Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton is the title play in an edition of thirteen short dramatic pieces, most of which are set in the South. In terms of quality the collection is uneven, but it does contain some of Tennessee Williams’s best one-act plays, such as The Last of My Solid Gold Watches (pb. 1946). Most of his main characters are temporal misfits who dwell in the past to avoid confronting the miserable reality of their present existence. Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton deals with such displacement; it falls into a particular genre of southern writing, the grotesque.
The grotesque synthesizes the comic and the tragic and characterizes by way of exaggeration. Flannery O’Connor said of the grotesque, “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.” This play presents three “freaks.” Jake is a beefy, bumbling opportunist who deals with problems the only way he knows how—through violence. Vicarro, with dark features, high-laced boots, and a riding crop, is something of a satanic figure bent on sadistic revenge. Flora, of almost cartoon proportions, exists in a state of puerile regression. By living in her fantasy world of the past, she becomes easy prey to abusive men such as Jake and Vicarro. In other words, her defense mechanism (regression) becomes the very tool of her destruction, as is often the case. Rather than confronting the sorry state of their marriage, a relationship in which Flora exists as chattel, she retreats to the more comfortable condition of infancy. Vicarro and Jake both sense her weakness and take full advantage, each in his own sadistic way.
In Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton Williams offers a rather disturbing story of greed, lust, and violence set in familiar territory—the Mississippi Delta. He called this play a comedy. There is much to laugh at in this short drama—Jake’s bumbling entrepreneurial scheme, Vicarro’s cunning retribution, and Flora’s infantile utterings—but given the greed and sexual deviance that motivate the characters, the humor is ultimately black.