LOVE AND DEATH
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 frequent 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. Its young men are for the most part beautiful....Its women are alternately in a state of heat or jitters....The sexual embrace...is as often as not followed by the direst consequences: cannibalism, castration, burning alive, madness, surgery in various forms from lobotomy to hysterectomy, depending of the nature of the offending organ.1/
Such selective appraisal obviously does as much injustice to geographical America as it does to Williams; but then the Sixties' pop-culture sensibility has found Williams strangely out of vogue2/ and has much too easily oversimplified him:
The subject matter of Summer and Smoke is a little anecdote about two people, a preacher's daughter who represents spirit and a doctor's son who represents flesh. Each influences the other and so they wind up exchanging roles: she becomes a loose woman and he becomes a dedicated selfless man....Sometimes Tennessee Williams seems to think with the mind of Stanley Kowalski.3/
There is the currently free-floating attitude toward Williams' place in American literature that might be rectified a bit by establishing what is American place in Tennessee Williams. Because every artist, to communicate, must tangibly present the intangible universals of his mind, he is bound to use particulars. Nothing establishes the universal dimension better than a well crafted inventory of selected detail. In the evolution of thought, however, as ism has replaced ism, the peculiar turn for the modern mind has been to an all-inclusive esthetic. For the modern mind the esthetic has become the ethic, the metaphysic, the phiosophic, the geographic. Williams is no purist saint of this esthetic, but he is no more functionary either; he has, through a basic theory of place, matched the matter of the modern era to its most complementary esthetic form.
This means, in short, that Williams deals with the American dream of cities (that is, perfect community) in an art form that is a peculiarly urban phenomenon, the drama. It is significant that Williams, reared in the rural South, began as a poet, dealing as most poets do with the personal feelings of the isolato; it is significant that his first dramatic success dealt with the widening autobiographical experience of his family's migration to urban St. Louis. And it is, perhaps, even more significant that when in 1964 New Directions collected all the Williams poetry to that date, the poettbetter known as dramatisttinsisted on naming the collection of personalia under the more social title, In the Winter of Cities.
Williams writes in the city for the city; he explores its possibilities, its implications. Yet by a strange inversion of subject, a treatment of theme by indirection, he takes as his setting more often than not the country or some countrified place in the city. Western culture has long observed the rural pagani, the heathens form the heath, the rustici who are the villani; and it has observed them with all the wariness that the latter term has come to demand. The rural mind has usually been more resistant to change than the urban. Historically it was the pagani (with all the alienation their name has come to imply to a basically Christian society) who resisted the greatest change in Western culture: the shift from the Old Testament legalist ethic of fear to the New Testament ethic of love. Christianity was, in fact, firstly and since characteristically, an urban phenomenon. Christ and the Apostles, especially the Apostle Paul, traveled from city to city, only passing through the desert rural place. Consequently, Christianity's urbanity established an archetype in the City of God. The pagan areas became subtly equated with the ruined Eden's wasteland where heathens lived in isolation; these outposts of alienation, deserts and jungle, threatened by their very existence the establishment of the archetypal City. And for Christianity, as well as for Williams, the basic city is simply two people in the communication of love. This is fundamental society.
Williams intimates that if the lost Eden is ever to be recovered, it will be a well-manicured urban-garden recovery where people have broken the bondage of their isolation. Williams' very inversion of thematic treatment here parallels his basic esthetic inversion of romanticism into neo-romanticism. This basic negation is part and parcel of the modern esthetic which has been so heavily influenced by existentialism and functional absurdity. Just as being has become more important for having encountered non-being, so does Williams define urban life--which is an absurdist's enlargement of two people communicating--by delineating outside the cities the paralysis of his Gothic landscape. An appropriate parallel to this peculiar kind of modern inversion is this: just as Southern Negroes do not move to Chicago but to Chicago's South Side (thus joining, while missing, the most important urbanization process of this century), so also Williams' people do not move to St. Louis or New Orleans or Nice. They move to claustrophobic back alleys and to unmanicured garden districts and to cliffside lairs far from the urbanity of the Cote D'Azur. Williams is saying that if the pagani live in an isolation that opposes change, then the wasteland is still a threat to the Garden City; for now the rural threat may enter the city gates.
Blanche, for instance, ruined in the country, arrives in New Orleans in a faintly hysterical humor. "Her appearance is incongruous to...[the] setting." Looking repeatedly at a slip of paper, she is asked by Eunice if she is lost. Blanche then reads to her the directions on the sheet of paper: "They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at--Elysian Fields!"4/ Williams here, in specifying his particular urban place into a universal, owes at least a coincidental debt to Thornton Wilder's urbanely titled play Our Town in which the post office is given certain directions to a specific address:
...on the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofut; the Crofut Farm; Grover's Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire;...United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.5/
Despite all their talk of Blue Mountain and Glorious Hill, Mississippi, near Moon Lake and its Casino, the Williams people live on a map the same as Wilder's.
Williams does attempt geographical changes that do not, however, affect the universal climate. At least ten of his play and short stories are set specifically in the epitome of the South, New Orleans, its French Quarter, its Vieux Carre, its Garden District.6/ Adjustment occurs in a suburb of Memphis, Tennessee, and Glass Menagerie, of course, in St. Louis. More often than not, however, the locales are "small towns in the deep South," sometimes specified as Blue Mountain or Glorious Hill. Sometimes, as in Baby Doll, only the county is specified and called Two Rivers, which incidentally is the name of the Enterprise into which Williams has incorporated himself. His geography widens to include the Gulf Coast in both Sweet Bird and Rose Tattoo; and then without really leaving the American South, various works show American transplants on foreign soil: Iguana in Mexico's Puerto Barrio, Milk Train on Italy's Divina Costiera. Yet neither place is any more foreign that Cat's Mississippi's Delta Plantation; and while he sometimes uses New Mexico, Manhattan, and Santa Monica, as well as undesignated industrial towns of the midwest,7/ the only time he truly leaves America behind is in the highly derivative You Touched Me, which was also a collaboration.
In short, with Williams, geography is at first quintessentially American with a climate that is metaphorically southern, even at times to absurdity. Polly in The Gnädiges Fraulein distills it all:
What is my position? Why I'm the Southernmost gossip columnist and society editor of the Southernmost news organ in the Disunited Mistakes....Everything's Southernmost here, I mean like this morning I did the Southernmost write-up on the Southernmost gang-bang and called it Multiple Nuptials which is the Southernmost gilding or the Southernmost lily....Yais, everything's Southernmost here, like Southern fried chicken is Southernmost fried chicken. But who's got a chicken? None of us Southernmost white Anglo-Saxon Protestants are living on fish and fish only because of thyroid deficiency in our Southernmost systems, we live on fish because regardless of faith or lack of it, everyday is Friday, gastronomically speaking, because of the readjustment of the economy which is Southernmost too.8/
On the wider level, Williams drains every place in the human condition of any specific import in Camino Real, where everyplace is just this side of the inevitable wasteland of the Terra Incognita, the ultimate non-place. And in the countdown to non-place, towns for Williams are cities that failed; they document the increasing disintegration of the basic urbanity of two people in communication. The Knightly Quest's town of Gewinner (based superficially, but darkly, on the space transformation of Cape Kennedy nee Canaveral) is any small American city gone berserk under an impersonal, institutionally inspired, government program that forbids communication on any but the most inane and/or professional level.
In the town of Gewinner the Red Devil Battery Plant has been converted into The Project, and "The Project was engaged all day and all night in the development of some marvelously mysterious weapon of annihilation." And along with the new religiousness" for the Methodist Church's swimming pool. "All the world population of friendly Caucasians" would pitch in and keep the "fuck-offs like the sissy Pearce brother" straight on "tolerance and individual right" about which "You got to draw a line somewhere."9/ This, like Serafina's South is not only the American South; it is the European South; it is by implication the South of the Human Condition, proving that any place can be a place of auto-da-fe.
Williams knows through personal and cultural experience that the Old Testament Garden Place is lost and that a wasteland brought in from the Old Testament and not well mixed with a New Testament sensibility presents certain tensions: in the only Garden Christ entered he sweat blood and upon a Calvary wasteland, created in some Old Testament necessity, he died. Thus in Western thought has the death of the Son of God reinforced the basic Calvinistic sense of existential horror. The truly remarkable feat of Calvinist psychology is that those subject to it never know where they stand; they are kept so in a tension between damnation and election that they can only make a trustful act of faith. In a complementary tension, Williams keeps his people at a level of marginal urbanity. They remember--like Catharine Holly and the Episcopalian minister of "One Arm"--the terrifying jungles, and in their marginal urban gardens that manicuring has not erased the suggestion of the archetypal terror.
The set directions for Suddenly Last Summer are typical of this radical nightmare: the place is a Victorian mansion in the Garden District of New Orleans.
The interior is blended with a fantastic garden which is more like a tropical jungle...in the prehistoric age of giant fern-forests when living creatures had flippers turning to limbs and scale to skin. The colors of this jungle-garden are violent, especially since it is streaming with heat after rain. There are massive tree-flowers that suggest organs of a body, torn out, still glistening with undried blood; there are harsh cries and sibilant hissings and thrashing sounds in the garden as if it were inhabited by beasts, serpents and birds, all of a savage nature....10/
This is such stuff as bad dreams are made on and a place such as this has its greatest reality (greatest because it is highly suggestive metaphorically) in the underside of the human psyche. Urbanization was supposed to have tamed and jungle and chopped down the wilderness, just as Big Daddy, like some Old Testament Patriarch, under Straw and Ochello, had clipped his Delta Plantation out of the heathen rain forest. But Brick, wondering for Williams, questions whether the domestication has gone far enough or too far, in fact.
With his Calvinistic penchant for naming things, Williams names the dark rural geography of isolation, the Dragon Country. Where once the romantic earth-mother rose dreamily out of the Gardened Land, in neo-romantic inversion she has become the emasculating bitch-goddess. The female is the dragon, based on myth based on some prehistoric reality, who obstructs the way to the city of God, the city of love-communication. But she is not solely responsible for mankind's incomplete evolution from paganus to urbanus; for the cities are not the ultimate goal of the human animal. The cities in Williams tend to coalesce in his Ur-city, the last station of the Camino Real. Here against the Terra Incognita he distills the one city that looks like all the cities. He focusses on the plaza in "a tropical seaport that bears a confusing, but somehow harmonious, resemblance to such widely scattered ports as Tangiers, Havana, Vera Cruz, Casablanca, Shanghai, New Orleans."11/ It is significant that Williams' quintessential city of cities, is like its sources, a port city. For all of Williams' people are the fugitive kind, driven from some rural garden; they are all transient, like Christ, the archetypal love-wanderer of the Western world; they are unhappy in their displacement, in their dispossession (Val Xavier's word) and they are unhappy in any static settlement: they feel trapped, claustrophobic, until like Gewinner Pearce theyyin some less absurdist, or perhaps more absurd fashionnblow up their particular Project and take off in a space ship.
All of the Williams people have fallen in love with long distance, at least metaphorically, for none of them is content where he is. Place in Williams is, rather, most often the Calvinistic concept of the Pilgrim road: this is both basic cartography and basic metaphor. He achieves thereby the ultimate esthetic freedom, for he has created the non-place that is every place: parsonages (place of spiritual journeys), movie theaters (places of narcotizing escape), hotels and rooming houses (way stations of literal travelers).
His wanderers coalesce in Kilroy and Val Xavier. While the former is a kind of Everyman, Val Xavier (savior) is a well identified Christ-figure who as wanderer is externally a rough customer but internally is a sensitive esthete about to finish his first book. In him Tennessee Williams characterizes the same hopelessness, the same dispossession of the creative mind in this country that Emerson had chronicled in The American Scholar in 1937. Yet the esthete is a Williams' subtlety that his rough customers most often mask. As much as Broadway audiences love Williams' musky glorification of young men's muscles which can chop down the literal wilderness to make the city or the woman, and as much as Williams himself (who confesses much of what he writes he writes as personal exorcism and therapy) admires the fighting Oliver Winemillers, the Dionysian John Buchanans, the sweaty Stanley Kowalskis, he is on quite another level more concerned with esthetic muscles. For he sees in esthetics the ultimate axe to destroy the wilderness, the ultimate way to hack the alienated jungle into a manicured mode of communication whose blossom, love, surpasses every locateable garden.
Eden's Garden is the archetypal happy home of mankind. Driven out and made fugitive, its occupants were cursed to wander in pain and toil, their security of home dissovled into a vast alienation. The things they had named no longer responded to the names they had been given. It is precisely this problem of place, this concept of home that troubles the Williams people. For them there is no shelter. Amanda tries desperately to establish a home for Laura; she knows that a home is the security of love and she knows how fragile love can be. She can almost define home in Sissy Goforth's terms as a place where someone will "mean God to you." Chance returns to his birthplace of St. Cloud to find his home dissolved around him; the Princess he has in tow (significantly named Kosmonopolis, Beautiful City) confesses to her own flight, her own "interminable retreat from the city of flames" into the "endless, withering country in which" she "wandered like a lost nomad."12/ Baby Doll, Williams' Chaucerian bard, is the most infantile of his adults; she defines her security within a crib. Vacarro with his pathetic phallus, the whip of the quasi-primitive, joins her there to enter the world, both of them thumb in mouth, to set up their own little society-of-sorts, their own little city, which ends with the two of them up a literal tree whose shadow from Eden indicates what route their cuckolding little society has traveled.
In his essential play, Camino Real, Williams matures all the places of all his wanderers. All the transients in Iguana's Costa Verde Hotel, all the refugees of the Fräulein's Southern-most rooming house, the traveling Venables, Tom Wingfield and Christopher Flanders, all must agree with Camino's displaced Marguerite; she recognizes that it is the basic evanescence of the human condition that makes any
perch...we hold...unstable! We're threatened with eviction, for this is a port of entry and departure, there are no permanent guests! And where else have we to go when we leave here? Bide-a-While? "Ritz Men Only"?...We stretch out hands to each other in the dark that we can't escape frommwe huddle together for some dimmcommunal comforttand that's what passes for love on this terminal stretch of the road that used to be royal.13/
From all the town and semi-cities that did not dispel the primitive dark there is only one possible place of refuge. Williams makes it the sanctuary of the mood; but even at its best the moon provides only an ambivalent security of place, perhaps because it was after the setting of the moon (the traditional love symbol), at dawn, that the Adam and Eve of the myth were driven from the archetypal security of Eden. Williams' plays are so littered with moon references that after a while the proliferation becomes trite. This does not, however, devaluate the basic function of the moon as symbolic place in Williams' existential geography.
The moon is a place of light, not the harsh bone white light of the sun, but a softer absence of darkness, a more moderate light that blurs the harshness of even Williams' Gothic landscape. Williams sees the moon as the traditional female symbol (it is the moon, for instance, that restores the virginity of the Gypsy's daughter in Camino Real) hence more a symbol of the home left behind; for it is the masculine part of man that is the wanderer. This has wider consequences, particularly at Moon Lakeewhich is more than liquid moonlight poured over a Casino's garden. At first, for those who experience it, Moon Lake is the elemental garden, a place of love, of real joy, of real security, a place where water and soft darkness coalesce into a warm memory of every person's proto-time.
Moon Lake is a female womb of waters which all men regret having left, regretting most of all the violence with which they were expelled into cold wasteland of Dragon Country. The illustration is this: Blanche had been quite in love with her young husband until at Moon Lake she accused him of his homosexuality and he killed himself at the water's edge. Then, for her, there was no longer the liquid soft dark, for his death flashed across her reality a searchlight so blinding that around her "never for one moment since has there been any light that's stronger than this--kitchen--candle."14/ It was then that Blanche began her wanderings, her "dark march toward whatever it is we're approaching."15/ Myra, fulfilled because she has conceived, dies violently, raving of Moon Lake where she a long time before had experienced love then been jilted by a boy named David Cutrere. In short, Moon Lake is a place where reality is tested and illusions destroyed.
If Williams gives the likes of Blanche and Myra any prescription it is to find oneself a place in society, a homeplace where "sometimes--there's God--so quickly."16/ The moon itself works only in a bittersweet way: it restores the virginity of the Gypsy's daughter only to the end thattin the values of Williams' economy--there is sure to be pain as well as joy in any physical encounter. Just so had all the joys Williams' women experienced at the Lake turned to sorrow.
The Princess Kosmonopolis, her youth and fertility gone, talks of her retirement:
RETIRED! Where to? To What? To that dead planet the moon....There's nowhere else to retire to....So I retired to the moon, but the atmosphere of the moon doesn't have any oxygen in it. I began to feel breathless, in that withered, withering country....17/
As the princess senses the failure of the moon as place of refuge, so does Carol Cutrere in Orpheus Descending note the failure of the rural area ("This country used to be wild, the men and women were wild and there was a wild sort of sweetness in their hearts..., but now it's sick and neon..."18/), just as Val in the same play articulates the failures of the cities ("I went to New Orleans....It didn't take long for me to learn the score....I learned that I had something to sell besides snake-skins....I was corrupted."19/) It is no wonder that all of Williams' Kilroys yearn to catch the next flight of the Fugitivo, the plane that will fly them to a new place.
But in truly neo-romantic disillusion, Williams counsels that flight and wandering do no good:
Val: Myra, you know the earth turns.
Thus heartily is Williams' metaphysical determinism intimately rooted in his sense of place. The earth is a place as inescapable as the archetypal ruined garden and the expelling womb. These are places a man comes from; he cannot return to them. The wise realize the human condition of being trapped in claustrophobic space and they repeat stoically with Quixote the message of Camino Real: "Don't! Pity! Your! Self!"21/ It is only the foolish who do not understand there is not going back to the Moon, the Lake, the Garden, or the womb.
Amanda, in a sense, participates in both this foolishness and this wisdom: Go then!" she curses Tom at her play's end, "Then go to the moon--you selfish dreamer."22/ Tom, the cities sweeping by him like dead leaves, has only one answer! "I didn't go to the moon, I went much further--for time is the longest distance between two places."
This statement truly focusses the basic relativities of the human condition; for man's problems while very often perceived as spatial are wider. Matters of space are subject like man himself to a more generic, more inevitable evanescence, time. "He who runs against time, "Samuel Johnson wrote, "runs against an enemy who suffers no casualties." Once, therefore, that Williams' esthetic of place is established, it becomes like everything else a chronometrable subject; it is, in short, not only very often impossible to return to Moon Lake, in Williams' economy, it is always chronometrically too late to return.
The world then is an existentially condemned property and it is evanescence that has condemned it. Place, up to a point, is commandable; time is not, except in art, where particularly for the romantic the esthetic can freeze for better examination the change that is generally accepted as a good. Orpheus Descending illustrates Williams' poetic use of place, the stage set, to suggest the problem of evanescence:
The hell into which Orpheus descends is a dreary dry-goods store in a small Southern Town. It is, of course, an image of the ordinary life, sterile and commercial, which offers us but "dry goods" at best; a life which is, in fact, a hell, populated by the shades of the doomed, presided over by a dying and vengeful proprietor from his sickroom upstairs.
Naturally Myra, the wife, fails in her attempt to recover her Moon Lake Eden; but through her, Williams documents man's attempt at remodeling and renaming place as a way to go back through evanescence to recover the Edenic time.
In a very Keatsian attitude toward the art object, Williams wrote a much-reprinted essay entitled "The Timeless World of a Play."24/ Needless to say, his attitude toward time in art differs from his characters' attitudes toward evanescence in their own lives. Williams is probably more concerned with this latter problem which is theirs and his and everybody's, but he nevertheless has ventured--somewhat embarrassingly for the reader--into a less intuitive examination of time in art.
In a drama, Williams feels, it is "the arrest of time which has taken place in a complete work of art that gives to certain plays their feeling of depth and significance." He discusses, not one of his own plays, but as case in point Miller's Death of a Salesman. "Contemplation is something that exists outside of time, and so is the tragic sense." Therefore it is because of time, because time is money, that Howard Wagner looks at this wristwatch and tries to push Willie without a hearing from his office. Williams contends that if wristwatches did not exist, Willie would be granted an opportunity to receive compassion. It is precisely because the audienceewho, one supposes, cut someone short in order to make it to the theater on timeehas no wristwatch involved in Willie's problem, that they are able to see Willie's problem without the urgent complication of evanescence cutting their interview short. "Facing a person," Williams contends, "is not the best way to see him!"
He adds that "the diminishing influence of life's destroyer, time, must be somehow worked into the context of [the]...play....In a play, time is arrested in the sense of being confined." Through a kind of static freezing that works as well on a play as on a Grecian urn, "events are made to remain events, rather than being reduced so quickly to mere occurrences" as happens in the disconnected moments of everyday evanescence.
If the world of a play did not offer us this occasion to view its characters under that special condition of a world without time, then, indeed, the characters and occurrences of drama would become equally pointless, equally trivial, as corresponding meetings and happenings in life.
This is his esthetic of art (if that is not redundant) and such an esthetic he finds equally helpful on a personal level of existence:
The great and only possible dignity of man lies in his power...to live...as if he, too, like a character in a play, were immured against the corrupting rush of time. Snatching the eternal out of the desperately fleeting is the greatest magic trick of human existence. As far as we know, as far as there exists any kind of empiric evidence, there is no way to beat the game of being against non-being, in which non-being is the predestined victor on realistic levels.
It is interesting to American romantic thought that in this essay Williams uses examples of sculpture's visual lines, painting, and photography, the while he emphasizes, even to the strength of italics, the need for transcending time to see; for this use of the visual as transcendent leap to freedom is characteristically Emersonian. In Nature Emerson asked men to go beyond the relativities of time and space25/ to establish an existential freedom that would strip time of its illusion and enable men to look at the world with new eyes.26/ Williams' use of the Emersonian visual is at best probably only coincidental (in the radical sense of that term) since both partake of the same general romantic sensibility. Their personal problems of expression are, however, mutually inverse. Emerson wished to be a poet, but succeeded best as essayist; Williams succeeds in the wide poetry of drama far better than he does as analytical essayist. Emerson was more the integrated philosopher; Williams the more intuitive dramatist whose analyses of basic problems are more satisfactory in dramatic form than in either his prose essays or short fiction.
Jacob Adler, for instance, feels that Williams (as well as Lillian Hellman) stands for falls as a dramatist rather than as a purveyor of folklore and cultural history after the manner of Paul Green. He cites, however, Summer and Smoke to show how Williams transcends a confinement of place and how he manipulates his esthetic of time to achieve, beyond either of these particularizations, "an allegory both of the South and of all mankind," Adler declares that the boy and girl of Summer and Smoke could be from any small American town. The Fourth of July Celebration appears where a pure local colorist would have used a Southern Memorial Day; yet the play because it is about America and about mankind, is by sheer inclusion also about the American South.
This story is unmistakably an allegory of body and soul....The pastness of the play concerns it both as play and as allegory....The pastness makes Alma [and her prudery] more [readily] believable....To concentrate...on the allegory [Williams]...had to gain audience acceptance of Alma by a minimum of means....Williams had to choose his past with care. Give an audience the antebellum South, or the Civil War South, or the Restoration South, and it will expect all the elaborate apparatus, part real, part mythical, with which it has become familiar. But the South of the turn of the century? And, moreover, a middle-class South, neither aristocratic nor poor white nor Negro? A forgotten world, from which all needless detail can be stripped away; an island, lost in space and time, which is what allegory seems to require27/....Williams' allegory is an allegory both of the South and of all mankind. It is...not only timely...but timeless; and the timelessness...fits poorly with the actuality of the now....Our Town achieves it through pastness plus fantasy; Williams achieves it through pastness plus allegory. The statue of Eternity may brood over the past, and by implication over the present; for to brood over the present would be less believable. Hence the use of the past helps Williams in various ways: it assists belief; it helps strip away the details useful to realism but detrimental to allegory; and it directly assists the allegory, both Southern and universal.28/
Extending out from an allegorical use of time in Summer and Smoke is Williams' temporal allegory of existence. T. S. Eliot, for instance, found the wasteland redeemable by incarnational time (although he felt that mankind had not yet accepted its redemption, thus continuing the waste). Williams, however, runs his clocks on eschatological time, on Old Testament time, the wrathful time of the wasteland. Such time if existence for Williams is primitive time, which surfaces out of the dark past into the modern consciousness. Camino's Gypsy asks Kilroy: "Date of birth and place of that disaster?" She adds, "Baby, your luck ran out the day you were born."29/ On telling Sebastian's story, Catharine in Suddenly Last Summer says, "I think it started the day he was born....I DIDN'T invent it. I know it's a hideous story but it's a true story of our time and the world we live in."30/
After experiencing the Lords of Life, Emerson, himself traversing the neo-romantic route, also became eschatological: Everyday is doomsday, he summarized. Williams' eschatology is in his own way highly Calvinistic. Calvin preferred eternity to time, minimally recognizing that regeneration may only occur in time. Camino's Byron calvinistically makes his grand exit shouting "Make Voyages! Attempt them!--there's nothing else."31/ Far less than Eliot does Williams extend the incarnational redemption; Williams' regeneration is limited like Calvin's but in a different way: Williams sees, not Christ redeeming selected individuals, but individuals regenerated by an encounter with another human who can mean God to them. Sissy Goforth, for instance, is so busy "working against time" on her "timely" book of memoirs which is to "rank with and possibly even outrank the great Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past" that she misses her dying opportunity to have Christopher Flanders bring God to her. Thus she misses her incarnational regeneration and loses her bout to eschatological time, dying in her bedroom which, as she says, "is full of historical treasures, including myself!"32/
For Williams the bed is nearly always a bier. Nowhere is this more essentially demonstrated than in Sweet Bird of Youth whose entire first and third acts occur in a bedroom setting dominated by the outsized property of a great bed. If in Eliot time is philosophically functional, in Williams time's main function is as base for character motivation by neurosis. This is particularly true of Williams' bedroom athletes who see diminishing sexual returns as time's sign of advancing age. The bed is the bier of their youth.
Williams' exposé of time is strong throughout his work, but is nowhere more summary than in the thematic minuet of Sweet Bird's Chance Wayne and Alexandra del Lago. Chance's "ravaged young face" is, at the play's opening, immediately confronted by his hometown, which no longer wants him. Alexandra, meanwhile, rises from the huge bed of their travelers' hotel room. She is dying for oxygen and for the pills and vodka that make her forget. "Can you control your memory like that?" Chance asks. She answers, "I've had to learn to."33/ They continue to dance, the feinting-then-aggressive movements of becoming acquainted. She asks him if he is young and what time it is; he answers,
My watch is in hock somewhere. Why don't you look at yours?
And then she recalls "the goddam end of my life" that only drugs and liquor and sex can blot out. She begins one of the long speeches characteristic of this play, a not-young refrain, bewailing that her comeback (an attempt to regain the former time) had failed because "the legend of Alexandra del Lago couldn't be separated from an appearance of your."(361) She screams at the aging Change: "BEAUTY! Say it! What you had was beauty! I had it! I say it with pride, no matter how sad, being gone now."(335) She throws his memory of what-once-was with his girl Heavenly back into his face, cynically asking if Heavenly was "Something permanent in a world of change?"(378) Chance becomes monstrous in return; he lowers accusingly at Alexandra's cynicism: "I understand. Time does it. Hardens people. Time and the world that you've lived in."(381)
Then like supporting dancers after the principals' vicious pas de deux the minor characters come into Williams' focus which remains thematically based on evanescence. There is high irony in the Youth for Tom Finley Clubs, for Finley by his mistress' admission is "too old to cut the mustard" and as his daughter Heavenly, whom he insists on dressing in virginal white points out: "Papa, there was a time when you could have saved me, by letting me marry a boy that was still young and clean...." The abortion and hysterectomy her father forced her to have she claims "cut the youth out of my body, made me an old childless woman. Dry, cold, empty, like an old woman."(396,399) Her cry is very unlike the beginning of her sexual love with Chance when she was a fruitful fifteen and he was seventeen and he cried in her arms for the "youth, that would go."(407) Finley's mistress, Lucy, confirms this prediction. She sends splinters under Chance's fingernails in pointing out that he is balding and older. Chance counters that he is about to star in a film.
Bud: What is the name of this picture?
No one believes him and he becomes so busy in fighting the ravages of eschatological time, he misses his chance (an irony perhaps) at the incarnational; for Alexandra comes to him, after waiting forever, to tell him of the wonderful thing: she loves him and brings her love to him. She wants to redeem him, regenerate him, take him out of the time of his terror (368) because he is lost in the eschatological place, "lost in the beanstalk country, the ogre's country at the top of the beanstalk the country of the flesh-hungry, blood-thirsty ogre."(426) It is significant that she comes to him on Easter Sunday, the day the incarnational time is proven, the day when proof of regeneration is given. But Chance does not allow Alexandra to bring any New Testament love to him, does not allow her to mean God to him, does not allow the incarnational time to break through the terror of his eschatological dementia. As a result, he not only remains the monster Alexandra had named him, but he also returns her to the eschatological monster shape. Frustrated and scorned she screams at him:
I came up alone, as always. I climbed back alone up the beanstalk to the ogre's country where I live, now, alone. Chance, you've gone past something you couldn't afford to go past; your time, your youth, you've passed it. It's all you had, and you've had it.(447)
She equates him with Franz Albertzart, the gigolo who was old before his time because he missed his chance for love. "You were crowned with laurel in the beginning," she shay, "your gold hair was wreathed with laurel, but the gold is thinning and the laurel has withered. Fact ittpitiful monster."(448) Because he has failed to respond to her, because his rot from the wasteland would not respond, would not become regenerate and incarnate at her touch, she fails too. "Princess," Chance admits, "the age of some people can only be calculated by the level of--level of--rot in them. And by that account I'm ancient."(450) Since both fail to achieve that incarnational time of love, both remain doomed by the relentless eschatological clock. Chance is to be castrated by his townspeople; Alexandra is to be castrated by the menopause of time. Their beds thereby become places of meaningless encounter, unfertile biers of lost time. Chance can only turn to the audience, "rising and advancing to the forestage," as the castrators close in on him: "I don't ask for your pity....Just for your recognition of me in you, and the enemy, time, in us all."(452)
Time is the great eroder; it creates fading women and fading virility. For Williams the problem of evanescence is bound up in the duplicity of pastness; for the "past...is impossible to recapture but also inescapable."34/ Amanda is Glass Menagerie has outlived the social time of her Southernmost Cherry Orchard. "In the South we had so many servants. Gone, gone, gone. All vestige of gracious living! Gone completely! I wasn't prepared for what the future brought me."35/ More widely the erosion is of time versus the Life Force. Not only are all of Williams' golden young seed-bearers struck down, but so also is a raging life force like Big Daddy. He stands foursquare against time's erosion, but is nevertheless existentially entrapped by time; for time's duplicity adds to mankind's basic paranoia: the fullness of time ages, but the lack of time is life's extinction. Williams' mankind lives like Baby Doll under the aegis of the Pay as You Go Furniture Company with all the terrible fear of Val Xavier's ultimate dispossession even if the payments are made.
The essence of evanescence, of change and time, is insecurity.
If there wasn't a thing called time, the passing of time in the world we live in, we might be able to count on things staying the same, but time lives in the world with us and has a big broom and is sweeping us out of the way, whether we fact it or not....Such things happen to people, all people, ne exceptions, the short time limit runs out, it runs out on them and leaves them high and dry.36/
Amanda says to Tom: "You are the only young man I know of who ignores the fact that the future becomes the present, the present the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret...."37/ This paranoiac unadjustment to evanescence is problem internal to his view of American society. His apologia, his encompassing esthetic, for this equation is that
...the nervous system of any age or nation is its creative workers, its artists. And if that nervous system is profoundly disturbed by its environment, the work it produces will inescapably reflect the disturbance....Deny the art of our time its only spring, which is the true expression of its passionately personal problems and their purification through work [how Puritan!], and you will be left with a soul of such aridity that not even a cactus plant could flower upon it.38/
He assures a view of this equation under the perspective of esthetic objectivity; for in his theory of esthetics, "a convention of the play is existence outside of time in a place of no special locality." This achievement of non-place and non-time allows the audience in a perspective of non-involvement on spatial and temporal levels to see the events and the characters disconnected from the evanescent rush of their normally perceived disparate moments of reality. Williams, like Keats, thinks that art allows people to attain a view that transcends the clock which is in every room where people live.
Thus not only do Summer and Smoke and Eccentricities take place before the fountain of Eternity, but so in a thematic sense do all of Williams' plays; for his constant tragic motif is that for those who prefer the past or who do not adjust to the demands of evanescence, real life is disastrous. The stone statue of Eternity (Williams' symbol of the art object that freezes evanescence for inspection) is the constant reminder that time is the gauge of everyman's existential reality; and illusion that man's existential is not threatened with impermanence leads simply to a paranoiac denial not only of love that could transcend at least psychically and emotionally the evanescence, but also of death, the one undeniable reality that proves the very insatiable existence of the voracious evanescence.
© 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or use the EMail button found on home web pages. --Mark Hemry, Editor
1. Magid, op., cit., p. 34.
2. Gore Vidal, "Tennessee Williams," McCall's, XCIV (October, 1966), p. 107. Williams "is the best playwright the United States has ever produced. And though from time to time the fashion goes against him, he is still there, at work, making a world like no other; and we are all fortunate to have lived in his time."
6. Streetcar, Suddenly Last Summer, "One Arm," "Angel in the Alcove," "The Coming of Something to the Widow Holly," The Lady of Larkspur Lotion," "Auto-Da-Fe," "Lord Byron's Lover Letter," "Something Unspoken," and "The Mutilated."
27. "Sutpen's Hundred is another such island, though in the rich texture of a novel it can be surrounded, in both space and time, by the familiar waters of reality. Everyman man also come to mind, and Pilgrim's Progress, and Penguin Island." Jacob Adler, "The Rose and the Fox" in Rubin and Durene's South: Modern Literature in Its Cultural Setting (New York: Doubleday, 1961), p. 353.