LOVE AND DEATH
Very much a child of his own time and place, Thomas Lanier Williams experienced personally the basic American tensions. Born of a "Puritan" mother, Edwina Dakin, and a "Cavalier" father who did not boast that he was descended from the American romantic poet Sidney Lanier, Tennessee early retreated from his father's insulting gibes at his interiority to his mother's more comforting and protective security. His mother also retreated from the father into her own parents' home, an Episcopalian rectory. Here "his mother's delicacy and his grandfather's work...made him a little Puritan."1/ In his parents Williams found wide personification of the basic imbalances he was later to exhibit in his characters: his mother, genteel and high-strung, still savored of the ante-bellum aristocracy; his father, cavalier and footloose, was the sensual epitome of the traveling salesman. His mother, though she denies it literally, is Amanda, Big Mama, Aunt Nonnie, and the early Blanche DuBois. She is the pre-bitch Williams woman. His father is the drummer of "The Last of My Solid Gold Watches"; he is the sagging life-force of Big Daddy and the prototype of Boss Finley in Sweet Bird. He is the older men in Williams' plays. His clerical grandfather, unlike either of his parents, was never transferred literally by Williams to a play; nevertheless, Williams' intimate knowledge of both the ministry and of parsonage life contributed greatly to his clerical drawings: the Reverend Guildford Melton of You Touched Me, the Reverend Winemiller of Summer and Smoke and Eccentricities, and the defrocked Larry Shannon of Night of the Iguana.
Mrs. Edwina Williams sounds only hollowly sincere in disclaiming connection with any dramatic character;2/ for if the esthetic, subconscious, and associational truth be stated, the artist takes his own experienced reality and transmogrifies it to his own creative vision. One story, "The Yellow Bird," gives example; it is the initial sketch of Alma Winemiller of Summer and Smoke and Eccentricities of a Nightingale. It begins:
Alma was the daughter of a Protestant minister named Increase Tutwiler, the last of a string of Increase Tutwilers who had occupied pulpits since the Reformation came to England. The first American progenitor had settled in Salem, and around him...had revolved one of the most sensational of the Salem witch trials.
In Alma, the last of the Tutwilers, "the puritan spirit fiercely aglow" had traversed the distance "from Salem to Hobbs, Arkansas." Living in the parsonage, sorely repressed, (a feeling not unexperienced by Williams), Alma began to cut loose. She began to smoke. Her father threatened denunciation; but her mother, viewing life in truly Ramian-Puritanic opposites,
would scream and go into a faint, as she knew that every girl who is driven out of her father's house goes right into a good-time house. She was unable to conceive of anything in between.
The fact is that Alma took to smoking and peroxide and jooking and worse"--as if someone were with her, a disembodied someone, perhaps a remote ancestor of liberal tendencies who had been displeased by the channel his blood had taken till Alma kicked over the traces and jumped back to the plumed-hat Cavaliers."3/ Williams, in a context he has related specifically to the colonial American, dramatizes a basic paranoia whose imbalance he had quite personally experienced, at least obliquely, very early in his own life.
Alma Tutwiler in her degeneration pinpoints the unbalanced extremities between the mythical image and the existential reality, the difference between some kind of idealized ethical standard of repression (which has become associated with the puritanical) and the opposite standard of an expressive, or at least reactionary, mode of "cavalier" conduct. Because neither extreme plumbs true, Williams chooses to work within the spectrum of the extremities; for he thinks to employ a kind of dissociative hyperbole to examine the myth of America that he might clarify what is really happening here. He places no one in balanceeexcept maybe the pregnant Serafine of The Rose Tattoo; and he lets few live at the absolute end of the desolate wasteland: perhaps only the unredeemable Sissy Goforth of The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore.
He more often illustrates the extremes by bottling the opposing tensions into a central character who, after an interior recognition scene, finds the Angst of his opposing values sliding into ripe paranoia. For instance, Amanda Wingfield, pathetic as she reveals the difference time has wrought in her socially, provides pre-clinical prognosis of the Williams women to follow. Blanche DuBois, however, hard on the heels of Amanda, becomes prototype for Williams' vicious gynolatry. She embodies the puritan appearance of the virtuous female (the Edenic myth) as well as the ultimately revealed reality of her febrile nature. Alma, whose name in Spanish means soul, likewise makes the movementtwhich in Williams has become repetitiveeof the puritanic individual who discovers the body and finds in its existence a frustrating schizophrenia. For Williams, in a kind of Platonic Calvinism symptomatic of the culture, does not allow his characters to envision body and soul as an organic unity forming one whole personality.4/ Instead, they experience within their very existences a deadly war of estrangement and alienation between parts that should be in organic unity were not the theological myth withstanding.
Chicken, in Kingdom of Earth, says:
It's like the preacher says, the gates of the soul is got to close on the body an'keep the body out or the body will break down the gates and overrun the soul and everything else that's decent in a human.5/
Alma in Summer and Smoke tries her best to make John Cuchanan see humans as a balance of body and soul; but in describing the moral relationship of a man and a woman she oversells soul so that ironically by the time her body has broken down the gates and overrun her soul making her ready for physical union with John, he has awakened to a new reverence for her that makes the union impossible. Isn't it funny, he tells Alma: "I'm more afraid of your soul than you're afraid of my body."6/ This disparity between soul and body pinpoints precisely what is, within the individual psyche, the heritage of moral imbalance which the Calvinistic tradition has bequeathed a major part of the western world.
James Baldwin in his study of American identity, Nobody Knows My Name, focusses exactly on the tension between religion and reality in America, examining the relation in terms particularly Williamsian:
I...felt how the Southern landscape--the trees, the silence, the liquid heat, and the fact one always seems to be traveling great distances--seems designed for violence, seems, almost, to demand it. What passions cannot be unleashed on a dark road in a Southern night! Everything seems so sensual, so languid, and so private. Desire can be acted out here; over this fence, behind that tree, in the darkness, there; and no one will see, no one will ever know. Only the night is watching and the night was made for desire. Protestantism is the wrong religion for people in such climates; America is perhaps the last nation in which such a climate belongs. In the Southern night everything seems possible, the most private, unspeakable longings; but then arrives the Southern day, as hard and brazen as the night was soft and dark. It brings what was done in the dark to light. It must have...for those people who made the region what it is today...caused them great pain.7/
Williams says the same but more obliquely in terms of character and setting. His South is regional precisely to the end of universality. He writes using the metaphor of the South as springboard to a questioning inclusive of both the American experience and the human condition. The validity of this is not only that European Calvinism developed a peculiarly American strain, but that the Calvinistic tension itself is symptomatic of the broken side of man's very nature. Calvinism is an after-expression of an a priori human condition. Williams writes in the Forward to Sweet Bird of Youth:
Guilt is universal. I mean a strong sense of guilt. If there exists any area in which a man can rise above his moral condition, imposed upon him at birth and long before birth, by the nature of his breed, then I think it is only a willingness to know it, to face its existence in him, and I think that at least below the conscious level, we all face it. Hence guilty feelings, and hence defeat aggressions, and hence the deep dark of despair that haunts our dreams, our creative work, and makes us distrust each other.8/
Thus Williams sees the artist's role as a willingness to show this tension, a willingness to name it up to a level of consciousness where it can be dealt with. He sees the violent exposure of this tension as a moral duty. "If there is any truth in the Aristotelian ideal that violence is purged by its poetic representation on stage, then it may be that my cycle of violent plays have had a moral justification after all."9/ Thus does the Puritanism of his temperament exhibit itself in seeking such utilitarian apology for his writing; for the Calvinistic ethic has long not only found ars gratia artis untenable, but has made art without moral content seem impotent if not irrelevant. For the proto-Calvinists
God's beauty was all sufficing, and works of nature and of art could be only weak reflections thereof. In addition, the intense conviction of earthly transience further discouraged painstaking artistic creation and concern with form. Emphasis was on ideas and themes rather than on beauty of expression.10/
Tennessee Williams, ambivalating between this dogmatic purity and his own esthetically expressive personality proved at the very least a working artistic marriage of both sensibilities present in the American culture. Repeating the lines of Hart Crane used as epigraph to Streetcar, Williams, quoting, explicates his peculiar duty:
And so it was I entered the broken world
Thus Williams has in common with Crane the Whitmanesque gift of emancipator; but unlike Whitman who so directly sings of himself, Williams' injection of self into the American identity is less auto-erotic, is more the Calamus sensibility of social responsibility, although his social concern rarely boils over to obvious thesis drama. Perhaps about Whitman and Williams it can be observed that both, after enduring personal crucifixion, pulled out the nails and found they still could walk, although Williams, healing less well, resents the wounding more. Whereas Whitman saw an ultimate evolution of hope for the generic race though the specific man might fail, Williams' malaise is broader. He sees interwoven among the red-white-and-blue threads of the American cliché a tense alienation of the individual. As the new pattern of this individual alienation emerges, one can trace it seminally back to the proud Calvinistic isolation of the individual in private communication with his God. As this theological individualism evolved into Yankee independence and frontier democracy, it more and more acquired materialistic overtones. Where else could the Puritan ethic evolve than to a material rewarding of the spiritually elect? Practice, however, belied the theory; war and death and life, time, made all the material promise lacklustre. Individuals turned to one another, in more than political democracy, to construct social reform exhibiting the unity of individuals who in caring for one another, as Whitman had suggested, would not be so much alone. Yet the modern existentialist philosophers have articulated the failure of even the attempt; they have, in fact, articulated it so well that nowhere more than in the literary arts has their influence been felt.
In this his fourth decade of writing Williams has finally assimilated this modern philosophic stance into his metaphorical vocabulary. His Blanches and Almas of the 1940's dramatized their terrible isolation as a failure of love; they used the metaphor of their failure at physical sex to illustrate their aloneness. Building on this, Williams of late has further isolated his characters. Although sex remains the great poetic symbol of union and alienation, Williams has tended to become more explicit in statement of theme. This might perhaps make him less a subtle dramatist, but as a reporter of ideas it makes him from another point of view more interesting. Laura's isolation in The Glass Menagerie (1945) was poetic, almost without any ideological raison. "All she does," Amanda says of her halt daughter, "is fool with those pieces of glass and play those worn-out records." Tom, her brother, tries to leave her in her isolation, but memory does not dissolve in time and space. Nothing for him can blow out his guilty memory of Laura, though he briefly intimates a justification for himself in that her candle-lit world has been by-passed by the "adventure" of modern lightning. Theirs is a poetic metaphysics without overt philosophical complexity. Tom Wingfield is only feeling his way to some rationale of their isolation. The great war outside is only beginning to illuminate the great war inside. By contrast, two Williams heroines of the 1960's are more philosophically articulate about their isolation. Sissy Goforth plaintively asks:
When is it considered ridiculous, bad taste, mauvois gout, to seriously consider and discuss the possible meaning of life....I've wondered more lately...meaning of life..., and meaning of death, too....What in hell are we doing? ...Just going from one goddamn frantic distraction to another, till finally one too many goddamn frantic distractions leads to disaster.11/
Out of her daily alienation, Sissy Goforth on the second last day of her existence, fears more than ever the total isolation of death, having become in life so alienated from others that all she can tell them about their relationship to her is, the train they're on no longer stops for her to be milked.
In the latest of the Williams vaudevilles, I Can't Imagine Tomorrow, the woman named One, suffering like Laura, but much more articulate, paints the small apocalypse of the isolato:
Dragon Country, the country of pain, is an uninhabitable country which is inhabited, though. Each one crossing through that huge, barren country has his own separate track to follow across it alone. If the inhabitants, the explorers of Dragon Country, look about them, they'd see other explorers, but in this country of endured but unendurable pain each one is so absorbed, deafened, blinded by his own journey across it, he sees, he looks for, no one else crawling across it with him. It's up hill, up mountain.12/
It's all the blocks on the Camino Real.
Williams in 1953 distinguished "thinking playwrights...from us who are permitted only to feel."13/ He added, however, that he appreciated their closet dramas. He declared that his own creed as playwright is similar to the artist's creed in Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma:
I believe in Michelangelo, Velasquez and Rembrandt; in the might of design, the mystery of color, the redemption of all things by beauty everlasting and the message of art that has made these hands blessed. Amen.
"Art," Williams says, "is a blessing...and that it contains its message is also certain."14/ He admits he writes for the stage and let those who wish to examine him in print be hanged, although he does often admit to a certain moral-philosophical edge. Of Camino Real, his Strindbergian dream play, he claims that is melange was meant the most of all his plays for the "vulgarity of performance."
More than any other work that I have done, this play seemed to me...nothing more nor less than my conception of the time and world that I live in, and its people are mostly archetypes of certain basic attitudes and qualities with those mutations that would occur if they had continued along the road to this hypothetical point in it.15/
If here Williams is not laying claim to more than an artistic interpretation of the American experience, then he certainly takes a stand a dimension beyond the purely esthetic when he says, "I hope...the philosophical import that might be distilled from the fantasies of Camino Real is the principal element of its appeal."16/
Any spokesman ought to be objective as well as interpretive. Williams in assuming philosophical comment, therefore, necessarily subtracts himself and his plays from the general consensus to gain a telling perspective. Of theatre-goers who of late have let their "domesticated tastes" (the phrase is Williams') lead them out the exits at his plays' midpoints, he says:
A cage represents security as well as confinement to a bird that has grown used to being in it; and when a theatrical work kicks over the traces with...apparent insouciance, security seems challenged and, instead of participating in its sense of freedom, one out of a certain number of playgoers will rush back out to the more accustomed implausibility of the street he lives on.17/
This "cage" of paranoiac security is really Williams' American blues; this is what the theological individualism, the dichotomy of "moral" spirit and "sinful" body becomes.
The measure of paranoia is taken in America by a building whose size, whose great rear wall, dwarfs the village bank, outlooms the town hall, and outattracts the local temples: the Delta Brilliant and Joy Rio movie palaces. For at the motion pictures, America has shouted with Blanche: "I don't want realism. I want magic." And it is precisely the movies that have glossed the American schizophrenia behind a securely caged two-dimensional silver illusion. The tension of the Calvinistic disparities and the resulting frustration told in Lawrentian terms is illustrated by the former movie-usher-turned-playwright no more directly than in that expressionistic truth play, The Glass Menagerie. The narrator, Tom Wingfield, as character in the episodic plot is torn between his mother's interpretation of responsibility and his own personal instinct. The Puritan-Cavalier debate continues in the mouth of mother and son:
Tom: Man is by instinct a lover, a hunter, a fighter, and none of those instincts are given much play at the warehouse!
Amanda's puritanism is for her a liveable proposition; Tom, howevermuch forced to Amanda's mold, feels differently, yet basically submits to her puritan tyranny--with one exception:
Tom: I go to the movies because--I like adventure. Adventure is something I don't have much of at work, so I go to the movies.
For a time the movies divert Tom, relieve vicariously the pressure of his personal tense frustration by the "cavalier" distractions which Stanley Kowalski called all "This Hollywood glamor stuff";19/ but finally the magnificent opiate of the twentieth century wears too thin to mask the epic malaise:
Tom: I'm tired of the movies....All of those glamorous people--having adventure--hogging it all, gobbling the whole thing up!....People go to the movies instead of moving. Hollywood characters are supposed to have all the adventures for everybody in America, while everybody in America sits in the dark room and watches them have them! Yes, until there's a war. That's when adventure becomes available to the masses! Everyone's dish, not only Gable's! Then the people in the dark room come out of the dark room to have some adventures themselves....I'm not patient. I don't want to wait....I'm tired of the movies and I am about to move!20/
As for the women, fed on the national mania for movies and unable to go off to war, their declaration of aggression--and aggression is the psychic emotion subsequent to frustration--is in Williams a characteristic turning to sexual adventure. For instance, it is no unthematic coincidence that in Act Three (entitled significantly "A Cavalier's Plum") of Eccentricities, Alma surrenders to John's physical advances after "going to a Mary Pickford picture at the Delta Brilliant."21/ For Williams, the dramatist who was once fired by Metro Goldwyn Mayer and whose stage works are amazingly adaptable to and successful as films, sees a reciprocity of disservice between the movie-bred public and the public-bred movies.
Gable came a cavalier to the dark-room puritans vicariously adventuring beyond the insecure limits of their inherited Calvinistic bias. Calvinism, by dogma, kept man in tension, so that, unsure whether saved or not saved, he had recourse only to the response of blind faith for comfort. The disservice of the movies, with their reneging emphasis on materiality, emotion, and sex, is that they do not solve the tension; they simply confuse and thwart attempts of the collective national psyche to achieve balanced identity. Depravity equalled the body for Calvin and Williams wants to break the equation.
Chicken, the unelected Calvinist in Kingdom of Earth says: "Lookin' at them screen stars don't close the gates on the body....After the show it's worse than before you went in. You come back out and there ain't one inch of you not overrun by those longings."22/ For him the depravity is complete; he no longer engages the tension of contest. For one, however, who chooses an uncalvinistic optimism, there remains much tension. "The Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, D.D.,...son of a minister and grandson of a bishop, and the direct descendant of two colonial governors" runs headlong in Night of the Iguana against his theological heritage by holding against even the odds of the Baptist Female College a deep "faith in essential...human...goodness."23/ Yet his history of nervous breakdowns tells the tension he feels as his doubts about man's regenerated nature increase. He views essential goodness and essential depravity as "two unstable conditions [that] can set a whole world on fire, can blow it up, past repair."24/
Shannon's vision is the essential violence that from the first has been surface symptom of the deeper American malaise. The Pilgrims had to adjust the theological isolation of Calvinism into a pragmatic social order that physically saved the individual for individualism. Adjustment in the Age of Discovery was physical survival. Now the period of adjustment has extended to a more subtle try for a balanced identity, and its very subtlety has driven the mass psyche back to superficially simpler times: "Will you look at that?" George points to the television in Period of Adjustment, "a western on Christmas eve, even! It's a goddam NATIONAL OBSESSIONAL." "Yep," Ralph answers, "a national homesickness in the American heart for the old wild frontiers with the yelping redskins and the covered wagons on fire" when everything was simpler: the elect congregation versus the depraved Indians.25/
Thus perpetuated are the myths of the American Eden; thus created are the real American blues: all the romantic promise of the new Adam's perfectibility clashing with the heritage of a brittle adaptation of imported German theology, and both romantic and theologian in contretemps with four-square reality. From within this tension comes Tennessee Williams' peculiar and savage gestus--that Brechtian word for the thrust, point, direction, gesture, and timing of the matter in a dramatic work. As a result, Williams' esthetically articulate examination of the mid-century American sensibility is particularly valid.
A playwright, more than any other literary artist, must search for proper forms to fit new subject matter and philosophies....No other art form has to depend on technique so slavishly as the drama, for drama is meant to be seen on a stage, not to be read in the quiet of the study.26/
The form of the drama must be immediately communicative; its value of exchange must be judged on the compatibility of the matter and form tendered. A playwright must not only determine the most appropriate form for the subject matter his time suggests to him, "but he must also successfully marry this form to the stage itself--his sole medium of communications with his audience." The proper marriage can generate great drama; conversely, "the eras of poor drama...reflect the opposite principle--a divorce of form from subject matter." In the latter instance, the incompatibility most often arises because the pertinent subject matter has evolved beyond the capacity of the traditional forms.
Tennessee Williams, as a University of Missouri undergraduate, caught the Alla Nazimova touring company of Ghosts. "It was," he recalled later, "one of the things that made me want to write for the theatre."27/ In addition, like Ibsen, who at Bergen redeemed the artifact of the well-made play to serve realistically the concerns of the time, Tennessee Williams endured a similarly serviceable vagrant apprenticeship which took him from the St. Louis Mummers to Hollywood's MGM. Again like Ibsen, Williams set out to destroy the rotten edifice convention had reared; but unlike Ibsen (whose time's proper marriage demanded a well-made realism) Williams has not hesitated to vacillate between, as well as combine in a unit, elements of a more imaginative theatrical form. Modern American realism has tended to blend itself with a poetry of the theatre. The truth of everyday life has recognized the complementary truth of the imagination.
Our most significant playwrights [have had] to mediate the requirements of realistic description and of the creative imagination....When our theatre arrived at maturity, it absorbed two originally divergent aims of the modern European theatreethat of the realists and naturalists and that of the symbolists and expressionists.28/
The circumstance of this combination is that the Movement of Form away from Realism (that is, the search for the form most expressive of the mid-century matter: the re-articulation of the traditional imbalances into terms of modern existential philosophy) in America with Williams has taken a peculiar turn. One expects the resolution to be totally in accord with the brilliantly absurd cannonades of Ionesco, Beckett, and especially Genet, or at least--to keep the delicate balance of expression Americannon Edward Albee. However, if proportion be kept, Williamsswho hardly springs to mind as a dramatist of Absurd Theatre--has done a more than creditable service in evolving the marriage of "American Existentialism" to the most suitable dramatic form. He writes in his Preface to The Slapstick Tragedy:
I believe that the peculiar style of these two short play is accurately defined by their mutual title. They are not "Theatre of the Absurd"; they are short, fantastic works whose content is a dislocated and wildly idiomatic sort of tragedy, perhaps a bit like the feature stories in that newspaper, the National Enquirer, which I think is the finest journalistic review of the precise time that we live in. The style of the plays is kin to vaudeville, burlesque and slapstick, with a dash of pop art thrown in....I think, in production, they may seem to be a pair of fantastic allegories on the tragicomic subject of human existence on this risky planet.29/
Despite such recent statement about his plays' possible themes, Williams had earlier stated:
I have never been able to say what was the theme of my plays and I don't think I have ever been conscious of writing with a theme in mind....Usually when asked about a theme, I look vague and say, "It is a play about life."30/
This vague generality if not particularly informing is nonetheless serviceably true. Williams is concerned with life, but not with life in the American social tradition of Odets, Hellman, and Miller. "They are concerned with [more exterior] social problems, with how man gets along with the world around him. Williams is worried, as is O'Neill, with how man gets on with the world inside him.31/ Specified even more, this reads how the mid-century American gets on with the old interior world for which the post-war existential awareness has given him new names. Alighting on this interiority, Williams in his inductive dramas confronts the tense substance of the times. He has spoken of "a combination of Puritan and Cavalier strains in my blood which may be accountable for the conflicting impulses I often represent in my characters."32/ The characters in turn express the tension which exists between the puritan conscience and the fugitive cavaliers; sometimes even the New England allusions are maintained, as when Sandra says to Myra: "They've passed a law against passion....Whoever has too much passion, we're going to be burned like witches because we know too much.33/
In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Brick's "big howl against American life is 'mendacity' which includes his greedy brother, the church, the luncheon clubs, and his wife's craving to have a baby."34/ Through all the disparately imbalanced ideals of all the American institutions Brick fumbles, trying to rip his way to the graver questions of the balanced interior self. The mendacity he despises is the lived lie forced by the unreal but existent forces of a puritanism and cavalierism which deny the balance in human nature. "Mendacity is a system that we live in. Liquor is one way out an' death's the other."35/ Both ways he knows well, the one from his own experience and the other from the death of his friend, Skipper. For interior reasons he rejects "twenty-eight thousand acres of the richest land this side of the Valley Nile,"36/ just as Kilroy, the "young American vagrant"37/ of Camino Real, and Tom Wingfield of The Glass Menagerie had both more vaguely rebelled "against something in America that might be described as the crass American dollar.38/ Despite Signi Falk's wisecracking about "the grim valley of greenbacks" which drives these boys into an indulged "self-pity and lovemaking,"39/ their reaction to the mercantile mores of a materialism that slights the graver questions of the self received a lamenting and reluctant confirmation as far back as Cotton Mather who saw the paranoiac sport that the Calvinistic view of the human condition had most unhumanistically sprouted.
Consequently Tennessee Williams' plays, inductively representative of his view of the American culture, can most easily be classed as dramas of failure; for failure is the great American bugaboo which belies the ethic that the virtuous are here and now rewarded; the wider and more terrible implication in the concept of failure is that it carries within itself the realization, the admission even, that Eden has once again not been found. Williams captures this modern claustrophobia and it is no accident that the form to which he seeks to wed his contemporary matter is a curious mixture of stage and film techniques. In fact, one often feels that the majority of his works makes better scenarios that plays; for the film can literally approximate the poetic synapses of the creative mind with more facility than can the stage, itself encumbered by space and time. Individual stage versions notwithstanding, the reading imagination needs only a brief comparison to determine that the filmy gauze of the memory play Glass Menagerie or the episodic reportage of the dream play Camino Real withstanddat least technicallyythe rigors of impersonation better as films than as stage pieces.40/
Today's quest for appropriate form revolves around whether the dramatist is to be confined to the traditional boards; or whether in his search for new and relevant forms in which to vitalize his matter, he be allowed to evolve into the physical extensions of his art which the technology of his age affords. Never minding Marshall McLuhan, however, Tennessee Williams is, and would call himself a writer for the "vulgarity of the boards." This should not be construed that the filmic thrust which may bring the American drama to a quite interesting parturition is not very much present in Williams; on the contrary, the film, with its vast technology, is the (so-far) ultimate art form, synthesizing all previous arts not only into unity but into recorded permanence. Indeed, Williams' very filmic sensibility is one of the clearest indications of the slow and evolutionary matchmaking being done to drama's matter and drama's form.
This however, is to be read as comment on Williams rather than on the evolution of the film; in short, maugre Williams' eventual influence of the motion picture, the fact is that the film has influenced Williams. The reality of the films would have delighted Ibsen; the facility of reduplicating irreality would have delighted Strindberg; in either case the medium in a kind of latter-day compliment underwrites with a certain ease of expression the particular sensibility of each playwright; in either case, the film yet may record only what is placed before the camera, so that, as always, the form makes bow, albeit only reciprocal, to the informing matter.
It is safe to say that Williams' matter is contemporarily indigenous; for his documentation of failure, his dramatization of the frustrations of failure are both quite typical of modern existential drama. It is important to an understanding of Williams to recall Brustein's evolutionary theory of theatre:
In the last stage of the modern drama, existential revolt, the dramatist examines the metaphysical life of man and protest against it....The drama of existential revolt is a mode of the utmost restriction, a cry of anguish over the insufferable state of being human....Existential revolt is the dominating impulse behind the plays of Williams, Albee, Gelber, and Pinterrnot to mention Beckett, Ionesco, and the entire "theatre of the absurd."41/
Brustein, therefore, does keep Williams separate from the species of absurdity but does not subtract him from the genus of existential revolt. This is quite revelatory of Williams' attitudes towards and selection of his matter. If the existential revolt is founded on the "fatigued and hopeless, reflecting the disintegration of idealist energies--[their] exhaustion and disillusionment,"42/ then it should come as no surprising psychological bent in a playwright whose region's ideals had been physically and morally destroyed by civil war, whose country--beyond a too confining regionalism--had found the new Eden's promise as poisoned as the old. The clue revealing the disintegration is the tension; and it is at this cardinal point of Angst that Williams has set stake as dramatist; for he records the failing messianism which promised a free new Eden just as he records its opposite, the frustrating and unbreakable reality of the human bondage in as wasteland of space and time and mostly in death.
Existential revolt represents Romanticism tuned in on itself and beginning to rot....One of the strongest identifying marks of the existential drama is its attitude towards the flesh....Gusto, joy, and sensuality give way to dark brooding and longings after death--[the tension arises between] the ideal of human perfectibility [and]...a vision of human decay.43/
Williams, whose romantic affinities have often been explicated, is more than romantic; he is neo-romantic: he affirms the gusto and sensuality of the life force in order to cavalierly counteract the predominantly puritan denial. However, neither extreme rings true: man is neither totally perfectible nor totally depraved. As a result, from out of this schizophrenic stand-off Williams dramatizes the arising tension using the basically Chekovian drama of attrition--people are not always eventfully destroyed, but they are eroded.
Williams' major people bear this out: the Wingfields, Amanda and Tom, in their continual debate between puritan responsibility and cavalier long distance, personify both unsatisfactory extremes at a draw; Blanche, like Amanda, is a woman who has out-lived her times. Both are extinct romantic characters, wandered in from some archetypal Chekovian orchard. Puritan Blanche and Cavalier Stanley, however, do not sustain the draw; they do not part ways as do Amanda and Tom. Blanche and Stanley, typifying the extremes, crash head-on, giving in this reading exact and inevitable meaning to that house-tittering line: "We've had this date with each other from the beginning!"44/
Williams, recognizing the growing force of the new existentialism, here dramatizes that the old stand-offs must finally come to grips with one another. Puritan Blanche resultant insanity is Williams' bleak comment that she cannot be regenerated by the encounter, cannot be named to the new election. Cavalier Stanley, however, enjoys in the Williams world a temporary success as the new animal elect; but in his erotic descendent, the tawny gold and nearly nude Hollywood-Indian Joe of The Slapstick Tragedy it is not the bullish Indian who ultimately predominates; it is the gnädiges Fräulein, the merciful young woman, who allows her lover to raise her above both the selfish and selfless extremes of imbalance. In feeding the animalistic Joe, the blind and bleeding Fräulein says to him: The fish "just landed in my jaws like God had thrown it to me. It's better to receive than to give if you are receiving to give: isn't it,...mein Liebchen?"45/
This is an answer that other Williams extremists could do well to consider. Brick and Chance and Val Xavier want to escape their imbalance: Brick through a clarification that his love for Skipper was balanced, was not so cavalier as the puritans accuse; Chance through a rejection of his animal coupling with the Princess and a retrieval of his Heavenly love; Val says in Battle of Angels: "How do you get to know people? I used to think you did it by touching them with your hands. But later I found out that only made you more of a stranger than ever."46/ With this he rejects purely cavalier animalism. He talks of the dispossessed, his word for the existential isolation that either extreme proffers. In the later play, Orpheus Descending, Val adds: "We're all of us...under a lifelong sentence to solitary confinement inside our own lonely skins for as long as we live on this earth."47/ To this rather Emersonian sentiment he appends a sequence obviously suggestive of Beckett's Godot:
Val: When I was a kid on Witches Bayou...I felt I was--waiting for something!
Here Williams, in the midst of the bourgeois Broadway theatre business, neatly parleys questions of existence (what Tom Wingfield had called "adventure") and tinges of modern nihilism under the commercially successful gloss of the sexual metaphor. Lady should have answered sex not love as the make-believe answer; for Williams himself makes the distinction. It is not sex but love that sustains the gnädiges Frälein; it is sex without love that destroys Sebastian in Suddenly Last Summer; it is sex without love that runs Brick from Maggie the animalistic Cat to love without sex with Skipper; it is sex without love that drives Blanche into insanity; it is sex without requited love that drives Alma Winemiller into prostitution; it is animal sex without love that unnerves the Reverend Shannon at the Costa Verde Hotel: but it is physical sex balanced with genuine love that saves The Rose Tattoo's Serafina from the living death of isolation. Not only does she have a new husband, but she has conceived: "Two lives again the body! Two, two lives again, two!"49/ The solitary confinement of Val's everyone-in-his-lonely-skin is this once broken; for Serafina is not only one of the few Williams women able to conceive, she is the only one whose pregnancy is not terminated.
Sissy Goforth of The Milk Train is engaged in another kind of pregnancy, one that is to be aborted: the dictation of her memoirs. She and Alexander del Lago, like their male counterpart Chance Wayne, see their youth--the great American good--flying away. Alexandra and Chance try to conceive a permanence for themselves in the movies; Sissy Goforth, however, investigating the meaning of life decides that "life is all memory" and so she tries to capture it all into the permanence of words:
Mrs. Goforth: Practically everything is memory to me, now, so I'm writing my memoirs....Four husbands, all memory now. All lovers, all memory now.
Time is what erodes the Williams people. It is time that destroys them; they go down in an attrition eventful only its accidentals: Val is burned, Chance castrated, Sebastian devoured, Blanche committed, Big Daddy swindles. But the fact is they were each destroyed, eroded, before the violent concluding events. Williams, as neo-romantic playwright, exhibits all his characters living in "High Point over a cavern," waiting out the period of rarely-arriving adjustment.
Ralph: I guess all fair-sized American cities have got a suburb called High Point....High Point is built over a great big...cavern and is sinking into it gradually....But it's not publicly known and we homeowners...have got...to keep it a secret till we have sold out.....51/
So bleak is the American dream in Williams that his protagonists are generally incapable of any significant salvific action: after their erosion they simply submit, like Chance to the castrators; indeed
...without action, there can be no tragedy; yet existential drama is, in tone and atmosphere, the most tragic of the modern genres;...it is tragic in its perception. It lacks a tragic hero, but it evokes a tragic sense of life..52/
Williams, moving in this context, dramatizes the paralysis growing from the basic Angst the American Project has put upon the human experience: the two Vals, Brick, Shannon, Chance, all give in; Lady-Myra, Amanda and Laura, the two Alma's, Blanche, and Catharine Venable are each tendered a trick of life that allows them only a passive waiting for time to bring them the final alienation, the isolation of death.
Sissy Goforth, for instance, after a lifetime of painters who didn't paint and writers who didn't write, meets the "point of no more pretenses" and needs "somebody or something to mean God to" her..53/ She articulates the ultimate cry of isolation; and the irony runs deep, for the basic Calvinism seminal to the American experience denied its social side, insisting only on man's solipsistic relation to God. Such isolation has always run counter to the social psychology of America where, especially in the early times of adjustment, the group was necessary for the individual's survival.
The tension consequently generated has virtually enfranchised the American literary imagination. For out of "the great breakup of New England Calvinism" came a tense "Spiritual logjam" that yet requires much adjustment..54/ Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, as well as Melville and Tennessee Williams' ancestor on the Chattahoochee, Sidney Lanier, each weaned his own romantic sensibility out of the heritage of native culture initiated by the Puritans. In their time of the nineteenth century "the Puritan temperament and psychology remained, but were no longer imprisoned in dogma. Out of Calvinism came Unitarianism and the transcendentalism, more hospitable to literary growth.".55/ It has not been the theologians, but the romantic men of letters who have dealt with the other side of the vision, the disintegrating idea of Eden. Emerson and Whitman, representative of this strain, saw the Lords of Life and heard the Drum Taps; they, like Chance Wayne, saw that despite their hope the innocence was gone and despite their knightly quest it could not be regained. Each in his own way asks what mistake was made in the Garden.
So centripetal to this chronicling is Williams that his matter's setting is more often than not some garden district, some precise jungle evolved from the trope of the biblical garden where flesh first encountered spirit. In his garden districts Williams constantly explores and exposes the duplicity of the new Eden idea. His South, with its ancient roots of puritan and cavalier, is metaphor for the whole of America, is even display base for the universal human condition.
Williams considers himself a member of a school, which he terms the Gothic, uniting in a specific American combination, expressionist, impressionist, surrealist, symbolist, and naturalist elements....The disappointment, repression, and poverty of the South have...[made] it the natural ground for the "American Gothic." Tennessee Williams considers this movement akin to French Existentialism, except that the "motor impulse of the French school in intellectual and philosophic while that of the American is more of an emotional and romantic nature." The common link between the two movements, he says, is a "sense, in intuition, of an underlying dreadfulness in modern experience." This "dreadfulness" he finds impossible to explain. [It is a] "kind of spiritual intuition of something almost too incredible and shocking to talk about....".56/
It is, quite likely, this very Angst of falsely polarized human nature that he finds so inarticulately "dreadful." And it is his America, the last Eden, which has become the newest wasteland, the "Terra Incognita" of his Camino Real.
In this Strindbergian dream play of 1953, Camino Real, Williams comes virtually to an anthological statement of his matter..57/ The quest of Kilroy, Williams' American Everyman, is to travel down the Camino Real of life. His duty is to recover the Edenic time when the street was royal before the loss of innocence made it the present real. He had known the royal time when he had the true love of his one, true woman. Yet his Angst at being washed uppat having a body he may not useedrives him from his Eden. Marguerite says to him, "Then you have been on the street when the street was royal" "Yeah...," Kilroy answers, "when the street was royal.".58/
Now, however, all these people live in "the real not the royal truth...terrified of the Terra Incognita.".59/ "Humanity," the Gypsy tells Kilroy, "is just a work in progress.".60/ Everyone must seek his balance to save his body from the street cleaners when the soul has parted. The only balance to the alienation of death is the balance of love. The election of love is the only means of regeneration. Love is the phoenix that resurrects Kilroy of whom it was said at his death:
This was thy son, America....He was found in an alley along the Camino Real....Think of him, now, as he was before his luck failed him. Remember his time of greatness, when he was not faded, but frightened.61/
There is, therefore, a possible alleviation of the tension: the ideal combination of spiritual and physical love which resolves into unity the falsely polarized soul and body of man. Williams insists that Camino Real" is not a document of despair, but of eternal idealism." It served for him
...as a spiritual purgation of that abyss of confusion and lost sense of reality that I, and...others, had somehow wandered into....What the play says through this unashamed old romanticist, Don Quixote, is just this, "Life is an unanswered question, but let's still believe in the dignity and importance of the question."62/
Thus can Marion Magid say:
Williams is American in his passion for absolutes, in his longing for purity,...in the extreme discomfort with which he inhabits his own body and soul, in his apocalyptic vision of sex, which like all apocalyptic visions sacrifices mere accuracy for the sake of intensity. Intensity is the crucial quality of Williams' art, and he is perhaps most an American artist in his reliance upon the mastery of surface techniques for achieving this effect.63/
It is precisely to this intensity of technique, to this intense personal experimentation with form that Williams' matter has driven him. The marriage of form and matter has always been the essential concern of relevant drama; and at no time more than in the past hundred years has there been such uneasy search for the proper dramatic form. Ibsen moved from poetic drama to realism to symbolism in a realistic framework; Strindberg, chafing under the yoke of the well-made play, escaped to expressionism only to return to his initial naturalism. "In recent years this search for mode appears most clearly in the plays of Tennessee Williams where symbolism and realism are always juxtaposed."64/
This juxtaposition of forms is precise barometer of the juxtaposition that Williams finds within his matter. In fact, A. B. Kernan finds the tension between Blanche and Stanley in Streetcar an analog for the modal vacillation not only within Williams but within the evolvement of modern dramatic form. Their "conflict and its resolution dramatize very clearly Mr. Williams' own struggle with dramatic form."65/ Streetcar presents, basically, two polar views of experience: the realism of Stanley and the non-realism of Blanche. The tension is immediate.
Blanche asks about the run-down Elysian Fields:
"Out there I suppose is the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir!" He sister, Stella, replies, "No, honey, those are the L & N tracks." This is the basic problem which has kept the modern theatre boiling: If the modern world best described as a "ghoul-haunted woodland" or a neutrally denominated something like "The L & N tracks"?66/
The movement of the play is to show "the limitations of realism as an approach to experience": Stanley mistakes paste for jewels; Blanche looks old and cheap only when the eyes alone are the measure of things' reality. When "realism" rapes "romanticism," it is Stellaa"born kin to the 'romantic' and married to the 'realistic'"67/ --whose currently stoic position between the poles is most typically the American stance.
Her moral sense is still active, for she points out to Eunice that "I couldn't believe [Blanche's] story and go on living with Stanley." Eunice's answer contains the dreadful truth of our times, "Don't ever believe it. Life has got to go on. No matter what happens, you've got to keep on going."68/
This perseverance in pressing ever onward to some equilibrium is Williams' ideal "truth." For he articulates a basic moral hope, characteristically American, that the wasteland of Weir will somehow regenerate to the true Elysian Fields of the First Garden District. He vacillates between the real camino and the Camino Real, between realism and expressionism. He approximates in his mixed and mixing form and varied ambivalencies in the modern psyche. He is a romantic whose optimism has been tempered by reality. He is a neo-romantic bearing all "the paradoxes of the rebel dramatist. He would exalt the ideal, yet he is imprisoned in the real. He would vindicate the self, yet he must also examine the claims of others."69/ The polarities tug at him till he must come to some balance to relive the tension. He would sing of love and deny death. He would exalt Cavalier optimism, "ecstasy, wildness, and drunkenness, yet he must cope with the tedious, conditioned world" of an indigenous puritanism. He writes at the heart of the American existential where the accident of tension has become functional essential: the "touch of paranoia," he says, "is necessary to individual felicity in this world." Of the American, who--beyond Williams' understanding--accepts as salvific election in itself this tense mode of existential paranoia, Williams writes: "Who can doubt, meeting him, returning the impulsive vigor of his handshake and meeting the lunatic honesty of his gaze, that he is the one, the man, the finally elected?"70/
© Jack Fritscher, Ph.D. & Mark Hemry
Editor's Note: Anyone caught co-opting or paraphrasing these concepts, facts, names, titles, word-coinage, and timelines without crediting Jack Fritscher as the precise source will be aggressively prosecuted to the full extent allowed by law and such violation will be publicly announced in print. Fair use of this material with proper credit is, of course, acceptable. For permission for quotation exceeding fair-use, which will always be gladly given, please EMail Jack Fritscher at email@example.com or use the EMail button found on home web pages. --Mark Hemry, Editor
1. Nancy Tischler, Tennessee Williams: Rebellious Puritan (New York: Citadel Press, 1961), p 20.
3. "The Yellow Bird," One Arm and Other Stories (New York: New Directions, 1954), pp. 199, 200, 202, 207. 4. From the present introductory discussion Tattoo's Serafina must nearly always be subtracted; for, a contrast to the rest of Williams' characters, she is his one, major comic creation.
5. Summer and Smoke (New York: New Directions, 1964), p. 214. Immediately before John's remark, Alma, on the other side of the dichotomy, had said about his "cavalier" anatomy lecture:
20. Glass Menagerie, p. 1050. Correlative to Williams' judging of himself as a playwright who "feels" as opposed to those who "think," it is interesting to read Erich Fromm on this basic dichotomy in the American psyche. The latter part of the quotation does double duty in supporting both Tom Williams and Tom Wingfield on the movies.
40. Although Williams has adapted several of his dramas into film scenarios, Baby Doll was his first "original" screenplay. His feeling for this dramatic form, most indigenous to the time, is patently obvious in the technical fluidity and literary easiness of the shooting script, published as written. It might also be noted that while at MGM he finished a shooting script called The Gentleman Caller: MGM read it and fired him. In its second form, Glass Menagerie, Warner Brothers outbid MGM for the play written, ironically, on Metro's time.
56. Tischler, op. cit., pp. 301-302. 57. In Modern Drama (1958), I, 166-171, Richard Vowles has set out to determine "the lineal descent of Williams from Strindberg" despite the fact that in a Stockholm interview in 1955 "Williams explicitly denied the influence of Strindberg." Vowles sees a correlation between the two playwrights on point of moral inquiry, treatment of Life's tense struggles, and theatricality. It is, he decides, "a poetry of the theatre" that they have in common.