The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton, a one-act play in three scenes, begins and ends on that most southern of domestic architectural features, the front porch. The setting is Blue Mountain, Mississippi. Tennessee Williams, through detailed staging, requires enough appurtenances so that “the effect is not unlike a doll’s house.”

The play opens in early evening. The audience first sees Jake Meighan, “a fat man of sixty,” scurrying offstage with a can of coal oil as dogs bark in the distance. As he drives away, his wife, Flora, emerges from the house onto the porch in search of her white kid purse. The bovine Flora cries after her husband as “a cow moos in the distance with the same inflection.” At this point a distant explosion sounds, and various voices speculate about the noise. As Jake returns, Flora learns that the Syndicate Plantation has caught fire.

Flora berates Jake for leaving her with no Coca-Cola in the house, but Jake soon establishes his male dominance by treating his wife roughly. At this point it becomes apparent that theirs is something of a sadomasochistic relationship. He hurts her, and she seems to enjoy it. Jake had departed abruptly in order to blow up the Syndicate’s cotton gin so that he could profit from ginning the extra cotton. With considerable effort Jake fashions his alibi—he never, he repeats to Flora, left the front porch that evening. Flora’s reluctance to absorb Jake’s alibi suggests her stupidity and establishes her childlike innocence.

Scene 2 opens the same afternoon with Silva Vicarro, the superintendent of the Syndicate Plantation, joining Jake and Flora at their residence. Vicarro, a “rather small and wiry...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton combines two dominant motifs, psychological regression and sadomasochistic behavior, to produce a strange, haunting portrait of dependence, greed, and deviance. Every image associated with Flora suggests her childishness and stupidity. To begin with, she lives in a cottage that resembles a dollhouse. Most of Jake’s conversation is sprinkled with the word “baby.” A particularly infantile conversation that occurs in the first scene is illustrative of this motif:Jake: (huskily) Tha’s my swee’ baby girl. Flora: Mmmmm! Hurt! Hurt! Jake: Hurt? Flora: Mmmm! Hurt!

This dialogue continues for several lines, with Jake both caressing and harming Flora. Jake describes Flora as a “baby doll” when talking with Vicarro. In her conversation with Vicarro after her husband leaves, Flora forgets her husband’s alibi and thus reveals his complicity. Several other bits of dialogue illustrate Flora’s dim-wittedness, and additional images, such as her clutching her white kid purse, are designed to reveal her childish dependency. At the end of the play, Flora tells Jake, “I’m not—Baby. Mama! Ma! That’s—me. . . . ” This revelation seems to say more about her prenatal condition than about any intellectual maturation.

Flora’s childish bearing is juxtaposed to her dependence on physical abuse. She finds pleasure in being mistreated by both her husband and neighbor. Jake alternately hurts her and fondles her. Vicarro arrives holding a riding crop and uses it on Flora. All of her denials of finding pleasure in brutality are at best feeble, and her giddy, detached air at the play’s conclusion indicates that she harbors pleasant memories of her afternoon with the Latin disciplinarian. Such behavior presents the theatergoer with the choice of either feeling sorry for Flora or being repulsed by her. Again, Tennessee Williams appears content to let the audience decide.

Another motif is a variation of quid pro quo, what Jake calls the “good-neighbor policy.” The term is loaded with irony whenever it is used to describe good turns. Jake does Vicarro a “favor” by ginning his cotton for him, and Vicarro returns the favor by abusing and impregnating his wife. In this story of lust and greed, Williams perverts neighborly altruism to a game of one-upmanship, and Vicarro is clearly the victor.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Bloom, Harold. Tennessee Williams. Broomall, Pa.: Chelsea House, 1999.

Boxill, Roger. Tennessee Williams. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.

Crandele, George W. The Critical Response to Tennessee Williams. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Falk, Signi. Tennessee Williams. Boston: Twayne, 1978.

Griffin, Alice. Understanding Tennessee Williams. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994.

Gunn, Drewey Wayne. Tennessee Williams: A Bibliography. 2d ed. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1991.

Kolin, Philip G. Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985.

Weales, Gerald. Tennessee Williams. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.