LOVE AND DEATH
by John J. Fritscher, Ph.D.
To speak of death is to speak of life, of time and place, and of God; to speak of love is to speak of God, of the sexual metaphor, and of the alienation of violence. Under these two general titles, death and love, Tennessee Williams has continued his insistent Puritan naming of things. With a true artist's convolution of surface reality into dimensional metaphor,1/ he has taken the literal moment of death--the ultimate alienation--and transfigured it to a symbol of the worse death of the living isolato. His Val sees men isolated in their own skins; his Blanche screams she cannot be alone; his Almas, his Hannah, his Serafina, all suffer the hysteria of women abandoned. Their hysteria, however, is more than "the big female weapon"2/ that Shannon diagnoses. Their hysteria is the result of existential dispossession. While most of Williams' protagonists move forward to solve their dispossession, feeling on the way through some long night's journey into day, Chance mistakenly backpeddles--much like the mistaken Amanda and Blanche--by trying to regain from the lost past the Heavenly home of his heart.3/ His excuse would be that of Baby Doll: "Sometimes I don't know where to go, what to do."4/ As a result, he retreats to the past, despairing of all the questions and the lack of answers chronicled by Marguerite in Camino Real.5/ Silva's answer to Baby Doll is that her lost feeling is "not uncommon. People enter this world without instruction." There is no surety except, not-pitying-oneself, to move forward as do the saveable Stella who makes the best of her situation and the redeemed Serafina who does a volte face from the past to the future.
Those who do not progress are destroyed like Blanche and Amanda; they remember too passively "some distant mother with--wings."6/ They rely on a security that has evanesced. The future is too foreboding. George Haverstick shakes for no physical reason;7/ he trembles rather at Camino Real's existential question: "Can this be all? Is there nothing more? Is this what the glittering wheels of the heavens turn for?"8/ Williams' people, like Williams himself, agree with Edwin Arlington Robinson quoted in Suddenly Last Summer: "We're all of us children in a vast kindergarten trying to spell God's name with the wrong alphabet blocks."9/ Battle of Angels' Val continues this Everyman's search:
Why....That was the first word I learned to spell out at school. And I expected some answer. I felt there was something secret that I would find out and then it would all make sense.10/
These existential pokings born of a dissatisfaction with life couple with Williams' ambivalent view of God as a God of violence or a God of love. This uncertainty leads only to inhumane withdrawal of the personality and to ultimate despair of the justice of a Being who could possibly give to the "tiny spasm of man"11/ some meaning. The theology-obsessed Chicken in "Kingdom of Earth" articulates of his sex experiences:I heard her footsteps on the stairs coming up to the attic. And then I realized that I had been praying. I had been sitting these praying to God to send that woman up to me. What do you make of that? Why would God have answered a prayer like that? What sort of God would pay attention to a prayer like that coming from someone like me who is sold to the Devil when thousands of good people's prayers, such as prayers for the sick and suffering and dying, are given no mind, no more than so many crickets buzzing outdoors in the summer. It just goes to show how little sense there is in all this religion and all this talk of salvation. One fool is as big as another on this earth and they're all big enough.12/
An approximation of this despair leads the majority of Williams' people through dark nights of the soul from which they rarely recover. If not the answers, at least the questions become in "these tropical nights...so clear."13/ It is on one such night that Jacques points out to Marguerite that over the whole Camino--even above the silk phoenix banner of resurrection--hangs the Southern Cross. And this cross of affliction, this affliction of the South of the human condition is that man seems alien and isolated on a cold highway to nowhere. Confronted with the ultimate dispossession of death, even the seeming strong are turned to jelly.14/
In the minicosm of his art, Williams focusses primarily on this worse death by dramatizing in almost grand Guignol detail the event of literal death. Against his conception of death he displays certain attitudes toward living. Life is a basically elemental matter. The liquid imagery of the sea, the cradle of life, is the womb symbol of the eternity from which man proceeds and to which he will return. Iguana's Nonno, whose real name is Jonathan Coffin, returns to the sea to die, making excuses for his "disgraceful longevity." No one wants the old, the worn out, the dispossessed; he and Hannah are driven out, for as Maggie the Cat says, "You can be young without money but you can't be old without it."15/ The living ignore the dying as a useless commodity.16/ Williams' early heroine Amanda had pontificated that for no one is life easy. "Tom--Tom," she says, "life's not easy, it calls for--Spartan endurance!"17/ A later Williams heroine, Sissy Goforth, insists that to get through life a person has to be tough; this is a more digested prescription than Alexandra del Lago's insistence that only monsters succeed in life. Chicken says in 1967:A man can't be soft in this world. I think that life just plain don't car for the weak. Or the soft. A man and his life both got to be made out of the same stuff or one or the other will break, and the one that breaks won't be life. Because life's rock. So man's got to be rock, too. Life, rock: man, rock. Because if they both ain't rock, the one that's not rock won't be life. The one that's not rock will be man, so man's got to be rock, too. The soft one is broke when the two things come together, and life is never the soft one.18/
This rock is far from Nonno's gentle sea, but it is fittingly opposite the repose of the latter. It is while most unreposed that Serafina della Rose--a flower like the Camino Real violets that crack the stone of the mountain--takes her stand and celebrates basic Williamsiana: the life in terms of sexual fertility.
The Captain in 1947's You Touched Me celebrates this Williams theme; he warns his sister, whom Williams' notes describe as a "self-righteous and mentally sadistic spinster,"19/ to stop her "efforts to keep life out of the place."20/ He accuses her of being one of the "people [who] have got that power--of turning life into clay.21/ She represents to Williams an "aggressive sterility."22/ Against the violence of this Emmie's chastity Williams places the young anti-soldier Hadrian, who arrives, like all Williams' sensitive people, "waiting for something."23/ Hadrian's return to the house revivifies the Captain in his fight for life versus living death. A soldier of the broader existential and not the meaner World War, Hadrian engages in the only kind of military gallantry Williams respects: he does violence to the ordinary conceptions of words and inverts them. The World War being ended, he shocks the little moribund society to which he returns, saying,A new war's beginning....The war for life, not against it. The war to create a world that can live without war. All the dead bodies of Europe, all the corpses of Africa, Asia, America ought to be raised on flagpoles over the world, and the cities not built up bet left as they are--a shambles, a black museum--for you and you and you--to stroll about in--on Sunday afternoons-- case you forget--and leave the world to chance, and the rats of advantage.24/
Hadrian is obviously not unSpartan; he is, however, also not the tough rock calloused to the needs of others. His view of life is a responsible one; he sincerely regrets knifing a young guard in order to escape prison camp:I saw he was only a kid and just as--gentle--as you are. The life in him yielded as softly as tissue paper. I knew very well that gentle things, such as that boy...,are made to be gently treated. Barely touched, hardly breathed upon.25/
His regrets, his hopes for life, he expresses to Matilda whom he intends to save--and does--from the introverted, desiccated life-example her Aunt Emmie had set.
In more direct terms the "expectant" Maggie says to the hying life-force Big Daddy: "Announcement of life beginning!" And Big Daddy studies her and agrees in italics, "Uh-huh, this girl has life in her body, that's no lie!"26/ Earlier, Daddy had insisted to Brick that life was tolled by ejaculation, the office of the life-bringing seed-bearer: "They say you got just so many and each one is numbered."27/ Karen Stone had been assured of life in a corresponding way: she regarded her menstruation as making her body "eligible for...service to life"28/ and when her menopause was accomplished, she began her drift, like the Princess Kosmonopolis, into unfertile death. In a related way Val knows he is sentiently alive:I can sleep on a concrete floor or go without sleeping, without even feeling sleepy, for forty-eight hours. And I can hold my breath three minutes without blacking out....And I can go a whole day without passing water.29/
Both the services and discipline of such physical mechanics assure these people that they are alive, until one day they realize that mechanics are deceptive, that being alive is more than mere continuation of physical function. The story of Lady-Myra centers on this discovery when once she announces the ultimate betrayal of mechanics, that she has coupled sexually with Death.
While Williams has almost specialized in plays about death, non so conveniently centers its argument and conflict in quite the fashion of Orpheus Descending with Battle of Angels. The plot introduces Val Xavier, as seed-bearing life force, into the violated garden of a sterile Southern town. His refrain is not against life but against life's corruption. For him and for Williams, as it was biblically intended at the exit from Paradise, death is the outward sign of man's internal corruption. At his arrival, Lady-Myra wants to be dead;30/ but death, she laments, "don't come when you want it, it comes [she intones prophetically] when you don't want it.31/ Carol-Cassandra wants to live and not be dead-alive, but her gesture at living is a selfish exhibitionism. She screams at Val that she tries to be ashow-off!...I'm an exhibitionist! I want to be noticed, seen, heard, felt! [All those sensual mechanics again!] I want them to know I'm alive. Don't you want them to know you're alive?32/
Val answers with balance: "I want to live and I don't care if they know I'm alive or not." He is not as hysterical as Carol-Cassandra who repeats in both plays a speech that Williams also used in "The Case of the Crushed Petunias." She says:Take me out to Cypress Hill in my car. And we'll hear the dead people talk. They do talk there. They chatter like birds on Cypress Hill, but all they say is one word and that one word is "live," they say "Live, live, live, live, live.'" It's all they've learned, it's the only advice they can give.--Just live....Simple!--a very simple instruction.33/
Cassandra's very own irony is that Cypress Hill is situated "on the highest point of land in Two River County, a beautiful windy bluff just west of the Sunflower River"34/ in which she will later drown never to be recovered. Carol-Cassandra sees Val as her particular camino's Way Out of Two River County and away into big-city jooking. That, Williams' Val judges--having gone that route--is lively but is not living.35/ Lady-Myra, on the other hand also sees Val as her Way Out. Having long before had a frustrating love affair that ended in fruitless abortion, Lady-Myra wants only to be dead. She chooses this ultimate alienation, although she admits that death is terrible.36/ As a small girl she had asked her aunt a very important question, She tells Val, who feels that people live alone, thatI was a little girl then and I remember it took her such a long, long time to die we almost forgot her.--And she was so quiet...in a corner...I remember asking her one time, Zia Teresa, how does it feel to die?--Only a little girl would ask such a question....She said--"It's a lonely feeling."...I think people always die alone.37/
Val, however, shows her that death is in fact the ultimate corruption. He tells her of the legless birds who sleep on the wind; they live their whole lives on the wing and "never light on this earth but one time when they die."38/ Lady answers: "I don't think nothing living has ever been that free, not even nearly. Show me one of them birds and I'll say, Yes, God's made one perfect creature!"39/ Val consequently shows himself to Lady: he is the uncorrupted free bird. All at once Lady-Myra, who wanted to be dead because of her past, confronts her past in the form of her old lover David, and assesses her present with her dying husband Jabe in terms of the future that Val's love promises. Of Jabe she says, "Ask me how it felt to be coupled with death up there,"40/ over the dry goods store with the merchant whom Williams' notes call the "living symbol of death."41/ To David in both plays she, like Tom Wingfield who abandoned the passivity of the movies for moving, says, "My life isn't over, my life is only commencing."42/ The symbol of the fruitful existential for Lady-Myra is not being physically barren. She uses the biblical trope of the fig tree to illustrate the wider dimensions of her conception.43/ Then, however, death in the form of her husband Jabe enters "like the very Prince of Darkness,"44/ kills her, aborts her pregnancy, and sends Val to death by fire. Both hero and heroine die; but they die a death of the physically mechanical. The level of life they have achieved transcends the literal death. Myra shouts for them both, "I've won, I've won, Mr. Death, I'm going to bear."45/ Though she dies the literal death, Myra learns the lesson that Val brought her and that Chance articulates in Sweet Bird; "To change is to live..., to live is to change, and not to change is to die";46/ that is, to be dead-alive by not coming to terms with the past and with evanescence.
A failure to come to such terms characterizes Williams' dramas of failure. His Blanche of the lost White Woods tells of her retreating confrontation with insistent evanescence.I, I, I took the blows in my face and my body! All of those deaths! The long parade to the graveyard! Father, mother! Margaret, that dreadful way! So big with it, it couldn't be put in a coffin! But had to be burned like rubbish!...Funerals are pretty compared to deaths. Funerals are quiet, but deaths--not always. Sometimes their breathing is horse, and sometimes it rattles, and sometimes they even cry out to you, "Don't let me go!" Even the old, sometimes, say, "Don't let me go." As if you were able to stop them!...Unless you were there at the bed when they cried out..., you'd never suspect there was the struggle for breath and bleeding....I saw! Saw! Saw!...Death is expensive....Why, the Grim Reaper had put us his tent on our doorstep!47/
Blanche sees for all the existentially hysterical Williams people that surface ends. Ignorance of mortality would indeed be a comfort to her and to them all.48/ But because she is not ignorant, life has become for her a dark march to uncertainty. For them all, as for the girl Willie in This Property is Condemned, death can no longer be glossed by the swift millimeter of the movies.Did you see Greta Garbo in Camille? It played at the Delta Brilliant one time las' spring. She had the same what Alva died of. Lung affection....Only it was--very beautiful the way she had it. You know. Violins playing. And loads of white flowers. All of her lovers came back in a beautiful scene!...But Alva's [lovers] all disappeared....Like rats from a sinking ship! That's how she used to describe it. Oh, it--wasn't like death in the movies.50/
Cat's big debate of life and death is not whether the Ochsner Clinic can or cannot save the literal life of Big Daddy; Cat's debate centers on Maggie's attempts--whatever be her motives and drives--to hand Brick back the life of his existential,51/ and secondarily upon Brick's attempts to establish some viable communication with his merchant father.
Death is, after all, the ultimate visible expression of mankind's guilt at alienation from his Creator. In it the general sin of the race is revealed. It is small wonder, recalling Eve the temptress' role in introducing death, that Williams' Lawrence comments wryly:Women have such fine intuition of death. They smell it coming before it's started even. I think it's women that actually let death in, they whisper and beckon and slip it the dark latch-key from under their aprons....I have a nightmarish feeling that while I'm dying I'll be surrounded by women.52/
Perhaps it is for this very reason that Period's George Haverstick takes his bride on their wedding trip in a hearse. The cruel truth is that "the human animal is a beast that dies but the fact that he's dying don't give him pity for others."53/ It gives him instead George's shakes or Chance's hysteria as he fears being killed in the War by an accident like a bullet.54/ The Princess del Lago refuses Chance even the mention of death. She adds, "I've been accused of having a death wish but I think it's life that I wish for, terribly, shamelessly, on any terms whatsoever."55/ And it is perhaps with these words that she establishes herself and several of her sisters, Serafina and Cathy Holly and Lady-Myra, as heroines of life. Death may be the last adventure to the minister in One Arm, but to Williams death is an unspeakable outrage, for it is the ultimate confrontation with relentless time. Life for Williams is the Calvinistic pilgrimage whose sequence is uni-directional from the inception of individual life to individual biological death. And between the two points something fierce blazes.A man's gotta live his own life....I don't wanta die! I wanta live! What I mean is, get out of this [urban] place, this lousy town--...[mercantile] factories, building....Quantity production, everything on a big scale;--that's God!....Millions of people...down here in the mud. Ugh, too many of 'em, God!...Crawling over each other, snatching and tearing, living and dying till the earth's just a big soup of dead bodies.56/
For most of these people their vision allows them to see their life not as a cyclic phenomenon of seasons but as a uni-directional turtle race to the sea-cradle of life. So that they may never forget, Williams reminds his people in both Streetcar and Camino Real of their mortality as he employs contrapuntally to their conversations a dark Mexican woman who hawks repeatedly the one line: Flores para los muertos, flores--flores.... This is especially functional during Blanche's monologue on death, desire, and young solders.Blanche: Death....We didn't dare even admit we had ever heard of it!
Mexican Woman: Flores para los muertos, flores, flores...
Blanche: The opposite is desire....Not far from Belle Reve, before we had lost Belle Reve, was a camp where they trained young soldiers. On Saturday nights they would to in town to get drunk--
Mexican Woman: Corones...
Blanche: --and on the way back they would stagger onto my lawn and call "Blanche! Blanche!"...Sometimes I slipped outside to answer their calls....Later the paddy wagon would gather them up like daisies.57/
Thus the soldiers, the intimate strangers, became a crown of flowers, dead, to prove her desire, her life, that was the opposite of terrifying sentient death. This is her confessional monologue to Mitch and her existential hysteria increases. She screams for no literal reason "Fire! Fire! Fire!" as she becomes aware that this "jooking" living is the dead-alive that is less than life and worse than death. This being pinched with pleasures as Big Daddy is pinched with pains may be temporarily a satisfactory proof of existence but it is no gauge of true aliveness!
Although death is absolutely universal in human life, Williams' people react with an almost inextinguishable horror at this end. They are afflicted with feelings they did not lose with Eden's fall; they remember that man was not created to die. Death's relation to life is the causal one of some impersonal proto-sin; death affronts, therefore, even mocks, the integrity of man's intended full organicism. Williams resists such dissolution; but because his view of Deity remains ambivalent, his attitude toward death is equally so. He remains ambivalent, his attitude toward death is equally so. He despises man dying the corrupting, dissolving death of Adam, the Old Testament death of revenge, when there is the possibility of redemptive non-death in a New Testament Christ. This ambivalency is not peculiar to Williams, but is typical of humankind's death psychology. Karl Rahner, a most modern theologian, documents death's duplicity.The end of man, considered only from man's point of view, constitutes a real-ontological contradiction which is insoluble and irreducible to simpler terms. The end of man as a spiritual person, is an active immanent consummation, an act of self-completion, a life-synthesizing self-affirmation, an achievement of the person's total self-possession, a creation of himself, the fulfillment of his personal reality. At the same time, the death of man as a biological being is a destruction, an accident, which strikes man from without, unforeseeably, with no assurance that it will strike him at the moment in which he has prepared himself for it interiorly. Death is for man a dark fate, the their in the night; it is an emptying, an ending. This simultaneity of fulfillment and emptiness, of actively achieved and passively suffered end, of full self-possession and complete dispossession of self, may...be taken as a correct description of...death.58/
Such paradox Blanche cannot accept as she fantasizes her movie-fied death that will end her evanescence and recall her lost time of love.59/ The unwashed grape that will transport her soul to heaven is highly romantic gesture that ignores the fulfillment while belaboring the dispossession. She wishes to return to Nonno's sea. She hopes for some vague life everlasting that is more than the everlasting mechanical life symbolized by the continual restoration of the virginity of Camino's Gypsy's daughter. Life everlasting is the specific hope of all mankind. Big Daddy, the sensitized merchant, diagnoses:The human animal is a beast that dies and if he's got money he buys and buys and buys and I think the reason he buys everything he can buy is that in the back of his mind he has the crazy hope that one of his purchases will be life everlasting!60/
But life everlasting has minimal definition for Williams people who have lived dead-alive half-lives of the mechanical. Mrs. Buchanan envisions her rosy burgher life continuing in Doctor John's projected children.61/ Big Mama asks Brick to impregnate the childless Maggie to give the dying Big Daddy the life everlasting he desires. The physical continuance by procreation is in their minds, for in their minds without it--like Maxine's dead Fred--the dead become only an echo, not transported by Nonno's sea but mechanically feeding the fishes in Fred's.62/
Yet in Camino Real, of which "resurrections are so much a part of its meaning,"63/ Kilroy wishes:Jean Harlow's ashes are kept in a little private cathedral in Forest Lawn...Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could sprinkle them ashes over the ground like seeds, and out of each one would spring another Jean Harlow? And when spring comes you could just walk out and pick them off the bush!64/
In absurdist fashion Kilroy exploits the concept of physical life everlasting. The Proprietor in 1948's shorter Camino comments on the streetcleaners who in both plays are symbols of death. He voices the opinion that everyone thinks that with his own death there will be no survivors.65/ Iguana's Hannah and Streetcar's Mitch both know differently; he fears outliving his mother and she, her grandfather. Both live in a world of impermanence, but Hannah and her grandfather most clearly perceive--more even that Alma who loses the vision--the Statue of Eternity. For it is in Nonno's poem of moral advice that physical death's dark night is explained to those who blanche with existential fear. Nonno assures Hannah he will not leave her even in death; for when death, the zenith of life is "gone past forever," "from thence/ a second history will commence."66/ Williams is not quite sure of the nature of this second history, but like the Deity and whom he is likewise uncertain, he is sure it exists.
When an artist makes a coalescence, brings together themes and images and attitudes, attention must be paid. In I Rise in Flame Williams integrates his art theme, his chiaroscuro sexual and eating imagery, and his attitudes toward life, love, death, women, violence, and ultimate resurrection. Out of all this emerges a life-triumph over death as art fulfills man's desperate craving for immortality. Williams makes his D. H. Lawrence speakI'm an artist.--What is an artist?--A man who loves life too intensely, a man who loves life till he hates her and has to strike out with his fist....To show her he knows her tricks, and he's still the master!...I wanted to stretch out the long, sweet arms of my art and embrace the whole World! But it isn't enough to go out to the world with love. The world's a woman you've got to take by storm. And so I doubled my fist and I struck and I struck....Fiercely, without any shame! This is life, I told them, life is like this! Wonderful! Dark! Terrific!...That's how it is--when first you look at the sun it strikes you blind--Life's--blinding....The sun's going down. He's seduced by the harlot of darkness....Now she has got him, they're copulating together! The sun is exhausted, the harlot has taken his strength and now she will start to destroy him. She's eating him up....Oh, but he won't stay down. He'll climb back out of her belly and there will be light.67/
In The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore Williams writes, "Death: Celebration." Inversely he writes, "Life: Celebration" as Sissy Goforth, who does not wish to go forth, wrestles within and without herself with the "meaning of life." Terrified at the death of her husband Harlon Goforth, Sissy abandoned him:Suddenly he stops trying to make love to me....I see--death in his eyes....I see terror in his eyes....I get out of the bed as if escaping from quicksand!...I leave him alone with his death, his--68/
Sissy nearly suffocates like Karen Stone whose husband died next to her on their plane flight over the oldest sea in the world. Sissy's friends have been dying "rat-a-tat-tat"69/ so that knowing she herself is dying70/ she insists that "Everything's urgentissimo here this summer."71/ Upon Chris' arrival she covets life even more. She deludes herself into thinking her life is cyclic like the seasons and not uni-directional between the points of birth and death. "The summer is coming to life! I'm coming back to life with it."72/ To convince herself she lies:Mrs Goforth: Death--never even think of it...
Chris: Death is one moment and life is so many of them....Life is something, death's nothing....
Mrs. Goforth: Nothing, nothing, but nothing. I've had to refer to many deaths in my memoirs.73/
Chris identifies Sissy with the banner of the Griffin that the Oriental stage assistants raise at the play's beginning and lower at the end.One: The device on the banner is a golden griffin.
Two: A mythological monster, half lion and half eagle.
One: And completely human.74/
What's a griffin?" Mrs. Goforth asks. Chris answers: "A force in life that's almost stronger than death."75/ And this is precisely what Sissy has tried all her life to be: stronger than death, as when she and her Alex toyed with death poking each other with sword tips and muzzling one another with small revolvers.76/ When finally in the act of dying, Sissy is described by Two: "The griffin is staring at death, and trying to outstare it."77/ And when Sissy is dead, Blackie and Chris wonder where all her fierce life has gone. "You feel it must be still around somewhere, in the air."78/ But the bird is flown, done in by its ultimate encounter with the curved prisons of time and space.
The only escape from prison, from the death-trap of existence,79/ is acceptance of life and death: "Acceptance is not knowing anything but the moment of still existing, until we stop existing--and acceptance of that moment, too."80/ This is Chris' vocation; it is the vocation of Everyman as Angel of Death--to help others break through the terror of literal death into the accepting sea of existence expansion. In a typical Williams inversion, Chris aids an old suicide who stands on a beach shouting cowardly for help.I gave him the help he wanted, I led him out in the water, it wasn't easy. Once he started to panic; I had to hold onto him tight as a lover till he got back his courage and said, "All right." The tide took him as light as a leaf.81/
By inverting and shocking the ordinary sensibility, Williams emphasizes that prolongation of the physical mechanism of life is not living; his point is that a successful literal dying can be a more creative and socially responsible act than merely stoically continuing a dead-alive mechanics.82/ Sissy and Blackie make terrible encounter on this point that was also Lady-Myra's.Mrs Goforth: The dead are dead and the living are living!
Blackie: Not so, I'm not dead but not living!83/
Williams image and point are both Emersonian: vision of a higher than physical kind helps man transcend the existential horror. Man suffers terror and hysteria until he is only to "look and look and look, till we're almost nothing but looking, nothing almost but vision."84/ And this vision is that of the artistic eye which in correlating and uniting makes order of the hopelessly absurd and disconnected perceptions of an uninvestigated existence. Death forces the issue and makes man look hard at life. This is the vision given to Vee Talbott, Big Daddy,85/ and "The Poet." Sissy, however, lets her mercantile appreciation of the goods of life obfuscate her sight; like the Pharaohs she plans only to sleep.86/ She misses entirely the "boom punctuation" of her Angel of Death. Thirteen times Chris says Boom. Like George's snap in Albee's Virginia Wolf, Chris throws the boom to awaken the existentially drowsing Sissy; the boom is to remind her of her mortality, for it is the crack of individual death, individual apocalypse, every man's individual Armageddon. But Sissy, dying with her legalism and her mercantilism (two institutional good opposed to love), puts crass stop to love: she tells Chris to let go her hand as her rings are cutting her fingers. She can't take the chance on love; and consequently in continuing the use she knows so well, she misses the opportunity for love, for "love of true understanding" which can crack "the hard shell" of her heart.87/ Her death is her total alienation.
Isabel in Period of Adjustment says, "Love is stronger than death."88/ Love, for Williams, redeems the failure, the corruption; love denies the ultimate alienation of death; love is the only means of regeneration. But to be all those things love must be a finding of self by going out of the self to lose the self in the other. Love is more than its physical expression in sex, for that can too easily become the cannibalized use of Sebastian and Chance and Sissy. Because love is a dying to self in the other it is appropriate that the act of love is often called by the French petite morte.
Sexual use in Williams can be subsumed under Captain Rockley's act of having relations with a porpoise in You Touched Me. This is the dehumanized use that makes the other a mere object; this is the most common personal "sin" in Williams. Phoenix's Lawrence raves about the isolation of looking for God in oneself. This use of self that does not end personal isolation is Williams' masturbatory metaphor which locks Billy Spangler of The Knightly Quest into his isolation. In his poem "The Siege" Williams repeats the cry of the sexual isolato:
I build a tottering pillar of my blood
In "Crushed Petunias" Williams declares that living alone in a barricaded house is sin. Mrs. Buchanan counsels John to sin by telling him in Eccentricities not to get involved with Alma's strange little group. Blanche tells Stanley that "The four-letter word deprived us of our plantation." And one presumes that Blanche's linguistic delicacy cover the vulgar term for the act of love which is without love and is use.90/ Blanche knows well this act of use; for when she discovered her husband's homosexuality, he became a false god to her and she began to depend on the kindness of strangers.91/ She looks for love-salvation with the proper stranger, but such non-communicative intimacies do not waylay the panic of her unloved heart. Her sister Alexandra del Lago names the act of use as a way of forgetting death. It is the only "dependable distraction."92/ Val had called sex the make-believe answer to communication. Sex is the rented room available since the beginning of time, as John tells the eccentric Alma.93/ The act of use, being rented, is not love that Chance seeks, "something permanent in a world of change."94/ The streetwalkers' birdcall of love-love in Camino Real is far from the love inherent in the term hermano, so important to that play's ethic. The mercenary cry of love is worse than hate.95/ In short, love in Williams' quite Christian economy is not groin-centered but is other-centered; for in the other becoming God to the lover the alienation of otherness transmutes into a mutual identity under the aegis of the Creator.
When love is not requited, the unloved lover rightly calls love an affliction; for this reason Alma in both her plays recites a William Blake poem "on the affliction of unrequited love." If Serafina can say that sex without love is without glory,96/ then Alma could make truism of the converse. Both elements are required in a fruitful relation of man to woman to make them one, to complete their union--in Williams' terms--physically and metaphysically as the tattoo transfers from one to the other to both. Quite rightly does Alexandra at the climactic revelation scene in Sweet Bird acknowledge that true love of another is salvific miracle:Chance, the most wonderful thing has happened to me. Will you listen to me? Will you let me tell you?...I felt something in my heart for you. That's a miracle, Chance. That's the wonderful thing that happened to me. I felt something for someone besides myself. That means my heart's still alive, at least some part of it is, not all of my heart is dead yet. Part's still alive.97/
She pleads with him to reciprocate; she emphasizes their mutual need.Princess: There's no one but me to hold you back from destruction in this place.
Chance: I don't want to be held.
Princess: Don't leave me. If you do I'll turn into the monster again. I'll be the first lady of the Beanstalk Country.98/
She makes the characteristic Williams request that is too often superficially interpreted. She wants "To be warmed--touched--loved."99/ And while the celebration of this touch may be the act of sex, the implications of that act transcend for the Williams people purely physical gratification. Serafina can say: "We had love together every night of the week, we never skipped one, from the night we was married till the night he was killed in his fruit truck on that road there."100/ But it is not so much the physical act of love that Serafina misses; it is the psychic and existential reassurance which come from the act whose passing she laments.
Love is, therefore, more than a sexual phenomenon in Williams, although a Freudian interpretation may be placed on such mother-son relationships as Violet and Sebastian's in Suddenly, as Olga Kedrova and her golden son's in "The Mattress by the Tomato Patch," as the mother and son's in the poem "Photograph and Pearls." It is true in one Williams exception, at least, that Mr. and Mrs. Stone could not make their marriage functional until they assumed a mother-child relation; but normally sex is only species sign of Williams' more generic love. It seems, for instance, most unlikely that Tom Wingfield's love for mother and sister has incestuous designs; Chris Flanders, moreover, rejects any sexual suite of Sissy Goforth; and on the farther side of debit it is precisely sex--its misuse--that obstructs pair after pair of Williams lovers.
Brick tries to correct the existential mendacity endemic to the misuse of love by sex. He and Williams employ a situation which requires a new set of tolerance from their audiences' straight middle-class values. The distortion presented tells much about more socially accustomed relationships of love.Skipper and me had a clean, true thing between us!--had a clean relationship, practically all our lives, till Maggie got the idea you're talking about. Normal? No!--It was too rare to be normal, any true thing between two people is too rare to be normal. Oh, once in a while he put his hand on my shoulder or I'd put mine on his, oh, maybe even, when we were touring the country in pro-football an' shared hotel-rooms we'd reach across the space between the two beds and shake hands to say good-night, yeah, one or two time we--
Big Daddy: Brick, nobody thinks that that's not normal!
Brick: Well, they're mistaken, it was! It was a pure an' true thing an' that's not normal.101/
In a more gee-whiz fashion Jim Connor tells Menagerie's Laura that "The power of love is really pretty tremendous! Love is something that--changes the whole world."102/ This change is precisely what Amanda and Big Mama desire as one confronts the absolute death of her past and the other the physical death of her husband. The desperate Amanda says: "In these trying times we live in, all that we have to cling to is--each other."103/ Big Mama says:Time goes by so fast. Nothin' can outrun it. Death commences too early--almost before you're half-acquainted with life--you meet with the other. Oh, you know we just got to love each other, an' stay together all of us just as close as we can, specially now that such a black thing has come and moved into this place without invitation.104/
Big Mama prescribes that only love can conquer Black Death; but Big Mama is only half-right. Lady-Myra's encounter with Jabe, the symbol of death, clarifies the fact that in Williams' economy literal death is of small import:Lady: [Referring to Jabe's knocking] I know! Death's knocking for me! Don't you think I hear him, knock, knock, knock? It sounds like what it is! Bones knocking bones....Ask me how it felt to be coupled with death up there, and I can tell you....I endured it. I guess my heart knew that somebody must be coming to take me out of this hell! You did. You came. Now look at me! I'm alive once more! I won't wither in the dark!...Everything in this rotten store is yours, not just your pay, but everything Death's scraped together down here! [It became Val's because as life force he has conquered liter death, made it meaningless to Lady, and as a consequence deserves the spoils of the conquered.]--But Death has got to die before we can go.105/
This defeat of death, this need to deprive death of its victory and its sting is a sentiment totally Incarnational and highly Williamsian. The parallel between the general Christian economy and Williams' view is that biological death having been introduced by sin as an inevitability is in the last analysis transcendable in both economies by the determination of true love. The metaphorical mind, which is Williams', at once dramatizes this love as mutual human response; but to a poet-creator who is vividly conscious of his own creaturehood, the expression of this human response is defined as finding God in the other so that the entanglement is not simply a biological pas de deux but a theological triangle of existence.
Up to this point Williams is a fairly traditional Western writer who subscribes to the belief that created and creative life can indeed be explained and understood; he is not picked in the full vitriol of a self-mocking Stendhal, or in the superparodic tradition of Joyce, Proust, and Kafka: although of late he has, as have they, sent grotesque people with impossible names through mad worlds of his own creative imagination. Yet even in these maddest stories and vaudevilles--The Knightly Quest and The Gnädiges Fräulein--the main concern remains an existential triumph over death by means of love.
Williams truly believes that love is stronger than physical death; but the Puritan crosses the Cavalier in hybrid Williams and tends to negate the visible power of love. Like the characters of John O'Hara, the characters of Tennessee Williams almost as soon as they find the transcending love which frees or can free their existential are destroyed physically by literal death. It is almost as if the Puritan strain rising out of some national recessive gene makes insistent commentary that America's dream of physical Eden can never be realized.106/
This trace in Tennessee Williams of the Puritan literalist's inhibition almost compulsively devaluates metaphorical Williams' restored and fruitful Eden of interpersonal love; but not completely, for though the physical base of the metaphor is destroyed by time or biological death (equable entities), the true lovers accept without self-pity the unidirectional boom of individual apocalypse. This they have learned is the last trial of active passivity before their acceptance into Nonno's eternal sea which laps cyclically and forever around Alma's retrieving fountain of Eternity.
© 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. In his [Gewinner's] vision was that alchemy of the romantic, that capacity for transmutation somewhere between a thing and the witness of it. The gods used to do that for us. Ceaselessly lamenting women were changed into arboreal shapes and fountains. Masterless hounds became a group of stars. The earth and the sky were full of metamorphosed beings. Behind all of this there must have been some truth. Perhaps it was actually the only truth. Things may be only what we change them into, now that we have taken over this former prerogative of the divine. Knightly Quest, p. 84.
5. Marguerite:...What are we sure of? Not even of our existence....And whom can we ask the questions that torment us? "What is this place?" "Where are we?""a fat old man who gives sly hints that only bewilder us more, a fake of a Gypsy squinting at cards and tea leaves....Where? Why?...the perch that we hold is unstable. Camino, p. 264.
14. When the big wheels crack on this street it's like the fall of a capital city....I've seen them fall! I've seen the destruction of them! Adventurers suddenly frightened of a dark room! Gamblers unable to choose between odd and even! Con men and pitchmen and plume-hatted cavaliers turned baby-soft at one note of the Streetcleaners' pipes! Ibid., p. 226.
51. Oh, you weak, beautiful people who give up with such grace. What you need is someone to take hold of you--gently, with love, and hand your life back to you, like something gold you let go of--and I can! I'm determined to do it--and nothing's more determined than a cat on a tin roof--is there? Is there, baby? Ibid., p. 197.
59. Blanche: I can smell the sea air. The rest of my time I'm going to spend on the sea. And when I die, I'm going to die on the sea. You know what I shall die of?...I shall die of eating an unwashed grape one day out on the ocean. I will dieewith my hand in the hand of some nice-looking ship's doctor, a very young one with a small blonde mustache and a big silver watch. "Poor lady," they'll say, "the quinine did her no good. That unwashed grape has transported her soul to heaven."...And I'll be buried at sea sewn up in a clean white sack and dropped overboarddat noonnin the blaze of summerrand into an ocean as blue as...my first lover's eyes! Streetcar, pp. 158-159.
65. Proprietor: Any my death will be like the fall of a capital city, the sack of Rome or the destruction of Carthage--And, oh, the memories that will go up in smoke!...You mean to tell me that all this flesh will be lost? American Blues, p. 50.
79. Chris:....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. Ibid., p. 105.
The small man started to cry. He said if you won't let in for twenty years, I'll wait twenty years at the gate, I can't go back down the mountain. I have no place down there. I have no one to visit in the evening, I have no one to talk to, no one to play cards with, I have no one, no one. But the guard walked away, and the small man, who was afraid to talk, began to shout. For a small man he shouted loudly, and Death heard him and came out himself to see what the disturbance was all about. The guard said the small man at the gates had come twenty years too early, and wouldn't go back down the mountain, and Death said, Yes, I understand, but under some circumstances, especially when they shout their heads off at the gates, they can be let in early, so let him in, anything to stop the disturbance. Pp. 78-79.
106. In the latest Williams' novella, Billy Spangler Calvinistically regards the act of love as an evil brought about by the animal nature of the female whom he equates--perhaps because of Eve's role as temptress--with the devil. Confer The Knightly Quest, p. 49.