characterizations of the awkward college students in “The Important Thing,” and the actor protagonist of “The Vine,” who is finally forced to accept the fact that he is washed up. His confrontation with the truth—all defenses broken, all illusions stripped from him—is one of the high marks in Williams' fiction.8
Perhaps the best of all of Williams' fictional creations is Brick Pollitt of “Three Players of a Summer Game.” Delta planter, one-time famous Sewanee athlete, and dedicated alcoholic, Brick is eventually emasculated, spiritually and emotionally if not physically, by Margaret, one of the most destructive of Williams' predatory contemporary vampires (“It was as though she had her lips fastened to some invisible wound in his body through which drained out of him and flowed into her the assurance and vitality that he had owned before marriage”). By the end of the story, Brick is a pitiable ruin, driven through the streets in a Pierce Arrow by Margaret, “clothed and barbered with his usual immaculacy, so that he looked from some distance like the president of a good social fraternity in a gentleman's college of the South,” but no longer a man, indeed no longer a human being, but a babbling and goggling wreck “sheepishly grinning and nodding,” while Margaret gaily blows the “car's silver trumpet at every intersection,” waving and calling to everybody “as if she were running for office,” while Brick “nodded and grinned with senseless amiability behind her. It was exactly the way that some ancient conqueror, such as Caesar or Alexander the Great or Hannibal, might have led in chains through a captive city the prince of a state newly conquered.”
Though he is unforgettably individualized, Brick Pollitt, like so many of Williams' people, is an effectively functioning symbol, in this case of waste, the waste of human grace and beauty and dignity. Such waste, and the attritions of time, are twin villains in Williams' view of the world. “Physical beauty,” the narrator of “Three Players of a Summer Game” comments, is “of all human attributes the most incontinently used and wasted, as if whoever made it despised it, since it is made so often only to be disgraced by painful degrees and drawn through the streets in chains.”9
These are Williams' great betrayers: waste and time together, they degrade and befoul, and are unconquerable.
A second group of Williams' short fiction tends to center around characters who are pathological or societal outcasts and rejects. Here again, Williams is concerned with the loss of beauty and grace, and with the attritions of time, along with an almost obsessive preoccupation with homosexuality, decay, and degradation. The best of these stories is “One Arm,” set in the vicinity of New Orleans, which Williams knew so well and utilizes so effectively. Oliver Winemiller, apparently no kin to Alma Winemiller of Summer and Smoke, had been light-heavyweight boxing champion of the Pacific Fleet but subsequently loses his arm in an automobile accident. His degeneration and deterioration are rapid: Oliver becomes a male hustler, a notorious homosexual, and finally murders a wealthy man who had paid him to act in a “blue” movie. In jail, awaiting execution, Oliver finally feels the passion and desire which he had for so many years aroused in others. But it is of course too late, and Oliver goes to the chair lost and broken, incomplete and unfulfilled, with “all his debts unpaid.” Even in death, however, there is about Oliver something of the heroic, the beautiful. Unclaimed, Oliver's body becomes a cadaver in the medical school. The dissectors are “somewhat abashed by the body under their knives. It seemed intended for some more august purpose, to stand in a gallery of antique sculpture, touched only by light through stillness and contemplation, for it had the nobility of some broken Apollo that no one was likely to carve so purely again.”10
There is similar pathos but very little similar nobility in the unhappy lives of most of Williams' other deviates. One can feel sorry for Edith Jelkes, the sex-starved spinster of “The Night of the Iguana,” whom we are introduced to in Acapulco, where she is recuperating after having suffered “a sort of nervous breakdown” at the Mississippi Episcopal school where she had taught art. Like many of Williams' genteel no-longer-young ladies with a penchant for disaster, Edith is the victim of hereditary taints, and to that extent is only partially responsible for her actions.11 Her dubious sexual triumph over a homosexual writer, however, is hardly cause for unlimited rejoicing. The writer himself, moreover, and his male companion, both of whom alternately attract and repel Edith, are essentially flat characters who fail to engage either our sympathy or dislike.
It is similarly difficult to sympathize with the two derelicts of “Two on a Party,” one of the loneliest, saddest couples in recent literature. Billy is a onetime English instructor and Hollywood hackwriter who is currently a self-destroying egoist; Cora is a kindly lush with “none of that desire to manage and dominate which is a typically American perversion of the female nature.”12 Each of these whores is sympathetically observed and as convincing as a thunderstorm, and the terrible emptiness of their lives “on the road” is chillingly portrayed. But in the final analysis their story is as empty as their lives; Billy's only concern, apparently, is his fall from physiological grace and his morbid horror of his premature baldness, and Cora tends to fade into the background as the story progresses. Like the cancer-ridden protagonist of “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio” who is compelled to return to the seedy theatre where in the past he had enjoyed sexual delights with an elderly man,13 Billy and Cora's destruction evokes little more than morbid horror.
Like “Two on a Party” and “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio,” Williams' fantasies are memorable in their presentation of decay and disintegration, and are alive with that “Sense of the Awful” which Williams has called the “desperate black root of nearly all significant modern art.”14 For the most part, however, the fantasies seem the least successful of his short fiction; in them the depiction of what one Williams character calls the “mad pilgrimage of the flesh”15 frequently approaches caricature or burlesque.
Probably the most successful and the best known of these symbolic excursions into the province of the grotesque, the Gothic, and the hallucinated is “Desire and the Black Masseur.” From his childhood, Anthony Burns “had betrayed an instinct for being included in things that swallowed him up.” Unloved, unlovable, and a passive leaf in the stream of life, Burns “loved to sit in the back rows of the movies where the darkness absorbed him gently … like a particle of food dissolving in a big hot mouth.” One day he goes to a Turkish bath where he is administered to by a gigantic black masseur. He is attracted to the Negro and eventually “adores” the giant. In return the giant “loves” him, tortures him, and eventually devours him, flesh and splintered bones. As he drops the bones, “left over from Burns' atonement,” into a lake, the black masseur thinks: “It is perfect … it is now completed!” Perfection and atonement, the story tells us, have gradually evolved out of the antitheses of love and hate, torture and delight. Meanwhile, the Negro, like some strange being above and beyond earthly passions, moves on to another city where he waits in a “white-curtained place, serenely conscious of fate bringing … another, to suffer atonement as it had been suffered by Burns … meantime, slowly, with barely a thought of so doing, the earth's whole population twisted and writhed beneath the manipulation of night's black fingers and the white ones of day with skeletons splintered and flesh reduced to pulp, as out of this unlikely problem, the answer, perfection, was slowly evolved through torture.”16
Without raising the question of the author's purpose, or lack of it, “Desire and the Black Masseur” tends to fail because Williams makes no effort to bridge the gap between the specific framework of character, incident, time and place, and the allegorical, symbolic, or mythic. Though powerful in its Poe-like totality of effect of horror and madness, the story tends to fall apart as a self-contained piece of fiction. It is not fiction which suggests the universal in terms of the specific; it is undigested and indigestible allegory. Similarly “The Poet,” the protagonist of which distills a liquor which makes the world change color, leads a life of benevolent anarchy, and retreats into silence with an “incubus in his bosom, whose fierce little purplish knot of a head was butting against his ribs and whose limbs were kicking and squirming with convulsions.”17 “Yellow Bird,” a burlesque written in a mocking, bantering tone fortunately absent from Williams' other stories, is similarly unsuccessful. It is difficult to find either amusement or edification in this story of the unmarried daughter of a Protestant minister, pushing thirty and mad for life and excitement, who begins by smoking in the attic and ends on “Monkey-Wrench Corner” of New Orleans' Vieux Carrée.
The humor in a story like “The Yellow Bird” is more often than not elephantine, the irony ponderous. The narrative method is similarly heavy-handed, involving such commentaries as “Now from this point on the story takes a strange turn that may be highly disagreeable to some readers, if any still hoped it was going to avoid the fantastic,”18 which to most contemporary readers are likely to be as objectionable as those of Trollope. In spite of their defects, however, Williams' “blasted allegories”—the phrase, of course, is Hawthorne's—are a searing indictment of the cruelty and injustice of the world as the author sees it. Even at their least successful they have about them the same curious pathos that characterizes Williams' fiction in general.19 Whatever his form, method, or mood, the mad pilgrimage comes to the same dead end. Earth, sooner or later, “destroys her crooked child”:
I think the strange, the crazed, the queer will have their holiday this year, I think for just a little while there will be pity for the wild. I think in places known as gay in secret clubs and private bars, the damned will serenade the damned with frantic drums and wild guitars. I think for some uncertain reason, mercy will be shown this season to the lovely and misfit, to the brilliant and deformed— I think they will be housed and warmed And fed and comforted awhile before, with such a tender smile, the earth destroys her crooked child.(20)
One Arm was originally published in a limited edition in 1948, and in a trade edition in 1954 (One Arm and Other Stories [Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions]). Hard Candy, A Book of Stories was published in a limited edition in 1954, also by New Directions. The quotations from One Arm are from the trade edition.
The relationships between the stories and the plays—between “Portrait of a Girl in Glass” and The Glass Menagerie, “The Yellow Bird” and Summer and Smoke, “Three Players of a Summer Game” and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and “Night of the Iguana” and the play of the same name—are commented on briefly by Benjamin Nelson in Tennessee Williams. The Man and His Work (New York, 1961), p. 185. They are not discussed in other recent critical biographies, Signi Lenea Falk's Tennessee Williams (New York, 1961) or Nancy Tischler's Tennessee Williams: Rebellious Puritan (New York, 1961). The Nelson biography contains a good discussion of Williams' short stories, pp. 185-97.
“The Night of the Iguana,” One Arm, p. 188.
In Williams' Foreword to Sweet Bird of Youth (Norfolk, Connecticut, 1959), p. viii.
“Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” One Arm, p. 97.
“The Field of Blue Children,” One Arm, p. 166.
Ibid., p. 164.
“The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin” and “The Vine” are in Hard Candy; “The Important Thing” is in One Arm.
“Three Players of a Summer Game,” Hard Candy, pp. 14, 43, 44.
“One Arm,” One Arm, p. 29.
“She belonged to an historical Southern family of great but now moribund vitality whose latter generations had tended to split into two antithetical types, one in which the libido was pathologically distended and another in which it would seem to be all but dried up. The households were turbulently split and so, fairly often, were the personalities of their inmates. There had been an efflorescence among them of nervous talents and sickness, of drunkards and poets, gifted artists and sexual degenerates, together with fanatically proper and squeamish old ladies of both sexes who were condemned to live beneath the same roof with relatives whom they could only regard as monsters.” (“The Night of the Iguana,” One Arm, p. 170.)
“Two on a Party,” Hard Candy, p. 57.
“The Mysteries of the Joy Rio” is in Hard Candy.
Tennessee Williams, “Preface,” Carson McCullers, Reflections in a Golden Eye (Norfolk, Connecticut, 1940).
“The Malediction,” One Arm, p. 55.
“Desire and the Black Masseur,” One Arm, pp. 83, 93, 94.
“The Poet,” One Arm, pp. 64-65.
“The Yellow Bird,” One Arm, p. 209.
Some of these comments originally appeared in my “Broken Apollos and Blasted Dreams,” Saturday Review (Jan. 5, 1955), pp. 11-12.
From an untitled poem by Williams included in Benjamin Nelson's Tennessee Williams, p. 197, and reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2307
SOURCE: Hurley, Paul J. “Williams' ‘Desire and the Black Masseur’: An Analysis.” Studies in Short Fiction 2, no. 1 (fall 1964): 51-5.
[In the following essay, Hurley views “Desire and the Black Masseur” as an allegory of spiritual masochism.]
That Tennessee Williams' plays have been more successful than his fiction has brought about a curious situation. Because his dramas have elicited so much (usually violent) critical controversy, his stories have remained relatively unnoticed. But readers of his novel, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, and his two collections of short stories, One Arm and Hard Candy, seem to agree that his fiction is often as penetrating (or shocking, depending on one's point of view) as his dramatic works. The student of Williams' plays finds criticisms of the dramas in great quantity, but the reader of his stories searches in vain for judicious analyses.1 The answer may simply be, of course, that his non-theatrical work does not deserve mature critical consideration (and surely this is true of much of it), but such a response offers little consolation to those who have found themselves stimulated, excited, or puzzled by Williams' fiction. I want to suggest here that those readers who find his stories significant, who believe that they offer the mind and imagination something more than shocking incidents and perverted characters, have some right to their opinions. And to defend that point, the best idea seems to be to undertake a consideration of what is certainly one of Williams' most “shocking” and best known stories, “Desire and the Black Masseur.”2
The story concerns Anthony Burns, a colorless little man who from childhood “had betrayed an instinct for being included in things that swallowed him up.” (p. 83)
In his family there had been fifteen children and he the one given the least notice, and when he went to work, after graduating from high school in the largest class on the records of that institution, he secured his job in the largest wholesale company of the city. Everything absorbed him and swallowed him up, and still he did not feel secure.
Burns has earned the forbearance of society by remaining unnoticed. A dull cog in an “all-embracing machine,” he has never felt the urge to be anything else. Burns's life has been innocent of passion because he has never experienced desire. One day, suffering from vague rheumatic pains, he goes to a massage parlor where the ferocious pummeling inflicted on him by a giant Negro masseur awakens in the little man latent masochistic passions. He returns, more and more frequently, to the massage parlor; the beatings become increasingly violent until, in an excess of frenzied brutality, the Negro breaks Burns's leg. After the two of them have been kicked out by the manager of the parlor, the Negro carries the injured man to his room in the colored section of the city, and there the savage beatings continue until the little man is near death. He whispers to the Negro, “You know what you have to do now” (p. 93)? The Negro nods in understanding and agreement. When Burns breathes his last, the black man carries his body to a table and begins to consume it. After devouring the body, he places the bones in a sack, takes it to the end of the trolley line, and throws it into the lake. Burns's fears are finally alleviated; his last insecurity has been removed because he found the best method of making himself part of someone else.
The primary concerns of the story are both social and psychological. Williams is interested in the psychology of individual guilt and its relation to social conduct. Perhaps I can clarify my point by quoting the words of David Riesman who, in discussing the plight of the intellectual—i.e., the man who strives to retain his individual identity—in our society, draws an interesting parallel between organized religion and society:
What is really differentiating and most valuable in the intellectual is his gift of sharply and critically seeing through many conventional values, “democratic” as well as fascist, “wholesome” as well as treacherous. Since he cannot help, given his originality, having a critical attitude toward the dominant culture, he either represses those insights which detach him from that culture, or mixes them … with penances of “affirmation.” What kind of authority has laid down the rule that it is wrong to be critical or negative if one cannot also be constructive? It is the same kind which favors the yes-man and yes-woman in business, politics, and domesticity. It is the same kind which, long ago, alleviated and manipulated guilt by inventing the confessional and coupling it with a system of penances.3
“Desire and the Black Masseur” suggests, symbolically, much the same parallel Riesman noted between social and religious manipulation of man's sense of guilt.
Certainly none of the playwright's stories reveals more vividly his refusal to be affirmative, to preach the joys of submission to authority. Edmund Fuller has attacked “Desire and the Black Masseur” for dealing with material more suitable to a psychology clinic than a work of art; he dismisses the story as morbid and grotesque and implies that Williams' fiction caters to the perverse tastes of a decadent minority.4 Fuller can hardly be blamed for finding the story disturbing, but his absolute refusal to grant that it may be a serious work, his insistence on ridiculing rather than analyzing it, is a kind of let's-stick-our-heads-in-the-sand attitude more becoming to ostriches than to literary critics.
Fuller was so disgusted by the story and so bemused by the problem of how an entire body could be consumed within the space of twenty-four hours that he left readers with the impression that Williams had purposely concocted the most shocking story he could imagine and presented it with no concern beyond the morbid fascination he might elicit from his audience.5 “Desire and the Black Masseur” is not, however, a literal study of either sexual abnormality or cannibalism. Burns's masochism is a shocking but vividly dramatic symbol of another kind of perversion, man's growing tendency to allow himself, his individual nature, to be swallowed up by forces outside himself. Man's spiritual masochism is the phenomenon, a moral and psychological one, which concerns Williams. Burns's desire to be victimized by sadistic brutality is not simply a macabre expression of a distorted personality; it is a symbolic presentation of man's perverse submission to what Williams regards as social cannibalism, the consumption of the individual by the group. Man allows himself to be devoured, the author suggests, in order to escape his loneliness and anxiety.
Man's need to be related to his fellow man, his need to identify with other members of his society, is so strong, Williams suggests, that, unless the need is satisfied, the individual suffers from a sense of guilt which can only be alleviated by sacrificing himself totally to the demands of society. The real horror of Williams' story lies in its implication that the more of ourselves we surrender, the more dissatisfied we become until we beg to have every particle of our individuality swallowed up. Like Anthony Burns, many men, Williams intimates, have become automatons living mechanically in a society they have never dared to question; nevertheless, they suffer from feelings of loneliness and anxiety, insecurities which they feel can only be removed by increased conformity, by becoming more a part of the group.
Instead of recognizing that every man must, in order to be an individual, feel finally isolated in some way from his fellow men, we construe feelings of isolation as the promptings of guilt. Thus religion, as Riesman suggested, manipulated in the past the same sense of guilt which society now takes advantage of. In “Desire and the Black Masseur” Williams puts it this way:
For the sins of the world are really only its partialities, its incompletions, and these are what sufferings must atone for. A wall that has been omitted from a house because the householder's funds were not sufficient—these sorts of incompletions are usually covered up or glossed over by some kind of make-shift arrangement. The nature of man is full of such make-shift arrangements, devised by himself to cover his incompletion. He feels a part of himself to be like a missing wall or a room left unfinished and he tries as well as he can to make up for it.
The missing part of man, his incompletion, is an inescapable manifestation of the human condition. Even though man sacrifices his individuality in order to complete himself, to find the missing part, he compounds his error because what he is cut off from is not society but himself. But he tells himself that he is guilty and that his fears are caused by an impious distrust of society. He becomes anxious and insecure in the same way an anchorite might be terrified by discovering in himself doubts of God's beneficence.
Williams clarifies the symbolic significance of Anthony Burns's search for atonement in his description of a revival service that takes place in a church across the street from the room to which the Negro has carried Burns:
Suffer, suffer, suffer! the preacher shouted. Our Lord was nailed on a cross for the sins of the world! They led him above the town to the place of the skull, they moistened his lips with vinegar on a sponge, they drove five nails through his body, and He was The Rose of the world as He bled on the cross!
The congregation could not remain in the building but tumbled out on the street in a crazed procession with clothes torn open.
The sins of the world are all forgiven! they shouted.
The tone of the passage suggests that Williams is interested in something more than satirizing religious fanaticism, and the preacher's doctrine of salvation through suffering has more than a theological relevance. The author implies a parallel between Anthony Burns's masochism and what he appears to feel is the widespread evidence of America's attraction to a philosophy of acceptance, of enduring any perversion of individuality so long as one may “belong” and thus be saved. Anthony Burns is a member, in spirit if not in fact, of the congregation across the street. He is a sinner in the hands of an angry but beneficent god, and he must suffer to appease his god's anger and gain his love. The preacher whose impassioned rhetoric arouses in his congregation a sense of their sinfulness may be a twentieth-century evangelist, but he combines the fervor of Jonathan Edwards with the morality of Norman Vincent Peale. God's kingdom may not be of this world, but society's most certainly is, and society is now God, Williams suggests, so our main problem is how to get along with men.6
The last paragraphs of Williams' story emphasize the relationship between Burns's sexual perversion and the more subtle social perversion which it symbolizes:
[The Negro] moved to another city, obtained employment once more as an expert masseur. And there in a white-curtained place, serenely conscious of fate bringing him another, to suffer atonement as it had been suffered by Burns, he stood impassively waiting inside a milky white door for the next to arrive.
And meantime, slowly, with barely a thought of so doing, the earth's whole population twisted and writhed beneath the manipulation of night's black fingers and the white ones of day with skeletons splintered and flesh reduced to pulp, as if out of this unlikely problem, the answer, perfection, was slowly evolved through torture.
Horrifying and repugnant the story may well be, but if it does symbolize the reality of the contemporary world, that reality is far more horrifying than the story. Williams appears to have become convinced that the perversion of values to which twentieth-century man has subjected himself is so deeply embedded that only by capturing in his work an electrifying sense of evil, by focusing on the inescapably grotesque, could he expose the ugliness which lies concealed beneath the surface of certain contemporary attitudes.
A happy exception to the charge, William Peden's consideration of Williams' fiction in the Summer 1964 number of this quarterly, has only recently been brought to my attention.
One Arm and Other Stories (New York, 1954), pp. 81-94. Page references to quotations from the story will be noted in the text and will refer to the edition cited.
Individualism Reconsidered (Glencoe, Illinois, 1954), p. 48.
Man in Modern Fiction (New York, 1958), pp. 70-72.
Ibid., p. 72.
In a story of such clear symbolic intention, Williams' decision to make his masseur a Negro is puzzling. He may have intended some far-fetched metaphorical allusion to blackness as that which swallows all color. The Masseur would thus be opposed to the colorlessness (i.e., white, the absence of all color) of Burns. Or the author may merely have intended to enforce the literal credibility of his story by using a member of a race for whom cannibalism existed in a not-too-distant past. Neither explanation is entirely satisfactory. Perhaps Mr. Peden had this reservation in mind when he wrote that the story “tends to fail because Williams makes no effort to bridge the gap between the specific framework of character, incident, time and place, and the allegorical, symbolic, or mythic.” The church service is, of course, an attempt to bridge the gap, to show the destructive power of abstract, intangible forces. The Negro is not a real character in the story; he is an unseen but unquestioned force, a powerful “presence,” just as God, Society, Religion are entirely abstract yet undeniably real influences in the lives of most of us. Thus Burns, presented literally and realistically, is destroyed by a vague power much like the one which sends the congregation running madly into the streets, tearing their clothes and begging to be made to suffer.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3662
SOURCE: Beaurline, Lester A. “The Glass Menagerie: From Story to Play.” Modern Drama 8, no. 2 (September 1965): 142-49.
[In the following essay, Beaurline traces the adaptation of the short story “Portrait of a Girl in Glass” into the play The Glass Menagerie.]
“Not even daring to stretch her small hands out!—nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.” Tennessee Williams scrawled these words from e. e. cummings at the top of the last page of The Glass Menagerie sometime after finishing the one-act play that was to grow into his first successful work. The quotation suggests the gentle, elegiac tone that he tried to attain, and since the last half of the passage survived as the play's epigraph, it apparently expressed Williams' later feelings too. The fragile pathos of Laura Wingfield's life was Williams' original inspiration in his short story, “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” and theater audiences continue to respond to the basic human appeal of the play.
In “Portrait” the narrator feels compassion for Laura, who “made no positive motion toward the world but stood at the edge of the water, so to speak, with feet that anticipated too much cold to move.” In this early story we can already recognize Williams' other trademarks: the theme of Tom's flight from “a dead but beautiful past into a live but ugly and meaningless present” (William Sharp, TDR [Tulane Drama Review], VI, March, 1962, 161), the images of leaves torn from their branches, the hundreds of little transparent pieces of glass, the tired old music of the dead past, and the emotional undercurrent of sexual passion roaring through the entire story. These themes, I suppose, show Williams' kinship with D. H. Lawrence; and Tom, no doubt, suggests the figure of Paul Morrell or Aaron Sisson. But the later revisions show Williams' real talents as a playwright, none of which he inherits from Lawrence: his breadth of sympathy, his sense of humor, his brilliant dialogue, and his talent for building highly charged dramatic scenes.
Evidence survives for at least four stages in the composition of The Glass Menagerie: (1) The sixteen page story entitled “Portrait of a Girl in Glass” (written before 1943 and published in One Arm and Other Stories, 1948), where attention is on Laura, the narrator's sister.
(2) A sixty page one-act play in five scenes, of which twenty-one pages survive in the C. Waller Barrett Library at the University of Virginia. It is clear from the existing fragments that Williams had the main lines of his play firmly in hand at this stage. Here the clash between Tom and Amanda, the painful relationship between Amanda and Laura, and the contrast between Jim and Tom have become as important as Laura herself. This script was probably written before Williams went to California to work on a movie script in 1943 and before he worked up a synopsis for a film named The Gentleman Caller (Nancy Tischler, Tennessee Williams, p. 92).
(3) A 105-page play manuscript, now in the C. Waller Barrett Library at the University of Virginia. This complex document contains ten kinds of paper, is written on at least six different typewriters, and has four different kinds of handwritten pencil or ink revisions. It may represent about eight to ten layers of revision, but for the sake of clarity, I will refer to only the final stage of the third version: the manuscript as it stood when Williams sent it off to his agent in the fall of 1943. He called this the “reading version,” and it is very close to the Random House edition, published in 1945 and reprinted by New Directions in 1949. However, this printed edition (which unfortunately has gotten into the college anthologies) contains several errors and a few alterations. The long version of the manuscript is in seven scenes and is a development and expansion of episodes in the one-act version. At this stage the major emphasis in the play is on memory, Tom's memory. It is a play about growing up as Tom must recognize the fatal choice between Laura's glass animals and Jim's gross materialism.
(4) The acting version, published by the Dramatists Play Service in 1948 (and revised again sometime in the mid-fifties). This purports to be “a faithful indication of the way the play was produced in New York and on the road” by the original company. Many changes have been made in the stage directions and details of the dialogue. One new scene was added, and over 1100 verbal changes appear in the dialogue alone. I think that Williams is now finished with the play and that the fourth version represents his final intentions. Therefore a responsible editor of an anthology should not reprint the old “reading version,” and a critic ignores the acting version at his peril.
Changes in Tom's last speech epitomize all the revision in the play, so it is worth examining a long passage that closes the “Girl in Glass.”
Not very long after that I lost my job at the warehouse. I was fired for writing a poem on the lid of a shoe-box. I left Saint Louis and took to moving around. The cities swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from the branches. My nature changed. I grew to be firm and sufficient.
In five years' time I had nearly forgotten home. I had to forget it, I couldn't carry it with me. But once in a while, usually in a strange town before I have found companions, the shell of deliberate hardness is broken through. A door comes softly and irresistibly open. I hear the tired old music my unknown father left in the place he abandoned as faithlessly as I. I see the faint and sorrowful radiance of the glass, hundreds of little transparent pieces of it in very delicate colors. I hold my breath, for if my sister's face appears among them—the night is hers!
(pp. 111-112, by permission of New Directions Books)
In the second draft (the one-act version), Williams heightened Tom's emotional tension between his necessary cruelty and his affection for the ones he is hurting. His cruel side comes out when he says, “Then I escaped. Without a word of goodbye, I descended the steps of the fire-escape for the last time.” The incestuous implications of the speech become more explicit: “In five years time I have nearly forgotten home. But there are nights when memory is stronger. I cannot hold my shoulder to the door, the door comes softly but irresistibly open. … I hold my breath. I reach for a cigarette. I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger. For if that vision goes on growing clearer, the mist will divide upon my sister's face, watching gently and daring to ask for nothing. Then it's too much: my manhood is undone and the night is hers. …” [MS p. 103 (60); the number in parenthesis refers to the original pagination of the one-act play; the other number refers to the revised pagination of the “reading version.”]
In the third version, the speech is more integrated with the scene. Amanda had just shouted at him, “Go then! Then go to the moon!—you selfish dreamer.” So Tom begins his epilogue with “I didn't go to the moon. I went much further—for time is the longest distance between two places.” (We should recall that Amanda had asked Laura to wish on the moon before the gentleman caller came.) Another unifying detail was added at the end. Laura, in pantomime, blows out the candles, which like the moon have come to suggest her hopes, the romantic half-light, similar to the glow that came across the alley from the Paradise Ballroom. She had already blown out her candles in the second version, but in the third, Tom says, “anything that can blow your candles out! (Laura Bends Over the Candles) Blow out your candles, Laura!—for nowadays the world is lit by lightning! Blow out your candles, Laura,—and so goodbye. … (She Blows the Candles Out. The Scene Dissolves.)” (MS pp. 104-105) So the dialogue and action reinforce each other.
Also in the third version Tom gives a more concrete impression of the memory of his sister. He suggests a little dramatic scene where he is no longer in a bedroom with his shoulder to the door. Perhaps the lines from e. e. cummings stimulated an impression of out-of-doors rather than a bedroom. tom says, “Perhaps I am walking along a street at night, in some strange city, before I have found companions. I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The window is filled with pieces of colored glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colors, like bits of a shattered rainbow.
Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes. …
Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!”
The fourth or acting version emphasizes Tom's maturity and cruelty even more; now Tom leaves out all mention of his being fired from his job at the warehouse. The impression is that he voluntarily left home—to join the merchant marine. His costume, on stage, has become a pea jacket and a watch-cap, again combining the dialogue and the spectacle.
Joining the merchant marine represents his escape into freedom, his escape from a box; and the second and third versions for the whole play show the regular growth of this theme. To draw the light away from the relations of Tom and Laura and towards an inevitable clash between Tom and Amanda, Williams wrote a long argument into the early scenes. Amanda accuses Tom of being selfish, not caring for his poor sister, and Tom replies vehemently. The first half of this passage is, as many other speeches in the manuscript, in loose blank verse, which the printed texts obscure.
Listen! You think I'm crazy about the warehouse?
You think I'm in love with the Continental Shoemakers?
You think I want to spend fifty-five years down there in that—celotex interior! with—flourescent—tubes?!
Look! I'd rather somebody picked up a crow-bar and battered out my brains—than go back mornings! I GO! Everytime you come in yelling that God damn ‘Rise and Shine! Rise and Shine!’ I say to myself, ‘How lucky dead people are!’
(MS p. 28, by permission of Random House and the University of Virginia Library)
As J. L. Styan (Elements of Drama, p. 12) observed, good dramatic speech has had a “specific pressure put on it”; it is economical because it functions in several ways at the same time. This speech not only furthers the action, but it characterizes Tom, the frustrated poet, who sees his work and his home as a box where he endures a living death, surrounded by phoniness and clichés. But the audience is also aware of Amanda's reaction, because we have just seen how she suffers, in her comitragic telephone conversations, while she tries to sell magazines in order to put her daughter through business college. Meantime Laura spends her days walking in the park or polishing her glass. Neither does Williams let us forget Laura during the big argument. In the third version, a spotlight shines upon her tense body; in the fourth version, she stands in the living room, at the door of the dining room, overhearing the whole exchange. Thus she is between the audience and the action in the dining room.
Then before Tom storms out of the apartment, he flings his coat across the room, “It strikes against the shelf of Laura's glass collection, there is a tinkle of shattering glass. Laura cries out as if wounded.” This stage business is an obvious parallel with the accident that occurs in the next act at the end of Laura and Jim's dance, when the little glass unicorn is broken, just before Jim reveals that he is engaged to marry. He can never call on Laura again.
Scene four, the only new scene that was written for the acting version (but printed in the Random House edition and absent from the Barrett MS) also emphasizes the choice that Tom has between death and escape. Tom has come home from the movies, where he gets his adventure, and he describes the magician in the stage show. “But the wonderfullest trick of all was the coffin trick. We nailed him into a coffin and he got out of the coffin without removing one nail. There is a trick that would come in handy for me—get out of this 2 by 4 situation. … You know it don't take much intelligence to get yourself into a nailed-up coffin, Laura. But who in hell ever got himself out of one without removing one nail? (As an answer, the father's grinning photograph lights up.)”
There are a hundred ways that the body of the play depicts Tom's awareness of the essential hopelessness of the Wingfield family and the essential deadness of their beautiful memories. I will not explain how each detail came into the script; two more examples will have to suffice. One of the greatest moments in modern theater occurs when Amanda comes on stage to greet Laura's gentleman caller. Nobody says a word for a few seconds; everyone's eyes are fixed on Amanda's dress—the old ball dress that she wore when she led the cotillion years ago. Before age had yellowed this dress she had twice won the cakewalk, and she had worn it to the Governor's ball in Jackson. The dress, at this moment, suggests the utter futility of Amanda's efforts to find a husband for her daughter. She defeats her own purposes; she cannot resist pretending that the gentleman caller has come to call on her, just as seventeen of them came one afternoon on Blue Mountain. Tom is shocked and embarrassed. The grotesque sight leaves Jim speechless, and he is a young man proud of his high-school training in public speaking. Meanwhile Laura lies in her bedroom, sick with fear.
Mr. Williams did not achieve such a theatrical triumph by writing with his guts or by pouring out his uncontrolled libido. In the short story, he tried to make Laura pathetic by dressing her in one of her mother's old gowns, and Tom is momentarily surprised by her appearance when she opens the door. In the one-act version, Amanda's memories of Blue Mountain are written into the script, and Laura is furnished with a new dress, but now she is lame. By the third version (possibly in the second, too, but I cannot be sure because the relevant pages of the second version do not survive), Amanda wears the old dress and becomes a coquette. In the fourth version, Williams softens the effect slightly and adds a little more to the irony by a brief exchange between Tom and his mother. At the peak of Tom's embarrassment, after the pregnant pause, he says:
Mother, you look so pretty.
You know, that's the first compliment you ever paid me. I wish you'd look pleasant when you're about to say something pleasant, so I could expect it.
Then Amanda swings into her girlish chatter. These last additions seem to assure the audience that Tom is genuinely shocked but that he is trying to cover up his feelings. At the same time the audience has to have evidence that Amanda is not completely out of her mind. She can still recognize a hollow compliment, and she can return the jibe.
By typical use of his dramatic talents, Williams makes the audience conscious of several characters' feelings at the same time, like a juggler keeping four balls in the air. Each revision puts another ball in the air or increases the specific pressure. We are never allowed to forget the tension between Tom and his mother, and the scene strongly suggests that Laura's anxiety and withdrawal may have been caused by her aggressive mother. The final image of Amanda in the Epilogue is that of a comforter and protector of Laura. She is dignified and tragic. But she is most vividly depicted in the middle of the play as a vigorous, silly, and pathetic old woman. Fearing that her daughter might become an old maid, she arranges the visit of a gentleman caller. Yet, she cannot resist the temptation to smother her daughter and relive her Blue Mountain days; she vicariously seduces the man herself. She has to keep bringing the dead but beautiful past into the present; Tom must go into the ugly but live future. He must break out of the coffin and leave his sister behind in darkness.
The transmutations of Jim O'Connor illustrate Mr. Williams' talent for depicting minor characters. At the start, Jim had a warm masculine nature; he was a potential lover and a Lawrencian hero. “Jim was a big red-haired Irishman who had the scrubbed and polished look of well-kept chinaware. His big square hands seemed to have a direct and very innocent hunger for touching friends. He was always clapping them on your arms or shoulders and they burned through the cloth of your shirt like plates taken out of an oven.”
In the one-act version, Jim becomes slightly hollow when he tries to persuade Tom to study public speaking. Then, in the reading version, Jim assimilates some of the play's nostalgic tone when he becomes an ex-high-school hero. The distracting homosexual suggestions disappear, and now Tom was “valuable to him as someone who could remember his former glory, who had seen him win basketball games and the silver cup in debating.” On the edge of failure, Jim seems to put on his hearty good nature. He is more often named the “gentleman caller” than Jim O'Connor, a detail that helps to transform him into an idea in the head of Amanda, just as Laura becomes an image of “Blue-roses” in his mind. Also in the reading version Jim first talks enthusiastically about the world of the present and future—the world that Amanda and Laura cannot enter. When he should be romancing with Laura, he orates on the Wrigley Building, the Century of Progress, and the future of television. “I wish to be ready to go up right along with it. Therefore I'm planning to get in on the ground floor. In fact I've already made the right connections and all that remains is for the industry itself to get under way! Full steam—(His eyes are starry.) Knowledge—Zzzzzp! Money—Zzzzzp!—Power! That's the cycle democracy is built on!” He clumsily breaks Laura's unicorn, and he awkwardly kisses her.
Jim finally impresses us as a dehumanized figure, an unromantic voice of power and cliché; his sex appeal has been carefully removed, and his insensitive words, and power of positive thinking take its place. Consequently, with every change he suits Laura less and less, and he embodies Tom's “celotex interior” more and more. In the finished play, Amanda's mental projection of the old-fashioned gentleman caller reveals him to be Tom's brute reality.
Other important changes are found in the stage directions, especially the visual images and printed legends that Williams experimented with and rejected—wisely, I think. One legend, “A Souvenir,” survives in the fragments of the one-act play (at the beginning of what was eventually scene viii), and the earliest forms of the reading version show an attempted use of a blackboard on which Tom wrote in chalk such things as “Blue Roses” (scene ii), “Campaign” (scene iii), and “Où sont les Neiges d'antan” (scene i). The completed reading version projected these legends by means of the much discussed “screen device,” possibly conceived in the film synopsis that preceded the reading version. Williams said, “The legend or image upon the screen will strengthen the effect of what is merely allusion [sic] in the writing and allow the primary point to be made more simply and lightly than if the entire responsibility were on the spoken lines” (New Directions edition, 1949, p. x). The real weakness of the device lies in the author's anxiousness and small confidence in his audience. “In an episodic play, such as this, the basic structure or narrative line may be observed from the audience; the effect may seem fragmentary rather than architectural. This may not be the fault of the play so much as a lack of attention in the audience” (p. x). And I suspect that if the screen device has ever been tried, it distracted the audience from the actors, just as the lighting can distract unless it is used sparingly. Father's lighted picture seems to work once or twice, but I doubt if similar mechanical marvels add to the unified effect. At any rate, Williams says he does not regret the omission of the screen device in the first New York production, because he saw that Laurette Taylor's powerful performance “made it suitable to have the utmost simplicity in physical production” (p. x). Jo Melziner's two scrims no doubt also helped persuade him. An air of unreality is one thing but pretentious pointing out of meaning is another.
Williams' most successful revisions of stage directions unobtrusively change the story's matter-of-fact tone into memory. The narrator of the story becomes the presenter of the play, and significant stage properties appear in the big scene: the blasted candelabra from the altar of the Church of the Heavenly Rest, the ice cream, fruit punch, and macaroons. In the reading version the ice cream was replaced with dandelion wine (for a mock communion?), and Amanda “baptizes” herself with lemonade—all of which contributes to the vague religious impression of the scene. No one explicitly defines the meaning of these symbols, but they quietly suggest that the events represent Laura's pitiful initiation rites; this is as close as she will ever come to the altar of love, because Jim is no Savior. She must blow her candles out. The empty ceremony is over.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5859
SOURCE: Reck, Tom S. “The Short Stories of Tennessee Williams: Nucleus for His Drama.” Tennessee Studies in Literature 16 (1971): 141-54.
[In the following essay, Reck identifies three ways Williams utilized his short fiction in his plays.]
Especially for the Williams' loyalist, the playwright's current difficulties (The Milktrain Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, The Seven Descents of Myrtle, Slapstick Tragedy, and In a Bar of a Tokyo Hotel) ask for re-reading of his earlier successful works; i.e., you go back to them again in order to validate your original enthusiasm. And from here it is only a natural step, if you are familiar with Williams' fiction, to examine the particular short stories which Williams rewrote as plays—not only because it is interesting to trace the transformations, but also because it is useful in understanding what has been going wrong in the past ten years for Mr. Williams.
Williams' fiction has been acknowledged but never recognized, despite or because of his reputation as a dramatist; and certainly its relationship with his drama has never been sufficiently explored. There has been only general commentary. William Peden in The American Short Story, for example, writes that “his short stories are sometimes the first or early versions of characters and situations eventually developed into full-length plays.”1 And Richard Vowles in the Tulane Drama Review has noted that between the fiction and the drama is “interaction, a reuse of situations and ideas, frequent variations of a favorite theme.”2 Yet Williams himself has confided: “My longer plays emerge out of earlier one acters and short stories I may have written years before. I work them over and over again”;3 and the fiction was, in fact, Williams' only writing interest until well into his life. He calls his short stories his first “serious” artistic efforts,4 the first one being inspired by Tennyson's Lady of Shalott when he was 12 years old. About his high school years, Williams has noted: “I had not yet seen a play or thought about writing for the stage.”5 He sold a short story at age 18 to Weird Tales, and the fiction began appearing with some frequency in magazines about 1939. Throughout the formative vagrant existence after he left college and traveled to New Orleans, Mexico, and California, he wrote only fiction. Even after agent Audrey Wood made her discovery of Williams, he was still more devoted to fiction than drama. His short stories have been collected into three volumes: One Arm (1948), Hard Candy (1954), and The Knightly Quest (1966).
In addition to whatever artistic end in itself, the fiction seems to serve Williams as a kind of memory bank, as a sort of out-of-town tryout, if you will, before the New York opening, in which he works with a theme, a character, or a situation before letting it jell into its final form.
This metamorphosis from story to play goes in three general directions. On the loosest level, Williams will simply transfer a line or an element from story to play, out of context, without regard to character or situations, apparently simply because it appeals to him. For example, from the short story “Two on a Party,” he borrows the term “colored lights” for use in A Streetcar Named Desire to describe Stella's orgasmic nights with Stanley. Blanche's line “Stella for Star” appears first in a minor Williams effort; the release of the trapped insect in the story “The Vine” parallels the tied iguana in The Night of the Iguana; the mutilation by medical students of the body of Oliver Winemiller in “One Arm” leads to the attempt to dismember Kilroy in Camino Real. There are many more such examples.
Secondly, Williams will transport a particular theme from short story to play, while using entirely different characters and situations. It is sometimes advanced that the short story “Desire and the Black Masseur” is an early version of Suddenly Last Summer. This is correct only in the sense that both contain as theme the idea of violent mutilation and both climax with a scene of abject cannibalism. Otherwise the relationship is only general. Likewise, the short story “Two on a Party” with its theme of time as the assassin of youth and of life leads in a way to The Sweet Bird of Youth. And the pure male prostitute in “One Arm” foreshadows Chance in The Sweet Bird of Youth and Val in Orpheus Descending. Other similar developments exist.
The third type of relationship shows much more substantial similarity between story and play. Six of Williams' full-length plays evolved rather directly from short stories: The Glass Menagerie came from “Portrait of a Girl in Glass”; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof from “Three Players of a Summer Game”; Summer and Smoke from “The Yellow Bird”; The Night of the Iguana from a short story of the same name; The Milktrain Doesn't Stop Here Anymore from “Man Bring This Up Road”; and The Seven Descents of Myrtle from “The Kingdom of Earth.”
The Glass Menagerie shows the most fidelity to the original short story. Not only are the events similar; the characterizations are strikingly akin, and exact relationships can be seen between various lines and passages. For example, in reference to the absent father, the story mentions the old records left behind “before his sudden and unexplained disappearance,”6 while in the play Amanda Wingfield refers to “those worn-out phonograph records your father left as a painful memory of him.”7 In both, Tom is specifically referred to as “a poet who had a job in a warehouse,”8 and he is fired in both for “writing a poem on the lid of a shoebox.”9 The endings of both read alike:
For once in a while usually in a strange town before I have found companions, the shell of deliberate hardness is broken through. A door comes softly and irresistibly open. I hear the tired old music … I see the faint and sorrowful radiance of the glass, hundreds of little transparent pieces of it in very delicate colors. I hold my breath, for if my sister's face appears among them—the night is hers.10
Perhaps I am walking along a street at night, in some strange city, before I have found companions. I pass a lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The window is filled with pieces of colored glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colors, like bits of shattered rainbow. Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes.11
Laura's collection of glass, of course, serves as the basis for the title of both story and drama.
There are minuscule differences, such as Amanda's learning about Laura's fiasco at business college over the phone in the story and in person in the play; and there is the use of the movie screen gimmick in the play to flash words and images relevant to the action, but this device was adjudged superfluous and omitted from the first successful Chicago and New York productions.
It is obvious, then, that the short story represented a finished product, a well-thought-out relationship between author and material, so that the transformation was only one of literary genre, not any reworking of characters and situations, or even much of dialogue. And perhaps this well-laid foundation explains the ease with which The Glass Menagerie works on the stage and suggests that when Williams takes care first to mold his material sufficiently in some literary form, even, maybe preferably, a nondramatic one, he meets minimal difficulty.
The story “The Yellow Bird,” from which Summer and Smoke was born, demonstrates a different way in which Williams uses his fiction, since the attitude of the story toward its material is far different from that of the play. Rather than the belabored and anguished tone of Summer and Smoke, in “The Yellow Bird” we get a comic strain that borders almost on the slapstick. Williams treats Alma Winemiller humorously: she is not a tortuous organizer of literary meetings, but a rebellious girl who puffs cigarettes and stuffs newspaper under the door to conceal the smoke, gleefully bleaches her hair, deliberately drives her father's auto through the garage door, and willfully interrupts his long-winded sermons with loud notes on the organ. This is hardly the Alma who jumped at the sight of an anatomy chart in Summer and Smoke.
The final triumph of the flesh, the theme in both story and play to be sure, is not the agonizing decision that it is in the play. It is not only easy; it is rewarding, as Alma becomes not simply promiscuous, but a full-fledged prostitute, not operating in the town square, but in the red light district of New Orleans. In a rather un-Williamsian tone, Alma's puritanism is, in fact, held up as an asset:
It was impossible to see how one human constitution could stand up under the strain of so much running around to night places, but Alma had all the vigor that comes from generations of firm believers.12
Certainly Signi Falk was correct when she noted that if there is a moral in “The Yellow Bird” it favors “the fleshy sinner.”13
“The Yellow Bird” contains several interesting elements which would be omitted from Summer and Smoke. There is, for example, the introduction of the mythical bird Bobo who has carried the puritan ethic “from Salem to Hobbs, Arkansas,” and who influences Alma in her rebellion. And when Alma produces a bastard son, whom she names John after the lover that she liked best (the story's only reference to the John who as Dr. John became the major antagonist in Summer and Smoke), he appears at the end of the story as Neptune and empties the horn of plenty with rubies, diamonds, and emeralds onto Alma's deathbed. There is then a bizarre monument erected on Alma's grave:
It showed three figures of indeterminate gender astride a leaping dolphin. One bore a crucifix, one a cornucopia, and one a grecian lyre. On one side of the plunging fish, the arrogant dolphin, was a name inscribed, the odd name of Bobo. …14
What Williams has in mind here is at best ambiguous. But if the obvious symbolism was intended, the crucifix as a representation of religion or Christian religion, the cornucopia as a symbol of abundance, and the Grecian lyre as an evocation of art or beauty, all three suggest aspects of man or of life. And the presence of the permissive Bobo seems to invite indulgence in all three at will.
“The Yellow Bird” as original conception for Summer and Smoke seems to suggest then several things. First, since Williams apparently is capable of taking his tortured heroine not so seriously, he is perhaps not so guilty after all of the charges that his characters are ridiculous caricatures, oversimplified and romanticized versions of essentially silly women.
Secondly, he can use early visualizations as lesson-learning, since he apparently was to decide from this practice exercise that Alma Winemiller would work better as a tragic heroine. Perhaps Williams, an admitted capitalist who enjoys his popular successes, changed his attitude and the story's events because he could predict the preference of the middle-class theatre-going public (not yet ready to accept the idea that sexual permissiveness can be painless) for a languishingly tortured heroine. At any rate, the fact that changes took place does not invalidate the story's usefulness to Williams, but perhaps rather substantiates it.
Equally different from the play into which it would grow (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) is “Three Players of a Summer Game.” The central figure of the story is Brick Pollitt, a weak, wealthy man who retreats from the brutal reality of the summer heat and an unhappy marriage into infidelity, drunkenness, and a compulsive desire to redecorate his mistress's Victorian mansion. Brick's retreat has become somehow confused with the game of croquet which he plays with his mistress and her small daughter and which he uses symbolically, correlating his cure of alcoholism with the procedures of the game: “I'm going to do it, step by step, the way people play the game of croquet … you go from one wicket to another until you arrive at that final pole. …”15 The attempt is a failure, however, and the story ends with the gentle mistress departing, leaving Brick to the clutches of his shrewish wife Margaret.
When Williams expanded “Three Players of a Summer Game” into Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, he retained Brick Pollitt's struggle to adjust to realities about himself and his circumstances and included his problems with liquor and impotence. A game of croquet is occurring off-stage during the first act of the drama; the Pollitt residence is designated in Williams' stage notes to be of Victorian design; Brick still wears white, although it is white silk pajamas, not a white suit.
The drunken acrobatics performed in the story as Brick calls out “hoarsely to invisible teammates and adversaries”16 are repeated. Margaret, for example, admonishes Brick: “Breakin' your leg last night on the high school athletic field: doin' what? Jumpin' hurdles. At two or three in the morning. Just fantastic … a well-known former athlete stagin' a one-man track meet on the Glorious Hill High School athletic field last night, but was slightly out of condition and didn't clear the first hurdle.”17
Other details are repeated. Both Bricks have lost their driver's licenses, and both are said to possess slimness and grace in spite of their alcoholism. Stylized relationships, the lack of any personal interaction, are suggested in the short story by Brick's mistress addressing her daughter only as “precious,” and in the drama by the use of titles such as “Big Daddy” and “Sister Woman” for proper names.
Significant differences exist also, however. The mistress and her child have disappeared in the drama, and the attractions of the traditional past, emphasized in the story through Williams' icy imagery, seem less relevant. Added also is the usual Williams intrigue with homosexuality. The most important change, however, is in the characterization of Margaret. Not only has her role been expanded considerably in the drama; it has also been altered to a great extent. She is not the vicious harpy of the story but the drama's most sympathetic character. Williams appears to have transferred some of her traits to Brick's sister-in-law, who is, for example, the former carnival queen that Margaret is in the story, and who is materialistic and domineering.
Elia Kazan, the director of the Broadway production, suggested the changes which made Margaret more sympathetic. Williams has explained about Kazan's suggestions in notes for the published version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. “He felt that the character of Margaret, while he understood that I sympathized with her myself, should be made more clearly sympathetic to an audience.”18
Williams says that Kazan also “felt the character of Brick should undergo some apparent mutation,” whereas Williams preferred to emphasize Brick's “moral paralysis”19 as he did in “Three Players of a Summer Game.” Williams writes: “I felt that the moral paralysis of Brick was a root thing in his tragedy and to show a dramatic progression would obscure the meaning of the tragedy in him and because I don't believe that a conversation, however revelatory, ever effects so immediately a change in the heart or even the conduct of a person in Brick's state of spiritual disrepair.”20
Kazan won out, however, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ends with the implication that Brick has resolved his conflicts. Other changes suggested by Kazan also served to move the drama further from the original version of the short story. The conversation between Margaret and Brick in their final confrontation was lengthened to imply reconciliation more strongly. Kazan suggested Brick's defense of Margaret against criticism from his brother and a clearer establishment of love between Margaret and Brick. Williams justified the alterations: “I wanted Kazan to direct the play and while these suggestions were not made in the form of an ultimatum, I was fearful that I would lose his interest if I didn't re-examine the script from his point of view.”21
Nancy Tischler in her book Tennessee Williams: Rebellious Puritan is one of the many who have quarrelled with the resolution of the conflicts in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She claims that the conclusions “are not consistent with what the author prepared us to expect. The audience may now leave the theatre … suspecting, perhaps, that the whole truth has not been told.”22 Perhaps Williams' original conception of the situation in “Three Players of a Summer Game,” his fusion of ice, turret, liquor, and croquet to suggest not only retreat but the reasons for it, is closer to the “whole truth” than the treatment in the prize-winning dramatic adaptation.
The transition of “The Night of the Iguana” into dramatic form shows a more reasonable and less compromising process. The story examines the internal and external sexual conflicts of a female painter, Edith Jelkes, and an unnamed writer at a run-down Mexican hotel. Miss Jelkes suffers from the traditional Williams illness of sexuality versus puritanism, while the writer struggles between homosexuality and heterosexuality. The conflicts between the two characters are paralleled by Williams' water and bird imagery. A storm ensues, the details of which suggest the writer's forthcoming attack on Miss Jelkes: “Not continually but in sudden thrusts and withdrawals like a giant bird lunging up and down on its terrestrial quarry, a bird with immense white wings and beak of a godlike fury, the attack was delivered against the jut of rock on which the Coste Verde was planted.”23
In his attack, the writer achieves a physical release; there is a scalding wetness emitted on the belly of Edith Jelkes, but it arouses no satisfaction, only a pathetic “sobbing sound in his throat.”24 On the other hand, Edith, who in her frigidity ought to know repulsion, is “grateful too, for in some equally mysterious way, the strangling rope of her loneliness has been severed.”25 The message is apparently the disparity between need and endeavor. The writer achieves what he consciously sought, physical release, but fails in his unconscious need for some sort of human relationship. Edith Jelkes's failure to resist him adequately, when considered with her previous inability to establish a friendly human relationship with him, is satisfying because she has now known what she actually unconsciously sought: a sex act of sorts.
Williams turned the story into a short play for presentation at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, before expansion into the full-length drama. He retained the motif of the Coste Verde hotel as a kind of isolated pedestal on which his characters could act out and talk out their personal dilemmas, since in both it is out of season, and the hotel is open to only a “few special guests.” The tied iguana is present in both as a phallic symbol to evoke the sexual disturbances of the characters and to suggest entrapment and then release. There is a rainstorm in both to provide the mood for the confrontations.
There are differences, too, however. The name of the central female character changes from Edith to Hannah, and she is less neurotic and far gentler in the play. Hannah (with her Biblical origins) may be an advanced stage of Edith, in which conflicts have become somewhat resolved. Her frustrations, in fact, seem to have been transferred to another character in the play, Judith Fellowes, who as a lesbian vocal teacher from Baptist Female College suggests Edith Jelkes's position at an Episcopal girls' school. Other aspects of Edith Jelkes's character are transferred to a new central figure, the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, who experiences the same sensuality-spirituality conflict that Edith does in the story. Other new characters (Nonno, Charlotte Goodall) have been added, and the Patrona of the hotel is expanded from about a one-line bit in the story to a rather important character in the play.
Williams was no doubt drawn to certain elements in the story: the setting, the symbolism of the tied iguana, and the imagery of the rainfall, for example; and these he retained. Others he worked over, sensibly altering them, since while the short story is often confused and leaves one finally unmoved, the play is certainly one of his wisest works in which he seems to have worked out somewhat the anger and the theatrics of certain earlier efforts.
Williams' 1962 play The Milktrain Doesn't Stop Here Anymore stems from his story “Man Bring This Up Road,” which concerns the wealthy and eccentric Mrs. Goforth, who is living in a magnificently isolated villa above the Mediterranean. One day a handsome poet named Jimmy Dobayne makes the perilous ascent up the cliff to the villa. He is penniless and hopeful for a patron, or just a job. She is not entirely disinterested but is desirous of a more sexual arrangement than he has in mind. The story ends abruptly with her simply requesting that he vacate the pink villa he has been inhabiting because she needs it for party guests.
For The Milktrain Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, Williams added what his material badly needed: thematic substance. The story is without focus altogether and leaves one with a sense of unfulfillment. In the play the themes are manifest in the poet's various conversations with Mrs. Goforth, such as, “Oh, no, you're nobody's fool, but you're a fool, Mrs. Goforth, if you don't know that finally, sooner or later, you need somebody or something to mean God to you, even if it's a cow on the streets of Bombay or a carved rock on the Easter Islands.”26 “And of how not to be frightened or not knowing anything what isn't meant to be known, acceptance of not knowing anything but the moment of still existing.”27 Appropriately, in the play Jimmy Dobayne has a new name, Christian Flanders, to give him a mythical and religious quality to correspond with his function as agent of God/Death.
In addition to the insertion of some thematic substance, Williams has, of necessity, enlarged several characters. Blackie, Mrs. Goforth's secretary, seems to be the result of the union of several staff members who wait upon Mrs. Goforth in the story. Blackie is a rather pivotal character in the play since she serves as a buffer between the poet and Mrs. Goforth and since she takes dictation about the elaborate and scandalous book of memoirs which Mrs. Goforth screams into tapes and microphones and which provides a bizarre backdrop (a jump into Mrs. Goforth's past) to the present proceedings.
The Witch of Capri still serves the function of filling Mrs. Goforth in on the poet's past as she did in the story, where she was, however, not personalized or even named, referred to only as “a lady from Capri.” Added are two stage assistants who move the scenery about when required and make philosophical statements when appropriate, and who are intended, Williams writes, to function “in a way that's between the Kabuki theatre of Japan and the chorus of Greek theatre” in hopes that “the play will come off better the further it is removed from conventional theatre. …”28
Much dialogue from the story is retained in the play, however. For example, an anecdote about Mrs. Goforth's guest is related in both with considerable similarity. In the story: “He had taken a large dose of sleeping tablets but had also left an early morning call so they'd find him early enough to revive him.”29 In the play: “Well, that night, he swallowed some sleeping pills, but, of course, he took the precaution of leaving an early morning call so he could be found and revived.”30 There are nearly exact references in both to the poet's being snubbed by friends along the Santa Lucia in Naples; there is mention in the story about Mrs. Goforth being besieged by a “false Truman Capote” and a “false Eudora Welty”;31 and in the play she says: “Last summer I had the false Truman Capote and the year before I had the false Mary McCarthy.”32 In the story Mrs. Goforth says: “I didn't call you a has-been, I said a veteran,”33 while in the play she says: “I said a veteran, I didn't say a has-been.”34 And in the play she repeats on three occasions the line which forms the title for the story: “Man bring this up road,”35 a remark by her servant in pidgin English about a book the poet has written.
The list of similarities is long, and they may seem unimportant in themselves, but they do demonstrate how Williams, even when he moves away to different themes or characters, can retain original dialogue and incidents. The Milktrain Doesn't Stop Here Anymore is far better than “Man Bring This Up Road.” The difficulties that do exist in the play (and they are considerable; it was produced twice in New York after rewritings, both times unsuccessfully, before Williams tried reworking in scenario form, also a failure) may stem from the fact that Williams did not have a theme or purpose definite in his mind when his ideas were in their formulative stage, i.e., when he was working them out in prose form. He had some incidents and some dialogue that he rather liked, and these he used with themes and characterizations formulated later, but they simply did not go well together.
Williams' 1968 Broadway effort, The Seven Descents of Myrtle, developed from a short story entitled “The Kingdom of Earth” appearing in the 1966 volume of stories, The Knightly Quest. The play retains the same leading characters, two half-brothers named Lot and Chicken and Lot's new bride Myrtle, as well as more or less the basic conflict, namely a hostility between the two men specifically over the inheritance of the family land, now aggravated by the appearance of the new wife.
However, for the play, Williams brought in elements which give his dramatic work additional and deeper thematic levels. For example, the action of the play is now set against the backdrop of an impending flood, which Williams seems to use symbolically and mythically to represent the idea of aggressive and devious nature, since he describes Chicken as “a suitable antagonist to a flooding river.”36 The flood terrifies Myrtle and threatens Lot as much as it serves Chicken, who uses it, in fact, as weapon against them as he taunts, “This time tomorrow, both floors of this house will be full of floodwater.”37 The flood even assumes a baptismal identity, as Chicken says to Myrtle: “Your blouse was already stained. Has to be washed in floodwater.”38
Another added element is the familiar Williams tendency to contrast the beauty and traditionalism of the old South with the vulgarity and inevitability of the new order. The rooms in which the legitimate but dying son Lot resides, with their gold chairs and crystal chandelier, are put beside the common kitchen where the illegitimate but virile Chicken eats and wenches.
Finally, in his drama Williams seems to be interested in certain mythical dimensions in the act of sexual seduction, which occurs in both play and story in the form of Myrtle's succumbing to Chicken, except that in the play it is drawn out and comes to suggest finally an ancient struggle in which the female of the species, in her good nature and her vulnerability, is destined to lose to the male of the species because of his strength and plain meanness. In the story the seduction is strictly sexual, and not the moral and mythical victory it is in the play.
As for the characterizations, although the names are the same, there are changes, both superficial and essential. Lot is simply handed to us in the story one-dimensionally as a dying tubercular. In the play he becomes a strange Williams freak with an advanced Oedipal complex, who bleaches his hair, subscribes to Vogue magazine, and tries “to make, or create, a little elegance in a corner of the earth.”39 In the story he simply coughs himself to death in a tubercular fit, aggravated by sexual jealousy, whereas in the play in some sort of strange Oedipal frenzy he dons his mother's gauzy white dress and sets a blond wig on his head before his demise. He also possesses an element of nihilistic world-weariness that is not exactly usual for a Williams character, typified by the remark, “I think everything's funny. In this world, I even think it's funny I'm going to die.”40 Although in the play Lot is impotent, in the story Chicken warns him, “Inside of a month that lovely Miss Myrtle of yours'll fuck the last breath from your body.”41
Myrtle is much the same in both versions, except that she is much more of a comic character in the play. For example, she will say: “My watch don't run. I just wear it as a bracelet”;42 and as she changes into a dress, “I never keep on slacks after 6 a.m.”43 Her switching alliance from Lot to Chicken in the story is largely a matter of sheer sex, whereas in the play, it is partially due to her fear of the flood.
Chicken is more cunning in the play than in the story and manipulates the other characters and toys with them maliciously. For example, he asks the new wife Myrtle: “How long you been Lot's nurse?”44 in order to ridicule at once Lot's condition and Myrtle's suspect professional past. He laughs at both: “I bet there's a buzzard circlin' over the house since you got here.”45 And with a kind of perverted sense of humor he seduces and plays with Myrtle by carving obscene words and drawings on the wooden table she sits at. In the story the seduction is casual and almost accidental, while in the play it seems carefully and skillfully contrived by Chicken.
The most dominant impression of the play is the internal philosophizing of Chicken about life and sexuality and about his various hostilities. And although the funny and cunning seduction of Myrtle occupies the major part of the play, much of his interior monologue is transformed, particularly his thoughts on sexuality. In the story he reasons: “Good, good, good. The best thing in the world, that burning sensation and then the running over, the sweet relaxing and letting all of it go. … Just that thing and nothing more is perfect. The rest is shit. All of the rest is hardly nothing but shit.”46 In the play he says, “There's nothing in the world, in this whole kingdom of earth, that can compare with that one thing. … The rest is crap, all of the rest is almost nothing but crap.”47
Also similar in both is Chicken's description of his conversion. In the story he reasons: “This sort of thing is dirty, and I'd remember what the preacher had said and make a struggle to close the gates on the body. I'd reach for the gates to close them and find that I hadn't a thing to catch hold of.”48 In the play, Chicken says to Myrtle: “You can't haul down your spiritual gates if you don't have any in you. I think that's the case in my case. I was just created without them.”49
Also transcribed are all kinds of Chicken's more casual, less philosophical statements. For example, in the story he says, “I've seen young boys that would play with themselves at the movies, and I don't blame them. There's nothing that makes a fellow quite so horny as setting there in the dark and looking up at one of them beautiful actresses messing around in a little pair of lace slip-ins or a fancy wrapper.”50 And in the play he says: “I can go to the movies an' sit in th' white section an' watch a female actress messin' around in a wrapper that you can almost see through. Shit, I've seen kids play with themselves at the Delta Brilliant an' I don't blame them.”51
Finally, there are various incidental changes in the evolution from story to play. In the story Chicken says he is “with Cherokee blood,” while in the play he is part Negro. In the play Lot and Myrtle have married as a result of participation in a Queen-for-a-Day type of television show, and there is considerable elaboration on this. There is no mention of it in the story. The specific facts about Myrtle's background are different in each, but are equally humorous and sleazy in both. At the end of the story Chicken and Myrtle “got hitched,” while in the play they simply climb atop the roof to avoid the flood.
The reasons for the changes seem to be, first of all, personal, simply preferences on Williams' part for one reason or another. Secondly, an attempt seems to have been made to give some dramatic conflict to a situation which in the story is mainly interior monologue. Finally, the play contains the symbolic and mythical elements already described, which are absent in the story and which therefore suggest that Williams used his story as a base upon which to build.
Williams' fiction serves him then in a number of capacities and in varying degrees. And if any judgment can be reached about the quality of its usefulness, it seems to be true that when he is most certain about the fiction, whether in terms of theme, characterization, or structure, the chances are better that the resulting play will be successful. This seems to hold even when he changes the material considerably in transition, perhaps because he must first be confident of the original form, and then only can he know the license which allows him to choose what he wants to do and to act skillfully on that choice.
William Peden, The American Short Story (Boston, 1964), p. 102.
Richard Bowles, “Tennessee Williams: The World of His Imagery,” Tulane Drama Review, Dec. 1958, p. 511.
“A Talk With a Playwright,” Newsweek, March 23, 1959, p. 75.
Nancy Tischler, Tennessee Williams: Rebellious Puritan (New York, 1961), p. 62.
Ibid., p. 32.
One Arm and Other Stories (New York, 1954), p. 100.
The Glass Menagerie (New York, 1949), p. 19.
One Arm, p. 97.
The Glass Menagerie, p. 123.
One Arm. p. 112.
The Glass Menagerie, p. 123.
One Arm, p. 208.
Signi Falk, Tennessee Williams (New York, 1961), p. 42.
One Arm, p. 210.
Hard Candy and Other Stories (New York, 1954), p. 26.
Ibid., p. 32.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (New York, 1955), p. 40.
Ibid., p. 152.
Tischler, Tennessee Williams: Rebellious Puritan, p. 210.
One Arm, p. 193.
Ibid., p. 194.
Ibid., p. 196.
The Milktrain Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (New York, 1964), p. 111.
Ibid., p. 114.
Ibid., p. 1.
The Knightly Quest (New York, 1966), p. 130.
The Milktrain Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, p. 48.
The Knightly Quest, p. 133.
The Milktrain Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, p. 79.
The Knightly Quest, p. 134.
The Milktrain Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, p. 88.
Ibid., p. 16.
The Seven Descents of Myrtle (New York, 1968), p. 1.
Ibid., p. 18.
Ibid., p. 99.
Ibid., p. 7.
Ibid., p. 52.
The Knightly Quest, p. 151.
The Seven Descents of Myrtle, p. 39.
Ibid., p. 40.
Ibid., p. 21.
Ibid., p. 24.
The Knightly Quest, p. 154.
The Seven Descents of Myrtle, p. 107.
The Knightly Quest, p. 157.
The Seven Descents of Myrtle, p. 106.
The Knightly Quest, p. 157.
The Seven Descents of Myrtle, p. 101.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6242
SOURCE: May, Charles E. “Brick Pollitt as Homo Ludens: ‘Three Players of a Summer Game’ and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” In Tennessee Williams: 13 Essays, edited by Jac Tharpe, pp. 49-63. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1980.
[In the following essay, May investigates the cause of Brick's malaise and alienation in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, arguing that Williams's story “Three Players of a Summer Game” offers insight.]
If Maggie the Cat is one of Tennessee Williams' most dramatically engaging characters, her husband, Brick Pollitt, is one of his most metaphysically mysterious. Brick's enigmatic detachment in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has been the subject of more problematical commentary than either Maggie's feline restlessness or the spirit of mendacity that dominates the thematic action of the play itself. With his cool ironic smile and relative immobility (suggested both by his literal crutch and by the crutchlike liquor cabinet from which he never strays very far), Brick is, by contrast, the ambiguous center for all the characters in Cat who dance about on the hot tin roof of their “common crisis.” Because Brick's detachment is thus so crucial, and also because Williams makes him so teasingly mysterious, the central question of the play that has always puzzled critics, a question still unanswered, is: What, apart from its function as catalyst for the dramatic action, does Brick's detachment mean?
In his “Note of Explanation” in the published version of Cat, Williams makes it quite explicit that for him Brick's “moral paralysis” is central to the play, a “root thing” in Brick's “tragedy.” In fact, Williams felt Brick's problem was so basic to his own conception of Cat that of the three changes Elia Kazan urged him to make in the Broadway version of the play, the alteration in Brick's character in the third act is the change to which he devotes most of his explanation. Williams complains that such a dramatic progression tends to obscure the meaning of Brick's tragedy, for no matter how revelatory the conversion, it never effects such an immediate change in the “heart or even conduct of a person in Brick's state of spiritual disrepair” (p. 168). Indeed, Nancy Tischler says that as a result of the change in Brick in the third act of the Broadway version, audiences may leave the theater suspecting that the “whole truth” about him has not been told (p. 210).
However, even those critics who consult Williams' original third act, included in the published version of the play, complain that the meaning of Brick's tragedy remains obscure. Williams' own commentary offers no clarification. He is well aware of the mystery of Brick's personality, and he wishes to leave it that way. “Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life, even in one's own character to himself” (pp. 114-15). Although everyone familiar with the play is aware that Brick's disgust with life and resultant detachment has something to do with his homosexual relationship, latent or otherwise, with his friend Skipper, most readers sense that this is not the whole truth. Again, Williams encourages rather than clarifies the ambiguity. As Brick and Big Daddy “timidly and painfully” try to discuss the “inadmissible thing that Skipper died to disavow,” Williams comments that the “fact that if it existed it had to be disavowed to ‘keep face’ in the world they lived in, may be at the heart of the ‘mendacity’ that Brick drinks to kill his disgust with. It may be the root of his collapse. Or maybe it is only a single manifestation of it, not even the most important” (p. 114).
Throughout the published version of Cat, Williams' comments suggest that Brick's problem is spiritual or metaphysical in nature, not simply psychological, and therefore not so liable to “pat” conclusions or “facile definitions which make a play just a play, not a snare for the truth of human experience” (p. 115). What Williams says he wishes to capture in the play is not the solution of one man's psychological problem, but rather the “true quality of experience,” the “interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis” (p. 114). However, since much of this “common crisis” is the result of Brick's disgust and detachment, many critics have argued that Brick himself should be more adequately explained. As Benjamin Nelson says, “A true quality of experience cannot be grasped when the situation and characters involved are left unexplained” (p. 211). Signi Lenea Falk even goes so far as to suggest that “Williams writes as if he himself did not know the physical and moral condition of his hero and the reason for his collapse” (p. 107).
Nelson, Falk, and other critics who have accused Williams of obscurantism in regard to Brick have done so precisely because they do not see that Brick's problem is not simply psychological and therefore not solvable by “facile definitions.” What is wrong with Brick is rather metaphysical in nature and thus not “knowable” or “explainable,” at least not in the way that Nelson and Falk expect when they use those terms. Brick's mysterious disgust can perhaps best be approached by comparing it to the problem of a similar disgust in Hamlet as it is analyzed by T. S. Eliot. As Eliot says, although Hamlet's disgust may be occasioned by his mother, she is not an adequate “objective correlative” for it. Similarly, Brick's disgust exceeds the so-called homosexual problem with Skipper. As a result, he, like Hamlet, is unable to understand the cause of his dilemma. In one of the stage directions in act two, when Brick tries to explain himself to a skeptical Big Daddy, Williams describes Brick as a “broken, ‘tragically elegant’ figure telling simply as much as he knows of ‘the Truth’” (p. 122).
The “true quality of experience …, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent—fiercely charged!—interplay” (p. 114) that Williams wants to catch in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, does not stem from a psychosexual problem, but rather from the metaphysical implications of some “inadmissible thing” that Williams attempts to objectify by means of Brick's “homosexuality.” If the objectification is inadequate, it is not because Williams does not know what the problem is but because it is simply not knowable or explainable in psychological or sexual terms. However, since the psychosexual answer is such an easy if not completely satisfactory one, it has been used to account for Brick's malaise just as Hamlet's disgust has been explained as a reaction to his incestuous desires for his mother. Similar explanations have been given for Claggart's mysterious hatred for Billy Budd in Melville's novella and Gustave Aschenbach's degeneration in Mann's Death in Venice. In fact, much of the metaphysical mystery of the so-called southern Gothic school of literature, a group in which Williams is often placed, has similarly been attributed to suppressed homosexuality, incest, pederasty, and other sexual “perversions.”
That such explanations miss the point quite a bit more than they hit it is suggested by Williams in his introduction to the New Directions edition of Carson McCullers' Reflections in a Golden Eye. In this mock dialogue with a puzzled representative of the “everyday humdrum world” in which Williams compares the southern Gothic writers to the French existentialists, he also gives us a clue to the metaphysical mystery of Brick Pollitt. The true sense of dread in life, says Williams, is “not reaction to anything sensible or visible or even, strictly, materially, knowable. But rather it's a kind of spiritual intuition of something almost too incredible and shocking to talk about, which underlies the whole so-called thing. It is the incommunicable something that we shall have to call mystery.” Brick's detachment is an existential leveling of values that makes no one thing more important than another. It is the result of an awareness of absurdity that, as Albert Camus says, can come at any time with no discernible cause and that resists any attempts at psychological explanation. Like Hamlet who senses that the rottenness in Denmark reflects a rottenness at the heart of existence, Brick is existentially aware of the universality of the mendacity on Big Daddy's plantation kingdom, and in face of it he too would wish that his too solid flesh would melt.
However, whereas Hamlet cannot find anything to do that is adequate to resolve the disgust he feels, Brick no longer tries to do anything. This withdrawn impassivity, Brick's refusal to act, even to think, makes his basic situation difficult for the reader to understand. When a fictional character faces a problem that he cannot articulate, a problem that evades attempts to conceptualize it, perhaps the only way the artist can communicate the nature of the problem is to show how the character attempts to deal with it. Thus, the “inadmissible thing” that lies at the heart of Oedipus cannot be presented directly. Rather, the play unfolds as a series of attempts by Oedipus to resolve a problem which, while symbolically objectified by the plague, truly hides within metaphysical mysteries that evade all “pat conclusions” and “facile definitions.”
Ernest Hemingway, who was always concerned with the artistic problem of finding objective correlatives for the sense of metaphysical dread that Williams calls an “incommunicable something that we shall have to call mystery,” also found that he could best present it by objectifying the attempts of his characters to deal with it. For example, in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” there is no objective correlative adequate to the old waiter's sense of nada which has seized him. However, the clean, well-lighted place itself is a communicable symbol of a way to live with that sense of nada. Similarly, the mysterious fear and dread that have taken hold of Nick Adams in “Big Two-Hearted River” is not adequately objectified by the “tragic” nature of the swamp, but the way to deal with the dread is adequately communicated by the detailing of Nick's fishing activities that make up the story.
However, in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, because Brick makes no effort to deal with his problem, we are given no clues as to the nature of Brick's problem via an objectification of a possible solution or even, as in Hemingway's stories, a possible palliative. The click in his head that Brick drinks to achieve seems merely an intensification of his already withdrawn state. It gives no hint of why he wishes to withdraw. And, as noted, Brick's disgust seems to exceed its ostensible cause as objectified by the relationship with Skipper. The result is that while a great deal of action goes on around Brick in the play, action which reveals the motives of the other characters, Brick remains inactive and thus unrevealed.
I suggest that Williams does not have Brick make any effort to resolve his problem in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof because in an earlier fictional account of the dilemma Brick does make such an effort, the only kind of effort that can be made, and it is inevitably doomed to fail. Tom S. Reck, in an essay on the relationship between Williams' stories and plays, suggests that “Three Players of a Summer Game,” published in The New Yorker only two years before Williams wrote Cat, may come closer to the “whole truth” (p. 147) about Brick than the play does. However, Reck makes no more effort than any of the other critics to determine what that whole truth is.
The truth is certainly not to be found in the ostensible cause for Brick's disgust given in the story, for that is left even more mysterious than in the play. Williams' story-telling narrator says only that his “self-disgust came upon him with the abruptness and violence of a crash on a highway. But what had Brick crashed into? Nothing that anybody was able to surmise, for he seemed to have everything that young men like Brick might hope or desire to have” (Hard Candy, pp. 13-14). The only strictly “knowable” thing suggested in the story that might be the cause of Brick's “dropping his life and taking hold of a glass which he never let go of for more than one waking hour” (p. 14) is, as it is in Cat, a sexual problem—in this case, his emasculation by his wife Margaret and a consequent sexual impotence. This is hinted at in Brick's drunken monologue to the house painters in which, “explaining things to the world,” he is, as he also is in Cat, “like an old-time actor in a tragic role,” telling as much as he knows of the Truth: “the meanest thing one human being can do to another human being is to take his respect for himself away from him. … I had it took away from me! I won't tell you how, but maybe, being men about my age, you're able to guess it. That was how. Some of them don't want it. They cut it off. They cut it right off a man, and half the time he don't even know when they cut it off him. Well, I knew it all right. I could feel it being cut off me.” A bit later Brick continues the castration allusion by explaining how he is going to solve his drinking problem. “I'm not going to take no cure and I'm not going to take no pledge, I'm just going to prove I'm a man with his balls back on him!” (pp. 21-6 passim).
The irony and seeming contradiction of trying to prove one's masculinity by learning to play what Brick himself calls the “sissy” game of croquet should be hint enough that Brick's problem is not emasculation and impotence in the psychosexual sense in which we usually understand such terms. Rather as in Cat, Brick's problem is a more basic and pervasive one for which his sexual dilemma is merely a symbolic objectification. The complexity of the problem can best be seen by examining the way Brick seeks to deal with it, that is, by examining the summer game itself—both the purely aesthetic game of croquet and the psychological game Brick plays with the other two players, the young widow Isabel and her daughter Mary Louise. Brick's impotence is not a reaction against the emasculating Margaret, but rather a revolt against the flesh itself. His flight into the chaste, because death-purified, arms of Isabel is the search for Truth in its Keatsean equation with Beauty. It is an attempt to escape from flesh into art, to escape from the intolerable, because contingent, real into the bearable, because detached and fleshless, ideal of artistic form.
However, this attempt to escape the contingency of existence by means of aesthetic patterning and idealizing is doomed from the start, for Brick's hoped-for ideal relationship with Isabel as well as his effort to play the superior game of art and form with human beings as counters comes crashing against the “real” fleshly and psychological needs of the other two players. The problem is similar to the one facing Aschenbach in Death in Venice. He, too, wishing for the form and detachment of Beauty, finds that unless it is embodied in the flesh it is inhuman; but if it is human, it must therefore be fleshly and consequently be that very thing from which he wishes to escape. It is this intolerable aesthetic and metaphysical dilemma that destroys him.
Tennessee Williams offers several suggestions throughout “Three Players of a Summer Game” that this indeed is the inadmissible, because unnamable, thing that so plagues Brick. At the end of the major events of the story, after Brick has realized the impossibility of his summer game and no longer comes to the widow's house, the narrator says, “The summer had spelled out a word that had no meaning, and the word was now spelled out and, with or without any meaning, there it was, inscribed with as heavy a touch as the signature of a miser on a check or a boy with chalk on a fence” (p. 41). Any attempt to “spell out” the problem, even the attempt the story itself makes, is inadequate to get at the Truth. However, even as the attempt to escape from life through art is the subject of the story, art is the only means to present such a subject; for it is a subject that must be presented obliquely and metaphorically through symbolic objectifications.
At the very beginning of the story the narrator establishes the metaphor that identifies the summer game with the nature of the art work, and he does so in language that Williams later uses in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to refer to that “fiercely charged!—interplay of live human beings” that he wishes to capture in the play—“flickering, evanescent” (III, 114). The game of croquet itself, says the narrator, “seems, in a curious way, to be composed of images the way that a painter's abstraction of summer or one of its games would be built of them. The delicate wire wickets set in a lawn of smooth emerald that flickers fierily at some points and rests under violet shadows in others, the wooden poles gaudily painted as moments that stand out in a season that was a struggle for something of unspeakable importance to someone passing through it, the clean and hard wooden spheres of different colors and the strong rigid shape of the mallets that drive the balls through the wickets, the formal design of those wickets and poles upon the croquet lawn—all of these are like a painter's abstraction of a summer and a game played in it” (p. 9).
Likewise the characters in the story become images and abstractions, not so much real people as stylized gestures which are pictorially woven within the lyrical narrative that make up the “legend” of Brick Pollitt. The narrator is well aware that he is playing the game of detachment of form, the rule-bound ritualized game of arranging images in a formal design that both reveals and conceals, the game of art. “These bits and pieces, these assorted images, they are like the paraphernalia for a game of croquet, gathered up from the lawn when the game is over and packed carefully into an oblong wooden box which they just exactly fit and fill. There they all are, the bits and pieces, the images, the apparently incongruous paraphernalia of a summer that was the last one of my childhood, and now I take them out of the oblong box and arrange them once more in the formal design on the lawn. It would be absurd to pretend that this is altogether the way it was, and yet it may be closer than a literal history could be to the hidden truth of it” (pp. 11-12).
This engagement in the formally-controlled, ritualized patterning of the art work that one plays to deal with the incongruity and contingency of life is of course the same game Brick wishes to play. The croquet game means the same kind of control to Brick that the fishing trip does to Nick Adams in “Big Two-Hearted River.” As Brick explains to the painters and thus to the world, croquet is a wonderful game for a drinker. “You hit the ball through one wicket and then you drive it through the next one. … You go from wicket to wicket, and it's a game of precision—it's a game that takes concentration and precision, and that's what makes it a wonderful game for a drinker” (p. 26). The game for both Brick and the narrator of “Three Players of a Summer Game” is thus an Apollonian means to deal with the Dionysian drunkenness and incongruity of raw existential reality.
Although the relationship between the process of art and the process of game has often been noted, it has perhaps been given its most profound treatment in Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Huizinga says that engagement in both play and art involves the assertion of freedom, the abolition of the ordinary world, and the participation in an action that is limited in time and space. In both the game and the art work, something invisible and inchoate takes form and transcends the bounds of logical and deliberative judgment. As Huizinga says, “All poetry is born of play. … What poetic language does with images is to play with them. It disposes them in style, it instills mystery into them so that every image contains the answer to an enigma” (pp. 129, 134). However, as Huizinga suggests, it is not the psychological meaning of the action that reveals the answer to the enigma, but rather the ritualized pattern that is formed from the bits and pieces, the actions and images, that make up the art work. It is this spatializing of the temporal, the transforming of the historical into myth, that the narrator of Williams' story says may come closer to the hidden truth of Brick Pollitt's summer game than a literal history.
That the summer game Brick plays with Isabel and her daughter is bound up with his own aesthetic search for detachment and form, his search for an escape from the temporal into the spatial, can be seen in what he desires of the relationship with Isabel. Williams must have had Keats stirring about in his mind when he wrote “Three Players of a Summer Game,” for Keatsean aesthetic motifs echo throughout. Even the name Isabel and the fact that Isabel's husband's illness begins in a shocking way in which “An awful flower grew in his brain like a fierce geranium that shattered its pot” (p. 16) suggests Keats's Isabella and her beloved but gruesome pot of basil. Just as in Keats's poem, in Williams' story, hoped-for love and beauty germinate in death itself and remain inextricably tied to the horrors of the flesh.
Brick is initially drawn to Isabel because her actual encounter with the contingency and horror of flesh reflects his own metaphysical encounter. As together they watch the young doctor die, “God was the only word she was able to say; but Brick Pollitt somehow understood what she meant by that word, as if it were in a language that she and he, alone of all people, could speak and understand” (p. 16). After Brick pumps the death-delivering contents of the hypodermic needle into the doctor's arm, he and Isabel consummate their communion of metaphysical despair by lying together chastely in bed, “and the only movement between them was the intermittent, spasmodic digging of their fingernails into each other's clenched palm while their bodies lay stiffly separate, deliberately not touching at any other points as if they abhorred any other contact with each other, while this intolerable thing was ringing like an iron bell through them” (p. 17). The summer game thus becomes, says the narrator, a “running together out of something unbearably hot and bright into something obscure and cool” (p. 17); it is the running out of the hot, unbearable world of existential reality into the cool, obscure world of the art work.
However, when Brick realizes, as does Gustave Aschenbach, that form must inevitably become involved and entangled with the reality of flesh, he finds himself caught on the horns of an unresolvable metaphysical dilemma. Thus, in “Three Players of a Summer Game,” the ideal game of art as Huizinga describes it becomes enmeshed with the real game of existential reality as it has recently been analyzed by Eric Berne in Games People Play. Because two other players are involved in Brick's game, players who have real fleshly, emotional, and psychological needs, the game is contaminated when it must be played at the expense of Isabel and Mary Louise. Brick's motive for his game, concealed by its metaphysical and inchoate nature, results in the “real world” of the story in what Berne calls an “ulterior transaction” in which others are exploited by the player. Thus, the artistic game, at the same time that it is the most noble and ideal of all games, becomes a “substitute for the real living of real intimacy” as Berne says most of our social games are (p. 18).
The exploitation is made quite clear in its effect on Mary Louise, lonely already because of the “cushions of flesh” which her mother promises will “dissolve in two or three more years” (p. 31), who is made even more lonely during the summer by being shut out of the house when Brick is there. However, as the summer passes, it also becomes apparent that Brick's need to play the artistic game of inhuman form is not satisfying to Isabel either. Although the conflict between Brick's ideal and Isabel's flesh is suggested in various ways in the story, the scene that makes it most obvious occurs one evening when, after setting up the croquet set, Mary Louise stands beneath her mother's bedroom window and wails for her and Brick to come out and play: “Almost immediately after the wailing voice was lifted, begging for the commencement of the game, Mary Louise's thin pretty mother showed herself at the window. She came to the window like a white bird flying into some unnoticed obstruction. That was the time when I saw, between the dividing gauze of the bedroom curtains, her naked breasts, small and beautiful, shaken like two angry fists by her violent motion. She leaned between the curtains to answer Mary Louise not in her usual tone of gentle remonstrance but in a shocking cry of rage: ‘Oh, be still, for God's sake, you fat little monster!’” (p. 30). The imagery of flight into an unexpected obstruction and the breasts like fists suggest the frustratingly unyielding obstruction her own flesh has met in Brick's gauze-like ideal.
The contrast between that ideal of the frozen art work that Brick desires and the real physical life that he must live with is perhaps indirectly suggested by an incident the narrator relates about a visit he and Mary Louise pay to an art museum. The scene may have more than accidental significance since it did not appear in the original version of the story in The New Yorker, but rather in the revised version that was published the following year in Hard Candy. When the two children enter a room with a reclining male nude entitled the “Dying Gaul,” Mary Louise lifts the metal fig leaf from the bronze figure and turns to the narrator to ask, “Is yours like that?” (p. 19). Since the added incident has nothing directly to do with the problem of Brick, it may be another of the bits and pieces that reflect Brick's basic dilemma—being caught between the ideal Greek beauty of idealized body and the real and therefore ugly flesh of physical body.
Williams adds another passage to the Hard Candy version of the story. In the concluding description of Brick's being driven through the streets of town by Margaret, much the way a captured prince might be led through the streets of a capital city by his conqueror, Williams has the narrator describe him as the handsomest man you were likely to remember, adding significantly, “physical beauty being of all human attributes the most incontinently used and wasted, as if whoever made it despised it, since it is made so often only to be disgraced by painful degrees and drawn through the streets in chains” (p. 44). Thus, what Brick and the narrator learn in the story, although they learn it only in an inchoate and oblique way, is that when one uses human beings in an effort to play the game of art and reach the beauty and detachment of form, the result is the inevitable disgrace of the flesh. The beauty of the art work alone can remain pure, but only because of its inhumanness, its noninvolvement. Ike McCaslin's attempts to realize the Keatsean equation of Beauty and Truth in Faulkner's Bear by relinquishing all claims to the world and the flesh meet with the same ambiguous and inescapable paradox.
When Brick realizes the hopelessness of his aspiration, he is transformed from tragic actor to clown. The croquet lawn becomes a circus ring. Brick's tragicomic efforts come to a climax one night when he turns on the water sprinkler, takes off his clothes, and rolls about under the cascading arches. No longer the Greek statue, Brick is now “like some grotesque fountain figure, in underwear and necktie and the one remaining pale-green sock, while the revolving arch of water moved with cool whispers about him” (p. 33). The degeneration of the tragedy can also be seen in what the narrator calls a conclusion “declining into unintentional farce” as Isabel and Mary Louise carry on trivial conversations in the face of Brick's absence from the house. The conversation about the ice that Mary Louise uses to ease her mosquito bites is the culmination of a pervasive motif of frozen coolness interwoven throughout the story. A game that began with a running out of something hot into something obscure and cool, a game that took place among frozen stylized figures on the cool, dark lawn of a house that has the appearance of a block of ice, has now become a banal banter between “two ladies in white dresses waiting on a white gallery” (p. 35) in which the ice is reduced from its symbolic significance to the practical utility of cooling Brick's drinks, easing Mary Louise's mosquito bites, and putting in the ice bag for Isabel's headaches.
This analysis of how Brick attempts to deal with his problem in “Three Players of a Summer Game” should make clearer the metaphysical mystery of Brick's detachment in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The basic tension between the ideal and frozen art work and the unbearable hot tin roof of reality is the tension of both the story and the play. Even the “Person-to-Person” preface which Williams writes for Cat contains a clear reference to the problem of the Keatsean equation of Truth and Beauty that he is concerned with in the play. However, because Williams sees that such an equation is possible only in death or in the deathlike art work, the poem he chooses to reflect the dilemma is not from Keats, but from Emily Dickinson. In “I Died for Beauty,” it is only in the grave that Beauty and Truth recognize that they are “brethren.”
Perhaps one of the reasons for Williams' often expressed admiration for Maggie the Cat is that she alone in the play seems to realize what Brick's desire is. However, she also realizes that it means death and rejects it in her famous cry, “Maggie the cat is—alive! I am alive, alive! I'm …—alive!” (p. 60). Against Brick's protestations she tries to explain that she made love to Skipper only because of Brick's detachment, only because he refused to return the love of those who cared for him. “Skipper and I made love, if love you could call it, because it made both of us feel a little bit closer to you. You see, you son of a bitch, you asked too much of people, of me, of him, of all the unlucky poor damned sons of bitches that happen to love you … you—superior creature!—you godlike being!—And so we made love to each other to dream it was you, both of us! Yes, yes, yes! Truth, truth!” (pp. 55-6). Maggie insists she does understand about Brick and Skipper, knows “It was one of those beautiful, ideal things they tell about in the Greek legends. … Brick, I tell you, you got to believe me, Brick, I do understand all about it! I—I think it was—noble! Can't you tell I'm sincere when I say I respect it? My only point, the only point that I'm making, is life has got to be allowed to continue even after the dream of life is—all—over …” (p. 57).
It seems obvious that what Brick hoped to achieve in his games with Skipper is the same thing he aspired to in his croquet game with Isabel and Mary Louise, and it is also obvious that his effort fails for the same metaphysical reasons in both the story and the play: human needs always interfere with purely ideal aspirations. As a result, in Cat Brick stops playing altogether, or at least thinks he does; however, the click he waits to hear in his head is a metaphoric echo of the click of the croquet mallets that can be faintly heard offstage in act one. Maggie understands Brick's game-playing posture when she tells him he has always had a detached quality as though he were playing a game without much concern over whether he won or lost. Now that he has quit playing, she says he has the “charm of the defeated.—You look so cool, so cool, so enviably cool” (p. 30).
However, everything is not so cool for Brick, or else he would not continue to drink and wait for the click in his head; he would not stare out the window at the moon in act three and envy it for being a cool son of a bitch. Brick continues to try to play the ideal game in which the goal is not to win or lose, but rather to carry the game through. This time, though, he tries to play it alone. As Huizinga says, the essence of play can be summed up in the phrase, “There is something at stake”; yet this something is not the material result of the play, but rather the “ideal fact that the game is a success or has been successfully concluded” (p. 49). Now, however, Brick's problem is that the human games of others are always breaking in on the ideal game of cool withdrawal he wishes to play. If it is not what Maggie calls the “cardsharp” games of Gooper and Mae as they use their children as counters to win the legacy of Big Daddy, it is Maggie's own game of attempted seduction of Brick. The most pervasive game, however, that surrounds the action of the play and threatens to shatter Brick's detachment, is summarized in an offhand phrase by the insensitive Reverend Tooker as a game of life and death in which “the Stork and the Reaper are running neck and neck!” (p. 72).
In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Brick's game of detachment is as destructive and exploitative as his more directly involved game in “Three Players.” This time Brick preserves his “charming detachment” by that “simple expedient” of not loving anyone enough to disturb it. Consequently, he damages Skipper, Maggie, and Big Daddy, all who need his love and involvement. However, as much as Brick realizes these needs, he can do nothing to satisfy them without entangling himself in the chaos of that real life that so disgusts him. He intuits that love of another human being not only is insufficient to fulfill the ideal demands of the human spirit; by its very nature such a love negates the possibility of such fulfilment. Perhaps it is this realization that made Williams object to the change Kazan wanted effected in Brick in the third act. In the original version of the play, when Maggie makes her announcement that she is pregnant, Brick simply keeps quiet, not as an attempt to save Maggie's face, but rather as a result of his own continued indifference. In the stage version, Brick actively supports Maggie's false claim, as if it truly makes a difference to him. His last words in the Broadway version are: “I admire you, Maggie” (p. 214). The implication is that he has found a solution to his problem and will henceforth be “alive” as Maggie says she is. The conclusion to the original version of the play is more ambiguous. As Maggie turns out the lights in the bedroom and the curtain begins to fall slowly, she says to Brick, “Oh, you weak people, you weak, beautiful people!—who give up.—What you want is someone to—… take hold of you.—Gently, gently, with love! And—… I do love you, Brick, I do!” Brick's final words before the curtain falls are uttered with that charming sad smile still on his face: “Wouldn't it be funny if that was true?” (pp. 165-6). This final question of the play is not just in response to Maggie's declaration of love, but rather it is a fittingly enigmatic and ironic response to Maggie's claim that all such people as Brick need to resolve their metaphysical dilemma is for someone to take hold of them with love. Brick's final skeptical query then bears a striking resemblance in its hopeless ambiguity to Jake Barnes' reply to Lady Britt at the conclusion of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises: “Isn't it pretty to think so?”
It is thus with Brick's mysterious metaphysical problem still unresolved that Tennessee Williams wished to end his play, for it is a problem that is not knowable by any ordinary epistemology nor solvable by any ordinary psychology. In “Three Players of a Summer Game,” Isabel is obliquely referring to Brick when she responds to Mary Louise's question about why the sun goes south: “Precious, Mother cannot explain the movements of the heavenly bodies, you know that as well as Mother knows it. Those things are controlled by certain mysterious laws that people on earth don't know or understand” (p. 36).
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3522
SOURCE: Derounian, Kathryn Zabelle. “‘The Kingdom of Earth’ and Kingdom of Earth: (The Seven Descents of Myrtle): Tennessee Williams' Parody.” University of Mississippi Studies in English 4 (1983): 150-58.
[In the following essay, Derounian examines the connection between the story “The Kingdom of Earth” and Williams's later play Kingdom of Earth, focusing on his use of parody in both works.]
Tennessee Williams critics know that this playwright's composition process is more complex than most. The writer himself long ago revealed his usual procedure in producing full-length drama: “My longer plays emerge out of earlier one-acters or short stories I may have written years before. I work over them again and again.”1 The relationship between a completed short story and a final play is especially significant, for although many playwrights sketch out prose notes before composition, Williams seems to require a gradual expansion of material from one genre to another. His process of writing, as he shifts content or theme from one genre to a different one, therefore appears unique.
In “The Short Stories of Tennessee Williams: Nucleus for His Drama,” Tom Reck identifies three ways Williams uses his short fiction in his plays: to transfer an otherwise unrelated element; to maintain a certain theme but with different characters and situations; or to make a more direct transposition.2 In the third category, as Reck points out, six Williams plays evolve from single short stories: The Glass Menagerie (1945) from “Portrait of a Girl in Glass”; Summer and Smoke (1948) from “The Yellow Bird”; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) from “Three Players of a Summer Game”; The Night of the Iguana (1961) from a short story of the same title; The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (1963) from “Man Bring This Up Road”; and Kingdom of Earth: (The Seven Descents of Myrtle) (1968) from “The Kingdom of Earth.” The range of changes as these short stories metamorphose into plays encompasses character, incident, tone, theme, structure, and style; and the types of shifts are multiple and unpredictable.
Despite this organic development, at their best the short fiction and drama are autonomous and valuable within their respective genres. In fact, the more carefully Williams crafts a tale (“Portrait of a Girl in Glass” and “Three Players of a Summer Game” for instance), the more likely the resulting play (The Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) will also succeed. Conversely, a badly written story will lead to an unsatisfactory play. If these correspondences are indeed valid, an examination of the last short story-play pair may help explain the writer's lack of literary direction in his later years.
“The Kingdom of Earth” was first published in a limited edition of Williams' second short story anthology, Hard Candy (1954), omitted from the trade edition (also 1954), and later included in his third collection of stories, The Knightly Quest (1966). Kingdom of Earth: (The Seven Descents of Myrtle), however, was not printed until 1968, fourteen years after the tale's first appearance. As the playwright aptly says of an incident which suggested the play: “the germ for Kingdom of Earth … fecundated in my dramatic storehouse.”3 The time-lag between short story and play (the longest among the story-play pairs) and Williams' shifting thematic concerns probably account for his very different treatment of the same basic plot. Apart from plot, the short story and play are linked by their common use of parody. Williams uses two levels of parody here—one to mock established genres (the fabliau, for example) or other literary works, the other to mock his own previous work. In the tale, Williams' parodic touch is light and relatively subdued, but in the play, it becomes heavy and less controlled.
The most immediate evidence of parody in the story lies in the figure of the anti-heroic, anti-poetic Chicken, who tells his earthy story in the first person. He clearly contrasts with the narrator of two earlier tales—Tom Wingfield in “Portrait of a Girl in Glass” and the unnamed narrator of “Three Players of a Summer Game.” In these stories, both tellers are restless, nostalgic, sensitive artists who deliberately distance themselves from their stories and narrate in fluent, literary prose. But Chicken is legally and emotionally tied to his farm, is very much a creature of the present, and narrates in gusty, colloquial, obscene language. Furthermore, he forms the central figure, whereas the other two narrators involve themselves in the plot only incidentally. Chicken's egocentricity and activity determine his lively narration. He confides fully in the reader (for example about his part-Cherokee mother) and his confession has an air of spontaneity quite opposite to the restrained lyricism and structural frame of “Portrait of a Girl in Glass” and “Three Players of a Summer Game.” Because Chicken writes therapeutically, however, his story parodies the craft of other Williams tales. In other words, “The Kingdom of Earth” is not an especially successful short story.
If “Portrait of a Girl in Glass” and “Three Players of a Summer Game” might be called amoral romances, “The Kingdom of Earth” is a moral fabliau. I do not use the word “fabliau” lightly, for although the fabliau was originally a medieval literary genre which survived latterly as a general influence rather than as a pure form, its original pattern is very evident in “The Kingdom of Earth.” Charles Muscatine, the medievalist, comments, “particularly in contrast to the courtly tradition, this literature has a remarkable preoccupation with the animal facts of life.”4 The fabliau contains caricatures that inevitably act within a well-defined plot convention. The plot often treats a triangle situation (as it does in Williams' story) which involves a young, unchaste woman (Myrtle); an old, sick, or impotent husband (Lot); and a sensual young man (Chicken), who cleverly tricks the woman's husband and wins her from him. This is precisely the plot skeleton of “The Kingdom of Earth.”
Williams, however, elaborates on the fabliau by incorporating the symbolic Lawrentian triangle into it.5 The woman is not merely feminine and promiscuous, she is the woman as Womb; the husband is so grotesque in his physical and moral weakness that he personifies the emasculated male; the young man is not only cunning and clever, but is primarily the carnal male. Of course, Chicken as narrator conveys the characters of himself, his sister-in-law, and his brother in this way. He says of Myrtle, “But then she wasn't a woman. A woman's a woman but a cunt is just a cunt, and that's what this Myrtle was, she was just a cheap piece of tail” (p. 155).6 And he describes Lot as a jealous, ineffectual, weak man whose only claim to the land and Myrtle is a legal one.7 His emotional feebleness parallels the physical disease—a favorite Williams device—of tuberculosis, from which he dies. Chicken aptly summarizes himself at the end when he calls himself “a lustful creature determined on satisfaction …” (p. 165).
In “The Kingdom of Earth,” we find yet another level of parody as Chicken tells of his struggle between the kingdoms of heaven and earth. He takes a deterministic view: “Talking about Salvation I think there's a great deal of truth in the statement that either you're saved or you ain't and the best thing to do is find out which and stick to it” (p. 147). Eventually, he simply refuses to take the heroic role and allow free will to torture him. Indeed, his account of the dichotomy between the flesh and the spirit is inherently biased, and his simplistic solution defuses and ridicules the complex question: “I don't ever worry about them spiritual gates the preacher said to keep shut. Not having no gates can save you a lot of trouble” (p. 164).
The story goes one spiritual stage further and parodies the idea of prayer. Chicken's “prayer” that Myrtle come up and make love to him does come true, but it occurs because they both want it to, not because God intercedes. When they actually make love, Myrtle experiences it as spiritual ecstasy, thus sacrilegiously parodying mystical ecstasy described in sexual terms (as in the poems of St. John of the Cross, for example): “I give a push and she yelled out, God Almighty. I drew it back and gave it another shove and she said, Oh, Blessed Mary. She said her prayers, at least that's how it sounded, all of the time that I was giving it to her. And when I come, and she did at the same time, I swear that her yelling nearly took the roof off. Oh, Blessed Mary, Mother of God, she shouted” (p. 163).
From Chicken's perception of the flesh as his controlling life-force arises his recognition only of earthly law. He allows Lot to die without trying to help him because he knows it is pointless, and he makes love to Myrtle without any qualms because he realizes it is the natural thing for them both to do. For Chicken, procreation forms the most fundamental natural law; that is why he is dissatisfied with the partial and sterile pleasure obtained from masturbation and fellatio, and why, at the end, he mentions that he and Myrtle are going to have a child. Chicken himself is a “natural” (illegitimate) child who likes to flout conventional law. Thus, his satisfaction in making love to Myrtle includes elements of incest and swindle: “Of course, I was horny and crazy to get my gun off, but it wasn't just that. It was partly the fact that she was Lot's wife and the place had gone to Lot and he was the son by marriage and I was just a wood's colt that people accused of having some nigger blood” (pp. 161-162).
For all its overtones of perversion and crime, however, the story is essentially healthy and vital. These effects arise mainly from first-person narration. Chicken portrays himself and his lusts as basically healthy and therefore convinces the reader. In addition, the reader sees that Chicken possesses the conventionally acceptable traits of conscientiousness, frankness, and self-criticism, which he willingly conveys to the reader's confidence. A monologue, or spoken diary, the story familiarizes the reader with the main character and, because the reader becomes a confidant, intensifies the sympathy he already feels for the narrator. This sympathy remains despite the story's generic shortcomings. But our approval of Chicken in the short story is very different from our view of him in the play.
In his Memoirs, Williams calls Kingdom of Earth “a funny melodrama.”8 Melodrama parodies tragedy, and Williams' apt term suggests the element of parody inherent in the play. Most obviously, Kingdom of Earth is an Absurd parody of three favorite Williams types: the determined, desperate Southern woman; the poetic artist; and the carnal man-as-beast. Myrtle's counterparts from earlier plays are such characters as Amanda Wingfield, Alma Winemiller, and Maggie the Cat. These three women all possess weaknesses coupled with an unshakable positive strength. Desperate but determined, defeated yet undaunted, they maintain a certain dignity and stature. Myrtle, however, is a product of the modern South—good-natured but vapid, deluded by the media, and morally weak. Her suffocating maternalism really forms a guise for her own insecurity, which Chicken fully arouses. In her passivity Myrtle allows Chicken to engulf her, as she fears the flood will also. Her show-business background and her seduction by television emphasize her pliability. Incapable of defending herself, Myrtle “descends” (note the play's subtitle) further and further into Chicken's power as she depends on him to save her from the flood.9
In contrast to the story, we have no sense in the play of the positive aspects of Myrtle's role as procreative female. She cannot satisfy Lot, whose needs are the perverted ones of the transvestite, and although she does satisfy Chicken, she does so only by the sterile act of fellatio. Furthermore, at the end of the play, when Chicken asks Myrtle to produce a son for him, it is not as the ultimate expression of love (however earthy that love may be) but as revenge on the white race: “Produce me a son. Produce a child for me, could you? Always wanted a child from an all-white woman” (p. 214).10
In the play, Lot and Chicken are no longer the Lawrentian symbols for the emasculated aesthete and the virile male; Williams has debased and parodied their original roles. Although tied to the past by memory, Williams' other artists (Tom Wingfield and Christopher Flanders, for example) transcend their past links and live in the present, for that is the only way to survive. Like Blanche DuBois, however, Lot cannot exist in the present, so his memory distorts his past into a golden age. In Lot, Williams caricatures the impotent aesthete by exaggerating his physical characteristics (dyed blond hair and frail, exotic prettiness) and completely ignoring the aesthete's intellectual side. Lot's cleverness arises only from his overriding jealousy of his masculine half-brother which enables him to marry Myrtle to deprive Chicken of the farm. Not content to remember the past, Lot dies in ecstasy as he “recreates” his mother by dressing in her clothes. In death, Lot suggests a final parody of the artist, who also dedicates his life to recreation, often of the past.
Chicken parodies the virile male whose sexuality is a fulfilling and liberating life-force. He appears to gain only an animal satisfaction, not genuine fulfillment, and his sexual development is retarded. For example, twice he is about to masturbate, and he carves an obscene picture on the kitchen table for Myrtle to see (when she notices the freshly carved picture, Myrtle says, shocked, “A thing like this's understandable in a, uh, growin' boy in the country but you're past that” (p. 164). Myrtle is mistaken, though: Chicken is not “past that”). Throughout the play, he makes explicit sexual references and gestures, to the consternation of the audience, which can understand his function in the play without such obvious prompts. For instance, he smirks about Myrtle's show-business days: “You kick with the right leg, you kick with the left leg, and between your legs you make your living?” (p. 147). Later, he hands Myrtle a guitar, asking, “Don't you like a man-size instrument?” (p. 174) and, during the same scene, he symbolically throws a cat into the flooded cellar, then later descends to retrieve it, calling, “‘Pussy, pussy, pussy?’” (p. 176).
The climax of the play prior to Lot's death, however, occurs when Chicken and Myrtle perform fellatio. Williams drops as many hints as he can, culminating in Myrtle sitting directly in front of Chicken, who hoists himself onto the kitchen table, spreads his legs wide, and says savagely “You don't have to look in my face, my face ain't all they is to me, not by a long shot, honey …”(p. 202). The lights fade out and thunder (!) sounds. When the lights come up again, Myrtle is described in a stage direction as sitting on a chair “so close to the table that she's between his boots, and [looking] as if she had undergone an experience of exceptional nature and magnitude” (p. 203). As representative of the white race, Myrtle has been enslaved and humbled by the representative of the black race, Chicken. By performing fellatio, they parody the regenerative aspect of sexual intercourse.
In his article on Kingdom of Earth, Albert E. Kalson observes:
While fellatio as sterility may be a valid equation, the shockingly explicit act and its necessary foreshadowing dictate the language and incident of the entire play and lower it disastrously to the mental level of the sub-human characters who are involved in the act. Numbed by the characters' empty minds and emptier souls, the Williams audience once again must be forgiven its failure to see past perversion to theme, even one as valid and vital as Kingdom of Earth's—that those who survive are so dead of spirit that they have nothing to offer a new world but their own sterility.11
In Kingdom of Earth, Williams' primary interest is theme, and he therefore sublimates plot and characters to this end.12 To a large extent, Williams parodies—consciously or unconsciously—the themes of his earlier drama, particularly procreation and vitality as positive forces, which Summer and Smoke, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and especially A Streetcar Named Desire advocate. Williams' continuing pessimism extends to the bleak theme of a “despairing vision of existence without hope,” a theme well suited to Absurdist treatment.13
In the short story, the flesh-versus-spirit battle is aptly contained within the narrator, who accounts for the shifts in his own character and conveys his own decision to renounce the struggle and whole-heartedly embrace the flesh. Although this decision has elements of parody, it genuinely arises from Chicken as narrator. In the play, though, the author superimposes the struggle between heaven and earth on the grotesque and mindless character of Chicken in a series of mini-monologues at the end of the play (pp. 210-211). Williams literally transposes almost word-for-word Chicken's references to flesh and spirit in the story. There, Chicken punctuates his whole tale with comments on the flesh and spirit so that his story and philosophy are unified. The play, however, does not adequately prepare us for Chicken's monologue series, grandly described in a stage direction as “the expression of his credo” (p. 210). Williams subjugates his characters to theme so entirely that they are incapable of spontaneous and convincing philosophy, analysis, or action.
Finally, Kingdom of Earth can be seen as a supreme parody of drama itself, whether or not the playwright intended this theme. The plot actually progresses little, and the cast endlessly refers to and waits for the impending flood, reminiscent of Beckett's tramps in Waiting for Godot. Presumably, Williams hoped that the threat of flood was sufficient cause for his characters' actions, but the audience realizes that no causal link exists between the flood and the sequence of events. Contrary to dramatic convention, genuine conflict is minimal, for both Lot and Myrtle are obviously at Chicken's mercy.14 Other nondramatic devices include Myrtle's account of her show business days (pp. 145-146) and her appearance on television (p the false prophet beast has two horns, one is dominion and the other is false at the end (pp. 210-211), and lengthy stage directions (pp. 126-127, 154, and 211-212).
Although “The Kingdom of Earth” is a fairly early story, its loose, therapeutic, first-person narration anticipated Williams' later fictional problems in works like his short story anthology Eight Mortal Ladies Possessed (1974) and his novel Moise and the World of Reason (1975). His drama too became static and formless, as the failures of Small Craft Warnings (1972) and The Two Character Play (1975) attest. The parody in “The Kingdom of Earth” and Kingdom of Earth is at least a distinct literary form with a clear function, but latterly Williams seemed confused about his writing's direction. He called a recent play, Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980), which closed after an embarrassingly short New York run, a “ghost” play. And indeed Williams' work in the last decade or so drifted from parody to a ghost of its former self.
“Talk with the Playwright,” Newsweek, 23 March 1959, p. 75.
Tom S. Reck, “The Short Stories of Tennessee Williams: Nucleus for His Drama,” TSL [Tennessee Studies in Literature] 16 (1971), 142-143.
Tennessee Williams, Memoirs (New York, 1975), p. 58.
Charles Muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition: A Study in Style and Meaning (Berkeley, 1966), p. 59.
Norman J. Fedder, The Influence of D. H. Lawrence on Tennessee Williams (The Hague, 1966) discusses Lawrence's influence on Williams.
Page references to “The Kingdom of Earth” are from Tennessee Williams, The Knightly Quest: A Novella and Four Short Stories (New York, 1966).
Although Williams may have had the biblical story of Lot in mind when he named his short story character, the connection is very tenuous. More likely he used the general connotation of Sodom and Gomorrah when he created his degenerate Lot (especially the Lot in the play).
Memoirs, p. 40.
In Lady Chatterley's Lover, Lawrence used seven stages of sexual initiation that seem to echo the opening of the seven seals in Revelation. Opening the seals in Revelation produced a series of woes, but with the seventh, God's new order, was supposed to prevail. Instead, breaking the seventh seal signaled a new age whose woes were far worse than those of preceding eras. It is difficult to see any definite links among Revelation, Lady Chatterley's Lover, and Kingdom of Earth: the playwright may be parodying Lawrence's novel rather than the biblical source; or, more likely, he may be reinforcing his theme that the play's world is a waste land.
The play's original text is in Tennessee Williams, Kingdom of Earth: (The Seven Descents of Myrtle) (New York, 1968). Typically, though, when the play was revived in 1975, Williams made some revisions. The revised text (from which I take page references) is in The Theatre of Tennessee Williams (New York, 1976), vol. 5.
Albert E. Kalson, “Tennessee Williams' Kingdom of Earth: A Sterile Promontory,” Drama and Theatre, 8 (1970), 92. This article discusses parody in Kingdom of Earth.
See Memoirs, p. 212, where Williams refers to the play's “strong thematic content.”
Kalson, p. 93.
Williams' distrust of audience stems from his early work: for instance, the slide show in the original version of The Glass Menagerie, designed to repeat and stress important lines or themes.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3004
SOURCE: Vidal, Gore. Introduction to Tennessee Williams: Collected Stories, pp. xix-xxv. New York: New Directions Books, 1985.
[In the following essay, Vidal considers Williams's stories as the “true memoir” of the author and underscores the role of physical desire in his short fiction.]
Thirty-seven years ago, to the day that I am writing this note, Tennessee Williams and I celebrated his thirty-seventh birthday in Rome, except that he said that it was his thirty-fourth birthday. Years later, when confronted with the fact that he had been born in 1911 not 1914, he said, serenely, “I do not choose to count as part of my life the three years that I spent working for a shoe company.” Actually, he spent ten months not three years in the shoe company, and the reason that he had changed his birth date was to qualify for a play contest open to those twenty-five or under. No matter. I thought him very old in 1948. But I was twenty-two that spring of the annus mirabilis when my book The City and the Pillar was a bestseller and his play A Streetcar Named Desire was taking the world by storm; as it still does.
In 1973 Tennessee wrote a book called Memoirs (published 1975). He was not, as he was quick to warn us, at his best mentally or physically when he wrote the book, and though he purported to tell the story of his life, he chose, instead, to write about sexual adventures and glancing encounters with the great, ignoring entirely the art and inner life of one Tennessee (born Thomas Lanier) Williams. Fortunately, in “The Man in the Overstuffed Chair” (which I hope you have just read), he has given as dry and precise an account of his early life as we will ever have. Here he introduces most of the characters that he will continue to write about for the rest of his life. The introverted sister, Rose, on whom a lobotomy is performed, erasing her as a person. Whose fault? He blames their mother, Edwina, who gave the order for the lobotomy—on the best medical advice, or so she says. Then there is the hard-drinking, extroverted father, Cornelius, at odds with relentlessly genteel wife, sissy son, Tom, and daughter, Rose, who may or may not have accused him of making sexual advances to her, which he may or may not have made. There is the grandfather, Reverend Dakin, who gave to strangers all the money that he had put by for reasons not made clear (though Tennessee once told me that his grandfather had been blackmailed because of an encounter with a boy); and, finally, the grandmother, yet another Rose, known as Grand, the survivor, the generous, the non-questioning. The son, Tom, is shadowy here: after all, he is creator. But, as he has just told us, over the years his sympathy shifted from mother to father while he was never to be out of love with Rose or Rose. As you are about to see, he will spend a lifetime playing with the same vivid, ambiguous cards that life dealt him.
The stories are arranged in chronological order. The first was published (in Weird Tales, no less: a sister avenges her brother) when Tom was seventeen; the last was written when Tennessee was seventy-one. These stories are the true memoir of Tennessee Williams. Whatever happened to him, real or imagined, is here. Except for an occasional excursion into fantasy, he sticks close to life as he experienced or imagined it. No, he is not a great short story writer like Chekhov but he has something rather more rare than mere genius. He has a narrative tone of voice that is totally compelling. The only other American writer to have this gift was Mark Twain, a very different sort of writer (to overdo understatement); yet Hannibal, Missouri, is not all that far from Saint Louis, Missouri; and each was a comic genius. In any case, you cannot stop listening to either of these tellers no matter how tall or wild their tales.
Over the decades I watched Tennessee at work in Rome, Paris, Key West, New Haven. … He worked every morning on whatever was at hand. If there was no play to be finished or new dialogue to be sent round to the theater, he would open a drawer and take out the draft of a story already written and begin to rewrite it. I once caught him in the act of revising a short story that had just been published. “Why,” I asked, “rewrite what's already in print?” He looked at me, vaguely; then said, “Well, obviously it's not finished.” And went back to his typing.
Many of these stories were rewritten a dozen or more times, often over as many years. The first story that he ever showed me was “Rubio y Morena.” I didn't like it (and still don't). So fix it, he said. He knew, of course, that there is no fixing someone else's story or life but he was curious to see what I would do. So I reversed backward-running sentences, removed repetitions, simplified the often ponderous images. I was rather proud of the result. He was deeply irritated. “What you have done is remove my style, which is all that I have.” He was right.
It has been suggested that many of the stories are simply preliminary sketches for plays. The truth is more complicated. Like most natural writers, Tennessee could not possess his own life until he had written about it. This is common. But what is not common was the way that he went about not only recapturing lost time but then regaining it in a way that far surpassed the original experience. In the beginning, there would be, let us say, a sexual desire for someone. Consummated or not, the desire (“Something that is made to occupy a larger space than that which is afforded by the individual being”) would produce reveries. In turn, the reveries would be written down as a story. But should the desire still remain unfulfilled, he would make a play of the story and then—and this is why he was so compulsive a working playwright—he would have the play produced so that he could, like God, rearrange his original experience into something that was no longer God's and unpossessable but his. The frantic lifelong desire for play-productions was not just ambition or a need to be busy, it was the only way that he ever had of being entirely alive. The sandy encounters with the dancer Kip on the beach at Provincetown and the dancer's later death (“an awful flower grew in his brain”) instead of being forever lost were forever his (and ours) once translated to the stage where living men and women could act out his text and with their immediate flesh close, with art, the circle of desire. “For love I make characters in plays,” he wrote; and did.
I called him the Glorious Bird. I had long since forgotten why until I reread the stories. The image of the bird is everywhere. The bird is flight, poetry, life. The bird is time, death: “‘Have you ever seen the skeleton of a bird? If you have you will know how completely they are still flying. …’”
There are some things of a biographical nature that the reader should know. Much has been made of Tennessee's homosexual adventures (not least, alas, by himself); and, certainly, a sense of other-ness is crucial to his work. Whether a woman, Blanche, or a man, Brick, the characters that most intrigue him are outsiders, part of “that swarm of the fugitive kind.” Although there is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person, there are, of course, homo- or heterosexual acts. Unhappily, it has suited the designers of the moral life of the American republic to pretend that there are indeed two teams, one evil and sick and dangerous, and one good and normal and—that word!—straight. This is further complicated by our society's enduring hatred of women, a legacy from the Old Testament, enriched, in due course, by St. Paul. As a result, it is an article of faith among simple folk that any man who performs a sexual act with another man is behaving just like a woman—the fallen Eve—and so he is doubly evil. Tennessee was of a time and place and class (lower middle class WASP, Southern airs-and-graces division) that believed implicitly in this wacky division.
Thirty years ago I tried to explain to him that the only way that a ruling class—any ruling class—can stay in power and get people to do work that they don't want to do is to invent taboos, and then punish those who break them while, best of all, creating an ongoing highly exploitable sense of guilt in just about everyone. Sexual taboo has always been a favorite with our rulers though, today, drugs look to be even more promising, as alcohol was in 1919 when old-time religionists prohibited it to all Americans. But Tennessee had been too thoroughly damaged by the society that he was brought up in to ever suspect that he had been, like almost everyone else, had. He thought he was wrong; and they were right. He punished himself with hypochondria. Happily and naturally, he went right on having sex; he also went right on hating the “squares” or, as he puts it, in “Two on a Party,” where Billy (in life the poet Oliver Evans) and Cora (Marion Black Vacarro) cruise sailors together: “It was a rare sort of moral anarchy, doubtless, that held them together, a really fearful shared hatred of everything that was restrictive and which they felt to be false in the society they lived in and against the grain of which they continually operated. They did not dislike what they called ‘squares.’ They loathed and despised them, and for the best of reasons. Their existence was a never-ending contest with the squares of the world, the squares who have such a virulent rage at everything not in their book. …”
The squares had indeed victimized the Bird but by 1965, when he came to write “The Knightly Quest,” he had begun to see that the poor squares' “virulent rage” is deliberately whipped up by the rulers in order to distract them from such real problems as, in the sixties, the Vietnam war and Watergate and Operation Armageddon then—and now—underway. In this story, Tennessee moves Lyndon Johnson's America into a near-future when it seems as if the world is about to vanish in a shining cloud. In the process, the Bird now sees the squares in a more compassionate light; he realizes that they have been equally damaged and manipulated; and he writes an elegy to the true American, Don Quixote, now an exile in his own country. “His castles are immaterial and his ways are endless and you do not have to look into many American eyes to suddenly meet somewhere the beautiful grave lunacy of his gaze. …” Also, Tennessee seems to be bringing into focus at last the craziness of the society which had so wounded him. Was it possible that he was not the evil creature portrayed by the press? Was it possible that they are wrong about everything? A lightbulb switches on: “All of which makes me suspect that back of the sun and way deep under our feet, at the earth's center, are not a couple of noble mysteries but a couple of joke books.” Right on, Bird! It was a nice coincidence that just as Tennessee was going around the bend (pills and booze and a trip to the bin in 1969), the United States was doing the same. Suddenly the Bird and Uncle Sam met face to face in “The Knightly Quest.” What a novel he might have made of this story! instead of that flawed play, The Red Devil Battery Sign. He was, finally, beginning to put the puzzle together.
Although Tennessee came to feel a degree of compassion for his persecutors, they never felt any for him. For thirty years he was regularly denounced as a sick, immoral, vicious fag. Time magazine, as usual, led the attack. From The Glass Menagerie up until The Night of the Iguana, each of his works was smeared in language that often bordered on madness. “Fetid swamp” was Time critic Louis Kronenberger's preferred phrase for Tennessee's mind and art. Then, in the fifties, the anti-fag brigade mounted a major offensive. Ironically, most of these brigadiers were Jews who used exactly the same language in denouncing the homosexual-ists that equally sick Christians use to denounce Jews. Tennessee turned to drink and pills, and then, worse, to witch doctors. One, a medical doctor, hooked him on amphetamines; another, a psychiatrist, tried to get him to give up writing and sex. Although the Bird survived witch doctors and envenomed press, they wore him out in the end.
“I cannot write any sort of story,” said Tennessee to me, “unless there is at least one character in it for whom I have physical desire.”
In story after story there are handsome young men, some uncouth like Stanley Kowalski; some couth like the violinist in “The Resemblance between a Violin Case and a Coffin.” Finally, when Tennessee wrote A Streetcar Named Desire, he inadvertently smashed one of our society's most powerful taboos. He showed the male not only as sexually attractive in the flesh but as an object for something never before entirely acknowledged, the lust of women. In the age of Calvin Klein's steaming hunks, it must be hard for those under forty to realize that there was ever a time when a man was nothing but a suit of clothes, a shirt and tie, shined leather shoes and a gray felt hat. If thought attractive, it was because he had a nice smile and a twinkle in his eye. Marlon Brando's appearance on stage, as Stanley, in a torn sweaty T-shirt, was an earthquake; and the male as sex object is still at our culture's center stage and will so remain until the likes of Boy George redress, as it were, the balance. Yet, ironically, Tennessee's auctorial sympathies were not with Stanley but with his “victim” Blanche.
Let us now clear up a misunderstanding about Tennessee and his work. Yes, he liked to have sex with men. No, he did not hate women, as the anti-fag brigade insists. Tennessee loved women, as any actress who has ever played one of his characters will testify. Certainly, he never ceased to love Rose and Rose. But that makes him even worse, the anti-fag brigade wail, as they move to their fall-back position. He thinks he is a woman. He puts himself, sick and vicious as he is, on the stage in drag; and then he travesties all good, normal, family-worshipping women and their supportive, mature men. But Tennessee never thought of himself as a woman. He was very much a man; he was also very much an artist. He could inhabit any gender; his sympathies, however, were almost always with those defeated by the squares or by time, once the sweet bird of youth is flown—or by death, “which has never been much in the way of completion.”
Three relevant biographical details. Tennessee's first love affair was with a young dancer named Kip, in 1940. Kip gave up Tennessee for marriage, died of a brain tumor in 1944. Tennessee was at the death bed. This is the stuff of high romanticism or, as Tennessee quotes Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Streetcar, “‘I shall but love thee better after death.’” He certainly carried if not a torch a showy flambeau for Kip to the end. Pancho was second; they met in New Orleans in 1946, the first year of Tennessee's success. They quarrelled; they parted in 1947. Tennessee was guilty, as he shows us in “Rubio y Morena.” But, fearful of the ever-vigilant anti-fag brigade, he changed Pancho to a woman, something that he almost never did.
The third and most lasting affair was with Frank Merlo, an Italo-American prole. They began to live together in 1948. During Tennessee's great years, Frank was his anchor. But after drink and barbiturates altered Tennessee's character, they parted. A year or two later, in 1963, Merlo died of cancer. “I shall but love thee. …”
The stories fall into four groups. First, those written up to 1941 when, at thirty, he became a professionally produced if unsuccessful playwright with Battle of Angels. The second period was from 1941 to 1945, when he became a hugely successful professional playwright with The Glass Menagerie. During this time he lived in Hollywood; worked for MGM; enjoyed “the wonderful rocking horse weather of California.” Third, the great period, 1945 to 1952, when all the ideas for the plays were either in his head as stories—or on the stage itself. Fourth, the rest of his life when he wrote few stories; and play-productions became more and more difficult. To this period belongs “The Knightly Quest,” one of his best stories. “I slept through the sixties, Gore,” he said to me, in an exchange much quoted. “You didn't miss a thing,” I am quoted as saying, which is true; but then I added, “If you slept through the sixties, God help you in the seventies.” God did, to a point. He wrote a number of good stories; but then came the eighties—and death.
Tennessee's stories need no explication. So here they are. Some are marvelous—“Two on a Party,” “Desire and the Black Masseur”; some are wonderfully crazed—“The Killer Chicken,” “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio.” So what are they about? Well, there used to be two streetcars in New Orleans. One was named Desire and the other was called Cemeteries. To get where you were going, you changed from the first to the second. In these stories and in those plays, Tennessee validated with his genius our common ticket of transfer.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8557
SOURCE: Weaver, Gordon. “Apprenticeship: The Early Years (1928-40).” In Tennessee Williams: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 3-22. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.
[In the following essay, Weaver provides an overview of Williams's early short stories.]
His name was not really Tennessee, of course; it was Thomas Lanier Williams. Nor was he from Tennessee; he neither was born nor lived there, except for two years in Nashville when he was too young to have remembered it and a few months with his grandparents in Memphis one summer. The nickname was hung on him at the University of Iowa by fellow students who could not remember just which of the Southern states this quiet young man with the broad accent was from.
The source of the nickname is not so important as the fact that Williams chose to keep it—he could have abandoned it at any point after leaving Iowa, obviously. Perhaps it represented for Williams a certain gentility, a golden age of sensibility and sociability that was lost when his family moved, in his seventh year, from small-town Mississippi to industrial, grimy, brutal St. Louis. Or perhaps in assuming the name, Williams was attempting to change an identity that was becoming increasingly disturbing to him. It probably will not do to make too much of the name, though. It was given in friendship and may have represented no more to Williams than affability fondly remembered. He depended heavily, after all—as his biographer, Donald Spoto, suggests—on the kindness of friends and strangers.
Tennessee Williams was the kindest, the most sensitive of men. He could also be cruel, insensitive, suspicious, and paranoid. He was generous and loving and elicited generosity and love from others. Many of those whom he loved the most and to whom he owed the most he hurt and rejected: his brother, Dakin, his longtime agent Audrey Wood, his lover Frank Merlo. The one person to whom he never wavered in his love and loyalty was his sister, Rose, who represented for him all the beauty and sensitivity that could blossom in the world and all the horrors that life could marshal against such vulnerability. Tennessee Williams loved life with an enormous passion and took his own. If we do not officially call it suicide, it is only because we hesitate to apply that term to a process of selfdestruction taking two decades to complete.
Williams was a man of contradictions and clashing passions, and so is his short fiction, which, claims Gore Vidal, constitutes “the true memoir of Tennessee Williams.”1 He was the most autobiographical of writers. If he thought it, felt it, or lived it, it would likely show up in his fiction either directly or indirectly. For this reason, although it is not the purpose of this study to provide extensive biographical data, a gloss on Williams's life might provide a useful introduction to his short stories.
Thomas Lanier Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, on 26 March 1911. His father was Cornelius Coffin Williams, a dashing, roguish salesman and a surprising choice for lovely young Edwina Estelle Dakin, who had her pick of eligible young men in Columbus. Edwina was the daughter of the local Episcopal minister and enjoyed the highest social, if not economic, standing in the community. The marriage was not made in heaven, and if the Williamses' domestic life was not quite hell, it was frequently unpleasant, increasingly so after the family moved to St. Louis in 1918.
Regardless of what the actual facts of the case may or may not have been, in later years Columbus came to seem a bucolic Eden to Williams, and St. Louis a cold, crowded, ugly blight where he was tormented by schoolmates because of his accent, shyness, and frailty. His beloved older sister, Rose, suffered along with him, but whereas Williams found some solace in his writing—he began writing stories and poems at least as early as junior high school—Rose's principal defense was to withdraw further and further into herself.
After graduating from high school, Williams escaped to the University of Missouri at Columbia, which he left after three years because of poor grades and inadequate funds. Back in St. Louis, Tennessee briefly attended Washington University and worked for a few months in the same shoe factory where his father was an executive, then enrolled at the University of Iowa. It was while he was at Iowa that Rose, who had been under psychiatric care off and on for years, accused her father of making sexual advances toward her, whereupon Edwina decided to allow a new procedure to be performed on her daughter: a prefrontal lobotomy. Williams never entirely forgave his mother for her hysterically hasty decision nor himself for being gone when the whole horrible event transpired. Rose thereafter became Williams's symbol for all that is beautiful and breakable in the world; ironically, she out-lived him.
After graduating from Iowa in 1938, Williams spent the rest of his life in virtual transit. He traveled to Chicago, New Orleans, California, New York, Italy and Sicily, and Florida, where he finally purchased a house in 1950, but he never spent more than a few months at a time there. His growing suspicions about himself—that he was homosexual—were confirmed again and again during his travels; a different sort of suspicion, or hope, that he was potentially a great writer, was confirmed in the mid-1940s with the success of his play The Glass Menagerie (1944).
The next decade and a half was a prolific period for Williams. His sexual appetite was surpassed only by his capacity for work. Among other awards, he won two Pulitzer Prizes for his plays during this period and published two collections of stories (and wrote half of the stories that later were to appear in a third collection, The Knightly Quest , not to mention a novel and numerous poems). The “catastrophe of fame,” and probably other, less understood, pressures, began to take their toll, however. Over the course of the years the quality, though not the quantity, of his writing declined and his reliance on drugs and alcohol increased. At a time when he most needed understanding and emotional support, he drove relatives, friends, and professional acquaintances away from him with his paranoia. He underwent psychotherapy—unsuccessfully. He converted to Catholicism—a ludicrous farce. He was finally hospitalized, much against his will; while there he suffered a series of heart attacks, and any salubrious effects of this drying out were short-lived. What is amazing, considering his life-style, is that he lived to be almost seventy-two. But when he choked to death on a medicine bottle-cap, alone in a hotel room in New York City on 24 February 1983, one might surmise that he did not much care.
What is it about his life that is important for us to remember? That Tennessee Williams was on intimate terms with loneliness, pain, violence, and death, but also passion, love, beauty; and that he was able to transform these intimacies, through the peculiar alchemy of his genius, into a voice and the voice into something resembling myth. Many more specific incidents and details from Williams's life appear in the stories, and where essential, these will be discussed. But more important is that beguiling interplay of voice and passion, recalled not always in tranquility, that marks the short fiction of Tennessee Williams.
“THE VENGEANCE OF NITOCRIS”
Tennessee Williams wrote at least twelve stories2 before 1941, when his first fiction of unqualified merit began to appear. Of these dozen stories, only a third were published (prior to the posthumously published Tennessee Williams: The Collected Stories ), and one of those appeared in a student publication at the University of Missouri and another in a pulp magazine (Weird Tales). His pre-1941 fiction obviously is apprentice work, but it is interesting not simply because its weakness helps us measure his later success but because the seeds of that success are so evident in the early fiction.
Of his first published story, “The Vengeance of Nitocris” (1928 in Weird Tales), Williams has observed that “if you're well acquainted with my writings since then, I don't have to tell you that it set the keynote for most of the work that has followed.”3 Williams took the basic outline of the story from Herodotus's The Persian Wars. Nitocris is the sister of a pharaoh who, for rebelling against his religious duties, is torn apart by a priest-led mob before his sister's eyes. Nitocris takes her revenge by constructing a temple on the Nile, inviting the priests, then trapping and drowning them in an underground vault. Realizing that she cannot long escape retribution, she fills a room with hot ashes and perishes therein.
Williams's later fiction is prefigured in this early story in a number of ways. Most obvious is the interrelationship of passion and violence—although the more mature Williams would hardly agree, one surmises, that “vengeance [is the] strongest of passions” (8). Prefigured too is the pattern of brother and sister aligned against a punishing world—although never again in Williams's work, fiction or drama, will the pair be so physically and emotionally fit to meet that challenge. In addition, the public dismemberment of the pharaoh is a scene that will be reenacted more than once in Williams's stories (and most famously in the play Suddenly Last Summer).
Subtler parallels between apprentice and mature Williams are found in “The Vengeance of Nitocris,” too. At sixteen, his age when the story was published, Williams probably had the barest, if any, inklings of his incipient homosexuality, yet already in the story we find that the most sensuous description is reserved for the brother. The sister is described in vague, general terms. “She was tall and magestically handsome as he [the pharaoh]. … She was the fair and well-loved Nitocris” (2). She may indeed have been as “magestically handsome” as her brother, but her brother's magesty evokes much more vivid imagery. “Superbly tall and muscular, his bare arms and limbs glittering like burnished copper in the light of the brilliant sun, his body erect and tense in his attitude of defiance, he looked indeed a mortal fit almost to challenge gods” (3). Some years later a more self-aware Williams will declare, “I cannot write any sort of story … unless there is at least one character in it for whom I have physical desire.”4 The pharaoh may be the first such example.
The most important technical feature of the story that also appears in later works is the distanced narrator, most evident in the beginning of the last section. “I would be content to end this story here if it were but a story. However, it is not merely a story” (11). In later fiction, Williams will use a distanced narrator to lend mundane characters and events a mythic scope, the grandeur of tragedy. Here, unfortunately, Williams's narrator is intrusive, almost comically insistent, with an effect the opposite of his intentions: events are robbed of their vigor and immediacy.
“The Vengeance of Nitocris,” in fact, may well be the “keynote” for what follows, but it is also notable for how far it is from Williams's mature fiction. The prose is almost uniformly clichéd, strained, and dreadful. “Hushed were the streets of many peopled Thebes. Those few who passed through them moved with the shadowy fleetness of bats near dawn, and bent their faces from the sky as if fearful of seeing what in their fancies might be hovering there” (1). In other words, at this point in Williams's career he was writing just about the way one would expect a sixteen-year-old contributor to Weird Tales to write.
More important than the adolescent prose in the story is the adolescent worldview. Years later Williams remarked, “The one dominant theme in most of my writings, the most magnificent thing in all human nature, is valor—and endurance.”5 In “The Vengeance of Nitocris” the valor is preeminent; even in their violent deaths brother and sister are larger than life, superior to the vain and mundane machinations of mere mortals. Despite Williams's claim, in his later fiction, outright valor is difficult to find, and endurance often becomes something closer to hanging on, and not very long, against a pitiless and indomitable world.
“The Vengeance of Nitocris” is, then, a definitive example of an apprentice story, and it will do neither to exaggerate its “keynote” status nor to overlook therein the seeds of later success.
“A LADY'S BEADED BAG,” “SOMETHING BY TOLSTOI,” AND “BIG BLACK: A MISSISSIPPI IDYLL”
Williams's next three short stories, “A Lady's Beaded Bag,” “Something by Tolstoi,” and “Big Black: A Mississippi Idyll,” were written between 1930 and 1932, during which time Williams was attending the University of Missouri at Columbia. “A Lady's Beaded Bag,” in fact, was published in that school's literary magazine, the Columns; the latter two remained unpublished until the appearance of Collected Stories.
“A Lady's Beaded Bag” is the sort of effort one would expect from a college freshman who, up until that time, had exhibited no great potential. The story concerns a ragpicker who finds a beaded bag and, out of fright, returns it to the owner, only to have the owner show perfect indifference to the whole affair. “A Lady's Beaded Bag” is facile irony reminiscent of O. Henry or Maupassant at his worst. Because of its date of composition and its theme of downtrodden masses contrasted to the indifferent wealthy, the story could be seen as an early example of proletarian fiction—but that would be stretching a point indeed. More significantly, the ragpicker—“frantic as a small animal caught in a trap” (15)—is the first example in his fiction of the loner, the outsider, what Williams would later call the “fugitive.” (Nitocris and her brother are outsiders, too, in a sense, but they are too haughty and powerful to qualify as genuine Williams fugitives, who are notable for their vulnerability as much as for their isolation.)
Whether “A Lady's Beaded Bag” marks an advance on “The Vengeance of Nitocris” is open to debate. Neither are interesting stories except insofar as they prefigure later, nobler achievements. We can say, however, that Williams's prose has improved somewhat in the later story. Indeed, an occasional sentence pulses with the wise sensuality of a much older writer. “He drew his finger over its [the purse's] soft, cool surface with the lightness of a cautious Don Juan caressing a woman of whom he is not sure” (14).
“Something by Tolstoi” is a more interesting story than “A Lady's Beaded Bag.” In it a young bookseller marries an ambitious woman who soon leaves him to seek fame as an entertainer in Europe. Fifteen years later she returns to the bookstore but is not recognized, apparently, by her husband. She asks for a book and describes the plot, which is essentially the story of the couple's lives. “There is something familiar about the story,” the husband muses. “I think I have read it somewhere. It seems to me that it is something by Tolstoi” (25).
The story recalls O. Henry or Maugham more than Tolstoi, yet its ending is more thought-provoking, less facile than that of “A Lady's Beaded Bag.” Here the husband's forgetfulness or indifference demands explanation. We might conclude that he is numbed by his wound—the wounded character a virtual archetype in Williams's fiction—or that certain situations are imbued with too much passion and pain to be faced honestly and directly—probably a combination of the two.
The story, alas, is more interesting in summary than in toto. It exhibits almost no compelling sense of place; the characterization on the whole is weak and shallow; at its best the narrative achieves a sort of mechanical slickness. Concerning its place in the development of Williams's short fiction, “Something by Tolstoi” is notable primarily for the author's attempt at a more complex narrative voice. Here the point of view is neither omniscient nor filtered through one of the two principals. Rather, the narrator is a young shop assistant, another of Williams's fugitives, as is clear in the opening lines. “I was dead tired and I felt myself a failure; the place looked like a quiet hole, in which a person could hide from a world which seemed all against him” (17). Using a secondary character as a narrator is an old strategy but, nevertheless, one that must be handled with some skill. Fitzgerald's choice of Nick Carraway as narrator of The Great Gatsby was a brilliant stroke, richly rewarded, but what does Williams gain by using his outsider as narrator? Nothing at all. It does show a young writer struggling to find out what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. If the struggle at this point is still largely a failure, that is to be expected. It is failure, after all, that defines an author's apprentice years.
“Big Black: A Mississippi Idyll” shows Williams still in search of a voice and subject matter—and coming closer to finding it. The title character is a member of a Mississippi road crew who labor in cruel heat and under the even crueler tyranny of the Irish boss. Big Black does not openly rebel, but periodically he rips open his shirt and bellows out a “savage” cry: “YOW-OW. YOW-OW-W-W” (27). Exactly what the enigmatic cry means, no one seems to know, but it invigorates Big Black's fellow workers. In the central scene, Big Black accidentally comes upon a white girl swimming in a river. He spies on her, then almost rapes her, stopping short when he realizes how bestial he has become. He dives into the river and swims away; the last scene finds him in Georgia, working on another road gang, periodically letting out his savage cry.
Once again, the story is riddled with clichés and generally shallow characterization, but we do not have to strain to find interesting elements. In between the clichés lurks some telling, violent imagery, a hint of the more mature Williams prose. The Irish boss, for instance, is “wet and fiery red as if he had just been dipped into a tub of blood” (26). Big Black's hand during the near-rape scene seems to cover the white girl's face “like a hideous, huge black spider” (30). Moreover, the story exhibits a new and vivid sense of place—the American South. Any of Williams's previous stories could have been written by Maugham or O. Henry or Maupassant (in a weak moment), but not “Big Black.” It is a Mississippi idyll, after all.
The “Idyll” part of the subtitle is also important. What still approaches shallowness also borders on something finer: a stylized quality invoking the mythic, the epic. The story is, or is intended to be, as “elemental, epical” as the cry that Big Black flings “like a challenge and like a prayer … at Life” (27). Moreover, the mythic quality is heightened by the first scene's ritualistic repetition at the end.
In “Big Black: A Mississippi Idyll” Williams does not yet have his considerable powers under control, but we can say that for the first time those powers are truly in evidence, and we receive a hint of at least one direction that those powers will take him.
“ACCENT OF A COMING FOOT”
Three years elapsed between the writing of “Big Black: A Mississippi Idyll” and the next selection in Williams's Collected Stories, “The Accent of a Coming Foot” (written in 1935). The years were significant for Williams in a number of ways. By then he had dropped out of the University of Missouri and had worked for a time in a St. Louis shoe factory, until suffering a breakdown of sorts (he called it a heart attack, a diagnosis not shared by his doctors). He continued to write poetry, and in 1935 coauthored a play that was performed by an amateur group in Memphis, where he stayed that summer with his grandparents. More important, perhaps, is what Williams had begun to realize about himself. His brief tenure at the shoe factory convinced him that he was not meant for success, or even employment, in more traditional lines of work. That he was destined to try to be a writer was already evident at the University of Missouri; and that this destiny would be in some ways a painful one—putting him beyond the pale in the eyes of his father, for one thing—was becoming equally evident. Two other realizations from this period are important. His homosexual tendencies were becoming clearer, disturbingly so, to him; equally disturbing was his sister Rose's deteriorating emotional condition, her inability to adapt to life's harsh realities.
It would be several years before Williams would directly employ homosexuality as subject matter for a short story, but his and Rose's inability to fit in with “normal” society is dramatized in “The Accent of a Coming Foot.” Thus, “The Accent of a Coming Foot” is a watershed of sorts for Williams. For the first time he clearly employs his own experiences as substance for a short story, a phenomenon that will soon become the rule rather than the exception.
The personal experience is not directly recorded—this is fiction, after all, not reportage—but we do not have to delve very deeply to find Williams and Rose. The story concerns a young woman, Catharine, who returns to her home town after a year as a career girl in the city. She visits the Hamiltons: the mother, Mrs. Hamilton, her daughter, Cecilia, and son, Bud. Immediately the reader feels an undercurrent of tension. Bud has failed to meet Catharine at the train station, a lapse mother and sister find alarming but not totally unexpected. Bud, never quite the same as everyone else, has begun spending increasing amounts of time by himself. That he is spending this time primarily in writing does not seem sufficient justification to the Hamilton women.
Over the course of the story, a strange tension begins to grip Catharine as she waits for Bud to show up, and it is evident that the relationship between her and Bud has been a strong one. Exactly what that relationship was is not entirely clear, but sexual imagery predominates when she thinks of Bud. She expects to “see Bud's face peeking faun-like between the quivering shafts of green vine” (36). When she finally sees his shadow on the window, “she felt herself impaled like a butterfly upon the semi-darkness of the staircase” (40). When he opens the door and enters the hallway, however, Catharine stares down at him “like a haughty old dame,” upon which “Bud bowed slightly from the waist as though this house were a bathroom which he had inadvertently entered at the wrong moment, finding Catharine there unclothed or in an unfortunate pose” (41). He backs out of the door and closes it, after which Catharine throws herself on a bed and weeps. The story ends.
What has happened? How does all of this pertain to Williams and Rose? The associations evoked by the story were powerful indeed for Williams, for he claimed to have suffered his first “heart attack” immediately after writing the story; the attack was brought on by “something too close to myself in the character of Bud and the tension of Catharine.”6 Most obviously, Williams and Bud are both writers. Bud had chosen his writing over the company of others and had been deemed “odd” for his choice. If Williams was not in fact the hermit in the attic, he was already living outside the sympathy and understanding of his father and, to a degree, his mother. On a subtler level, however, Catharine also shares a great deal with Williams. Both had gone out into the world, Catharine to a career in the city, Williams to the University of Missouri. Both had returned to find things changed, for the worse, and both have a hard time dealing with the situation. For both, the overt changes are less important than their subconscious reactions to these changes. Catharine's inner tensions, more apparent to the reader than to her, are reflected in the generally distasteful sexual imagery. She cannot face, much less understand, her feelings for Bud. Just so, the young Williams must have been having considerable difficulty coming to grips with his growing homosexual inclinations.7
If Williams is present in both Bud and Catharine, so too is Rose. Rose's problem, Williams said over and over again, was rooted in sexual frustration and hysteria. Catharine's emotional collapse at the end of the story was frequently reenacted by Rose; only two years after this story was written, Rose underwent a lobotomy. Moreover, Rose resembles Bud, whose name is the first of many “flower” names Williams would employ in his fiction. Bud's sequestering himself to write is not too dissimilar from Rose, who “often sat alone in the dark, waiting for Edwina [her mother] knew not what.”8
Two tendencies converge in “The Accent of a Coming Foot”: Williams's tendency to divide himself, so to speak, between two or more characters (i.e., both Catharine and Bud partake of their creator's characteristics) and his tendency to blur, commingle the identities of himself and Rose. His tendency to discuss his and Rose's fates in the same breath is seen in the following quotation: “I've had a great deal of experience with madness; I have been locked up. My sister has been institutionalized for most of her adult life. Both my sister and I need a lot of taking care of.”9 Rose, after all, represents a fate that Tennessee evaded only, perhaps, because he had his writing. Rose had nothing.
When we turn our attention to technique, we find that “The Accent of a Coming Foot” represents a clear maturing. Williams follows the modernist strategy (used by Joyce, Mansfield, Anderson, and others) of investing seemingly trivial, everyday actions with great emotion and significance. Nothing much happens in the story, after all, but what does happen is dramatized in such a way as to lay bare the characters' lives. The story's emotional intensity is conveyed in part through the spare action and seemingly irrelevant dialogue, but primarily through Williams's use of imagery. In “The Accent of a Coming Foot” we can begin to see emerging the writer of great verbal power. In this story, the potential is more evident than the accomplishment, exemplified in the telling but ultimately labored description of Catharine's hat.
She talked for a while about her work in the city, but as she talked her head moved with such a nervous vivacity that the red cherries on her hat kept clinking brittlely together and she was unpleasantly reminded, for some reason, of a time in college when her coatsleeve had brushed against the arm of a human skeleton in the zoology lab: it had rattled like those cherries and she had glanced sharply up to see the death's-head staring straight in front of it with a fixed, grimly patient smile.
“The Accent of a Coming Foot” is not, it must be admitted, altogether successful. Mrs. Hamilton and Cecilia are shallow and unconvincing characters, and as interesting as Catharine and Bud are, their conflict seems more introduced than fully realized. Yet the story is one more very large step down the road to maturity for its author.
“TWENTY-SEVEN WAGONS FULL OF COTTON”
Also in 1935, Williams began a story, “Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton,” that was published the following year in the highly respected journal Manuscript. “Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton” is the prototype for the one-act play of the same title, and the famous (or infamous) movie Baby Doll is also based in small part on the story. Obviously, then, “Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton” was Williams's most successful story up until that time.
It is also more fully realized than any of his previous efforts. Although Williams does not attempt a very great deal in the story, what he aims to do he achieves with hardly a misstep. Therefore, the label “apprentice work” applies to “Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton” only by a strict, and in this case arbitrary, chronological categorizing.
The story has an elemental simplicity. Twenty-seven wagons of cotton from a nearby syndicate farm have arrived at Jake Meighan's cotton gin, and while the daylong ginning is in progress, Mrs. Meighan entertains the syndicate man on the front porch of her home. The entertainment consists primarily of Mrs. Meighan's phlegmatic attempts to resist the syndicate man's advances. At the end she half retreats and half is forced into the house by the man, and we sense that her last words, “don't hurt me!” (48), preface something quite imminent and quite sordid.
All of Williams's previous stories smacked not only of apprentice fiction but also, at times, of juvenile fiction. With “Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton,” however, it will no longer do to be condescending about the young author's understanding of the world. The psychological truth of the story is supported by Williams's use of specific, accurate detail. “It was late in the afternoon. The gin stands were pumping and the pneumatic pipes still sucking. A fine lint of cotton was floating through the sunny air, across the tired gray road and the fields of copper-topped Johnson grass, grown nearly waist-high, and onto the porch where Mrs. Jake Meighan and her guest from the syndicate plantation were seated on the swing” (43).
The story's setting is not mere decoration. The characters' passions seem to arise naturally from the landscape—or perhaps one should say unnaturally from a landscape out of which life is unnaturally tortured into being by the cruel heat. Mrs. Meighan can barely move in the heat. She can hardly summon the energy to resist the syndicate man's advances, to object to his swatting her with the little whip. In fact, she almost likes the whip, when the man “didn't swing it too hard” (44). But the man swings it harder and harder, becoming more and more insistent, almost demonically so, we feel. “Hell's fire but you're big!” the man says (45).
Mrs. Meighan is big. “You're bigger'n the whole southern hemisphere” (46), the man says, twisting her wrist now. She no longer likes the game as much, tries, in her almost helpless way, to resist. She rises to go into the house, to make lemonade, she says. “I'll go in, too,” the man says. “I'll squeeze the lemons” (48). She hesitates; he forces her into “the dark hall,” where she begins crying, “a tremendous, sobbing Persephone” (48). Into the bedroom he propels her. “Oh, my God, it's so hot!” she moans. “Please, for God's sake … don't hurt me!” (48).
With the “tremendous sobbing Persephone” the story becomes not simply elemental but mythically elemental—but then it has been all along. Hence, the “Hell's fire”; “bigger'n the whole southern hemisphere”; “dark hall” of Hades; and the preternatural heat and pleas to God at the end. Mrs. Meighan is Persephone, forced by the demonic little man and the destructiveness of her own passions to enter the dark underworld of hot, adulterous lust, leaving behind a virtual wasteland broiling in the sun, with who knows what consequences.
Mrs. Meighan is not simply a grotesque Persephone, however; she is also Mrs. Meighan. Mythic parallels in fiction can be artificial and trite if not anchored to a vivid quotidian reality, and the latter is a greater and more difficult accomplishment than the former. Williams's great achievement in “Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton” is the skillful wedding of the mythic and the quotidian. A hot Arkansas afternoon, for example, comes uncomfortably alive in the following description:
Feeling a bit faint, she brushed the fuzz of cotton lint from her moist cheeks and leaned back in the swing which she kept lazily in motion with the lopsided heels of her white kid slippers. Her legs were bare. They had been shaved not so long ago but now they needed shaving again. The sweat trickled deviously between the stubbles of dark hair down the bulging calves and lumpy ankles and splashed into little pools underneath the swing. A swarm of flies was buzzing around her. The little man from the syndicate plantation kept brushing them off with his riding crop. Sometimes he struck her bare legs so smartly that it left a small red mark.
In a letter to his grandparents,10 Williams said that the story was supposed to be “humorous,” a curious comment unless one notes that the young man (still living with his parents) was attempting to justify the story to his grandparents (and his grandfather a minister) after just describing to them how shocked his mother was by the tale. Rather than being humorous, “Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton” shows that the young author already knew how powerful passion could be—and how destructive. Such would become one of his most frequent themes in fiction.
“SAND” AND “TEN MINUTE STOP”
The years 1936 through 1940 were important ones in Tennessee Williams's life. Nineteen thirty-six witnessed his greatest literary success to that time, the publication of “Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton” in Manuscript. In 1937, Williams entered the University of Iowa, from which he was graduated in 1938. Nineteen thirty-seven was also the year that Rose underwent a lobotomy. By 1939 Williams's pattern of restless travel was already established; more important, in that year he acquired a prestigious agent, Audrey Wood. Finally, by 1940 Williams was beginning to attract considerable attention as a playwright, with the opening of Battle of Angels in Boston.
Williams's Collected Stories includes six stories from the 1936-40 period. If “Big Black: A Mississippi Idyll,” “The Accent of a Coming Foot,” and “Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton” seem to show an author assuming ever more confident command of his talents with each new effort, these next half-dozen stories remind us that writers reach learning plateaus, too, and even regress. None of the six stories in this period are as fully realized as “Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton,” although several are interesting in their own right and deserve some attention.
“Sand,” Williams's next story, is not one of them. It is competently done, stylistically, but far too flat and static; the account of an old woman caring for her feeble husband, who suddenly remembers her in her youth, “Sand” is hackneyed and unenlivened by vivid imagery or evocative descriptive detail. Altogether, the story seems more “written” than profoundly felt by the author.
“Ten Minute Stop” is not entirely successful but is more interesting than “Sand.” Were it not for the simple fact that Williams had not yet begun his wanderings in 1936, we could be forgiven for assuming that the story is directly autobiographical. At the beginning of the story, Luke is in Chicago, where he had come from Memphis in search of a job. (Williams also failed to find work in Chicago, coincidentally, but that was not until two years later, after graduating from Iowa, in 1938.) When he finds that his would-be employer is out of town, Luke takes the bus back toward Memphis. The ride and subsequent “ten minute stop” in Champaign are occasion for the disgruntled protagonist to consider his own condition and that of the downtrodden in general.
The theme of the downtrodden masses—1936 was not only the midst of the depression but also the height of the proletarian-fiction movement—is too vague to be very moving or thought-provoking. Although he occasionally attempted stories of a vaguely political nature, Williams was rarely very successful. Luke's personal plight is more interesting, however. He is another of Williams's fugitives, emotionally and, in this case, physically uprooted, homeless, alone. We never know precisely what awaits Luke in Memphis, but that seems to be part of the issue: he has no compelling reason to return to Memphis, no emotional reason to consider it a home. On the bus, “he didn't feel like himself. He felt as though the thread of his identity had snapped and he was moving on with nothing at all left behind him” (54). Over the course of the story he reaches the conclusion that the problem is not simply the loss of the job or the alienation many of us feel on buses (or in airports or subways); rather, his whole life is little more than a “ten minute stop in a strange town … just a ten minute stop! I get you, thought Luke. I don't belong. I'm not one of the actors” (58).
The story ends, for all thematic purposes, with that realization, but Williams drags it out by adding a rather pointless scene between Luke and some college boys. The scene is interesting only because the mob's brutal attack on Luke is an inchoate dismemberment scene, the first since the pharaoh's fate in “The Vengeance of Nitocris,” but hardly the last in Williams's writing.
Williams knew no more where to go with his story, one surmises, than Luke knew where to go with his life. Still, we sense Williams struggling to expand his technical range. The “rootless” theme of the story is reflected in its structure, divided into increasingly short segments until, by the end, the last few segments (set off by line breaks) are no more than a brief paragraph or two in length. Concomitantly, Williams uses long lines—“And all that happened and was allowed to happen and the rich and poor alike lived and died, the fawning poets, the lewd and elegant lords, the prudish lascivious ladies, the diseased and ignorant multitudes—all these lived and died upon the earth and nothing was done about it” (58)—followed by bursts of short fragments: “Over and done long ago. Doesn't count anymore. New people to cover the earth these days. And the earth merrily reeling through space” (58). The fragmentation of narrative structure and grammar, paralleling the fragmentation of Luke's life, works better in theory than in practice. But it is all a part of a learning experience bringing Williams ever closer to genuine accomplishment.
“GIFT OF AN APPLE”
Much the same can be said for Williams's next story, “Gift of an Apple.” Once again we find a young man on the road, this time hitchhiking from California to Lexington, Kentucky. The reason for the trip is never stated, underscoring the sense of rootlessness and alienation. Hitchhiking is easy enough in California, but once the young man reaches the vast emptiness of Arizona and New Mexico, it is harder and more dangerous. One must take his rides where he finds them, generally from drunks and “queers”—“all sons of bitches” (63). The central scene of the story occurs when the young man stops at an isolated house trailer to ask for something to eat. The fat woman who lives in the trailer will not share her dinner but does give him an apple. He eats it with great relish, and the woman gradually becomes sexually aroused by the young man but stops short of seducing him when she learns that he is the same age as her son. The young man leaves, and the story ends with him walking on down the road, regretting the missed meal but concluding that “maybe it was better that way, just having that taste in his mouth, the clean white taste of the apple” (69).
The full “meal” that the protagonist misses obviously includes the woman. The story is, indeed, filled with sexual resonances, not the least of which is the eating of the apple itself. “The hard red skin popped open, the sweet juice squirted out and his teeth sank into the firm white meat of the apple. It is like the act of love, he thought” (66). The hungry young man continually confuses images of sex and images of food. He remembers an earlier sexual encounter in an alley: “… all those cold wet smells. Potato peelings and cantaloupe rinds and damp coffee grounds. … And the nervous spasms and groanings. Not normal perhaps” (67).
Where does “normal” reside in the story? It is difficult for the reader to locate because this is a story about sex, and the young man's alienation is rooted in sexual disorientation. He is disgusted by having “to be groped all over to pay for your ride” (63) with the “queers.” Memories of sex with the young girl are “sweet” but also vaguely disgusting, as the foul imagery pervading the recollection suggests. He is almost willing to trade sex with the obscenely fat woman for a meal, but more than just the age and size of the woman disturb him. She has hair on her chest, for one thing, making him think of the “hermaphrodite” at the sidewalk show (65), and this mannish woman, as the lust begins to burn within her, remarks, “You got nice skin like a girl's” (68). Little wonder that the young man feels relieved to get away at the end. His yearning to preserve that “clean white taste” of the apple (ancient symbol of sex, sin, and the Fall) represents a yearning for purity and normality—a normality that does not exist in harsh reality and, most especially, does not exist for an author becoming increasingly aware of his homosexuality.
The story works better in summary than in a close reading. The young man's alienation is not so convincingly dramatized as is Luke's in “Ten Minute Stop.” At no point, in fact, is the conflict more than vaguely felt by the young man or the reader. One might conclude that the author has not yet squarely faced the issue of sexual disorientation himself; therefore, he is not yet able to dramatize vividly and passionately the conflict in his fiction. He is, however, coming closer.
“THE FIELD OF BLUE CHILDREN”
“The Field of Blue Children” was the only one of the last six apprentice pieces to be published prior to Williams's Collected Stories, first in Story magazine (1939) and then in Williams's first collection, One Arm and Other Stories (1947).
“The Field of Blue Children” is Williams's most directly autobiographical story up until that date. The setting is obviously the University of Missouri, and the conflict concerns both sex and writing. The protagonist of the story is Myra, who one spring suddenly feels herself overcome with a “neurotic” restlessness that she can assuage only by writing poetry. She joins a poetry club and becomes infatuated with the poetry and the person of shy young Homer Stallcup. Eventually, they make love in the field of blue children, as Homer has described a flower-strewn field in a poem. Afterward, Myra becomes frightened at her impetuosity, returns Homer's poems, and marries a more normal beau. A few years later, she returns to the field and weeps, but then steadies herself: “now she had left the last of her troublesome youth behind her” (78).
“The Field of Blue Children” resembles “The Accent of a Coming Foot” in several ways. Here again we find a conflict between a young man and woman, and once again both represent aspects of their creator. Most obviously, the shy young poet Homer is the shy young writer Williams. Just as important, however, Myra's fear of her burgeoning sexuality and her desire for normality dramatize a time in Williams's life when he was beginning to awaken to his own abnormal sexual desires.11 In both stories, significantly, the writer in the pair comes off the better. By trying to reject a frightening sexual urge, both Catharine in “The Accent of a Coming Foot” and Myra in “The Field of Blue Children” end by rejecting, Williams implies, a vital part of themselves: the spark of creativity. If Williams had not found refuge in his art, after all, he might have become another Rose—or a Myra, doomed to the sterility of a timorous normality.
“IN MEMORY OF AN ARISTOCRAT” AND “THE DARK ROOM”
The last two stories of Williams's apprenticeship, “In Memory of an Aristocrat” and “The Dark Room,” were written in 1940. By then Williams had begun his life of travel, which took him, among other places, to New Orleans, the setting for “In Memory of an Aristocrat.”
Williams loved New Orleans, and perhaps that fondness helps lend a lighter touch to the story of Carl, a young writer from the University of Missouri, and Irene, an artist and, in her own words, “whore.” The story, in fact, displays some of the first touches of intentional humor in Williams's canon. The humor, unfortunately, helps vitiate the conflict, which occasionally seems a parody of the, by now standard, Williams theme of the sensitive artist in the hands of an indifferent, insensitive world.
Although “In Memory of an Aristocrat” manages to be entertaining even as it generally fails as a story, “The Dark Room” never quite manages to be even entertaining. The story concerns a social worker who pays a visit to Mrs. Lucca. Mrs. Lucca's daughter, Tina, is so distraught over an old beau's decision to marry someone else that she has stayed in her room, naked, in the dark, for six months. The social worker has seen a good deal of strange behavior, of course, but she is shocked to learn that Tina's one consolation is an occasional visit from the old beau. Yes, Tina remains in the nude during the “visit.” The story dramatizes another standard Williams's theme: the power and destructiveness of passion. The story, unfortunately, is more shocking (if even that) than passionately felt and dramatized. The reader remains at a curious distance from the conflict, as if watching the reenactment of a perhaps true-life scene on a television monitor.
In both “In Memory of an Aristocrat” and “The Dark Room” Williams seems more concerned with technique than with a compelling dramatization of conflict. This is especially true in the latter story, which is composed almost entirely of dialogue. Strangely enough for a man who was America's greatest living playwright, Williams rarely loaded his stories with dialogue, if anything using less than most modern short story writers. In fact, an admittedly unsystematic browse through Williams's stories seems to show that the better efforts employ less dialogue than the inferior ones. It is difficult to account for this phenomenon except to observe that in the dialogue of even his great plays a very fine line often separates the sublime from the ridiculous. (The easiest character to parody in American theater is Blanche DuBois—because she is so nearly a parody of herself.)
In contrast to the “pure” dialogue of “The Dark Room,” in “In Memory of an Aristocrat” the dialogue is frequently rendered through indirect quotation, and even when characters are directly quoted, no quotation marks are used. Never again will Williams come so close to composing a story entirely in dialogue as he does in “The Dark Room,” but he will use dialogue without quotation marks on a number of occasions and quite effectively, most frequently in his “memory” stories, when voices blend unobtrusively with other images from the past. The technique does not works so well in “In Memory of an Aristocrat,” however, because it clashes with the near-burlesque tone.
Still, once more we have to conclude that the effort to find what works, even when the effort fails, is part of the learning process. By 1940 Williams was on the verge of applying, with dazzling success, all that he had learned.
LESSONS OF APPRENTICESHIP
Just what had Williams learned during his apprenticeship? What aspects of his early writing can, in retrospect, he considered prototypical of his mature work?
These questions are difficult to answer with some writers because the apprentice years are for them largely a time of rejecting and abandoning that which does not work. Williams's thematic and technical inclinations were so strong from the beginning, however, that the roots of his mature work are plainly visible.
Williams never became a great innovator in the short story, but even in the apprentice period his willingness to try what were for him new techniques is evident, and his canon in general demonstrates a fairly wide variety of styles. In particular, he experiments with point of view, using the involved first-person narrator (“Ten Minute Stop”), the uninvolved first-person narrator (“Something by Tolstoi” and “In Memory of an Aristocrat”), and various degrees of omniscience. His experiments with dialogue have been noted; like the experiments with point of view, they are attempts to bring a certain immediacy to the action or, even more commonly, to distance the reader from the conflict, which, ideally, transpires in a sort of mythic nimbus (“Big Black: A Mississippi Idyll” and “Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton”). “Big Black,” “Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton,” and even “The Accent of a Coming Foot” show Williams attempting to make setting a living presence in his stories. Taken together, the experiments with point of view, manipulation of dialogue, and importance of setting constitute the author's attempt to arrive at a certain texture of voice, which will become a hallmark of his fiction.
Two phenomena are noteworthy in regard to Williams's characters in the apprentice years. First, it is already apparent that he has a fondness for certain types of characters: the sensitive artist, the fugitive, the vulnerable soul buffeted by a harsh world, the person struggling, and generally failing, to come to terms with sex and passion. Second, these characters seem almost stock figures at times because they stand so much in service of a theme; they frequently seem representative, at times almost allegorical. When Williams is able to bring it all off, as he so frequently does in his mature period, his characters (and themes; we cannot separate them) have the power of myth. When he is less successful, the characters and stories seem shallow and lack immediacy.
Most obvious of all at this point in our discussion is Williams's willingness to employ autobiographical materials in his fiction. This tendency will grow ever stronger in his writing, and it is the secret of both his success and his weakness. Williams was never the indifferent artist sitting on the edge of the universe paring his fingernails—although he often tried to create a narrative voice that gave that impression. He created out of his passionate, personal concerns, and his best stories have the force of emotion deeply felt. However, his obsession with these passionate concerns led at times to staleness and, it could well be argued, eventually destroyed him as a man. Williams would have appreciated the irony. He lived it, after all.
Gore Vidal, introduction to Tennessee Williams: Collected Stories (New York: New Directions, 1985), xx.
Williams wrote dozens of stories, especially during his teenage years but also later, that do not appear in his Collected Stories. I have proceeded under the assumption that these unpublished stories are not essential to an understanding of Williams's development as a short story writer and have not included them for discussion in this study. (The Collected Stories does include a number of previously unpublished stories; I do discuss a few of these.)
All references to Williams's stories, unless otherwise specified, are to Tennessee Williams: Collected Stories and will hereafter be cited in the text.
Notes to Tennessee Williams: Collected Stories, 574.
Quoted in Gore Vidal's introduction to Tennessee Williams: Collected Stories, xxiii.
“The Life and Ideas of Tennessee Williams,” P.M., 6 May 1945, 7.
Notes to Collected Stories, 571.
See Gary Spoto, The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams (Boston: Little, Brown, 1985), 48ff., for a discussion of various pressures affecting Williams at this time.
Spoto, Kindness of Strangers, 337.
Eugene B. Griesman, “Williams: A Rebellious Puritan,” Chicago Sun-Times, 27 Mar. 1983, 4.
Quoted in Spoto, Kindness of Strangers, 52.
See Spoto, Kindness of Strangers, 35ff., for a discussion of this period in Williams's life.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5189
SOURCE: Hitchcock, Francesca M. “Tennessee Williams's ‘Vengeance of Nitocris’: The Keynote to Future Works.” Mississippi Quarterly 48 (fall 1995): 595-608.
[In the following essay, Hitchcock demonstrates the significance of “The Vengeance of Nitocris” to Williams's later work.]
Throughout his literary career, when asked about “love,” Tennessee Williams almost always answered with an explanation about his relationship with his sister, Rose. He called their love “the deepest of their lives,” a love that precluded the need for “extrafamilial attachments.”1 Various friends of Williams saw the connection between Tom and Rose as so close that they appeared as “two halves” of a whole person.2 Harry Rasky, author of Tennessee Williams: A Portrait in Laughter and Lamentation, writes that “Just as Siamese twins may be joined at the breast bone, Tennessee was joined to his sister, Rose, by the heart. The blending of two souls was so complete that they could have occupied a single body.”3 Tom and Rose, called “the couple” by their maid Ozzie, had such a “psychological affinity … that when Rose had a cold or tonsillitis, or mumps, Tommy was convinced he, too, was ill.”4 According to Williams, his and Rose's relationship was an exclusive one: “My sister and I grew so used to being company for each other that we tended to rely on each other's companionship rather than seeking friends” (Rasky, p. 67). To Williams, Rose was lively, witty, and possessed of an intelligence much quicker than his, as he explains in the third section of his poem “Recuerdo”:
My sister was quicker at everything than I. At five she could say the multiplication tables, with barely a pause for breath, while I was employed with frames of colored beads in Kindy Garden. At eight she could play Idillio and The Scarf Dance while I was chopping at scales and exercises.(5)
But when Williams was almost twelve years old, “the small and almost wholly egoistic world [he and Rose] had created,” ended with a “bewildering cessation of … intimacy” that “came as an unnerving shock to the boy.”6 Rose began menstruation, venturing into the world of “Woman,” where no man can ever follow. In the voice of the narrator of “The Resemblance between a Violin Case and a Coffin,” Williams explains that “although [they] naturally continued to live in the same house, [his sister] seemed to have gone on a journey while she remained in sight. The difference came about more abruptly than you would think possible, and it was vast.”7 As Rose journeyed away from him, Williams began an adventure of his own: he started to write.
By the time he was sixteen, Williams had turned this adventure—the writing that he had initially used as a substitute for his close relationship with Rose—into what would now become his life's work. In 1928, the science fiction and fantasy magazine Weird Tales, which published such authors as H. P. Lovecraft, paid the young Thomas Lanier Williams ＄35 for “The Vengeance of Nitocris,” a short story he had based upon a tale from Herodotus's Persian Wars. In Williams's story, Nitocris is the much-beloved sister of an unnamed pharaoh, who—when the bridge he builds across the Nile collapses—blows out the sacred fires of Osiris, defiles the temple with hyena sacrifices, and dies by dismemberment at the hands of an angry mob of citizens and priests. Nitocris, who becomes empress, eventually avenges his death
by constructing a temple on the Nile, inviting the priests, then trapping and drowning them in an underground vault. Realizing that she cannot long escape retribution, she fills a room with hot ashes and perishes therein.8
Thirty years after the story's publication, in an article for the New York Times, Williams remarked:
I was sixteen when I wrote [“The Vengeance of Nitocris”], but already a confirmed writer, having entered upon this vocation at the age of fourteen, and, if you're well acquainted with my writings since then, I don't have to tell you that it set the keynote for most of the work that has followed.9
As provocative as that comment may be, the only definitive critical evaluation of the story is Dennis Vannatta's eight-paragraph essay in Tennessee Williams: A Study of the Short Fiction. Of course, as Vannatta justifiably contends, “The Vengeance of Nitocris” is an apprentice work, written “just about the way one would expect a sixteen-year-old contributor to Weird Tales to write” (p. 7). Donald Spoto, who—as one of Williams's biographers—only briefly critically evaluates Williams's work, remarks that if Williams believed “The Vengeance of Nitocris” set the keynote for most of the rest of his work, then he must have been referring to the story's “shocking finale rather than to its patent lack of poetic diction” (p. 27):
Hushed were the streets of many peopled Thebes. Those few who passed through them moved with the shadowy fleetness of bats near dawn, and bent their faces from the sky as if fearful of seeing what in their fancies might be hovering there.10
Expanding Spoto's evaluation, Vannatta correctly assesses the prose in “The Vengeance of Nitocris” as “almost uniformly clichéd, strained, and dreadful,” and concludes by arguing that “it will do neither to exaggerate its ‘keynote’ status nor to overlook therein the seeds of later success” (p. 7). If we discount the overly melodramatic prose as a key feature in Williams's later work, and if we do not, as Vannatta suggests, exaggerate the story's status, we still must confront exactly what Williams himself found eloquent within the pages of “The Vengeance of Nitocris.” In other words, why, thirty years later, would a successful, Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist recall a poorly written, little-read, and almost entirely forgotten piece of fiction by a sixteen-year-old boy and bring it to the attention of his public with a declaration of its importance to his later work?
If we are familiar with that later work of Williams, as he suggests, then we will find various features of his mature work prefigured in “The Vengeance of Nitocris,” with the foremost “keynote” evoking the Jungian archetypal figure of preconscious humanity: the undifferentiated androgynous ideal. According to Joseph Campbell, this “archaic view” was supplanted by “the patriarchal, anti-androgynous view,” which is distinguished “by its setting apart of all pairs of opposites—male and female, life and death, true and false, good and evil.”11 For the most part, then, Williams attempts to reintegrate these opposites by presenting his main characters—sometimes a brother and a sister—as a couple. These couples complement each other and unite fragmented personalities by supplying various attributes that the “other” lacks.
For instance, in “The Vengeance of Nitocris,” Williams presents the pharaoh-brother as a character with typically male gender-based traits, wholly masculine in his aggression, arrogance, and pride; he is boastful and “haughty,” a man who “could contend with gods” (pp. 2-3). On the other hand, Williams describes Nitocris as devoted to her brother, “fair and well-loved,” “pious and wise,” purely feminine in her grace and charm (pp. 2-3). Describing characters in andromorphic and gynomorphic terms reinforces what Joanne Blum calls the “bipolar construct” of the “androgynous blend.” Overcoming “gender polarity,” and thereby achieving “authentic intersubjectivity,”12 requires the blurring of gender lines, a transcendence of gender-related characteristics. In “The Vengeance of Nitocris,” the masculine and the feminine attributes of the brother's and sister's personalities are complementary and thus illustrate the bipolar construction of the androgynous union; however, in several instances, Williams also attempts to demonstrate something of a transcendence of gender identity.
First, in “The Vengeance of Nitocris,” Williams, by describing the pharaoh as “inflexible as a rock” (p. 3) and Nitocris as “obdurate as a stone” (p. 9), relates qualities in both of their personalities to inanimate, genderless objects. Second, by portraying Nitocris as being as “tall and majestically handsome as” her brother (p. 2), Williams presents a picture of two characters whose physical characteristics (excluding male and female genitalia) are practically interchangeable, and also stresses something decidedly masculine in Nitocris's features. However, the term “handsome,” combined with other descriptions of Nitocris as “lovely” and “beautiful,” emphasizes the androgynous appeal of her physical appearance. The first and second of these attempts by Williams to demonstrate the blurring of gender lines are minor efforts and deserve only passing comment. By far the most notable transcendence of gender roles occurs in Nitocris's assumption of her brother's place as ruler.
When the pharaoh is murdered, the priests declare “that it [is] the will of the gods that [Nitocris] should succeed her brother. … The people were not reluctant to accept her” (p. 4). Using what has been traditionally classified as “feminine wiles,” Nitocris ingratiates herself with her subjects: she nods and bows graciously, and the
most discerning observer could not have detected anything but the greatest cordiality and kindness reflected in her bearing toward those around her. No action, no fleeting expression upon her lovely face could have caused anyone to suspect anything except entire amicability in her feelings or her intentions.
Practicing the feminine virtue of patience, and smiling all the while, Nitocris appears to appease both Osiris and her subjects by building a magnificent temple to the god:
Above the entrance were carved the various symbols of the god Osiris, with splendid workmanship. The building was immensely big, and against the background of green foliage it presented a picture of almost breathtaking beauty. … The altars were more beautifully and elaborately carved than any seen before. Aromatic powders were burning upon them and sending up veils of scented smoke. The sacramental vessels were of the most exquisite and costly made. Golden coffers and urns were piled high with perfect fruits of all kinds.
Ironically, the priests believe the temple a “splendid place for the making of sacrifices” (p. 6), never knowing that the sacrifice will be all who participated in the murder of the pharaoh.
Having taken her brother's place as ruler, Nitocris becomes both judge and architect (traditional male roles), and sentences her subjects to death in the temple she dedicates to the god Osiris, a departure from a woman's traditional temple dedication to the goddess Isis. Nitocris also assumes the role of executioner, commanding her male subjects to “hold back,” and with “her own hand” performs “the act of vengeance”:
In the foreground of the pier a number of fantastic wandlike levers extended upward. Toward these the queen advanced, slowly, and stiffly. … When she had come beside them, she grasped one up thrust bar, fiercely … [and] lifted her face with a quick intake of breath. … This was to her a moment of supreme ecstasy. Grasped in her hand was an instrument which could release awful death upon those against whom she wished vengeance. …
Slowly, lusting upon every triumph-filled second of this time of ecstasy, she turned her face down again to the formidable bar in her hand. … Savagely this time she pulled it; then … stared down into the inky rush of the river.
In this scene, fraught with sexual imagery, Nitocris successfully assumes her brother's place in society as ruler, judge, architect, and executioner by tempering these masculine endeavors with the traditionally feminine traits of patience, subtlety, and deviousness. Nitocris stands in for her brother almost as a kind of body-double; however, this in no way implies a transsexual role reversal, for Nitocris “becomes” the masculine self while still retaining the feminine.
In his introduction to Williams's Collected Stories, Gore Vidal argues that reviewers criticized Williams mercilessly because he was a homosexual: “the anti-fag brigade wail … He thinks he is a woman. He puts himself, sick and vicious as he is, on stage in drag.”13 Nancy Tischler believes that Williams's “confused females are really only female impersonators.”14 Various critics call Williams's female characters transsexuals, transvestites, and men in drag. Williams himself believed that “the most stupid thing said about” his writing was that his “heroines are disguised transvestites. Absolutely and totally none of them are anything but women.”15 Williams's comment is true also for Nitocris: she is neither a transsexual, a transvestite, nor a man in drag but rather a woman whose devotion to her brother enables her to transcend the internalized restrictions of gender. Since the story primarily focuses on Nitocris's behavior after her brother's death, there is little textual evidence to argue for the pharaoh's equal ability at role reversals. But Nitocris seems to know her brother's mind: she fashions an elaborate scheme, knowing that “even he must have considered his avenging adequate” (p. 10). There is a suggestion, then, of a psychic bond, and we can only assume that it is a reciprocal one.
This psychological reciprocity, which is only suggested in the relationship between Nitocris and her brother, becomes a major consideration in one of Williams's favorite plays, The Two-Character Play (1967, 1975) or Out Cry (1971, 1973). In the two somewhat different versions of the same play, the main characters, Felice and his sister, Clare, represent the masculine (brother) and feminine (sister) aspects of Williams's own personality; however, since “he had always seen Rose as part of himself, … the lost and confined characters-as-single character in this play is as much Rose as her brother” (Spoto, p. 304). Brother Felice, then, who seeks an end to alienation through a psychic reintegration with his sister, Clare, can be seen as a mature version of brother Tom, in Williams's Glass Menagerie (1945), who, instead, chooses to abandon his own sister, Laura. Thus, as noted by such critics as Claudia Cassidy and Peggy Prenshaw, this “memory play”—The Two-Character Play or Out Cry—is “in some ways a sequal to Glass Menagerie,”16 which, in turn, had been based on Williams's short story “Portrait of a Girl in Glass” (begun in 1941, published in 1948). While “The Vengeance of Nitocris” sets the keynote for Williams's fascination with brother-and-sister relationships in such plays as The Long Goodbye, The Purification, The Glass Menagerie, and The Two-Character Play or Out Cry and in such short stories as “The Resemblance between a Violin Case and a Coffin” and “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” the characters in these works exemplify what the mature Williams had come to understand about his own relationship with his sister, Rose, after her lobotomy: brother and sister represent wounded halves, each alienated from the “other.” In “The Vengeance of Nitocris,” however, what concerns the sixteen-year-old Williams is the portrayal of a strong, admirable sister who, because of her ability to transcend lines of gender, can brilliantly avenge her brother's ignoble death. In other words, the brother and sister in “The Vengeance of Nitocris” are two of Williams's most mentally and physically capable characters: “never again in Williams's work, fiction or drama, will the pair be so … fit to meet [the] challenge” of a “punishing world” (Vannatta, p. 6).
Besides the “pattern of brother and sister aligned against a punishing world,” Dennis Vannatta also finds prefigured in “The Vengeance of Nitocris” what he calls “[s]ubtler parallels between apprentice and mature Williams.” For instance, Vannatta argues that “At sixteen, his age when the story was published, Williams probably had the barest, if any, inklings of his incipient homosexuality, yet already in the story we find the most sensuous description is reserved for the brother”:
Superbly tall and muscular, his bare arms and limbs glittering like burnished copper in the light of the brilliant sun, his body erect and tense in his attitude of defiance, he looked indeed a mortal fit almost to challenge gods.
Furthermore, according to Vannatta, Nitocris “is described in vague, general terms,” while “her brother's magesty [sic] evokes much more vivid imagery.” Thus, Vannatta concludes that since, years later,
a more self-aware Williams will declare, “I cannot write any sort of story … unless there is at least one character in it for whom I have physical desire,” [then the] pharaoh may be the first such example.
By searching within the pages of the sixteen-year-old Williams's apprentice work for “subtle” clues to the mature Williams's homosexuality, however, Vannatta overlooks several factors that suggest that the young Williams's physical desire is for the sister rather than for her pharaoh-brother.
First of all, the passage Vannatta cites as a “sensuous” description of the pharaoh, and hence probably showing Williams's early desire for the male, is the only passage (there are a few one-word descriptions) in the entire story which describes the pharaoh. On the other hand, there are numerous descriptions, neither vague nor general, of Nitocris, and they are equally as sensuous as the one passage describing her brother. For instance, Williams provides this description of the pharaoh's sister: “A garb of linen, as brilliantly golden as the sun, entwined her body, closely, closely, and bands of jet were around her throat and forehead” (p. 2). The repetition of the word “closely” and the use of the word “entwined” allow the reader to imagine that the sun-colored cloth presses tightly to the body of Nitocris, almost like a lover, and that on this cloth we might see the impression of her entire body. Williams enhances the image of Nitocris's appealing sensuousness by describing her “carmined lips” (p. 4), her twitching, “thick black brows,” her “luminous black eyes,” shining “strangely between their narrow painted lids,” and repeats his assessment of her mouth by saying that “There was something peculiarly feline in the curl of her rich red lips” (p. 8). Extending the sensuous cat imagery, Williams portrays Nitocris as moving with “the litheness of a tiger” (p. 10). Even her emotions display a vibrant sexuality, for they are fierce, ecstatic, lustful, and she is moved by “vengeance, [the] strongest of passions” (pp. 9-10). If we are to believe Williams when he says that there is always one character in every story for whom he feels a physical desire, then from the textual evidence, we must conclude that the desire is directed toward the sister rather than, as Vannatta argues, toward her brother.
Second, the brother-pharaoh remains unnamed, which keeps him at a distance, while the “named” sister, Nitocris, becomes much closer, more desirable by her immediacy. In fact, the entire story is actually the sister's: in the thirteen pages of “The Vengeance of Nitocris” only three are devoted to telling the brother's story, while the remainder recount the detailed planning and execution of Nitocris's diabolical plan for revenge. Clearly, in this early story, rather than physically desiring the brother, Williams is more fascinated with the sister, whom he portrays as someone a brother could readily admire, a sister who is obviously accomplished at rectifying her brother's mistakes.
Finally, although Vannatta argues that “even in their violent deaths” both “brother and sister are larger than life, superior to the vain and mundane machinations of mere mortals” (p. 7), actually, even in death, the sister is still more majestic, to borrow Vannatta's earlier comparison, than the brother. While the pharaoh meets an ignoble end—he trips on the temple stairs, tumbles down them, lands at the feet of the mob, and is torn to pieces by his subjects—the sister is “resolved to meet her inevitable death in a way that befitted one of her rank, not at the hands of a mob.” She fills “her boudoir with hot and smoking ashes” (p. 12) and suffocates in dignified solitude. While Nitocris's more eloquent death may not add to the evidence of Williams's stated physical desire for one character in each of his works, it definitely underscores his intense fascination with the sister.
Thus, if we believe Williams when he says that none of his female characters are anything but women, if we believe him when he says that he always physically desires one character in each of his works, then we must conclude, from the textual evidence, that the sister Nitocris is the woman character whom the sixteen-year-old Williams desires. What is not certain, however, is whether the pharaoh-brother desires her also.
In Williams's later work, sexual intercourse becomes a means of alleviating alienation from the “other,” a way to find fulfillment of the longing to return to the paradise of the primeval couple. When the forty-six-year-old Williams looked back at the work of the sixteen-year-old Williams and declared that “The Vengeance of Nitocris” “set the keynote for most of the work that has followed,” then, presumably, he saw prefigured in that story the idea that sexual intercourse is a means of completion. There are, however, no scenes of physical intimacy between the brother and sister; in fact, the only time either of them touches the other is when the pharaoh “thrusts” Nitocris aside to confront the angry mob. With little textual evidence to argue for an incestuous relationship between brother and sister, possibly what Williams saw when he looked back at “The Vengeance of Nitocris” is both “the interrelationship between passion and violence” (Vannatta, p. 6) and the use of the background—the setting—as a means of understanding the psychology of his characters.
According to Williams, as a ten-year-old boy, he had been “interested in blood and guts Shakespeare”; his favorite play was Shakespeare's revenge tragedy, Titus Andronicus.17 Thus, it is not surprising when the sixteen-year-old author of “The Vengeance of Nitocris” declares that Nitocris herself is “made … obdurate as stone” by vengeance, “strongest of passions” (p. 9). As Vannatta notes, however, while “the more mature Williams would hardly agree” that vengeance is the strongest of passions, there is an “interrelationship between passion and violence” prefigured in “The Vengeance of Nitocris” (p. 6): the dismemberment of the pharaoh by an angry, vengeful mob, as punishment for defying the god Osiris. When dismemberment as punishment reappears in Williams's later work, most notably in the short story “Desire and the Black Masseur” and the play Suddenly Last Summer, its combination with the cannibalization of the dismembered body parts becomes an atonement for what society sees as perverted sexuality. Therein lies the mature Williams's interest—the interrelationship between sexual passion and violence, a theme which will repeatedly appear in both drama and fiction: Val's hanging and burning in Battle of Angels, later revised as Orpheus Descending; Blanche's rape in A Streetcar Named Desire; Chance's castration in Sweet Bird of Youth; Shannon's beating of the young girls with whom he has sex in The Night of the Iguana; Mr. Gonzales's death in “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio”; John and Flora's sexual battle in “The Important Thing.”
Even within the pages of “The Vengeance of Nitocris” there is, however, a subtle hint of Williams's early fascination with the interrelationship between sexual passion and violence: as Nitocris avenges her brother's death, she lustfully, ecstatically, savagely pulls “with her own hand” the phallic-like devices that control the floodgates of the Nile (p. 9). Nevertheless, it will be some years later, in 1936, before Williams will combine what began in “Nitocris” as two interests—the relationship between brother and sister and the interrelationship between passion and violence—into one work. In Williams's only verse play, The Purification, the brother, Rosalio, and his sister, Elena, are engaged in an incestuous relationship, a relationship that brings them not only an end to alienation from the “other,” an escape from physical, spiritual, and emotional fragmentation but a relationship that causes the murder of Elena by her husband and the suicide of Rosalio as well. In “The Vengeance of Nitocris,” however, whatever sexual relationship sister Nitocris and her pharaoh-brother may share lies hidden, and might only be suggested by the setting of the story itself.
The setting for “The Vengeance of Nitocris” is ancient Egypt, most probably during the time when “incestuous marriages within the royal family were permitted”:
Consanguineous marriage appeared [in Egypt] first in the fourth dynasty (2700-2650 B.C.) and emerged again in the eighteenth (sixteenth century B.C.), but it was during the reign of the Ptolemies that royal incest was practiced with the greatest fervor.18
Williams was most likely aware of the implications inherent in the setting of “The Vengeance of Nitocris,” but the sexually inexperienced sixteen-year-old appears to be more concerned with presenting the closeness of brother and sister by illustrating their complementary natures than by fully exploring the possibilities of an incestuous relationship between the two. Nonetheless, the setting of the story, combined with Williams's stated interest in Shakespeare, suggests another parallel between apprentice and mature work.
Writing in “Cleopatra of the Nile and Blanche DuBois of the French Quarter: Antony and Cleopatra and A Streetcar Named Desire,” Philip C. Kolin points out that “Williams knew his Shakespeare well”: according to Williams himself, his grandfather “had all of Shakespeare's works,” and Williams had read each one of them by the time he was ten.19 While many “Shakesperean sources have been suggested for Williams' characters,” Kolin argues that Shakespeare's Cleopatra provides a model not only for Williams's Blanche DuBois but also for, as well, “a long line of Cleopatra figures”—Serafina Delle Rose in The Rose Tattoo, Princess Kosmonopolis in Sweet Bird of Youth, Lady in Orpheus Descending, Maxine in Night of the Iguana—“feisty, aging femmes fatales … whose vibrancy and sexual allure still radiate desire.” Although he notes that “the Egyptian queen's dual role of wily coquette and royal presence is also at the heart of Blanche's character,” Kolin believes that the “most prominent parallels between Cleopatra and Blanche surface during their respective death scenes.” Blanche's death scene, of course, is a metaphorical one; she “is symbolically murdered—and then miraculously reborn in madness—through Stanley's rape” (pp. 25-27). On the other hand, Cleopatra's death scene—a retreat to her boudoir, where she dies by her own hand so that she might forestall Caesar's revenge—suggests a parallel between Shakespeare's Cleopatra and Williams's young Egyptian queen, Nitocris, who also retreats to her boudoir so that she might forestall the vengeance of an angry mob. Rather intriguingly, Williams's female characters seem to grow old along with him. Thus, while the mature Williams creates those aging, but feisty, sexually alluring femmes fatales, the sixteen-year-old Williams creates the youthful, devious, sensuous Nitocris, the keynote figure for all those middle-aged Cleopatra-like characters who follow.
Most assuredly, “The Vengeance of Nitocris” is an apprentice work, with melodramatic prose, strained and clichéd diction. Prefigured within its thirteen pages, however, are many keynote features, such as the use of setting as a psychological indicator of character, the interrelationship between passion and violence, and the complementary or androgynous relationship between brother and sister, which will appear again and again in the work of the mature Williams. Of course, while Nitocris and her brother represent the first published example of what will become Williams's life-long interest in the pairing of characters, this brother and sister “couple” will never again appear as strong, physically or mentally, as they are within the story of “Nitocris.” Thus, we find also prefigured in “The Vengeance of Nitocris” the idea that Williams's work is a barometer of his own mental, and possibly even physical, health. According to Williams himself, his work is “emotionally autobiographical,” reflecting “the emotional currents of [his] life.”20 Williams's family, his friends, the places he visits, and the people he meets eventually all become transformed in some fashion into his own inimitable drama and prose. In fact, according to his friend Gore Vidal, Williams's writing always remained “close to life as [Williams] experienced or imagined it”: hence, “[w]hatever happened to him, real or imagined” (Rader, p. 342), can be found somewhere in Williams's work.
Arguably, one of the most important things that ever happened to Williams was his relationship with his sister, Rose. As noted by Maria St. Just, a friend of Williams for over thirty years, “Rose Williams, Tennessee's sister, was the most important person in his life and the inspiration for most of his work” (p. 20). Thus, Williams's work and even his own life are vivid testimonies to his love for his sister: he dedicated such awards as the Commonwealth Award to Rose (Spoto, p. 396); he established a trust fund for her from the royalties of Summer and Smoke (Spoto, p. 168); he even set up a “Rose” shrine at the foot of his bed in his Key West home, adding “from time to time … small religious objects, dried roses, pictures of his sister, and small shells found on the beach.” While the meaning of this altar was obscure to his friend Dotson Rader, to Williams, it somehow “touched God. It was here that [Williams] prayed when he was frightened.” Williams's connection to Rose was so strong, his feelings that they were one half of a whole person were so intense that, according to Rader, Williams would dress up as “Miss Rose” when the two friends made “the rounds of the bars in Key West” (p. 230a). Thus, while Williams was a practicing homosexual for over half of his life, he was foremost and always Rose Williams's younger brother. And even though the mature Williams would go on to create many memorable non-brother-and-sister couples, such as Stella and Stanley, Brick and Maggie, Hannah and Shannon, John and Alma—all of whom search for completion or wholeness through a union with their “other” half—the young Tom Williams would begin his literary career in the pages of “The Vengeance of Nitocris”—the keynote to most of the work that has followed—writing about what was, in his own life, the most enduring of all relationships, that of brother and sister.
Tennessee Williams, Memoirs (New York: Doubleday, 1975), p. 120.
Maria St. Just, Five O'Clock Angel: Letters of Tennessee Williams to Maria St. Just, 1948-1982 (New York: Knopf, 1990), p. 282.
Tennessee Williams: A Portrait in Laughter and Lamentation (New York: Dodd, 1986), p. 51.
Donald Spoto, The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams (New York: Ballantine, 1986), p. 11.
Tennessee Williams, “Recuerdo,” in In the Winter of Cities: Poems by Tennessee Williams (New York: New Directions, 1964), p. 80.
Benjamin Nelson, Tennessee Williams: The Man and His Work (New York: Obolensky, 1961), p. 9.
“The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin,” in Tennessee Williams: Collected Stories (New York: Ballantine, 1986), p. 238.
Dennis Vannatta, Tennessee Williams: A Study of the Short Fiction (Boston: Twayne, 1988), p. 6.
“Williams' Wells of Violence,” New York Times, Sunday Ed., March 8, 1958, Sec. 2, p. 3.
Tennessee Williams, “The Vengeance of Nitocris,” in Tennessee Williams: Collected Stories (New York: Ballantine, 1986), p. 1.
The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology (New York: Viking, 1964), pp. 26-27.
Transcending Gender: The Male/Female Double in Women's Fiction (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI, 1988), p. 2.
Introduction, Tennessee Williams: Collected Stories (New York: Ballantine, 1986), p. xxvi.
Tennessee Williams: Rebellious Puritan (New York: Citadel, 1961), p. 213.
Mel Gussow, “Catharsis for Tennessee Williams?” New York Times, November 3, 1975, p. 49.
Claudia Cassidy, as quoted in Dakin Williams and Shepherd Mead, Tennessee Williams: An Intimate Biography (New York: Arbor House, 1983), p. 308, states, “[Williams] said in Glass Menagerie, ‘This is a memory play.’ Well, in a sense, so is Out Cry”; Peggy W. Prenshaw, “The Paradoxical Southern World of Tennessee Williams,” in Tennessee Williams: A Tribute, ed. Jac Tharpe (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1977), p. 17.
Cecil Brown, “Interview with Tennessee Williams,” Partisan Review 45 (1978) 276-305; rpt. in Conversations with Tennessee Williams, ed. Albert J. Devlin (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986), p. 269.
Constance Hill Hall, Incest in Faulkner: A Metaphor for the Fall (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI, 1986), p. 5.
“Cleopatra of the Nile and Blanche DuBois of the French Quarter: Antony and Cleopatra and A Streetcar Named Desire,” Shakespeare Bulletin, 10 (1993), 25; Brown, p. 269.
Dotson Rader, Tennessee Williams: Cry of the Heart (New York: Doubleday, 1985), p. 342.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4070
SOURCE: Martin, Robert K. “Gustav von Aschenbach Goes to the Movies: Thomas Mann in the Joy Rio Stories of Tennessee Williams.” International Fiction Review 24, nos. 1-2 (1997): 57-64.
[In the following essay, Martin perceives “Hard Candy” and “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio” as revisions of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and Tonio Kröger.]
Tennessee Williams's short story “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio,” written in 1941 at the very beginning of his career before he was known at all as a playwright, appears to have held a particular fascination for the writer, for he returned to the material twelve years later, writing a second story, “Hard Candy” (1953), set in the same cinema and with a similar theme. Surprisingly, he did not consider “Hard Candy” simply as a revision of the earlier story, but as an independent work. The following year, in 1954, Williams published a collection of short stories, taking “Hard Candy” as the name for the volume as a whole, but placing the earlier “Mysteries of the Joy Rio” as the final story in the collection. An editor's note (although no editor is identified) calls the stories “variations on the same theme,” although “different in result”1 Both stories are set in the run-down cinema called the Joy Rio and both concern elderly men who haunt the cinema in search of sex with other men. In somewhat different ways the two stories show clear evidence of the texts as reworkings of material drawn from two works by Thomas Mann, Death in Venice (1912) and Tonio Kröger (1903).
The relationship between the texts by Williams and those by Mann has apparently gone unremarked, aside from a brief comment by one critic who mentions in passing that Brick's “problem” in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is “similar” to Aschenbach's which he defines as a desire to escape the flesh into pure Beauty.2 The point, unfortunately, is not developed, although that characterization of the “problem” does not offer much hope for the pursuit of the subject. Criticism of Williams's work has not often been written at the highest level: much of it is sensationalist, anecdotal, and biographical. Recent work, inspired by queer theory, has begun to address important questions of gender construction in Williams, although there remains a strong current of thought that accuses Williams (like Mann) of internalized homophobia. Perhaps because this work has been concentrated so strongly in North America, no one has taken up Jac Tharpe's challenge to fulfill the need “for a study of European contexts” for Williams.3
In the case of Williams and Mann, it is not a matter of arguing for influence; although it may well have existed. Mann's work was known well enough, and Mann and Williams knew each other in California around 1943. What is more important is the intertextuality between the various works, the ways in which the texts both quote and deny one another, in a continuing struggle for an adequate formulation. Williams's texts, in other words, seek a kind of mastery over Mann, one that allows the later texts to rewrite the earlier ones as part of a process of absorption and critique. Some of the similarities may be attributed to the existence of a common source, in Plato. Others amount to a simultaneous homage and rebuke. Williams takes material from the Mann texts and reworks it in a far less abstract, high-culture setting while simultaneously providing a strikingly real sense of abjection. Williams's use of Mann as a model and point of challenge is an important indication of the degree to which Mann's works were already perceived during his lifetime as crucial constructions of homosexual desire. If the Williams texts engage so directly with the Mann stories, it is because Mann already plays a role as the modern chronicler of death and desire.
If Mann's most obvious contribution is the model of the older man willing to give up all respectability in a mad pursuit of youthful beauty, in Williams that theme is divorced from its Platonic roots and mythological allusions. It is as if Williams insisted on embodying the Mann texts, in making sexual desire explicit, realizable, and sordid. By looking at Tonio Kröger as well as Death in Venice, one can see that Mann also provided a model of national identity as a way of speaking about sexual identity. Tonio's divided self is a form of androgyny that is echoed in Williams's thematic use, particularly in “Mysteries,” of German/Latin intersection. Both stories also adopt from Death in Venice a symbolic pattern of illness. Kroger, in “Mysteries of the Joy Rio,” suffers from “a chronic disease of the bowels,” while his lover Gonzales has cancer. In both cases, internal organs are destroyed and the body transformed. In the later story, “Hard Candy,” Krupper is suffering from spasms of the heart (that is, from his desires) and sharp pain in the intestines. Like the bowel disease, the intestinal pain points toward a sexuality organized around the anus, as well as the oral gratification so clearly indicated by the hard candy. If disease in Mann is a model for these illnesses, it is stripped of its foreign, threatening quality, and made instead into something organic, a dysfunctioning within the body.
The critical reception of these stories by Williams has been frequently hostile. The first extensive analysis locates Williams in the context of the Gothic, emphasizing the grotesque and identifying that element with homosexuality.4 It should be remembered that the writers of the “new” Southern literature in the 1940s—Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams—were working against a dominant realist school that saw itself as political and saw the more imaginative, dreamlike, and psychological works of the new Southern Gothic school as a threat not only to literature but to the body politic. In a classic statement, the “Southern homosexual style” is “pseudo-magical, pseudo-religious, pseudo-gothic,”5 defined by its falseness even in those genres to which it is claimed to belong. Williams is assumed to represent a homosexual perspective (and hence be flawed) on the one hand and to share a sense of guilt and self-hatred on the other.
A more recent critical essay, though claiming to offer a different perspective, essentially repeats the argument. For John Clum, the stories offered the opportunity for much more direct treatment of homosexuality than the plays, and thus reinforced Williams's own ambivalence, his “complex acceptance of homophobic discourse.”6 One of the problems of such an argument is its apparent confusion of the representation of a certain form of homosexual desire and abjection with its endorsement. Furthermore, paying attention to Williams's adaptation of the Thomas Mann material makes it clear that Williams is employing an important historically and culturally constructed figure and that he does so in part strategically, as part of a critique of a tradition of subtle high-cultural representations of homosexual desire, a tradition that requires the very kind of operatic death and transcendence that Williams may be attacked for employing. In other words, recognizing the iconic quality of the older man permits us to see Williams's revisionary project, which takes place within a particular discursive tradition.
The two principal characters of the earlier story, “Mysteries of the Joy Rio,” have names that clearly echo the cultural divisions that are internalized in Mann's Tonio Kröger, although at the same time in Williams's text they are Americanized. The older man, Emiel Kroger, is clearly marked as Germanic, while his lover and successor is the Mexican Pablo Gonzales, echoing the German, patriarchal Kröger and the Latin, maternal Tonio in Mann's story. The national difference is employed as a means of addressing a split between body and soul, the central mystery of these stories being, as in the Phaedrus, the embodiment of ideal Beauty in the mortal body. That split can only be reconciled by an act of transcendence that leads out of this world. The characters themselves participate in an attempt to overcome difference. Although they are marked off by national names and identities, they both contradict them and in their union embody an attempt to go beyond them. Kroger is described twice in an oxymoron as a “romantically practical Teuton” (“M” [“Mysteries of the Joy Rio”] 103 and 109),7 and Pablo as the “adored apprentice” (“M” 106) comes to represent many of Kroger's values in his own life. The binary structure is by no means limited to the national; there are oppositions as well of age, beauty, sexuality, and metaphysics. The drive of the story is toward an overcoming of all difference.
The two principal sites of the story also indicate these oppositions. Emiel Kroger is a watchmaker, and his watch repair shop clearly indicates his place in the material world of mortality, in which desire is always defeated by death. The cinema, on the other hand, with its ascending balconies, is a site of transcendence, a place of communication with another world. If the watchmaker's shop is one of accuracy, attention to detail, and regulation, the cinema is the place of desire, imagination, and freedom. Kroger treats time “with intense seriousness,” indeed virtually becomes one of his perfect instruments of time: “In practically all his behavior he had imitated a perfectly adjusted fat silver watch” (“M” 103). The one time that he quits this rational world of perfect regulation is when he meets Pablo; for Kroger the world of human desire brings him out of the place of control and into “a confusing, quicksilver world that exists outside of regularities” (“M” 103). After Kroger's death, Pablo loses some of his concern with time: the shop is open irregular hours as he “drifts apart from the regularities that rule most other lives” (“M” 104). He no longer hears the sounds of the very timepieces he tends; in fact, he no longer tells time by them but by light.
Throughout Williams's career (as indeed for many writers of this period) the cinema had special meaning as a place of dreams. (One thinks of Hart Crane's evocation in the Proem to The Bridge of “panoramic sleights / With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene / Never disclosed, but hastened to again,”8 of film's promise and ultimate deception, its offer of a sublimity never fully achieved.) The autobiographical Tom in The Glass Menagerie escapes his mother's and sister's withdrawal by going to the movies, prompting his mother's accusation: “You live in a dream; you manufacture illusions,”9 which is, of course, precisely what movies do. In the Joy Rio, no one appears to actually watch the films, which (perhaps not unlike Tom's escape) exist primarily as a pretext. The films shown there, though, are westerns, and some connection with the American dream of masculinity is suggested. The audience is composed in large part of male adolescents who both watch the film and share its myths and are watched by the other patrons, seeking not merely the film image of the male body but something more fleshly. The cowboy remains an icon of desire in American culture, from Jon Voight's Midnight Cowboy (1969) to Matt Dillon's Drugstore Cowboy (1989), with an ironic variant in Andy Warhol's Lonesome Cowboys (1967).
Although Williams is far clearer than Mann about the physical expression of desire, he recognizes some of the forms it takes as elements of abjection at the same time that they may be seen to participate in the search for the holy, for transcendence. Clum's argument that Williams participates in homophobia is undoubtedly fed by comments such as the narrator's that characterize Kroger's cruising in the cinema as “fleeting and furtive practices in dark places” or as “sad, lonely things” (“M” 106). Certainly Williams, like Mann in Death in Venice, sees the acknowledgment of desire as possibly leading to a breakdown of rational German order when faced with a sexual threat that is simultaneously an invasion from another culture. But the paradox that Williams insists upon—and here he remains faithful, I believe, to the example of Mann—is the simultaneous possibility of even the most degraded forms of desire as nonetheless participating in the search for the ideal. After years of cruising the cinema, Kroger finds what he had been seeking in the person of Pablo Gonzales. Gonzales, twenty years later, returns to his origins (and even recovers his youthful body) and is welcomed to death by Emiel Kroger.
This double vision—echoing Mann's, where Tonio needs to be at once within the culture and excluded from it, or where Aschenbach is at once illuminated and destroyed by his desire for Tadzio—is signaled powerfully by the oxymoron “earthly heaven” (“M” 112) to describe the Joy Rio. It is “shame,” that is to say, the product of homophobia, that leads Kroger and later Gonzales to the upper reaches of the Joy Rio. But it is also there that they achieve some spiritual truth in the form of Kroger's repeated advice, presented as an “ancient lesson” (“M” 114) told on prayer beads. It teaches that when one fails to achieve the dreamed-of ideal (or the desired young man), one simply “go[es] home alone without it,” waiting for the vision at another time. The man at the top of the stairs, the object of Gonzales's terrified flight, is revealed to be Charon, conducting him to “the Stygian blackness” (“M” 113) of the afterworld, but also presumably Hermes psychopompos, Mann's guide of souls and phallic emblem.
It is, of course, deliberately provocative on Williams's part to suggest that the mundane and the divine intersect so totally. He does not see a beautiful young man as an angel without words, but a much more sordid scene of fear (Williams provides the homophobic hatred that is missing in Mann) and desire. The search for the sublime in Williams passes less obviously through classical philosophy. The usher's hateful and ignorant cry “morphodite” (“M” 112) locates the lives of Kroger and Gonzales in a context of homophobia, which protects the usher's heterosexual adventures while censuring the homosexual ones of the men. The usher's action, attempting to protect his own space, acts out a social process of criminalization and medicalization—all the more striking in that he does not even know the correct “scientific” term. The usher is a false psychopompos who can receive the bribes of Gonzales but offer no passage to the underworld: only the beloved Kroger can offer that. Gonzales's final vision of the welcoming Kroger as a “dim figure” in “deepening shadow” is Williams's revision of the conclusion of Death in Venice, one which both draws on the Mann materials (and the traditional figure of desire that Mann has adapted from Plato) and rewrites them in a more realist mode; the shabby theater replacing the hotel of the Lido and the fat man replacing the beautiful youth Tadzio. By portraying both the youthful Pablo, the Tadzio of the story, and his later fatter self, Williams makes it clear that beauty, and hence desire, is evanescent. For Williams, however, to say that everything vanishes is not to doubt the inevitability of the attempt to stop time and death. “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio” is in some sense his modern, and less sentimental, Death in Venice.
Williams's revised story, “Hard Candy” (written 1949-1953), is not as close to the example of Mann as the earlier version. Once again the principal character has a distinctly Germanic name, in this case Mr. Krupper, but he has no young lover. The theme of the opposition between two nationalities, or two sexes, is rendered much less directly, and becomes clear only in the seduction scene where Krupper speaks to himself in German, while the boys are identified as Italian or Hispanic. Krupper, apparently, does prefer “a dark youth” (“HC” [“Hard Candy”] 362), but that seems to signal class and otherness more than a deep structural pattern. The difference here underscores the greater importance of the political and economic themes as opposed to the sense of divided national and sexual identity, as Williams works away from his sources in Mann. Krupper, however, is revealed to be stereotypically German, a character of regularity, even ritual repetition. He is a retired sweetshop owner, not a watchmaker, but his life is regulated by a strict sense of time: his excursions to the Joy Rio take place “with clocklike regularity” (“HC” 359), always with his bag of candy and stack of quarters (“exactly eight”). These two items are in fact linked in the symbolism of the story, and reflect Williams's ongoing concern for the links between food and sexuality (most clearly seen in Suddenly Last Summer). This relationship may be seen at the simplest level as indicating eating as a metaphor for oral sex, but to remain at that level is to ignore the larger politics and economics of the theme.
Steven Bruhm has brilliantly demonstrated the connections in Williams between what he terms “the libidinal economy” and “the commercial economy” and identified them with New Orleans, even to its topography and division between commercial American city and libidinal Vieux Carré. He argues that “the commercial sensibility of the American city surrounds the erotic topography.”10 Krupper has sold his business to his cousins, but since the cousins can never earn enough to make the final payment, he remains directly involved in the business. His connection to the commercial economy is signaled by his regular visits to the shop where he inevitably helps himself to hard candies that he will take to the cinema as a means of seducing young men. The candies thus establish the link between the commercial economy (Krupper gets the candy because he owns the shop and because his cousins cannot make enough money to be free of him) and the libidinal economy (Krupper uses the candy to procure sex). Williams does not seek to romanticize the relation between Krupper and the boys in the cinema by imagining their desire as somehow exempt from the economics of exchange. On the contrary, the candies, like the quarters, indicate the interrelatedness of the economic and libidinal economies. When the boys take first the candy and then the coins, they seal a “contract” (“HC” 364). Just as the cousins' debt to Krupper ensures his hold over them, so the boys' need to fulfill their hunger also ensures their willingness to participate in the sexual desires of Krupper, to indeed fulfill his hunger.
If the earlier story put “mysteries” in the plural, the ambiguity served to suggest both the sense of ritual cult behavior and the sense of a secret kept from the larger community, those who never mount past the first balcony of the Joy Rio. In both cases it is a matter of secret knowledge imparted only to a few. In “Hard Candy,” “mystery” is singular, and refers simply to those aspects of his life (his cruising of the Joy Rio) that are unknown to those around him, and that indeed remain unknown after his death. At most, Williams can refer to “the mysteries of his nature” (“HC” 358). “Hard Candy” has by and large abandoned the metaphysical language of “Mysteries of the Joy Rio” and the equation of sexual and religious questing (nonetheless an important thematic throughout Williams's work). This shift, I am suggesting, is directly connected with the decline in importance of the Mann model, with Williams's increasing mistrust of grand allegories.
Once again the film is identified with the cowboy genre, but here Williams's description of it as “an epic of the western ranges” (“HC” 360) makes its function as national myth explicit. Its relationship to the scene at the Joy Rio is ironic. The West offers a sense of open, male space, while the cinema is a parody of a vanished high culture with “faded gilt [and] terribly abused red damask” (“HC” 359)—the pun on gilt/guilt is crucial as is the allusion to sexual abuse. The young man who enters the cinema simply in search of a place to rest flees the noise of the film, the sounds of conventional American masculinity, and hence inadvertently enters the “higher” realm of Krupper. There can be no doubt of the boy's sexuality: he touches a “naked female figure” (“HC” 360) only to realize that it is actually a statue. In “Mysteries,” the opposition between homosexual and heterosexual is acted out between the usher and Gonzales, since the boys are never seen; in the later story it apparently is more important to insist upon the heterosexuality of the boy in order to emphasize his role as an object of desire and economic value.
The demystification of this work compared to Mann's is most strikingly indicated in the narrator's comment that Krupper's body is found on his knees, “in an attitude of prayer” (“HC” 364). Williams here returns to the possibility of seeing the sexual as the spiritual, but only for comic effect. “Hard Candy” confronts the loneliness of the old man and his implication in a system of exchange (money and candy for sex) in a direct manner that does not seek a metaphysical reading. In fact, the narrator has only scorn for the newspaper obituary, with its inability to understand the event in anything other than a sentimental way, just as he ironically reports the cousin's misreading of Krupper's death as being the result of “chok[ing] to death on our hard candy” (“HC” 365). The “mystery” of Krupper and the Joy Rio appears to remain intact, since, as the narrator suggests, none of the anonymous sex partners is likely to offer any greater truth.
The irony of this final inability of the world to understand what happens in the upper reaches of the Joy Rio points toward a kind of culturally closeted space within the city, that exists inside the commercial city in a hidden libidinal city, to borrow Bruhm's terminology. Locating desire in an urban space creates a very different portrait than that obtained from the more mythic spaces of Thomas Mann. At the same time the final scene, with Krupper collapsed on the floor, cannot help reminding us of the conclusion of Death in Venice. As with the sentimental newspaper story in “Hard Candy,” so in Mann's novella the world remains fooled, seeing only what it wishes to see. Aschenbach, the man of will, “had collapsed sideways in his chair,” while “the world was respectfully shocked” by the news of his death.11 The parallels are there, but the irony is much heavier in Williams, just as there is greater frankness about sexuality. Williams's rewriting of this scene from the conclusion to Death in Venice speaks for the playwright's desire to move beyond the classicized longing of Mann's novella and to replace it with a more brutal vision of desire. What if, as so often in such desires, Tadzio were poor and homeless? What if Mann could imagine a consummated relationship between Aschenbach and Tadzio, one where in fact they at least speak? Williams uses the Mann material as a way of seeking his own space as a writer of homosexual desire. The twelve years between these two stories and the very different use they make of Mann demonstrate Williams's increasing discomfort with a spiritualized sexuality, even if he would never entirely give up the link between the spirit and the body. Like Mann in Death in Venice (but perhaps unlike Aschenbach), Williams's texts know that the body is mortal and subject to decay; this renders desire all the more urgent, if also all the more futile, in its attempt to conquer time.
Tennessee Williams, Hard Candy. A Book of Stories (New York: New Directions, 1954) .
Charles E. May, “Brick Pollitt as Homo Ludens,” Tennessee Williams. 13 Essays, ed. Jac Tharpe (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1980) 55.
Jac Tharpe, “Preface,” Tennessee Williams. 13 Essays xiii.
See Edward A. Sklepowich, “In Pursuit of the Lyric Quarry: The Image of the Homosexual in Tennessee Williams's Prose Fiction,” Tennessee Williams. A Tribute, ed. Jac Tharpe (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1977) 531-34.
Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (1960; Cleveland: World, 1962) 451.
John M. Clum, “‘Something Cloudy, Something Clear’: Homophobic Discourse in Tennessee Williams,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 88 (Winter 1989): 164.
All references to this story and Hard Candy from Tennessee Williams, Collected Stories (New York: Ballantine, 1985). For clarity, page references are preceded by the abbreviations M and HC.
Hart Crane, The Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose of Hart Crane, ed. Brom Weber (New York: Doubleday, 1966) 45.
Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie (1945; rpt. New York: NAL, 1987) 135.
Steven Bruhm, “Blackmailed by Sex: Tennessee Williams and the Economics of Desire,” Modern Drama 34 (1991): 529-30.
Thomas Mann, Death in Venice and Other Stories, trans. David Luke (New York: Bantam, 1988) 263.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3389
SOURCE: Saddik, Annette J. “The (Un)Represented Fragmentation of the Body in Tennessee Williams's ‘Desire and the Black Masseur’ and Suddenly Last Summer.” Modern Drama 41, no. 3 (fall 1998): 347-54.
[In the following essay, Saddik explores the connection between homosexuality and cannibalism in “Desire and the Black Masseur” and Suddenly Last Summer.]
If psychoanalysis were to have an innovative role in a Fouca[u]ldian genealogy of the human subject in Western societies, it would not be because it explains our nature in terms of our sexuality (this would be merely an addition to the history of attempts to define a “human nature”), but rather because it defines the sexual itself as that which profoundly disorients any effort whatsoever to constitute a human subject.
[W]e all devour each other, in our fashion.
When the film version of Suddenly Last Summer premiered in 1959 starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, Tennessee Williams was highly critical of the way in which it handled the cannibalism motif.3 He objected to the film precisely because the director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, chose to represent the act of mutilation on the screen “realistically,” whereas Williams felt that it must not become visible but function only as the central metaphor of the film. Williams has repeatedly described Suddenly Last Summer as an “allegory,” claiming that “[i]t was about how people devour each other in an allegorical sense.”4 He told William Burroughs in 1977 that he walked out of a private showing in disgust:
I walked out. Sam Spiegel, the producer, gave a private showing of it at a big party, and I just got up and walked out. When you began to see Mrs. Venable, and it became so realistic, with the boys chasing up the hill—I thought it was a travesty.5
In both the notorious short story “Desire and the Black Masseur” (circa 1946) and the well-known play Suddenly Last Summer, Tennessee Williams chose to deal directly with the question of polysexualities through addressing the consequences of “perverse” desires such as homoeroticism, sadism, and masochism, which exist outside the boundaries of social control. In these works the fragmentation of social and psychological identity experienced by the characters as a result of their unrestricted desire is transformed into a literal, physical fragmentation through the tearing apart and cannibalistic incorporation of the transgressive body. In my view, the incorporation of the body in the cannibalistic act signifies a yearning for the wholeness—a oneness—which will put an end to fragmentation through, on the one hand, the ultimate “union” with the other, and, on the other hand, an eradication of desire (the source of fragmentation) in the annihilation and death of the “self.” At the same time, cannibalism becomes the punishment for the transgression of yielding to contradictory, taboo desires and exposing that a stable self does not strictly exist. “Individuality” becomes only the elusive dream of an unfragmented self. In these two works Williams illustrates the futility of trying to define and contain human desire, of trying to construct and control the human subject through sexuality, and displays the destructive consequences of these attempts.
It is significant that only homosexual desire falls victim to cannibalism in Williams's works, as both Suddenly Last Summer and “Desire and the Black Masseur” contain protagonists who pursue homosexual relationships. In other works such as A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Orpheus Descending (1957) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), unbounded desire is punished as well, but the punishment, while violent, does not involve physical incorporation. The transgressive acts in these plays challenge the social supervision and regulation of desire—promiscuity, adultery, an attack on female chastity or the transgression of one's social class—but the desire itself is not taboo. Often there is an assault upon the body—rape, burning, castration—shrouded in mystery and represented offstage, but only homosexual acts are punished by cannibalism. Anthony Burns in “Desire and the Black Masseur” and Sebastian Venable in Suddenly Last Summer are literally devoured by the objects of their desires, indicating a commentary on the nature of homosexual relationships in society. Steven Bruhm describes the “social anxiety surrounding homosexuality” in Suddenly Last Summer and points out that the “system of power relations which [Sebastian] cannot fully control … uses cannibalism as a trope for the social anxiety … of one male's relationship with another, of a mutually consumptive bond between men, and then turns that trope against itself.”6 The bond of identification between human beings in this play demands that one consumes while the other is consumed. Although this could be said of the portrayal of most attempts at human connection in Williams's works, it is only with homosexual males that the bond is represented as literally consuming, and this annihilation of the body serves as the retribution and atonement for the sin of transgressing the boundaries of desire established by social institutions.
In the fairly early story “Desire and the Black Masseur,” the fragmentation of the body is directly and clearly represented in front of the reader on the page, beginning simply with the statement “The giant began to devour the body of Burns.”7 The basis for “Desire and the Black Masseur” is the mutually satisfying sadomasochistic relationship between two men—a weak, middle-class Caucasian clerk named Anthony Burns who is alienated from yet “swallowed … up” by his own desires (205-06), and a strong, large (rather God-like) black masseur of very few words and no formal identity—who meet in a seedy massage parlor. Their relationship consists of Anthony Burns's frequent visits to the black masseur in order to experience the physical abuse he enjoyed until the final moment when “a knot came loose in his loins and released a warm flow” (209), while the masseur too derived pleasure: “He loved to have … white skin prone beneath him, to bring his fist or the palm of his hand down hard on its passive surface” (209). Yet after this liaison goes on for some time, the pair are thrown out by the manager for “perver[sity],” and go off “to a room in the town's Negro section” (210), exiling themselves from society in order to continue exercising their desires. Finally, when Anthony Burns is physically broken to the point where he can't even move, he asks his partner in clandestine communication: “You know what you have to do now?” (211). This is understood perfectly and the black man begins to devour the body of Anthony Burns. This is the only real moment of communication between the two men, a communication that must end in violent action since language is not capable of expressing the desires of the characters. The story ends with the masseur throwing the bones of Burns's body into a lake as a mock-baptism, erasing all traces of the transgressive, fragmented desire it represents, while the narrator reveals the motive of this strange passion play in the masseur's mind: “Yes, it is perfect, he thought, it is now completed!” (211).
Cannibalism as the inevitable culmination of (or punishment for) homosexual desire in Tennessee Williams's works occurs most prominently in this story, as the literal devouring of the individual subject is paralleled with the symbolic devouring or consuming of the individual by desire. Anthony Burns is not constructed as a complete, unified subject, but a nameless representative of the “desire” which takes the place of his name in the title of the story. He is alienated from his own desires (“He had no idea of what his real desires were.”) and it is only “unconsciously,” by chance, that his desires are discovered (206). Desire here is set up as a force that moves one unconsciously (this concept of unconscious motivation is used several times throughout the narrative), and the “victim” of desire has no power to resist (211), hence surrendering himself and attempting to avoid the responsibility for his own actions and the guilt which ensues from them:
So by surprise is a man's desire discovered, and once discovered, the only need is surrender, to take what comes and ask no questions about it: and this was something that Burns was expressly made for.
Yet guilt, especially for a homosexual writer who grew up, as Williams himself put it, “in the shadow of the Episcopal church,”8 and was living in the midst of America's repressive political atmosphere of the 1940s and 1950s, seems unavoidable. David Savran, writing on this issue of inevitable homosexual guilt and alienation from the self in relation to homophobic discourse in Williams's works, asks:
Is not the homosexual—or, dare I say, gay—subject of Williams's era necessarily split, alienated from its own desires, its guilt articulated by an inveterate (and, one hopes, increasingly obsolete) discourse of homophobia, while its desires rise in mutiny against that very discourse?9
Throughout “Desire and the Black Masseur” the relationship between the two men is characterized as something beyond perverse, something actually grotesque and, in a sense, even inhuman. The narrative is shrouded in guilty concealment as both secrecy and desire are interwoven in the description of Burns's first experience of the massage parlor and baths:
The baths were situated in the basement of a hotel, right at the center of the keyed-up mercantile nerves of the downtown section, and yet the baths were a tiny world of their own. Secrecy was the atmosphere of the place and seemed to be its purpose. The entrance door had an oval of milky glass through which you could only detect a glimmer of light. And even when a patron had been admitted, he found himself standing in labyrinths of partitions, of corridors and cubicles curtained off from each other, of chambers with opaque doors and milky globes over lights and sheathings of vapor. Everywhere were agencies of concealment. The bodies of patrons, divested of their clothing, were swatched [sic] in billowing tent-like sheets of white fabric. They trailed barefooted along the moist white tiles, as white and noiseless as ghosts except for their breathing, and their faces all wore a nearly vacant expression. They drifted as if they had no thought to conduct them.
In this passage not only are Burns's desires constructed as something subversive and clandestine, but there is an odd connection posited between the desire looming in the hallways and an air of death permeating the atmosphere as the ghosts trail along with a “vacant expression.” Here death can be seen as an escape from the guilty concealment of desire—and a desire which is wrought by guilt and even self-loathing inevitably becomes a desire for death—and, more drastically, self-annihilation through cannibalism.
Perhaps Williams's polysexual content is at its most explicit and straightforward in this story, since this type of narrative genre is less public than drama, and would better allow for the expression of subject matter such as cannibalism and homoerotic sadomasochism, especially in the repressive atmosphere of the 1940s and 1950s. Over ten years later, however, Williams chose to push the boundaries of sordidness and perversion, for which he had by then become known, by presenting Suddenly Last Summer off-Broadway in 1958. In this play we get one of his most violent endings as the audience listens to Catharine tell what both she and Violet Venable call a “hideous story” of her son Sebastian being physically devoured by the young boys whom he had “consumed” sexually at Cabeza de Lobo (“Head of the Wolf”).10 Once Williams addresses this subject on the stage, however, the body is absent. We get the information of this grotesque act through second-hand representation, after the fact, instead of experiencing it immediately as it occurs in the narrative. Nothing actually “happens,” the body is never seen, since it was annihilated before the play even began. Andrew Sofer points out in Modern Drama:
Suddenly Last Summer is unique in the Williams canon in that its protagonist is literally and figuratively absent. The poet Sebastian Venable dies before the action takes place; he is at once a blank text, like the empty pages of the notebook his mother Violet brandishes in triumphant fury as proof of his inability to write his last Poem of Summer, and a palimpsest ‘awesome in his ambiguity. …’ No Williams play is more haunted by the body, its directives and disguises; yet in no other play is the body in question so elusive.11
Even Sebastian's existence is presented as precarious, his identity slippery and fragmented—a series of masks and performances, right down to his fastidious costume of white silk suits. His mother refers to his life as a “legend” which Catharine is “[smashing] with her tongue” (26). It disturbs her that Sebastian was “unknown outside of a small coterie of friends, including his mother” (11, emphasis mine), and her significant repetition of their relationship and the ritualistic invocation of his name—“My son, Sebastian” (15-26, 57)—are the linguistic markers which ensure him a place in her system of meaning.
From the beginning, Sebastian is represented as a work of art—his existence inseparable from fiction—as he was a poet whose “life was his work” (12). Sebastian's life is indeed a fiction, since the only traces of it that are left are the conflicting stories we hear about him. Even the photographs which the doctor asks to see show Sebastian masked “in a Renaissance pageboy's costume,” first “at a masked ball in Cannes,” then in Venice. Although the pictures were apparently “taken twenty years apart,” Sebastian remains unchanged—not only is he in the same costume but, as Mrs. Venable proudly points out, only “[t]he photograph looks older […] not the subject” (22-23). Later, her declaration that “My son, Sebastian, and I constructed our days, each day, we would—carve out each day of our lives like a piece of sculpture” (26, emphasis mine)—finalizes his life as an object of artistic representation—static, unchanging, unreal.
Suddenly Last Summer is a play about both desire and language gone out of control. Sebastian's sexual transgressions at Cabeza de Lobo and Catharine's consequent “babbl[ing]”—which neither Mrs. Venable nor the doctors at St. Mary's are able to “shut […] up” (27)—form the central metaphor of this tale about representing what is hidden, taboo, “unspeakable.” Dr. Cukrowicz's insistence that Catharine leave “nothing not spoken” (70) is pitted against Mrs. Venable's desperate plea for silence, for the doctor to perform the lobotomy which will “cut this hideous story out of her brain!” (93). The action of Suddenly Last Summer revolves around the discourse which stands in place of the event, as the entire play focuses on Catharine's narrative of “what happened” to Cousin Sebastian “in Cabeza de Lobo last summer” (45). In conjunction with this focus on narrative, the mutilation of the body is never directly represented, but only hinted at throughout the play as a fiction—a “story”—shrouded in doubt and secrecy, to be revealed finally in Catharine's brief outburst at the end of the play. Catharine, like Sebastian, is involved in a performance, but a performance of a different kind. This is her play, her story, as it centers on the “trial” of her “confession.” The confessional scene opens with “Entrance music” (49), as the players prepare to play their roles. We neither experience the representation of the event for ourselves nor receive any positive confirmation of it, even though the bias leans towards believing Catharine at the end. Philip T. Hartung wrote in 1960 that “[o]ne doesn't really believe Suddenly Last Summer … but neither does one quite disbelieve it.”12 Like Dr. Cukrowicz, we become entangled in representation as we listen to Catharine and try “to consider the possibility that the girl's story could be true” (93).
Williams uses the act of cannibalism as a metaphor for the consuming nature of desire—both human desire and, more generally, the cosmic desire of a universe which is characterized by chaos and violence and relies on the annihilation of the subject for its own ends. Sebastian's search for God and Truth culminates in the observation of violence—the black birds devouring helpless hatched sea turtles in the Encantadas (15-20). Similarly in this play, Sebastian is hunted, trapped and devoured. As the universe is constructed as a cruel and insensitive mechanism that mercilessly incorporates the subject in order to affirm and increase its own power, human social relationships too rely on violence and mirror that same “hunger.” The confrontations between human beings are often no less “animal” than the drama involving the sea turtles and black birds. Sebastian is set up as a victim; he is overpowered by a version of reality that he cannot control. Through the trope of cannibalism, Williams illustrates the violent, consuming nature of human social relationships and the consequences of human desire. All attempts to locate or to contain the ambiguities and inconsistencies of Sebastian's desire lead to a breakdown of the text's narrativizing structures, and the only recourse left is violence. As in “Desire and the Black Masseur,” the most significant moment of communication and “connection” exists outside of linguistic boundaries.
Like Anthony Burns, Sebastian Venable is not represented as a unified subject with a stable identity, but is the fragmented consequence of his desires, which effectively resist defined boundaries. His identity is inextricably linked with his desires—as both his existence and his forbidden acts are veiled, hidden and finally called into question. All bodily “evidence” of Sebastian has disappeared, and what remains is his white suit, which George wears in an obscene parody of Sebastian's “performance,” an empty notebook with the title Poem of Summer at the front (75), a “portfolio marked Cabeza de Lobo” (50), his garden (11), the two photographs (62) and Catharine's “fantastic story” (44).
While the cannibalistic act in both these works may be seen as establishing continuity, it is simultaneously a destruction of individual identity. Even more strongly than in “Desire and the Black Masseur,” however, in Suddenly Last Summer, the narrative of physical mutilation and incorporation of the polysexual body as a site of transgression serves to reflect the fragmentation of identity fueled by conflicting and contradictory desires that cannot be directly represented on the stage. The play is strewn with references to the fragmented self: Dr. Cukrowicz warns Mrs. Venable that, after the operation, there may not be “any possibility … of reconstructing a—totally sound person” (30, emphasis mine); the stability of Catharine's subjectivity is called into question as she confesses that “‘Suddenly last winter’ she began to write her journal ‘in the third person’ (64), and the doctor clarifies her alienation: ‘Your life doesn't seem real to you?’” Finally, Catharine describes her inability to “save” Sebastian from “[c]ompleting—a sort of!—image!—he had of himself as a sort of!—sacrifice to a!—terrible sort of a—[God]” (63-64). Completion, continuity and human “connection” demand sacrifice in Williams's works, often a self-effacing, self-destructive sacrifice. Identification in these works is physical, aggressive and destructive. Like Sebastian, who sees God in the cruel cycle of the sea turtles devoured by the black birds, Anthony Burns must yield to the cycle of retribution which demands that the fragmentation born of transgressive desire must be eradicated, one way or another. Desire, especially desire between men in a homophobic society, is indeed, for Williams, “a mutually consumptive bond.”
Leo Bersani, The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art (New York, 1986), 101.
Tennessee Williams, “Will God Talk Back to a Playwright?” interview by David Frost, in Conversations with Tennessee Williams, ed. Albert J. Devlin (Jackson, MS, 1986), 146.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz, dir., Suddenly, Last Summer, by Tennessee Williams, adapt. Gore Vidal, U.S.A., Columbia Pictures, 1959.
Tennessee Williams, “Orpheus Holds His Own: William Burroughs Talks with Tennessee Williams,” interview by James Grauerholz, in Conversations with Tennessee Williams, 304. See note 2.
Steven Bruhm, “Blackmailed by Sex: Tennessee Williams and the Economics of Desire,” Modern Drama 34:4 (1991), 532-33.
Tennessee Williams, “Desire and the Black Masseur,” in Collected Stories (New York, 1985), 211.
Tennessee Williams, interview with Mike Wallace, in Conversations with Tennessee Williams, 58.
David Savran, Communists, Cowboys, and Queers: The Politics of Masculinity in the Work of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams (Minneapolis, MN, 1992), 84.
Tennessee Williams, Suddenly Last Summer, 93, in Tennessee Williams: Four Plays (New York, 1976). Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.
Andrew Sofer, “Self-Consuming Artifacts: Power, Performance and the Body in Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer,” Modern Drama, 38:3 (1995), 336, quoting Leonard Casper, “Triangles of Transaction in Tennessee Williams,” in Tennessee Williams: Thirteen Essays, ed. Jac Tharpe (Jackson, 1980), 196.
Philip T. Hartung, Commonweal, 1 January 1960, 396, quoted in Benjamin Nelson, Tennessee Williams: The Man and His Work (New York, 1961), 259, quoted in Sofer, 345.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5042
SOURCE: Wolter, Jürgen C. “Tennessee Williams's Fiction.” In Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance, edited by Philip C. Kolin, pp. 220-31. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Wolter outlines the prevalent critical approaches to Williams's short stories.]
Tennessee Williams's obvious urge to publicize his personal dilemmas shows not only in his Memoirs and the novel Moise and the World of Reason, which has been called a “fictional counterpart to the Memoirs” (Savran 154) and an “apologia pro vita sua” (Sklepowich 538), but in all of his writings, and particularly in his fiction. For Gore Vidal, the stories are “the true memoir of Tennessee Williams” (xx). Biographers (e.g., Leverich, Spoto) explain the authorial self-reflexiveness of his works and demonstrate that some stories are lightly veiled autobiographies. For example, Spoto introduces The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone as a fictionalized journal of Williams's life in the late 1940s (156, 167). For Donahue, the stories are important for their autobiographical contents because they “help us to understand the playwright and his family better” (179).
Since fiction allows space for undramatic reflections and digressions and since the breaking of taboos can be much more radical in a text that is written for the private closet of the individual reader than in a script for the “public theatre,” a story can be a more spontaneous reaction to and a less palliative expression of a writer's momentary and momentous problems than a play. Therefore, Williams's stories less frequently use what Hyman calls “the Albertine strategy” of disguising homosexual relations as heterosexual. As Savran (83) points out, in his fiction Williams could be much more candidly confessional about the central experience of his life, his homosexuality. Clum was among the first to draw attention to the difference in the treatment of homosexuality in Williams's “private” and “public” art. In reading “Hard Candy,” Clum shows that this difference relates to Williams's “dual vision,” which is highly conscious of the general split between the “public persona” and the private human being (165-68). Since they are less evasive, that is, more directly autobiographical than his plays, his stories seem to offer a more direct approach to the way Williams thought and worked (Grande 118). Nonetheless, even his stories use oblique discourse that, as Clum shows, testifies to Williams's homophobia. Similarly, in the most perceptive study of “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio” to date, Savran argues that this early text (1941), long before Williams was prepared to come out publicly (1970), reflects the playwright's homophobia in those years (see also Sklepowich 534).
Even though Williams's homosexuality was the paramount autobiographical impulse, other experiences influenced his fiction. His intimate relationship with his sister prompted what Vannatta (73) calls the “Rose trilogy” (“Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” “The Resemblance between a Violin Case and a Coffin,” and “Completed”; for an analysis of the sister figure in Williams's work, see Clayton). Williams's ties to northwest Mississippi clearly informed the spiritual space of his Two River County; in her detailed reconstruction of Williams's equivalent of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha, Leahy draws on twenty works, including the stories “The Kingdom of Earth” and “Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton.” Another story very much rooted in Williams's experiences in the South is “Big Black: A Mississippi Idyll,” which, as Kolin (“Tennessee Williams's ‘Big Black’”) has demonstrated, reflects Williams's keen interest in the social and racial problems of the early 1930s; Kolin also suggests that in the story Williams reacted to the Scottsboro case and, possibly, the movie King Kong. Williams's experiences in New Orleans surface in some stories in One Arm; Richardson argues that the city's duality (City of Day, the American, commercial, and residential world; City of Night, the Latin, exotic world of the French Quarter) served as an informing image for Williams's fiction. For Tischler (Tennessee Williams: Rebellious Puritan 87), New Orleans gave Williams an “obsession for the pariah theme.” His trips abroad also influenced his fiction: his sojourn in Rome, for example, inspired The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone.
The shock of World War II also left its traces in Williams's fiction. Spoto, for example, points out that Williams began “Desire and the Black Masseur” at the height of World War II, which, he suggests, may account for the “celebration of pain and the mute inevitability of self-sacrifice” in the story (123). From the 1960s on, Williams seems to have adopted the absurdists' existentialist point of view in that after The Night of the Iguana (1962) his work is dominated by an absurd world, a world without reason. This is most clearly demonstrated by Moise and the World of Reason, which gives a description of the absurd universe; according to Jackson, the title of this novel can only be read as irony (65).
Tennessee Williams's creativity in the field of fiction was unflagging for over fifty years and was at least as continuous, though by far not as successful, as his achievements as a playwright. Apart from two poems, his first published work was the short story “A Great Tale Told at Katrina's Party” (October 1924; Crandell, Tennessee Williams 477-78; Leverich, Tom 65; Kolin discusses “Isolated,” November 1924, as Williams's first published extant story [“‘Isolated’”]). During his last years, Williams was still working on nondramatic fiction: It Happened the Day the Sun Rose was published in 1981, and the projected novel The Bag People (Arnott 69) was announced for 1982, but never published. During his lifetime, he wrote over fifty short stories, some of which appeared first in such periodicals as Antaeus, Esquire, and Playboy. Most of them were collected in four anthologies: One Arm and Other Stories (1949); Hard Candy: A Book of Stories (1954); The Knightly Quest: A Novella and Four Short Stories (1967); and Eight Mortal Ladies Possessed: A Book of Stories (1974). In addition, Williams published two novels: The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1950) and Moise and the World of Reason (1975). Crandell meticulously describes all of these publications (Tennessee Williams 73-92, 116-23, 200-04, 238-45, 286-301, 353-54, 362-70). Crandell's notes show that there are only a very few changes in subsequent editions of some stories (77-78, 89, 91-92, 293).
Apparently, Williams's attitude toward his fiction was completely different from that toward his plays. If he ever went back to a published story, it was never with the objective to revise it as a story, but to use its dramatic potential and turn it into a play. This difference in attitude may be due to the fact that the “text” behind most of his (more immediately autobiographical) fiction was his life experience, which could not be changed, whereas the texts behind his major plays were other texts (stories and one-act plays), which as more detached fictional constructs could be reconstructed. There are only two exceptions: “Hard Candy” is a rewriting of “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio” (for a comparison, see Summers 145-50), and “The Important Thing” reads like an “updated version” (Vannatta 44) of “The Field of Blue Children.” Tischler (“Romantic Textures” 155) sees Williams's urge to constantly revise/rewrite his works as an expression of “the true romantic spirit.”
Most critics have commented on the relationship between the stories and their stage versions, and many think that the stories are only “notable for the manner in which they serve as companion pieces to his larger dramatic works” (Nelson 165; Weales 15; Tischler, Tennessee Williams, 1969, 10-11). Since the stories may add to our understanding of the plays, as Goodfarb concludes, some critics have presented more substantial analyses of the prototype stories and the dramatic revisions: for “Portrait of a Girl in Glass” and The Glass Menagerie, see Beaurline and Cohn (98-102); for “Three Players of a Summer Game” and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, see Cohn (111-12) and May; for “The Kingdom of Earth” and Kingdom of Earth, see Derounian; for “The Night of the Iguana” and for “The Malediction” and “The Strangest Kind of Romance,” see Draya (“Fiction” 649-51). In what is still the most valuable study of the relationship between Williams's fiction and drama, Reck defines three ways in which Williams uses his stories in his plays: the transfer of a single line or element out of its context; the repetition of a particular theme, but with different characters and situations; and the direct transposition with similar characters and events, and sometimes even dialogue. That allusions and repetitions may serve the purpose of parody has been demonstrated by Derounian in her comparison of the story “The Kingdom of Earth” and its stage version.
The comparative studies foreground definite continuities in Williams's work, irrespective of the genre he used. Vannatta finds much of Williams's later fiction prefigured in his early story “The Vengeance of Nitocris” (6-7). Similarly, Kolin (“‘No Masterpiece Has Been Overlooked’”) not only outlines the genesis of “Big Black: A Mississippi Idyll” at the University of Missouri, but also shows that this early story already features many elements that were to become typical of Williams's later works. Vannatta traces the development of the short fiction from the apprenticeship years (1928-1940) through maturity (1941-1952) to decline (1953-1983). Crandell, however, is doubtful about such a pattern of progression (Rev. 91). Vannatta's book is supplemented by an important selection from Williams's own remarks about his writing, Where I Live.
MAJOR CRITICAL APPROACHES
In the only book-length study of Williams's short fiction to date, Vannatta identifies themes identical with the ones on which Williams focuses in his plays, such as “the power and destructiveness of passion” (20), “the fate of the fugitive in a harsh world” (42), and the need for love. Other critics supplement Vannatta's catalog: Nelson adds “loss” (174) and Draya “the passage of time” (“Fiction” 661) as central themes.
Williams used the “privacy” of the genre of fiction for a more straightforward elaboration of his major theme, the destructiveness of desire, than he could ever achieve or dare on the stage. Generally, “Desire and the Black Masseur” has been seen as a typical example of Williams's concept of personal and universal guilt in an imperfect, fragmented world and of the corresponding desire for at-one-ment through violence. Blades finds the story essential for an understanding of “the self-hatred and violent self-destruction found throughout Williams' works” (101), while Presley regards it as “the earliest and clearest example” of Williams's “grotesque vision” (43). Rogers reads the violence in this and other stories and plays as an indication of their characters' refusal to accept their hopeless existence in an absurd world (81-82). For Ganz, the violence is rather a form of ritual punishment for the key crime in Williams's moral world, the crime of the rejection of sexuality/life (111). Hurley (“Tennessee Williams” 107-13) sees the relationship between guilt and punishment in the story from the social-psychological perspective of David Riesman's Individualism Reconsidered (1954) with its claim that Americans have a desire to belong and to be accepted; however, identification and conformity with other members of society is never fully achieved and causes guilt that is expiated by self-punishment as self-sacrifice. Thus it is not the story that is “horrifying and repugnant,” it is rather our world (112). Schubert explains Burns's desire for self-annihilation as due to the social situation in the United States of the 1940s as analyzed by Vance Packard (The Status Seekers, 1959) and David Riesman (The Lonely Crowd, 1950); he regards the story as an apocalyptic vision, as a prophetic warning about the potential violence of race relations in the United States, and as a foreshadowing of the threat of “Black Power” in the 1960s. Savran studies “Desire and the Black Masseur,” “Big Black: A Mississippi Idyll,” and “Rubio y Morena” in light of the relationship between differences in ethnicity or race and the intensity of desire: “the greater the difference in skin color, the more violent the sexual encounter.” There is also a correlation between desire and speech: the fiercer the desire, the greater the vocal inarticulateness of the character, whose only means of expression left is the “pen(is)” (125-26). The idea of the inexpressibility of desire is taken up in Williams's late work, for example, in Moise (156).
The focus on sexuality in many of Williams's works suggests a kinship with D. H. Lawrence, which Fedder purports to analyze (see 27-46 for the fiction). He contrasts Lawrence's dexterity with Williams's “inept” writing (43). A more appreciative and appropriate study of Williams's treatment of sexuality and desire has been undertaken from the perspective of gay studies. Sklepowich was the first to discuss thoroughly homosexuality in Williams's fiction, arguing that what has been decried as grotesque, decadent, and neurotic in Williams's fiction can only be understood as the manifestation of a “homosexual sensibility”; his survey of the fiction from One Arm to Moise demonstrates that Williams's treatment of homosexuality changed from “a mystical to a more social perspective, … from the mythic to the real” (526-27). More elaborate studies of Williams as a homosexual writer have been presented by Summers and Savran. Summers focuses on the gay fictions in One Arm and Hard Candy and reads them as explorations of “universal themes of loneliness and isolation” (154). Savran argues against the widely accepted transvestite reading of Williams's fiction (a reading that is based on Hyman's theory of the “Albertine strategy”) because it completely disregards the “complexly gendered network” (117) that Williams weaves and Savran, using The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone as an example, unravels (115-18).
Whereas most early criticism of Williams's fiction focused on his interest in the dilemmas of the individual (Tischler, Tennessee Williams: Rebellious Puritan, for example, finds most of his work “free” of “social content” 39), more recent critics raise social and political issues in the canon. America is a constant theme in Williams's fiction, with Two River County as a fictional representation of contemporary America (Blades 25). Summers points out that the stories “document the cruelty and oppression suffered by gay people in mid-century America” (155), and he detects a strong undercurrent of social protest against a repressive and hypocritical society in “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio” (146-47). Savran locates “revolutionary potential” in the “fractured discourse” of Moise and the World of Reason (166). Hurley (“Tennessee Williams” 33-43) argues that The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone castigates the rugged individualism and perversion of values in America. Gérard, on the other hand, thinks that the destructive materialism that Williams condemns in the novel pertains “to man in general, not to America alone” (152-53). Falk sees Mrs. Stone as an epitome of “the corruption of her time” (146), while Tischler (Tennessee Williams: Rebellious Puritan 177) reads the novel as “a study of Anglo-Saxon decadence” (see also Nelson 149-54). The function of the artist in society is defined in Williams's story “The Poet,” which Hurley (“Tennessee Williams” 159-67) analyzes as Williams's fictional manifesto on his concept of art and which Tischler (“Romantic Textures” 147) reads as the artistic creed of a “natural romantic.”
A central issue has been whether Williams's worldview is optimistic or pessimistic. Disagreeing with critics who see Williams as a pessimistic writer of existentialist despair, Grande sees a metaphysical optimism behind the moral hell of the stories. For Rogers, Williams's view is more optimistic than that of the absurdists because his characters “still search and respond” (82).
The biographies (e.g., Leverich, Spoto) draw attention to the fact that many relatives and friends became models for characters in Williams's stories. In the process of fictionalization, their individual personalities were transformed to types. Draya points out that Williams, in his plays and his stories, used the same character types, such as “the earthy middle-aged woman,” “the handsome … young man,” and the repressed and fearful “outcast” (“Fiction” 653-54), but he concedes that “most of Williams's characters … are more complex” (655). Despite the similarities between the stories and the plays, there seems to be a significant difference: Most of Williams's short stories are dominated by male characters, whereas in the plays the women (Amanda, Laura, Blanche, Maggie, Alma) are the most memorable figures. This may be due to the generic differences outlined earlier: the stories are more “private,” and therefore Williams could take the risk of being less oblique here about personal matters.
Vannatta is also an indispensable guide to Williams's representative, almost allegorical stock characters, such as the “sensitive artist, the fugitive, the vulnerable soul” (22), and “the Rose archetype” (74). Peden groups the stories in One Arm and Hard Candy into unsensational stories with nonexceptional characters and grotesque or Gothic “fantasies” about pathological outcasts and derelicts (“Mad Pilgrimage” 248). Dersnah investigates the Gothicism of Williams's characters (37-50). Blades (163-68) finds the “dominating female” and Boxill “the faded belle” as character types in Williams's fiction (31, 33). Ramaswamy's impressionistic study sees Williams's “typical” characters as “frustrated and incomplete,” daydreamers who “are miserable when they are not indulging in their peculiar form of ‘escape’ like films or alcoholism” (277). Rogers (81-82) draws a much more positive picture of Williams's characters: they are never paralyzed by despair, but struggle on, although sometimes extremely violently. Reconstructing the mythic geography of Two River County, Leahy maps a spiritual space inhabited by “children of the earth,” “corruptors of the earth,” and “spirits of the wild.”
Williams's black males in “Big Black: A Mississippi Idyll” and “Desire and the Black Masseur” frustrate critics because these characterizations seem to coincide with the racist stereotype (see, e.g., Hurley, “Williams' ‘Desire’” 55). Kolin (“Tennessee Williams's ‘Big Black’”), however, argues that the portrayal of Big Black is “compassionate and sophisticated” and surpasses the stereotype (11), while Savran (126-27) elaborates on the contradiction between Williams's “antiracist” notions and the way his work “objectifies and exoticizes the dark Other.”
Critics have frequently commented on Williams's use of religious symbols in his fiction, especially in “Desire and the Black Masseur” and “One Arm.” Draya (“Frightened Heart” 49-51) and Dersnah (47-50) elaborate on Williams's Christian metaphors and imagery in “Desire,” while Summers shows that by reducing the symbolic to the literal, Williams here parodies “theological doctrines” and “conventional religious symbolism,” especially Christian communion (138-39). Similarly, Boxill (130) reads the title of “Desire and the Black Masseur” as a pun on Black Mass. The religious imagery and allusions in “One Arm” suggest for Summers a form of counterreligion to Christianity, an unchristian belief in the possibility of “salvation and resurrection” during life on earth through “sexual sharing” (137).
Other symbols have also found perceptive analyses: Vowles studies the images of liquid and water as symbols of homosexuality in Williams's works, using “The Field of Blue Children,” “The Malediction,” and The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone as major examples. Falk and Gérard explicate the recurring vulture image in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (Falk 146-47; Gérard 148-51), while Dersnah elucidates the Gothic imagery of “Desire and the Black Masseur” (37-50).
Some stories have recently been read as complex metaphors. Of particular interest here is Savran's excellent analysis of the description of the derelict movie theatre in “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio,” which he reads as a metaphor for Williams's use of the dramatic tradition in general: “recolonizing an old-fashioned theater and turning it into an enigmatic, if slightly queer, site of resistance” (78). In his metaphoric reading of Moise and the World of Reason, Savran comments on the symmetry of pen and penis, of textuality and sexuality as a constant feature in Williams's work (156-57). May suggests that the meaning of Brick's enigmatic detachment in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof can best be approached (if not explained) by an analysis of the metaphor of game in “Three Players of a Summer Game”; he comments on the clash between the “ideal game of art” and “the real game of existential reality” (286).
Short stories in general and Williams's fictions in particular present a limited number of situations and instead focus on the development of character. Boxill (22-23, 69, 145) suggests that this typical characteristic of the genre might have influenced Williams's drama, that is, that the episodic, basically undramatic structure of many of Williams's plays might result from their genesis as stories. Reck's study of the metamorphosis from story to play comes to an interesting conclusion: when Williams “is most certain about the fiction … the chances are better that the resulting play will be successful” (153). Reck even suggests that the failure of Williams's plays of the 1960s may be due to the fact that these plays did not develop from prose tryouts.
MAJOR PROBLEMS THE FICTION POSES FOR CRITICS
Two major problems confront critics of the fiction. First, they have to accept homosexuality as a serious and genuine expression of humanity. Studies by Sklepowich, Clum, Summers, and Savran are among the most insightful on Williams's fiction. Savran's interpretation of “Hard Candy,” for example, concludes that the text might be read as a metanarrative that polyvocally presents different ways of reading and thus provides a “guide … to the way that homosexuality … is coded and decoded” in a Williams text (113-14).
Second, critics have had trouble accepting the stories as works of art in their own right. Of particular interest are Vannatta's comments on Williams's experiments with elements of narrative technique, such as narrative voice, point of view, and dialogue.
No standard history of the contemporary American novel mentions Williams as a novelist, and if studies of the American short story draw attention to his stories, they prefer the early ones. Even Williams specialists are undecided about the quality of his fiction. Their reactions are as mixed as those of one of the first reviewers of The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, who “liked the manner more than the substance; I admired and was repelled” (Alpert 19). The situation has hardly changed over the years and can still be characterized by the image Peden used in his 1955 review of One Arm and Other Stories: Williams's stories are “like a dead mackerel in the moonlight … that shines and stinks” (“Broken Apollos” 11). Such emotional reactions are perhaps inevitable with a writer who in his fiction (and life) was just as passionate in his responses. However, despite the critical disparagement of his fiction and the much more enthusiastic reception of the plays, Williams, surprisingly enough, never gave up fiction for drama. Even in the years of his greatest international success as a playwright, he did not desert the genre in which he had started his literary career; he even considered his “best writing to be in his short stories and one-act plays” (Gaines 217). His criteria for assessing the quality of a piece of art seem to have been as off-center/ex-centric as his life, and his fiction with its foregrounding of a homosexual sensibility and concern for the Other may also have been too unconventionally ex-centric for mainstream critics, who therefore found it impossible to give it appropriate, let alone sympathetic, attention.
Critics still have not really fathomed Williams's concept of writing as an autobiographically expressionist art: what did it mean to Williams to fix(ate) unresolved personal dilemmas in a linear, monovocal text on silent paper and then dissolve this text into polyvocal events, into voices and roles for acting? Why did he in many cases choose the narrative genre first and only later, sometimes many years later, turn these monologues into dramatic polylogues? Critics may not have found answers to these questions because they have not taken his fiction seriously enough. If they really want to understand Tennessee Williams's creative genius, its oscillation between writing and acting, text and role, “pencil and penis” (Savran 156), they cannot continue to ignore a large part of his work. Furthermore, Williams's stories and plays, in which he uses the same themes, characters, and images, provide excellent material for studies in the field of narratology and genre definition; critics have wrongly let themselves be obsessed by some of his plays and repelled by most of his fiction, just as they seem to have been obsessed by his biography, but repelled by his life.
Critics may have decried Williams's fiction as repulsive because they noticed, but could not appreciate, its revolutionary potential. Many of Williams's fictions are unconventional not only in their themes, but also in their narrative technique. In some cases, his experiments with the intrusive narrator and the first-person perspective are remarkable, for example, when the narrator is used as a persona, a mask in the sense of the ancient drama. Occasionally Williams takes off this mask, the persona becomes transparent, and then the narrator turns into the writer's substitute and mouthpiece.
Williams's “revolution” as regards both his unconventional themes and his experimental narrative technique is personally motivated and must be seen in the context of his ideology of love, which, in his fiction, is often expressed by images of (homo)sexual violence and longing. This ideology, however, is subversive only in that it attacks a world gripped by a cold war that mainstream society wages on the Other.
Alpert, Hollis. “Sex Fringed with Horror.” Saturday Review 30 Sept. 1950: 18-19.
Arnott, Catherine M., comp. Tennessee Williams on File. London: Methuen, 1985.
Beaurline, Lester A. “The Glass Menagerie: From Story to Play.” Modern Drama 8 (Sept. 1965): 142-49.
Blades, Larry Thomas. “Williams, Miller, and Albee: A Comparative Study.” Diss. St. Louis U, 1971.
Boxill, Roger. Tennessee Williams. London: Macmillan, 1987.
Clayton, John Strother. “The Sister Figure in the Works of Tennessee Williams.” Carolina Quarterly 11 (Summer 1960): 47-60.
Clum, John M. “‘Something Cloudy, Something Clear’: Homophobic Discourse in Tennessee Williams.” South Atlantic Quarterly 88 (Winter 1989): 161-79.
Cohn, Ruby. Dialogue in American Drama. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1971.
Crandell, George W. Rev. of Tennessee Williams: A Study of the Short Fiction, by Dennis Vannatta. Southern Humanities Review 24 (1990): 90-92.
———. Tennessee Williams: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1995.
Derounian, Kathryn Zabelle. “‘The Kingdom of Earth’ and Kingdom of Earth (The Seven Descents of Myrtle): Tennessee Williams' Parody.” University of Mississippi Studies in English 4 (1983): 150-58.
Dersnah, James Louis. “The Gothic World of Tennessee Williams.” Diss. U of Wisconsin, 1984.
Donahue, Francis. The Dramatic World of Tennessee Williams. New York: Ungar, 1964.
Draya, Ren. “The Fiction of Tennessee Williams.” Tennessee Williams: A Tribute. Ed. Jac Tharpe. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1977. 647-62.
———. “The Frightened Heart: A Study of Character and Theme in the Fiction, Poetry, Short Plays, and Recent Drama of Tennessee Williams.” Diss. U of Colorado, 1977.
Falk, Signi Lenea. Tennessee Williams. New Haven, CT: College and University P, 1961.
Fedder, Norman J. The Influence of D. H. Lawrence on Tennessee Williams. The Hague: Mouton, 1966.
Gaines, Jim. “A Talk about Life and Style with Tennessee Williams.” Conversations with Tennessee Williams. Ed. Albert J. Devlin. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1986. 213-23.
Ganz, Arthur. Realms of the Self: Variations on a Theme in Modern Drama. New York: New York UP, 1980.
Gérard, Albert. “The Eagle and the Star: Symbolic Motifs in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone.” English Studies 36 (Aug. 1955): 145-53.
Goodfarb, Rowena Davis. “Heroic Gestures: Five Short Stories as Sources for the Plays of Tennessee Williams.” Diss. Fordham U, 1988.
Grande, Luke M. “Metaphysics of Alienation in Tennessee Williams' Short Stories.” Drama Critique 4.1 (Nov. 1961): 118-22.
Hurley, Paul J. “Tennessee Williams: Critic of American Society.” Diss. Duke U, 1962.
———. “Williams' ‘Desire and the Black Masseur’: An Analysis.” Studies in Short Fiction 2 (Fall 1964): 51-55.
Hyman, Stanley Edgar. “Some Notes on the Albertine Strategy.” Hudson Review 6 (Autumn 1953): 416-22.
———. “Some Trends in the Novel.” College English 20 (Oct. 1958): 2-9.
Jackson, Esther Merle. “Tennessee Williams: Poetic Consciousness in Crisis.” Tennessee Williams: A Tribute. Ed. Jac Tharpe. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1977. 53-72.
Kolin, Philip C. “‘Isolated’: Tennessee Williams's First Extant Published Short Story.” Tennessee Williams Literary Review 1 (1998): 33-40.
———. “‘No Masterpiece Has Been Overlooked’: The Early Reception and Significance of Tennessee Williams's ‘Big Black: A Mississippi Idyll.’” American Notes and Queries 8 (Fall 1995): 27-35.
———. “Tennessee Williams's ‘Big Black: A Mississippi Idyll’ and Race Relations, 1932.” REAL 20.2 (1995): 8-12.
Leahy, Sharon Lewis. “Tennessee Williams's Two River County: From the Kingdom of Earth to the Kingdom of Heaven.” Diss. U of Notre Dame, 1993.
Leverich, Lyle. Tenn: The Timeless World of Tennessee Williams. (forthcoming).
———. Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams. London: Hodder, 1995.
May, Charles E. “Brick Pollitt as Homo Ludens: ‘Three Players of a Summer Game’ and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Tennessee Williams: A Tribute. Ed. Jac Tharpe. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1977. 277-91.
Nelson, Benjamin. Tennessee Williams: His Life and Work. London: Owen, 1961.
Peden, William. “Broken Apollos and Blasted Dreams.” Saturday Review 8 Jan. 1955: 11-12.
———. “Mad Pilgrimage: The Short Stories of Tennessee Williams.” Studies in Short Fiction 1 (Summer 1964): 243-50.
Presley, Delma Eugene. “The Moral Function of Distortion in Southern Grotesque.” South Atlantic Bulletin 37 (Spring 1973): 37-46.
Ramaswamy, S. “The Short Stories of Tennessee Williams.” Indian Studies in American Fiction. Ed. Madhukar K. Naih. Delhi: Macmillan India, 1974. 263-85.
Reck, Tom S. “The Short Stories of Tennessee Williams: Nucleus for His Drama.” Tennessee Studies in Literature 16 (1971): 141-54.
Richardson, Thomas J. “The City of Day and the City of Night: New Orleans and the Exotic Unreality of Tennessee Williams.” Tennessee Williams: A Tribute. Ed. Jac Tharpe. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1977. 631-46.
Rogers, Ingrid. Tennessee Williams: A Moralist's Answer to the Perils of Life. Frankfurt: Lang, 1976.
Savran, David. Communists, Cowboys and Queers: The Politics of Masculinity in the Work of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992.
Schubert, Karl. “Tennessee Williams, ‘Desire and the Black Masseur.’” Die amerikanische Short Story der Gegenwart. Ed. Peter Freese. Berlin: Schmidt, 1976. 119-28.
Sklepowich, Edward A. “In Pursuit of the Lyric Quarry: The Image of the Homosexual in Tennessee Williams' Prose Fiction.” Tennessee Williams: A Tribute. Ed. Jac Tharpe Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1977. 525-44.
Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985.
Summers, Claude J. Gay Fictions: Wilde to Stonewall: Studies in a Male Homosexual Literary Tradition. New York: Continuum, 1990.
Tischler, Nancy M. “Romantic Textures in Tennessee Williams's Plays and Short Stories.” The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams. Ed. Matthew C. Roudane. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 147-66.
———. Tennessee Williams. Austin, TX: Steck-Vaughn, 1969.
———. Tennessee Williams: Rebellious Puritan. New York: Citadel, 1961.
Vannatta, Dennis. Tennessee Williams: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1988.
Vidal, Gore. Introduction. Collected Stories. By Tennessee Williams. New York: New Directions, 1985. xix-xxv.
Vowles, Richard B. “Tennessee Williams: The World of His Imagery.” Tulane Drama Review 3.2 (Dec. 1958): 51-56.
Weales, Gerald. Tennessee Williams. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1965.
Williams, Tennessee. Collected Stories. New York: New Directions, 1985.
———. Eight Mortal Ladies Possessed. New York: New Directions, 1974.
———. Hard Candy: A Book of Stories. New York: New Directions, 1954.
———. It Happened the Day the Sun Rose. Los Angeles: Sylvester and Orphanos, 1981.
———. The Knightly Quest: A Novella and Four Short Stories. New York: New Directions, 1967.
———. Moise and the World of Reason. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975.
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———. The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. New York: New Directions, 1950.
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SOURCE: Hale, Allean. “The Clock and the Cage: An Afterword about ‘A System of Wheels.’” Michigan Quarterly Review 38, no. 4 (fall 1999): 512-13.
[In the following review, Hale analyzes the symbolism of the clock in “A System of Wheels.”]
“A System of Wheels,” written around 1936 when Williams was twenty-five, recreates those years when Tom, not yet “Tennessee,” had to quit college to work in the shoe warehouse. Trapped in the mechanical job of typing orders eight hours a day, he still managed to write a story every Saturday, polish it on Sunday, and mail it the coming week. This narrative, first entitled “The Treadmill,” reflects the bleakest period of his life in St. Louis when his sister was descending into madness. It spins off from Tom's speech in The Glass Menagerie: “Do you think I'm in love with Continental Shoemakers? You think I want to spend fifty-five years of my life in that celotex interior! …” If Anthony is Tom, the nagging, neurotic wife suggests a darker view of his mother and sister. Miriam clinging to the staircase as she resists being taken to the hospital suggests Rose being led to the asylum or Blanche DuBois fighting off the Matron who threatens a straitjacket.
The story typifies the social protest of the Depression thirties, the individual against an indifferent society; here, man against machine, the treadmill, the cage, the clock. This same year Williams wrote Candles to the Sun, depicting miners on strike, his first long play to be produced, and read of the prison conditions which inspired Not about Nightingales. Entrapment would become one of the playwright's constant themes.
Williams's dramatic technique is shown in Anthony's repeated visits to the shop window. He moves from indifferent observer through amusement, concern, indignation to the climax of active protest, as he sees himself in the anonymous gray creature in the cage. Williams chooses his descriptive words with a poet's care to emphasize the bleakness of the story: “the dead of winter,” “the frost of his breath,” “the icy pane,” “the bare glass.” There are lyrical passages—“the glazed white eyeball of the winter moon. …” By comparing the clock to the cross on a church steeple, he extends the analogy to an indifferent universe or a clockmaker God, the same God Shannon will challenge in The Night of the Iguana.
Williams never considered a work finished. Still, it is a surprise to find a final copy of this story signed, “Tennessee Williams, Manhattan, May 1947.” By then The Glass Menagerie had delivered him from poverty, and he was in New York to consult on the production of A Streetcar Named Desire which would bring him lasting fame. He took out his old story and made one significant change, opening with a description of the clock. Perhaps now he foresaw a different treadmill, where he would always be expected to outrace his last triumph. As a playwright, who must condense all he hopes to say into three hours, he could lament with Big Mama, “Time goes by so fast. Nothin' can outrun it.”
Williams would often return to the clock symbol. He was obsessed with the passing of time. Four days before Streetcar opened he wrote a piece for the New York Times, “On a Streetcar Named Success”: “Time is short and it doesn't return again. It is slipping away while I write this … and the monosyllable of the clock is loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.” Which is what Tennessee Williams would try to do till the end.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5987
SOURCE: Hale, Allean. “Tennessee Williams: The Preacher's Boy.” Southern Quarterly 38, no. 1 (fall 1999): 10-20.
[In the following essay, Hale discusses autobiographical aspects of “The Preacher's Boy.”]
In the Tennessee Williams papers at the University of Texas is an early undated story called “The Preacher's Boy” by Thomas Lanier Williams. It begins: “When the preacher and his wife came to Creve Coeur, Mississippi, their son was a delicate boy of nine years. A congenital weakness of the heart … kept him from leading an active child's life. His features were spiritually beautiful, his skin transparently fine. Blue veins were visible around his throat and temples. His hair was a cloudy gold and his eyes were as introspectively still at times as blue pools in the middle of a forest and then as mobile as tongues of blue flame.”1
Clearly, Williams was describing himself, and the interesting point is that he thought of himself as the preacher's son! In his imagination, he had deleted his real father, the loud, heavy-drinking traveling salesman he seldom saw, and substituted his grandfather, the Reverend Walter Edwin Dakin. Tom was actually reared in the church rectory, along with his sister, Rose, and his mother, Edwina, who lived with her parents until Tom was seven. While it is interesting to read Williams's idealized portrait of himself, and to learn that even in childhood he was convinced he had a weak heart and felt isolated and special, the story's real effect is to raise the question of what it means to be “the preacher's boy?” How did it affect the development of the playwright, Tennessee Williams?
As a “P.K.”—“a preacher's kid” one spends a great deal of one's childhood in church. In Tom's case, this was the small but beautiful St. George Episcopal church in Clarksdale, Mississippi. In American Gothic style, with a network of wooden ceiling beams, it had behind the altar a triptych of handsome stained glass windows, the tall St. George window in the center, flanked by a narrow pointed window on each side, with the dazzling lights from the Tiffany window of the Good Shepherd at the rear of the church. With the rectory next door, the church is an extension of home, so a child would know its every nook and cranny. In the story, David has discovered a hiding place, the closet behind the organ from where he helps the black janitor pump the pedals that supply air to the pipes. The child Tom must have been especially impressed by the organ, installed in 1918 while he lived in the rectory, an improvement for which his grandfather had campaigned, and which was a source of family pride. Remembering this, some twenty years later, Tom focused his story on the organ. Although the church he describes is far simpler than St. George's, recalling one of those country churches where his grandfather sometimes preached, the congregation is shrewdly observed. A front pew affords a good view of humanity.
A preacher's child knows the hymns, the Bible stories, the liturgy, develops a feeling for the poetry of the scriptures and absorbs a certain amount of theology. A minister's household lives by the calendar of the church, which in the Episcopal church is quite specific, with certain days weighted: Christmas, Epiphany, Good Friday, Easter. Easter especially must have impressed Tom when, as Clarksdale parishioners still remember, his grandfather would stretch out his arms in the shape of the cross and declare dramatically “Hallelujah! He is risen—Christ the Lord is risen indeed!”
It was significant to Tennessee Williams that he was born on Palm Sunday. “The Preacher's Boy” is perhaps the first of his works to be set on Easter. His plays Orpheus Descending and Sweet Bird of Youth take place during holy week; In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel recreates symbolically the entire events of the Easter story. He uses the liturgical colors of the church in many plays to subtly suggest his own point of view towards a character. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche first appears in pure white; the celibate Sebastian in Suddenly Last Summer wears white; Mark in Tokyo Hotel dons a white suit before he goes to his death. In that play, the mysterious purple flower which Miriam rejects so violently, can be understood as “penitence,” for which the liturgical color is purple. Williams's plays include an extensive hagiography: Saint Sebastian, Saint Catherine, Saint Christopher, Saint Mark, Saint Clare. They are filled with Madonnas and Christ figures. The holy ordinance of Baptism is suggested in plays as diverse as Summer and Smoke and Small Craft Warnings. His characters in The Mutilated, The Gnädiges Fräulein, and The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Any More join in in the ritual of the Eucharist—a communion not always sacred as depicted in Suddenly Last Summer and the story, “Desire and the Black Masseur.”
A preacher's child feels always under observation. Part of his sense of being “special” is that he is a target for teasing. “Preacher Williams” was an epithet Tom heard from rude playmates like Brick Gotcher who lived down the street and even from a teacher. In a 30 October 1920 letter to his sister from Clarksdale, nine-year-old Tom wrote: “I don't like Miss Neill any more because she calls me preacher.” This child has a compunction to behave properly, and may have an over-developed sense of duty. Pupils recall Dr. Dakin's stern insistence on learning the catechism and his pronouncements that Sunday must be reserved for holy pursuits. He stressed duty, responsibility to one's fellow men, tolerance, urged his flock to refrain from judging their neighbors, to cultivate courtesy. “Courtesy is one of the little graces of life, but oh, what blessings it carries! How often one's very success in life depends upon it!” Surely a child must have rebelled at times from such a barrage of Christian doctrine! It is a cliché that preacher's children either follow in the father's footsteps—becoming ministers, public speakers, even actors—or they rebel. Tennessee Williams did both. He rebelled in his lifestyle but preached in his plays, where the “sinners” are punished by burning, as in Orpheus Descending, castration, as in Sweet Bird of Youth, and even cannibalism, as in Suddenly Last Summer.
If the Reverend Dakin was his grandson's father figure and role model, what was he like? Walter Dakin was an Ohio accountant when he met Rosina Maria Francesca Otte, the beautiful daughter of a well-to-do German clothing merchant. Rose was convent educated and had studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. She thought she was marrying a rising young businessman, but he promptly decided to go back to school and become a teacher. After their one child, Edwina, was born, he became head of a girls' school in Shelbyville, Tennessee, but was soon attracted by the University of the South nearby at Sewanee. An elitist Episcopalian college, it had a famed School of Theology. To his wife's dismay, Walter decided to study for the priesthood. This life change meant a lowered income but, to Walter, it meant prestige, influence, and respect. Ordained too late in life to become a bishop—his ambition—he enjoyed building up congregations. While they moved from one small town to another in Tennessee and Mississippi, the patient Rose helped to support him by teaching piano and violin, sometimes even taking in sewing. Clarksdale would be his longest pastorate—fifteen years.
The Dakins fell in love with Clarksdale. Walter loved the South as only a convert can. He adopted its standards and appreciated its culture. The Episcopal rector had a certain social position in this small town; his attractive family fit well into the community. An inspirational preacher, he was self-confident, charming, extremely sociable, and aristocratic in bearing. He loved the trappings of the church. Perhaps because he was small in stature—as his grandson would be—he was fond of fine vestments, which he even ordered from London. Lofty and dignified, he took on the airs of a bishop and was sometimes called “The Bish.” Yet he could unbend in visits to his parishioners—especially the more wealthy of his flock, whom he tended to cultivate. His prestige was such that it was considered an honor to have been christened or married by Dr. Dakin. Although he preached tolerance, he had little patience with the Baptists across the street. Since Williams adored his grandfather, critics have wondered about his satirical portraits of “Reverend Tooker,” in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or “Reverend Hooker” in Not about Nightingales. In these he was not satirizing his grandfather, but recreating his grandfather's high-Episcopalian scorn of fundamentalist evangelists.
The years 1917 to 1921 were a prosperous time in Clarksdale. The local history records that it was then “the Golden Buckle of the Cotton Belt,” the leading interior cotton market in the world (60). Much new building was going on: an elegant theater with a pipe organ, a department store, a huge indoor natatorium. For eight-year-old Rose and five-year-old Tom, idolized by grandparents, mother, their black nurse, Ozzie, their Clarksdale years were idyllic. It was a life filled with music, as their grandmother taught violin and piano in the parlor and their mother, a beauty, exquisitely dressed, would sing at local functions. It was an agrarian life, with much freedom; the soap-bubble life Williams recalls in his Two Character Play. In Tom's memory, Clarksdale would always be Eden, the “Glorious Hill” or “Blue Mountain” of his imaginary Two-Rivers County. He derived his romantic image of the South from both grandfather and mother, and he wanted everything to stay as it was in his memory. At ten, when his grandfather would take him along on a pastoral call to nearby Tunica, Tom delighted in the countryside, unaware that it was one of the poorest regions in the United States. If alive today, Williams would probably deplore the fact that Tunica is now a boomtown made wealthy by gambling, with more than a dozen huge riverboat casinos rising out of the flat landscape like some fantastic Oz. Criticized for his portrayal of the Delta in the film, Baby Doll, Tennessee Williams said, “I write out of love for the South, and despair over what it is becoming.”
Tom's life in Clarksdale fell into two periods, the first from 1917 until 1918 when he moved to St. Louis, the second in 1920 when he returned. A less idealized picture is suggested in his Preacher's Boy story by his calling Clarksdale “Creve Coeur”—Broken Heart—a place-name borrowed from St. Louis and perhaps indicative of Tom Williams's mood when he wrote this pseudo-memory story. He spent much of these first years, from age five, as an invalid, having had diptheria followed by complications that left him unable to walk. Evidently it was as early as this that he decided he had a weak heart. Being the center of attention of four females—his mother, grandmother, sister, and black nurse—was doubtless gratifying, but it also made him the focus of his father's scorn on the infrequent dreaded visits. This was the father who, seeing him drawing pictures or cutting out paper dolls with his sister, would refer to him as “Miss Nancy.” “The small boys of the town called him a sissy,” the story continues. “His timidity, his gentle manners, formal language, and unearthly blue gaze set him oddly apart from their casual crew. But the preacher's boy, whose name was David, never seemed to mind his loneliness. Unconsciously he was preparing to become a poet.”
Reverend Dakin loved poetry and would recite “The Raven” to Tom's particular delight. The child loved to draw out the vowels in the sinister refrain, “Quoth the raven, Nevermore.” Poe would become a direct influence on Williams's more gothic short stories. When Tom had to stay in bed, his grandfather, not averse to playing cards, taught him to use them to act out the wars between the Greeks and the Trojans. Tom had already read the Iliad, so he used the black and the red cards for opposing sides. “The royalty, the face cards of both Greeks and Trojans, were the kings, princes and heroes,” Williams wrote in his Memoirs; “the cards merely numbered were the common soldiers” (11). He would slap a red and black card together and the one that fell on the bedspread face up was the victor. Dr. Dakin's enthusiasm for Greek scholarship was the single most important literary influence from grandfather to grandson, who would later build play after play upon a foundation of Greek myth. Orpheus Descending is the most obvious. Dr. Dakin was equally versed in Latin and English literature and had studied Sanskrit. He had a fine library. In Williams's story, the preacher's boy “spent much time with the English classics of which his father owned a large collection. He read and memorized long passages from Shakespeare and Milton. …” Indeed, Tennessee Williams claimed to have read all of Shakespeare's plays by the time he was ten. This was during his second period in Clarksdale, in 1920-21, when Edwina, alarmed over his unhappiness in St. Louis, sent him back to live with his grandparents for a year. “He was the local child prodigy,” “the story continues,” “and though all the members of the congregation praised him highly to his parents, they were thankful that their own children were developing along more normal lines. …”
Whatever the local inhabitants may have thought of Tom, he was remarkably observant of them. They would become his characters, just as Clarksdale would become the setting for much of his work. It was at age ten, on pastoral trips with his grandfather, that he built up his geography of “Two Rivers County” the region as intrinsic to his writing as was Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County, only fifty miles away. Place names, “Lyons,” “Friar's Point,” “Moon Lake,” “Tutwiler,” stud the landscape of Williams's plays. Orpheus Descending, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, This Property Is Condemned, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Kingdom of Earth, and Spring Storm are all set in Clarksdale. He used local names that caught his fancy: “Maggie Wingfield,” “Baby Doll” Peacock, Mr. Baugh. Local images thread his plays: the tinkling glass prisms of a lady named Laura whom his grandfather took him to visit, remembered in The Glass Menagerie; the stone angel in the Grange cemetery, central to Summer and Smoke; and the Sunflower River, transmuted into the giant sunflowers of The Two Character Play.
One wonders if, like little boys in small towns everywhere, he went to town on Saturdays? The play Baby Doll suggests that he did. Saturday was when sharecroppers from Delta farms like Archie Lee and Baby Doll Meighan came to town to shop, to visit along the street, or listen to the itinerant musicians who hung out at the railroad station. Across the tracks was the “New World” district, so called by the black jazz players who lived there, a redlight district of dancehalls, juke boxes, and bars. If this was off-limits to Tom and his friends, he would have been painfully aware of it as the sort of place where his father was said to stop off occasionally on his way to the rectory. A well-known house by the railroad would figure in Williams's short play, This Property Is Condemned.
Even then, Clarksdale was known as the birthplace of the blues. W. C. Handy, who recorded the first blues song, was a respected local character whose band played for plantation parties or headed political parades. Whatever the opinion of Tom's grandmother and mother about blues music (Edwina's taste ran more to “O Promise Me” and “Indian Love Call”), his grandfather took him to hear W. C. Handy in concert at the new theater. In the Clarksdale play, Battle of Angels, Val is an itinerant minstrel who arrives in town, his guitar inscribed with the names of the jazz “greats,” like Leadbelly, King Oliver, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Bessie Smith. Williams used a blues background in numerous plays and himself wrote a series of blues ballads which were set to music.
The child Tom knew the legends centering on the Clarks of Clarksdale and the owners of the great plantations, the Andersons and the Flowers. On pastoral trips to Tunica where his grandfather preached some Sundays, they would spend the night with the Perry family, who owned one of the largest plantations in the Delta. At the time, G. D. Perry had just closed a deal which gave him 7,400 acres in Tunica County. While there was in the region no plantation as large as the “twenty-eight thousand acres” Williams imagined in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the Perry estate fit the description of “the richest land this side of the valley Nile.” Like “Big Daddy Pollitt,” Perry had come to the Delta as manager for the plantation and worked his way first to leasing it, then owning it. That Williams may have used this history as background for Big Daddy in Cat is suggested by the 1921 clipping on the transaction tucked into the front cover of the play's original manuscript. The character of Big Daddy was actually a composite of several persons the playwright had observed, for he early practiced such mergers in his characterizations.
Tom was especially attracted to the doings of the sensational Cutrer family and their magnificent new mansion that was the talk of Clarksdale. The Cutrers with their travels abroad, their staff of eight servants, their fabled parties with Japanese lanterns lighting the grounds, represented glamour to a preacher's son. The lanterns would later illuminate his most famous play; the family's tragedies and scandals would find their way into others. The Cutrers would become his mythical cast of characters, although he changed names, dates, and genders at will. The original Blanche Cutrer was nothing like the fragile Blanche of Streetcar [A Streetcar Named Desire]. That was evidently her daughter, Elise, whose young husband died tragically—not by shooting himself, but by falling down an elevator shaft, after which she took to drink. She lived in the Cutrer mansion—called Belvoir, not Belle Reve—until it was lost to the Depression. Williams combined the history of Elise with attributes of her sister, Ann Blanche, who had studied abroad and spoke French. In real life, Stella was their sister-in-law, not their sister. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Brick breaks his leg vaulting the high hurdles, just as Jack Cutrer had broken his jumping over the bronze elk at the Elk's Club while drunk.
One Clarksdale resident, Paul Clark, has pronounced the startling theory that the Reverend Dakin actually wrote Tennessee Williams's plays! He insists that no ten-year-old boy could have known all the local lore that appears in these dramas. Like many preposterous statements, this has a grain of truth. A pastor is involved in the intimate lives of his congregation, especially in their times of desperation, and the rectory is repository for many secrets. In the years after he left Clarksdale, Williams was often with his grandfather, who doubtless brought him up to date on current happenings and who continued to return to Clarksdale for years after he retired. He would be overwhelmed with attention. One parishioner remembers how he would perch on the sofa edge like a little bird, teacup in hand as he caught up on local news and gossip.
Tom's grandparents would certainly have written about the great flood of 1927 when the Mississippi River devoured Friar's Point and which Williams used as the background for his play, Kingdom of Earth. Tom would have heard how Jack Cutrer drowned in Moon Lake in 1923, as Amanda recalls in Menagerie [The Glass Menagerie]. He could not have escaped the national publicity on Clarksdale's football hero, Charles Conerly, who set a record with those “high, high passes,” became an All-American, and played with the New York Giants. He was later pictured on billboards as “The Marlboro Man.” Conerly and his best buddy had been stars at Old Miss and became a glamorous trio when Charlie married his hometown sweetheart. If Tennessee Williams converted this trio into Brick, Skipper, and Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, he completely changed their history, adding the homosexual element for the dramatic purpose of opening up a discussion of this forbidden subject, a daring act in the fifties.
In “The Preacher's Boy” the child “even helped his father write sermons.” This is a typical example of Williams reversing the facts, as in reality the grandfather's writing sometimes furnished material for the grandson's plays. Of the dozens of sermons he must have heard in a year, Tom, with his remarkable memory, would have retained whatever interested him. Dr. Dakin's sermons, written in a clear and expansive hand, are housed in the archives of the University of the South at Sewanee. Their existence furnishes an example of how a writer can convert literal truth to fictional truth. Williams's touching story, “Grand,” about his grandmother, tells how his grandfather, past eighty and now living in Memphis, fell victim to a “con” scheme in which he lost their life savings. Williams describes the moment when the old man had to tell his wife.
I see my grandmother now, looking off into dimming twilight space from a wicker chair on the porch … and saying only, “Why, Walter?”
The following morning my grandfather … went into the tiny attic of the bungalow and took out of a metal filing case a great, great, great pile of cardboard folders containing all his old sermons. He went into the back yard … with this load, taking several trips, heaping all of the folders into the ashpit, and then he started a fire and fifty-five years of hand-written sermons went up in smoke.
Since Dr. Dakin preached only forty-three years and all of the sermons from that period, 1895-1938, still exist at Sewanee, this is an example of dramatic license. Each sermon is written in an old-fashioned school “blue book,” with lines and two holes, held together with string. (Williams, in his 1975 novel, Moise and the World of Reason, has his author-character writing his journal in blue books.) On each cover Dr. Dakin recorded the text on which he was preaching and the towns and dates where each sermon was given. The place names constitute a map of Tennessee and Mississippi towns, eighty different places in those forty-three years. It is, therefore, understandable that he delivered the same sermon more than once. One wonders if Williams got his habit of recycling his plays from his grandfather?
The sermons are above all dramatic, with words underlined for emphasis, many visual images, a flowing narrative style, and poetic phraseology—characteristics which also describe Williams's writing. An Easter 1920 sermon starts with a vivid scene: “When the weird darkness lifted on Good Friday afternoon, three crosses stood out upon the bald summit of Calvary. …” Tennessee Williams would use the crucifixion image in many plays: Blanche lying on the floor, arms outstretched at the end of A Streetcar Named Desire; Shannon, bound in the hammock in The Night of the Iguana; Chance Wayne, his body laid out over the car-hood where he will be castrated. Reverend Dakin insisted that there has to be a resurrection, and even Williams's more tragic plays end with a hint of rebirth: Blanche is led off to the asylum, but the play ends with the focus on Stella's baby; Maggie, in Cat, vows to the defeated Brick that she will turn his life around with love; Kingdom of Earth follows closely the biblical text of Jacob and Esau, the disputed birthright and the deception practiced by Rebekah and Jacob. Another sermon paints a fiery picture of Moses and the burning bush—an image Williams used in Clothes for a Summer Hotel.
The sermons are studded with literary and historical illustrations indicative of Walter Dakin's questing intellect, from Dante to Phillips Brooks, from Carlyle to Omar Kháyyám.2 No wonder that his grandson became an omnivorous reader in trying to find out who all these people were! Dr. Dakin had a mind open to new ideas. He speculated at length on current discoveries in psychic research by Arthur Conan Doyle. There is no doubt about his moral stand: he preached that man is given the power to choose, that he can rise above his animal nature. The spirit vs. flesh conflict that runs through most of Williams's plays must have had its origin in his grandfather's sermons. One wonders if Tom heard his sermon on resisting evil? “At the risk of appearing old-fashioned,” Dr. Dakin wrote, “I will use the word ‘Devil,’” quoting I peter, chapter 8: “‘Be vigilant: because your adversary, the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.’” This would have been a graphic image to a child. Tom's nurse, Ozzie, had already introduced him to the Devil. As a small child, he was found one hot day, digging intently with his little spade. Asked why, he explained that he was “diggin to the debil.” In his plays, Tennessee Williams would constantly expose what he saw as the evils of the world. Reverend Dakin later softened “Devil” to “the powers of darkness,” and conceded the possibility of unseen forces, both spiritual and evil, misquoting Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth than we have ever dreamed of in our philosophy.” As a playwright, Tennessee Williams explored what was usually left unseen, what he called “the dark side of the moon.”
Tom returned to St. Louis after a year, but his grandfather's influence continued. He chose the “classics” course in high school, taking Latin and Greek, though he had little aptitude for either. When he was seventeen his grandfather took him on a grand tour of Europe with a group of Clarksdale residents he was guiding. Tom saw the Olympics at Amsterdam, walked the ruins of Pompeii and the battlefields of France. In Paris it seems that even Grandfather kicked over the traces a bit, for the two went to the Folies Bergère as well as Notre Dame. Dr. Dakin urged his grandson to keep a travel journal and to write the series of articles which were published in his high school paper, the success of which encouraged Tom to consider writing as a profession. He did not include in these travelogues his most life-changing memory—the religious experience he had at the cathedral of Cologne. At seventeen, Tom was already experiencing the panic attacks which would affect him throughout his life. One such suddenly overcame him as, with other tourists, he gazed at the light coming through the great stained glass windows of the cathedral. He knelt and began praying, remaining there after everyone in the group had left. “Then a truly phenomenal thing happened,” he recalled later. “It was as if an impalpable hand were placed on my head, and at the instant of that touch, the phobia was lifted away as lightly as a snowflake though it had weighed on my head like a skull-breaking block of iron” (Leverich 95).
His grandfather's dearest wish was for Tom to go to the University of the South on its mountain in Sewanee. He had promoted the school through the years, every fall preaching a “Sewanee” sermon, urging financial support. But by college time the Depression had hit and Tom could afford only the University of Missouri. He had joined a fraternity and wrote home that school was like a big country club, which report alarmed his grandfather. He may have been even more alarmed if he had read his grandson's first play, written at Missouri: Beauty Is the Word. From the sacrilegious title to the plot, it represents a youthful breaking away from churchly background. (A moralistic missionary and his wife preaching gloom and doom to the heathen on a South Seas island are resented by natives who plan to burn the mission. The mission, however, is saved when the couple's hedonistic niece joins in the natives' dance, proclaiming that Beauty, not the Fear of God, is the Word.) For Christmas 1933, Reverend Dakin gave Tom a book called The Ascent of the Soul, writing on the fly leaf: “May you read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the thought of this book.” It is a high-minded, mystical treatise on salvation, as understood in various religious cultures. Intriguing to the researcher are the handwritten notations on almost one-third of the pages. If written by the grandfather, they were simply for emphasis. If written by Tom, they indicate that he was sufficiently interested at age twenty-two to study seriously a religious book. Strangely, the two men's handwriting was then quite similar although later Williams's became increasingly erratic. A professional graphologist, examining examples of each hand, believed the notations were by Tom. She noted that, while the old man's writing indicated extreme self-confidence, the young man's showed a corresponding lack of self-confidence. It would be true that many a Tennessee Williams manuscript is a testament to indecision, with cross-hatched deletions, numerous trial titles, characters who transmute from comic to tragic, and often several opposite endings.
In the early thirties, the Depression years, Tom was looking for salvation. His beloved sister was sinking into mental illness, and his journal entries suggest that he feared a similar fate. He had had to give up school to work in the shoe factory by day and was desperately writing all night. When he had a nervous breakdown on his twenty-fourth birthday, he fled to his grandparents in Memphis for refuge. Through his grandfather's influence he was able to use the library of Southwestern University (now Rhodes College), where he first read Chekhov who would become his literary inspiration. His grandfather's neighbor introduced him to the little theater group which performed his first staged production, Cairo! Shanghai! Bombay!, causing him to decide on the spot that he would become a playwright. It was in part his grandparents' money that sent him on to the University of Iowa where he received professional training in theater. Years later, when Williams, writing A Streetcar Named Desire, thought he was dying and was desperate to finish the script, he took the ninety-year old Reverend Dakin with him to Key West. “Whenever I'm … discouraged with my work,” Williams said, “I just go and sit near [Grandfather]. Sometimes we don't speak at all, but … I seem to get a great spiritual solace from him.” Under this calming influence he quickly finished his greatest play (Spoto 130).
Williams and Dr. Dakin, however, more than likely parted philosophically over the question of free will. Tom realized his sexual orientation at age twenty-eight and felt he had been born a homosexual and that no act of will could change that fact. He could not accept the restrictions of a religion which condemned him as a sinner. Like Shannon in Night of the Iguana, he would thereafter challenge God. People as sophisticated as New Yorker theater critic John Lahr have called Tennessee Williams “a religious writer,” but perhaps, like Shannon, he was more of a seeker, truly a “doubting Thomas.” All his life he was hounded by Heaven. In one play he describes the famous church at Port Gibson, Mississippi, its spire ending in a hand with the finger pointing up to the sky. This image, and that of the small boy “diggin to the devil” seem to express the quest of Williams as playwright.
Dr. Dakin wrote a sermon called “The Hades Life,” a reference from Dante's Inferno, in which he warns his flock against allowing themselves to entertain “the vague, undefined notion that some great moral transformation will pass over them at the time of death which will fit them for the presence of God and the occupation of eternity.” In another sermon he draws from Dante's canto 3 on The Great Refusal, which describes the lost souls in ante-hell, Limbo, who failed to choose for either God or Satan. Adding his own example, the story of the rich young ruler, Dr. Dakin includes him in the number of those sinners—paraphrasing Dante—“who are blown about like autumn leaves on the confines of the outer world.” Could it be that Tennessee Williams drew his final lines in The Glass Menagerie from his grandfather's sermon on Dante and saw himself condemned to an eternal Purgatory? “I travelled around a great deal. The cities swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from the branches. I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something. …” Perhaps it was not only the memory of Laura which pursued him, but the knowledge that he was torn away from the branches of his grandfather's faith.
When Dr. Dakin grew old and blind and Williams was rich and successful, their situations reversed, with grandson caring for grandfather. He lived with Tom off and on until he died at ninety-seven, happy with the luxuries this life afforded and tolerant of Tennessee's off-beat companions. Williams painted a sensitive portrait of the Reverend Dakin as the aged poet, “Nonno,” in Night of the Iguana, his loveliest and most religious drama. Hannah, the figure of grace in that play, may be a tribute to his grandmother, who he said was “all that I knew of God in my life.” In “The Preacher's Boy,” the child is found dead of heart failure, lying in the small closet behind the organ from which he was trying to pump music. In real life, the Preacher's Boy never got to “the mountain,” as Sewanee is called. When Tennessee Williams could no longer pump out the music of his plays, he died in a small New York City hotel. He left his entire fortune of several million dollars to Sewanee's University of the South as the Walter Dakin Memorial, an endowment for aspiring writers—the final tribute of a famous grandson to the influence of his grandfather.
Lines from “The Preacher's Boy” are set in italics for emphasis and run through the essay as a refrain.
The Rev. Dakin sermons in the archives at the University of the South are identified by the scripture text used and the date of first delivery rather than by title. On the cover of each blue book is written the subsequent dates and places the sermon was given. Thus the dates of those Tom Williams may have heard in Clarksdale can be established. It seems evident that Williams also read some of these sermons in later life. The illustrations from Dante on The Great Refusal, page 9, are from a sermon identified as x Mark, 21: the story of the rich young ruler.
Publication of excerpts from “The Preacher's Boy” is by special arrangement with The University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee. Copyright © 1999 by The University of the South.
Bradford, Amory. The Ascent of the Soul. New York: Outlook, 1902.
Centennial Anniversary brochure. 16 Oct. 1994. St. George Episcopal Church, Clarksdale, MS.
Clark, Paul. “Williams' authorship questioned.” Clarksdale Press Register 6 July 1990.
Conerly, Perion. Backseat Quarterback. Garden City: Doubleday, 1963.
Dakin, Walter E. Sermons, 1985-1935. Archives Library, U of the South, Sewanee, TN.
Davis, Louise. “That Baby Doll Man.” Conversations With Tennessee Williams. Ed. Albert J. Devlin. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1986.
Handy, W. C. Father of the Blues. New York: Macmillan, 1941.
Heidelburg, Alida Clark. “I Remember Tennessee.” Panel discussion. Tennessee Williams Festival. Clarksdale, MS. 1994.
Leverich, Lyle. Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams. New York: Crown, 1995.
Mayfield, Panny, “Mississippi's Tennessee.” Mississippi Magazine (May/June, 1991): 39.
Mississippi, A Guide to the Magnolia State. Federal Writers Project. New York: Viking-Hasting, 1938.
Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers. Boston: Little, 1985.
Weeks, Linton. History of Clarksdale and Coahoma County. Clarksdale (MS) Public Library, 1982: 60.
Williams, Tennessee. Beauty Is the Word. Missouri Review 7.3 (1984): 187.
———. “Grand.” Collected Stories. New York: New Directions, 1985.
———. Memoirs. New York: Doubleday, 1975.
———. Not about Nightingales. New York: New Directions, 1998.
———. “The Preacher's Boy.” Unpublished ms. Humanities Research Center, U of Texas, Austin.
———. Spring Storm. New York: New Directions, 1999.
———. The Theatre of Tennessee Williams. New York: New Directions.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3445
SOURCE: Kolin, Philip C. “Tennessee Williams's ‘Interval’: MGM and Beyond.” Southern Quarterly 38, no. 1 (fall 1999): 21-7.
[In the following essay, Kolin asserts that the story “Interval” “bears scrutiny as a disclosure of Williams's view of art, sex, and the imagination, all fused in America's quintessential worlds of illusion making—Hollywood and Broadway.”]
Of all Tennessee Williams's short fiction, perhaps no story has been more undeservedly unattended by critical commentary than “Interval.” Yet this story characteristically unveils key places, times, and events in Williams's early life and art. “Interval” documents the recuperable hiatus Williams himself underwent—an “embarrassed chapter” in his life—played against the backdrop of the mid 1940s. The very title circumscribes the temporal and topical dimension of Williams's quest for success. He wrote “Interval” in 1945, although it was not published until 1985 in the Collected Stories. The events in this short story occur before the end of World War II and are set first in Hollywood and then in New York.
The early 1940s were among the most significant years in Williams's career, watershed years in fact. In 1944, he saw his first notable success with the production of A Glass Menagerie, launching his career on Broadway. Yet the mid 1940s were also a time of conclusions. Williams said good-bye to a never-budding career as a Hollywood screenwriter at MGM. From May through December 1943 he worked on several projects for the studio, including The Gentleman Caller, which was later to become The Glass Menagerie, and what he termed a “celluloid brassiere” for Lana Turner—Marriage Is a Private Affair. Because of his own independence, he “was removed from the film, then suspended, and finally dismissed” (Leverich, Plate 76). Basically, the studio found the young southerner “too literate” (Jennings 242) and too outspoken. For example, he described child star Margaret O'Brien as “a smaller, more loathsome edition of Shirley Temple” (Windham 122). According to biographer Lyle Leverich, Williams “lapsed into feeling a cynicism prevalent among writers who considered they were demeaned by the material they were asked to adapt” (506). Williams's experiences doubtless surfaced years later in the gay character Quentin's failed venture as a screenwriter in Small Craft Warnings. Having been fired from the studio, Williams was understandably dissatisfied with the Hollywood scene, and went off to New York and Broadway success. As Leverich again observes, “It was Hollywood lost, permanently. He had arrived a playwright and … departed more of a playwright than ever” (530).
“Interval” is about “show business” (“Interval” 197), “vague studio prospects” (197), and the lure of fame and glory in Hollywood and on the New York stage, concerns acutely occupying Williams in the 1940s. The real “show business” in “Interval,” of course, deals with the self-reflexive postures of its author, his dreams, fears, and defeats in the world of “terrible glamour” (194). Even before his MGM fiasco, Williams was not unmindful of Hollywood's bait and trap. In an unpublished letter to his mother Edwina in 1939, he expressed his awareness of Hollywood's infection, characterizing it as a place with “a putrid atmosphere of sham and confusion” (Devlin and Tischler). Clifford Odet's screenplay about Hollywood—The Big Knife—would later aptly summarize the destructive power of America's film capital on a writer of sensibility. Self-revelatory, “Interval” bears scrutiny as a disclosure of Williams's view of art, sex, and the imagination, all fused in America's quintessential worlds of illusion making—Hollywood and Broadway. I read “Interval,” then, as Williams's fictional record of his own dreams, and those he created for audiences through film writing and playwrighting, and his relationships with the public and fellow artists in Hollywood and New York. A polysemous work with the plays, “Interval” illustrates the theatricality of Williams's early fiction, packed with code-breaking, even seditious, subtexts in 1945. The autobiographical currents propel the surface narrative of the plot.
“Interval” tells of a young schoolteacher from Iowa, Gretchen, and her journey to Hollywood with fellow-teacher Augusta, who manipulates her into paying for all of their expenses. Once in Hollywood, Augusta meets a studio hopeful Carl Zerbst who has the loan of a Buick Roadmaster. Of course, Augusta and Carl never make room for Gretchen who gently plots to break away from the usurpatious Augusta. While on the beach ruminating her defection, Gretchen meets another would-be star, Jimmie. Elated over the attention he gives her, she falls hopelessly in love, marries him, and, as the unkind years pass, her “excitement gave her a glow that more than made up for the imperfections of her form and features, and if Jimmie had declined somewhat from the meridian of his beauty, it was not in Gretchen's eyes to notice” (194). With Jimmie's talents and opportunities plummeting, they leave Hollywood for Dubuque where Jimmie's friend—and “would-be star” Bobby—sends him a telegram exhorting: “Come quickly to New York. Chance of a lifetime.” Without hesitation, Jimmie rushes off, leaving Gretchen to stay at home, but she follows with the good news that she is pregnant. “Along toward the end” of Gretchen's second week in New York, a disturbance at Bobby's apartment, where Jimmie was staying, convinces Jimmie to send her back to Dubuque where she was “to wait for the theatrical success Bobby had surely promised her but which never materialized.” In Dubuque, Gretchen has the baby, and despite her fantasies of Jimmie's success, all she receives from him is a postcard demanding that she forget him.
The sequence of events these Williams's protagonists go through mirrors, yet ultimately vindicates, Williams's own life. In particular, Williams's experiences at MGM unfold in his characters' plight. “Interval” interrogates the definable boundaries between author and his fiction. The parallels between author and his characters—text and texture—are built on disclosures that were not meant to reveal. This early story shows Williams adroitly learning how to (dis)appear in his characters. “Interval” is a protected confessional. Like Jimmie, Gretchen, and Bobby, Williams dreamt of and worked toward Hollywood success. Like them, too, he gleefully entered the world of glamour, acclaim, and image-making only to be rebuffed by those who did not appreciate his talents, his sensitivities, those whom he learned were deficient in beauty and grace. Underneath the fictionality, Jimmie, the failed star, bears an uncanny resemblance to Williams, the failed, frustrated scriptwriter. Jimmie and Williams were both avid swimmers: Williams, like Jimmie, haunted Laguna Beach where Jimmie first meets Gretchen. The author and his creation were close in age as well: Jimmie is nearly 30; Williams was 34 in 1945. Both were exempt from military service because of health problems. Seeing some of the war years in a defense plant, Jimmie escaped from middle-class work in Dubuque just as Williams earlier had earlier fled the International Shoe factory in St. Louis. Like Jimmie, Williams came to Hollywood (spurred on by his agent Audrey Wood) expecting he was “on the verge of accomplishing something of a glamourous nature … but it was always just on the verge and not over” (“Interval” 192). Williams did receive a seven-year studio contract, but it was never fully executed; Jimmie “got a little extra work in the movies” (194), an analogue of Williams's short-lived tenure at MGM. Interestingly enough, the screenplay that Williams thought would put him near the top of a movie marquee—The Gentleman Caller—was never used in a film at MGM while he was in Hollywood. Similarly imbued with Hollywood fame, Jimmie had once “hobnobbed with the near-royalty of Hollywood … everybody with any perception should know he had a brilliant future as soon as the war was over” (195). Such were Williams's dreams at MGM, too, as he socialized with the Hollywood glitterati of the 1940s—a large cast of stars and distinguished writers. Like Jimmie, then, Williams waited for “the big break” (195).
Another parallel between Jimmie, the would-be star, and Williams focuses on their sex lives, yet such privileged information emerges far more directly in “Interval” than Williams would have ever wanted broadcast in the studio world of MGM in the mid 1940s.1 Jimmie's relationship with Bobby, a “sweet guy” (197), is developed through the veiled codes of homoeroticism. “Jimmie met a young fellow supposed to be a rising star on the lot; their lives were briefly lit by his terrible glamour. But it turned out to be a disadvantage for the rising young star was suddenly disgraced somehow or other and Jimmie was included in the dismissal” (194). This fictional incident may reverberate with vestigia from Williams's biography circa 1943-44, the life being confluent with the art. Bobby is possibly a fictional representative (suitably metamorphosized) for the many young hopefuls Williams met in Hollywood and in the theater who never really made it. Quite possibly, too, Christopher Isherwood, British novelist and Williams's fellow MGM screenwriter, may be a distant model for Bobby. Isherwood freely confessed that he and Williams “enjoyed each other sexually” during their studio days in the 1940s (Leverich 502), though by the time Williams met him, Isherwood was already well-known for numerous works, including his Goodbye to Berlin, which was later made into the film I Am a Camera. Not that Williams's own homosexual relationships in Hollywood were in any way directly responsible for his dismissal from the studio, but the liaison between Jimmie and Bobby may suggest the imprint of Williams's encounter with partners who were desirous of Hollywood or Broadway fame. Regardless, though, Jimmie's involvement with Bobby conjoins Williams with his fame-seeking actor-character in this interval of Williams's testimony of desire in the mid 1940s.
A later incident in “Interval” in New York continues the homoerotic—and autobiographical—context of Jimmie's relationship with Bobby. Both men were implicated in a compromising disturbance, “a curious and distressing scene” (197), when a “hysterical friend woke Gretchen up with a struggle” involving her husband and Bobby, “screaming things that made only the vaguest but most horrible sense to her” (198). Throughout his career Williams was no stranger to homoerotic donnybrooks, as his Memoirs and most autobiographical play Something Cloudy, Something Clear abundantly testify.
If the characters in “Interval” reflect Williams's history of self circa 1945, they also point toward his contemporary and later creations in which other phases of that self were manifested. “Interval” is a highly proleptic story in light of the unfolding Williams canon, particularly the earlier Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, and even the later The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore. The three main characters in “Interval” lead us to explore the intertextuality—the multidimensionality—of Williams's most significant work. Jimmie, for instance, deserves comparison with another James, Jim O'Connor in Menagerie, a fellow unreliable gentleman caller exclusively invested in self. Williams wryly observes of Jimmie: “He was not a boy who wasted much thought on others, but those who said Jimmie had a good heart were right about it. It pleased him to think that his charm was something that could be used to bring sunlight to dark places” (193). But Jimmie's “sunlight,” like Jim O'Connor's “charm,” is suspect. Jimmie and Jim are brothers perpetuating female deception, male doppelgängers under the same mien. Williams zeroes in on Jimmie's kill on Laguna Beach with a sentence reminding us of how the cocky Jim behaves with the shy Laura: “So when he notices this lonely girl ahead of him on the beach, he overtook her and started a conversation” (193). Aping Jimmie, Jim O'Connor “overtook” Laura.
Judging by other analogues in psychic space between the story and the successful play, Williams clearly had Menagerie on his mind when he wrote “Interval.” Like the absent Father Wingfield, Jimmie resorts to an emotionless postcard to inflict wounding messages on his family. Mr. Wingfield sent his family a terse postcard reading “Hello. Goodbye.” A bit more verbose, Jimmie orders Gretchen to forget him on the back of “an ordinary-government-stamped postcard, not even graced with a picture of lighted marquees” (199). Significantly, too, Williams imports/appropriates the glass image for a female (Laura) in Menagerie for Jimmie and his (homoerotic?) crowd in “Interval”: the boys played volleyball “as if each were performing in a separate ring, possibly in a translucent glass sphere of some kind” (193). If Menagerie emerged from a story entitled “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” “Interval” might be subtitled “Portrait of Boys in Glass.”
In vanity and vocational aspirations, Jimmie and Chance Wayne in Sweet Bird of Youth can also claim a significant kinship in the Williams's canon. The Princess's speech in act 3 on the bitter anonymity of the “would-bes” she had known, issued as a warning to Chance, sounds as if Williams were recollecting Jimmie:
Chance, will you listen to me? Can you listen to me? I listened to you this morning, with understanding and pity, I did, I listened, with pity to your story this morning. I felt something in my heart for you which I thought I couldn't feel. I remembered young men who were what you are or what you're hoping to be. I saw them all clearly, all clearly, eyes, voices, smiles, bodies clearly. But their names wouldn't come back to me. I couldn't get their names back without digging into old programs of plays that I starred in at twenty. …
Both covet fame from stardom in the films, yet both fail miserably. Chance, moreover, could be Jimmie's physical counterpart. Like Chance, Jimmie's looks and hair wane as the felon time steals their success. The following description of Jimmie could apply exactly to Chance: “He couldn't afford to get much older than that, for his hair was the sort that is gone after thirty and the boyish fullness of his face was soon to take on an omen of obesity” (192). Both men have “thinning blond hair” (“Interval” 194). Similarly, the Princess's derisive assessment of Chance, the “beach boy I picked up for pleasure,” reflects Jimmie's fate. “Chance, you've gone past something you couldn't afford to go past; your time, your youth, you've passed it. It's all you had, and you've had it” (Sweet Bird 120). Adieu, Jimmie as well. Though not as close as Jimmie and Chance, Chris Flanders in Milk Train [The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore] is another “would-be” in the Williams's canon, a young man with dreams of success that never quite materialize. Finally, Jimmie's relationship with Bobby also foreshadows Brick's friendship with Skipper in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, two unstated but glaringly implied homoerotic couples.
Gretchen bears an affinity to several of Williams's heroines whose lives he dramatized in the late 1940s and early 1950s, women whose confidence in themselves is destroyed because of their blind faith in the men in their lives. Like Laura, Gretchen is exceptionally vulnerable—she is “the lonely girl … on the beach [whom] Jimmie [like Jim] overtook …” (193). Despite the force of reality calling her to her senses, Gretchen's faith in Jimmie is as unshakable as Laura's adulation was for Jim O'Connor. “To Gretchen the living faith was Jimmie himself who could do nothing wrong but who could make little mistakes. Who could be misled by wrong people, because of his trusting nature, and who was just too naturally sweet …” (195). Like Laura, Gretchen is abandoned by this man of “living faith.” Similar to Laura, too, Gretchen is easily intimidated and overwhelmed by a more powerful, domineering woman; Augusta functions as an Amanda in her life.
Most tellingly, though, Gretchen deserves to be compared with two other later Williams schoolteachers desperate for love, Alma Winemiller and Blanche DuBois. It is significant that all three of these women—Gretchen, Alma, and Blanche—are frustrated schoolteachers, a stereotype Williams intensified and exoticized on stage and in at least one piece of early fiction, “Night of the Iguana” (1948), where Miss Edith Jelkes “had been an instructor in art at an Episcopalian girls' school in Mississippi until she had suffered a sort of nervous breakdown …” (229). In Summer and Smoke Alma Winemiller like Gretchen leads a sheltered life, peaceful, and unaccustomed to theatrics or passion. The turmoil Gretchen experienced because of Jimmie's rival lover Bobby anticipates Alma's consternation over Rosa Gonzales, her rival for Dr. Buchanan. Though she leads an “untheatrical life” (199), Gretchen does not surrender her dreams, however ill-favored they are, as Alma had to. Yet both women suffer the consequences of an alienating loneliness. Like Blanche DuBois, Gretchen is involved in a waiting game. Waiting for just the right man, Gretchen meets Jimmie, whom she believes will make things work out, just as Blanche hopes her relationship with Mitch or Shep Huntleigh would do. Yet both women want the magic—not the reality—of romance. Gretchen and Jimmie are even serenaded by a song that will become Blanche's signature tune—“It's Only a Paper Moon”—a romantic melody rich in the illusions of deception in which both women envelope themselves. As Blanche does, Gretchen flounders in an anxiety fueled by the very magic that destroys the realism she needs to have the relationship become and remain viable. What Williams said of Gretchen in 1945 could have easily been claimed by Blanche in her reaction to Mitch in 1947-48: “She dared not show her anxiety to Jimmie but she would certainly have appreciated plainer speech on the subject of the big deal that seemed to be cooking” (197). Recognizing Gretchen's anxiety, Jimmie almost prophetically characterizes it in a Blanche-laden image: “Baby, this repertory idea would make sense to somebody who was born in a wardrobe trunk” (197). Blanche travels with a trunk full of staged dreams that Stanley, like Jimmie, destroys.
The strongest link, however, is between Gretchen and Stella, women willing to sacrifice their welfare, even their lives, for a man. There is a great deal of Gretchen in Stella, and perhaps the earlier wife's fate is what ultimately awaits Stella, too. Both women are highly maternal wives, enduring painful, humiliating abuse from husbands, even when they flee from them with carefree irresponsibility. Yet Gretchen, as Stella would experience, has no choice but to accept the loneliness that comes from a husband's infidelity and the pain that accompanies his defection. Gretchen is an early example in the Williams's fiction of the abused wife who populates so many of his plays.
Luckily for Williams, what fiction forbodes, life reversed. Of course, writing in 1945 he had little idea how his life would turn out. While Jimmie's experiences in Hollywood mirrored Williams's in 1943, the playwright's departed radically from the would-be actor's in New York in 1945. “Interval” leaves readers with little doubt that Jimmie would be a victim of obscurity and continued troubled love in New York with Bobby. But for Williams the Broadway premiere of Menagerie in 1945 signaled the beginning of a glorious career lighted with meteoric fame. That fame eventually extended to Hollywood honors as well. “fifteen major motion-picture adaptations of Tennessee Williams's works were produced between 1950 and 1969” (Goff 243), with Menagerie being the first Williams play to be turned into film. Williams, unlike Jimmie, did return to Hollywood as a celebrity in 1950 when he was asked to help Oscar Saul prepare the screenplay for the Warner Brothers production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Williams could gloat upon his return to tinsel town, perhaps even triumphantly parading himself as “The Gentleman Caller,” conqueror of celluloid. Vindicating his MGM days, Williams reaped Hollywood glory again in 1955 by writing the screenplay for Baby Doll, one of the most controversial American films of the decade. Yet, as the testamentary power of “Interval” proclaims, Williams, like Jimmie, suffered from the continuous “terrible glamour” of his early Hollywood days. Because of his fame, Williams became the center of controversies that disturbed his peace until he died in 1983. Ultimately, however, the benefits Williams derived in and from “Interval” were the seeds of future successes he unintentionally planted in this story that, without the inquiring supervision of the critic's eye, grew into his full-blown dramatic masterpieces.
Though he does not discuss “Interval,” David Savran, in Cowboys, Communists and Queers: The Politics of Masculinity in the Works of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992) explores this concept in the Williams canon.
Devlin, Albert J., and Nancy Tischler, eds. Letters of Tennessee Williams. Forthcoming
Goff, David. “Tennessee Williams's Films.” Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance Ed. Philip C. Kolin. Westport: Greenwood, 1998. 242-53.
Jennings, C. Robert. “Interview: Tennessee Williams.” Playboy (Apr. 1973): 69-84. Rpt. in Conversations with Tennessee Williams. Ed. Albert J. Devlin. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1986. 224-50.
Leverich, Lyle. Tom: The Unknown World of Tennessee Williams. New York: Crown, 1995.
Williams, Tennessee. Glass Menagerie. The Theatre of Tennessee Williams. Vol. 1. New York: New Directions, 1971.
———. “Interval.” Tennessee Williams: Collected Stories. New York: New Directions, 1985. 189-204.
———. “Night of the Iguana.” Tennessee Williams: Collected Stories. New York: New Directions, 1985.
———. Sweet Bird of Youth. The Theatre of Tennessee Williams. Vol. 4. New York: New Directions, 1971.
Windham, Donald. Tennessee Williams Letters to Donald Windham, 1940-1965. New York: Penguin, 1980.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7061
SOURCE: Schiavi, Michael R. “The Hungry Women of Tennessee Williams's Fiction.” In Tennessee Williams: A Casebook, edited by Robert F. Gross, pp. 107-20. New York: Routledge, 2002.
[In the following essay, Schiavi elucidates the role of feminine hunger in Williams's short fiction.]
Throughout his “secondary” career as a fiction writer, Tennessee Williams repeatedly staged dramas of female appetite. This theme also anchors some of his seminal stagework: A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Summer and Smoke (1948), The Rose Tattoo (1951), and Kingdom of Earth (1968) all pivot upon women's sexual needs and satisfactions. In short stories, however, Williams proved far more adept at tracing multiple female desires as they transfix and baffle observation. Free from Broadway's narrow conception of stageworthy bodies, Williams the storywriter spent nearly fifty years displaying women in open gratification of various hungers. Indeed, in his fiction, female characters' appetites constitute their very narrativity and make them worthy of the dramatic venue often denied them. With highly noticeable physical proportions and expression, these women manifest theatrically to bewildered spectators who, in struggling to name and interpret the aberration before them, become negligible forces within their own dramas. By no coincidence, these spectators are typically males who, over the years of Williams's career, become inversely less active against the consuming women who devour figurative “stage space.”
Before discussing the stories, it is necessary to address a staple of Williams criticism: that the playwright venomously travesties female representation for the male homosexuality he cannot stage openly.1 As a mid-century gay man, Williams had great personal stake in the risks of gratifying a proscribed appetite,2 and, like many of his female characters, knew well the dangers of putting his desires on public display. At the same time, it is reductive to assume that Williams conflated the different experiences of abject women and gay men. Gay men appear on their own terms throughout the body of Williams's fiction in such stories as “In Memory of an Aristocrat” (c. 1940), “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio” (1941), “The Angel in the Alcove” (1943), “The Malediction” (1945), “The Interval” (1945), “Something about Him” (1946), “The Night of the Iguana” (1948), “Hard Candy” (1949-1953), “Two on a Party” (1953), “Mama's Old Stucco House” (1965), “The Killer Chicken and the Closet Queen” (1977), and “The Negative” (1982). By treating gay themes and characters ever more explicitly in stories—a more tolerant venue than Broadway—Williams had no need to use female characters as camp “beards.”
Indeed, most of Williams's women experience a vulnerability unknown to his fiction's gay men. In his stories, Williams generally keeps gay sex hidden, whether behind the wall Miss Jelkes shares with an amorous male couple in “Iguana,” or in the shadows of the Joy Rio balcony. Effeminacy, which American culture continues to read as infallible (homo)sexual marker, remains conspicuously absent throughout his stories (and his plays, until Quentin in Small Craft Warnings ). Without such displays, the gay men of Williams's fiction generally address their hungers without excessive notice or risk. Such is not the case for the overweight and sexually direct women of the stories. These characters cannot hide their passions; their bodies and behavior keep them at high profile. Their satisfaction of appetites meets with a critical scrutiny that seems to elude men.3 The stories' hungry women thus help Williams to stage a personally familiar war of wills that the theatre of his time did not tolerate.
The Broadway of Williams's career allowed precious few large women to tread the boards. When they did appear, qualified stage directions attempted to defuse the visceral shock of their bodies. In Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten (1946), Josie Hogan is “so oversize for a woman that she is almost a freak,” but her largeness comes chiefly from height. She has a “slender” waist and, their strength notwithstanding, reassuringly feminine arms. O'Neill rushes to reassure us that she is “all woman” (301), and Josie herself comes to know that size needn't kill all hope for love. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), Edward Albee chivalrously describes Martha as “ample, but not fleshy,” and her “ample” figure certainly doesn't prevent her offstage seduction of Nick, twenty-two years her junior.
Other large women of the American canon enjoy a reprieve from the judgmental gaze by dint of their age and/or de-sexed maternity. “Short” and “stout,” Big Mama in Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) may earn authorial comparison to a “Japanese wrestler,” but the noted “sincerity” with which she seeks to unify her family elevates her above ridicule (33). Mama of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (1959), euphemized in stage directions as “full-bodied,” is also described as “beautiful” and possessing enough strength of character to save her family from moral bankruptcy (39). Even the “rather fleshy” Myrtle of Williams's Kingdom of Earth, perhaps the most clownish of these women, treats her husband Lot with an ill-deserved maternal delicacy that bespeaks essential kindness (9); Chicken's desire for Myrtle, moreover, deflects interest from her size to their deferred coupling.
While these women exceed the physical boundaries of normative female representation, they do so through motherly and/or sexual channels that steer spectators' attention from their girth. Aside from Josie's potshots at herself, no character criticizes the women's bodies. Never, more importantly, are any of these women described as “fat,” a term that stops dramatic plotting in its tracks.4 Since Susie Orbach's pioneering Fat Is a Feminist Issue (1978), self-declared “fat” women have often cited the deadly performativity of their bodies; once named, fat becomes its own visual raison d'être and ensures its bearer's inability to participate in other narratives. W. Charisse Goodman, for example, recalls that “anytime I moved my body, people would laugh at me … even if I sat still and quietly read a book they would point and laugh.” As the neighborhood “fat kid,” Goodman considered herself not a self-determined subject, but rather “just an object described by an adjective.” She discusses fat in appropriately theatrical terms: “… big women are typically trotted onstage solely to amuse and reassure the members of the [thin] ruling class” (x, ix, 5). Charlotte Cooper similarly describes herself and other fat women as “super-visible and vulnerable as targets” and argues that the “fear of fat encourages people to be judgmental” about corporeal deviance, particularly that observed in women (26, 3).5
Fat bears a hyperactive semiotic curse. Viewers of non-streamlined chins, breasts, stomachs, buttocks, and legs search passionately for etiology: what has brought a woman to such physical explosion? Poor self-discipline? Wild overindulgence? Indifference to popular image? Such interpretations construe fat as a key symptom of immorality and its public appearance a nervy performance deserving unchecked attack.
Williams realized the dramatic possibilities of conspicuous bodies that resist abjection. He also knew, however, that such bodies would find no greater welcome in theatre than they generally do in public. He thus turned to short stories as the venue in which he could most thoughtfully mount dramas of rebellious mass. From the anonymous scribbling of his twenties through the commissioned work of his late career, his fiction is filled with women whose appetites for food, credibility, and, later, sex, read distinctly on their bodies.6 Williams exults in dropping such characters into social arenas crawling with critics. He also exults in showing how these women, even when overpowered or banished, govern the thought and speech of their detractors, whom they demote from actor to reactor even within the critics' own stories. Having removed these nominal protagonists from the reader's focus, Williams celebrates women whose evident hungers receive endless public attention.
In her openness to attack, Mrs. Meighan of “Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton” (1935) mirrors several of the best-known women in American short fiction. John Steinbeck, Flannery O'Connor, and Joyce Carol Oates have all written tales about isolated women who, thinking themselves invulnerable at home, suffer exploitation by a male interloper. In Steinbeck's “The Chrysanthemums” (1935), mannish Elisa loses all sense of self when a peddler charms her out of her prized flowers only to obtain their copper pot. Haughty Hulga of O'Connor's “Good Country People” (1950) loses her wooden leg—hence her mobility, autonomy, and identity—to a Bible salesman whom she, like Elisa, had treated with initial dismissiveness. In Oates's “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (1970), teenaged Connie finds herself overpowered by a sinister male visitor who gradually seduces her from her empty family home. Like Elisa and Hulga, Mrs. Meighan attracts notice in physical aberration; like Connie, she faces sexual menace from a demonic male visitor who traps her in her own house. Unlike Steinbeck, O'Connor, and Oates, however, Williams allows his protagonist to maintain narrative sway even as she falls prey to assault. Throughout the tale, both Mrs. Meighan and the “little man,” her unnamed visitor, are fixated upon her size. In the story's six pages, the man appreciatively mentions Mrs. Meighan's “bigness” seven times; she herself comments on it three times. The omniscient narrator lingers over Mrs. Meighan's “huge body,” its “bulging calves,” “lumpy ankles,” “tremendous shoulders,” the “soft multiple complexities of her chin,” and the “mountains of sweating flesh” that comprise her torso (46, 47, 49).7
The little man's noticing of Mrs. Meighan's body assumes a sexual rhythm and becomes the story's animating force. The man supplements his intermittent switching of Mrs. Meighan's calves with professed appreciation for her “bigness” until the two acts combine in violent foreplay. By story's end, Mrs. Meighan is badly frightened and stumbling toward escape, her languorous masochism replaced by a realistic fear of being beaten and raped. She becomes “a tremendous, sobbing Persephone” (50) en route to an underworld of sadomasochistic horrors, possibly death. Her Hades masters her not through brute abduction, however, but through incessant invocation of the physical qualities that have led her to deny her beauty (46). In his repetitive flirtations, the little man sexualizes what other men have found freakish, as per Mr. Meighan's calling his wife “the biggest woman in this part of the state” (47). His flirtations also suggest him as the simplest form of spectator/critic, one who bases speech upon the eager pronouncement of difference.
Thus reviewed, Mrs. Meighan is well aware of herself as object of spectatorship, but to her peril, she does not maneuver this heightened objectivity to advantage. Instead, she allows herself to become dulled by consumption. By the time the little man arrives, she has slid into a post-caffeine slump, a casualty of the many sodas she has drunk in the summer sun. Now “utterly numb” (46), she cannot maintain her subjectivity against visual assault. Like the September cotton surrounding her house, she sits in vulnerable, inert abundance, a ripe semiotic system unto herself. Content to parrot the little man's rating of her body, Mrs. Meighan fails to protect herself from attack. Her textual dominance, in other words, does not translate to physical safety.
Williams foreshadows Mrs. Meighan's predicament in her disregard of the little man's power and sexuality. With a longstanding aversion to “little men,” she overlooks her inexplicable attraction to her visitor and contemptuously thinks of him as “hardly more than half her size. Why it would be just the same as …” (47). Mrs. Meighan's unfinished incestuous thought also occurs to the equally large, unnamed dark woman of “Gift of an Apple” (1936) during her dalliance with a hungry young drifter who is the same age as her son. Throughout their flirtation, the visitor never mentions his hostess's largeness aloud, but the topic overpowers his mind and allows him only a limited mental range. In his observation, the woman is “huge,” “big, heavy and dark” with “coarse hairs along her upper lip” and on the “great loose bulge of her bosom,” reminding the young man of a sideshow hermaphrodite he'd seen. He watches with some disgust as “her … huge jaws … munched [an apple] like a horse”; he later imagines her “fat elbows” spread over a table as she devours a “big piece” of “rich, oily meat” (67, 71, 68, 69, 72).
Even as these squalid images crowd the young man's mind, dominating his perception of the woman as well as the sketch's spare text, her size also holds sexual currency for the drifter, who imagines her “big dark female body” spread out at night, waiting for a lover (69). He considers the woman an easy conquest, as vulnerable as the large, bottle-trapped catfish he killed as a boy out of sadistic spectatorship. Wedged in her tiny trailer, this woman seems equally trapped, as pressed into satisfying his appetite as she has her own.
Nevertheless, this guest cannot master his host as Mrs. Meighan's visitor does her. As a hitchhiker, he dreads the weight of an assessing gaze and cannot, therefore, return it with sufficient gravity. Tired and dirty, he has been variously ignored by motorists, viewed with suspicion, and subjected to unwanted caresses from male drivers. The “mental compulsion” (66) he tries to wield over potential hosts on the road proves no more successful than that attempted over the woman, who gives her starving guest but one apple. Sexual aggression, as on the road, also remains out of his hands. The woman follows her open appraisal of his body with a caress and the emasculating assessment, “You got nice skin like a girl's” (71)8; before he can take the reins, she abruptly terminates the flirtation upon learning his age. In departing, the young protagonist tries to gain interpretive control by assigning the woman cancer, ironically demonstrating the degree to which even her absent body choreographs his imagination along with the story's plot.
“In Memory of an Aristocrat” similarly opposes young male drifters against a large woman with the ability to dominate spectacle, text, and plot. In the story's first paragraph, the unnamed narrator describes himself and his friend Carl as “hungry” would-be artists dependent on the kindness of Irene, a French Quarter bohemian who “always ha[s] something cooking” and who wishes to “embrace the whole world” (90). Irene satisfies not only her own appetite; others feed off her resources as well. The narrator also feeds imaginatively off Irene's ample body and spirit, aptly characterized as “compulsion to poetry” (85), when he chronicles the epic battle waged between his friend's physical mass and its horrified spectators.
“Aristocrat” features the conspicuous size references familiar from “Twenty-seven Wagons” and “Gift of an Apple,” but it also configures its heroine as explicit spectacle. Described as “one of those big, dark girls, everything about her on a monumental scale,” Irene had served as an improbable model for New York WPA classes. Despite his qualified appreciation for Irene's beauty, the narrator renders her body in cruel cinematic caricature by “photographing” it “as though the camera had been placed at her feet” in floor-to-ceiling inversion of perspective. From this vantage, the narrator directs our gaze to her “lower part … [which] was disproportionately heavy … [and] on a larger scale toward the bottom” (85). Irene thus emerges a cinematographer's oddball darling, worthy of funhouse consideration from all angles. In its size, proportion, attire, and public outrageousness, her body becomes an object of spectatorship more imposing than any offered by Williams's Broadway contemporaries.
A perfect Mardi Gras grotesque, Irene appears in self-styled spectacle throughout New Orleans, deliberately spreading her visibility far beyond the attentions of friends and WPA students. Clad only in a grass skirt and “very scanty brassiere,” she passes out in a small Quarter bar, overwhelming the space in her sprawl, after “shrieking” through the streets and turning tricks all afternoon (89); clearly, she has given much of downtown New Orleans an unforgettable show. Upon rescue by the narrator, she spends the rest of the night outlining her battered past in between vomiting spells, her body endlessly producing signs of its mythical appetites for food, alcohol, and love.
Prominent even amid the Quarter carnival, Irene assumes Barnum and Bailey stature as she wreaks sideshow vengeance upon the bluebloods who, at their Annual Spring Display, have rejected her submitted paintings. She, in fact, becomes the display, described by one patron as “the floor show” even before targeting the gathering's “too fragile” occupants and accoutrements. Eager “to make a scene,” she tears through the room as “Bubonic Plague,” befouling the air with obscenities and shattering precious tchotchkes in her wake. In unwitting parody of her own maternal expansiveness, Irene falls out of her dress during a toe-stomping, crotch-kicking frenzy that renders her an eminently watchable natural disaster, a hurricane whose energy must exhaust itself before civility can resume. When she collapses, the narrator marvels that “such a big girl,” who had commandeered mass attention while demolishing her disdainful spectators' own performance space, could dissolve into impotence (92-95). He has become accustomed to Irene's weighty mastery of public view and discourse; even after she disappears from New Orleans, her adopted motto on “the aristocracy of passionate souls” remains scrawled across a wall of her abandoned studio. Her expressive legacy endures.
Cora in “Two on a Party,” one of Williams's best-known and most candid stories, is Irene twenty years post—“Aristocrat.” The two women share a “monumental kindness” (298), charity to the underdog, hatred of conventional society, and, total public attention. The omniscient narrator drolly refers to Cora as “a noticeable person” (309), a visceral fact that, as in the stories discussed above, determines much of the proceedings. With Billy, her gay friend, Cora wanders aimlessly over the country in search of its most accommodating bars and men, an occupation that pivots on her ability to manipulate common scrutiny to advantage.
For neither character is this an easy task. At nearly thirty-five, Billy is extremely self-conscious about his thinning hair and hearing loss. These disadvantages, however, by no means receive the narrative space allotted Cora's various dissipations. The story begins with Billy's efforts to gauge her obviously advancing age. At their first meeting, he thinks her an “‘old bag’” and watches repulsed as she twists her “rather heavy figure … into ludicrous positions” while scouting for a lost earring amid “disgusting refuse” on the floor (297). Cora repeatedly refers to herself as a “mess” and laments that she is “so heavy in the hips” and hampered by “big udders,” the cumulative effect of which causes her to “shimm[y] fatly” rather than walk (300, 311). Having later exceeded her “saturation point” with nightly ryes, she is left “bloated” and “bloodshot,” conditions for which she overcompensates by burying herself in riotous clothing, hair color, and a deafening profusion of charm bracelets (302, 309). If even Billy “thinks she has overdone it a little,” she must register at Irene-levels on the world's Richter scale of poor taste.
Indeed, much of Cora's life consists of skirting stares from “bull-like middle-aged couples,” the “squares” who regard her drunken, openly sexual antics with contempt (307). While Billy certainly joins her in these escapades, he is protected by male prerogative and the writing career to which Cora believes he will one day return. Cora herself, however, has apparently never had a purpose in life beyond the “party” and cannot imagine what she would do if she got “off” it. Fittingly, even through their inseparable months, Billy learns almost nothing about Cora's past. She remains in his eyes, and ours, a boisterous companion who draws the world's focus to her conspicuous surfaces.
Yet despite her oft-mentioned affronts to public taste, Cora does not behave aggressively; she seeks neither sexual conquest nor social combat. Described, in her passivity, by Billy as a “big piece of seaweed,” she seems instead to await friendly notice, allowing it to find her in big-city throngs rather than capitalizing on her natural noticeability (303). Unlike Irene in her rage, Cora attempts to soothe frays with hotel clerks and disgruntled tricks, thereby keeping herself (and Billy) from litigious view. Despite the literal and textual largeness of Cora's persona, her chief influence in the story remains maternal, especially toward Billy, whom she loves and thus supports financially and emotionally without significant return. Williams would spend the rest of his fiction-writing career reprising this figure, assigning her ever greater and more pernicious spectatorial sway.
As Williams's stagework grew more forthright in its presentation of multiple sexualities, his fiction began to configure “appetite” less literally. Whereas the earlier stories (1935-1953) often conflate women's dietary and sexual desires, later tales (1959-1982) tend to exempt their female protagonists from concerns of literal hunger. Accordingly, these women do not face such constant reading by spectators desperate to catalogue indulgences. Williams replaces the expressly large women discussed above with characters whose public bodies, though aging, remain semiotically uninflected until deferred unmasking. Upon interacting with young, often starving and helpless men, the women manifest with Irene's freakish disregard of presentational etiquette. The men, exaggerated versions of the drifters we have already seen, stumble into the women's lives never on their own initiative, but always by accident or by summons. As the women's exhibitionism brings them ever greater inspection, the men retreat into literal and narrative oblivion. By this point in his writing, therefore, Williams construed “appetite” as an obliterating force, the marshalling of which determined any character's right to be read.
When Jimmy Dobyne reaches the balcony of Flora Goforth's Italian villa in “Man Bring This Up Road” (1959), he encounters an apt symbol for his impending meeting with the owner: a monkey chained in the midday sun, unable to reach water or shade. Stretched like the monkey to the edge of his talents and energies, Jimmy arrives at Mrs. Goforth's after a long succession of visits with wealthy, aging patrons. Like the male protagonists of “Gift of an Apple” and “In Memory of an Aristocrat,” Jimmy is also “ravenously hungry” (370), but unlike those significantly younger characters, he has endured perennial deprivation longer, and, at thirty-five, his chances of finding sympathetic benefactors are waning precipitously.
The story concerns itself with the negligible battle of wills waged between Jimmy and Mrs. Goforth. By no means her match in resources or wit, Jimmy cannot sustain warfare for long, but even his brief efforts illustrate Williams's notion that legible desires, when unsatisfied, prove far more dangerous than their requited counterparts, however outrageous.9 Immediately upon arrival at the villa, Jimmy lapses into a daylong slumber that intensifies his hunger and vulnerability. As he sleeps, Mrs. Goforth checks his passport, discovers that he is not as young as he pretends, and does some telephone research to build her arsenal against him.
Jimmy thus sits at a factual as well as material disadvantage. Unlike the nameless apple-giver and Irene, Jimmy's hostess makes no gesture to appease his appetite. Dominating discourse as well as resource, Mrs. Goforth holds forth through a rehearsal of her own suspicions and determinations to safeguard herself against fraud. As Jimmy's desperation mounts, he realizes that naked, ungratified hunger rendered him a pariah long before his appearance at Mrs. Goforth's: “Something must be visble in his face that let [old friends] know he had crossed over a certain frontier of. … He didn't want to identify that frontier, to give it a name” (372). Jimmy comes to understand that his decipherable cravings for sustenance and contact—inversely proportionate to his hunger for work—have diminished his sphere of influence to non-existence; at his lowest point, he is reduced to begging Mrs. Goforth for sugar in coffee that does nothing to quiet his stomach.
Mrs. Goforth, on the other hand, becomes monstrous in her successful self-gratifications. As she seeks to solidify her power, her gratuitous humiliation of Jimmy lends her a repugnance that Williams literalizes in the misshapen figure she exposes to Jimmy in her colonizing desire for him. Agog at Mrs. Goforth's “Amazonian” hips in their “skin-tight shorts,” Jimmy thinks her an “immense fountain [figure],” one “travestied by a sculptor with evil wit” (375). The baldness of her sexual desire, expressed through such a warped medium, proves no more enticing to Jimmy than do his manifold needs to friends and acquaintances. By story's end, Mrs. Goforth has banished him from the villa, where she sits materially bloated and wholly unsympathetic to the reader, yet victorious in the discursive and presentational control she maintains throughout the encounter.
Over twenty years after “Man Bring This Up Road,” just a few months before his death, Williams resurrected Jimmy Dobyne as the evacuated protagonist of “The Negative.”10 In the story's corrected manuscript, Jimmy has been renamed Tonio Maresca, yet Tonio retains Jimmy's evaporating youth, impotent artistry, and helplessness before feminine (and effeminate) appetite. Tonio, moreover, becomes the suicide Jimmy might consider as he leaves Mrs. Goforth's villa penniless and starving, overexposed to hungers gone grotesque.
Like Jimmy, Tonio is approaching his mid-thirties in terror over having become “slightly faded” (vii). The tolerated lover of Lord Amberly, a seventy-year-old sybarite, Tonio realizes all too well youth's currency. No longer able to live off his body, Tonio may soon have to live it down, as Lord Amberly himself tries, through ludicrous hair-dyes and sexual incontinence. Tonio, however, lacks the means to fulfill his own appetites and so suppresses them into nonexistence. Recently felled by a stroke, Lord Amberly nonetheless “feeds himself heartily” and cavorts with renters. Half Amberly's age and twice as healthy, Tonio vomits after a failed effort at fellatio and cannot generate sufficient metabolism to spot a bedpan (xiii, ix). The animation and self-assertion required for ingestion seem missing in Tonio, whom others variously describe as “nearly paralyzed,” a “non-being,” “more of an object than a living being,” and someone who “[doesn't] belong in the world” (xvi, xv, xiii, xix).
Thus eviscerated, Tonio can no more credibly write than he himself can be written. His current poem, also titled “The Negative,” languishes in incoherence, an inarticulate stab at speaking “the abyss into which his life had descended” (ix). His life a negation of movement, Tonio animates neither his own writing nor Williams's. Lacking even Jimmy's desperation to stay alive, Tonio serves more as narrative device than narrative force. Williams thus hinges Tonio's story on the delayed exposure of Mona, another aged and predatory figure who instigates all significant action in “The Negative” according to her own whim. Williams plots the story by rendering Mona, at first merely an omniscient telephone voice, a disembodied awareness of Tonio's pathetic circumstances, ever more visible to Tonio and to the reader. As with the other stories' women, Williams conjures Mona from her desires, revealing by bits the grasping physicality that delineates her body.
As a telephone presence, Mona emerges in articulate opposition to Tonio's stumbling confusion. Materializing from nowhere, she tears through Tonio's half-hearted queries with blunt acknowledgment of his inertia. She shapes all the written expression he manages in the story by directing him, as one might a barely literate child, to transcribe her street address “in large, clear letters” (xi) that will spell his salvation more effectively than his aimless verses. Following her directions, Tonio finds himself in a lightless hallway where he tries to fend off the clutching hands of a woman he cannot see. When Tonio endures more presumptuous gestures from men, such as Lord Amberly and an examining physician, Williams grants the reader some specificity of action and appearance. Mona, however, only emerges into full sight for one horrifying instant at the story's end after Williams has teased into apoplexy his readers' longing for a look at female appetite.
In order to attain this view, Tonio must escape the citadel of Amberly's house and endure manhandling by a porter, a chauffeur, and a waiter—a painful series of invasions for someone who tries to move through life with minimum physical involvement. His uncharacteristic willingness to withstand such treatment sets impossibly high stakes for Mona's appearance, which, in order to justify all this suspense, must finally manifest at grand Gothic pitch. Williams works this aesthetic by shrouding her in a thick veil and behind sunglasses whose removal prompts a scenario of tightly edited, cinematic revelation. In violent staccato phrases, Tonio rips away her disguise to discover a “lacquered face” aberrant for its lack of “discernible age”; his “terror” grows when he reveals “rapacious” eyes equally slathered in make-up (xx). Flashbulbs and thunderous male voices accentuate the chaos surrounding the pair as Tonio brings to light the inscrutable creature that has consumed his language and attempted to control his physical fate as well.
Williams purposefully reveals his agent of female will and expression with horror-film punch. As with Mrs. Bates in Psycho (1960), Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist (1973), Eva Galli in Ghost Story (1981), and Hedra Carlson in Single White Female (1992), Mona assumes complete visibility after long expository delay, at which point she is glimpsed only in flickering narrative bursts that recall the careening light bulb in Mrs. Bates's cellar. Tonio, like many men who view the women named above, does not long survive the sight. His subsequent suicide suggests the enormous power accorded the display of female desire. Williams's application of cinematic techniques to short fiction underscores a wise reluctance to visit such ugliness on theater audiences.
In other late stories, Williams drops aged female protagonists into tableaux of sexual appetite that, outside Rochester's Sodom (1664), would seem insane choices for the stage. Sabbatha Veyne Duff-Collick of “Sabbatha and Solitude” (1973) and the Principessa Lisabetta von Hohenzalt-Casalinghi in “The Inventory at Fontana Bella” (1973) emerge through self-framing desires as baroque as their fading names. By story's end, Sabbatha has come to see herself as Cleopatra, who also predicates speech upon imperious demands for constant sex and adoration. Once a poet of some note, Sabbatha has lived through her marshalling of an adoring court. Her social and professional reputation on the wane, she now finds herself satisfying appetites before an “audience of one”; Giovanni, who, like Jimmy and Tonio, a seasoned gigolo whose tenuously bisexual attentions she has purchased for ten years (534).
Williams structures Sabbatha's story around flashbacks in which she remembers her former ability to rivet public interest. At a Vassar lecture, Village restaurant, or interview in Rome, Sabbatha came to realize that her noisy scatological “behavior was leading her into public embarrassment” rather than the paparazzi's homage. This realization, nonetheless, only incites her striptease through St. Peter's Square, where her shrieking display of “rather flat and pendulous breasts” brands her a “figura bruta” in the Italian press. Flailing about in the “abandoned posturing of a middle-aged female” (542, 543), Sabbatha has lost all sense of what constitutes engaging spectacle and, accordingly, faces an audience who would consign her to “madhouse” invisibility. Whereas “Aristocrat” [“In Memory of an Aristocrat”]'s Irene imposes her body upon critics in heartfelt protest against their dismissal of her work, Sabbatha, validated by an international reputation over which Irene might drool, exposes herself in petulant rebellion against largely imaginary oppression. Her empty signifying leads her to anti-poetic silence and the deadly “solitude” of her story's title.
In “The Inventory at Fontana Bella,” Williams slams against the boundaries of tenable female representation that gradually constrain Sabbatha's performances. The Principessa, a Cleopatra figure sixty-five years post-asp, bellows through her solitude as if to command a staff of hundreds. As with Mrs. Goforth, age combined with untempered material and sexual ambition have rendered the Principessa a hideous cartoon whose presence registers insistently even in her absence. Her speech, mere expressionistic “babblings of delirium,” discloses only exhaustive lists of her possessions and lewd references to her long-dead fifth husband. This incessant verbal voiding anticipates the actual bowel movement she performs on her open terrace, as well as her masturbation with a live stork's beak, which she imagines to be her husband's penis.
A site of revolting productivity and consumption, the Principessa's body sets final limits on the representation of extreme appetite. Her vaginal suffocation of a watchful stork constitutes a kind of “gaze-rape” that terminates autoeroticism mediated through an “unsuitable”—because “ancient” and incontinent—body. With the Principessa's subsequent death, Williams exorcises from his fiction women whose desires claim lives along with ceaseless attention. His aim here seems far less moralistic than theatrically and narratively expedient. When spectacle becomes so oppressive as to silence, or even destroy, observers, where can it possibly lead? Once it has been remarked as a fascinating abomination, what larger plot function can it serve? Like Mrs. Meighan in “Twenty-seven Wagons,” the Principessa becomes far more exhibition than person and thus cannot interact with other characters. At such a point, appetite becomes too visible even for fiction, much less the stage; it must give way to more diegetic hungers if it is to survive as a viable topic for literature.
Williams allegorizes a shift to more presentable appetites in “Miss Coynte of Greene” (1973). The story opens to find its eponymous protagonist the imprisoned caretaker of her grandmother, a despicable crone whose body overwhelms “Miss Coynte,” both story and character. Miss Coynte lives in thrall to the “great swollen” creature upstairs, the “massive and immobile body” whose consumptions and productions, like the Principessa's, demand ceaseless ministration (515). Unlike the senile Principessa, however, the grandmother deliberately presses her presence upon observers through her gleeful purges. Intentional incontinence keeps Miss Coynte and Dr. Settle slavishly chained to her bedside, pulled like minor planets into the orbit of her bloated mass. The grandmother excretes sound as wantonly as she does waste: “babbl[ing] all but incessantly” on the telephone, ringing a “loud-mouthed” bell when not actually talking, and finally screaming “like a peacock in heat” (514, 516), she seems less a person than a perpetual venting of sonic toxins.
As with the Principessa, the grandmother's imposition of her appetites on other characters collapses narrative. Prostrate in bed, she becomes a foul monologist presiding over her captive audience. Spending “half [her] time” changing her grandmother's soiled sheets (513), Miss Coynte spends the other half listening to vicious and vapid tales, such as that of Dotty Reagan, an acquaintance whose anecdotal worth depends upon her obesity. While her grandmother lives, Miss Coynte has no opportunity to follow her own animus, thus reducing the story that bears her name a to plotless sideshow.
Following the grandmother's death, “Miss Coynte” redirects appetite into more viable narrative channels. By ridding the house of her grandmother's innumerable acquisitions, Miss Coynte clears the material glut that had held her own life in check; appropriately, she founds an antiques business on the purging of other families' defunct possessions. Having transformed tradition into lucrative kitsch, she can indulge in the sexual adventuring that eventually constitutes both her sense of “mission” and her story's plot (532). Miss Coynte's conquests of various men, all of them young and at least partially black, require little focused analysis here. For the purposes of this discussion, it is sufficient to remark that Miss Coynte comes to control their fates, whether as employer or potential blackmailer, with the power exercised by Flora Goforth over Jimmy, Mona over Tonio, and Sabbatha over Giovanni. Lacking the age and practiced predatory tactics of these women, however, Miss Coynte's body has not yet taken on signs of a grossly satisfied appetite. With her relative youth and “slight but sinewy waist” (522), she escapes the bewildered gaze that thwarts the other women's attempts at seduction along with their successful mixing in public. Via deft “measures of subterfuge” (524), Miss Coynte also avoids the popular scrutiny that would proscribe her “mission” and halt the story. One aborted phone call from a local minister and the sniping comments of a local gossip (whom Williams dispatches in two brief paragraphs) constitute the entire range of public reaction to Miss Coynte's living through appetite.
Williams's obvious delight with Miss Coynte's gratifications prompts a couple of unfortunate indulgences. He ends the story with a broad editorial wink (“‘Right on!’”) that trivializes the character's own disregard of public approval. More importantly, in his eagerness to anoint Miss Coynte's behavior, he takes no critical stance against her breezy control of either the young black men she dismisses at will, or of Michele Moon, the mulatto daughter whom she acknowledges only as a servant. Such treatment may jibe with Delta racial politics, but it mixes ill with the hero status that the author would accord his protagonist. As Williams treats racial issues much more thoughtfully in other stories,11 we might attribute this lapse to his triumph over creating a character whose appetites grant her a practicable modus operandi along with a reasonably mounted story.
Compared to this rogues' gallery of women, the men of Williams's fiction seem a pretty dull lot. Indeed, in most cases, they serve chiefly as proxies for the theatrical spectators that the women, their hungers like newsprint atop self-satisfied surfaces, never face. Away from the stage, Williams explores through these women the politics of inadvertent physical performance. He returns constantly to the tension between women whose appetites inform their selfpresentation and observers who become so transfixed by female exteriors as to disappear within their own stories. Ultimately, however, Williams needed to reconcile appetite's constitution of narrative with its tendency to become plot-stopping spectacle. The most successful stories discussed here—“Twenty-seven Wagons,” “In Memory of an Aristocrat,” and “Two on a Party”—explore the hostile fascination that heavy and sexed women receive from impromptu audiences while also freeing observers from impotent spectatorship. Williams thus rehearses in his fiction a theatrical intuition that, of generic necessity, languished unaddressed in his plays.
See, for example, Taubman, 1 and Kaufmann, 291-94. See also Joe Orton's contemporary determination to cast Fay, the female protagonist of Loot, with a “real woman” so as to prevent her seeming like a “Tennessee Williams drag [queen]” (Lahr 257, 247). In the landmark study From Reverence to Rape note Haskell's reference to Williams's female characters as “hothouse, hot-blooded ‘earthmothers’ and drag queens … baroquely transvestized homosexual fantasies. By no stretch can they be called ‘real’ women …” (248-49). It is significant to flag Haskell's verbatim maintenance of this analysis over the thirteen years separating her book's editions. What might have passed for anti-misogynist in 1974 seems blatantly homophobic by 1987.
See Williams's Memoirs, 123, for an account of his beating by Times Square sailors; see other “dangerous cruising” mentioned in a 1943 journal entry (Leverich, 476). See also Donald Spoto's description of attacks on Williams's person and home.
In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, for example, Big Daddy quite openly announces his renewed sexual appetites to Brick, who hardly blinks (93, 96). Later in the play, Big Mama rhapsodizes over her husband's massive consumption of dinner, seeing in it the sign of a “normal appetite” and good health (130-131). No woman in the Williams canon, with the possible exception of Cora in “Two on a Party,” hazards such a blasé, or uncriticized, revelation of her own appetites.
For critical responses to staged fat, see Jill Dolan's discussion of the vitriol surrounding Kathy Bates's performance of Jessie in Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother, 30.
For other discussions of fat's relations to visibility and interpretivity, see Chernin, Schoenfielder and Wieser, Kano, Bovey, and Thone, all in works cited. For reference to fat as self-determined performance, with possible “coming-out” strategies, see Cooper, 47, and Sedgwick, 72.
This legibility stands in marked contrast to such stage protagonists as Blanche DuBois, Alma Winemiller and Serafina Delle Rose, whose various pretensions toward “respectable” behavior mask the sexual passions that govern their behavior.
In adapting this story to the one-act play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (1945), Williams retained Mrs. Meighan's size while reducing its centrality to the text. Though Jake and Silva mention her girth more than once, it never becomes the focus of her interaction with them. Subtitled “A Delta Comedy,” moreover, the quirky 27 Wagons invites a kind of low-rent gawking unknown to Williams's more substantive dramas. Mrs. Meighan's “tremendous” body fits thematically and presentationally within the carnival milieu that the play's subtitle suggests (11).
Unsurprisingly, though, when Williams brought the story to maximum audience via the screenplay Baby Doll (1956), Mrs. Meighan was reduced to a thumb-sucking teenage bride small enough to sleep in a child's crib. The sustained sexual tension that drives the film thus depends on a pedophiliac corruption of innocence, not fetishized girth.
In this comment, the woman foreshadows Myrtle's assessment of Lot in Kingdom of Earth: “Skin, eyes, hair any girl would be jealous of” (135). In the same exchange, Myrtle admits that her deepest attraction to Lot is “maternal,” suggesting her emotional as well as physical authority over him.
Williams expanded “Man Bring This Up Road” into the play The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore in 1963. During the four years between story and play, he had transformed Jimmy Dobyne into Christopher Flanders, an Angel of Death whose presumed power makes him a more formidable adversary for Mrs. Goforth, in the play an old woman trying to sort out her turbulent history as she awaits death. By assigning Flora a worthier opponent, Williams leaves Milk Train's narrative deck unstacked and explores these dichotomous characters more compellingly than in “Man Bring This Up Road.”
Unpublished until 1999, when it appeared in The Tennessee Williams Annual Review (No. 2).
See for example, “Big Black: A Mississippi Idyll” (1932), “The Kingdom of Earth” (1942), “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio” (1941), “Desire and the Black Masseur” (1946), and “Rubio y Morena” (1948).
[Unless otherwise indicated, all short stories are quoted from Collected Stories.]
Albee, Edward. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? New York: Signet, 1983.
Bovey, Shelley. The Forbidden Body: Why Being Fat Is Not a Sin. London: Pandora, 1994.
Chernin, Kim. The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness. New York: Harper and Row, 1981.
Cooper, Charlotte. Fat and Proud: The Politics of Size. London: The Women's Press, 1998.
Dolan, Jill. The Feminist Spectator as Critic. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 1988.
Goodman, W. Charisse. The Invisible Woman: Confronting Weight Prejudice in America. Carlsbad: Guize Books, 1995.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: Signet, 1988.
Haskell, Molly. From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Kano, Susan. Making Peace with Food and Freeing Yourself from the Diet/Weight Obsession. New York: HarperCollins, 1988.
Lahr, John. Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton. New York: Vintage Books, 1987.
Leverich, Lyle. Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.
O'Neill, Eugene. A Moon for the Misbegotten in The Later Plays of Eugene O'Neill, ed. Travis Bogard. (New York: Modern Library, 1967), 295-409.
Schonfielder, Lisa and Barb Wieser, eds. Shadow on a Tightrope: Writing by Women on Fat Oppression. Iowa City: Aunt Lute Books, 1983.
Sedgwick, E. Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1990.
Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams. New York: Ballantine, 1985.
Thone, Ruth Raymond. Fat—A Fate Worse Than Death? New York: Haworth, 1997.
Williams, Tennessee. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Volume 3 of Theatre. New York: New Directions, 1971: 1-215.
———. Collected Stories. New York: Ballantine, 1985.
———. Kingdom of Earth (The Seven Descents of Myrtle). Volume 5 of Theatre. New York: New Directions, 1976: 121-214.
———. “The Negative.” The Tennessee Williams Annual Review 2 (1999): vii-xxi.
———. 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. Volume 6 of Theatre. New York: New Directions, 1981: 3-38.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 261
Kolin, Philip C. “‘No Masterpiece Has Been Overlooked’: The Early Reception and Significance of Tennessee Williams's ‘Big Black: A Mississippi Idyll.’” ANQ 8, no. 4 (fall 1995): 27-34.
Surveys the early history of “Big Black: A Mississippi Idyll” to illuminate “the literary world in which Williams found himself from 1929 through 1932.”
Southern Quarterly 38, no 1 (fall 1999).
Issue devoted to Williams; includes several essays on his short fiction.
Tischler, Nancy M. “Romantic Textures in Tennessee Williams's Plays and Short Stories.” In The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams, edited by Matthew C. Roudané, pp. 147-66. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Explores the influence of the Romantic writers on Williams's plays and short fiction.
Additional coverage of Williams's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers; American Writers: The Classics, Vol. 1; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 31; Authors in the News, Vols. 1, 2; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1941-1968; Contemporary American Dramatists; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R, 108; Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 31, 132; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 5, 7, 8, 11, 15, 19, 30, 39, 45, 71, 111; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 4; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook 1983; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists and Most-studied Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Drama Criticism, Vol. 4; Drama for Students, Vol. 17; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Gay & Lesbian Literature, Ed. 1; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Twayne's United States Authors; and World Literature Criticism.
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