Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2024
Tennessee Williams 1911–1983
(Born Thomas Lanier Williams) American playwright, novelist, essayist, short story writer, screenwriter, and poet.
The following entry presents an overview of Williams's career through 1995. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 5, 7, 8, 11, 15, 19, 30, 39, 45, and 71.
Tennessee Williams is distinguished for his psychologically complex dramas that explore isolation and miscommunication within families and small groups of misfits and loners. Breaking from the realistic tradition in American drama, Williams introduced his concept of the "plastic" theater by incorporating expressionistic elements of dialogue, action, sound, setting, and lighting in his works. Williams's reputation rests on his three award-winning dramas—The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). Each of these is set in the American South, employing lyrical dialogue and inventive stage techniques, and represents a powerful study of family dynamics and the solitary search for meaning in the modern world, particularly through the depiction of emotional abuse, sexual relations, and violence. For his remarkable ability to evoke universal experience in multi-dimensional characters and provocative plots that transcend geography and social milieu, Williams is recognized as a major influence in the development of postwar American theater.
Born Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Mississippi, Williams was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents at an Episcopal rectory in Clarksdale, Mississippi; his father, a travelling salesman, was frequently absent. As a young child, Williams survived a near-fatal bout with diphtheria that left him physically weakened and in the constant care of his overprotective mother. Williams also developed a close attachment to his older sister, Rose, whose schizophrenia and later mental deterioration after an unsuccessful lobotomy had a profound effect upon him. At age twelve Williams moved with his family to St. Louis, Missouri, where his father was transferred for a managerial position. Away from the security and familiarity of his rural upbringing, Williams became the subject of ridicule among his new urban peers and unsympathetic father, who nicknamed his shy and sickly son "Miss Nancy." Williams began to write poetry and short fiction to relieve the strain of such derision and alienation. At age sixteen he won an essay contest sponsored by Smart Set magazine with "Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?," which became his first published work. In 1929 Williams entered the University of Missouri, though he was forced by his father to return home after failing ROTC in his third year. He worked in a shoe warehouse and continued to write until suffering a nervous breakdown in 1935. During the same year, while recovering at his grand-parents' home in Memphis, Tennessee, Williams was introduced to the theater and produced the comedy Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay!, his first play. Deciding on a career as a writer, Williams returned to St. Louis to attend classes at Washington University, then transferred to the University of Iowa where he studied playwriting and earned a degree in English in 1938. The next year he published "The Field of Blue Children" in Story magazine, his first work to appear under the name Tennessee. After winning an award from the Group Theater in 1939 for a series of one-act plays, Williams received a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship which he used to compose Battle of Angels (1940), a short-lived critical failure that opened in Boston. In the early 1940s, Williams worked odd jobs and eventually secured a salaried position with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Hollywood, for which he produced several unaccepted screenplays and was released at the end of his contract. During this time he wrote The Glass Menagerie, the first of his major accomplishments, which received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1945. Though struggling with fame and pressure to duplicate this success, Williams followed with A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947 and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955, both of which won New York Drama Critics Circle Awards and Pulitzer Prizes. During the 1950s, Williams produced the dramas The Rose Tattoo (1951) and Camino Real (1953) along with the novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1950), and adapted the script of A Streetcar Named Desire into a popular Hollywood film that appeared in 1951. In the second half of the decade, Williams underwent intensive psychoanalysis to treat his depression, providing material for Suddenly Last Summer (1958), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), and Period of Adjustment (1959). Williams was again plunged into despair in 1963 when Frank Merlo, his long-time partner, died of lung cancer. After The 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, Williams converted to Roman Catholicism and was briefly hospitalized following another mental breakdown. Eight years after the publication of his Memoirs (1975), Williams accidently choked to death on the cap of a medicine bottle.
Williams's mature dramatic style is best represented in his three greatest critical and commercial successes—The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The most lyrical and tender of the three, The Glass Menagerie is a semi-autobiographic play drawn directly from Williams's childhood experiences with his mother and mentally ill sister. Set in a St. Louis tenement during the Depression, the drama involves the Wingfield family, whose three adult members include Amanda, a domineering mother who bitterly resents her absent husband; her son, Tom, a writer who works in a shoe factory; and his sister, Laura, whose extreme timidity and crippled leg confine her to the house. Tom, as Williams's dramatis personae, narrates the story through retrospective commentary and monologues that underscore the tension between reality and illusion, especially as Amanda romanticizes her past life as a beautiful Southern debutante and Laura tends to her collection of glass figurines, to which the title of the play refers, a symbol of fantasy and her physical and emotional fragility. The dramatic climax occurs when Amanda persuades Tom to find a suitor for Laura. Tom invites a co-worker, Jim O'Connor, to dinner to meet his sister. Though Laura and Jim enjoy each other's company, Jim abruptly leaves after informing Laura that he is already engaged to be married. The audience learns in a final monologue that Tom, like his father, has also abandoned his mother and sister to pursue his own destiny and to escape his guilt for shattering their hopes and expectations. Despite the simple plot, Williams blends elements of expressionism and realism in poetic dialogue, pervasive symbolism, and music and lighting effects that evoke the sensations of memory. A Streetcar Named Desire similarly examines family tensions and the theme of illusion versus reality, but is far more violent and grim than The Glass Menagerie. Set in the vibrant French Quarter of New Orleans, the play follows the demise of Blanche Dubois as she is drawn into a dangerous, antagonistic relationship with her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski. As the title suggests, the play revolves around the idea of desire as an unyielding and destructive force. Blanche arrives at the home of Stanley and her sister, Stella, after witnessing the dissipation of her family estate and the suicide of her husband, whom she berates after discovering that he is gay. Conflict between Blanche and Stanley soon escalates as a result of Blanche's flirtations and condescending treatment of Stanley, an unrefined man who is threatened by her genteel pretensions. As a social commentary, Blanche represents the effete values of the dying Southern aristocracy while Stanley embodies the energy and earnestness of the working class. The tension between them culminates when Stanley rapes Blanche, after which she is committed to a sanitarium where she retreats further from reality. The hero of the play remains ambiguous as Williams skillfully tempers sympathies for Blanche and Stanley to confront and challenge audience expectations. While Blanche's haughty teasing and hypocritical virginal posturing is balanced by her difficult past, Stanley's coarseness and brutality are mitigated by his appealing sexuality, honesty, and sincere love for Stella. As in The Glass Menagerie, Williams offers sensitive treatment of the female characters and profound insight into their psychological motivations. Blanche, like Laura and Amanda, appears fragile and unable to cope with the harshness of reality, particularly as she constructs a facade of lies about her sordid history. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is set in the Mississippi River delta at the plantation home of Big Daddy, a wealthy cotton farmer whose family has assembled to celebrate his sixty-fifth birthday and false news that his cancer is in remission. The complex plot, fraught with Freudian undertones, centers on the implications of mendacity and self-deception, particularly as Big Daddy's favorite son, Brick Pollitt, wallows in alcohol to avoid facing the actual nature of his affectionate relationship with Skipper, a high school friend who has killed himself through drug and alcohol abuse. Distraught over Brick's drinking and detachment, Brick's wife, Maggie, suspects a homosexual attachment between her husband and Skipper. Maggie has previously seduced Skipper into bed with her to test his sexuality and, after he failed to perform, confronted Skipper with the "truth" about his feelings for Brick. When Big Daddy demands that Brick reveal the source of his compulsion to drink, Brick explains that Skipper telephoned him shortly before his death with a drunken confession, to which Brick responded by hanging up on him. Big Daddy accuses Brick of causing Skipper's death by failing to face up to the truth. In turn, Brick spoils the party by revealing to Big Daddy that his cancer is actually terminal. In the end, Maggie's determination to save her marriage is accomplished by cunning and sheer tenacity, to which the title of the play alludes, as she lies to the family that she is pregnant with Brick's child to regain their favor. Though the published version of the play contains two endings, the Broadway version in which Big Daddy departs with an offstage cry and Brick experiences newfound admiration for Maggie is the preferred variation used in most productions. As in much of his work, Williams juxtaposes conflicting aspects of obligation and selfishness, guilt and desire, self-awareness and denial to construct highly developed characters who struggle to overcome severe loneliness and frustration in their circumscribed lives.
Williams is considered among the most talented and original playwrights of the postwar period. His three major dramas—The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—are undisputed classics of the American theater whose memorable characters have become fixtures in American popular culture. Though his most effective plays reveal little concern with contemporary political or historical events, his willingness to explore sensitive themes surrounding violence and sexuality, both heterosexual and homosexual, was considered controversial in the 1940s and 1950s. Many critics have commented on the distinctive ambiguity of Williams's plays, most notably in the significance of Blanche's rape in A Streetcar Named Desire and Brick's guilt and sexual orientation in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. While some contend that Williams's refusal to present stereotypical dichotomies among his characters or to force judgment is the strength of his work, others suggest such ambivalence represents Williams's failure to resolve his own themes and preoccupations. Despite the success of his major plays during a creative period spanning from 1940 to 1960, Williams's prolific output of critical failures thereafter is a well-noted feature of his literary career. In addition, some critics find Williams's obsession with brutality and sex to be a sensational aspect of his work, particularly in the less successful allegorical or morality plays such as Summer and Smoke, Camino Real, and Suddenly Last Summer. This gothic quality of much of his writing, marked by interest in the aberrant, irrational, and macabre, is often associated with Southern Renaissance writers such as Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor. Though his realistic narratives and credible characters are compared to those of Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen, it is Williams's unique ability to adapt elements of realism and expressionism that distinguishes his work from that of his contemporaries. A dynamic innovator and deeply perceptive artist whose theater evinces poignant compassion for the vulnerable and victimized, Williams achieved both critical and popular acclaim while redefining the standards of American drama.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 151
Battle of Angels (drama) 1940; revised and performed as Orpheus Descending, 1957
The Glass Menagerie (drama) 1944; (screenplay) [with Oscar Saul] 1950
27 Wagons Full of Cotton and Other One-Act Plays (dramas) 1946; augmented edition, 1953
Summer and Smoke (drama) 1947; revised and performed as Eccentricities of a Nightingale, 1966
A Streetcar Named Desire (drama) 1947; (screenplay) 1951
The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (novel) 1950
The Rose Tattoo (drama) 1951; (screenplay) [with Hal Kanter] 1955
Camino Real: A Play (drama) 1953
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (drama) 1955
Baby Doll (screenplay) 1956
In the Winter of Cities (poetry) 1956
Period of Adjustment: High Point Over a Cavern: A Serious Comedy (drama) 1958
Suddenly Last Summer (drama) 1958; (screenplay) [with Gore Vidal] 1959
Sweet Bird of Youth (drama) 1959
The Night of the Iguana (drama) 1960
The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (drama) 1962
The Seven Descents of Myrtle (drama) 1968; revised and performed as Kingdom of Earth, 1975
Memoirs (memoirs) 1975
Androgyne, Mon Amour (poetry) 1977
Where I Live: Selected Essays (essays) 1978
Collected Stories (short stories) 1985
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2737
SOURCE: A review of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in The Hudson Review, Vol. 8, No. 2, Summer, 1955, pp. 268-72.
[In the following review, Becker offers high praise for the debut production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which he describes as a "remarkable piece of work" and "Williams' best play to date."]
The team of Tennessee Williams, playwright, Elia Kazan, director, and Jo Mielziner, designer, is as potent an artistic force as Broadway can boast today. Their newest collaboration, the Playwrights Company production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Morosco, is a really remarkable piece of work. It is also the season's most solid dramatic success. One should perhaps take special note of the fact that the kind of theatre produced by this particular team is a strictly American creation and has as yet no European counterpart: it is, in fact, the singular dramatic achievement of the postwar decade on Broadway (the only other new achievements of any artistic kind being in the field of the musical). One senses it as an important creation, and one that is now arrived and may be ready for an interesting future. The technique of it is based on a curious dialectic of intense realism and rather eloquent fantasy, a dialectic which is present in every part of the final creation—it is there in the writing, in the open half-abstracted settings, in the play of the lights, in the postures and delivery of the actors. It is an intensification of life posed against abstractions from it, artifice breaking down into nature, nature building up into artifice. Specifically, it is real speech with unnatural inflections, solid furniture in rooms with no walls, naturalistic acting that assembles itself into highly posed and static images, normal realistic light that gives way to follow-spots and chiaroscuro, talk that develops special rhythms and elevates itself into speech.
Nor is this phenomenon, even fundamentally, a playwright's creation, nor a director's, nor a designer's. One senses it as thoroughly eclectic, collaborative, fluid, and the final product as one in which the individual contributions are so harmoniously blended as to create a fully synthetic piece of theatre—a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk minus the music. The production process is more than just an achievement of the play; it is actually its completion, with the result that the design of the set and the basic elements of the staging get built into the script—quite literally, as anyone who has had the opportunity to compare an original Williams text with the final published version will know. No future production of the play can ever depart very successfully from the basic scheme that emerges. I have seen six or seven productions of Streetcar (and even performed in one), in several different countries and languages, and not one but derived in every major respect from the original Broadway production. Performances, of course, can vary, no matter how synthetic the creation; but it is the great achievement of this collaboration that, in most cases, they can only vary in the direction of inferiority. By the time the play reaches its finished printed form, the roles have been altered to fit the performers, and the quality of the original performances has somehow been built in, too. As a way of work in the theatre, there is something very nearly ideal about this extraordinary collaborative process: it is perhaps the closest analogy that exists in modern theatre to the older tradition of the actor-playwright who was able to forge just such a synthesis with his own company. The success of the process is, of course, a special tribute to the genius of Elia Kazan, who, as director, is its catalytic agent; but it is no less a tribute to Williams, as an author, that he is sufficiently gifted and flexible to take advantage of what Kazan and Mielziner have to offer him. His ability to function so brilliantly in collaboration is precisely what makes him, as a writer, so much of the theatre. It is no accident that Kazan's work is never quite so successful or spectacular with lesser playwrights.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is, in many respects, Williams' best play to date. It is, by all odds, his most powerful; and it contains, in Big Daddy, marvelously played by Burl Ives, the most nearly heroic character Williams has ever created. Set in the Mississippi River Delta, the play introduces us to the family of an enormously wealthy planter of Rabelaisian character and great physical bulk (Big Daddy), whose death by cancer is imminent. There is Brick (Ben Gazzara), his younger son, a one-time star athlete turned sullen neurotic alcoholic; and Maggie (Barbara Bel Geddes), Brick's wife, desperate for Brick's physical love, and nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof because he withholds it. There are, in Big Mama (Mildred Dunnock), Gooper (Pat Hingle), Brick's older brother, and Mae (Madeleine Sherwood), his wife, three brilliant tragicomic portraits, satirical in quality and devastating in their accuracy. The family group is completed by the five noisy little "no-neck monsters," belonging to Gooper and Mae, who were played with consummate disagreeableness by what must surely have been the five most unattractive children available in New York City.
The dramatic method of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is familiar from Williams' earlier plays; and it remains of considerable technical interest, being at once quite traditional and yet uniquely Williams' own. One can find in it elements of the dramaturgy of both [Henrik] Ibsen and [Anton] Tchekov, the blend serving to point up the essential interconnectedness of apparently disparate techniques. Williams' method is Ibsenist in the way that it permits the rich narrative elements, which comprise one of Williams' most striking gifts, to emerge bit by bit in a crescendo of meaningfulness. We are plunged into a story at a point just on the verge of an explosive climax or conclusion. Little by little the sequence of past events seeps out, and it is generally not until the end of the second set that the history is complete. At that point, at least in Cat, the full story precipitates a revelation, not only for the audience, but for the characters, and the major climax is the second act curtain. The remainder of the play is an inexorable working out of the consequences. The method is Tchekovian, on the other hand, in the sense that the climaxes are psychological, and the play's rhythms are created, not by external events, accidents, or gimmicks (like the fire in Ghosts), but by developing relations between people or by an increasing self-awareness in an individual character. As in Tchekov, there are long rambling speeches and lengthy personal reminiscences. There are, in fact, longer speeches in Cat than in any modern American play I know, outside the works of Eugene O'Neill. But where O'Neill's speeches tend to be repetitive and verbose, and greatly in need of pruning for performance, Williams' speeches tend, like Tchekov's, to be entirely necessary and to defy cutting. The better part of the entire first act of Cat is one long monologue by Maggie the Cat addressed to her husband, and only occasionally interrupted by Brick's icy non-committal responses. Likewise, the second act, which is dominated from beginning to end by Big Daddy, and of which more than half is a tempestuous dialogue between Big Daddy and Brick.
If the dramaturgy is in debt to Ibsen and Tchekov, the general tone and manner owe something to Strindberg. (These comparisons are not idle: Williams has established himself in the major traditions, if so far in something less than a major way.) A great part of the psychology is violent, just as much of the eloquence is bombast. One of Big Daddy's typical speeches will serve to illustrate both the quality and the rhetoric (intervening stage directions omitted):
You don't know a goddam thing an' you never did! (BIG MAMA: Big Daddy, you don't mean that.) Oh, yes, I do, oh, yes, I do mean it! I put up with a whole lot of crap around here because I thought I was dyin'—An' you thought I was dyin' an' you started takin' over; well, you can stop takin' over, now, Ida, because I'm not goin' to die, you can just stop this business of takin' over because you're not takin' over because I'm not dyin'. I went through that laboratory and the exploratory operation and there's nothin' wrong with me but a spastic colon. An' I'm not dyin' of cancer which you thought I was dyin' of. Ain't that so? Didn't you think that I was dyin' of cancer? Ain't that so, Ida? Didn't you have an idea I was dyin' of cancer an' now you could take control of this place an' everything on it? I got that impression, I seemed to get that impression. Your loud voice everywhere, your damn' busy ole body buttin' in here an' there! (BIG MAMA: Hush! The Preacher!) Rut the Preacher! Did you hear what I said? Rut the cotton-pickin' chicken-eatin', memorial-stained-glass Preacher!… I went through all that laboratory an' operation an' all just so I would know if you or me was boss here! Well, now it turns out that I am an' you ain't—and that's my birthday present—an' my cake an' champagne—because for three years now you been gradually takin' over. Bossin', talkin', sashayin' your ole butt aroun' this place I made! I made this place! I was overseer on it! I was the overseer on th' ole Straw an' Ochello plantation. I quit school at ten! I quit school at ten years old an' went to work like a nigger in the fields. An' I rose to be overseer of the Straw an' Ochello plantation. An' ole Straw died an' I was Ochello's partner an' the place got bigger an' bigger an' bigger! I did all that myself with no goddam help from you, an' now you think that you are just about to take over. Well, I'm just about to tell you that you are not just about to take over, you are not just about to take over a goddam thing. Is that clear to you, Ida? Is that very plain to you now? Is that understood completely? I been through the laboratory from A to Z. I've had the goddam exploratory operation, an' nothin' is wrong with me but a spastic colon—made spastic, I guess, by all the goddam lies and liars that I have had to put up with, an' all the hypocrisy that I have lived with all these forty years that I been livin' with you! Now blow out the candles on th' birthday cake! Take a deep breath an' blow out th' goddam candles on th' cake.
Cambyses' vein, perhaps, but nonetheless some of the most powerful theatrical writing to enliven the drab stages of Broadway in some time. As Eric Bentley has noted, the prose rhythms owe something to the repetitive artifices of Gertrude Stein, but the lushness has its roots in real Southern vernacular. The language is part of the whole creation, like the play itself, a mixture of realism and fantasy, a personalized rendition of an authentic American idiom. Like the language of The Flowering Peach, it makes us realize what riches lie largely unmined in the diverse American voice, and it reminds us, too, how little mere accuracy (e.g. Horton Foote or William Inge) is a substitute for style.
The plot of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is too complex, and the circumstances of its central situation too eventfully rich, to attempt to retail (the play should be seen, or eventually read by everybody with any interest in the American stage); but some mention needs to be made of its thematic strands. The play dances, thematically, around the problem of Truth, though without saying anything very substantial on the subject. The theme is, really, an excuse for the drama—which is perhaps as it should be—and the drama exists in a series of personal relationships to which, of course, the criterion of truth may be applied. Brick has been lying to himself; the family has been lying to Big Daddy about his cancer; Big Daddy has a speech in which he retails the lies and hypocrisy he has had to live with all his life; and Brick bitterly sums it all up, in the big second act revelation scene, with the remark, "Mendacity is the system we live in." But if truth is the main subject of the play's investigation, sex is the peg that the drama is hung on. Big Mama enquires of Maggie if she makes Brick happy in bed, and, pointing to their bed, exclaims, "When a marriage goes on the rocks, the rocks are here, right here!" Big Daddy talks about Big Mama's insatiability, and how he was too good in bed for forty years to an old woman he couldn't stand "the sight, sound, or smell of". And his first wish, when he thinks he is healthy, is to rectify it all by spending the last years of his life having a sexual "ball". The source of Maggie's desperation is her exile from Brick's bed, and she spends a good part of the play being conscious of her body and its attractions. The truth Brick is forced to face is his own partial and repressed homosexuality, and that of his closest friend, for whose death by alcoholic self-destruction Brick is finally responsible—though it is a responsibility he has projected onto Maggie. For it was Maggie who accused the friend and then allowed herself to go to bed with him in an attempt to prove her accusation false, and it was his impotence on that occasion which convinced him the accusation was true, and triggered his break-down into alcoholism. The resolution of the play is also sexual, though the ostensible subject is still truth. Maggie brings to birth a "desperate truth" by telling Big Daddy that she is pregnant with Brick's child, thus fulfilling the profoundest wish of a dying man—a lie different from all the other lies in the play, because it impels its own conversion into truth: as the final curtain falls, Brick and Maggie are going to bed to create that child. This rather intellectualized and schematized handling of the question of truth and mendacity seems to me the weakest aspect of the play. What is said about truth is not nearly so convincing as what emerges dramatically in the course of the play about the truth of relations between people—the opening, for example, of the big second act dialogue between Brick and Big Daddy, with its tentative groping after some real truth, in the form of communication, between them. Or the climax of that same dialogue, in which Brick, forced by Big Daddy into a terrible revelation of his own self-deception, blurts out, almost in vengeance, the truth about the cancer, sending Big Daddy off as the curtain falls, shouting, "Christ—Damn—Damn All—Lyin' Sons of—Lyin' Bitches! Yes—All Liars, All Liars, All Lyin', Dyin' Liars! Lyin'—Dyin'—Liars! Liars! Liars!"
It should be said, in conclusion, that the great weakness of the Williams-Kazan synthetic creation, and particularly of Kazan's part in it, is that much of the artifice tends to be hollow and pasted on. Tremendously effective during the moments one is subjected to it in the theatre, it has a way of evaporating in retrospect; and one realizes that a great many raised questions have been, not answered, but bowled over, and aspects of character or plot, not justified, but arbitrarily imposed. There is, in the method, a certain amount of opportune dishonesty, bamboozling, and trickery, which is, however, perpetrated with consummate theatrical finesse, and revealed only when recollected in tranquillity. Still, Kazan's caterpillar opportunism is not merely the key to his meteoric success, it is an essential ingredient of his genius. If he were not empty of convictions and utterly unscrupulous, if he were more thoughtful and less absolutely intuitive, his conscience would probably destroy him. It is precisely because his imagination is reckless and, to a degree, irresponsible, that he succeeds in creating theatrical effects of a daring and power that no other director on Broadway can begin to approach. His opportunism, both good and bad, is his gift.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4167
SOURCE: "The Search for Hope in the Plays of Tennessee Williams," in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 25, 1971, pp. 31-43.
[In the following essay, Presley identifies three philosophical dilemmas confronted by Williams's central characters—"isolation, the absence of God, and the reality of death." Presley contends that Williams's most successful plays portray realistic psychological or social tensions rather than theological themes as found in his less effective later plays.]
Tennessee Williams' entrance into the Roman Catholic Church in January, 1969 should be regarded not necessarily as an eccentric action, but as a logical if not decisive step in the playwright's progression toward religion. Throughout his career as a dramatist, Williams has exhibited in his plays an awareness of religious questions. However, his theological dimension has gone unnoticed by most critics who, for reasons mysterious, concentrate upon appearances of sexuality and violence to the exclusion of authentic theological and philosophical concerns. Beginning with The Glass Menagerie (1945) and ending with The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (1964), Williams' hero travels the difficult road from despair to hope—from the shadows of tragedy to the light of the comic vision. This journey becomes a kind of pilgrimage, especially in plays after Camino Real (1953), characterized by the hero's repetition of familiar affirmations. This aspect of the later works of Williams has great significance in view of the obvious decline in his reputation among critics of theatre. It may very well be that the quality of his later works suffers from debilitating effects of his emerging hope. The great and unfortunate irony of the hero's ultimate redemption is that his religious-sounding ideology reduces his stature.
As early as The Glass Menagerie and as late as The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, Williams' hero encounters three problems of a philosophical or theological nature—isolation, the absence of God, and the reality of death. Tom Wingfield and Blanche Du Bois, central characters in the early plays, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire are caught in situations which prevent any semblance of community. There may be the potential of community in the Wingfield home, but it is never realized. Tom understands but refuses to heed the advice of Amanda, his mother: "In these trying times we live in, all that we have to cling to is each other" (scene iv) [The Glass Menagerie]. His escape from responsibility is but another in a long series which began, of course, with the father's desertion. Blanche Du Bois of Streetcar knows what she needs when she arrives at her sister's apartment in New Orleans. She tells Stella: "I want to be near you, got to be with somebody, I can't be alone!" (scene i) [A Streetcar Named Desire]. Blanche is doomed from the start not simply because she will be overwhelmed by the bestial Stanley. Blanche, let us remember, is pathetically torn from within by conflicting emotions: her compassion is defeated by her selfishness; her need for understanding is undermined by her debauchery. Human community is not possible in Streetcar precisely because the people who ought to participate in that community are either unwilling or incapable.
Williams' early works suggest that, beyond human weaknesses, a cause of isolation is the inability of the flesh to coexist harmoniously with the spirit. Tom Wingfield, an avid reader of the instinct-affirming writings of D. H. Lawrence, is rebuked by a religious-sounding Amanda who would have him concentrate on life's "nobler qualities." This thematic clash again comes to the surface in a bit of clever dialogue in the eighth scene of Streetcar. Blanche has been spending hours in the Kowalskis' only bathroom—a circumstance which aggravates her already lacerated relationship with Stanley. After one of his impatient remarks, she replies with a paraphrase of Jesus' words in Luke 21:19: "Possess your soul in patience." Stanley immediately counters with: "It's not my soul, it's my kidneys I'm worried about." In the larger context of the drama, these words indicate that Stanley's mind is open not to the beckoning of the spirit but only to the desires and needs of the flesh. Summer and Smoke, written shortly after Streetcar, appears to have been conceived with this theme of the flesh versus the spirit as a problem to be solved. Pathos is the only emotion evoked in this experimental allegory which ends with the sad affirmation that the flesh (summer) cannot merge with the spirit (smoke). The central characters, John (the doctor of bodily ills) and Alma (Spanish for soul), are not saved from their isolation but pathetically confirmed in it.
The second major theological issue in the plays of Williams is the absence of God or a savior. The Wingfields, Amanda in particular, wish for a messiah in the form of a "gentleman caller." Indeed, The Glass Menagerie structurally is held together by the anticipation and arrival of Jim O'Connor. He is, as Tom points out in the opening monologue, "that long delayed but always expected something that we live for." Once Jim comes and leaves, the play's action is complete. Amanda's hopes for deliverance are fruitless since Jim has made previous commitments to the American technological dream, and, of course, a "girl named Betty." In Streetcar, Blanche Du Bois keeps hoping up until the end that her messiah, Shep Hundleigh (probably imaginary), will appear out of nowhere and rescue her from Stanley and his crude world. The airplane "Fugitivo" is the messianic symbol in Camino Real. It is either death at the hands of the street-cleaners or escape via airplane for the traveler of the road of reality. As Marguerite, the tubercular woman of pleasure, says in Block Nine: the "Fugitivo" is her only "way to escape from this abominable place!" Because of a technicality, Marguerite is unable to board this agency of salvation. Her destiny, like that of the hero Kilroy, is death in a strange land devoid of love and compassion. Probably the most obvious reference to the absence of God in a guilt-in-fested world comes in Sweet Bird of Youth. Few critics have noted the significant lines of the heckler who shouts in the second act to the crowds surrounding a politician, Boss Finley, called "a messiah from the hills":
I don't believe it. I believe that the silence of God, the absolute speechlessness of Him is a long, long and awful thing that the whole world is lost because of. I think it's yet to be broken to any man, living or yet lived on earth—no exceptions.
The awareness of death is a third important theme in Williams' major plays. It is in the presence of death that his hero encounters questions about the nature and destiny of his life. Ultimate questions are faced particularly in Camino Real (1953), and in several more recent plays: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), Suddenly Last Summer (1958), The Night of the Iguana (1962), and The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (1964). The most serious exploration of human destiny is the memorable heart-to-heart talk between Brick and Big Daddy in the second act of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Big Daddy traces his son's alcoholism and ennui to the mystery surrounding his friendship with Skipper. Maggie, Brick's wife, had hinted earlier that Skipper harbored homosexual feelings toward her husband. Brick is stung by his father's words and counters with the "truth" that Big Daddy will not have future birthdays since his illness is not, as Big Mamma and Gooper say, a "spastic colon," but something more terrible: incurable cancer. There is no advice, no optimistic out-look, for Big Daddy. His last words are "CHRIST DAMN—ALL—LYING—SONS OF—LYING BITCHES!… Lying, dying, liars!" Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, therefore, is a play about different kinds of death in the modern world. Life cannot continue on Brick's side of the family. We know that Brick already has willed a spiritual death; he has "that cool air of detachment that people have who have given up the struggle." Life will continue for Gooper and Mae and their offspring. But, as Big Daddy and Brick indicate in the second act, the kind of existence embodied by these people is mendacious. Death is the final truth of this play.
If one grants the existence of these theological and philosophical aspects of Williams' works—isolation, God's absence, and death—one ought to notice as well solutions to these problems whenever they are proposed by the dramatist. When the major plays are considered as a unit, it be comes clear that few solutions are proposed prior to Camino Real. In this particular play, Williams shows evidence of a search for a solution; the most obvious clue is that Camino Real's style is so unlike that of his previous efforts. Here the author develops an elaborate allegory in an unusual sequence of "Blocks." Technique, as Professor Mark Schorer pointed out in his famous essay on the subject, is an important indication of subject matter: "The final lesson of the modern novel is that technique is not the secondary thing it seemed to Wells, some external machination, a mechanical affair, but a deep and primary operation; not only that technique contains intellectual and moral implications, but that it discovers them." The appearance of Williams' allegorical plays, Camino Real and later Suddenly Last Summer, indicate the playwright's attempt to discover a new subject matter, one containing hopeful affirmations about life's potential.
The "way of reality" and "royal road," two meanings of Camino Real, have many similarities to Dante's road through The Inferno. The play's epigraph comes from Canto I of The Inferno: "In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost." This particular play, like Dante's allegory of life as hell, is but part of a journey to redemption for the hero. The travelers of the Camino are universal men—the eternal optimist, Don Quixote; the great lover, Casanova; Lord Byron, the Romantic in quest of an ideal; Marguerite, a sentimental courtesan past her prime; and Kilroy, the American Everyman who attempts to hold fast to independence, sincerity, and courage. Kilroy travels the very real road of life which leads to an arid fountain in the middle of the square. He discovers that Don Quixote's map was right: "The spring of humanity has gone dry in this place." Despite the idealism of Kilroy, despite his efforts to defeat the smug and cruel enemies of sensitivity and brotherhood, he is ultimately defeated. After his death at the hands of the "street cleaners," he is taken to a medical institution where interns dissect him. They discover that his heart was made of gold which cannot be destroyed by even the most corrosive forces of modernity. In the sixteenth and last block, a resurrected Kilroy is seen carrying his gold heart under his arm. He joins Don Quixote who is prepared to venture forth again in search of the ideal. After they become partners, Quixote affirms: "The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks!" Water then rushes into the once-dry fountain. The implication is that the Camino has been redeemed through the courage of Kilroy who is now, like Christ, an eternal force.
The new hopefulness of Camino Real, surely Williams' turning point, does not come cheaply. The price he pays for his new theme becomes evident when one considers the thematic and structural consequences. Camino Real has several weaknesses which are prophetic of his recent efforts. One major problem is his too simple reduction of complex literary figures such as Don Quixote and Lord Byron. Another limitation arises from Kilroy's sudden apotheosis after his death; this is pure deus ex machina. Williams' literary self-consciousness leads to chaos: All at once the viewer is thrust into an incongruous symbolical environment of Dante, Cervantes, T. S. Eliot, Lord Byron, Spanish folk lore, and Christian reminiscences. Too much weight rests upon sentiment; the clearest example of this is found in the closing lines: "The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks!" The "comic" resolution of the play comes through the author's fiat and not through a dramatically believable solution. Thus Williams, by using sentiment in such a way, pronounces the play complete even if the reader or viewer mentally protests.
Suddenly Last Summer, produced five years after Camino Real, has a similar lack of credibility. The allegorical meaning of the play is explained by the heroine, Catharine Holly; it has to do with the consequences of possessing a daemonic vision of God and man. Professor Paul J. Hurley understands the play properly when he writes: "What his drama proclaims is that recognition of evil, if carried to the point of a consuming obsession, may be the worst form of evil…. A daemonic vision of human nature may irredeemably corrupt the one who possesses the vision." The point of this "morality play" is made clear by Catharine. She explains that her homosexual cousin Sebastian, a would-be poet, did what all modern men have a tendency to do: He tried to "spell God's name with the wrong alphabet blocks." Since the question of God is an important one in the drama (Sebastian sacrifices himself to his "vision" of a cannibalistic God), one would expect Williams to pursue the question. Instead of dealing further with this important point, however, the playwright turns his attention to the interrelationship of mankind. Humanity, according to Catharine, may be as desperate as passengers aboard a ship which has struck an iceberg at sea. Everyone is sinking, but that is "no reason for everyone drowning hating everyone drowning." Totally disregarding man's idolatrous nature—his making into God an image of himself—Catharine touchingly affirms a positive life of community in which people accept each other even though they all share the common fate of death. If a major problem of Suddenly Last Summer is God's relationship to human experience, then we must conclude that the question is unanswered by the playwright. This play is similar to Camino Real in its vagueness about solutions which, although literally present in the drama, do not in any sense relate to the problems which they should solve. Yes, Suddenly Last Summer has a sense of completeness as a "morality play," but the drama nevertheless fails to come to grips with the central issue it has raised.
The two most recent plays in this discussion, as some critics have acknowledged, are explicitly theological. Once again the basis problems of the characters are isolation, the question of God, and death. In The Night of the Iguana, Shannon's main problem is "the oldest one in the world—the need to believe in something or someone." Hannah's emphasis upon belief is intended as a solution to Shannon's state of disbelief. Earlier he tells her that "Western theologies, the whole mythology of them, are based on the concept of God as a senile delinquent…. I will not and cannot continue to conduct services in praise and worship of this … angry, petulant old man" (Act II). While Hannah correctly senses that Shannon has a problem of belief, she is nevertheless incapable of providing an answer to this specific question. The logic of her speeches is that Shannon's problem concerning God may be resolved if he simply reaches out for other people. The clearest illustration of her logic is found in the second half of the passage quoted earlier. Here it is in full:
What is my problem, Miss Jelkes?
The oldest one in the world—the need to believe in something or in someone—almost anyone—almost anything … something.
Your voice sounds hopeless about it.
No, I'm not hopeless about it. In fact, I've discovered something to believe in.
Something like … God?
Broken gates between people so they can reach each other, even if it's just for one night only.
A little understanding exchanged between them, a wanting to help each other through nights like this. (Act III)
Later in this act Hannah explains that, while she is "unsure" about God, she is beginning to feel that God may be seen in the faces of suffering humanity.
Hannah's point is that the problem of belief will more or less take care of itself if Shannon will try to live in community with someone. But Shannon's problem is not isolation but belief or lack of it. Hannah insists that he deal with the question of disbelief with the answer for human isolation—community. The logic is reminiscent of that used by Catharine in Suddenly Last Summer; she raises the question about Sebastian's daemonic vision of God and then answers it with a simplistic statement about the importance of caring for other people.
Williams manages to solve the fundamental problem of death in Iguana while Hannah and Shannon are engaged in their discussion; the character involved in this solution, however, is neither the hero nor the heroine, but the heroine's father, Nonno. Everyone in the play knows that he is at death's door. His concern throughout the play is to complete his final poem—one which explores a way of looking at death. The concluding lines of the poem reveal that Nonno's solution to death is "Courage."
O Courage could you not as well
Select a second place to dwell,
Not only in that golden tree
But in the frightened heart of me?
Nonno's struggle to complete the poem parallels Shannon's efforts to understand and justify his existence in view of his conception of God. Nonno's climactic poem lends an air of calm reserve to this scene in which Shannon attempts to find something worthy of his belief. Nonno is the only character who finds a satisfactory answer to his basic question. But the play is not about Nonno. The main character, Shannon, ignores the question which first was most important and commits himself to a life of "community" with Maxine—a person who throughout the play is revealed as incapable of either understanding or empathy. Shannon's question of belief is left unanswered. One might argue that Hannah substitutes the human face for the divine image, in the tradition of Romantic thinkers, and thus redefines the question on belief. If Williams' point is that suffering humanity has replaced God, then he does not make it clear. Shannon's vigorous statements about God as a "senile delinquent" are not refuted by ignoring them.
The point about the illogical resolution of The Night of the Iguana can be made about The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore. The chief difference is that the basic problem of the latter play is death. Furthermore, the ideology of Christopher is more nearly Christian than oriental, whereas Hannah's point of view is an uneven combination of oriental, stoic, and Christian sentiment. Christopher's mission apparently is to prepare Mrs. Goforth for death. (She is about to "go forth.") The epigraph from Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium," in the context of the drama, implies that Mrs. Goforth is about to sail into eternity. Yet it is not clear whether Williams proposes that the solution to her problem of death is some kind of eternal life. If Christopher is a "bearer of Christ," this would seem logical. Yet the hero's mission has patently selfish origins. He visits Mrs. Goforth, just as he has visited other dying ladies, not primarily because he has a special message for her, but because this activity saves him from a sense of "unreality" and "lostness." An uncritical reading of the play might lead one, as it has led countless reviewers, to claim that the drama is about a "Christ figure" who comes to prepare a dying aristocrat for eternal life. But Williams has not done this in The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore. Mrs. Goforth's death is merely a vehicle for the realization of a vagrant poet's unusual need for psychological comfort.
The play's meaning is further confused by the epigraph from W. B. Yeats's famous poem, "Sailing to Byzantium":
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
The poem does not suggest the same kind of eternal life represented by the image of Christ. Rather, it is Yeats's special interpretation of art in opposition to nature. The poem suggests the rejection of the natural for the unnatural "form as Grecian goldsmiths make…." If Williams uses Christopher Flanders (the name connotes both Christ and death) to suggest that Mrs. Goforth has entered eternity when the drama closes, as several critics maintain, then the playwright has probably misunderstood the meaning of "Sailing to Byzantium." The basic problem of the drama, death, is left unsolved; unsolved, even though the touching communion scene at the end suggests that something has been resolved.
In the recent plays of hopefulness beyond despair, Tennessee Williams commits several errors—the greatest of which is his misleading suggestion that the dramas have been resolved. The closest either play (Iguana and Milk Train) comes to resolution is in the singular instance of Nonno's discovery of "courage" in the face of death. But it is Nonno's solution and not Shannon's. The greatest problem of the play—Shannon's struggle for belief—is ignored in the drama's resolution.
Since Williams' turning point is Camino Real, it is important to notice that at the very moment he is developing a moral point of view, he is also experimenting with a dramatic structure foreign to his genius as a writer of realistic dramas. The characters of Camino Real are stripped of their authenticity even though their allegorical trappings are rich in symbolic value. Williams' conception of allegory is flawed by its escape from the real. Successful allegory is symbolic in method, but the goal is usually realistic. The unreality of his major allegories, Camino Real and Suddenly Last Summer, is a clear indication that Williams has substituted sentimentality for authenticity. The only conclusion to be drawn from this development is that, despite the playwright's desperate and commendable efforts to the contrary, there are no believable solutions for the terrifying problems of his very complex characters.
That Williams is concerned with important theological issues cannot be denied. Human isolation, the absence of God, and the reality of death are fundamental concerns of Christian theology. Williams obviously recognizes this or he would not consistently use Christian-sounding language and themes in most of his recent works. Yet he has not grasped the fundamental logic inherent in the theological issues. He has not found a way to deal effectively with the problems experienced by his characters, even though he employs dramatic techniques such as false resolutions to suggest otherwise.
The great virtue of the early plays of Williams is that they are believable and concern real people. The early hero's dignity is that, despite social and psychological pressures, he does not ultimately ignore the facts of his life. Blanche's despair is a legitimate and credible response to the nature of her existence. Tom's acute sense of the disgusting aspects of life makes him what few of the latter heroes are—truthful. In this context, we can say that frustration and anxiety are far more commendable, more real, than the religious-sounding clichés of the hero in the later plays.
Despite the fact that Williams' hero ultimately achieves a limited kind of community, his problems—isolation, God's absence, and death—are not resolved in a convincing manner. Williams' difficulty is shared by many modern writers who would project theological themes. T. S. Eliot's plays tend to confirm the difficulty of Williams' task. Perhaps the only meaningful action for the hero in isolation would be to wait. But Williams, more often than not, is a writer whose plays are in the realistic traditions of Chekhov and Ibsen, not in the more somber traditions of the "theatre of the absurd" or the "literature of silence." Some argue that Williams' greatest attribute is his ability to produce conventional, realistic drama. Indeed he succeeds most of all when he describes loneliness, frustration, and the unavoidable anxiety of human experience. But in his later works he attempts more than description. He proposes sentimental, religious-sounding solutions which contribute to dramatic distortion and thematic irrelevance. Some might contend that this situation validates the conclusion of the "death of God" theologian, Gabriel Vahanian: "Christian thought … no longer is relevant to the situation of our post-Christian age and its cultural postulates." I would like to argue, however, that Williams' failure is not primarily due to his use or misuse of a system of theology. Rather, the major difficulty is his apparent inability to resolve in a logical manner the problems of his characters. Tennessee Williams' recent entry into the Church perhaps indicates that he is doing with his life what he has been trying to do for his characters. Somehow it is easier to be a religious playwright than a writer of religious plays. And T. S. Eliot has taught us by example the importance of knowing where one leaves off and the other begins.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3134
SOURCE: "A Study of Illusion and the Grotesque in Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," in Southern Studies, Vol. 22, No. 4, Winter, 1983, pp. 359-65.
[In the following essay, Mayberry offers analysis of "grotesque" characters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, drawing attention to their unique physical or psychological deformities as a source of both humor and pathos. Mayberry also addresses the various illusions and pretenses through which these characters attempt to protect themselves.]
Although the Southern dialect, mannerisms, and setting apparent in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof reveal Tennessee Williams' usual regional focus, the ideas and emotions which the drama involves are by no means geographically restricted but, on the contrary, are of universal import. The play depicts the feelings and consequences of greed, frustration, guilt, desire, and hypocrisy, but most importantly it deals with the conflict between appearance and reality and its resolution in truth. Williams is concerned with man's drive to escape his problems either by totally ignoring them or by effecting a facade of illusion. He emphasizes this need in the opening of the work with a symbolic stage prop—the "huge console combination of radio-phonograph, TV set, and liquor cabinet"—which he describes as "a very complete and compact little shrine to virtually all the comforts and illusions behind which we hide from such things as the characters in the play are faced with." It is this veil of illusion that permits human beings to cope with the "slow and implacable fires of … desperation," and Williams intensifies the growing despair in this play by giving it a stifling, almost claustrophobic atmosphere. Time and setting are extremely confining; the entire action takes place during one hot summer evening in a single bed-sitting-room of a plantation house in the Mississippi Delta. Maggie refers again and again to the lack of privacy in this wealthy Southern family, to the "cage" which is their home. Such a feeling of tightening circumscription only heightens the frantic attempts of these characters to avoid reality and increases the likelihood of an inevitable, shattering destruction of illusion. As Gooper points out, "A family crisis brings out the best and worst in every member of it."
Thus the pervading theme of Williams' drama involves the tension between truth and mendacity, the gradual stripping away of pretense with the ultimate consequences, and the playwright employs various devices to achieve both illusion and exposure. One of his most effective techniques is a use of the grotesque, a term which has come to hold special meaning in twentieth-century literature. It is an outgrowth of the contemporary distrust of any cosmic order, an interest in the irrational, and a frustration at man's position in the universe. In a sense, then, the grotesque is a merging of the comic and tragic; through physical or spiritual deformity and abnormal action, an individual reflects both a comic deviation from the rational social order and a tragic loss of faith in the moral universe. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Williams employs two types of grotesque characterization to illustrate escape through illusion. The first of these, depicted graphically in characters such as those portrayed by Flannery O'Connor, seems to emphasize physical deformity and to induce a humorous response in its very absurdity, while the second, reflecting the figures of Sherwood Anderson, suggests spiritual or emotional abnormality and invokes a pathetic sometimes even tragic response.
Flannery O'Connor has defined the grotesque character as "man forced to meet the extremes of his own nature," and the twisted personalities of her figures, usually accompanied by a distorted appearance, generate a sinister, frightening, or pathetic effect almost always combined with and high-lighted by the comic. Williams makes use of the O'Connor grotesque in the minor characters of his play, figures whose absurd appearance reflects a deformed soul. All of these individuals attempt to ignore or hide the truth of their particular deformity behind a shield of illusion. One such figure is the Reverend Tooker, the personification of religious hypocrisy. Sensing with vulture-like accuracy the presence of decay, the reverend is simply waiting for Big Daddy to die. Attempting to hide his greed with platitudes and weak jokes, the minister nevertheless reveals his obsession with money by his constant references to church donations and memorials for the dead. As Williams describes him, he appears with his "head slightly, playfully, fatuously cocked, with a practiced clergyman's smile, sincere as a birdcall blown on a hunter's whistle, the living embodiment of the pious conventional lie." He is grotesque in both appearance and character.
This grotesque hypocrisy is even more predominant in the portraits of Mae, Gooper, and the little "no-neck monsters." The elder son and his wife reveal a desire to inherit Big Daddy's money before his death; their rapaciousness is apparent not only in their inane chatter and overzealous efforts to please, but also in the actual use of their children as levers to draw the old man's attention by emphasizing their fertility in contrast to the sterility of Brick and Maggie. The grotesque antics which Mae and Gooper put themselves and their children through in a frenzied attempt to win approval are so absurd as to become pitiful. Maggie describes the scene with the no-neck monsters "ranged around the table, some in high chairs and some on th' Books of Knowledge, all in fancy little paper caps in honor of Big Daddy's birthday," and Mae herself depicts the after-dinner show: "Polly played the piano, Buster an' Sonny drums, an' then they turned out the lights an' Dixie an' Trixie puhfawmed a toe dance in fairy costume with spahkluhs! Big Daddy just beamed!" In addition to the children's "dawgs' names" and their overall resemblance to an "animal act in a circus," their absurdity is climaxed with a song-and-dance routine for Big Daddy, arranged and conducted by Mae, which achieves the effect of a bizarre "musical comedy chorus." Although the general impression of these scenes is one of ridiculous farce, there is actually an undercurrent of something quite sinister and frightening; these are, after all, frantic efforts by desperate people to satisfy overwhelming greed.
Williams uses the O'Connor mode to surround his main characters with an outer circle resembling allegorical personifications of vice. These comic grotesques even reflect the medieval emphasis on physiognomy. As he moves from the outer circle to close in on the immediate family, attempting to achieve with characterization the claustrophobic effect of setting, he makes use of the more sympathetic, even tragic, Andersonian grotesque and begins to focus on more complicated personalities. The character of Big Mama provides us with a transitional figure. Actually a more distorted manifestation of the frustrated love theme treated in Maggie herself, Big Mama is at once absurdly comic and sadly pathetic. Her physical description provokes immediate laughter. She first enters
huffing and puffing like an old bulldog. She is a short, stout woman; her sixty years and 170 pounds have left her somewhat breathless most of the time: she's always tensed like a boxer, or rather a Japanese wrestler…. She wears a black or silver lace dress and at least half a million in flashy gems. She is very sincere.
Her actions are at least as comical as her appearance. Williams emphasizes her grotesque, coy giggling in Big Daddy's direction, her "riotous voice" and "booming laugh," and her "inelegant horseplay" with Reverend Tooker—pulling him into her lap "with a shrill laugh that spans an octave in two notes" and the exclamation: "Ever seen a preacher in a fat lady's lap?" There is another side to this woman, an aspect which renders her less caricature and more human being; she faces the same frustrated love, the same indifference of her husband as does Maggie. Confronted with the cruel reality of Big Daddy's repulsion toward her, Big Mama cries to him, "I did love you—I even loved your hate and your hardness." When the truth of her husband's certain death is revealed to her, her soft response admits of a "great, almost embarrassingly true-hearted and simple-minded devotion to Big Daddy, who must have had something Brick has, who made himself loved so much by the 'simple expedient' of not loving enough to disturb his charming detachment." As Williams points out, "Big Mama has a dignity at this moment: she almost stops being fat." Although each of these characters is allowed for a time to hide behind his grotesqueness, to conceal his true nature behind calculated illusion, each figure is relentlessly and totally exposed. Reverend Tooker's hypocritical piety is revealed; Mae and Gooper finally relinquish the "nice" approach and make their self-interest and resentment shockingly clear, and Big Mama is forced to confront her husband's disgust with her at the same time she learns of his cancer.
With his major characters Williams makes use of a different type of figure, one which might be called the Andersonian grotesque. In Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson recognizes that implicit in the term grotesque lies a concern with truth. The thesis of the Book of the Grotesque, authored by Anderson's "old writer" reads, "Man made the truths himself and each thought was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful." These same truths, however, serve to make people grotesque. For once a person fails to recognize that there are many truths and begins to take "one of the truths to himself, call[s] it his truth, and [tries] to live by it, he [becomes] a grotesque and the truth he embraced [becomes] a falsehood." Thus, Anderson's grotesques are beautiful in that they pursue an ideal, but they are blind to any but their own ideal or truth and ultimately distort it in their fanaticism. Like Anderson, Williams is able, at least in the major characters of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, to look beneath the surface of the apparently distorted lives of his grotesques and appreciate the truth, the pathos, and even the tragedy there. He is able to taste the sweetness, though bittersweet, of the "twisted apples." The characters of Brick, Big Daddy, and Maggie are spiritually rather than physically distorted, and they invoke not a comic but a pathetic response.
The playwright depicts these figures in the light of their respective abilities to face and cope with reality; of the three, Brick is least able to confront truth. From the beginning of the play, he is described as having the "additional charm of that cool air of detachment that people have who have given up the struggle." His wife elaborates further when she states, "now that you've lost the game, not lost but just quit playing, you have that rare sort of charm that usually only happens in very old or hopelessly sick people, the charm of the defeated." Even his lovemaking is enhanced because he has no anxiety, is really indifferent to it; he simply uses this detachment as a means of escaping reality. Brick's desperation surfaces occasionally, as evidenced by his obsessive drinking, his reckless hurdle-jumping which results in a broken ankle, and his fierce need to keep Maggie at a distance—to the extent that at her touch he seizes a chair and "raises it like a lion-tamer facing a big circus cat." Perhaps the most striking example of his denial of truth is revealed in his refusal to face his feelings of guilt, the obsession which renders him grotesque. He unequivocably refutes any hint of an unnatural love in his intense relationship with Skipper, rejecting his friend's tortured confession and stubbornly insisting that their feeling for each other was the only "pure an' true" thing in his life. As Big Daddy points out, "You!—dug the grave of your friend and kicked him in it!—before you'd face truth with him." Thus Brick's disgust with mendacity is actually disgust with himself.
As Brick retorts to his father, "Who can face truth? Can you?" This question goes straight to the heart of Big Daddy's character, for the old man is very capable of confronting the truths of those around him but not his own. His peculiar grotesqueness, resulting from lack of self-awareness, is talking without communicating. As he admits to Brick, "we've always—talked around things … it's always like something was left not spoken." The root of the problem is that Big Daddy talks but seldom listens. He is astute in his realization of the hypocrisy inherent in the Reverend Tooker's posturing and is acutely aware of the greed, spying, and scheming of his son and daughter-in-law, acknowledging, "I hate Gooper and Mae an' know that they hate me…." He openly and directly faces his favorite son's drinking problem, exclaiming, "Why boy, you're—alcoholic!" Most importantly, it is Big Daddy who relentlessly forces Brick to confront the truth about his relationship with Skipper, recognizing that this is the "inadmissible thing that Skipper died to disavow between them." Regardless of his perception into the emotions and motivations of those around him, Big Daddy fails to accept and cope with the reality of his own situation and like Brick is virtually destroyed when the security of his illusion is stripped away. Like his son he misunderstands his wife's real feeling for him, reflecting when she declares such a love, "Wouldn't it be funny if that was true…." When his illusion of a new life of unabashed sensuality is destroyed and he learns that he is dying of cancer, the old man's final words are, "Lying! Dying! Liars!"
Thus it is only Maggie the Cat who is capable of dealing with the complexity of truth. She is, in fact, the only truly honest character in the play, the single character able to recognize and see through appearance not only to the reality of others but also to her own. She is the first to acknowledge Big Daddy's cancer and the ultimate effect his death will have on other members of the family. She realizes that truth sometimes incorporates a lie, that the old man must not know of his disease, for "Nobody says, 'You're dying.' You have to fool them. They have to fool themselves." She understands fully the motivations behind Mae and Gooper's visit and macabre performance, noting, "They're up to cutting you [Brick] out of your Father's estate…." More importantly, Maggie is able to confront unflinchingly truths about herself. She confesses to her husband,
Brick, I'm not good. I don't know why people have to pretend to be good, nobody's good. The rich or the well-to-do can afford to respect moral patterns, conventional moral patterns, but I could never afford to, yeah, but—I'm honest! Give me credit for just that, will you please?
Maggie knows that her frenzied desire for money and security is a result of the deprivation of both as a child. She resents that she has been "so God damn disgustingly poor" all her life and realizes that "You can be young without money but you can't be old without it." It is this desperate drive for security that makes her "like a cat on a hot tin roof!" Maggie understands that, because she cannot "afford t'be thin-skinned any more," she has "gone through this—hideous!—transformation, become—hard! Frantic!—cruel!!" She is willing to confront her own loneliness, her husband's indifference toward her, and her part in the Skipper-Brick affair, for it is Maggie who forces the confrontation between Brick and Skipper. Frustrated by all of the pretense, she finally tells Skipper, "Stop Lovin' My Husband Or Tell Him He's Got To Let You Admit It To Him!" She accepts the responsibility for her actions—the guilt and the loneliness that come with living with someone "y'love" who "doesn't love you." She knows that she destroyed Skipper, and in a sense her husband, by "telling him truth that he and his world which he was born and raised in … had told him could not be told." Maggie also understands that living is a constant struggle to face truth, to affirm love, that it is the attempt that is important, even if the results are only suffering and failure. As she puts it to Brick,
But one thing I don't have is the charm of the defeated, my hat is still in the ring, and I am determined to win!—What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?—I wish I knew…. Just staying on it, I guess, as long as she can….
It is only Maggie who is fully perceptive of the struggle going on around her and within her. She is finally the "only one there who is conscious of and amused by the grotesque," the only one aware of the true significance of the conflict between illusion and reality.
Thus even though Maggie is forced to participate in the grotesque situation of a cat on a hot tin roof, she alone is not totally destroyed because she is always fully attuned to what she is doing, is able to discern the difference between mendacity and truth. She possesses the awareness essential for making moral choices, at times even equating morality with awareness. Unlike the others who are ultimately devastated when their illusions are stripped away, Maggie's exposure is not necessary because she is willing to accept and cope with truth; hers is already an examined life. She is the cat who "can jump off roofs and land on [her] four feet uninjured!" Regardless of the pain, she will survive. As with Big Daddy's disease, she will lie when the necessity arises, claiming to be pregnant with Brick's child in order to endure, but she is still aware of that lie and is willing to accept the responsibility for its consequences. Even here Maggie remains fast to her code of truth, desperately attempting to make illusion real, telling her husband, "And so tonight we're going to make the lie true…." She tries to block all escape from Brick, removing his liquor, his crutch—everything but his indifference—saying softly to him, "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!" Thus in a study of the way in which people destroy themselves with their inability to confront their problems and be responsible for their actions, it is both Maggie's pathetic triumph and tragedy to be unable, by her very nature, to ignore or avoid reality, even though that reality threatens her survival. Although her situation dooms her to fail, she is yet admirable in her very striving. She has acquired the poise of the cat caught on a hot tin roof and is able to recognize the situation as a metaphor for living.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3130
SOURCE: An introduction to Modern Critical Views: Tennessee Williams, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, pp. 1-8.
[In the following essay, Bloom considers Williams's achievements and shortcomings as a major American playwright and the influence of poet Hart Crane on his work.]
It is a sad and inexplicable truth that the United States, a dramatic nation, continues to have so limited a literary achievement in the drama. American literature, from Emerson to the present moment, is a distinguished tradition. The poetry of Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Stevens, Eliot, W. C. Williams, Hart Crane, R. P. Warren, Elizabeth Bishop down through the generation of my own contemporaries—John Ashbery, James Merrill, A. R. Ammons and others—has an unquestionable eminence, and takes a vital place in Western literature. Prose fiction from Hawthorne and Melville on through Mark Twain and Henry James to Cather and Dreiser, Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Nathanael West, and Pynchon, has almost a parallel importance. The line of essayists and critics from Emerson and Thoreau to Kenneth Burke and beyond constitutes another crucial strand of our national letters. But where is the American drama in comparison to all this, and in relation to the long cavalcade of Western drama from Aeschylus to Beckett?
The American theater, by the common estimate of its most eminent critics, touches an initial strength with Eugene O'Neill, and then proceeds to the more varied excellences of Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and Sam Shepard. That sequence is clearly problematical, and becomes even more worrisome when we move from playwrights to plays. Which are our dramatic works that matter most? A Long Day's Journey Into Night, certainly; perhaps The Iceman Cometh: evidently A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman; perhaps again The Skin of Our Teeth and The Zoo Story—it is not God's plenty. And I will venture the speculation that our drama palpably is not yet literary enough. By this I do not just mean that O'Neill writes very badly, or Miller very baldly; they do, but so did Dreiser, and Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy prevail nevertheless. Nor do I wish to be an American Matthew Arnold (whom I loathe above all other critics) and proclaim that our dramatists simply have not known enough. They know more than enough, and that is part of the trouble.
Literary tradition, as I have come to understand it, masks the agon between past and present as a benign relationship, whether personal or societal. The actual transferences between the force of the literary past and the potential of writing in the present tend to be darker, even if they do not always or altogether follow the defensive patterns of what Sigmund Freud called "family romances." Whether or not an ambivalence, however repressed, towards the past's force is felt by the new writer and is manifested in his work seems to depend entirely upon the ambition and power of the oncoming artist. If he aspires after strength, and can attain it, then he must struggle with both a positive and a negative transference, false connections because necessarily imagined ones, between a composite precursor and himself. His principal resource in that agon will be his own native gift for interpretation, or as I am inclined to call it, strong misreading. Revising his precursor, he will create himself, make himself into a kind of changeling, and so he will become, in an illusory but highly pragmatic way, his own father.
The most literary of our major dramatists, and clearly I mean "literary" in a precisely descriptive sense, neither pejorative nor eulogistic, was Tennessee Williams. Wilder, with his intimate connections to Finnegans Wake and Gertrude Stein, might seem to dispute this placement, and Wilder was certainly more literate than Williams. But Wilder had a benign relation to his crucial precursor, Joyce, and did not aspire after a destructive strength. Williams did, and suffered the fate he prophesied and desired; the strength destroyed his later work, and his later life, and thus joined itself to the American tradition of self-destructive genius. Williams truly had one precursor only: Hart Crane, the greatest of our lyrical poets, after Whitman and Dickinson, and the most self-destructive figure in our national literature, surpassing all others in this, as in so many regards.
Williams asserted he had other precursors also; D. H. Lawrence, and Chekhov in the drama. These were outward influence, and benefitted Williams well enough, but they were essentially formal, and so not the personal and societal family romance of authentic poetic influence. Hart Crane made Williams into more of a dramatic lyrist, though writing in prose, than the lyrical dramatist that Williams is supposed to have been. Though this influence—perhaps more nearly an identification—helped form The Glass Menagerie and (less overtly) A Streetcar Named Desire, and in a lesser mode Summer and Smoke and Suddenly Last Summer, it also led to such disasters of misplaced lyricism as the dreadful Camino Real and the dreary The Night of the Iguana. (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, one of Williams's best plays, does not seem to me to show any influence of Crane.) Williams's long aesthetic decline covered thirty years, from 1953 to 1983, and reflected the sorrows of a seer who, by his early forties, had outlived his own vision. Hart Crane, self-slain at thirty-two, had set for Williams a High Romantic paradigm that helped cause Williams, his heart as dry as summer dust, to burn to the socket.
In Hart Crane's last great Pindaric ode, "The Broken Tower," the poet cries aloud, in a lament that is also a high celebration, the destruction of his battered self by his overwhelming creative gift:
The bells, I say, the bells break down their tower;
And swing I know not where. Their tongues engrave
Membrane through marrow, my long-scattered score
Of broken intervals … And I, their sexton slave!
This Shelleyan and Whitmanian catastrophe creation, or death by inspiration, was cited once by Williams as an omen of Crane's self-immolation. "By the bells breaking down their tower," in Williams's interpretation, Crane meant "the romantic and lyric intensity of his vocation." Gilbert Debusscher has traced the intensity of Crane's effect upon Williams's Romantic and lyric vocation, with particular reference to Tom Wingfield's emergent vocation in The Glass Menagerie. More than forty years after its first publication, the play provides an absorbing yet partly disappointing experience of rereading.
A professed "memory play," The Glass Menagerie seems to derive its continued if wavering force from its partly repressed representation of the quasi-incestuous and doomed love between Tom Wingfield and his crippled, "exquisitely fragile," ultimately schizophrenic sister Laura. Incest, subtly termed the most poetical of circumstances by Shelley, is the dynamic of the erotic drive throughout Williams's more vital writings. Powerfully displaced, it is the secret dynamic of what is surely Williams's masterwork, A Streetcar Named Desire.
The Glass Menagerie scarcely bothers at such a displacement, and the transparency of the incest motif is at once the play's lyrical strength and, alas, its dramatic weakness. Consider the moment when Williams chooses to end the play, which times Tom's closing speech with Laura's gesture of blowing out the candles:
TOM: I didn't go to the moon, I went much further—for time is the longest distance between two places. Not long after that I was fired for writing a poem on the lid of a shoe-box. I left St. Louis. I descended the steps of this fire escape for a last time and followed, from then on, in my father's footsteps, attempting to find in motion what was lost in space. I traveled 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. It always came upon me unawares, taking me altogether by surprise. Perhaps it was a familiar bit of music. Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass. 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! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger—anything that can blow your candles out!
[Laura bends over the candles.]
For nowadays the world is lit by lightning! Blow out your candles, Laura—and so goodbye….
[She blows the candles out.]
The many parallels between the lives and careers of Williams and Crane stand behind this poignant passage, though it is fascinating that the actual allusions and echoes here are to Shelley's poetry, but then Shelley increasingly appears to be Crane's heroic archetype, and one remembers Robert Lowell's poem where Crane speaks and identifies himself as the Shelley of his age. The cities of aesthetic exile sweep about Wingfield/Williams like the dead, brightly colored leaves of the "Ode to the West Wind," dead leaves that are at once the words of the poet and lost human souls, like the beloved sister Laura.
What pursues Tom is what pursues the Shelleyan Poet of Alastor, an avenging daimon or shadow of rejected, sisterly eros that manifests itself in a further Shelleyan metaphor, the shattered, colored transparencies of Shelley's dome of many-colored glass in Adonais, the sublime, lyrical elegy for Keats. That dome, Shelley says, is a similitude for life, and its many colors stain the white radiance of Eternity until death tramples the dome into fragments. Williams beautifully revises Shelley's magnificent trope. For Williams, life itself, through memory as its agent, shatters itself and scatters the colored transparencies of the rainbow, which ought to be, but is not, a covenant of hope.
As lyrical prose, this closing speech has its glory, but whether the dramatic effect is legitimate seems questionable. The key sentence, dramatically, is: "Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!" In his descriptive list of the characters, Williams says of his surrogate, Wingfield: "His nature is not remorseless; but to escape from a trap he has to act without pity." What would pity have been? And in what sense is Wingfield more faithful, after all, than he attempted to be?
Williams chooses to end the play as though its dramatic center had been Laura, but every reader and every playgoer knows that every dramatic element in the play emanates out from the mother, Amanda. Dream and its repressions, guilt and desire, have remarkably little to do with the representation of Amanda in the play, and everything to do with her children. The split between dramatist and lyrist in Williams is manifested in the play as a generative divide. Williams's true subject, like Crane's, is the absolute identity between his artistic vocation and his homosexuality. What is lacking in The Glass Menagerie is that Williams could not have said of Amanda, what, Flaubert-like, he did say of the heroine of Streetcar: "I am Blanche DuBois." There, and there only, Williams could fuse Chekhov and Hart Crane into one.
The epigraph to A Streetcar Named Desire is a quatrain from Hart Crane's "The Broken Tower," the poet's elegy for his gift, his vocation, his life, and so Crane's precise equivalent of Shelley's Triumph of Life, Keats's Fall of Hyperion, and Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." Tennessee Williams, in his long thirty years of decline after composing A Streetcar Named Desire, had no highly designed, powerfully executed elegy for his own poetic self. Unlike Crane, his American Romantic precursor and aesthetic paradigm, Williams had to live out the slow degradation of the waning of his potential, and so endured the triumph of life over his imagination.
Streetcar sustains a first rereading, after thirty years away from it, more strongly than I had expected. It is, inevitably, more remarkable on the stage than in the study, but the fusion of Williams's lyrical and dramatic talents in it has prevailed over time, at least so far. The play's flaws, in performance, ensue from its implicit tendency to sensationalize its characters, Blanche DuBois in particular. Directors and actresses have made such sensationalizing altogether explicit, with the sad result prophesied by Kenneth Tynan twenty-five years ago. The playgoer forgets that Blanche's only strengths are "nostalgia and hope," that she is "the desperate exceptional woman," and that her fall is a parable, rather than an isolated squalor:
When, finally, she is removed to the mental home, we should feel that a part of civilization is going with her. Where ancient drama teaches us to reach nobility by contemplation of what is noble, modern American drama conjures us to contemplate what might have been noble, but is now humiliated, ignoble in the sight of all but the compassionate.
Tynan, though accurate enough, still might have modified the image of Blanche taking a part of civilization away with her into madness. Though Blanche yearns for the values of the aesthetic, she scarcely embodies them, being in this failure a masochistic self-parody on the part of Williams himself. His Memoirs portray Williams incessantly in the role of Blanche, studying the nostalgias, and inching along the wavering line between hope and paranoia. Williams, rather than Blanche, sustains Tynan's analysis of the lost nobility, now humiliated, that American drama conjures us to contemplate.
The fall of Blanche is a parable, not of American civilization's lost nobility, but of the failure of the American literary imagination to rise above its recent myths of recurrent defeat. Emerson admonished us, his descendants, to go beyond the Great Defeat of the Crucifixion and to demand Victory instead, a victory of the senses as well as of the soul. Walt Whitman, taking up Emerson's challenge directly, set the heroic pattern so desperately emulated by Hart Crane, and which is then repeated in a coarser tone in Williams's life and work.
It must seem curious, at first, to regard Blanche DuBois as a failed Whitmanian, but essentially that is her aesthetic identity. Confronted by the revelation of her young husband's preference for an older man over herself, Blanche falls downwards and outwards into nymphomania, phantasmagoric hopes, pseudo-imaginative collages of memory and desire. Her Orphic, psychic rending by the amiably brutal Stanley Kowalski, a rough but effective version of D. H. Lawrence's vitalistic vision of male force, is pathetic rather than tragic, not because Stanley necessarily is mindless, but because she unnecessarily has made herself mindless, by failing the pragmatic test of experience.
Williams's most effective blend of lyrical vision and dramatic irony in the play comes in the agony of Blanche's cry against Stanley to Stella, his wife and her sister:
He acts like an animal, has an animal's habits! Eats like one, moves like one, talks like one! There's even something—subhuman—something not quite to the stage of humanity yet! Yes, something—ape-like about him, like one of those pictures I've seen in—anthropological studies! Thousands and thousands of years have passed him right by, and there he is—Stanley Kowalski—survivor of the stone age! Bearing the raw meat home from the kill in the jungle! And you—you here—waiting for him! Maybe he'll strike you or maybe grunt and kiss you! That is, if kisses have been discovered yet! Night falls and the other apes gather! There in the front of the cave, all grunting like him, and swilling and gnawing and hulking! His poker night!—you call it—this party of apes! Somebody growls—some creature snatches at something—the fight is on! God! Maybe we are a long way from being made in God's image, but Stella—my sister—there has been some progress since then! Such things as art—as poetry and music—such kinds of new light have come into the world since then! In some kinds of people some tenderer feelings have had some little beginning! That we have got to make grow! And cling to, and hold as our flag! In this dark march toward whatever it is we're approaching…. Don't—don't hang back with the brutes!
The lyricism here takes its strength from the ambivalence of what at once attracts and dismays both Blanche and Williams. Dramatic irony, terrible in its antithetical pathos, results here from Blanche's involuntary self-condemnation, since she herself has hung back with the brutes while merely blinking at the new light of the aesthetic. Stanley, being what he is, is clearly less to blame than Blanche, who was capable of more but failed in will.
Williams, in his Memoirs, haunted as always by Hart Crane, refers to his precursor as "a tremendous and yet fragile artist," and then associates both himself and Blanche with the fate of Crane, a suicide by drowning in the Caribbean:
I am as much of an hysteric as … Blanche; a codicil to my will provides for the disposition of my body in this way. "Sewn up in a clean white sack and dropped over board, twelve hours north of Havana, so that my bones may rest not too far from those of Hart Crane …"
At the conclusion of Memoirs, Williams again associated Crane both with his own vocation and his own limitations, following Crane even in an identification with the young Rimbaud:
A poet such as the young Rimbaud is the only writer of whom I can think, at this moment, who could escape from words into the sensations of being, through his youth, turbulent with revolution, permitted articulation by nights of absinthe. And of course there is Hart Crane. Both of these poets touched fire that burned them alive. And perhaps it is only through self-immolation of such a nature that we living beings can offer to you the entire truth of ourselves within the reasonable boundaries of a book.
It is the limitation of Memoirs, and in some sense even of A Streetcar Named Desire, that we cannot accept either Williams or poor Blanche as a Rimbaud or a Hart Crane. Blanche cannot be said to have touched fire that burned her alive. Yet Williams earns the relevance of the play's great epigraph to Blanche's terrible fate:
And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3657
SOURCE: "'Weak and Divided People': Tennessee Williams and the Written Woman," in Feminist Rereadings of Modern American Drama, edited by June Schlueter, Associated University Presses, 1989, pp. 171-80.
[In the following essay, Timpane examines Williams's creation of female characters whose dynamic ambiguity resists the tendency toward idealization or oversimplification. Timpane contends that Williams offers "an authentic and authoritative depiction of female foolishness, limitations, and error."]
Like much of Tennessee Williams's public image, the tradition that he was sympathetic to women began with Williams himself. In his essays, memoirs, and letters, throughout his compulsive project of self-exploration, he took pains to delineate how his experience of women surfaced in his drama. Mothers and sons war continually; brothers and sisters suffer adoration. Nancy M. Tischler has written well about the succession of predatory mother figures in Williams, ranging from Flora Goforth of The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore and Alexandra of Sweet Bird of Youth to Amanda of The Glass Menagerie, Violet Venable of Suddenly Last Summer, and Maxine of Night of the Iguana. Further, in one of the most public of his many public games, Williams toyed with the name Rose and the image of roses in play after play. Williams even suggested that his early adoration of his mother and sister had contributed to the development of his homosexuality. In a letter to Kenneth Tynan, he wrote, "I used to have a terrific crush on the female members of my family, mother, sister, grandmother, and hated my father, a typical pattern for homosexuals." That last phrase strikes a familiar Williams tone. Aspiring to the detachment of scientific observation, it amounts to a claim that the writer is knowledgeable and candid enough to be at once analyst and analysand.
Yet when we reread a number of Williams's plays, we might well question the nature of his "identification" with women. It will not be enough to say that Williams's women are like Williams himself—American, Southern, liminal, "mutilated," sexually compulsive, given to drugs and alcohol, mendacious, and so forth. Nor will it be enough to let pity speak for itself, to repeat with many critics that the typical Williams plot involves "the defeat or destruction of a highly pitiable protagonist." The call on the audience to pity the female protagonist is very strong. But the quality of this pity is strained; it is not pity because of what we know but pity in spite of what we know. Nor is it enough to say simply that Williams's characters simultaneously excite both sympathy and antipathy. They do, but they excite a range of other feelings as well. Those characters, especially his women, call on the viewer to regard a true pluralism of possibilities—which almost always includes ambivalence and repulsion. Female characters in Williams's drama are deliberately constructed to arouse these two feelings in the audience. This remarkably consistent technique suggests a great deal about the construction of a female character, as well as about "feminist" approaches to both drama and criticism.
Here I must pause to define what constitutes a worthy characterization of a woman. First, it does not seem necessary that she be written to a program—that is, that she have any required attributes at all. What does seem necessary is that there be a wide range of "play" in the character. I mean "play," for the viewer or reader, is the kind of ambivalent play that Mikhail Bakhtin sensed in the comedy of Rabelais and the novels of Dostoevski. The object of this play will be the feelings the written woman evokes. She should not be subject to complete consumption—that is, some of her attributes should escape paraphrase or easy reconciliation. To insist on such play is to insist that the written woman not be prejudicially reduced, oversimplified, or idealized. Such play can exist even in stereotypical characters; we find it, for example, in Falstaff. The few truly interesting female characters in canonical works (my list includes Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, and the Duchess of Malfi) benefit from this play. Their polytonality, which forces viewers or readers to take a judgmental stance—or a stance from which they presume to judge without actually being able to do so—is part of what produces the particular effect of Emma or Anna, Blanche or Alma, or Catharine or Amanda on the reader or viewer.
This ambivalent play is evoked by many Williams women, especially in those he claimed he "liked" best. Williams often named either Blanche DuBois, Alma Winemuller, or Maggie the Cat as his "favorite" character. Of Alma, he said, "You see, Alma went through the same thing that I went through—from puritanical shackles to, well, complete profligacy." Maggie the Cat was the subject of a celebrated debate between director Elia Kazan and Williams, partly over how the audience was to interpret her. As Williams told it, Kazan "felt that the character of Margaret, while he understood that I sympathized with her and liked her myself, should be, if possible, more clearly sympathetic to an audience." It is significant that a character with Williams's avowed sympathy—he wrote that "Maggie the Cat [became] steadily more charming to me as I worked on her characterization"—should be so ambiguous as to prompt the director to ask for a revision. Further, the so-called "Broadway Version" of act 3, although it gives Maggie the last word, is not successful in editing out the ambivalence. In this version, her last speech reads
Oh you weak, beautiful people who give up with such grace. What you need is someone to take hold of you—gently, with love, and hand your life back to you, like something gold you let go of—and I can! I'm determined to do it—and nothing's more determined than a cat on a tin roof—is there? Is there, baby?
It is startling to realize that this revision is supposed to make Maggie "more clearly sympathetic to an audience." The original version had ended with Maggie crying "I do love you, Brick, I do!" and Brick canceling her avowal with "Wouldn't it be funny if that was true?" In the revision, this dialogue is replaced by Maggie's lyric determination to mold someone else's life—"with love," certainly, but also with inheritance, "gold," in mind. Indeed, it has been claimed that once the audience knows her background, all her actions become ambiguous. The revision of Cat emphasizes that Maggie will succeed through manipulation and mendacity; she will not transcend her conditions but rather will feed off them.
Williams was similarly vocal about his admiration of Leona Dawson of Small Craft Warnings: "She is the first really whole woman I have ever created and my first wholly triumphant character. She is truly devoted to life, however lonely." Presumably, the modifiers "whole," "triumphant," and "devoted" are meant to be positive. Yet all of them belong to the explosively ambiguous Williams vocabulary. As a character, Leona is a descendant of Hanna Jelkes of Night of the Iguana. She is "whole" in the sense of being mentally sane and possessing moral integrity. She insists on "respect" and "responsibility," inveighs at "CORRUPTION," and at one point screams "LET ME SET YOU STRAIGHT ABOUT WHAT'S A LADY!" When Doc, drunk and drugged, leaves to perform an illegal delivery, Leona tries to prevent him out of a well-founded fear for the lives of mother and baby. Events in the play leave no place for Leona, however. Her strong moral code, out of place at Monk's Place, clashes with her drunken soliloquies, penchant for violence, and petty neuroses. She is forced to leave her present lover, job, and circle of acquaintances, all because of Violet, a woman with no integrity or respect. Leona's emphatic physical and moral presence contrasts with Violet's lack of both. The "amorphous" Violet "has a sort of not-quite-with-it appearance," and she speaks of her present life as "a temporary arrangement." To drive home the impression of Violet's not quite being there, her rope-bound suitcase is on stage during the entire action. Yet it is Leona who is forced to leave and Violet who is allowed to stay. Leona packs up her trailer, and her plans for the future are "triumphant" only in a most equivocal way: "What I think I'll do is turn back to a faggot's moll when I haul up to Sausalito or San Francisco." In the same speech, the confidence she projects is stripped bare: "it scares me to be alone in my home on wheels built for two…." Violet's incompletion earns her at least a temporary stay in someone's bedroom; Leona's completion earns her a nighttime escape into the fog on the highway.
Other women—we may call them tragic protagonists—advertise their own ambiguity. Alma of Summer and Smoke says of herself,
Oh, I suppose I am sick, one of those weak and divided people who slip like shadows among you solid strong ones. But sometimes, out of necessity, we shadowy people take on a strength of our own.
Alma and other of Williams's tragic women are in transition, from youth to age, from integrity to degradation, from illusion to disillusion, from sexual certainty to sexual confusion. Violet of Small Craft Warnings is described as "Amorphous…. Something more like a possibility than a completed creature." Jim, Doc, Chance, Stanley Kowalski, Brick, Val, and other Williams's men are very often set or decided in some important way, with a corresponding loss of scope. The women, by virtue of their weakness and lack of closure, have greater mobility. Weakness and division, the propensity of having "two natures" or more, give the women a surplus of possibility, which makes them more productive, less exhaustible as characters.
In constructing a tragic woman, the literary artist faces a paradoxical task: to create a character with whom the audience finds something in common and yet to compel that audience eventually to take a critical distance from that character. Both sides of the task are essential. If the audience finds nothing recognizable in the character, no ground to share, then her fate is not likely to mean very much. Meaning also will be lost if the audience is not prompted to take a critical stance on the character—if the audience never feels the urge or the necessity to judge.
As soon as we recite these requirements, we can see why it has been so difficult to construct the tragic woman. For reasons I will address later, both the misogynist/gynephobe writer and the advocate will have trouble achieving the ambivalence and ambiguity required for tragedy. In contrast, Williams's women are defeated or destroyed not by male dominance, patriarchy, or misogyny but by their own predilection for destruction—that is, by their own desires. Laura of Glass Menagerie is awkward partly because of her self-enforced virginity; Alma of Summer and Smoke chooses to take up with the young man at the end of the play; Lady of Orpheus Descending chooses both to have Val's baby and to throw herself in front of the bullet that kills her; Catharine of Suddenly Last Summer refuses to let go of Sebastian or her version of what happened to him. Male dominance is of little interest; Williams's plays feature some of the most inert male protagonists in drama. Instead, the emphasis falls on something literature needs: an authentic and authoritative depiction of female foolishness, limitations, and error. What worries so many critics about Shakespeare's treatment of Ophelia, Desdemona, and Lady Macbeth is here, too—indeed, much more consistently than in Shakespeare—the insistence that it is necessary, cathartic, and therefore healthy to suspect, hate, or despise certain women, especially those one "likes" best; to measure their failings, even when these failings are attractive; and to watch them destroy themselves by their own free wills, even when that freedom is an illusion.
A case in point is that of Catharine Holly of Suddenly Last Summer, whose "destruction or defeat" is predicted from the beginning of the play. The terms of Catharine's oppression are not dictated by men but by the rich, powerful Mrs. Venable, who tries to bribe Dr. Cukrowicz into giving Catharine a prefrontal lobotomy. Audience repulsion toward Mrs. Venable is carefully crafted: in the stage directions ("She has light orange or pink hair"); in stage setting, a surreal jungle of viscid flora that is to resemble "organs of a body, torn out"; and in her attitude toward her inferiors, including Catharine: "Most people's lives—what are they but trails of debris, each day more debris, more debris, long, long trails of debris." Thus Catharine has been denigrated before she even appears before the audience, and by an extremely unsympathetic character. Yet one of her first actions is to stub the burning end of her cigarette into Sister Felicity's hand—and suddenly Catharine shares in the repulsion.
That burst of senseless violence ignites a series of ambifying changes. The distinct (or indistinct) possibility of Catharine's madness is a standard appeal for audience ambivalence in that madness compels distance as well as pity: "How can you hate anybody and still be sane? You see, I still think I'm sane!" Catharine and her relatives may share in Sebastian's inheritance if she agrees to stop telling her version of Sebastian's death. Her justified fear of Dr. Cukrowicz initially attracts pity, but later she all but cooperates with him, almost inviting the needle. Her account of her first sexual experience and its possible implication in her possible madness similarly arouse both pity and distance. The former arises from the disastrous social and emotional consequences of her encounter at "the Duelling Oaks at the end of Esplanade Street" and the latter from the neurotic compulsiveness revealed in Catharine's character. She is given one of the play's most direct appeals for pity—"It's lonelier than death, if I've gone mad, it's lonelier than death"—and the play's bleakest, most repulsive pronouncement: "Yes, we all use each other and that's what we think of as love, and not being able to use each other is what's—hate."
Although near the end Catharine says that "I think the situation is—clear to me, now …," the closing ellipses resonate with the opposite possibility. At the end of the play, the audience knows very little for certain about her or the truth of her account of Sebastian's death. Her truthfulness is questionable from the start because she tells her story under compulsion and under the influence of thiopentone, widely believed in 1958 to be a "truth drug." Dr. Cukrowicz's last line, which closes the play, adds to the ambiguity: "I think we ought at least to consider the possibility that the girl's story could be true." This is a sentence divided against itself in an effort both to recognize and to deny the truth of Catharine's story. He has every reason to claim she has lied, yet he himself has administered the truth drug. Still, if he wants Mrs. Venable's bribe, he will refute the story and give himself grounds for ordering Catharine's lobotomy. His sentence is a timid attempt to buck the horror of Catharine's story and his own impulse to pity her. Yet it does suggest that Catharine may be lying—and she has reasons enough to do so. Her relatives can profit if she lies; she may wish to protect the sanctity of her relation with Sebastian. In the end, the truth of Catharine's story is only a "possibility." That possibility, the conflicting motives of all who surround Catharine, and her own conflicting motives add to the imminence of her destruction. She has sought her own undoing in a classical fashion, just as she had insisted on returning to the ballroom and ruining her reputation, had agreed to accompany Sebastian on his travels and then later had procured for him, and had followed him up the white hill of his destruction.
In short, the audience is not allowed to draw any conclusions about Catharine. In place of what the audience expects—a clear, unambiguous view of her there is instead a range of possibilities. To choose one way of interpreting her would be to deny the equal plausibility of other ways. As Williams knew, the standard bourgeois audience takes its first refuge in standard, bourgeois reactions. To deny such reactions or to mix them inextricably with more complex reactions forces members of the audience to play ambivalently with their repulsion. To use, hesitantly, a cant term, I might say that Williams has deconstructed his audience's response.
It is easy to see why ambiguity was dear to Williams. After all, ambiguity is a form of control. If an audience can consume a character completely, exhaust the possibilities of the character's meaning, the audience has exerted its power over the play, perhaps decisively so. If the playwright has designed the characters for the express purpose of being consumed, the playwright is playing to the audience, being a whore for the public. However, if inexhaustible characters and situations can be created, if there is always something that escapes paraphrase or immediate understanding, the play retains its power to arouse and perplex. (And, we might add, the playwright retains his or her power over the audience—the power of the originator, the privileged source.) Williams brooded constantly over such issues. His most spirited defense of ambiguity appeared in a note to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof:
Some mystery should be left in the revelation of a character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of a character in life, even in one's own character to himself. This does not absolve the playwright of his duty to observe and probe as clearly and deeply as he legitimately can: but it should steer him away from "pat" conclusions, facile definitions, which make a play just a play, not a snare for the truth of human experience.
Williams's main plea here is for the superior verisimilitude of ambiguity, but, in his essay "The Timeless World of a Play," he drives toward what might have been his main motivation:
Whether or not we admit it to ourselves, we are all haunted by a truly awful sense of impermanence. I have always had a particularly keen sense of this at New York cocktail parties, and perhaps that is why I drink the martinis almost as fast as I can snatch them from the tray. This sense is the febrile thing that hangs in the air. Horror of insincerity, of not meaning, overhangs these affairs like the cloud of cigarette smoke and the hectic chatter. This horror is the only thing, almost, that is left unsaid at such functions.
It is as if the playwright took refuge in ambiguity—a surplus of meaning, a refusal to eliminate interpretations—out of this horror of not meaning. In a way, ambiguity is a hedge against annihilation.
Williams's achievement is one of the most notoriously uneven in western drama. But, as suggested above, his method of writing women has advantages over both traditional and feminist methods. Writers who fear or hate women cannot allow the object of hatred or fear to be ambiguous; it must be idealized, stylized, trivialized. The written women must be made consumable, located on a pedestal, immobilized. Advocacy poses other obstacles. Women that undergo a programmatic fate cannot be tragic because their tragedy is largely external to the women themselves—theirs is supposed to be every woman's tragedy, being the inevitable effect of the male quest for dominance. The advocate writer thus will be ill-equipped to portray the truly ambiguous female because a clear brief must be carried for the plaintiff. (Advocacy has made it difficult to make one's women culpable.) A well-ground axe cuts too sharp, and the necessary tension between sympathy and judgment is lost. Both the misogynist writer and the advocate will have reasons for eliminating competing ways of reading the written woman. Neither kind of writer will allow the written woman to escape—and neither one wants that woman to escape the reader either. But, as seen above, Williams, perhaps out of his "horror of not meaning," seeks to place his women beyond reduction, to make sure they escape.
So we are driven to other possibilities, most of which carry us beyond standard questions of gender expectation. One early criticism was that Williams's women actually lost "universality" because their stories were too unique, not applicable to all humanity because they were individual case histories. But Williams's treatment of women does not admit of anything else. Of course one's women will refer to other women and other men, just as women do in the world outside the theater. But questions of "gender expectations" verge on the specious and banal because individual women differ so widely in their behaviors. What set of expectations could possibly hold for Alexandra del Lago, Blanche Dubois, Leona, Catharine, and Serafina? In the end, little of much importance. (What set of gender expectations would hold for Timon, Othello, Hamlet, and Macbeth?) Williams's women find themselves in circumstances that demand that they take on as many roles—psychological, sexual, and class—as they need to achieve the failure they desire. Thus, rereading Williams exposes the current hunt for such expectations as a reverse form of prejudice, a project of construction doomed by its own assumptions. Construction of the female must be largely idiographic—that is, the individual character must be built up on her own, out of continuities and disruptions specific to her. It is of women as Williams writes of drama: "By a sort of legerdemain, events are made to remain events, rather than being reduced so quickly to being mere occurrences." Women should be represented as events, as special, unrepeatable happenings in time; they are not replicas or occurrences of any other events. Otherwise, the woman we write will be the woman we wish to write, and, worse, the woman that everyone else has always written.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2285
SOURCE: "The Failure of Technology in The Glass Menagerie," in Modern Drama, Vol. 34, No. 4, December, 1991, pp. 522-27.
[In the following essay, Reynolds discusses the significance of modern technology in The Glass Menagerie, which he views as a commentary on progress and the effect of technology on the individual and society.]
Laura's fragile collection of glass animals gives Tennessee Williams's play its name and a central symbol with both an esthetic and a personal focus. But the play is punctuated with another set of references, an array of ordinary products of twentieth-century technology, that expands its significance beyond the personal even as it illuminates the narrow lives of its protagonists.
Williams introduces The Glass Menagerie through a context of social upheaval—war already in Spain, imminent in Europe; labor unrest in American cities. Tom's opening narrative announcing the "social background of the play" sounds like a manifesto of both esthetic and social reform. Yet the only specific allusions to these events during the rest of the play are the incidental headline in Tom's newspaper about Spain, and Tom's narrated contrast between the Europe of Berchtesgaden, Chamberlain, and Guernica, and the St. Louis of the dance halls. Roger B. Stein sees in the allusions to the Depression and impending war a "note of social disaster [that] runs throughout the drama, fixing the lives of individuals against the larger canvas." But the prominent focus of the play is on personal levels of inadequacy—the fragile lives and the conflicts of the Wingfield family—rather than on a specific set of social, economic, or political issues. So Gilbert Debusscher should not be faulted in criticizing Bulgarian critic Grigor Pavlov for making of the work a "kind of dramatized social pamphlet, a play whose overall aim is to denounce … the deplorable effects of capitalism."
Short of so specific a socio-political program, though, Williams does encourage us to place the play in some larger context. Terry Eagleton states that "all major art is 'progressive' in the limited sense that any art sealed from some sense of the historically central, relegates itself to minor status." If the play's milieu beyond the St. Louis tenement is significant—if the social background impinges on the lives of the characters—we must look for a pattern that consolidates those lives in a "historically central" sense. One pattern that looms in the background of the Wingfield family is the way that changing economic and social modes can restrict the potential for happy and successful lives. We are always aware of Amanda's grand past in the Old South, her wealthy suitors and her servants, as we watch her make do in a walkup tenement. And Tom and Laura are pushed into commercial careers that conflict with their temperaments and aspirations.
A specific agent for change that Williams alludes to time and again in the play is technology, one of the strongest forces to redirect society in the twentieth century. While one character, the "realist" Jim O'Connor, sees the future of America as tied to progress in technology, the play consistently reiterates the failure of technology to achieve social or individual values—or, for that matter, even to function at a practical level. Lights go out, the telephone is hung up; cinema and phonograph serve merely as escapes, for men whose lives are governed by impersonal commercial enterprises embodied in warehouses, and for women who are expected to live by serving business through mechanical clerical work, or by marrying successful radio engineers.
Williams's recurring use of common domestic technologies—the phonograph, telephone, cinema, radio dynamics, and the electric light—in critical episodes throughout the play would seem to render futile [Karl] Marx's hope for a society in which technology satisfies human needs. While many social upheavals have contributed to the Wingfields' personal situation, it is technology which confirms the hard boundary of elements beyond their control. Their lives have been limited by a number of forces; the shift from old agrarian to modern urban life; the breakup of the traditional family economic structure; the dependence upon impersonal manufacturing and marketing employers. These bear on the Wingfield family's daily lives implicitly, Amanda and Tom victims of their impact but unaware of them as historical forces. More explicitly, the ordinary technologies already taken for granted in American households by 1939 serve as markers that define within the play the limits imposed on the Wingfields.
The entire Wingfield family repeatedly demonstrate their failure under the new dispensation. Amanda comes from an agrarian Delta society, where her beaux are planters and sons of planters—but she marries a telephone man who falls in love with long distance. He escapes to Mexico (then a pretechnological society) to find freedom and adventure. She is left to deal with the twentieth-century American city, described in Williams's stage directions as "overcrowded urban centers of lower middle-class population" where this "enslaved section of American society … exist[s] … as one interfused mass of automatism." Amanda is vaguely aware of the central role technology ought to play in the world, but retreats to naive faith when confronted by its complexity. Of Jim, she burbles "Then he has visions of being advanced in the world!… Radio engineering? A thing for the future!"
But this future is not hers, either in technology's daily operations or in its place in the cosmos. When the lights flicker and go out, Amanda hopes for a solution within Jim's ken if not hers or Tom's: "Mr. O'Connor, can you tell a burntout fuse? I know I can't and Tom is a total loss when it comes to mechanics." Her lack of knowhow arises not from gender (Tom is no more apt than she) but from dislocations of time and class in the history of her world. Whether her dependency in such matters is the result of her having been displaced from the Old South plantation to an urban setting, or of a genteel early life where Delta servants provided for her needs, she is uninformed about the most basic practical level of controlling this domesticated manifestation of Edisonian invention.
More generally, she is awed by scientific advances not on account of their practical value or the complexity of the theories that explain them, but the sense of "mystery" that surrounds them: "Isn't electricity a mysterious thing? Wasn't it Benjamin Franklin who tied a key to a kite? We live in such a mysterious universe, don't we? Some people say that science clears up all the mysteries for us. In my opinion it only creates more!"
Revealing her own basis for understanding life, she lights the candelabrum from the Church of the Heavenly Rest, melted out of shape by a lightning bolt sent by God to punish the wayward parishioners of Blue Mountain. This tall tale by Gypsy Jones down in Mississippi is as valid a hypothesis in Amanda's world as any based on the experiments of Franklin. Her background prevents her entry into the Century of Progress.
Distant from both the practical and theoretical elements of technology, she is made its servant. She earns cash through the telephone, an early telemarketing slave who sells popular women's magazines by summarizing their soft-porn plots to D.A.R. housewives. Her opportunity is limited because her clients can control her by hanging up the phone. The instrument of communication, developed by a man interested in advancing the abilities of the deaf, has been taken over by entrepreneurs who trade on the public's interest in the mildly salacious. The family eats on credit when Amanda's connection is broken at the other end of the line.
Telephone, electric lighting, radio and television. To these technological developments Williams adds the phonograph and the cinema. These two devices serve Williams's dramaturgy as symbols of the world of illusion which Tom and Laura escape to, symbols as strongly relevant to the play's personal level as the eponymous collection of glass animals. But they also reinforce the pervasive pattern of technological elements in the play, the telephone, radio and TV, and electric light replacing its antecedent the candelabrum. In their dual symbolic roles, film and phonograph bind together the levels of the play—the personal level of the specific characters' illusions and escapes, with the broader historical significance of technology's impact on society. (It is ironic that Williams depends on technological innovations for staging the play—the lighting which is essential to maintaining the visual center of attention, and which continues its ethereal effects even as the on-stage prop lights flicker and go out; the magic-lantern projections of images and legends; even a narrative technique akin to that of cinematography.)
Louis Dupré, in his discussion of Marx's views of cultural and social alienation, notes that the German philosopher attributes the "antisocial quality [of the division of labor] to the dominance of technology over human activity." We see Tom escaping from the warehouse with its celotex ceiling and fluorescent lighting by retreating to the movies, a world of adventure analogous to the life he dreams of as a merchant seaman. And whatever else he does on his nightly forays—drinking, cruising for companions—it is the movies which provide his cover. The movies were the nation's escape mechanism throughout the Depression and on into the war years, until displaced by the newer technology managed by the Jims of the electronics world, ever slicker technologies with ever slighter provocation to adventure.
For Laura, the phonograph provides similar escape from the pressures of earning a living in a commercial world, relentless memorizing of charts to serve business interests. Unlike the typewriter, the mechanics of which are so alien to her temper that she throws up in class, the phonograph is soothing. She avoids difficult conversations by retreating to it: the text draws our attention as much to the cranking of its mechanism as to the music it reproduces. Laura turns to it nearly as often as she does to her glass menagerie.
Nancy M. Tischler has aptly characterized the brother's and sister's relation to technology. Tom believes that "many, like himself, are poetic rather than mechanistic" and considers "surrender to the machine a perversion of man's nature," while of Laura, Tischler writes: "Unable to adapt to the modern scene of electro-dynamics, she lives in a world of candlelight and fantasy. The encounter with the machine age is brief and useless." Technology "succeeds" in providing escape from hard realities of life rather than easing the economic, political, and social problems of the time. For Tom, movies are analogous to drinking, and for Laura, the phonograph is the machinery that enables her withdrawal from the world.
Only Jim, the visitor from outside, concerns himself actively with technology. His interest "happens to lie in electro-dynamics. I'm taking a course in radio engineering at night school … I believe in the future of television … all that remains is for the industry itself to get under way! Full steam—(His eyes are starry) Knowledge—Zzzzzp! Money—Zzzzzzp!—Power! That's the cycle democracy is built on!" It is capitalism, rather than "democracy," that Jim sees built on these. He is not only the play's "realist," the foil for the illusory worlds of the Wingfields: he is also the potential entrepreneur of technological capitalism. "Knowledge" means inventing new technologies and capitalizing on their financial success, which in turn gives the system power over those without technology.
But Jim's more specific comments on progress and invention suggest a severely limited conception of what technology is about: "Think of the fortune made by the guy that invented the first piece of chewing gum…. Century of Progress…. What impressed me most was the Hall of Science. Gives you an idea of what the future will be in America, even more wonderful than the present time is." He is an average representative of his class, hoping to advance in society through mastery of the new tools, without abandoning his predilection for chewing gum and the sports page. Pavlov, comparing Jim to Willie Loman, characterizes him as "another member of the blind American middle class [who] just doesn't realize that men's destinies under capitalism are not shaped by personal virtues and self-perfection but by the operation of the ruthless economic laws of capitalist development."
Jim's limited conception of what constitutes technology aside for the moment, he is Williams's ultimate chip in the series of tokens representing technology in society. It is his view of progress which is set against the inadequacy of the Wingfields, showing in the language of drama the impact of that view. Those without access to the real power of technology are limited as mere users unable to understand or control it. They remain outside the sphere created by larger forces that place technology not as the servant of humanity but as a venture for capital investment, nationalistic rivalries, and costly toys.
When we see the play performed, we are drawn of course to its personal issues: inadequacy, failures of love and other illusions, conflicts of goals and responsibilities and family. With Debusscher I agree that the play is not "about" a specific set of social, economic, and political devastations which happened to coincide in time with the personal events of the play. But great literature strikes home in more than one way, the familiar or local issues and the larger milieu: Shakespeare's kings live both public and private lives. The Glass Menagerie, too, is "progressive," in Eagleton's sense. The Wingfield family exists in a specific time and place that defines their origins and position in society. Williams merely alludes to the threats of war and labor unrest; he shows us in more detail a society intent on a future altered by technological development but one in which that development fails to give ordinary people any significant progress.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5934
SOURCE: "A Streetcar Named Misogyny," in Violence in Drama, edited by James Redmond, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 225-38.
[In the following essay, Lant discusses the significance of rape and elements of tragedy in A Street Car Named Desire. According to Lant, Blanche is unable to attain the status of a tragic figure because she is objectified and dehumanized as a victim of rape.]
Tennessee gave me a lot of clues to Blanche. He was a sly fox … Tennessee said, 'Just remember, everybody thinks the last line is: "I've always been dependent on the kindness of strangers." That's not the last line. The last line is: "Gentlemen, the name of this game is five-card stud."'
Rape is not a crime of irrational, impulsive, uncontrollable lust, but is a deliberate, hostile, violent act of degradation and possession on the part of a would-be conqueror, designed to intimidate and inspire fear.
In the moment of rape a woman becomes anonymous. Like all victims of terrorism, there is something awesomely accidental about her fate. She is like the duck flying in formation which the hunter chose to shoot down—she appeared in his gunsight. Absorbed by his violence, her soul and the history of her soul are lost, are irrelevant.
A Streetcar Named Desire is, like an elusive lover, compelling, vexing, confusing, and ultimately heartbreaking because—like the lover one never quite wins—it refuses to conform to our expectations or fulfill our hopes. It leads us on, promises much, but in the end defies our attempt to understand, to approach, to control it, even to find pleasure in it.
In fact, that is just the problem with Williams's most popular play. It doesn't tell a straight story, it won't conform to a narrative or dramatic structure we recognize, it won't—like that reluctant lover again—make up its own mind about what it wants, who it is. Williams's play has proved vexing to audiences, directors, actors, readers, and critics because it seems to hover between two completely antithetical approaches to its own materials. The work shimmers with tension, it glows by the very heat of its own ambivalence.
The widely differing responses the play seems to generate may be the result of what Foster Hirsch calls Williams's 'own ambivalence' toward the antagonists of the drama—Stanley and Blanche. According to Hirsch, the two find themselves locked in a "deadly sex war," in which "Stanley and Blanche are a solid match." Williams's commitment to both characters—his attraction to "Stanley's animal vigor" and his sympathy for Blanche's "sensibility"—enable him to write "with a fine balance." As Hirsch puts it, "Though he is almost always divided in his feelings about his characters, Williams here makes capital dramatic use of his contrary impulses, and Streetcar thrives on its imbalances."
But the imbalances and tensions Hirsch points to are more extensive, more fundamental, than Williams's merely personal ambivalences. When Hirsch observes that "Romantic Blanche and naturalistic Stanley are locked in a symbolic conflict: culture fights vulgarity, and is trampled," he restricts his reading of the play to only one of its dramatic conflicts. It is, in fact, as if in Streetcar Williams dramatizes two mutually exclusive narratives, reveals two archetypal dramatic situations which dictate completely antithetical roles for Blanche. On the one hand, the play does present Blanche as a tragic figure and Stanley as the cruel agent of her destruction. Stanley brings about Blanche's downfall by unmasking her pretensions and her lies, by physically unclothing and raping her. In this dramatic situation, Blanche is—indeed—flawed, culpable, tragically imperfect, but she is fully and flagrantly human. As a tragic figure she functions as subject, to be judged by her action or inaction, her will to save herself, her sister, her home. She is a being wholly female, driven beyond her ability to cope with the wholly male world. At this level of the play, we may grieve as the environment (Stanley) destroys Blanche, or we may rage as Blanche backs herself into a corner with her lies and evasions. But no matter how we view Blanche—with pity or anger—we see and judge Blanche as Blanche, as a fully developed human character.
But the play dramatizes another situation in which Blanche becomes merely a figure, a component of one of our culture's most pernicious, most deeply entrenched narratives—the story of rape. As a figure in this story, as its victim, its object, Blanche ceases to be human. She becomes—instead—a repository for all the mistaken notions our culture harbors about rape. She is acted upon, objectified, and ironically made guilty for her own victimization. No longer fully human, she is simply a metaphor for all that is vile about women. Blanche cannot, then, claim tragic stature or even our sympathy precisely because she is a victim of rape. And as she becomes responsible for her own victimization, Stanley is left to glory in his ascendancy. This aspect of Streetcar arises from the misogyny which colors the play and our responses to it and which undermines the very moving presentation of Blanche that Williams offers.
Even overtly feminist readers of Williams's work do not fully explore the implications of Blanche's rape by Stanley. Focusing on the imbalances of the work and arguing that Williams's attitude toward the rape are "ambivalent," Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, for example, assert that in Streetcar Williams "records, rationalizes, and critiques the use of the penis as weapon that he perceives as essential to Stanley Kowalski's relations with women." Gilbert and Gubar find Blanche a "sympathetic heroine whose imaginative energy surpasses the creativity of any of the other characters in the play; for Williams, Blanche is, nonetheless, guilty of abusing and using 'sensitive men' so that her 'punishment'—her rape—fits her crime."
Gilbert and Gubar conclude, however, that while Stanley does seem to triumph over Blanche, does seem to punish her, what we really observe is Williams's "scathing critique of the heterosexual imperative which is driving Blanche mad." Gilbert and Gubar assert that in the final scene of the play, Stanley's guilt "may be" revealed as "greater than Blanche's" because Stanley is accused by one of his poker buddies of being responsible for driving Blanche to her breakdown.
But Gilbert and Gubar—like Hirsch—read or view Streetcar somewhat myopically. They too seem unaware of resonances in the play to which most audiences and readers would respond. While they focus their attention on a feature of the play that has not been fully considered yet—Stanley's violent assault against Blanche—Gilbert and Gubar ignore the implications of Blanche's rape. In effect, Gilbert and Gubar place the play so forcefully in a feminist context that they fail to hear the reverberations the work would inevitably create in a context less than sympathetic to women, the very context in which the play was created and first produced.
There is, in fact, hostility toward women in Williams's work which has been ignored or tacitly applauded by his critics. This misogyny is not peculiar to Williams but exists in his work as a reflection of the society (and its attitudes toward women) to which he belongs. In this light, we can understand why Streetcar expresses a great compassion and affection for Blanche (a humane response to the suffering woman, a respectful acknowledgment of her humanity) and at the same time an intense hostility and prejudice toward her (a misogynist response to her very femaleness and to her vulnerability to rape, a reduction of Blanche to the status of metaphor, bearer of meaning rather than creator of meaning).
To understand that this double attitude toward Blanche exists in Streetcar is to take a step toward discovering why the play fails to hold together in important ways, why it is difficult to feel pity and terror for Blanche's plight (when we know we should), and why it is difficult not to feel vindicated at Stanley's brutal ascendancy (when we know we should not). Both attitudes, toward women in general and Blanche in particular, exert strong influence on readers and viewers, encouraging at one moment an intense compassion for Blanche and inciting in the next a distaste for and hostility toward her.
Thus, Streetcar reveals Williams's desire to render Blanche fully human, though flawed and put upon. Williams displays great compassion for Blanche and insight into the position of women in the twentieth century. He is aware of both their dependence on men and their vulnerability to the passionate excesses of men. In a sociological approach to the play, Robert Emmet Jones shows that the degeneration of Southern aristocratic society left women like Blanche in a peculiarly imperiled position; he characterizes these women as "the passive pawns of social forces and their own emotions." Blanche, raised to be decorative, fragile, and delicate, finds herself out of place, alienated from the real world, as Williams's description of her demonstrates:
Her appearance is incongruous to this setting [Elysian Fields]. She is daintily dressed in a white suit with a fluffy bodice, necklace and earrings of pearls, white gloves and hat, looking as if she were arriving at a summer tea or cocktail party in the garden district … Her delicate beauty must avoid strong light. There is something about her uncertain manner, as well as her white clothes, that suggests a moth. (scene 1)
Blanche's genteel, feminine world has fallen apart, destroyed by the "epic fornications" of all her male relative—"improvident grandfathers and father and uncles and brothers" (scene 2). Blanche "stayed and struggled," she tells Stella, trying to justify to her sister the loss of Belle Reve: "I … tried to hold it together … but all the burden descended on my shoulders." Jones characterizes Blanche's situation this way: "The tragedy of these women is the tragedy of the civilization which bore them, nourished them, and cast them out." What Robert Brustein calls "the dark masculine forces of society" are pitted against Blanche's typically feminine qualities. And in the struggle, Blanche is pathetically lost and brutally exploited.
Williams is not unsympathetic to the fact that Blanche must exist in a male world on male terms. He shows us that she is trapped economically and socially. When she says to Mitch of Stanley, "The first time I laid eyes on him I thought to myself, that man is my executioner!" (scene 6), she demonstrates her awareness that it is the brutal male ethic, the "Napoleonic Code," which has reduced her to virtual prostitution. Nor is Blanche unaware of the rules of the games she must play in this men's world or of the power every male has over her. From the beginning of Streetcar she is frightened ("Her voice drops and her look is frightened," scene 1), and her reaction to Stanley is consistently edged with terror ("looking apprehensively toward the front door"; "She darts and hides"; "drawing back involuntarily from his stare," scene 1).
Moreover, Williams is aware (as he shows Blanche is) that the games she plays with men—the coyness, the flirting, the submissiveness—are necessary for survival in a masculinist environment. As Andrea Dworkin points out in Women Hating, self-denigrating female social behavior is "learned behavior" that allows woman "survival in a sexist world." Blanche must please and placate those in whose hands her destiny rests. When she apologizes to Mitch for not being an interesting companion on their date, he asks why she tries so hard to please: "I was just obeying the law of nature … The one that says the lady must entertain the gentleman—or no dice" (scene 6). She leads Mitch on in a shameful way, it is true, but she is not unaware of her deception ("She rolls her eyes, knowing he cannot see her face," scene 6). Williams has made perfectly clear why the deception is necessary: Blanche is alone, vulnerable, penniless, and—most pathetic of all—desperately lonely.
Williams expresses his sympathy for women in a male-dominated world in one other way: his development of the violent and frequently physically abusive relationships between Stanley and Stella and between Steve and Eunice. Williams's sympathy is qualified, however, for—in the final analysis—in spite of the fact that he perceives the horror for women in these relationships, Williams comes out in favor of them; they are, he tells us at the end of Streetcar, life giving, fueled by desire, whereas Blanche's way represents a surrender to death.
The most revealing character in this respect is, of course, Stella. Critics are fond of accusing Blanche of refusing to face facts and of lying, but it is Stella (and Eunice, too) who constantly refuse to look at things, to listen to the truth, or even to tell the truth. Stella lies to Blanche throughout and her final, most devastating lie represents her complete betrayal of her sister: she allows Blanche to think she is going on a trip when, in fact, she is being sent to a state mental hospital. Stella, good wife that she is, concerns herself only with maintaining the status quo. She knows, at a deeply unconscious level, that she must keep Stanley happy to preserve the economic and emotional security she has achieved as his woman.
Every time Blanche confronts Stella with the facts of Stella's situation (that Stella deserted Blanche and Belle Reve, leaving Blanche to endure death and degradation; that Stanley is crude and brutal; in short, that Stella is "married to a madman!" scene 4), Stella turns her eyes away from these facts. She willingly blinds and anesthetizes herself to what her life with Stanley has become: "Blanche! You be still! That's enough!" (scene 1); "I want to go away, I want to go away!" (scene 3); "She crosses in a dazed way from the kitchen" (scene 7); "Her eyes and lips have that almost narcotized tranquility that is in the faces of Eastern idols" (scene 4). In fact, Blanche finds Stella's complete abnegation of self in the face of Stanley's brutality so astonishing that she asks Stella, "Is this a Chinese philosophy you've—cultivated?" (scene 4).
Williams demonstrates, moreover, that Stella is abused physically and degraded sexually in her relationship with her husband: she participates in and enjoys sex with Stanley after he has beaten her. There is, too, something unsavory in Stanley's equation of sex and violence (he feels that his brawling with Stella and Steve's with Eunice are perfectly natural expressions of sexual appetite) and in Stella's description of her sexual attachment to Stanley. She tells Blanche, "I can hardly stand it when he is away for a night … When he's away for a week, I nearly go wild!… And when he comes back I cry on his lap like a baby" (scene 1). Marion Magid remarks quite incisively of this scene:
It is hard to know what is more unpleasant in this image: the overt sentimentality it expresses or the latent brutality it masks: a fascination with the image of the helpless creature under the physical domination of another, accepting his favors with tears of gratitude.
Magid is, however, mistaken when she implies that Williams glorifies this relationship without qualification, for Williams demonstrates throughout the play that Stella is blinded and drugged and that she has shut herself off from the truth in order to maintain her relationship with Stanley.
Williams is not, then, unaware of the self-sacrifice a woman makes to live with a man like Stanley, for, as Stella says finally when she forsakes her sister so that she can stay with her husband, "I couldn't believe her story and go on living with Stanley" (scene 11). The irony of the situation is that Stella has believed Blanche's story all along; she—Stella—has called Stanley drunk, pig. She has reviled him but also has shut her eyes to her revulsion for him. This is, Williams shows us, the predicament of the heterosexual woman in the modern world. For Williams, Blanche is clearly the only female—the only fully human female—who has the will to set herself against Stanley. Only she refuses to blind herself to Stanley's evils. This pride, her insistence on her right to see and to name, may well be her tragic flaw. She may be quite simply too noble to exist as a female in a world run by a phalanx of Stanley Kowalski's.
In many ways, however, A Streetcar Named Desire dehumanizes Blanche, undercuts her tragic situation, and renders her by the end of the play a maddened hysteric with no place in a well-ordered society. In this respect, Williams draws on the most heinous and trivializing myths about women and about rape that inform our culture, and he demonstrates that he bears as many prejudices toward the modern woman as does a brute like Stanley. These prejudices, Williams's misogynous attitudes, irrevocably flaw this play, for a human being viewed as weak, neurotic, hysterical, dishonest, emotional, affected, and fragile (which, the prejudice tells us, women are and which Blanche certainly is) cannot at the same time aspire to the conditions of the tragic figure. Williams wants Blanche to be tragic (in the final scene he describes her so: "She has a tragic radiance in her red satin robe following the sculptural lines of her body," scene 11), but woman—as conceived in a system of patriarchal myth, especially the myth of rape—cannot be tragic. Blanche is, most clearly after Stanley's assault, too weak and too oppressed to convey tragic grandeur. Williams demonstrates this contradiction beautifully if unconsciously; for as soon as he characterizes Blanche as "tragic," his stage directions indicate that she must speak "with faintly hysterical vivacity" (scene 11). A neurotic woman may speak in this manner, but never an Oedipus or a Faustus.
If we look at Blanche's flaw, at the action or attitude which brings disaster and ruin upon her, we can understand the nature of Williams's predicament. In the first place, Blanche is, like most women, viewed primarily as a sexual being. As Naomi Weisstein points out, even psychologists, biologists, and anthropologists "assert that a woman is defined by her ability to attract men," and Dworkin develops her thoughts on misogyny by indicating that woman is perceived as either the wicked (that is, sexually active and knowledgeable) witch or the beautiful, innocent, victimized princess. Thus, woman is categorized by her sexual activity, and sexual activity outside of marriage can be viewed only as degeneration; indeed, in Streetcar Blanche's sexual activity is an indication of her moral degeneration. She moves from sixteen-year-old virgin Southern princess (when she married Allan) to aging, sexually promiscuous whore. Sex is—to put it simply—sinful when Blanche engages in it. With respect to Blanche as rape victim, such blatant disclosure of her sexual history is absolutely necessary. It is as though her entire sexual background must be brought before us so that we can see that she, indeed, got what she deserved.
Stanley Kowalski, on the other hand, is applauded for his sexuality, for his crude, sadistic exploitation of Stella, for his love of the "colored lights." He is certainly sexually active and, given his attitudes and manner, probably promiscuous as well (this is hinted at in Eunice's accusation of Steve, for the two couples are often compared). Williams's description of Stanley is almost fulsome in its veneration of Stanley's virility:
Since earliest manhood the center of his life has been pleasure with women, the giving and taking of it, not with weak indulgence, dependently, but with the power and pride of a richly feathered male bird among hens … everything that is his … bears his emblem of the gaudy seed-bearer. He sizes women up at a glance, with sexual classifications, crude images flashing into his mind and determining the way he smiles at them. (scene 1)
Gilbert and Gubar point out that the "submissive Stella seems sexually enthralled by [Stanley's] violence." But clearly Williams too is enthralled by Stanley, by his violent sexuality, by his masculine threat. While Gilbert and Gubar feel that Williams, as a homosexual, stands "apart from heterosexual institution" and critiques Stanley's abuses of power, it may be more likely that Williams has created his own Galatea in Stanley. In fact, Williams seems to fall victim to Stanley's sexuality to such a degree that he revels in it—irresponsibly and appallingly—at Blanche's expense. Elia Kazan's production notes to Streetcar are even more extravagant than Williams's own words concerning Stanley; Kazan calls Stanley a "walking penis."
The play is rent, then, by a thematic inconsistency. Are we to elevate Blanche to a tragic figure or simply consign her to ignominy for the same activity which we applaud in Stanley Kowalski? Some critics of the play would have us suppose that Williams means us to perceive Stanley's attitude toward sex, with its alternations of violence and pleading (in scene 3 Stanley first assaults Stella then sobs, cries, and begs until she returns to him) as somehow superior to Blanche's. Others find Stella's sexual submissiveness healthy; Robert Jones, for example, tells us that Williams's heroines
believe that through physical desire and its consummation they will belong, that they will achieve life and escape Death. They do not realize that desire fails unless it is accepted wholeheartedly, as by Stella Kowalski.
How anyone could find Stella Kowalski's comatose endurance of Stanley healthy or whole-hearted is, indeed, a subject for wonder.
Tennessee Williams claims to share D. H. Lawrence's view of life, "a belief in the purity of sensual life, the purity and the beauty of it." The inconsistencies of Streetcar, however, would lead us to believe that sexuality, no matter how debased or desperate (and it is debased and desperate between Stanley and Stella) is pure only for males. Sexuality for females seems to involve a virtuous narcosis (Stella) or a profligate frenzy (Blanche). The attitudes expressed by the characters in Streetcar also uphold this sexual double standard, for Stanley is quite willing to protect Steve from Eunice when she suspects him of infidelity. But Stanley feels it his bounden duty to reveal Blanche's sordid past to the impressionable Mitch.
Even more damning than Blanche's promiscuity (a promiscuity we must attribute to her to justify Stanley's raping her), however, is her behavior toward her young, homosexual husband, Allan, years before. Critic after critic berates Blanche for her "betrayal of the defenseless homosexual … the supreme sin," for her "rejection of Allan Grey," for her "cruelty" which "consists of unveiling her young husband's true sexual nature, forcing his suicide," for "her failure to be compassionate":
Blanche's most fundamental regret is not that she happened to marry a homosexual … [but that] when made aware of her husband's homosexuality, she brought on his suicide by her unqualified expression of disgust.
Unhappily, the play completely supports these readings. Williams does consider Blanche guilty for not saving her husband from his homosexuality (although it is certainly not clear how she is to do this) and for not showing more womanly support and compassion for the young man when she did discover the truth. She tells the story to Mitch:
There was something different about the boy, a nervousness, a softness, and tenderness which wasn't like a man's … He came to me for help … and all I knew was I'd failed him in some mysterious way and wasn't able to give the help he needed but couldn't speak of!… on the dance-floor—unable to stop myself—I'd suddenly said—"I saw! I know! You disgust me …" (scene 6).
By the logic of the play, Blanche is guilty for not saving her husband from himself; she is also to be held responsible for his suicide. Both charges can be made only in a world where a woman's primary duty is self-sacrifice to man, where her appropriate role is that of supportive object not assertive subject. Where is there room in this situation for Blanche's own feelings? What about her rejected love, her jealousy, her anger? What about what Blanche wants?
We see, then, that Williams—investing the tragic significance of his play in Blanche—undercuts this very significance by his own sexist attitude toward her. He defines her in sexual terms (since she is no longer a virgin, she must be a degenerating whore), and he condemns her for failing to provide the self-sacrificing, womanly support her husband, Allan, needed. Williams's unacknowledged, unconscious misogyny weakens his development of Blanche as a strong, exciting character, and Blanche is damned no matter how she behaves.
Furthermore, just as Blanche is denounced for her lack of compassion for Allan and for her failure to conceal her disgust with his homosexuality, she is damned again and again for telling the truth. Women have traditionally been punished for saying what others do not want to hear: Cassandra was laughed at, scorned, and finally raped by Ajax; critical and vociferous women were burned as witches; aggressive, vocal Hedda Gabler was considered unnatural. What is especially interesting about these women is that not only are they intimidated into silence, but also the little they are permitted to say is denounced as falsehood. Cassandra is misled, insane, the Trojans believe; the witch is a "liar by nature" according to the church; and Hedda is, finally, discredited as evil. In the same way Blanche Dubois is accused of lying by Stanley Kowalski and by critics of the play. Stanley begins to enumerate Blanche's lies to Stella: "Lie Number One: All this squeamishness she puts on! You should just know the line she's been feeding Mitch" (scene 7). Most critics agree with Leonard Quirino that Blanche seeks to deny reality, "to combat actuality," and that she has a "preference for soulful illusion."
But, in fact, if we look closely at the play, we see that Blanche tells the truth consistently and that it is for this she is punished. Of course, her first great moment of truth-telling is when she challenges Allan with his homosexuality. This does, on the surface, seem a cruel act, but imagine for a moment Stanley rather than Blanche in this position. Suppose now that Stanley finds Stella in a compromising situation with another woman. We would expect and applaud shock, rage, even violence from Stanley. We would not dream of condemning him for a lack of compassion for the errant Stella. And in a way this is exactly what we admire Stanley for doing in Streetcar. His wife, it seems, is forming a threateningly close attachment with another woman (though the relationship is by no means lesbian), and surely we are to approve of Stanley's efforts to protect his marriage. Why then should we revile Blanche for a very natural, jealous, furious reaction to a threat to her marriage? The answer is, of course, because she is female. It is not her place to protect what is hers; it is for her to support, love, cherish, accept. And, in fact, with respect to Blanche's ultimate role, her role as the victim of Stanley's rape, we expect her to lie. If the rape victim isn't terrified into an appropriate and docile silence, she will be—or has been, traditionally—discredited by police, courts, medical professionals, family and judges.
Through the course of the play, Blanche—in much the same way and with similarly disastrous results—continues to tell the truth, but now about Stanley. She reveals him as she revealed Allan; she shows her disgust for him. In scene 1 she confronts Stella with the degradation in which Stella lives: "I'm going to be honestly critical about it." And a little later she upbraids Stella for letting herself go—which Stella has done: "You messy child, you, you've spilt something on the pretty white lace collar!" After Stanley beats Stella, Blanche describes Stanley as an animal, an ape, a brute, a beast. She admonishes her sister not to "hang back with the brutes." Of course, Stanley hears this, and Blanche's fate is sealed. She has wounded male pride once too often; she has seen a little too clearly and spoken far too forcefully. She must be punished.
Williams's difficulty in characterizing Blanche as a complex, fully developed figure becomes obvious here. He suggests on one level that Blanche has erred in being cruel and insensitive to her husband, that her failure was simply a lack of compassion; what he conveys, however, is that Blanche has broken the one inviolable rule of relationships between men and women. Women do not tell the truth, they do not challenge, they do not unmask. This notion is so interwoven into the fabric of our society that it makes its way into Williams's play in spite of the fact that it diminishes the effect of the work, and it renders Blanche's sin more a crime against the sanctity of marriage and a threat to the power of men than a brief lapse in sympathy or love.
This brings us to one of the most interesting problems of Streetcar: Blanche's punishment. The fact that Blanche has incurred male wrath by seeing too much and criticizing too freely makes it entirely appropriate that she be punished by the one sure means of male domination and power over women: rape. Susan Brownmiller points out that rape is "not only a male prerogative but a man's basic weapon of force against women, the principal agent of his will and her fear." And herein lies Williams's inconsistency in having Stanley rape Blanche. The rape is to be a punishment, a retribution brought on by Blanche's great crime (beginning with her cruelty to Allan and culminating in her unmasking of Stanley). But to be a rape victim in a sexist society is to be deserving of the punishment simply because of who one is (a woman) rather than because of what one has done. It is, too, to be somehow sullied by the crime of which one is a victim. It is to be lowly and despicable; it is to be guilty for the act rather than punished by the act. Thus, Blanche's only crimes are that she is female and there fore subject to masculine will and that she is a bad enough woman (in sexual terms) to be raped. Her real crimes (if they are, indeed, crimes) are forgotten, completely obscured by the fact that we have an entire set of myths to explain rape and that these myths vigorously affirm the rape victim's guilt—which has nothing to do with how Blanche may have treated Allan in the past or with how she treats Stanley now.
These false notions about rape include the idea that all women want to be raped, that a woman—in effect—brings the rape on herself, that it is not logically possible to rape a woman who is not a virgin, and that rape is a crime of sexual desire, brought on by the overwhelming attraction of the victim or by the unbearable sexual deprivation of the rapist. Williams goes to great lengths to obscure the fact that rape is a political crime of "uncontrolled hostility" toward women, "a brutal bullying of a smaller, weaker person," by ensuring that the rape in Streetcar conforms to all the false stereotypes we hold about the act. Blanche is made to flirt with and entice Stanley: Williams shows that Blanche has an extremely unsavory sexual history, so the act of raping her seems insignificant, indeed; and he indicates that Stanley finds Blanche attractive ("come to think of it—maybe you wouldn't be bad to interfere with," scene 10), making this seem a crime of passion and desire rather than one of violence, cruelty, and revenge—which every rape is. We tend, therefore, to forget why Stanley really attacks Blanche—not because she is attractive or because she is promiscuous but because she threatens masculine power with her honesty.
The issue becomes impenetrably muddled. Because Williams harbors false notions about rape, its causes and its intent, Blanche comes off simply as a loud-mouthed, flirtatious whore who really asked for what she got. In other words, she deserves to be raped not for some crime she committed against her husband or against Stanley, but because she has committed a crime against male privilege: she has been as sexually free as Stanley. But Williams attempts also to create a tragic figure in Blanche; she is a human being who has set in motion forces which have brought about her own ruin. To represent her ruin as a sexual assault, however, certainly diminishes the effect of it, for if only whores are raped, where is the tragedy? What can possibly be tragic about the rape of a promiscuous woman to an audience or a playwright in a misogynist society? Anyone watching the play knows enough about the myths of which our world is made to realize that Blanche has brought this rape on by her own sexual promiscuity and nothing else. She is, therefore, certainly not possessed of tragic stature.
On a deeper level, however, the play acknowledges the true intent and character of the act of rape, that it is a crime of domination and power. It is clear, at this level too, that Stanley is punishing Blanche for more than her profligacy; he is punishing her for all the insults she ever hurled at any male, beginning with Allan. This is what Stanley means when he tells Blanche, "We've had this date with each other from the beginning!" (scene 10). But given the false notions the audience harbors about rape—false notions the play itself promotes—the fact that Blanche is raped necessarily diminishes her in our eyes. She becomes no longer a tragic figure but merely a sordid victim of a nasty crime, no longer fully human but merely a metaphor for all the feminine evils the real men of the world must face and deal with.
According to Normand Berlin, A Streetcar Named Desire is a tragedy, but one whose effect is determined by the attitudes we hold toward Stanley and Blanche. We must, he says, keep the scales balanced between the two antagonists in order to understand the play fully:
Desire is the common ground on which Stanley and Blanche meet … The needs of both are clearly presented by Williams and should be understood by the audience which must neither wholly condemn Blanche for her whorishness nor Stanley for his brutishness.
We cannot keep these scales balanced, however, for Blanche has been violated in such a way that she loses her tragic stature and even her status as an appropriate antagonist for Stanley. Susan Griffin observes that at the moment of rape "a woman becomes anonymous … Absorbed by … violence, her soul and the history of her soul are lost, are irrelevant." Indeed, Blanche is anonymous at the end of Streetcar; like Stella, she has been rendered comatose, catatonic by the sexuality and brutishness of the masculine world of power. Stanley triumphs, and his rape of Blanche conforms to Brownmiller's characterization of the violation of woman by man:
rape is not a crime of irrational, impulsive, uncontrollable lust, but is a deliberate, hostile, violent act of degradation and possession on the part of a would-be conqueror, designed to intimidate and inspire fear.
Stanley is more than a would-be conqueror in Williams's play, for he has protected his domain and destroyed the enemy. He has taken all. As Tennessee Williams himself has said, the play doesn't end with Blanche, it ends with Stanley:
Just remember, everybody thinks the last line is: "I've always been dependent on the kindness of strangers." That's not the last line. The last line is: "Gentlemen, the name of this game is five-card stud."
And in this masculine world—as in this masculine game—Stanley holds all the cards.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3247
SOURCE: "'Through Soundproof Glass': The Prison of Self-Consciousness in The Glass Menagerie, in Modern Drama, Vol. 36, No. 4, December, 1993, pp. 529-37.
[In the following essay, Levy explores the significance of mirrors as a symbol for superficial appearances and fragile self-image in The Glass Menagerie.]
In his production notes introducing The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams refers to nostalgia as "the first condition of the play." This appraisal at first seems accurate, for the drama disposes the past in a series of receding planes by which the very notion of nostalgia is progressively deepened. From the perspective of Tom, the narrator and a chief character, the past when he started "to boil inside" with the urge to leave home becomes a haunting memory from which his present struggles vainly to flee. But the confining power of that past derives from his mother's nostalgic attachment to her own more distant past and the desperate need to exploit motherhood as a means of reviving "the legend of her youth."
Yet once we analyse how Amanda manipulates maternity, a factor in the play more fundamental than nostalgia will begin to emerge. This principle is self-consciousness—a term which, as we shall see, the text supplies and in its own way defines. Each character is hampéred in relating to others by the need to inhabit a private world where the fundamental concern is with self-image. Some characters (Amanda and Jim) use others as mirrors to reflect the self-image with which they themselves wish to identify. Other characters (Laura and Tom) fear that through relation to others they will be reduced to mere reflections, trapped in the mirror of the other's judgment. In virtue of this preoccupation with self-image and the psychological mirrors sustaining it, the world of the play is aptly named after glass. Indeed, Laura's remark ironically becomes the motto of the play: "My glass collection takes up a good deal of time. Glass is something you have to take good care of."
Let us begin by examining Amanda's influence on Laura. Unwittingly, Amanda exploits her maternal concern about Laura's lack of marital prospects as a means of identifying with her own past when she herself was visited one Sunday afternoon in Blue Mountain by "seventeen!—gentlemencallers." In effect, she turns her daughter into a mirror in which her own flattering self-image is reflected, but to do so she must first turn herself or, more precisely, her parental judgment, into a mirror reflecting Laura's limitations. The play itself suggests this seminal image. After helping Laura dress and groom herself, Amanda instructs her to stand in front of a real mirror: "Now look at yourself, young lady. This is the prettiest you will ever be!… I've got to fix myself now! You're going to be surprised by your mother's appearance!" Then "Laura moves slowly to the long mirror and stares solemnly at herself."
Look closely at what is happening here. Amanda slights Laura's appearance even as she praises it. Laura is told that she has reached her peak at this moment: she will never again be as attractive. But Laura's limitation only enhances Amanda's excitement about her own "spectacular appearance!" The literal mirror in which Laura beholds her own image ultimately symbolizes her mother's judgment of her. Yet the fundamental purpose of that judgment is to provide, by contrast, a flattering self-image for Amanda. Though on this occasion Amanda's judgment seems benign, it participates in a subtle pattern of comparison by which Laura is made to identify with the sense of her own "Inferiority" to her mother. Indeed, at one point she alludes explicitly to this fact: "I'm just not popular like you were in Blue Mountain." Laura is, in her own words, "crippled." But her primary handicap concerns, not the limp caused by a slight inequality in the length of her legs, but the negative self-consciousness instilled by her mother. In fact Jim, the gentleman caller, approaches this very diagnosis. When Laura recalls how in high school she "had to go clumping all the way up the aisle with everyone watching," Jim advises: "You shouldn't have been self-conscious."
The effect of Laura's self-consciousness is to make her intensely protective of her self-image, and to shield it from exposure to anyone outside the home. Whenever she is forced to interact or perform in public, she becomes suddenly ill with nausea and must withdraw. The most extreme example of this syndrome is her brief attendance at Rubicam's Business College where, according to the typing instructor, Laura "broke down completely—was sick at the stomach and almost had to be carried into the wash room." She has a similar reaction after the arrival of Jim at the Wingfield home, and reclines alone on her couch while the others dine in another room. As a result of this withdrawal reflex, Laura has no life outside preoccupation with her own vulnerability.
But paradoxically, the very intensity of this preoccupation changes the meaning of the vulnerability it concerns. By focusing on the fear of humiliating exposure, Laura eventually identifies, not with the shame evoked by her self-image, but with the desperate need to avoid suffering it. In this context, the playwright's commentary on Laura gains greater profundity: "Laura's separation increases till she is like a piece of her own glass collection, too exquisitely fragile to move from the shelf." At bottom, the purpose of Laura's withdrawal is to heighten her "fragility"; for, through belief in the damaging effect of exposure, she exchanges a negative self-image for one more flattering. Sensitivity to shame allows Laura to identify with her worthiness, not of ridicule, but of delicate care and compassion. Yet instead of leading to "confidence," this escape from shame depends on increasing her insecurity. She is safe from exposure to shame only if she identifies with her inability to endure it. But lack of confidence is Laura's secret wish, for it protects from confronting anything more threatening in life than her own familiar anxiety. Indeed, whenever she is encouraged to go beyond this anxiety, her reflex is to pick up one of her "little glass ornaments." She does this when Amanda reminds her of the need for eventual marriage and during the conversation with Jim.
The significance of these ornaments can be clarified by closer consideration of the glass from which they are made. In the play, glass is associated not just with the "lovely fragility" already noted, but also with the mirror prominently visible in the Wingfield apartment. Earlier we encountered one example where Amanda instructs Laura to observe her reflection in the mirror, but we shall examine several other allusions to this literal mirror; it becomes a vital symbol of the act of self-consciousness by which a character apprehends his or her self-image. Yet, in Laura's case, this analogy between the literal mirror and the act of self-consciousness extends further. Just as with a real mirror the reflection perceived is an image in glass, so in the play, as we have seen, Laura's own self-image is represented by ornaments of glass. Hence, in virtue of the glass which is their substance, these ornaments suggest that the fragility with which she identifies is no more than a self-image, dependent on the mirror of self-consciousness reflecting it.
But whereas Laura's recourse is to emphasize the mirror of negative self-consciousness, Tom's impulse is to shatter it, in order thereby to achieve his freedom. Like Laura, he too is exposed to the mirror of parental judgment held up by his mother, Amanda. But, unlike his sister, Tom refuses to identify with the negative self-image it reflects. His consuming wish is to leave home and explore his manhood: "I'm tired of the movies and I am about to move!" But Amanda insists that his desire to leave home is simply a manifestation of selfishness, and further proof that he will end up as faithless and irresponsible as his father, an example of the kind of man he should never become. In fact, a photograph of that father, hanging "on the wall of the living room," functions as a kind of mirror displaying the very self-image with which Tom is identified: "More and more you remind me of your father! He was out all hours without explanation!—Then left! Goodbye! And me with the bag to hold." Yet, with increasing passion, Tom protests his right to be a person and not merely a reflection defined by his mother's way of seeing him. Ultimately, he refuses to let the image she holds up to him restrain him; for if he identifies with it, he will never be free.
The process of this repudiation is repeatedly linked with the breakage of glass, symbol of the reflected self-image with which a character is made to identify. In the first great confrontation with his mother, Tom disowns the self-image with which she tries to control him: "For sixty-five dollars a month I give up all that I dream of doing and being ever! And you say self—self's all I ever think of. Why, listen, if self is what I thought of, Mother, I'd be where he is—GONE!" Then, in an enraged effort to don his overcoat and leave the house, he becomes entangled in "the bulky garment" and heaves it "across the room." The result is devastating: "It strikes against the shelf of Laura's glass collection, and there is a tinkle of shattering glass. Laura cries out as if wounded." On the surface, Tom's fury here seems purely destructive, damaging the possession which his sister most prizes. But, more profoundly, Tom's action represents the only way of claiming his own identity. If he allows his mother to restrain him by guilt and convince him that to act on his own is to become like his father, he will be no more self-reliant than Laura, hampered in life by a negative self-image, symbolized in Laura's case by the glass menagerie. For Laura, that self-image concerns fragility; for Tom, guilt. But each image is equally restricting.
Tom's second confrontation with his mother is even more explosive. Once again, she imposes a negative image upon him: "Go to the movies, go! Don't think about us, a mother deserted, an unmarried sister who's crippled and has no job! Don't let anything interfere with your selfish pleasure!" In rage, "Tom smashes his glass on the floor" and then "plunges out on the fire escape, slamming the door." The act of breaking glass (in this instance, a drinking vessel) obviously recalls the earlier shattering of an item in Laura's glass menagerie. Again, in the struggle to affirm and fulfil his own identity, Tom is forced to repudiate the negative image reflected in the mirror of parental judgment. What he says in the first encounter also explains his reaction in the second: "It seems unimportant to you, what I'm doing—what I want to do."
But even after leaving the house to explore life on his own, Tom is still haunted by the mirror of parental judgment. His "closing speech," immediately after the second glass smashing episode, is extremely revealing in this regard. In describing his itinerant life after breaking away from home, Tom admits that, at bottom, his freedom is no more than a flight in which he feels "pursued by something" that turns out to be the image of his sister. He recounts an obsession that overwhelms him each time he arrives in a new town: "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 in to her eyes."
This is one of the most poignant passages in the play, but understanding its full meaning requires some analysis. On the surface, Tom seems obsessed with guilt for having abandoned the sister who depended on him. But his preoccupation with Laura involves much more than the sense of duty denied. Or, more precisely, his remorse is motivated by a concern deeper than shirked obligation. The context confirms this. Her apparition usually appears after Tom sees some "tiny transparent bottles" through a shop window. The delicate ornaments, of course, remind him of Laura's glass menagerie. Ironically, however, in his futile flight from the memory of Laura, he is trying to escape an insecurity analogous to one symbolized by that glass menagerie. Whereas Laura reacts to insecurity by withdrawing into "a world of her own—a world of little glass ornaments," Tom responds by plunging compulsively into a world of strangers: "I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger—anything that can blow your candles out!" In fact, in his restless flight after leaving home, when cities whirl past him "like dead leaves," Tom travels perpetually through a world of strangers, never staying still long enough to find a new place he can call home.
The nature of this insecurity becomes clearer when we consider the scene with which its description is synchronized. As the author notes, "Tom's closing speech is timed with what is happening inside the house. We see, as though through soundproof glass, that Amanda appears to be making a comforting speech to Laura, who is huddled upon the sofa." The emphasis on "soundproof glass" is crucial here. To live in that home is to live behind a pane of imaginary glass: namely, the mirror of parental judgment created by Amanda in order to flatter her own self-image. To live inside that home is to be defined by the mirror it contains, as we have seen extensively with regard to Laura and Tom. Now that he is outside the home, Tom can see through that soundproof glass, as if it were a one-way mirror, transparent to the viewer or audience on one side, but a reflecting surface to those trapped on the other side of it.
The great pathos of the play is that Tom remains just as much a prisoner of the mirror as Laura. His attempt to flee merely confirms its influence. The ultimate cause of his restless movement is the fear of finding himself trapped on the wrong side of the mirror again—in other words, enclosed in an intimacy founded on love. For to love, as Tom has learned through the relation with his mother, is to be exposed to a mirror of negative judgment on which one becomes dependent for the sense of one's own worth. In that position. Tom is as vulnerable to insecurity as Laura. Hence, though his need for companionship is great, his need for loneliness is greater; for only loneliness can protect him from the vulnerability to love (or, more precisely, to the mirror of judgment which love creates) epitomized by his sister. But paradoxically, by shielding him from the same vulnerability to love suffered by Laura, loneliness increases his identification with her; for in that state he inhabits a world of his own, just as she does through preoccupation with the glass menagerie. The instability of this condition is vividly represented by Tom's obsession with Laura. Her image always appears in his moments of greatest loneliness—when he has just entered a new town at night but has not yet "found companions." He recoils from her and compulsively seeks strangers, but soon after meeting them he is once again on his lonely way. Thus the cycle of his life continues.
An even more profound pessimism about the influence of the mirror emerges when we examine Jim, the gentleman caller, who, according to Tom, "is the most realistic character in the play, being an emissary from a world of reality that we were somehow set apart from." It soon becomes apparent, however, that Jim is as much defined by mirrors and the self-consciousness which they symbolize as anyone else in the drama. Jim does show a genuine interest in Laura and tries to help her: "You don't have the proper amount of faith in yourself." Nevertheless, his concern is tainted with self-interest. Ultimately, like Amanda, he exploits Laura as a mirror in which to reflect a flattering image of himself.
The play is explicit in this regard. Note how, when encouraging Laura to conquer her "Inferiority complex," Jim "unconsciously glances at himself in the mirror" as he tells her that "Everybody excels in some one thing. Some in many!" A moment later, he "adjusts his tie at the mirror." In effect, he uses her need for self-confidence as an opportunity to admire his own attributes: "I guess you think I think a lot of myself!" His parting gesture sums up the meaning of his interest in Laura: "He stops at the oval mirror to put on his hat. He carefully shapes the brim and the crown to give a discreetly dashing effect." While Jim's reunion with Laura has aroused sincere affection for her, his deepest love is reserved for his own self-image. Consistently, he uses her sense of inadequacy as a means of magnifying his own positive attributes: "Look how big my shadow is when I stretch!" At bottom, what appears to be compassion—and what to Jim feels like honest compassion—is nothing more than narcissism, where awareness of Laura's emotional need leaves Jim "enrapt in his own comfortable being." This selfishness is most apparent when he kisses her. Jim yields to his attraction to Laura, but in doing so reveals its deepest motive. As soon as he kisses her he must reject her, because he already has a girlfriend, Betty. His sudden reversal makes Laura suffer an "almost infinite desolation," but reinforces Jim's own complacent satisfaction with himself: "Being in love has made a new man of me!" Once again, he turns Laura's helplessness into a mirror in which his own self-assurance is reflected.
Laura's situation is made more devastating by the positive effect he initially has on her. When the unicorn's horn breaks during her brief dance with Jim, Laura is not upset: "It's no tragedy, Freckles. Glass breaks so easily." In fact, she seems on the brink of transcending the image of herself which the unicorn represents: "The horn was removed to make him feel less—freakish!" Before he leaves, Laura gives Jim the unicorn as a "souvenir," then "rises unsteadily and crouches beside the Victrola to wind it up." These gestures are supremely significant. Giving away the unicorn suggests that the release from negative self-consciousness with which she has just identified the ornament in its newly damaged state has already ended. This suggestion is corroborated by the movement which follows her surrender of the unicorn: winding up the gramophone. Earlier, in a passage we have already quoted, Tom connected Laura's preoccupation with the Victrola with her withdrawal from reality: "She lives in a world of her own—a world of little glass ornaments, Mother. […] She plays old phonograph records and—that's about all."
Laura's offering of the unicorn has further implications. For, through preoccupation with his own self-image, Jim—like Laura—inhabits a world of his own which no true intimacy can violate. The only difference is that, while Laura identifies as the victim of self-consciousness, Jim identifies as its beneficiary. The fundamental function of his love for another is to enhance his love for himself.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5411
SOURCE: "The Myth Is the Message, or Why Streetcar Keeps Running," in Confronting Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire: Essays in Critical Pluralism, edited by Philip C. Kolin, Greenwood Press, 1993, pp. 133-45.
[In the following essay, Winchell considers the enduring popular and critical success of A Streetcar Named Desire in light of the play's complex male-female dynamic that defies classification as either misogynistic melodrama or tragedy.]
Certain works of literature seem to enter the popular imagination from the moment they are published. Their appeal is not confined to language or genre; they embody stories and characters that can be transferred from one art form to another without loss of power. For this reason, such stories and characters are often known to many more people than have read the original work. No doubt, millions with little idea who George Orwell was "know" that "1984" and "Big Brother" are ominous concepts. The term Uncle Tom is widely used by persons who would have difficulty identifying Harriet Beecher Stowe. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Tarzan, Frankenstein, and Dracula haunt a culture that has largely forgotten the names of Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Mary Shelley, and Bram Stoker. Recognizing that this is so is far easier than explaining why it is so.
With few exceptions, sophisticated literary critics dismiss works that have touched a mass audience. Particularly in our own century, the gap between elite and popular culture is an article of faith. As a result, the literary clerisy spends its time analyzing or deconstructing texts while the majority culture continues to enjoy songs and stories. (As Dwight Eisenhower is reputed to have said: "I may not know what's art, but I know what I like.") Of course, in times past, Shakespeare appealed to both the aristocracy and the groundlings; the serialized fiction of Dickens and Thackeray was read as avidly as soap operas are now watched; and Longfellow, prior to reading before Queen Victoria, signed autographs in the servants' quarters.
Among twentieth-century American poets, only Robert Frost bridged the gap between serious and popular literature. In the realm of fiction, the trick was turned (but only in selected novels) by Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Scott Fitzgerald, and Robert Penn Warren. In drama, where performance enables a writer to reach an audience beyond the confines of the printed page, the record is no better. Eugene O'Neill never seized the popular imagination, and Edward Albee came close only in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? For Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman enjoyed a popular and critical success neither precedented nor duplicated in his career.
The one American playwright who is a conspicuous exception to the dichotomy between "high" and "low" culture is Tennessee Williams. Williams's South, with its sexual ambivalence, self-delusion, and irrational violence, has become part of our popular mythos, the ambience of countless B-movies and television melodramas. With only slight exaggeration, Marion Magid writes:
A European whose knowledge of America was gained entirely from the collected works of Tennessee Williams might garner a composite image of the U.S.: it is a tropical country whose vegetation is largely man-eating; it has an excessive annual rainfall and subsequent storms which coincide with its mating periods; it has not yet been converted to Christianity, but continues to observe the myth of the annual death and resurrection of the sun-god, for which purpose it keeps on hand a constant supply of young men to sacrifice…. [T]he sexual embrace … is as often as not followed by the direst consequences: cannibalism, castration, burning alive, madness, surgery in various forms ranging from lobotomy to hysterectomy, depending on the nature of the offending organ.
Beyond this, particular Williams plays, such as The Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, have entered American popular culture to a degree unmatched by the work of any other critically acclaimed dramatist. Even these achievements, however, pale to insignificance in comparison to what Williams wrought in A Streetcar Named Desire. Surely, no play of the American theatre, perhaps no play in English since the time of Shakespeare, has won such praise from both the critics and the populace. When they agree on so little in the realm of literature, one wonders why the critics and the people are of a single mind on this one play.
In seeking to answer this question, I have found myself repeatedly borrowing concepts from the criticism of Leslie Fiedler. Although Fiedler's massive bibliography includes commentary on most major works of American literature (as well as many minor ones), I am not aware of his having written on A Streetcar Named Desire. Nevertheless, Streetcar seems particularly suited for a Fiedlerian treatment (if such a pompous phrase does not violate the populist spirit of Fiedler's muse). At least since his seminal essay, "Cross the Border—Close the Gap," Fiedler has tried to identify the universal sources of literary response by treating popular culture with the same reverence critics automatically extend to canonical texts. Moreover, Streetcar raises many of the same issues that Fiedler has long found at the heart of our storytelling tradition.
A Fiedlerian approach to Streetcar would identify those elements in the play that transcend the distinction between elite and popular culture. What is needed is an understanding of the play's mythopoeic power. This is something quite different from a cataloging of allusions to ancient legends, which may or may not be known to a mass audience. Streetcar is a play that raises disturbing questions about hearth and home, sex roles, family loyalty, and the power of eros. Because this is done within the context of a drama, the aesthetic distance between audience and artifact is much less than it would be with a sociological essay or even a novel. We respond to issues of universal concern at a visceral level long before that response is articulated, or "rationalized," in the form of criticism. I suspect that Streetcar remains such a riveting play in the country of its origin precisely because its particular treatment of universal themes—myth as opposed to mere mythology—is deeply rooted in American culture and literature.
Fiedler has argued for more than forty years that we can pretty well divide the canon of American literature between works that view home as Heaven and those that see it as Hell. The texts celebrated in Love and Death in the American Novel (1960) (and, before that, in D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature ) belong to the latter category. Beginning with Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle, "The uniquely American hero/anti-hero … rescues no maiden, like Perseus, kills no dragon, like Saint George, discovers no treasure like Beowulf or Siegfried; he does not even manage at long last to get back to his wife, like Odysseus. He is, in fact, an anti-Odysseus who finds his identity by running away from home" (Fiedler, What Was Literature?). The reason for this is quite simple. At home, he is subject to a loathsome form of tyranny known as "petticoat government." The tyrant may be a henpecking wife, such as Rip's Dame Van Winkle, or a nitpicking guardian, such as Huck Finn's Miss Watson (we have endless variations of these two in TV situation comedies and the funny pages of the daily newspaper). In either case, the only escape is into the wilderness and the society of fellow males.
Against this basically misogynistic canon is a countertradition of domestic literature. From the popular women novelists whom Hawthorne dismissed as that "damned tribe of scribbling females" to the writers of today's soap operas, laureates of the domestic tradition posit a stable home life, complete with heterosexual bonding and close family ties, as the greatest human good. Even when it is thwarted by the conflicts necessary to literature and endemic to life, it is still the ideal. As antithetical as they might seem, the domestic paradigm and the misogynist tradition both agree that the woman rules the home. The only disagreement is whether she is a benevolent despot or a hideous shrew. The patriarchal insistence that the man is king of his castle is generally understood as mere male bluster.
To say the least, the Stanley Kowalski household does not conform to the matriarchal conventions of our literature. Stanley is unquestionably the king of his castle. As a traveling salesman, he enjoys the freedom of the road. As captain of his bowling team, he is at no loss for male camaraderie. These experiences, however, are not an evasion of domestic unhappiness. Stanley's loving and obedient wife is always waiting for him, eager to gratify and be gratified. Even in the home, she accommodates him and his friends. Rip Van Winkle may have to meet his buddies at Nicholas Vedder's tavern, Dagwood Bumstead may have to hold his card games in the garage, but Stanley plays poker in the middle of his apartment. Only in the person of Eunice, who threatens to pour boiling water through the floorboards of the upstairs apartment, do we see even a vestige of the henpecking wife. As politically incorrect as it may be, the Kowalski household embodies a patriarchal vision of home as Heaven. There is not enough potential conflict here for either tragedy or farce. Not until Blanche enters the scene.
From the moment of her first entrance, Blanche brings with her a vision of home that varies sharply from what she encounters in Elysian Fields. Even before she utters a word, her expression of "shocked disbelief" speaks volumes. In first identifying Stella by her maiden name, Blanche instinctively places her sister back in her old home rather than in the one where she is "Mrs. Stanley Kowalski." Later in the scene, Blanche verbalizes her displeasure with Stella's current living arrangements, suggesting that she has somehow betrayed the memory of Belle Reve. Only a little scrutiny is required to show how problematic Blanche's air of superiority actually is.
To begin with, she has come to Elysian Fields not from Belle Reve but from Tarantula Arms. It is doubtful that accommodations there were any more aristocratic than in the French Quarter. Moreover, reliable information about Belle Reve itself is quite sparse. Clearly, the family home in Laurel has been lost on a mortgage. But how grand was it? With the exception of Stella, the closest that anyone in Elysian Fields has come to the place is a photograph of a mansion with columns. That photograph has been enough to impress Eunice and Stanley; however, Stella, who has actually lived in Belle Reve, seems unconcerned about its loss. Blanche, who at the very least is a pathological liar, remembers the place as a plantation. But there are no plantations in Laurel, Mississippi, which is in the heart of the Piney Woods. If there were even servants at Belle Reve, we hear nothing of them. In fact, Stella says that when she waits on Blanche, it seems more like home. There are enough hints in the play to suggest that the grandeur of Belle Reve is as suspect as the value of Blanche's rhinestone tiara and summer furs. (The supposedly hardheaded Stanley is taken in by all three.)
Even if we see Belle Reve as a latter-day Tara, it is lost in a way that Tara never was. Margaret Mitchell's image of the Old South as a matriarchal Eden had captured the public imagination by the time that Streetcar premiered on Broadway in 1947. In 1951, moviegoers would have been reminded of this image by the mere fact that Vivien Leigh, who had played Scarlett O'Hara on the screen, was cast as Blanche in the film version of Williams's play. In Mitchell's antebellum South, women ruled the home while men fought duels and argued over secession. These same men mortgaged the matriarchal paradise by leading the South into a war it could not win. (The region's only assets, according to Rhett Butler, were "cotton, slaves, and arrogance.") After the war, Scarlett adapted to changing circumstances to do whatever was necessary to regain Tara and hold off the carpetbaggers. This Darwinian feat, however, was beyond the capabilities of the leading men of the old order (anachronistic cavaliers such as Ashley Wilkes), who were reduced to riding in white sheets at night to prove their manhood. The only exception was the social outcast Rhett Butler.
Belle Reve is not destroyed by war or Reconstruction, but like Margaret Mitchell's South, it is victimized by a failed patriarchy. Over a period of centuries, to hear Blanche tell it, Belle Reve was lost as her "improvident grandfathers and father and uncles and brothers exchanged the land for their epic fornications." (In fact, only a female cousin left enough insurance money to provide for her own burial.) Unlike Scarlett, the women of Belle Reve are incapable of filling the void left by these inadequate men. Stella escapes from this doomed home, and, except for Blanche, all the other women die. Blanche herself is denied a normal family life when she discovers her husband's homosexuality, and the guilt she experiences from driving him to suicide leads to a series of debaucheries that renders her incapable of even pursuing the modest career of a high school English teacher.
Although Blanche is less than an admirable character, she strikes some audiences as at least an object of pity when she falls into Stanley's brutish clutches. And yet, if we look at the situation objectively, Stanley's motives—if not his methods—are superior to Blanche's. His patriarchal authority is never challenged by Stella; however, Blanche does little else from the moment of her arrival at Elysian Fields. When she tells Stella in scene I that she will not put up in a hotel because she wants to be close to her sister, her need for companionship is apparent (not to mention her lack of funds). But this residency also gives her a strategic position from which to undermine Stanley and to entice Stella with fantasies of life among the aristocracy. Not only does she install herself as an indefinite squatter in a two-room apartment, she does everything within her power to wreck the contented home life that had existed in that apartment. One can hardly blame Stanley for fighting back.
Throughout much of the play, the conflict between Stanley and Blanche would seem to be between a crude member of the underclass and the quintessential schoolmarm. The standards of etiquette and decorum that Blanche purports to represent have been the scourge of every redblooded American male since Miss Watson tried to force Huck to mind his manners (while she was preparing to sell Nigger Jim down the river). What Mark Twain plays for farce is deadly serious in the world of Streetcar. Blanche is not trying to "sivilize" an urchin who is living in her home. She is trying to wreck the home she has invaded. Although never really hidden, this intention is made unmistakably clear in Blanche's speech to Stella toward the end of scene 4 (a speech that Stanley overhears). What she has just finished proposing to Stella is a kind of feminist variation on the anti-Odysseus theme. In this scenario, Stella will run away from home to join Blanche (who has already fled Laurel) in a chaste female bonding—not in the forest or on the river, but in a shop of some sort endowed by a sexually unthreatening Shep Huntleigh.
When Stanley's boorish behavior is insufficient to drive Blanche away, he discovers something that must be the realization of every rebellious schoolboy's fantasy: the schoolmarm is not what she pretends to be. As Henry Fielding observed in his preface to Joseph Andrews, the exposure of hypocrisy is the source of endless delight. When Stanley reveals the sordid details of Blanche's recent conduct to Stella in scene 7, it is with a kind of righteous gloating. "That girl calls me common!" he says. The only reservation that might prevent the audience from sharing Stanley's glee is the hope that a reformed Blanche will find happiness as Mitch's wife, a solution that would also remove her from the Kowalski household. Stella is convinced that this would happen if Stanley would only keep his mouth shut.
Unfortunately, all available evidence suggests otherwise. Blanche's newfound circumspection is only a ruse to lure Mitch to the altar. If there is any doubt of this, consider the end of scene 5, when Blanche's attempted seduction of the newsboy is followed immediately by the arrival of Mitch, with a bunch of roses in his hand. As Blanche's husband, Mitch would probably arrive home one afternoon to find his wife in the sack with some less hesitant newsboy (just as Blanche found her former husband in bed with a man). She sees Mitch not as a spouse to love (even in the exclusively physical way that Stella loves Stanley) but as a sexually timid benefactor, a poor girl's Shep Huntleigh. It is hardly dishonorable for Stanley to want to protect his naive friend from such a fate. In the world of male camaraderie, his bond with Mitch is just as compelling as the blood ties that unite Stella and Blanche.
If Stanley is justified in wising Mitch up about Blanche's past, he clearly crosses the line of acceptable behavior when he attacks her sexually in scene 10. And yet even this inexcusable act must be analyzed within the context of the play. There is little evidence to suggest that Stanley returned home that night with the intention of raping Blanche. He is in a good mood because of the impending birth of his child and even offers to "bury the hatchet" and drink "a loving cup" with Blanche.
It is only after she speaks of casting her pearls before swine that his mood changes. This reference can't help reminding Stanley of the tirade he overheard in scene 4. (That speech, with its Darwinian imagery, was more than a little ironic, since it is Blanche, not the atavistic Stanley, who is in danger of becoming extinct because of an inability to adapt to a changing environment.) Although he had not overheard her references to Shep Huntleigh in that earlier scene, a woman as talkative as Blanche might well have tipped her hand to him at some point during her interminable stay in the Kowalski apartment. In any event, the audience is reminded of Blanche's plot to "rescue" Stella by breaking up her marriage to Stanley. As Stanley has yet to lay a hand on Blanche, our sympathies must still be with him.
Since the consummation of what happens between Stanley and Blanche occurs offstage, we are left to imagine the details. On the basis of what we do know, it is reasonable to assume that Stanley believes he is simply doing what Mitch was unable to do in the preceding scene: enjoy the favors of a notoriously promiscuous woman. Blanche held Mitch off by screaming "Fire," something she does not do when Stanley approaches her. When he says, "So you want some roughhouse! All right, let's have some roughhouse!" his assumption is that she enjoys violent foreplay. It is possible to interpret Stanley's next statement—"We've had this date with each other from the beginning"—as a confession that he has been plotting to destroy her. But it is at least as plausible that he is referring to Blanche's flirtatious advances, which began as early as scene 2. Whatever happens offstage, Stanley can hardly be said to have driven Blanche insane. She may think that she is waiting for Shep Huntleigh when the Doctor and Matron come to cart her off to the insane asylum in scene 11, but she also thought that in scene 10 before Stanley even came home. If anyone drives Blanche crazy, it is Mitch by foiling her wedding plans.
Despite all of these mitigating factors (which seem far more disingenuous in the postfeminist nineties than they would have in 1947), the rape so diminishes Stanley morally that we are deprived of any easy satisfaction we might have felt in his triumph over Blanche. If Williams personally empathized with Blanche more than with Stanley, the rape may be his desperate attempt to win audience sympathy for a victimized woman. But that is about all he is able to do. It is beyond even Williams's considerable art to convince us that Blanche is a genuinely tragic figure; she has too many flaws, too little stature, and almost no self-knowledge. Blanche can excite pity in the truly sensitive but only fear in the most defeated and self-loathing among us.
Although critics have never been entirely comfortable with the confused feelings Williams's two antagonists evoke, some balance is necessary to maintain dramatic tension. The rape creates that balance. It does not elevate Blanche to the level of tragic heroine, but it does prevent the audience from siding too enthusiastically with Stanley. Remove the rape, and Streetcar is reduced to a sexist melodrama, in which the gaudy seed-bearer reasserts patriarchal control over a household threatened by a hypocritical and self-serving matriarchy. Of course, the circumstances of the rape are ambiguous enough that what the mass audience loses in melodrama it gains in sadomasochistic titillation.
In a sense, Williams's audience can have it both ways: it can censure Stanley and pity Blanche (the "proper" moral and aesthetic response, to be sure) while guiltily enjoying his triumph over her. At least, this would seem to be true for the men in the audience. As males, we have secretly cheered the bad boy on as he proves something we have always wanted to believe, that the sententious schoolmarm is really a secret nympho. There is even a sense in which the male who has allowed himself to identify with Stanley can see Streetcar as having a fairy tale ending. The witch has been dispatched (if not to the hereafter, at least to the loony bin); the home is safe; and the prince and princess of Elysian Fields live happily ever after—seeing colored lights unsubdued by magic lanterns. But what of the woman spectator? In what way is she able to experience the mythic power (as opposed to merely admiring the artistry) of Williams's play? It is certainly not through a macho identification with Stanley.
One can imagine a woman who believes herself wronged by men feeling an affinity with Blanche. If we read Streetcar as a feminist fable, Stanley's rape of Blanche might be a paradigm for how men deal with women in a patriarchal society. (Stanley and Mitch would both seem to be purveyors of the double standard, while Stella is nothing more than a sex object and childbearer.) Not surprisingly, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar see the play as an indictment of "the law of the phallus and the streetcar named heterosexual desire." In an even more detailed feminist analysis, Anca Vlasopolos reminds us that it is not just Stanley but the entire cast of the play that expells Blanche at the end. Stanley and Mitch may have been the catalysts of Blanche's downfall, but Stella—with the encouragement of Eunice—seals her sister's fate by choosing to believe Stanley so that her marriage might be preserved. The poker buddies simply stand around in awkward, bovine acquiescence.
The problem with these interpretations is not that they are untrue but that they are inadequate. For much of her life, Blanche's difficulties stemmed from the lack of a forceful patriarchy. As we have seen, her male forebears abdicated their role as providers and saddled her with mortgage and debt. Her behavior toward her husband may have had terrible consequences, but it was not without provocation. Allan Grey wronged Blanche by marrying her, knowing that she loved him in a way that could bring her only traumatic pain when she discovered the truth about his sexual orientation. He then allowed her to believe that the fiasco of their wedding night was her fault. Finally, when she quite understandably tells him that he is disgusting (which he is), he takes the coward's way out by killing himself—apparently not caring what effect this will have on Blanche or anyone else he leaves behind. It is the absence of assertive men, not their chauvinistic presence, that has been Blanche's undoing. In fact, Blanche even admits to Stella that Stanley may be "what we need to mix with our blood now that we've lost Belle Reve."
For women, the emotional power of Streetcar may come from an identification with Stella. Unlike Stanley and Blanche, who, depending on your perspective, are either superhuman or subhuman, Stella seems a fairly ordinary person. In purely Darwinian terms, however, she is clearly the heroine of the play. She has survived because she has successfully adapted herself to changing circumstances. (Blanche is doomed by her inability to adapt, whereas Stanley seems bent on adapting the environment to himself.) Although Blanche blames Stella for betraying Belle Reve by leaving, there is no reason to believe that she could have saved the place by staying. Unlike Lot's wife, she does not cast even a regretful glance back. Stella has no illusions about the desirability of a world in which women are worshiped but not supported. Stanley spells out the difference between these two worlds in his typically blunt manner. He reminds Stella: "When we first met, me and you, you thought I was common. How right you was, baby. I was common as dirt. You showed me the snapshot of the place with the columns. I pulled you down off them columns and how you loved it, having them colored lights going!"
In pulling her "down off them columns," Stanley brings Stella into a world of male dominance. At least symbolically, it is an act of brute force, and one that Stella "loves." As Gore Vidal noted nearly forty years after the Broadway premiere of Streetcar: "[W]hen Tennessee produced A Streetcar Named Desire, he inadvertently smashed one of our society's most powerful taboos (no wonder Henry Luce loathed him): he showed the male not only sexually attractive in the flesh but as an object for something never before entirely acknowledged by the good team, the lust of women." Moreover, the fact that Stanley, as a "Polack," is considered socially inferior to the DuBois sisters makes his sexual assaults on them what Fiedler calls "rape from below." For Stella, this simply adds to the fun; for Blanche, it presumably adds to the horror.
We know that Stella was "thrilled" when Stanley broke the light bulbs with her slipper on their wedding night and that she nearly goes crazy when he is away on the road. The notion that women enjoy this kind of brute sexuality has long been a commonplace in popular literature. After all, an entire genre of romance novels, which are purchased almost exclusively by women, is called "bodice rippers." In one of the most memorable scenes in the greatest romance novel of all time, Gone With the Wind, Rhett Butler takes Scarlett by force in what is quite literally an act of marital rape. After quoting this scene in the novel, Fiedler writes: "Finally, however, [Scarlett] likes it (as perhaps only a female writer would dare to confess, though there are echoes of D. H. Lawrence in the passage), likes being mastered by the dark power of the male, likes being raped" (What Was Literature?).
We have a similar phenomenon in the relationship of Stanley and Stella, except that Stella does not even put up token resistance. In the scene from Gone With the Wind, Rhett carries a protesting Scarlett up the staircase of their mansion. In Streetcar, we have a scene that is almost the mirror opposite. After Stanley has gone ape on his poker night and hit the pregnant Stella, she and Blanche flee upstairs to Eunice's apartment. When he realizes what has happened, Stanley proceeds to scream (with heaven-splitting violence): "STELL-LAHHHHH." According to the stage directions:
The low-tone clarinet moans. The door upstairs opens again. Stella slips down the rickety stairs in her robe. Her eyes are glistening with tears and her hair loose around her throat and shoulders. They stare at each other. Then they come together with low, animal moans. He falls to his knees on the steps and presses his face to her belly, curving a little with maternity. Her eyes go blind with tenderness as she catches his head and raises him level with her. He snatches the screen door open and lifts her off her feet and bears her into the dark flat.
(Like Scarlett, Stella wears a look of serene contentment on the morning after.)
If there is a single scene in Streetcar that remains in the memory, it is this one. The film version has been endlessly replayed as a kind of touchstone in the history of the cinema. Moreover, it has been parodied and spoofed by countless impressionists and nightclub comedians. Now a permanent part of our popular culture, this scene can be said to sum up iconographically what Streetcar is all about. For men, it is a fantasy of complete domination; for women, one of complete submission.
Like other works that have entered the realm of popular myth, Streetcar loses none of its power when transferred to another medium. This fact is particularly astonishing when one considers that, in bringing this play to the screen, Williams and director Elia Kazan faced not only the normal aesthetic challenges of such an undertaking but a battle with the censors, as well. The story has been frequently told of the many lines of vulgar or suggestive dialogue that had to be bowdlerized. Then, there was the insistence that any hint of Allan Grey's homosexuality be removed. Finally, the censors would allow Stanley's rape of Blanche to remain only if Stella would punish Stanley by leaving him (on the assumption that only the breakup of this home could preserve traditional family values). Nevertheless, the subversive appeal of the play manages to survive.
The sanitizing of Williams's language (which is not all that shocking when judged by today's standards) is about as effective as the bleeping of profanity on television. Adult theatregoers know how people such as Stanley Kowalski talk without having to hear the actual words. Besides, more than enough sexual energy is conveyed by Marlon Brando's body language and magnetic screen presence. The issue of Allan's homosexuality is not crucial, either. In talking about her husband's weakness, Blanche at least implies a deviancy that dare not speak its name. It is perhaps even more in character for her to withhold the sordid details from Mitch.
Finally, when Stella leaves Stanley in the movie (just after Blanche has been escorted out of the apartment by the psychiatrist and the Matron), it is not for the first time. She has left him many times before, most recently in the aftermath of the poker game. As Maurice Yacowar points out, "Stella's last speech is undercut by several ironies. She expresses her resolve to leave to the baby, not to the rather more dangerous Stanley. And she does not leave the quarter, but just goes upstairs to Eunice's apartment; and Stanley's call had been enough to bring her back from Eunice's before." When the movie closes with Stanley screaming for Stella, it is difficult not to visualize her returning much as she had in that earlier unforgettable scene.
It is more than a little ironic that Tennessee Williams, the homosexual misfit, should have written such an aggressively heterosexual play. As a man who shared many of Blanche's faults (promiscuity, self-hatred, and paranoia, though never hypocrisy), he must have felt closer to her than most of his audiences do, pity being the greatest kindness that most of these strangers are willing to extend to her. Certainly, it takes a jaundiced view of home and family to present the Kowalski household as their embodiment. But that is exactly what Streetcar does. For nearly fifty years there has been a place in the American imagination where it is always three a.m., and a man in a torn t-shirt screams for his wife with "heaven-splitting violence." Despite the protests of film censors and outraged feminists, she will always slip down the rickety stairs and into his arms. This is because "there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark—that sort of make everything else seem unimportant," and because "life has got to go on. No matter what happens." As long as people continue to believe such things, A Streetcar Named Desire will keep running.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5876
SOURCE: "The Space of Madness and Desire: Tennessee Williams and Streetcar," in Modern Drama, Vol. 38, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 324-35.
[In the following essay, Fleche examines the portrayal of madness in A Streetcar Named Desire through analysis of allegory, spatial metaphor, and tension between realism and expressionistic presentation in the play.]
In A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Tennessee Williams exploits the expressionistic uses of space in the drama, attempting to represent desire from the outside, that is, in its formal challenge to realistic stability and closure, and in its exposure to risk. Loosening both stage and verbal languages from their implicit desire for closure and containment, Streetcar exposes the danger and the violence of this desire, which is always the desire for the end of desire. Writing in a period when U.S. drama was becoming disillusioned with realism, Williams achieves a critical distance from realistic technique through his use of allegory. In Blanche's line about the street-car, the fact that she is describing real places, cars, and transfers has the surprising effect of enhancing rather than diminishing the metaphorical parallels in her language. Indeed, Streetcar's "duplicities of expression" are even more striking in the light of criticism's recent renewal of interest in allegory. For allegory establishes the distance "between the representative and the semantic function of language," the desire that is in language to unify (with) experience. Streetcar demonstrates the ways in which distance in the drama can be expanded and contracted, and what spatial relativism reveals about the economy of dramatic representation.
Tennessee Williams' plays, filled with allegorical language, seem also to have a tentative, unfinished character. The metalanguage of desire seems to preclude development, to deny progress. And yet it seems "natural" to read A Streetcar Named Desire as an allegorical journey toward Blanche's apocalyptic destruction at the hands of her "executioner," Stanley. The play's violence, its baroque images of decadence and lawlessness, promise its audience the thrilling destruction of the aristocratic Southern Poe-esque moth-like neuraesthenic female "Blanche" by the ape-like brutish male from the American melting-pot. The play is full in fact of realism's developmental language of evolution, "degeneration," eugenics. Before deciding that Stanley is merely an "ape," Blanche sees him as an asset: "Oh, I guess he's just not the type that goes for jasmine perfume, but maybe he's what we need to mix with our blood now that we've lost Belle Reve." The surprising thing about this play is that the allegorical reading also seems to be the most "realistic" one, the reading that imposes a unity of language and experience to make structural sense of the play, that is, to make its events organic, natural, inevitable. And yet this feels false, because allegorical language resists being pinned down by realistic analysis—it is always only half a story. But it is possible to close the gap between the language and the stage image, between the stage image and its "double" reality, by a double forgetting: first we have to forget that realism is literature, and thus already a metaphor, and then we have to forget the distance between allegory and reality. To say that realism's empiricism is indistinguishable from metaphor is to make it one with a moral, natural ordering of events. Stanley is wrong and Blanche is right, the moralists agree. But the hypocrisy of the "priggish" reading is soon revealed in its ambivalence toward Blanche/Stanley: to order events sequentially requires a reading that finds Blanche's rape inevitable, a condition of the formal structure: she is the erring woman who gets what she "asks" for (her realistic antecedents are clear). For the prigs this outcome might not be unthinkable, though it might be—what is worse—distasteful. But Williams seems deliberately to be making interpretation a problem: he doesn't exclude the prigs' reading, he invites it. What makes Streetcar different from Williams' earlier play The Glass Menagerie (1944) is its constant self-betrayal into and out of analytical norms. The realistic setups in this play really feel like set-ups, a magician's tricks, inviting readings that leave you hanging from your own schematic noose. Analytically, this play is a trap; it is brilliantly confused; yet without following its leads there is no way to get anywhere at all. Streetcar has a map, but it has changed the street signs, relying on the impulse of desire to take the play past its plots. In a way it is wrong to say Williams does not write endings. He writes elaborate strings of them.
Williams has given Streetcar strong ties to the reassuring rhetoric of realism. Several references to Stanley's career as "A Master Sergeant in the Engineers' Corps" set the action in the "present," immediately after the war. The geographical location, as with The Glass Menagerie, is specific, the neighborhood life represented with a greater naturalistic fidelity: "Above the music of the 'Blue Piano' the voices of people on the street can be heard overlapping." Lighting and sound effects may give the scene "a kind of lyricism," but this seems itself a realistic touch for "The Quarter." Even the interior set, when it appears (after a similar wipe-out of the fourth wall), resembles The Glass Menagerie in lay-out and configuration: a ground-floor apartment, with two rooms separated by portieres, occupied by three characters, one of them male.
Yet there are also troubling "realistic" details, to which the play seems to point. The mise en scène seems to be providing too much enclosure to provide for closure: there is no place for anyone to go. There is no fire escape, even though in this play someone does yell "Fire! Fire! Fire!" In fact, heat and fire and escape are prominent verbal and visual themes. And the flat does not, as it seems to in The Glass Menagerie, extend to other rooms beyond the wings, but ends in a cul-de-sac—a doorway to the bathroom which becomes Blanche's significant place for escape and "privacy." Most disturbing, however, is not the increased sense of confinement but this absence of privacy, of analytical, territorial space. No gentleman caller invited for supper invades this time, but an anarchic wilderness of French Quarter hoi polloi who spill onto the set and into the flat as negligently as the piano music from the bar around the corner. There does not seem to be anywhere to go to evade the intrusiveness and the violence: when the flat erupts, as it does on the poker night, Stanley's tirade sends Stella and Blanche upstairs to Steve and Eunice, the landlords with, of course, an unlimited run of the house ("We own this place so I can let you in"), whose goings-on are equally violent and uncontained. Stella jokes, "You know that one upstairs? [more laughter] One time [laughing] the plaster—[laughing] cracked—." The violence is not an isolated climax, but a repetitive pattern of the action, a state of being—it does not resolve anything:
BLANCHE: I'm not used to such—
MITCH: Naw, it's a shame this had to happen when you just got here. But don't take it serious.
BLANCHE: Violence! Is so—
MITCH: Set down on the steps and have a cigarette with me.
Anxiety and conflict have become permanent and unresolvable, inconclusive. It is not clear what, if anything, they mean. Unlike realistic drama, which produces clashes in order to push the action forward, Streetcar disallows its events a clarity of function, an orderliness.
The ordering of events, which constitutes the temporality of realism, is thus no less arbitrary in Streetcar than the ordering of space: the outside keeps becoming the inside, and vice versa. Williams has done more to relativize space in Streetcar than he did in The Glass Menagerie, where he visualized the fourth wall: here the outer wall appears and disappears more than a half-dozen times, often in the middle of a "scene," drawing attention to the spatial illusion rather than making its boundaries absolute. The effect on spatial metaphor is that we are not allowed to forget that it is metaphor and consequently capable of infinite extensions and retractions. As we might expect, then, struggle over territory between Stanley and Blanche ("Hey, canary bird! Toots! Get OUT of the BATHROOM!")—which indeed results in Stanley's reasserting the male as "King" and pushing Blanche offstage, punished and defeated—is utterly unanalytical and unsubtle: "She'll go! Period. P.S. She'll go Tuesday!" While the expressionistic sequence beginning in Scene Six with Blanche's recollection of "The Grey boy" relativizes space and time, evoking Blanche's memories, it also seems to drain her expressive power. By the time Stanley is about to rape her she mouths the kinds of things Williams put on screens in The Glass Menagerie: "'In desperate, desperate circumstances! Help me! Caught in a trap.'" She is establishing her emotions like sign-posts: "Stay back!… I warn you, don't, I'm in danger!" What had seemed a way into Blanche's character has had the effect of externalizing her feelings so much that they become impersonal. In Streetcar, space does not provide, as it does in realistic drama, an objective mooring for a character's psychology: it keeps turning inside out, obliterating the spatial distinctions that had helped to define the realistic character as someone whose inner life drove the action. Now the driving force of emotion replaces the subtlety of expectation, leaving character out in space, dangling: "There isn't time to be—" Blanche explains into the phone; faced with a threatening proximity, she phones long-distance, and forgets to hang up.
The expressionistic techniques of the latter half of the play abstract the individual from the milieu, and emotion begins to dominate the representation of events. In Scene Ten, where Blanche and Stanley have their most violent and erotic confrontation, the play loses all sense of boundary. The front of the house is already transparent; but now Williams also dissolves the rear wall, so that beyond the scene with Blanche and Stanley we can see what is happening on the next street:
[A prostitute has rolled a drunkard. He pursues her along the walk, overtakes her and there is a struggle. A policeman's whistle breaks it up. The figures disappear.
Some moments later the Negro Woman appears around the corner with a sequined bag which the prostitute had dropped on the walk. She is rooting excitedly through it.]
The mise en scène exposes more of the realistic world than before, since now we see the outside as well as the inside of the house at once, and yet the effect is one of intense general paranoia: the threat of violence is "real," not "remembered," and it is everywhere. The walls have become "spaces" along which frightening, "sinuous" shadows weave—"lurid," "grotesque and menacing." The parameters of Blanche's presence are unstable images of threatening "flames" of desire, and this sense of sexual danger seems to draw the action toward itself. So it is as though Blanche somehow "suggests" rape to Stanley—it is already in the air, we can see it being given to him as if it were a thought: "You think I'll interfere with you? Ha-ha! […] Come to think of it—maybe you wouldn't be bad to—interfere with…."
The "inner-outer" distinctions of both realistic and expressionistic representation are shown coming together here. Williams makes no effort to suggest that the "lurid" expressionistic images in Scene Ten are all in Blanche's mind, as cinematic point-of-view would: the world outside the house is the realistic world of urban poverty and violence. But it is also the domain of the brutes, whose "inhuman jungle voices rise up" as Stanley, snakelike, tongue between his teeth, closes in. The play seems to swivel on this moment, when the logic of appearance and essence, the individual and the abstract, turns inside-out, like the set, seeming to occupy for once the same space. It is either the demolition of realistic objectivity or the transition point at which realism takes over some new territory. At this juncture "objective" vision becomes an "outside" seen from inside; for the abstraction that allows realism to represent truth objectively cannot itself be explained as objectivity. The surface in Scene Ten seems to be disclosing, without our having to look too deeply, a static primal moment beneath the immediacy of the action—the sexual taboo underneath realistic discourse:
BLANCHE: Stay back! Don't you come toward me another step or I'll—
BLANCHE: Some awful thing will happen! It will!
STANLEY: What are you putting on now?
[They are now both inside the bedroom]
BLANCHE: I warn you, don't, I'm in danger!
What "will happen" in the bedroom does not have a name, or even an agency. The incestuous relation lies beyond the moral and social order of marriage and the family, adaptation and eugenics, not to mention (as Williams reminds us here) the fact that it is unmentionable. Whatever words Blanche uses to describe it scarcely matter. As Stella says, "I couldn't believe her story and go on living with Stanley."
The rape in Streetcar thus seems familiar and inevitable, even to its "characters," who lose the shape of characters and become violent antagonists as if on cue: "Oh! So you want some roughhouse! All right, let's have some roughhouse!" When Blanche sinks to her knees, it is as if the action is an acknowledgement. Stanley holds Blanche, who has become "inert"; he carries her to the bed. She is not only silent but crumpled, immobile, while he takes over control and agency. He literally places her on the set. But Williams does not suggest that Stanley is conscious and autonomous; on the contrary the scene is constructed so as to make him as unindividuated as Blanche: they seem, at this crucial point, more than ever part of an allegorical landscape. In a way, it is the impersonality of the rape that is most telling: the loss of individuality and the spatial distinctions that allow for "character" are effected in a scene that expressionistically dissolves character into an overwhelming mise en scène that, itself, seems to make things happen. The "meaning" of the rape is assigned by the play, denying "Stanley" and "Blanche" any emotion. Thus, the rape scene ends without words and without conflict: the scene has become the conflict, and its image the emotion.
Perhaps Streetcar—and Williams—present problems for those interested in Pirandellian metatheatre. Metatheatre assumes a self-consciousness of the form; but Williams makes the "form" everything. It is not arbitrary, or stifling. Stanley and Blanche cannot be reimagined; or, put another way, they cannot be imagined to reimagine themselves as other people, in other circumstances entirely. Character is the expression of the form; it is not accidental, or originary. Like [Bertolt] Brecht, Williams does not see character as a humanist impulse raging against fatal abstractions. (In a play like The Good Person of Setzuan, for example, Brecht makes a kind of comedy of this "tragic" notion—which is of course the notion of "tragedy.") Plays are about things other than people: they are about what people think, and feel, and yet they remove these things to a distance, towards the representation of thoughts and feelings, which is something else again. If this seems to suggest that the rape in Streetcar is something other than a rape, and so not a rape, it also suggests that it is as much a rape as it is possible for it to be; it includes the understanding that comes from exposing the essence of appearances, as Williams says, seeing from outside what we cannot see from within. At the same time, and with the same motion, the scene exposes its own scenic limitations for dramatizing that which must inevitably remain outside the scene—namely, the act it represents.
Both the surface "street scene" and the jungle antecedents of social order are visible in the rape scene, thoroughly violating the norms of realism's analytical space. When Stanley "springs" at Blanche, overturning the table, it is clear that a last barrier has been broken down, and now there is no space outside the jungle. "We've had this date with each other from the beginning!" We have regressed to some awful zero-point (or hour) of our beginning. (A "fetid swamp," Time critic Louis Kronenberger said of Williams' plays, by way of description.) We are also back at the heart of civilization, at its root, the incest taboo, and the center of sexuality, which is oddly enough also the center of realism—the family, where "sexuality is 'incestuous' from the start." At the border of civilization and the swamp is the sexual transgression whose suppression is the source of all coercive order. Through allegory, Williams makes explicit what realistic discourse obscures, forcing the sexuality that propels discourse into the content of the scene.
The destruction of spatial boundaries visualizes the restless discourse of desire, that uncontainable movement between inside and outside. "Desire," Williams writes in his short story "Desire and the Black Masseur," (1942–46) "is something that is made to occupy a larger space than that which is afforded by the individual being." The individual being is only the measure of a measurelessness that goes far out into space. "Desire" derives from the Latin sidus, "star" ("Stella for Star!"); an archaic sense is "to feel the loss of": the individual is a sign of incompleteness, not self-sufficiency, whose defining gesture is an indication of the void beyond the visible, not its closure. The consciousness of desire as a void without satisfaction is the rejection of realism's "virtual space," which tried to suggest that its fractured space implied an unseen totality. Realism's objectivity covered up its literariness, as if the play were not created from nothing, but evolved out of a ready-made logic, a reality one had but to look to see. But literature answers the desire for a fullness that remains unfulfilled—it never intersects reality, never completes a trajectory, it remains in orbit. The nothing from which literature springs, whole, cannot be penetrated by a vision, even a hypothetical one, and no time can be found for its beginning. As Paul de Man reasons in his discussion of [Claude] Levi-Strauss' metaphor of "virtual focus," logical sight-lines may be imaginary, but they are not "fiction," any more than "fiction" can be explained as logic:
The virtual focus is a quasi-objective structure posited to give rational integrity to a process that exists independently of the self. The subject merely fills in, with the dotted line of geometrical construction, what natural reason had not bothered to make explicit; it has a passive and unproblematic role. The "virtual focus" is, strictly speaking, a nothing, but its nothingness concerns us very little, since a mere act of reason suffices to give it a mode of being that leaves the rational order unchallenged. The same is not true of the imaginary source of fiction. Here the human self has experienced the void within itself and the invented fiction, far from filling the void, asserts itself as pure nothingness, our nothingness stated and restated by a subject that is the agent of its own instability.
Nothingness, then, the impulse of "fiction," is not the result of a supposed originary act of transgression, a mere historical lapse at the origin of history that can be traced or filled in by a language of logic and analysis; on the contrary fiction is the liberation of a pure consciousness of desire as unsatisfied yearning, a space without boundaries.
Yet we come back to Blanche's rape by her brother-in-law, which seems visibly to re-seal the laws of constraint, to justify that Freudian logic of lost beginnings. Re-enacting the traumatic incestuous moment enables history to begin over again, while the suppression of inordinate desire resumes the order of sanity: Stella is silenced; Blanche is incarcerated. And if there is some ambivalence about her madness and her exclusion it is subsumed in an argument for order and a healthy re-direction of desire. In the last stage direction, Stanley's groping fingers discover the opening of Stella's blouse. The final set-up feels inevitable; after all, the game is still "Seven-card stud," and aren't we going to have to "go on" by playing it? The play's return to realistic logic seems assured, and Williams is still renouncing worlds. He points to the closure of the analytical reading with deft disingenuousness. Closure was always just next door to entrapment: Williams seems to be erasing their boundary lines.
Madness, the brand of exclusion, objectifies Blanche and enables her to be analyzed and confined as the embodiment of non-being, an expression of something beyond us and so structured in language. As Stanley puts it, "There isn't a goddam thing but imagination! […] And lies and conceit and tricks!" [Michel] Foucault has argued, in Madness and Civilization, that the containment of desire's excess through the exclusion of madness creates a conscience on the perimeters of society, setting up a boundary between inside and outside: "[The madman] is put into the interior of the exterior, and inversely." Blanche is allegorically a reminder that liberty if taken too far can also be captivity, just as her libertinage coincides with her desire for death (her satin robe is a passionate red, she calls Stanley her "executioner," etc.). And Blanche senses early on the threat of confinement; she keeps trying (perversely) to end the play: "I have to plan for us both, to get us both—out!" she tells Stella, after the fight with Stanley that seems, to Blanche, so final. But in the end the play itself seems to have some trouble letting go of Blanche. Having created its moving boundary line, it no longer knows where to put her: what "space" does her "madness" occupy? As the dialogue suggests, she has to go—somewhere; she has become excessive. Yet she keeps coming back: "I'm not quite ready." "Yes! Yes, I forgot something!" Again, as in the rape scene, she is chased around the bedroom, this time by the Matron, while "The 'Varsouviana' is filtered into a weird distortion, accompanied by the cries and noises of the jungle," the "lurid," "sinuous" reflections on the walls. The Matron's lines are echoed by "other mysterious voices" somewhere beyond the scene; she sounds like a "firebell." "Matron" and "Doctor" enter the play expressionistically, as functional agents, and Blanche's paranoia is now hers alone: the street is not visible. The walls do not disintegrate, they come alive. Blanche is inside her own madness, self-imprisoned: her madness is precisely her enclosure within the image. In her paranoid state, Blanche really cannot "get out," because there no longer is an outside: madness transgresses and transforms boundaries, as Foucault notes, "forming an act of undetermined content." It thus negates the image while imprisoned within it; the boundaries of the scene are not helping to define Blanche but reflecting her back to herself.
Blanche's power is not easy to suppress; she is a reminder that beneath the appearance of order something nameless has been lost: "What's happened here? I want an explanation of what's happened here," she says, "with sudden hysteria." It is a reasonable request that cannot be reasonably answered. This was also Williams' problem at the end of The Glass Menagerie: how to escape from the image when it seems to have been given too much control, when its reason is absolute? Expressionism threatens the reason of realistic mise en scène by taking it perhaps too far, stretching the imagination beyond limits toward an absoluteness of the image, a desire of desire. The "mimetic" mirror now becomes the symbol of madness: the image no longer simply reflects desire (desire of, desire for), but subsumes the mirror itself into the language of desire. When Blanche shatters her mirror she (like Richard II) shows that her identity has already been fractured; what she sees in the mirror is not an image, it is indistinguishable from herself. And she cries out when the lantern is torn off the lightbulb, because there is no longer a space between the violence she experiences and the image of that violence. The inner and the outer worlds fuse, the reflecting power of the image is destroyed as it becomes fully self-reflective. The passion of madness exists somewhere in between determinism and expression, which at this point "actually form only one and the same movement which cannot be dissociated except after the fact."
But realism, that omnivorous discourse, can subsume even the loss of the subjective-objective distinction—when determinism equals expression—and return to some quasi-objective perspective. Thus at the very moment when all space seems to have been conquered, filled in and opened up, there is a need to parcel it out again into clearly distinguishable territories. Analysis imprisons desire. At the end of A Streetcar Named Desire, there is a little drama. Blanche's wild expressionistic images are patronized and pacified by theatricality: "I—just told her that—we'd made arrangements for her to rest in the country. She's got it mixed in her mind with Shep Huntleigh." Her family plays along with Blanche's delusions, even to costuming her in her turquoise seahorse pin and her artificial violets. The Matron tries to subdue her with physical violence, but Blanche is only really overcome by the Doctor's politeness. Formerly an expressionistic "type," having "the unmistakable aura of the state institution with its cynical detachment," the Doctor
[… takes off his hat and now he becomes personalized. The unhuman quality goes. His voice is gentle and reassuring as he crosses to Blanche and crouches in front of her. As he speaks her name, her terror subsides a little. The lurid reflections fade from the walls, the inhuman cries and noises die out and her own hoarse crying is calmed.]
Blanche's expressionistic fit is contained by the Doctor's realistic transformation: he is particularized, he can play the role of gentleman caller. "Jacket, Doctor?" the Matron asks him. "[He smiles …] It won't be necessary." As they exit, Blanche's visionary excesses have clearly been surrendered to him: "She allows him to lead her as if she were blind." Stylistically, here, realism replaces expressionism at the exact moment when expressionism's "pure subjectivity" seems ready to annihilate the subject, to result in her violent subjugation. At this point the intersubjective dialogue returns, clearly masking—indeed blinding—the subjective disorder with a reassuring form. If madness is perceived as a kind of "social failure," social success is to be its antidote.
Of course theater is a cure for madness: by dramatizing or literalizing the image one destroys it. Such theatricality might risk its own confinement in the image, and for an instant there may be a real struggle in the drama between the image and the effort to contain it. But the power of realism over expressionism makes this a rare occasion. For the "ruse," Foucault writes, "… ceaselessly confirming [the delirium], does not bind it to its own truth without at the same time linking it to the necessity for its own suppression." Using illusion to destroy illusion requires a forgetting of the leap of reason and of the trick it plays on optics. To establish order, the theatrical device repeats the ordering principle it learns from theater, the representational gap between nature and language, a gap it has to deny: "The artificial reconstitution of delirium constitutes the real distance in which the sufferer recovers his liberty." In fact there is no return to "intersubjectivity," just a kind of formal recognition of it: "Whoever you are—I have always depended on the kindness of strangers," Streetcar makes the return to normality gentle and theatrical, while "revealing" much more explicitly than The Glass Menagerie the violence that is thereby suppressed. This violence is not "reality," but yet another theater underneath the theater of ruse; the cure of illusion is ironically "effected by the suppression of theater."
The realistic containment at the end of Streetcar thus does not quite make it back all the way to realism's seamlessly objective "historical" truth. History, structured as it is by "relations of power, not relations of meaning," sometimes assumes the power of reality itself, the platonic Form behind realism, so to speak. When it becomes the language of authority, history also assumes the authority of language, rather naively trusting language to be the reality it represents. The bloody wars and strategic battles are soon forgotten into language, the past tense, the fait accompli. Useless to struggle against the truth that is past: history is the waste of time and the corresponding conquest of space, and realism is the already conquered territory, the belated time with the unmistakable stamp of authenticity. It gets applause simply by being plausible; it forgets that it is literature. To read literature, de Man says, we ought to remember what we have learned from it—that the expression and the expressed can never entirely coincide, that no single observation point is trustworthy. Streetcar's powerful explosion of allegorical language and expressionistic images keeps its vantage point on the move, at a remove. Every plot is untied. Realism rewards analysis, and Williams invites it, perversely, but any analysis results in dissection. To provide Streetcar with an exegesis seems like gratuitous destruction, "deliberate cruelty." Perhaps no other American writer since Dickinson has seemed so easy to crush.
And this consideration ought to give the writer who has defined Blanche's "madness" some pause. Even the critical awareness of her tidy incarceration makes for too tidy a criticism. In Derrida's analysis of Foucault's Madness and Civilization, he questions the possibility of "historicizing" something that does not exist outside of the imprisonment of history, of speech—madness "simply says the other of each determined form of the logos." Madness, Derrida proposes, is a "hyperbole" out of which "finite-thought, that is to say, history" establishes its "reign" by the "disguised internment, humiliation, fettering and mockery of the madman within us, of the madman who can only be a fool of a logos which is father, master and king." Philosophy arises from the "confessed terror of going mad"; it is the "economic" embrace of madness.
To me then Williams' play seems to end quite reasonably with a struggle, at the point in the play at which structure and coherence must assert themselves (by seeming to)—that is, the end of the play. The end must look back, regress, so as to sum up and define. It has no other choice. The theatrical ending always becomes, in fact, the real ending. It cannot remain metaphorically an "end." And what is visible at the end is Blanche in trouble, trapped, mad. She is acting as though she believed in a set of events—Shep Huntleigh's rescue of her—that the other characters, by their very encouragement, show to be unreal. There is a fine but perhaps important line here: Blanche's acting is no more convincing than theirs; but—and this is a point Derrida makes about madness—she is thinking things before they can be historicized, that is, before they have happened or even have been shown to be likely or possible (reasonable). "Is not what is called finitude possibility as crisis?" Derrida asks. The other characters, who behave as if what Blanche is saying were real, underline her absurdity precisely by invoking reality.
Blanche's relations to history and to structural authority are laid bare by this "forced" ending, in which she repeatedly questions the meaning of meaning: "What has happened here?" This question implies the relativity of space and moment, and so of "events" and their meanings, which are at this point impossible to separate. That is why it is important that the rape suggest an overthrow of meaning, not only through a stylized emphasis on its own representation, but also through its strongly relativized temporality. (Blanche warns against what "will happen," while Stanley says the event is the future, the fulfillment of a "date" or culmination in time promised "from the beginning.")
Indeed, the problem of madness lies precisely in this gap between past and future, in the structural slippage between the temporal and the ontological. For if madness, as Derrida suggests, can exist at all outside of opposition (to reason), it must exist in "hyperbole," in the excess prior to its incarceration in structure, meaning, time, and coherence. A truly "mad" person would not objectify madness—would not, that is, define and locate it. That is why all discussions of "madness" tend to essentialize it, by insisting, like Blanche's fellow characters at the end of Streetcar, that it is real, that it exists. And the final stroke of logic, the final absurdity, is that in order to insist that madness exists, to objectify and define and relate to it, it is necessary to deny it any history. Of course "madness" is not at all amenable to history, to structure, causality, rationality, recognizable "thought." But this denial of the history of madness has to come from within history itself, from within the language of structure and "meaning." Blanche's demand to know "what has happened here"—her insistence that something "has happened," however one takes it—has to be unanswerable. It cannot go any further. In theatrical terms, the "belief" that would make that adventure of meaning possible has to be denied, shut down. But this theatrical release is not purifying; on the contrary, it has got up close to the plague, to the point at which reason and belief contaminate each other: the possibility of thinking madly. Reason and madness can cohabitate with nothing but a thin curtain between. And curtains are not walls, they do not provide solid protection.
Submitting Williams' allegorical language to realistic analysis, then, brings you to conclusions: the imprisonment of madness, the loss of desire. The moral meaning smooths things over. Planning to "open up" Streetcar for the film version with outside scenes and flashbacks, Elia Kazan found it would not work—he ended up making the walls movable so they could actually close in more with every scene. The sense of entrapment was fundamental: Williams' dramatic language is itself too free, too wanton, it is a trap, it is asking to be analyzed, it lies down on the couch. Kazan saw this perverse desire in the play—he thought Streetcar was about Williams' cruising for tough customers:
The reference to the kind of life Tennessee was leading at the time was clear. Williams was aware of the dangers he was inviting when he cruised; he knew that sooner or later he'd be beaten up. And he was.
But Kazan undervalues the risk Williams is willing to take. It is not just violence that cruising invites, but death. And that is a desire that cannot be realized. Since there is really no way to get what you want, you have to put yourself in a position where you do not always want what you get. Pursuing desire requires a heroic vulnerability. At the end of "Desire and the Black Masseur" the little masochistic artist/saint, Anthony Burns, is cannibalized by the masseur, who has already beaten him to a pulp. Burns, who is thus consumed by his desire, makes up for what Williams calls his "incompletion." Violence, or submission to violence, is analogous to art, for Williams: both mask the inadequacies of form. "Yes, it is perfect," thinks the masseur, whose manipulations have tortured Burns to death. "It is now completed!"
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5180
SOURCE: "Fluidity and Differentiation in Three Plays by Tennessee Williams: The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," in Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theater and Drama, edited by Marc Maufort, Peter Lang, 1995, pp. 141-56.
[In the following essay, Sarote examines Williams's treatment of discrimination and resistance to mainstream American "normalcy" in his three major plays. According to Sarote, "Streetcar, like most of Williams's works can be interpreted as a plea for a less repressive, more fluid, more androgynous American Society."]
At the age of fourteen I discovered writing as an escape from a world of reality in which I felt acutely uncomfortable. It immediately became my place of retreat, my cave, my refuge. From what? From being called a sissy by the neighborhood kids, and Miss Nancy by my father, because I would rather read books in my grand-father's large and classical library than play marbles and baseball and other normal kid games, a result of a severe childhood illness and an excessive attachment to the female members of my family, who had coaxed me back into life. (Emphasis added)
When Tennessee Williams wrote these lines, in 1959, he was already a widely acclaimed, forty-eight year old playwright, the author of a number of Broadway hits including the three plays under consideration—The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). As an adolescent, reading had enabled him to escape Reality, that is to say the hostility of his father, a paragon of normalcy and virility, American style, according to Williams's biographers. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the playwright makes fun of the conformist couple Mae and Gooper's "nawmal children" that Maggie describes as "no-neck monsters." As a child and teen-ager, Tom (before he became Tennessee) felt different from "normal" children and uncomfortable in the company of other (male) kids, the reason being, according to his own interpretation, that he was excessively attached to the women in his family. Further down, in the same text, he describes himself as "neurotic."
In the closely autobiographical The Glass Menagerie (henceforward referred to as Glass) the world of normalcy is that of the urban petty bourgeoisie to which Williams's family belonged when they moved to Saint Louis in 1918. The first stage direction evokes, to use Tom's own words, "the social background of the play": in the "overcrowded urban centers," the "lower middle-class" is "fundamentally … an enslaved section of American society" whose main purpose in life is to "avoid fluidity and differentiation and to exist and function as one interfused mass of automatism." Indeed, one of the driving forces of the plot appears to be Tom's desperate desire to disengage himself from this undifferentiated mass: he writes poetry in a cabinet of the "washroom" of the shoe warehouse, where he is not even a shipping clerk, and he dreams of enlisting in the Merchant Marine. In the apartment where he lives between Amanda, his overbearing mother, and Laura, his crippled sister, whose "difference" is even more acute than her brother's, Tom feels caught as in a trap. He secretly plans to follow in the footsteps of his absent father, "a telephone man who fell in love with long distances" and deserted his family.
Within the framework of the play, Jim O'Connor, Tom's friend and colleague, represents normalcy, or better said, a sort of ideal complete American male. A very good-looking young man, he is both artistic and athletic:
In high school Jim was a hero. He had tremendous Irish good nature and vitality with the scrubbed and polished look of white chinaware. He seemed to move in a continual spotlight. He was a star in basketball, captain of the debating club, president of the senior class and the glee club and he sang the male lead in the annual light operas.
Jim's primary dramatic function, as Tom points out, is to be "an emissary from a world of reality that we were somehow set apart from." He is "the most realistic character in the play," at the same time as he is a "symbol." In one sense, far from being a fixed, allegorical character, Jim also represents fluidity and resilience, as his vitality has not waned: if he is "disappointed" by his apparently stagnant career, he is not "discouraged." Yet, within the context of the American society of the time, his aspirations are those of a conformist—moving up the social ladder thanks to night classes in radio engineering, public speaking, etc. It could be argued, however, that in the cultural atmosphere of the Thirties, as an Irish Catholic "on both sides" Jim is bound to feel somewhat different from mainstream America. In fact, his ethnic origin may be the reason why this conformist has retained the playwright's sympathy—his "difference" makes of Jim a possible ego ideal with whom the author can identify.
If Jim O'Connor embodies both normalcy and marginality, it is arguable that Tom also incarnates both difference and conformism, as he represents another facet of the American virile ideal; unlike Jim, Tom is not about to marry and start a family: he dreams of virile adventures as a sailor; like the unattached manly cowboy of Westerns, he has no desire of settling down.
In Glass, it is Laura, Tom's sister, who symbolizes unmitigated difference. Her "morbid shyness" (to use a phrase Williams had applied to himself as a boy) prevents her from having any kind of normal relationship with others. Her lameness, and more precisely, the brace she has to wear, materializes this difference. Tom having said to their mother, "Laura is very different from other girls," Amanda replies, "I think the difference is all to her advantage." On stage, the objective correlative of imagination and art into which Laura has retreated is the eponymous glass menagerie that she spends hours taking care of. The sparkling glass also represents the more or less imaginary shining past nostalgically remembered by Amanda: when Tom insults his mother, brutally bringing her back to reality, to the present, he makes a violent gesture and upsets the glass menagerie: "there is a tinkle of shattering glass. Laura cries out as if wounded." In this way, the playwright highlights the absence of flexibility, the lack of fluidity in Amanda's and Laura's dreams which can be shattered by the intrusion of reality.
The most dramatic scene between the representative of reality and that of imagination, between normalcy and difference, occurs when Jim and Laura find themselves alone. In high school Laura had had a secret crush on Jim; now, a few years later, she comes into close contact with him for the first time: trying to boost her morale Jim goes so far as to kiss her. And in 1944, twenty years before the cultural revolution of the Sixties, which promoted diversity and pride in one's difference, in his first successful play, in front of the conformist audience of the commercial theatre, Williams has the "emissary from reality" deliver an impassioned plea to difference:
You know—you're—well—verydifferent from anyone else I know!… I mean it in a nice way—… Has anyone ever told you that you were pretty?…
Well you are! In a different way from anyone else. And all the nicer because of the difference, too.
… The different people are not like other people, but being different is nothing to be ashamed of. Because other people are not such wonderful people … They're common as—weeds, but—you—….
The materialization of this splendid difference (as opposed to the brace) is the legendary unicorn, Laura's favorite little glass animal. Revealingly, dancing with Laura, Jim accidentally causes it to fall and lose its single horn. Laura muses: "Now it is just like all the other horses … Maybe it's a blessing in disguise." She will just imagine that he had an operation: "The horn was removed to make him feel more at home with the other horses, the ones that don't have horns."
The brutal brace and the brittle glass menagerie—most strikingly, the legendary unicorn that has to be symbolically castrated to merge with the group—are significant theatrical props (materializing the misery and splendor of difference), but in Glass the true textual symbol of difference is that of the "blue roses." A few years before the state action begins, Laura had had to stay away from school because of pleurosis. Having thought that Laura had said "blue roses" Jim had jokingly nicknamed her "Blue roses." Today he comments that, if ordinary people are as common as weeds,
"but—you—well—, you're—Blue Roses!"
Laura: But blue is wrong for—roses …
Jim: It's right for you!
This is sickness metamorphosed into a flower, an extra-ordinarily beautiful one. Thus will Tom Williams metamorphose his neurosis into art. Glass ends with the transformation of Amanda's "silliness" and fixation on the past into "tragic beauty" and on Laura's "smile." But as the play begins, a long time after the events related, the sailor whose domain is limitless fluidity returns to the now empty apartment, incapable of forgetting his sister who remains in his mind as the embodiment of unmitigable alienation.
Produced in 1947, A Streetcar Named Desire (henceforth referred to as Streetcar) plays further variations on Williams's basic theme of difference. The term and its synonyms are used several times in connection with the characters' social milieus, sexual preferences, and psychological makeups.
Streetcar can be viewed as structured on the clash between two social classes. Whereas in Glass, at the same time as she was nostalgic for the traditional aristocratic South, symbolized by the Blue Mountain plantation, Amanda made every effort to integrate the undifferentiated mass of the Saint Louis middle class in order to survive, in Streetcar Blanche DuBois is repelled by the working class milieu to which her sister now belongs. Belle Reve, her lost plantation, is the symbol of a long gone period, that of the chivalric, romantic, antebellum South. When she arrives in Elysian Fields, the lower class neighborhood of New Orleans, a stage direction describes her as being "incongruous to this setting." On the contrary, her sister Stella, who comes from a "background obviously quite different from her husband's," has perfectly adapted to her new environment. Blanche, whose "delicate beauty" "must avoid a strong light," will be crushed by her sister's husband, Stanley Kowalski, the representative of violent normalcy and of the brutal present.
Since the death of her husband, the poet Allan Grey, since the loss of Belle Reve, Blanche has felt, like Tom Williams, "acutely uncomfortable" in the everyday world. According to Stanley's informer, in Laurel, where she taught high school English, she was considered, "not just different but down-right loco—nuts." After her affair with a seventeen year old student of hers, she was declared "morally unfit for her position." She ironically agrees: "True? Yes, I suppose—unfit somehow…." She sings a paean to art, magic, make-believe; the artist of the play being her homosexual husband, a poet who died before the rise of the curtain and whose emissary she appears to be within the time-span of the play. To sensitive and brawny Mitch (a felicitous combination in her eye, just as Jim was artistic and athletic, and therefore attractive to Laura) she explains: "There was something different about the boy, a nervousness, a softness which wasn't like a man's although he wasn't the least bit effeminate-looking—still—that thing was there." Stella, Stanley's wife, who functions as the link between the idyllic Belle Reve and the shabby reality of Elysian Fields, reveals to her husband that this "beautiful and talented young man was a degenerate." Blanche had apparently once thought the same thing since her avowed "disgust" caused Allan's suicide.
Stanley is a far more inexorable representative of reality than gentle, likeable, well-mannered, only unwittingly cruel Jim. Like Jim, however, Stella's husband is part and parcel of his social milieu: a father-to-be, an ex-Master Sergeant in the American army, he is captain of the neighborhood bowling team. Contrary to Jim, who broke things by accident, Stanley loves to destroy what is fragile—light bulbs on his wedding night, plates, the radio set when he is in a rage, and finally Blanche, who, it should be noticed, "broke" her husband and who, when Stanley attacks her, defends herself with a broken bottle after having smashed a mirror.
Jim was Irish; Stanley Kowalski is Polish. The Poles are "something like Irish, aren't they?" asks Blanche who (like Williams himself) is descended from French Huguenots. As she repeatedly calls her brother-in-law a "Polack," he vehemently denies this ethnic difference:
I am not a Polack. People from Poland are Poles, not Polacks. But what I am is a one hundred per cent American, born and raised in the greatest country on earth and proud as hell of it, so don't ever call me a Polack.
Possibly, Stanley Kowalski married Stella DuBois with a view to abolishing this difference, in hopes of perfecting his social integration.
Judging by his last name, Hubbel, the owner of the house in which the Kowalskis live is German. Among Stanley's friends there is a Mexican (Pablo Gonzales) and an Anglo-Saxon (Harold Mitchell) considered by Blanche as "superior to the others." Revealingly enough, this Anglo-Saxon is Stanley's closest friend even though their personalities are totally opposite. Was Mitch chosen by Stanley as the badge of his complete integration? Outside the door—not inside the apartment—there are black people …
In this light, Stella and Stanley's apartment may be viewed as the theatrical representation of the American melting pot; in Blanche's eye it is an image of future democratic America, of the "interfused mass" evoked in Glass.
In a moment of desperate lucidity Blanche admits to her sister: "maybe (Stanley)'s what we need to mix with our blood now that we've lost Belle Reve and have to go on without Belle Reve to protect us." (The tone is both ironic and dead serious.) Stanley and Stella's child, born toward the end of the play and whose gender is left indeterminate ("baby," "child," "it"), is perhaps the embodiment of a future positive "undifferentiation," that of a United States having integrated the aristocratic, agricultural, and "feminine" values of the poetic Old South (represented by Blanche and her husband) and the virile vigor of the urban industrial new world.
Be that as it may, inside this melting pot, there subsists a clear hierarchy: if Stanley enjoyed pulling Stella "down off them" white columns of Belle Reve, as he himself claims, if he delights in revealing what lies beneath Blanche's veneer and apparent refinement, if he feels insulted when referred to as a Polack, he calls Pablo a "greaseball," whereas his landlady and friend, Eunice Hubbel, in a fit of anger, calls him a Polack. In spite of the stage direction indicating that "New Orleans is a cosmopolitan city where there is a relatively warm and easy intermingling of races in the old part of town," Stanley's house does not admit blacks, artists, marginals and those refusing democratic equalization—no poet, no homosexual, no liberated woman, no African-American. Indeed, 632 Elysian Fields appears as a microcosm, as a faithful photograph of the United States in the Forties and Fifties. It is arguable that it is because Blanche—implicitly and explicitly—reminds Stanley of his ethnic and social difference that he revengingly crushes her.
As an "emissary from reality" Irish Jim O'Connor came from outside, the domain of normalcy and conformism in Glass; now, in Streetcar, reality, normalcy dwell inside, on stage, in Stanley's place, Blanche being an emissary from a world of imagination, make-believe, and otherness. In Stanley's cramped quarters, she takes refuge in fluids: the hot baths that soothe her frazzled nerves and whiskey. As Tom Wingfield became a seafarer (after writing poetry in the washroom of the shoe factory) to escape the trap of conformism, literary and musical Blanche dreams of spending the rest of her life on the sea, of dying on a ship and of "being buried at sea, sewn up in a clean white sack and dropped overboard … into an ocean as blue as my first lover's eyes."
At the very beginning of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (hence-forth abbreviated to Cat), it is from the bathroom shower (as opposed to the feminine bath) that Brick emerges: "At the rise of the curtain someone is taking a shower in the bathroom, the door of which is half open." Cat takes place in the magnificent Pollitt plantation in the Mississippi Delta, the nameless plantation being the real replica, in the present, of Amanda's remembered Blue Mountain or Blanche's Belle Reve.
Much more spectacularly than Jim O'Connor or Stanley Kowalski, Brick can lay every claim to the privilege of incarnating the American Virile Ideal: a demigod's physique, wealth, education, an Anglo-Saxon origin (Pollitt should be contrasted with O'Connor and Kowalski), a beautiful wife, and, last but not least, his past as a college football player—football being a much more virile sport than basketball (Jim) and bowling (Stanley). Yet, like Tom Wingfield and Blanche DuBois, Brick is trying to escape the trap represented here by the bedroom (the sole setting of the action) and, more precisely, the double bed—the main prop of the play. To follow Brick in Cat is to follow the frantic movements of a man desperately trying to flee—to the bathroom, to the outside gallery, to some dreamland. In Glass the first stage direction had explained:
The apartment faces an alley and is entered by a fire-escape, a structure whose name is a touch of accidental poetic truth, for all these huge buildings are always burning with the slow and implacable fires of human desperation.
Indeed, one way of bringing out the underlying structure and significance of Cat is to oppose the cold (or cool) to the hot. Below his "cool air of detachment" mentioned in the first stage direction about him, Brick is on fire: he is a "quiet mountain" that can blow "suddenly up in volcanic flame." He takes showers and constantly drinks iced liquor in an attempt to put out his inner fire.
Laura's lameness was the visible sign of her difference, that of all those moving with difficulty within their society…. Brick broke his ankle trying to jump hurdles on the high school athletic field. During the three acts of the play, he hobbles on one foot with or without his symbolic crutch. Now, what is Brick's difference?
The "Notes for the designer" tell us that the plantation was once owned by two men living and sleeping together. The bedroom
has not changed much since it was occupied by the original owners of the place, Jack Straw and Peter Ochello, a pair of old bachelors who shared this room all their lives together. In other words, the room must evoke ghosts; it is gently and poetically haunted by a relationship that must have involved a tenderness which was uncommon. (Emphasis added)
"Uncommon" underlines the difference of the two men, a difference that the playwright relates to poetry, gentleness, and tenderness. It is this room that Big Daddy, Brick's father, has given to Brick and Maggie, during their stay on the plantation. (The word "ghost" recalling the incongruous, white-clad Blanche and Allan Grey haunting Blanche's heart.)
The theme of homosexuality as the epitome of difference—especially at the time when the three plays under consideration were written and produced—was implicit as early as the autobiographical Glass: Tom is a bachelor, a sailor, and at the end of the play he evokes his "walking along a street at night, in some strange city, before I have found companions."
In the short story "The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin" (1949), based on the relationship between Tom Williams and his sister Rose, the identification of the playwright with his sister is best expressed when we are told that when his sister falls in love with Richard he too becomes obsessed with the boy: "She had fallen in love. As always, I followed suit."
In Streetcar, through the character of Allan Grey, the theme colored the plot more clearly, and in Cat it assumes center stage, with a few precautions, nevertheless, because of the 1955 Broadway audience for whom the play was written…. The main dramatic movement of Cat is the gradual revelation of the intensity of Brick and Skipper's "exceptional" friendship. Skipper drank himself to death before the play begins, his death being the motivating force, the main spring of the action. Ironically playing on the word "normal," Brick exclaims to his father: "Normal? No!—It was too rare to be normal, any true thing between two people is too rare to be normal."
Were Brick and Skipper homosexual lovers? No one knows, not even the author who in a long stage direction claims for the playwright the right to remain vague and mysterious. However, a drunken Skipper had confessed his love to Brick, as Brick finally tells his father, even though Maggie may have brainwashed Skipper into believing that his friendship for her husband was not "pure." In this way, is the Broadway audience distanced from the revelation in a quintuple fashion! Skipper is now dead; Brick relates the confession; Skipper was drunk; he used the telephone to confess his homosexual love; he may have been self-deluded. In other words, the audience do not witness, nor do they hear the confession, and this confession was made by a man who was confused as he declared his love from a distance. What is more, he is now dead. Thus, no more than in Streetcar is the archetypal embodiment of social and psychological difference admitted within the theatrical space of Cat. Indeed, the homosexual flees or is ejected from the social space: Maggie tells Brick that when she had tried to tear off Skipper's mask by urging him to confess his love for Brick, "HE SLAPPED ME HARD ON THE MOUTH!—then turned and ran without stopping once, I am sure, all the way back into his room at the Blackstone." Relating an episode in his student life when a pledge in his and Skipper's fraternity attempted to do an "unnatural thing," Brick exclaims: "We told him to git off the campus, and he did, he got!—All the way to … North Africa, last I heard!" (Emphasis added in both quotations.)
Whatever the nature of Brick's own feelings for Skipper—whether it be, as he claims, "exceptional friendship, real, real, deep, deep friendship," repressed homoeroticism, or patent homosexuality (even though unconsummated)—what matters at this point is that Brick, who appears to be the ne plus ultra of the American virile ideal, has been in close contact with the very embodiment of difference. He may even have loved him—hence his disgust with everything; hence his death-wish. In the middle of an immense plantation—"twenty-eight thousand acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile"—, Brick finds himself in a no-exit situation. All the more so as he has interiorized all the values of his society (as opposed to his tolerant father). If "we gauge the wide and profound reach of the conventional mores he got from the world that crowned him with early laurel," if he desperately tries to distance himself from Skipper ("His truth, not mine!"—), yet, on stage, within the spatio-temporal framework of the play, Brick is the character who embodies difference (when compared to his brother Gooper, for instance). Both hyper-conventional and different, he sings a paean to "exceptional," "not normal," friendship, at the same time as he is terrorized by the idea of transgression.
In fact, Brick designates "some place elsewhere," another possible society already glimpsed by at least two "virile" American writers whose lives and works are linked to sea voyages—Herman Melville and Jack London whose homoeroticism has often been underlined by critics. It is also the society evoked in Greek legends approvingly alluded to by Maggie. This place elsewhere, this ailleurs, is the domain of the polymorphous love of childhood or of the desexualized world of sublimation in which, in spite of their intensity, human relationships are not tainted by sexuality. Brick exclaims:
One man has one great good true thing in his life. One great good thing which is true!—I had friendship with Skipper.—You are naming it dirty!… Not love, with you, Maggie but friendship with Skipper was that one great true thing….
Maggie had told him: "life has got to be allowed to continue even after the dream of life is—all—over."
In Cat the best image of this utopian world is the unreachable moon, personified in the masculine: in the Broadway version of the third act Brick addresses it as "you cool son of a bitch." (He envies the man in the moon.) On earth, this "great good place," to borrow Henry James's title, is the football field. According to Maggie, Brick tells his father, he and Skipper
Wanted to—keep on tossing—those long, long!—high, high!—passes that—couldn't be intercepted except by time, the aerial attack that made us famous! And so we did, we did, we kept it up for one season, that aerial attack, we held it high!—Yeah, but—that summer, Maggie, she laid the law down to me, said, Now or never, and so I married Maggie….
Brick is still dreaming about those high passes, about those aerial contacts through the ball in a world of sublimation, as opposed to what Maggie represents as she lays the law down to her husband. Coolness, lawlessness, elevation would appear to be the intrinsic qualities of this world, as opposed to the hot sexuality embodied here below by Maggie and marital duties. Brick is probably also nostalgic for the ambiguities of adolescence. After Skipper's death, his link with that period of life when feelings have the ambivalence and fluidity rejected by adult American society is broken. His nostalgia for that fluidity is not only reflected in the symbolic shower that opens the play, but also in mortiferous liquor through which he, possibly, hopes to rejoin, to swim back to Skipper who, so to speak, drowned himself in alcohol. It is arguable, of course, that if conventional Brick Pollitt sings the splendor of difference only within the confines of sublimation, it is mainly because this transgressive plea to difference had to be accepted by the Broadway audience. In this respect, it is noteworthy that in the 1974 version of the third act (the third of that act!) Williams is no more explicit about Brick's sexual identity than in the previous versions. Two decades after the premiere of Cat, during the heyday of the sexual liberation, homosexuality was still an all but unbreakable taboo on Broadway.
Tennessee Williams's "difference," that of the gay artist, always finds its way onto the stage, after having sustained transformations required by the genre and the time. The majority of his plays present characters that are too sensitive and/or too sensual to be fully adapted to their conventional social milieu. They sooner or later clash with Reality, with the hostility of normal Boeotians. The theme of the "fugitive kind" can be found as early as 1937 in one of his first plays entitled precisely, Fugitive Kind. (In Glass a stage direction evokes Laura's "fugitive manner"). The no-exit situation inherent in the theatre intensifies this confrontation. The fire-escape, the gallery, the bathroom, the washroom, are the antechamber to some distant world, the first step to some imaginary beyond where society would be less rigid, more fluid. This "place elsewhere" assumes many shapes and forms: art, the more or less reinvented past, the football field, the sea, death itself. The color that best symbolizes this dreamland is white, the color of purity and mourning: Blanche's dress and imagined shroud, Brick's "white silk pajamas" and "white towel-cloth robe," the sparkling transparence of the glass menagerie.
On stage, the dream of fluidity is suggested by the oneiric atmosphere, the music, the changing light, the "plastic" theatre decor wished for by Williams (who condemned the theatre of "realistic convention") in the "Production Notes" for Glass. In Cat, in "Notes for the Designer" the playwright indicates that "the walls below the ceiling should dissolve mysteriously into air; the set should be roofed by the sky; stars and moon suggested by traces of milky pallor…." And the designer Joe Milzener had this to say about the sets he created for Streetcar: "the magic of light opened up a fluid and poetic world of story telling…."
If it is true that the characters representing transgressive difference (Allan Grey, Peter Ochello, Jack Straw, Skipper, the student driven out of the fraternity, and, later, in archetypical fashion, Sebastian Venable in Suddenly Last Summer) do not enter the theatrical space, it is clear that they haunt the wings of the stage and the hearts of the protagonists. Again, it should also be stressed that all the male protagonists harbor some kind of difference even when they function as representatives of normalcy. The most emblematic example being Brick about whom the playwright seems to be in two minds (in two hearts?): he regrets his timidity as regards transgression at the same time as he has him deliver a vibrant tribute to "exceptional," "not normal" friendship between males. In this respect, Brick should be contrasted with several secondary characters of villainous rigidly heterosexual Anglo-Saxons, from Jabe Torrance (Battle of Angels, 1940) to Tom Junior (Sweet Bird of Youth, 1959), via George Holly (Suddenly Last Summer, 1958). The ultimate fluidity of personality is androgyny, a theme that has its origin, no doubt, in Williams's identification with his sister Rose. Critics, despite Williams's vehement denials, have tended, for instance, to see Blanche as a projection of her creator.
When all is said, if it is patent that the condition of Williams's truly different people (as opposed to those that function in the plays as representatives of reality) is socially and psychologically far from enviable, it is just as clear that their revenge is their spiritual superiority over the "normal" people of his theatre. The beauty of their inner world—however fragile this world may be—enables them to transcend the petty world of normalcy, the symbol of which might be the "jacket," the straightjacket—as opposed to the "pretty blue jacket"—that the "sinister" nurse, dressed in a "severe dress," in a "plain-tailored outfit," wants to impose on Blanche. In this last scene Blanche (i.e. "the white one") is dressed in red and blue, and she would like her dead body to be dropped into the blue sea. It is fitting that in Streetcar Blanche's colors should be white, red and blue, the colors of the American flag. Streetcar, like most of Williams's works can be interpreted as a plea for a less repressive, more fluid, more androgynous American Society. In such a fluid society, "undifferentiation," in the sense of "warm and easy intermingling" of all human beings (contrasted with "interfused mass of automatism") and absence of discrimination, would be the order of the day.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 342
Bruhm, Steven. "Blackmailed by Sex: Tennessee Williams and the Economics of Desire." Modern Drama 34, No. 4 (December 1991): 528-37.
Discusses the interplay of homosexuality, consumerism, and political power in Suddenly Last Summer.
Colin, Philip C., editor. Confronting Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire: Essays in Cultural Pluralism. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1993, 255 p.
Collection of essays written by various scholars on social, cultural, and political aspects of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Hulley, Kathleen. "The Fate of the Symbolic in A Streetcar Named Desire." In Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 111-22. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
Examines Williams's presentation of symbolic reality in A Streetcar Named Desire, particularly in terms of social control and the repression of desire.
King, Kimball. "Tennessee Williams: A Southern Writer." Mississippi Quarterly 48, No. 4 (Fall 1995): 627-47.
Examines Williams's implicit and explicit views about the American South and the influence of the Southern literary tradition on his work.
Price, Marian. "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: The Uneasy Marriage of Success and Idealism." Modern Drama 38, No. 3 (Fall 1995): 324-35.
Discusses the creation and production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as a significant turning point in Williams's career whereby he chose popular success over purely artistic concerns.
Sofer, Andrew. "Self-Consuming Artifacts: Power, Performance and the Body in Tennessee Williams's Suddenly Last Summer." Modern Drama 38, No. 3 (Fall 1995): 336-47.
Explores the anti-realistic structure, presentation, and theatrical rhetoric of Suddenly Last Summer.
Wilhelmi, Nancy O. "The Language of Power and Powerlessness: Verbal Combat in the Plays of Tennessee Williams." In The Text Beyond: Essays in Literary Linguistics, edited by Cynthia Goldin Bernstein, pp. 217-26. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1994.
Provides analysis of antagonistic male-female dialogue in A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support