LOVE AND DEATH
by John J. Fritscher, Ph.D.
"Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings, and also experience them." It can, in short, serve as the most active and effective communicator among men.1/
This statement of Tolstoy, a common assumption of art criticism since ancient Greece, is penetratingly true of the Williams esthetic whose purpose of aft and of existence is to find the signals which will end the impersonal isolation of individual from individual. Williams agrees with Tolstoy that
...a real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and all whose minds receive this work of art. In this freezing of...personality from its separation and isolation, in this uniting of it with others, lies the chief characteristic and the great attractive force of art.2/
It is to this end of community that Williams has directed his poesis, his ordering and manipulating of reality by symbol; his view of the poet's qualifications and duties; and his theory of poema, the technical composition of the poem itself.
As W. J. Bates maintains, the organic philosophy in art is usually characterized by some kind of transcendentalism which can be either an incomprehensible reality beyond experience or, as is the case of Williams' organic poesis, simply the human mind working in a way which "transcends" the artist's personal experience by imposing on his moment of personal lyricism a certain order which makes his experience communicable to others.3/ Thus the artist necessarily "transcends" the disconnections of a literal view of life; he manipulates instead the communally suggestive and evocative symbols of metaphor. Aristotle complements that "the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor...; it is the mark of geniussfor to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances."4/ Williams' own esthetic demands that the literal "facing [of] a person is not the best wasy to see him!"5/ It is precisely this victory of the metaphorical that creates the communicating artist out of the isolated individual.
Literal poesis is as impossible as it would be unintellible, for each individual's differentiated existential precludes any one-to-one correlation. It is necessary, therefore, that the communicating artist's ordering of his personal reality be done on a ratio of one-to-two; his must be a poesis of metaphor, for the point of cummunity between artist and receiver must be a point that is not only within both but also with-out both. Williams finds this place of urbane poesis-communication to be the stage. In his case, however, the poesis of the modern drama has become "interpenetrated with poetry. And as a result of [his] imaginative techniques, a poetry of the [modern] theatre...[has come] into being."6/ Tennessee Williams is, if not completely distinguished as a dramatic maker, at least highly distinguishable as a poet of the drama; for in his ordering of reality he often superadds a lyric component which recalls that "the drama...is a concentrated form and a highly selective art...aspiring inherently to the state of poetry."7/ The shade of difference is immediately apparent in the comparison of Williams' plays with their earlier blocking versions as short stories. Whether it be "Portrait of a Girl in Glass" into The Glass Menagerie, "Three Players of a Summer Game" into Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, "Man Bring This Up Road" into Milk Train, or most recently "Kingdom of Earth" into Kingdom of Earth, the metamorphosis of Williams' almost execrable prose into a poetry of dialogue and drama is nothing short of proof that his poetry is no mere decoration but is esthetic essence of his poesis.
Williams has, for instance, transcended his literalist's obfuscating attachment to the closely autobiographical characters of Menagerie; he has achieved the metaphoric poesis which detaches him enough to locate them beyond his own experience in an ordered time, place, and necessity.8/ In addition, he is able to integrate into modern theatre more than this minimally classical poesis. He gives the theatre poema; for as he is subjective writer and realist, he is also dramatist and poet. This he does at no small expense to himself; for personally to be born as an artist he had to survive the tension between the ethic and his America's Calvinist background and the esthetic of his heart's desire. For the Calvinist, God's beauty had been enough; for the esthetic mind, however, God is no sufficiency. The esthetic in one way or another subsumes every theology, for there is no altar that cannot use some polishing.
As a result of surviving the liberating battle--though his war between the ethic and the esthetic drags sporadically on, Williams has established a theory of art which he pursues in his prefaces, articles, and interviews. This prose explanation of the relationship of his art to life is, when analytical, most often less perceptive than his more intuitive theory made through indirection by his plays' characters, many of whom are themselves artists. Their remarks not only distill Williams' esthetics, but give evidence in his work of a constant and basic art theme.
The Williams of the prefaces, articles, and interviews sees art as something wild:
...art is a kind of anarchy, and the theatre is a province of art....Art is...anarchy in juxtaposition with organized society. It runs counter to the sort of orderliness on which organized society apparently must be based. It is a benevolent anarchy: it must be that and if it is true art, it is. It is benevolent in the sense of constructing something which is missing, and what it constructs may be merely criticism of things as they exist.9/
He uses the metaphor of the oyster and the pearl to show the social service of art, likening creative work to the grain of sand which must irritate society within society's shell,10/ or cage, as he called it in Camino's Foreword; for "the nervous system of any age is its creative workers, its artist."11/ He reinforces the disturbing place of poesis in society in his Preface to Orpheus when he describes Val Xavier, the artist of that play, as "a wild-spirited boy who wanders into a conventional community of the South and creates the commotion of a fox in a chicken coop." This fox image is used often to delineate the sensitive soul who disturbs an otherwise insensitive environment. This is even so in the highly derivative You Touched Me in which the charity boy Hadrian is constantly associated with the fox.12/
This irritating vocation of art Williams further elaborates in Cat's Preface, "Person-to-Person": the poesis, he says, must attract more than observers. It must attract "participants in the performance."13/ To insure this the artist must elaborate upon the abstract, but real, problems of life by presenting the particulars of time, place and necessity; "for the particular is sometimes as much as we know of the abstract."14/ The ordered poesis of art, in his case, writing, Williams sees "as something more organic than words, something closer to being and action."
Part of the organicism which Williams obviously claims for himself is the transcendence by the art object of space and time. Art makes personal evanescence meaningless. It gives the viewer of the object of a frozen moment in which to reflect upon his own rushing, evanescent existence. Art, Williams contends, can supply "the crying, almost screaming, need of a great world-wide human effort to know ourselves and each other a great deal better."15/ Exposing the corruption of self-ignorance is, therefore, in Williams' mind the function of his art; for corruption, he admits, he has "involuntarily chosen as the basic allegorical theme of...[his] plays as a whole."16/ Thus Williams, reading the problems of the world in a way personally reflective of his own personal existential, sees his art as a Tolstoian service occupation.
His personal creed of organic art explains much about Williams, particularly why his prose and poems generally fall so far short of his poetry of the theatre. His heart is only in the latter; for in the former, as in the reading version of a play, he feels that only the words on paper exist. While such posture is true for few but Williams, it is for him true enough to allow him to say of his particular art:
In my dissident opinion, a play in a book is only the shadow of a play and not even a clear shadow of it....The color, the grace and levitation, the structural pattern in motion, the quick interplay of live beings, suspended like fitful lightning in a cloud, these things are the play, not words on paper, nor thoughts and ideas of an author, those shabby things snatched off basement counters at Gimbel's.17/
The implications of this, raised out of Shaw, are fairly precise:
My own creed as a playwright is fairly close to that expressed by the painter in Shaw's play The Doctor's Dilemma: "I believe in Michelangelo, Velasques 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."
Thus for dramatist Williams the poesis is an ordering of reality that is more real than the realists'. In his Preface to Glass Menagerie he wrote that:
...unconventional techniques in drama have only one valid aim, and that is a closer approach to truth. When a play employs unconventional techniques, it is not...trying to escape its responsibility of dealing with reality, or interpreting experience, but is actually or should be attempting to find a closer approach, a more penetrating and vivid expression of things as they are....Truth, life, or reality is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest, in essence, only through transformation, through changing into other forms than those which were merely present in appearance.19/
Thus does Williams lay claim to be a metaphorical; for art for him is a matter of mind expansion, a freeing from the literal's simplistic confusion. He envisions "a new, plastic theatre which must take the place of the exhausted [presentational or literal] theatre of realistic conventions."20/ And since metaphorical transformation begins within the personal,
...the playwright is concerned with the objectification of subjective vision, with its transformation into concrete symbols....Like the objective expressionists, the playwright regards art as one of the great life forms, as an instrument of reconciliation no less important than religion, philosophy, politics, or human love.21/
The esthetic, in fact, becomes more important than the latter values simply because Williams makes it so by emphasizing throughout his works the salvific action of the art theme. The poet for Williams is guru, the one who organizes poesis into a lyric poema sympathetic to the human condition. In Cat's Preface, "Person-to-Person," he said: "Personal lyricism is the outcry of prisoner to prisoner from the cell in solitary where each is confined for the duration of his life." This "personal lyricism" to be meaningful, that is, truly communicative, must rise "above the singular to the plural concern, from personal to general import."22/ This implies that the vision of the poet-guru is a giving, self-consuming act of sacrifice. In Night of the Iguana, Nonno receives the ultimate moment of poetic vision and in communicating his moment of personal lyricism dies with his completed art object on his lips; but personally (literally) dead or not Nonno has reached out beyond his existential confinement through his art which communicates to the frightened Hannah the consoling word of courage. and courage is the right word for a poet who in the tension of maintaining the salvific esthetic versus the literalists' eschatology must pay the violent price of the sensitive person in a generally insensitive society.
To chronicle such alienation the poet must find suitable metaphor. In Williams' case the metaphors aptly specify the hostilities between the creative individual and the urban corporate personality: in short, it is constantly art versus business, the creator versus the merchant. And Williams obviously sees the angels' side as the poets'; for while he sees an animality in everyone, there are animals and there are animals. In his poem of soul-body tension entitled "The Comforter and the Betrayer," the animal in man is not only the betrayer of the whole personality into blackness, it is also the only comfort that uncourageous man has in facing "each day's / bland reassurance of a simple existence."23/ Williams once again opts for neither extreme. Consequently his animals are divisible: the sensitive people are associated with sweet birds, the never-landing rondini of Roman Spring and Orpheus; they are associated with glass animals which do not defecate, or with elusive gadfly foxes which draw their society along by their Lawrentian bootstraps--as in the poem Cried the Fox."
The destroyers, merchants like Jabe Torrance, Big Daddy, Boss Finley, and salesman Kowalski, are associated with a baser animal imagery of apes, bulls, and ravaging lions. This leads directly to the constant Williams fare of eating imagery whose coalescence into a major unit of imagery proves that although the nature of God may be an open question, Mammon is most definitely a beast of a monster.
The result of these opposing forces coming into dentine tension is Williams' Hospital Imagery of Violence. The sensitive confront the mercantile with clinical results: Laura vomits at the Rubicam Business College; Blanche is raped by her apish salesman brother-in-law; Alma is rejected by a playboy doctor and prostitutes herself with traveling salesmen; Myra, Lady, Val Xavier, and the Wop from Mood Lake are shot or burned to death by a drygoods owner; Chance and Heavenly are both castrated by a two-bit political boss; Catharine Holly is to be lobotomized, and Kilroy's corpse goes to an impersonal laboratory. Williams chronicles that by violence the Edenic garden was remodeled to be only a low-rent dormitory for cripples.24/ He feels that the chance gained for America's Eden, was lost in fact, in a Faustian business deal with some mercantile devil.25/ If he had been outraged at the dichotomies of Puritan Calvinism, he is even more angry at that Calvinism's righteous evolution to a Yankee mercantilism which slights the graver questions of the self. His confusedly sensitive Brick sums up the hatred of materialistic mores under the epithet of mendacity.
In Williams' economy of art in life, therefore, these questions which can be pursued only with courage, are the province of the poet. Consequently Williams' intuitive and scattered definitions of a poet can be collected to clarifying advantage. In general, if the poet's duty is to retrieve from the eschatological wreckage of Eden some creative incarnational glimmer, it is significant that Williams' most dramatic portrait of a poet (Suddenly's Sebastian who has no visible life on stage) lives in "a well-groomed jungle....[where] nothing was accidental, everything was planned."26/ Sebastian, within the corporate city buys retrieval of a garden part of Eden; his mother, not really comprehending the truth she speaks, says:
His life was his work because the work of a poet is the life of a poet and--vice versa, the life of a poet is the work of a poet, I mean you can't separate the, I mean--well, for instance, a salesman's work is one thing and his life is another....The same thing's true of --doctor, lawyer, merchant, thief!--But a poet's life is his work and his work is his life in a special sense....Poets are always clairvoyant!27/
By clairvoyant Mrs. Venable and Mr. Williams mean the same thing: the poet is a man who achieves the vision-expansion of metaphor. In addition, or perhaps because of this, "all poets look for God, all good poets do, and they have to look harder for Him than priests do since they don't have the help of such famous guide-books and well-organized expeditions as priests have with their scriptures and churches: which are all too often institutions of business that obfuscate the human, personal element under their own brand of mendacity.
Mrs. Venable: All right! Well now I've said it, my son was looking for God. I mean for a clear image of Him.28/
This for Williams is the poet's knightly quest: to find the ultimate image, the metaphor of the divine which can save the sensitive who have been wounded in the jungle-hospital of the mendacious world. But the poet, too often weakened by the cultural crippling done his humanity by his society, is often distracted and diffracted the most;29/ for in society's organized opposition to the individual, the poet because he is the individual par excellence is extremely vulnerable. Of Venable the poet, Williams says: "A poet's vocation...rests on something as thin and fine as the web of a spider....That's all that holds him over!--out of destruction....Few, very few are able to do it alone! Great help is needed!"30/
Drawing obliquely from the inexhaustible theatre of the bible and looting various mythologies, Williams fills out his picture of a poet and more than a poet--that is, a poet who has succeeded by giving of himself to others--in Milk Train's Christopher Flanders. This poet breaks mercifully into the private property (a mercantile good) of Sissy Goforth; she ignores him as a human being while she contemplates the possibility of his bringing a lawsuit against her and her attacking dogs. The fact is that because Chris is a poet of life, a poet who no longer needs to write poetry, Sissy is confused. She misses what Williams fully intends as the complete vocation of the complete poet. After marrying three men for money and a poet for love, Sissy's eye--principally because she succeeded financially (to the detriment of her basic artistic sense)--mistrusts writers who don't write and painters who don't paint. Blackie, Sissy's secretary who has the name of a dog but is no dog, interrogates Chris about his mobiles and why he gives them away. "Some things," he answers, "aren't made to be sold."31/ Some things, he means to say, are to be given; it is for this reason that he climbs Sissy's mountain, reminiscent of her "sister Karen Stone's game of isolation, King of the Mountain.32/ It is for this reason he climbs the sensual goatpath as all Williams poet do; but unlike Sebastian he is not at all randy. His poetry, his message of the salvation which art in life contains, eludes her in her mercantile judgement of sex and money.
Mrs. Goforth: Mr. Flanders, you have the distinction, the dubious distinction, of being the first man that wouldn't come into my bedroom when invited to enter....Man bring this up road, huh? [She has snatched up his book of poems.]....Your book of poems, your calling card? Y'must be running short of 'em. Here take it back!....I haven't read it but I can imagine the contents. Facile sentiment! To be good a poem's got to be tough and to write a good, tough poem you've got to cut your teeth on the marrow bone of this world. I think you're still cutting your milkteeth, Mr. Flanders.
This bringing of salvation into focus through art, this bringing something up the road, giving an existential value to the traditional trek across the Calvinistic journey imagery, is the true vocation of the guru-poet. Yet the poet is himself not completely independent; Mrs. Venable says of her relation to her son:
When he was frightened..., I'd reach across the table and touch his hands and say not a word, just look, and tough his hands with my hand until his hands stopped shaking and his eyes look out, not in [on his existential isolation], and in the morning, the poem would be continued. Continued until it was finished....I would say 'you will' and he would.34/
If this kind of coming-together the mother and son birthed a poem every summer after incubating it together nine months, "the length of a pregnancy."35/ This creativity is analogous to Serafina's and Lady-Myra's celebration of their physical fertilization.
Iguana's Nonno is the Williams poet grown older, physically dependent in his creative independence. Like Sebastian who needed Violet's hand to gain the strength to write his annual poem of summer, Nonno needs Hannah, around whom time and sex are meaningless,36/ to write his first new poem in twenty years. Nonno, incarnationally involved in otherness, intends to write a poem of moral advice just as had Christopher Flanders i his verse adaptations of the writings of a Swami, a great Hindu teacher. This is the crucial difference between Nonno and Sebastian: Nonno's whole intent is to share his insightful poetry of life. Unlike the Old Man in Ionesco's The Chairs, he does this successfully. Sebastian's purpose of poetry is selfish; he prints it himself on an eighteenth-century handpress and circulates it only among his coterie. This is the kind of symptomatic flaw that causes his violent end; for when the act of eating, the metaphor of becoming one with another, is not the total commitment of communion, it can only be cannibalism.
Violet's whole intent is to build Sebastian's posthumous reputation. The thrust of the play focusses on her attempt to silence Catharine Holly; for Catharine, who wished to love and not use Sebastian, continually screams out the poet's lack of otherness. It was precisely this inability to transcend to any degree the existential isolation of the literalist that kept him from being a true poet in Williams' terms. Violet, despite her protestations37/ that Sebastian wanted posthumous recognition (recognition not communication), is doomed even in her own terms to failure, for she wishes to popularize a person whose very artistic selfishness devalued everything Violet herself had said a poet should be. This is the wrought irony around the falsely manicured garden of Suddenly Last Summer.
Because of his selfishness, Sebastian finds eschatological blackness in the isolated Encantadas' bird-turtle violence; meanwhile Nonno finds incarnational communication in his prayer-poem as the iguana, "one of God's creatures at the end of the rope...scramble[s] home safe and free." Williams calls it "a little act of grace" at the hands of the business-man-returning-minister, Larry Shannon.38/ Generally it is Williams creative, incarnational people who are the fugitive kind: Hannah speaks for them all when at the end of Iguana she "pauses between the door and the wicker chair and speaks to herself and the sky....'Oh, God, can't we stop now? Finally? Please let us. It's so quiet here, now.'" But she knows that the next day Maxine the business woman will drive her farther down the road from the door of the Costa Verde establishment.
In Williams' exquisite eight-page vignette, "The Poet," the hero is truly a seeing guru. He is evangelist of the intangible esthetic, a Christ-figure who "stretching his wasted arms like the cross-bars of a ship...compelled [the children]...to understand the rapture of vision and how it would let a man break out of his body."39/ He tries desperately to free the children into gaining personality that transcends the governmental and corporate mercantile association, because, he says like Thoreau, "they were old enough to be conscripted into the service of states and organizations" and therefore were also old enough to sense "the presence of something outside the province of matter." But the children fail the poet; their bourgeois backgrounds overcome them. The lose their chance at poetic Vision.40/ Theirs is the choice of nearly all the Williams people as they function as symbols of Williams' art theme.
Versus the merchants are the Williams poets, the artists of various kinds with their associative characteristic imagery. Williams is of the same opinion as Milk Train's Blackie; she says to Chris about Sissy:
She inspected you through a pair of military fieldglasses before she had me take you to the pink villa with the--king-size bathtub, the pink silk sheets, and the cupids.
This universal signification is Tennessee Williams' basic claim to be a metaphorical. In this case, Blackie, the "dark" woman, is sent procuring for Sissy whose glasses of vision allowed her only to see if the poet's body was usable enough, commercial enough in her terms to be worthy of her king-size pink possessions. Williams says:
I can't deny that I use a lot of those things called symbols but being a self-defensive creature, I say that symbols are nothing but the natural speech of drama....A symbol in a play has only one legitimate purpose which is to say a thing more directly and simply and beautifully than it could be said in words. I hate writing that is a parade of images for the sake of images.42/
Thus like the hero of "The Poet" the artist must be able to ferment something from any kind of organic matter, that is, be able to make transcendent poesis and universal poem out of the literalists' flatly perceived moments of perception.
Williams' female artists fall into two units of imagery, the rubia y morena, the light and the dark. Blanche du Bois, whose name means white woods, is epitome of the light, hysterical, sensitive women whom Williams associates with imagery units of whiteness, translucent glass, gentle music, and lyric animals. She is the lady of the camellias who love the poems a dead boy wrote. She is soul sister of Hannah and the women with diaphanous names, Laura and Heavenly and Alma the nightingale of the Delta. These women stand, in Williams' world of American opposites, against the epitome of Williams' dark woman,43/ Serafina della Rose. Serafina, whose creativity is expressed in her auspicious pregnancy, has several dark sisters: the Italians, Land and Myra, the middle-European Fräulein;44/ in addition Flora (Sissy) Goforth receives the dark dog and garden imagery, calling herself Flora the Georgia swamp bitch. She is experiential sister of Karen Stone and Princess Kosmonopolis. In Williams' view all three darkened their white femininity through the business machinations of career. While the Princess--who married a dark Grecian name--takes her chance at retrieving her whiteness, her fertility, through the otherness of love, the unsaveable Karen Stone falls lower and lower to darker and darker Italian men. Only Catharine Holly seems midway between these extremes; she alone seem balanced as she relates to the venal Mrs. Venable what happened at Cabeza de Lobo (Head of the Wolf) even though Mrs. Venable, the wolflike business woman who has employed a business housekeeper named Foxhill, threatens Catharine with lobotomy at Lion's View Hospital. This is the same lion, one presumes, that threatens Sissy.
Mrs. Goforth: ...I'll--wake up the next day...-face that angry old lion.
Chris offers her the lovely evenings to offset the leonine sun. He talks of the soothing Mediterranean dark whose only shine is from little lamps, the opposite of the sun, the little lamps that don't mean business, the little lamps that were all the brightness white Blanche once darkened could stand. Maggie the Cat, who howls because her darkly prowled nights are not negotiable enough, is the business woman supreme. Born a poor girl who read the Commercial Appeal every night,46/ she genuinely admires Big Daddy's business acumen; desperate to insure her inheritance ("You've got to be old with money."47/), she lies and makes pure animal announcement at the play's end that she is indeed pregnant.
Williams' male artists likewise practice arts of many kinds: they are poets like Tom Wingfield whose image units of movie-fied distance can articulate only the poet's estrangement; they are abusers of poetry like Iguana's Sebastian who uses art as a prop to make himself the perennial house guest that the Milk Train's Sissy complains about; they are seemingly mad artists like the poet in "The Poet," the writer of a 780-page masterpiece in "The Lady of Larkspur Lotion"; they are would-be actors of youth like Chance who knows best the art of his body. He is brother to the statuesque youth, One Arm, who is brother to Camino's sculptured, golden Kilroy. With these body artists Williams fairly shines with Whitmanesque sexual imagery.48/ In addition, there are artists of religion like Larry Shannon when he frees the iguana in and overture to Hannah, or artists of life like both Val Xaviers who merely try to resist the corruption of life both urban and rural. Or they are full-blooded poets like Nonno who dies giving and Chris who gives to the dying.
When these artists do not sell themselves short, in fact, when they do not sell themselves like the Fräulein's bullish Indian Joe or the male prostitute of "One Arm" and "The Interior of the Pocket,"49/ they become bricks, like Big Daddy's son, tossed into the smooth-running machinery of mercantilism. By their mere creative incarnational existence they outrage businessmen like Jabe Torrance or men giving the business to the arts of science (John Buchanan), of politics (Boss Finley), or of human relations (Big Daddy, Braden Gewinner). They oppose, like Suddenly's Doctor Sugar, the inroads of institutionalization, the wasteland of the personal at the expense of truth. Male and female artists alike are far removed from Camino's Gypsy, the dark woman of business who frankly sells her daughter, are far removed from the ironically named Gutman, the merchant supreme on the Camino.
The clash of opposing poles, art versus business, truth versus mendacity, creators versus destroyers, continues the duality of tension that is basic to Williams, even to his units of imagery. On the one hand obsessed with moon and roses, on the other besieged by mendacious merchants in gardens of insectivorous plants and carnivorous animals, Williams has Shannon rise to defend the only positive truth playwright and character can be sure of: "Sir? Sir? The pecuniary rewards of a poem are grossly inferior to its merits, always!"50/ Williams constantly juxtaposes the two camps and nowhere does it better than in his Suddenly which is centered on the art theme: The existential failure of the man who merchandizes poetry of any kind. This play condenses more integrally perhaps than any of Williams' plays his basic units of imagery: the imagery of each pole and the violent imagery of those poles' confrontation.
The poet-sybarite is on constant junket with his castrating mother. The scene, however, is static. It is the violently colored garden of a Victorian Gothic home, itself in the Garden District of New Orleans. It is "inhabited by beasts, serpents and birds, all of a savage nature" and all evocative of the ports visited by the poet. Sebastian "dreaded, abhorred!--false values that came from being publicly known, from fame, from personal exploitation." Yet wanting recognition, he left the press-agentry to his mother; he was too weak to accept every poet's price of communication, a bit of self-inconvenience. He wrote his poems in the summer--always a significant time for Williams--because the other nine months were that poem's germination, "the length of a pregnancy." Violet treats his poems with the reverence due a Host; she recalls that his most significant trip was to the Dragon Country, the Beanstalk Country, the dead moon country of the Encantadas. This was Melville's land of "extinct volcanos, looking much as the world at large might look--after a last conflagration."51/
This conflagration of fire imagery is metaphor throughout Williams' work for fires more internal, for more emotional and existential smolders. The Glass Menagerie's entire last scene of revelation is played by soft candlelight which is extinguished amidst impending sheets of lightning. The stage direction of Eccentricities, Summer and Smoke,and Cat all demand pyrotechnical displays. In Summer and Smoke, John strikes a match, holds it close to Alma and says that she had what he thought "was just a Puritanical ice that glittered like flame. But now I believe," he says, "it was flame, mistaken for ice."52/ In Rose Tattoo Serafina's husband was burned to death, then cremated; Serafina says: "A Man, when he burns, leaves only a handful of ashes."53/ She herself is consumed with sexual heat as are Lady of Orpheus Descending and Myra of Battle of Angels to whom Val decrees that a man can burn down a woman. It is inevitable irony that because he has burned down women that Val is literally burned to death by vigilantes' blowtorch.54/ Carol Cutrere and Cassandra Whiteside both burn with life fever as does Kilroy. Sometimes the result of the existential smolders if the burning of an orchard at Mood Lake or a cotton gin in Baby Doll. Eloi in "Auto-Da-Fe" sees fire as soul-ful purification of sensual corruption; in Camino Real the burning of the poet Shelley's heart is diagnosed as "pure!--as a man's burning should be."55/ To this burning-heart image the poet Byron connects final commentary on what should be "a poet's vocation...to influence the heart....He ought to purify it and lift it above its ordinary level. For what is the [poet's] heart but a sort of...instrument!--that translates noise into music, chaos into--order." From on the other side of Sebastian, Byron admits: "That was my vocation once upon a time, before it was obscured by vulgar plaudits!"56/
While Christopher the true poet consumes cool milk, the fevered Mrs. Goforth--not willing to go forth--screams: "All that work [that business], the pressure, was burning me up, it was literally burning me up like a house on fire." And the poet who knows well the price of the creative life answers: "Yes, we--all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it."57/ Life is a death trap set on fire by the burning lion of the sun, the regular-as-business chronometer that burns out youth and talent.58/ The hot fire of Williams' sun nourishes the unedenic jungle of insectivorous plants and carnivorous animals; the fire cooks things to be eaten. "We were going to blond, blonds were next on the menu." Catharine says of Sebastian. "He was famished for blonds, he was fed up with the dark ones...famished for light ones: that's how he talked about people, as if there were--items on a menu.--'That one's delicious-looking, that one is appetizing.'"59/ Thus in an irony appropriate perhaps only to the gentility of symbols Sebastian runs from a restaurant to be eaten alive by dark, naked boys screaming the word for bread, pan, on a street burnt ash-white, under a sky of phallic bone picked carrion clean. This eating is the ultimate metaphor of hate in Tennessee Williams, for it is the use that opposes salvific love. Catharine, whose surname Holly recalls that New Testament incarnational time of Christmas, says: "I loved him, Sister! Why wouldn't he let me save him?...We all use each other and that's what we think of as love, and not being able to use each other is what's--hate."60/ Sebastian was all in white,61/ white as a Host about to be consumed by dark birdlike boys. The Blackness cannibalizes the Whiteness to reciprocate usage that should have been love. The light and shadow of a hearth fire become violent sacrificial pyre in Catharine's fevered, orgasmic vision which is "a true story of our time and the world we live in."62/ This is the time of lightning promised so early in Williams by the poet Tom Wingfield. It is true perhaps not only of the times but of Williams' own writing sensibility. Wingfield's "preoccupation with the artist's singularity or specialness" has evolved in the Williams' esthetic to the pitch of Suddenly Last Summer where the artist's singularity, his "sense of alienation [is] defensively exaggerated into exhibitionist defiance."63/
Suddenly Last Summer is, therefore, most important to the basic imagery units of Tennessee Williams not only because of those units' coalescence, but also because of its enormously successful organic allusiveness which brings to maturity much of the somewhat awkward experimentation that Eddie Dowling expunged from the acting version of The Glass Menagerie. Concerning the period of the latter play, John Gassner has written:
...playwriting manifested itself chiefly in the manner in which playwrights resorted to flexible and expressive play structure and relied on supplementary theatrical elements, such as music, lighting, and stage design. Our writers continued to write imaginative drama, but they created a poetry of theatre rather than dramatic poetry.64/
it is with this poetry of the theatre that Williams has had his greatest success. If he has, at least intuitively, theories of poesis and poet, then these can be complemented by his basic theory of poem. His theory of creativity he explained quite well in Orpheus Descending:
Vee: ...Since I got into this painting, my whole outlook is different...
The purpose of the artist's work is to arrange the disconnected moments of reality in order to extract some meaning from existing. Therefore the theory of poem in Williams is a search for the form most reflective of his time. Needless to say, in Williams the base of poetry is the theatre. But just as the setting of Suddenly typically refracts the mature Williams' verbal image units, so also is his basic mode of composition the image-making eye of the motion picture camera. In her excellent study entitled The Broken World of Tennessee Williams, Esther Jackson writes that Williams "has subjected his lyric moment to process. In his theatre, the instant of vision has been re-created: its image has been enlarged and enhanced."66/ Miss Jackson then definitively investigates Williams' basic cinematographic technique of composition by montage in the representative "This Property Is Condemned." Like Joyce, O'Neill, Wilder, Giraudoux, and Cocteau,
Williams uses his camera eye sensitively. With it he is able to arrest time, to focus upon the details of his vision, to emphasize elements of its structural composition, to vary his point of view, and to draw a wide variety of parallels.67/
Williams uses the
...same general pattern of image-making in his longer works. Each of the plays represents an attempt to give exposition to poetic vision. Each play is composed like a poem: The dramatist spins out symbolic figures which are its lyric components. A Streetcar Named Desire is composed of eleven theatrical images. Summer and Smoke has a like number. Camino Real is divided into sixteen scenes. Orpheus Descending has nine. Some plays, such as The Rose Tattoo, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer, and Sweet Bird of Youth, do not appear at first glance to be composed of such poetic components. Beneath the apparently continuous flow of action, however, a similar structural design may be found. For Williams, the play is an ordered progression of concrete images, images which together give sensible shape to the lyric moment.68/
Williams enlarged recently upon the distinction between a play in dramatic form and a dramatic poem. He said,
When the leading drama critic of Copenhagen, Denmark, told me that Rose Tattoo was not a play, but was a dramatic poem, I didn't know quite how to take it. It's hard to be told you haven't written a play in dramatic form. However, seeing Eccentricities of a Nightingale last night [the premiere, at which this writer sat next to Mr. Williams], I felt that it was a dramatic poem. I really don't regard myself as much of a traditional poet. I don't write poetry consciously. But in Eccentricities I use a southern heroine who tends to speak in a lyrical style. I think you can respect is an artist's opinion of his own work. But I think it's an interesting evening of a special kind of theatre, the theatre of poetic sensibility.69/
In the same interview Williams told Chicago drama critic Sidney Harris that he was just finishing his last long play.
I don't feel I have to write long plays anymore. I can write short plays or occasionally I can write a short story....I like a short play, a play that is around eighty pages long. Why stretch a one-act play into three hours for commercial reasons?
He could almost have reiterated the art theme of his plays: why debit the esthetic for business purposes.
Thus does Williams handle the technical problems of poema. His cinematographic technique is complemented with an "enthusiasm for metaphor and symbolism [that] comes partially from modern psychology and partially from a regard for the French symbolist poets."70/ While thematically he is indebted in varying degrees to D. H. Lawrence, Strindberg, Proust, Chekhov, Pirandello, Lorca, Hart Crane, many Southern novelists, and dozens of others, Williams as technician has "seldom 'organically' incorporated" his literary tastes into his plays. Consequently when de does attempt literary grafting, "they most often sound like ventriloquists' tricks."71/ (Witness You Touched Me.) The fact is that in intuitive application of theories of poesis, poet, and poema, Williams is, in his expression of personal lyricism, for better or worse, his own man.
© 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. W.J. Bates, Criticism: The Major Texts (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1952), p. 514.
12. Jacob Adler's "Rose and the Fox: Notes on the Southern Drama," already cited, deals with both Williams' and Hellman's basic allegories of human existence. The symbolic motifs of Roman Spring have been discussed by A. Gerard, "Eagle and the Star," English Studies, XXXVI (1955), 145-153. The imagistic heritage of Williams has been examined by J. R. Hurt, "Suddenly Last Summer: Williams and Melville," Modern Drama, III (1961), pp. 396-400.
29. In his "POV" essay Williams wrote: "I am giving away no trade secrets when I point out how many artists, including writers, have sought refuge in psychiatry, alcohol, narcotics, way-in or way-out religious conversion, and so forth."
42. "Foreward to Camino Real" in Three Plays, p. 161. In a January 14, 1967 interview on the Irv Kupcinet Television Show following the Chicago premiere of Eccentricities, Williams said of III, ii, the hotel room set, that:
I think the scene that didn't come out last night for me was the scene in which John tries to bed down Alma in the rented room.Williams had hoped that John Buchanan's dialogue would ease the working of what was certainly a heavy-handed symbol.
Miss Alma, the fire has gone out and nothing will revive it....It never was much of a fire, it never really got started, and now it's out....Sometimes things say things for people. Things that people find too painful or too embarrassing to say, a thing will say it, a thing will say it for them so they don't have to say it. (p. 99)43. From the beginning, the Dark Lady had represented the hunger of the Protestant, Anglo-Saxon male not only for the rich sexuality, the dangerous warmth he had rejected as unworthy of his wife, but also for the religions which he had disowned in fear, the racial groups he had excluded and despised. The black woman is typically Catholic or Jew, Latin or Oriental or Negro. Wherever the Dark Lady plays a serious role in our literature, she is likely to represent...our relationship...with the Mediterranean Europe from which our culture began; she is surrogate for all the Otherness against which an Anglo-Saxon world attempts to define itself and a Protestant one to justify its existence. Fiedler, op. cit., p. 301.
48. Chance has the "kind of body that white silk pajamas are, or ought to be, made for." The Princess pronounces his body "hairless, silky-smooth gold." (Three Plays, pp. 342, 354) Oliver Winemiller of "One Arm" is a "statue of Apollo" whose "one large hand made joyless love to his "sculptured" body. He offers his flanks to the minister whose own dreams had been of a golden panther's "narcotic" lick of his loins. The heroes of "angel in the Alcove" and "The Poet," are used unnaturally and the hero of the short story "Kingdom of Earth" revels throughout in autoeroticism. In Hard Candy's "Two on a Party" Williams describes all of his young heroes from Brick to Kilroy: "The motorcyclist...has one of those blond and block-shaped heads set upon a throat which is as broad as the head itself and has the smooth and supple muscularity of the male organ in its early stage of tumescence." P. 69. Williams' formal poetry is especially ripe in sexual imagery.
49. "...His left hand removed/ from the relatively austere pocket of the blue jacket/ and thrust now into the more companionable pocket of the gray pants....The interior of the pocket is dark as the dark room he longs to sleep in;...in it the hot white hand of the boy is closed on itself/ with a betrayal of tension his eyes have refused to betray....the hot white fingers unclose, they com unknotted and they extend/ slightly sidewise, to offer again their gesture of reassurance/ to that part of him, crest-fallen, on which he depends/ for the dark room he longs to sleep in." In the Winter of Cities, pp. 35-36.
54. Val: "They say that a woman can burn a man down. But I can bun down a woman." Lady later agrees: "You can! You can burn down a woman and stamp on her ashes to make sure the fire is put out!" Orpheus Descending, pp. 40, 107.
68. Ibid., p. 39. "Many artists, including Hart Crane, have been convinced that there is, operating in contemporary symbol-making, a 'machine aesthetic.' Williams, like Joyce, Eliot, and Pound--and like plastic artists such as LLger--seems to create such 'synthetic' symbols: to invent shapes and forms out of the fusion of organic elements. The great film artist Sergei Eisenstein discussed this technique in modern art. He claimed, for example, that Joyce was aware of using the cinematic technique of montage....Arthur Miller also discusses the use of the camera eye in his Introduction to Collected Plays (New York, 1957), pp. 23-36." Ibid., p. 37.