"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Doing Good and Living Well–Indian Music


In the Spring of 1966 I first heard Indian music – Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akhbar Khan – and was never the same.  It was passionate, evocative, sensuous, profound and climactic.   Where had I been?  Why had I not heard this music before?  How could such a powerful, intricate, complex, and challenging music have been hidden?

Indian music was not the reason I decided to go to India – that had been decided for me by the organization that sent me (and in fact until the last minute I was to go to Algeria because of my fluent French.  I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I discovered that India was the perfect place for me at the time – demanding, exciting, kaleidoscopic, and brilliant – and learned that three months after deployment to Algeria, all Americans were declared persona non grata and given 48 hours to leave the country. 

One of the first things I did, however, after getting installed in my rooftop flat on Peddar Road in Bombay, 15 floors up with a commanding view of the city, the Towers of Silence, the Gateway of India and the ghats climbing to Poona and beyond, was to engage a sitar teacher.  I had no previous musical experience, and I figured that at the very least I would be able to listen to this magical music.  It turned out that I had a very good ear, and before I could play note, I enjoyed tuning the instrument, strumming the principal strings and hearing the sympathetic vibrations of the thin strings beneath.  My guru (as I called him) bought me a Calcutta-made sitar, a finely polished, elegantly simple instrument that I kept in a specially-made covering. 

I didn’t stay in Bombay long enough to get into the music, for I was transferred to Delhi; but there I engaged a friend of my Bombay teacher – they both had been pupils of Ravi Shankar – and for three years studied with him.  I never learned well.  As I said, I have little musical ability other than a good ear, and although I managed creditably on the first, slow, contemplative movement, the alaap, I had difficulty with the syncopated rhythms of the second, the jhaala, and was totally befuddled by the complex 8, 10, 12, 14, or 16 beat rhythmic cycles.  I told my guru that I would be quite happy if I left India with a decent understanding of the alaap movements of a few ragas.  At least then I would know the note scales and the tonal feeling of the music.  Each raga of course is different, major and minor keys, differing note scales, some played in the morning, others in the evening, and getting the feel of the raga and developing my own feel in the improvisational first movement would be a major accomplishment.

My Delhi guru bought me a new sitar, this time a gussied up, fancy hand-carved one again from Calcutta – the Cadillac of sitars, he said, and he was right – it was the chrome and fins version of Indian instruments.  However, it had an even more rounded, resonating sound, and it was magnificent.

My teacher and I had a true guru-chela relationship.  Basically in return from learning from the great man, I would be his slave.  I bought him whiskey, new synthetic Terylene pastel-colored kurtas with silver buttons.  I drove him wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted, with whomever he chose.  I picked him up and a cluster of totally bagged up women from his house in the Muslim quarter of Old Delhi, saw a charming group of attractive young women emerge from the bags 100 yards out of the colony, and drove them all to musical events where my guru played.  It was wonderful, and the exchange was in my favor.

The best times were when I went with him alone, a sarod player and a tabla player for jugalbandi – two principal instruments playing together, or playing off each other in solo riffs, close fretting, tight, competitive rhythmic patterns….all until 3 or 4 in the morning.  Ragas never seemed to have a specific starting or ending point.  Tuning gradually and progressively turned into the first notes of the alaap, and the raga was over when it was over.  No rules.

My guru spoke very little English which helped out my Hindustani a lot; so by the end of my four years in India and three with him, my Hindi was far, far better than my music.  I also got to be a part of the Muslim community in Delhi, a very rare thing for foreigners, most of whom fit the stereotype of living within vast houses one no different from the next.  I somehow knew that this avenue of music would lead me farther into India than most.

About two months prior to leaving India in 1973, I was invited to a South Indian classical music concert in Delhi; and I had the same reaction as I did to my first raga in 1966.  Where have I been?  Where has this music been?  It was so different from North Indian music – different instruments, the veena, flute, mridungam, kanjira, Jew’s harp, various other percussion instruments, and a swaying, pulsing rhythm that had a completely different feel.  It was again, a magical moment.  I listened to nothing else during my remaining time in India, searching out South Indian concerts wherever I could.  My guru was not of much help, of course, but I was successful nonetheless.  I made a number of unnecessary field trips to the South just to hear the music.

And just before leaving, I had my final musical epiphany – ghazals – Indian semi-classical vocals.  We were invited via friends to a mehfil, a musical gathering at someone’s home, in this case a very wealthy Indian patron of the arts.  She had a protegee, a young girl from Bombay just beginning her musical career.  When she started to sing, it was angelic – as pure and beautiful a voice as I and the others had ever heard.  It was graceful and lilting, moving from high notes to lower ones with perfect ease and phrasing.  She sang two songs and stopped.  “More, more…Please!”, we urged; but that was all she knew, she was just beginning, and Mrs. Naag simply wanted us to hear the sweet voice of this girl she had found.

I had never paid any attention to Indian popular music.  It blared out from every tea stall and bus station; in every restaurant, from loudspeakers at all markets.  The female voices were always in falsetto and the vocals simply became part of the noisy street scene of India; but when I heard what real vocals were supposed to be, I was once again transformed.  I listened to nothing but ghazals, and over the years after India bought them in India and especially Bangladesh.

I spent only four years in India, but they were probably the most important or influential of my life.  India is still with me, very much alive, especially when I hear the music, or smell incense, or Indian cooking.  There is too much too tell because there was so much to see, hear, smell, and feel.  I had thought that I was through writing about India and my travels, but when I realized that I had not yet written about music, I knew that I simply had been tapping the wrong seam in the mine of my memory.

Tennessee Williams and Chekhov


Tennessee Williams revered Chekhov, especially The Seagull, and wrote his own version of the play called The Notebook of Trigorin

Before reading this review from The Independent (London) 2008, I re-read The Seagull, and drew my own conclusions about why TW liked the play so much. 

Here, then, is a London review (in italics) of a relatively recent production with my comments annotated:

The two main female characters of The Seagull also had much in common with Williams's archetypal woman and girl. Arkadina is similar to his domineering mother, Edwina, full of deluded grandeur, and Nina, whom Constantin loves and whom Trigorin seduces, recalls Williams's fragile sister, Rose, who inspired Laura in The Glass Menagerie and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire….

I don’t agree with the reviewer here.  Arkadia may be like his mother, Edwina, and the closest dramatic representation of her is Amanda in Glass Menagerie.  However Amanda and Arkadia are very different.  Arkadia is if anything more like the Princess Del Lago of Sweet Bird of Youth, an aging actress looking for continuing recognition and acclaim and perhaps even love or some kind of mothering affection that she feels for Chance near the end of the play when she realizes, in a mini-epiphany, that she can care for someone other than herself.

Arkadia in a way is reminiscent of Mrs. Venable of Suddenly Last Summer, who has this incestuous love for her son, Sebastian; but it is Constantin in The Seagull, who has the stronger feelings and attachment to his mother than the other way around. Nevertheless she says to her son:

My dear, my reckless boy….you’re mine, mine.  This forehead’s mine, these eyes are mine, this lovely silky hair’s mine too.  You’re mine, all of you….I’m the only one who appreciates you, I’m the only one who tells you the truth, my wonderful darling….You won’t desert me, will you?

So, Arkadia is certainly responsible for encouraging the clinging relationship of her son to her, but she does not exhibit an “unhealthy” love in any other way.  She certainly does not travel around Europe with him, dominating and monopolizing his time like Mrs. Venable with Sebastian.

Nina is somewhat reminiscent of Laura in Glass or Alma in Eccentricities of a Nightingale in that all three women love or at least have a fantasy love for an elusive man; but Nina is stronger – she deliberately leaves her small town and follows Trigorin to Moscow.  She eventually returns after an unhappy relationship, but comes home as a refuge, probably temporary, rather than the the total emotional and psychological retreat of Laura or the promiscuous fugue of Alma.

I see nothing of Blanche in Nina; and Trigorin did not seduce Nina.  She left because she was unhappy with the tame pursuits of Treplev and feeling constrained as an actress with the provincial character of the town.  She returns unhappy and “tired”, but she is not the defeated, totally disillusioned person as Laura or Blanche.

Williams's resentment of the overbearing woman who demands love but doesn't give it emerges in an Arkadina who, rather than sumptuously self-absorbed, is blatantly exhibitionistic and cruel. When, in this version, Constantin presents his play on a makeshift outdoor stage, Arkadina actually climbs onto it and, declaring that it is dangerous, tries to stop the "worthless" play. Later, while denying her son and brother the money they need to live with dignity ("my son is handsome enough to be attractive in rags"), she prattles about her Paris hat, a necessity for "an actress in my position," and says she would rather appear naked than in costumes that displease her...

Once again, this seems off the mark.  Williams never in his memoirs or other confessions, ever held the resentments of his mother suggested here.  Yes, she was as conservative and demanding of him as the pastor fathers in his plays, but she was not the overbearing woman who dominated his life.  Amanda, Laura’s mother, was the same way, and she certainly reflected the character of Edwina – she wanted, through her conservative views, to protect her daughter.

Arkadia is simply not the overbearing character described in this review.  She is eccentric, but far more self-serving and egotistical (as The Princess Del Lago) than overbearing or domineering.  

While the relationship between Arkadia and her son, Treplev, is reminiscent of TW and perhaps the most characteristic of all, as I mention above, it is more the problem of Treplev than his mother – she is not out to destroy, denigrate purposefully, than she is trumpeting her own successes or validating her own greatness.

This new, fiercer Arkadina is matched by a Trigorin who bites back. When Arkadina claims that she meant to help Constantin by being truthful, Trigorin retorts, "Since when could you take truth?" He tells everyone that the bottle on her dressing table, labelled "elixir," is actually hair dye. Trigorin's sex life is also more complicated. When Arkadina fears that he will leave her, she tells him that she has come across a love-letter and a sexy photo from a "a long-haired youth," but that his secrets "will remain my secrets... until the day you betray me."

The implications that Trigorin is bi-sexual suggested here may be reaching a bit far; for it is clear that he has strong heterosexual feelings both for Arkadia and especially Nina.  Arkadia is simply playing whatever card she can to keep Trigorin.  She is not Blanche or Maggie who betrayed homosexual lovers and destroyed them.

Crocker [Director]is less interested in that aspect than in what he feels is a legitimate addition to Trigorin's personality: "In The Seagull Trigorin is weak and submissive, he doesn't himself understand why he stays with Arkadina. Here he has a more highly developed feminine side, he's bisexual, and she is given a hold on him."

Don’t agree at all.

Besides the sex and verbal violence, there's an elegiac, even despairing tone to much of the writing. The lake takes on a greater symbolic weight of death and mystery: "What the lake tells us is what God tells us – we just don't know his language." The most extraordinary change is the ending, which not only goes beyond the point at which Chekhov stopped The Seagull, but alters the nature of its reality, suddenly dissolving the separation between actors and audience.

"It's one of the things that most excited me about the play," says Crocker. "It goes into an entirely different dimension." It is a moment in this story of people who love and destroy one another which sums up what Williams described as his "longing... to bring [Chekhov] more closely, more audibly to you", when we can almost see him reaching out his hand.

There is a great difference between the writing of Chekhov and Williams.  Many critics have noted that Chekhov has a flat, prosaic style, which engages the reader/audience progressively, but has none of the theatrical (some say melodramatic) turns of Williams.  I prefer Williams, perhaps because he is closer to my culture and times, but more so because there is more connection between his characters as I have suggested above, more explicit emotional reasoning.  It is not at all clear to me why Treplev should have committed suicide.  There was nothing compelling about his frustrations with his writing (he apparently was not as good writer, not as good as Trigorin at least, and knew it, and should have accepted it); nor his pursuit of Nina – if there are any dubious sexual relationships in the play, the Nina-Treplev one is the one most notable.  Trigorin is no real mystery – full of himself at the beginning, and presumably at the end (we lose sight of him).  I have discussed Arkadia at length above, and find her less interesting than any of Williams’ women.  Doctor Dorn might be a Val who is the sexually attractive male, but nothing is made of it.

The other love relationships appear more like a Shakespearean comedy without the wit and pith.  Yes, as one character comments, everyone is struggling with love – Arkadia for Trigorin, Masha for Treplev, Nina for Treplev and Trigorin, Polina for Dorn – but nothing ever really happens.

There is more to the Williams-Chekhov literary relationship – symbolism, staging, etc; but I will write more about their thematic similarities in a later blog.



As many of you know, my love of oysters has no bounds.  I am magnetically drawn to them, pulled towards them at any time of day or night as I pass restaurants that serve them.  If they are piled high in a storefront window, like a few in Georgetown, it takes an effort not to stop. 

One of my favorite pastimes in Paris (or any other city, for that matter) was to stop in every fish market.  I wanted to open the oysters right then and there and suck them down – the briny, succulent Fines de Claires, the meaty Belons, the Praires.  My fantasies wouldn’t stop there.  I wanted all shellfish – the wonderful phylogeny of shrimp - ecrevisses, crevettes, langoustine, langoustes, homards – each bigger than the previous, fresh, delicious.  Or the hundreds of types of fish, all attractively laid out; and the octopus, squid, clams, mussels, sea urchins.  When I went into the many brasseries of Paris, I always ogled the seafood platters ordered by large groups of diners – all the above-mentioned seafood piled high on a bed of ice garnished with seaweed. Yummy.

Chinatown markets have fewer shellfish, but they are wonderful, and seem to have more tanks with fresh fish in them.  There are many in the Richmond area of SF and in downtown Chinatown.  The smell is funkier, the fish are grosser looking, but I can’t resist, and head for the nearest restaurant to eat them.

Which leads me to ribs.  I am spending the summer in Mississippi, participating in the Tennessee Williams Centennial festival in Columbus, and loving every minute; and I eat ribs almost every night.  To me, they are the oysters of the South – such variety of taste, texture, consistency.  I have travelled 50 miles to get the ribs at the Central Service Station Restaurant in Eupora, a converted gas station that serves delicious ribs.  I have eaten them at the Pit and Cone, and especially at Hanks, my favorite.  His ribs are smoked just right, the meat falls off the bone (you can eat them with a fork, favored by this New Englander), there is relatively little fat (relative is the term for fat in the South), they are tender, succulent, and absolutely perfect.

The ribs at Pit and Cone are tighter, more heavily smoked, almost like ham, and delicious, a totally different taste than the others.  I don’t mind working at them a bit to gnaw off the meat, it’s well worth it.

Because the ribs are so delicious, I have rarely moved off that mark, but tonight I want to try the brisket.  I am looking forward to it – the beef is smoked until tender, then pulled (apparently pulling is far better than slicing because it keeps the moisture).  I have tried he smoked turkey, and it was delicious, but turkey having relatively little fat, it was a bit dry. 

I still have the pulled pork BBQ which I know is different from state to state.  I first had it in North Carolina, and it was tangy and vinegary.  I had it in East Tennessee, probably the best I have had because it was the juiciest, most smoky and tender.  Love it.

After every rib meal, I keep thinking that I really shouldn’t eat this stuff every night, and I think up all kinds of rationalizations for the fat – I won’t be down here forever, I eat no breakfast and a tomato salad only for lunch; well, there’s really not that much fat on Hank’s ribs…but the real reason is the blinking neon sign in front of Hanks:



Monday, August 29, 2011

Othello–Who was Responsible?


I have been re-reading A.C. Bradley’s book Shakespearean Tragedy (1904) and his lectures on Othello:


Bradley agrees most of us that Iago was a cunning, highly intelligent, perceptive, and "evil" character; but that the character of Othello was such that once the idea was planted, it took quick and easy hold.  In other words, it was at least both the conniving of Iago and the character of Othello that caused the downfall; and perhaps of the two it was perhaps the latter that was more important. Bradley does admit, however, that it took cunning to perceive the cracks in Othello's character ("one not easily jealous, but, being wrought, Perplexed in the extreme", ), and the power of the play is the progressive and inevitable destruction of Othello only made possible by Iago. 

He also suggests that Desdemona, as reticent, obedient, innocently trusting, and weak as any of Shakespeare's women was as important in Othello's downfall.  She didn't see the tragedy coming, loved and trusted even more simply and purely than Othello.

Desdemona is helplessly passive. She can do nothing whatever. She cannot retaliate even in speech; no, not even in silent feeling. And the chief reason of her helplessness only makes the sight of her suffering more exquisitely painful. She is helpless because her nature is infinitely sweet and her love absolute. I would not challenge Mr. Swinburne's statement that we pity Othello even more than Desdemona; but we watch Desdemona with more unmitigated distress. We are never wholly uninfluenced by the feeling that Othello is a man contending with another man; but Desdemona's suffering is like that of the most loving of dumb creatures tortured without cause by the being he adores.

Bradley makes a particular point of talking of fortune, which plays an important role in the success of Iago's plot.  Had any one thing (and Bradley quotes many chance happenings - i.e. had Othello not come in at just the moment when Cassio and Desdemona were in "intimate conversation", etc.) not happened (or happened) the plot would have been derailed, suggesting that the tragedy was less in the plotting than in the character. 

Again and again a chance word from Desdemona, a chance meeting of Othello and Cassio, a question which starts to our lips and which anyone but Othello would have asked, would have destroyed Iago's plot and ended his life. In their stead, Desdemona drops her handkerchief at the moment most favourable to him, Cassio blunders into the presence of Othello only to find him in a swoon, Bianca arrives precisely when she is wanted to complete Othello's deception and incense his anger into fury. All this and much more seems to us quite natural, so potent is the art of the dramatist; but it confounds us with a feeling, such as we experience in the Oedipus Tyrannus, that for these star-crossed mortals — both [Greek characters] — there is no escape from fate, and even with a feeling, absent from that play, that fate has taken sides with villainy

Bradley suggests:

1. Othello, although the complete soldier/statesman we talked about, was also a poet and a romantic; and thus his love for Desdemona, coming at a later stage in his life was perhaps overly-romantic, leading to illusion or lack of the usual acuity he had on the battlefield.  This is an interesting take, for I had assumed that because Othello was the consummate soldier/statesman, he should have known better.

2. "His tragedy lies in this — that his whole nature was indisposed to jealousy, and yet was such that he was unusually open to deception, and, if once wrought to passion, likely to act with little reflection, with no delay, and in the most decisive manner conceivable."

3. "He comes to have his life crowned with the final glory of love, a love as strange, adventurous and romantic as any passage of his eventful history, filling his heart with tenderness and his imagination with ecstasy. For there is no love, not that of Romeo in his youth, more steeped in imagination than Othello's."  And it is this imagination - this perhaps over-idealized love - which leaves him open to deception and jealousy.

4. "The sources of danger in this character are revealed but too clearly by the story. In the first place, Othello's mind, for all its poetry, is very simple. He is not observant. His nature tends outward. He is quite free from introspection, and is not given to reflection. Emotion excites his imagination, but it confuses and dulls his intellect. On this side he is the very opposite of Hamlet, with whom, however, he shares a great openness and trustfulness of nature. In addition, he has little experience of the corrupt products of civilised life, and is ignorant of European women."

5. "...For all his dignity and massive calm (and he has greater dignity than any other of Shakespeare's men), he is by nature full of the most vehement passion."

6. "Othello's nature is all of one piece. His trust, where he trusts, is absolute. Hesitation is almost impossible to him. He is extremely self-reliant, and decides and acts instantaneously. If stirred to indignation, as "in Aleppo once," he answers with one lightning stroke. Love, if he loves, must be to him the heaven where either he must live or bear no life. If such a passion as jealousy seizes him, it will swell into a well-nigh incontrollable flood. He will press for immediate conviction or immediate relief. Convinced, he will act with the authority of a judge and the swiftness of a man in mortal pain. Undeceived, he will do like execution on himself. "

7. "Iago does not bring these warnings to a husband who had lived with a wife for months and years and knew her like his sister or his bosom-friend. Nor is there any ground in Othello's character for supposing that, if he had been such a man, he would have felt and acted as he does in the play. But he was newly married; in the circumstances he cannot have known much of Desdemona before his marriage; and further he was conscious of being under the spell of a feeling which can give glory to the truth but can also give it to a dream. "

Now, with all this having been said, Bradley of course acknowledges the perverse genius of Iago:

Othello, we have seen, was trustful, and thorough in his trust. He put entire confidence in the honesty of Iago, who had not only been his companion in arms, but, as he believed, had just proved his faithfulness in the matter of the marriage. This confidence was misplaced, and we happen to know it; but it was no sign of stupidity in Othello. For his opinion of Iago was the opinion of practically everyone who knew him: and that opinion was that Iago was before all things "honest," his very faults being those of excess in honesty. This being so, even if Othello had not been trustful and simple, it would have been quite unnatural in him to be unmoved by the warnings of so honest a friend, warnings offered with extreme reluctance and manifestly from a sense of a friend's duty. Any husband would have been troubled by them." 

Iago knew his reputation and used it to his ultimately successful ends.

However, here is where I have trouble: Iago's success is due to: 1) his own reputation; 2) chance and fortuitousness; 3) Desdemona's innocence and reticence; 4) Othello's character. Therefore, we have to give less "credit" to the brilliance, ingenuity, and cunning of Iago than these other factors.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Paul Theroux’s ‘The Tao of Travel’, Part II


In his book Theroux quotes or cites a number of other travel writers, and I found these interesting in their own right and interesting because they were Theroux’s choices.

Ibn Battuta, along with Marco Polo, is considered one of the first travel writers.  In twenty-three years (1325-1354) he went on the haj to Mecca and kept going in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.  He was known as the only known medieval traveller who visited the countries of every Muslim ruler of this time, as well as such infidel  places s Constantinople, Ceylon, and China.  Called the greatest traveller the world has ever seen, Ibn Battuta’s journeying has been estimated at 75,000 miles.

Richard Burton is my particular hero (more to come) because not only did he travel under the most difficult conditions, but could speak 20 languages, was so fluent in culture that he could pass for natives, was totally intrepid, suffering the most horrible diseases (almost went blind and deaf while searching for the source of the Nile) and never quit.  He even visited Salt Lake City because he wanted to study the polygamy of the Mormons.  He went on to be an ambassador.  His wife, in a fit of pique, destroyed many of his notes, writings, and files. 

Paul Du Chaillu, set off to West Africa in 1855, when he was 20 years old. “I travelled”, he wrote, “always on foot, and unaccompanied by other white men – about 8000 miles.  I shot, stuffed, and brought home over 2000 birds…and I killed upwards of 1000 quadrupeds….I suffered fifty attacks of the African fever…Of famine, continued exposers to the heavy tropical rains, and attacks of ferocious ants and venomous flies, it is not worthwhile to speak.

Theroux does not mention Mungo Park who preceded Du Chaillu by about 70 years, and his accounts are even more amazing.  He was commissioned to find the source of the Nile, made many trips, and had the most harrowing experiences – robbed, taken as a slave for barter, near death from wounds and disease.

C.M. Doughty (Travels in Arabia Deserta) travelled in 1878 through the most desolate and harshest landscape on earth. Along with Wilfred Theisiger (The Empty Quarter), he describes the beauty, solitude, and sheer fortitude and will it took to travel in this area.  Both writers captured the culture and incredible perceptions of the Arab Nomads, and the accounts are compelling.

Of all my travels, the one I remember most was that in the Sahara desert in Mauritania.  Riding on barely-visible tracks, dipping down like boat on a big wave into the dunes to find traction to keep going, rattling over Mars-scapes of red dirt and rock, sitting under a full moon on the terrace of the prefet in a small oasis, the dunes shadowed by the moon and the black sky filled with stars was stunning.  I had no doubt then about the power of the desert and felt there was a good reason that religions had sprung up from them.

T.E. Lawrence, travelling in Arabia.

His The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Burton’s account of his penetration into the holiest of holies in Mecca were two amazing works of ethnography.  So detailed in fact, that I had to skim much of them; but still, seminal works of ethnography and travel.

Geoffrey Moorhouse: The Fearful Void (1974).  No one had ever crossed the Sahara from west to east, an almost 4000 mile journey from the Atlantic to the Nile.  Moorhouse decided to do it, less to be the first person to achieve it than to examine “the bases of fear, to explore the extremity of human experience”

“I was a man who had lived with fear for nearly forty years.”  Fear of the unknown, of emptiness, of death. And he wants to conquer it.  “The Sahara fulfilled the required conditions perfectly.  Not only did the hazards of the desert represent ultimate forms of my fears, but I was almost a stranger to it.”

He makes 2000 miles, then abandons the trip in Mali because he ran out of water.  Dying of thirst, he luckily finds a group of nomads.  He was given a pot of liquid to drink. “There was all manner of filth floating on top of the water…strands of hair from the waterbag, fragments of dung from the bottom of some well; but the water itself was clear…..It was the most wonderful thing that had happened to me in my life”

I have the greatest respect for Moorhouse, for I suffer from the same fears, but have never challenged them, just read about others’ experience.  I have read Shackleton many times, read the accounts of Dougal Robertson and others who have survived months on rafts afloat in the ocean, or the accounts of Thesiger and Doughty and their travels in uncharted deserts, or the tales of Joshua Slocum and his travels around the world, or modern sailors like Chichester, fighting their way around Cape Horn alone, and have only been amazed at their will and courage.

Theroux adds a quote from Albert Camus from his Notebooks (1935-42):

What gives value to travel is fear.  It is the fact that, a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country…we are seized by a vague fear, and the instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits.  This is the most obvious benefit of travel.  At that moment we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being.  We come across a cascade of light and there is eternity.  This is why we should not say that we travel for pleasure.  There is no pleasure in travelling.

Bruce Chatwin and my hero, Werner Herzog, had become friends, and Chatwin’s biographer wrote:

“When they first met in Melbourne in 1984…their talks had begun with a discussion on the restorative powers of walking.  ‘He had an almost immediate rapport with me’, said Herzog, ‘when I explained to him that tourism is a mortal sin, but walking on foot is a virtue….

Theroux recounts an interview with Herzog:

Herzog’s belief in solvitur ambulando is unshakeable.  ‘I personally would rather do the existentially essential things in life on foot.  If you live in England and your girlfriend is in Sicily, and it clear to you that you want to marry her, then you should walk to Sicily to propose,. For these things travel by car or airplane, is not the right thing’.

Here is what V.S. Naipaul wrote about India in 1963:

“So goodbye to shit and sweepers; goodbye to people who tolerate everything; goodbye to all the refusal to act; goodbye to the absence of dignity; goodbye to poverty; goodbye to caste and that curious pettiness which permeates that vast country; goodbye to people who, though consulting astrologers, have no sense of their destiny as men….It is an unbelievable, frightening, sad country.  Probably all has to change.  Not only must caste go, but all those sloppy Indian garments; all those saris and lungis; all that squatting on the floor to eat, to write, to serve in a shop, to piss”

I was in India in 1968-73, and I have to admit that I shared most of Naipaul’s thoughts.  I did not at all agree with his conclusion about a ‘frightening, sad country’.  I loved India for all its less attractive elements.  Taken as a whole – which Naipaul did not, at least in this letter – it was a remarkable place; and guess what?  India has changed.  The caste system is slowly being dismantled; Western dress has replaced the sari and lungi, squatting is only done in the rural areas.

Again, to be honest, I was on a World Bank mission to India to explore the possibilities of promoting low cost latrines – relatively simple affairs which would eliminate the need for sweepers to take away headloads of shit, and the infamous “dry latrines” which were no more than a corner of a courtyard where everybody shat.  My Indian colleague told me that we were going to inspect dry latrines and when we arrived at one compound, he said, “See…Dry latrine”.  Of course I saw nothing, then was pointed to the defecation corner where 10 squatting men were shitting. 

I thought of the expression “Don’t shit where you eat”, and yet here it was.  At that moment after years of accepting cultural relativism at face value, I said to myself: “Wrong.  No cultural relativism here.  Disgusting.  Period”.

This is a great book for anyone who has travelled; and I really recommend all Theroux’s travel books which, like all great travel writers, is more personal memoir and autobiography than travelogue.

Paul Theroux’s ‘The Tao of Travel’


I am reading Theroux’s book The Tao of Travel – excerpts from his own extensive travel writings and from those of famous travellers of past times. Very interesting.  I said in my last blog on Travel that I thought I had run out of ideas; but this book made me reconsider, for I had been concentrating almost exclusively on the adventures I had had, the friends made, the food enjoyed, and the grand hotels were I stayed.  Theroux in this book, as one can gather from the title, gets at the psychology of travel – what makes us travel in the first place, how do we react to danger, loneliness, foreign cities, etc.  I thought I would give some of his quotes and give my reactions to them.  In subsequent posts, I will talk about some of the great explorers he mentions and comment on their travels as well.  So here are, in italics, Theroux’s comments, then mine:

You go away for a long time and return a different person – you never come all the way back.

Travel is at its best a solitary enterprise: to see, to examine, to assess, you have to be all alone and unencumbered…..It is hard to see clearly or to think straight in the company of other people.  What is required is the lucidity of loneliness to capture that vision which, however banal, seems in your private mood to be special and worthy of interest.

Travel which is nearly always seen as an attempt to escape from the ego, is in my opinion, just the opposite.  Nothing induces concentration or inspires memory like an alien landscape or foreign culture.  It is simply not possible (as romantics think) to lose yourself in an exotic place.  Much more likely is an experience of intense nostalgia, a harking back to an earlier stage of your life….What makes the whole experience vivid and sometimes thrilling is the juxtaposition of the present and the past.

I always have felt that individual travel was a personal privilege.  For weeks or months at a time, I could travel on my own, freed from any domestic issues, and see things through my own eyes, and reflect on them with only my perspective.  For these travel periods I was “the real me”, unencumbered by family, home, nation, friends, and able to react to people, events, places in a purely individual and personal way.  When I returned home, I was indeed a different person to my wife and children because I had been a different person for my time away.

A painful part of travel, the most emotional for me in may respects, is the sight of people leading ordinary lives, especially people at work or with their families; or ones in uniform, or laden with equipment, or paying bills.

There are times when what is left behind is very hard to forget.  Sometimes it is the place that is not welcoming; perhaps the circumstance of leaving; but the sight of people going about their normal daily business often gave me the same nostalgia that Theroux mentions.  I wanted to be back in the home routine.  Why was I so far away?

Travel holds the magical possibility of reinvention: that you might find a place you love, to begin a new life and never go home.

I have long understood that one cannot reinvent oneself – we are programmed and conditioned to such a degree that what we were, we are; but at the same time, I do feel that I was always on the lookout for an alternate place – like here in small-town Mississippi, for example.  What would it be like to give up the intensity of Washington, the diversity of interests, opportunities, and advantages and become a part of a new, very different, if not foreign community?  Could I live on a tropical beach? 

To a greater or lesser extent there goes on in every person a struggle between two forces: the longing for privacy and the urge to go places: introversion, that is, interest directed within oneself toward one’s own inner live of vigorous thought and fancy; and extroversion, interest directed outward, toward the external world of people and tangible values (Vladimir Nabokov 1982)

I have always felt this way; and my life has always been a balance between the two; and no more than when I travel alone.  There is the complete peace of reading, writing, thinking; and the excitement of interaction with new people, taking in new sights, sounds, smells.  Like now.  I spend time reading about Tennessee Williams, Shakespeare, and theatre for hours; then go out into Columbus or rural Mississippi nearby and explore what is.

Africa seemingly incomplete and so empty, is a place for travelers to create personal myths and indulge themselves in fantasies of atonement and redemption, melodramas of suffering, of strength – binding up wounds, feeding the hungry, looking after refugees, making long journeys in expensive Land Rovers, recreating stereotypes, even living out a whole cosmology of creation and destruction.  That’s why many travellers in Africa are determined to see it not as fifty-three countries but rather as a single, troubled, landscape

Africa has always been a source of challenge – overcoming “why am I here”?, fighting undisciplined crowds in dark, mosquito-ridden, corrupt airports, taking taxis 100’ to avoid thugs and touts, slathering up with insect repellent to avoid the worst kind of malaria.  In Mauritania, in one trip, I experienced all that Theroux writes about – the most miserable human conditions, emptying Dopp kits of all bacitracin to treat third degree burns, giving water to nomads who had run out, seeing children dying of malnutrition.  Despite all this, I liked Africa, its spirit, its directness; and yet I do not want to go back.

More in my next post on Theroux.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Brutus and the NeoCons


I began reading Shakespeare’s Histories because I felt that they would give me fundamental insights that no factual history could give.  I felt that a poet/dramatist’s insights into those aspects of human nature that underlie the persistent cycles of history would be worth more than simply observing current events in these cycles.

I have not been disappointed.  As Jan Kott has observed, if you laid all the Histories down in chronological order, you would find the same pattern of incessant and insistent plotting to accede to power; the same venality and brutality to retain it; and the same inevitable mistakes and errors that lead to fall, usurpation, or transfer of power.   Human nature – aggressive, determined, willful, purposeful, and blood-oriented – is the common denominator to all.

Granted this inexorable pursuit, retention, and loss of power, there are still some interesting political constructions in Shakespeare which shed light on current events.  As A.D. Nuttall (Shakespeare The Thinker) writes about Julius Caesar:

Some historians have described the assassins of Caesar as young men “high” on Greek political theory, on stories of tyrants justly slain, who mistakenly thought there would be popular acclaim for their action.

Does this sound familiar?  The NeoCons in the George W. Bush administration had exactly the same thoughts, reading of history, and political intentions.  Led by Wolfowitz, these young politicos were convinced that the tyrant (Saddam Hussein) had to be overthrown, that democracy had to be instituted for the public good, and that once he was, there would be popular acclaim for United States action.   We know now (and some of us then) that these assumptions were flawed.

Brutus (II.i. 10-34) attempts to make the case, but hedges his bets:  Caesar must go because absolute power corrupts absolutely (Shakespeare anticipating Lord Acton) as foreseen by the Greeks.  Yet, he is a good man, and who is to say whether all men in power will become corrupted? In response to the committed and unwavering Cassius, Brutus wonders:

I know no personal cause to spurn  at him/But for the general.  He would be crown’d;/How that might change his nature, there’s the question.

Antony, of course, the most canny politician of them all (and most eloquent orator) is behind the plot for his own personal ends (Brutus, it seems, is indeed honorable in his willingness to sacrifice his friend’s life for the Republic; and Cassius is more practical and Stoic in his approach to the matter).

In any case, when reading these passages describing the debate before the murder of Caesar, I was reminded of Wolfowitz and his arguments for the establishment of a liberal democracy as a higher good.  He and his colleagues believed – that their ideas were not simply political theories, but anointed truths, not very different from the Biblical beliefs of the legions of Christian missionaries now and since the time of Pizarro.

Modern American and European history, not to mention recent and ancient Asian history, is replete with examples of leaders constructing arguments to go to war – the search for a casus belli.  Lyndon Johnson distorted the incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin because he was influence by his own NeoCons – McNamara et. al. – who believed that the establishment of American-style liberal democracy was a higher good, an anointed political ideal.

Henry V in Shakespeare’s play of that name goes through historical and intellectual gymnastics to show that he had a legitimate reason to attack France and by so doing to distract attention from the internal, national disputes that were raging.  Henry V has his casus belli, however, flimsy, with the French ambassador’s insult with the gift of the tennis balls. Does this sound familiar? 

Bolingbroke goes through the same gyrations to show that he is the legitimate heir to the throne and not Richard II.  York is no different when he presents his complex claim to power urging supremacy over the Lancastrians.  In fact, his claim has more validity than that of the Lancastrian Henry VI; but the ensuing War of the Roses is fought more over emotive symbols and allegiances than rational claims.  In 1 Henry VI the claimants exhaust their intellectual and historical arguments and pluck roses from the garden – white of York, red of Lancaster – to symbolize the claims of their families.  From then on, rational legitimacy is forgotten, and the Civil War is fought over symbols and primitive allegiances. How different is this from modern history?  Nuttall cites the case of Nazi Germany where the populace was moved by Hitler’s National Socialism, and whereas he may have made rational cases for the reincorporation of the Rhineland, and other German-populated territories, the public was was soon emotionally behind the symbol of Nazi-ism.  In American, politicians have always “wrapped themselves in the flag” and have drawn on public reserves of patriotism to fuel their wars and adventurism.

It is sometimes said that political leaders require “a demonized Other” to retain control of their citizens.  If the people are to be ruled they must first be scared.  This is very nearly the situation at the beginning of Henry V.  The King desperately needs a war with France if he is to control such as Scroop and Grey. So far, so cynical.  Richard II lost control of Mowbray and Bullingbrook; Henry VI will lose control of Yorkist and Lancastrian nobles.  If civil war really is the worst thing of all, and if picking a fight with France is the only way to avoid civil war, we may have moved from cynical power politics to an obscure, unlovable duty.

Nuttall analyzes this phenomenon, illustrated in Shakespeare (as above in the War of the Roses) where emotions dictate action, rather than the other way around:

Perhaps Shakespeare  is actually truer to the general character of such movements – i.e. not what happened, but what would happen – than the academic historians are.  Historians are pre-set to find the causes of events and are perhaps too little prepared to recognize where movements are not so much the product of precedent conditions as self-energizing…Think of the difference between sober historical accounts of the start of WWI, and Bertrand Russell’s observation  that his compatriots had become irrational, as if they wanted to die…

Another incident relevant to today is found in Julius Caesar when after Brutus’ speech, a Plebian says “You be our Caesar!”, a presaging echo of the later Civil War when after Oliver Cromwell has been successful in establishing a democracy, his colleagues say the same thing – You be Ruler. There seems to be, according to Shakespeare and modern history, a tendency of the citizenry to acclaim and vote for dictatorial rulers.

Truly frightening powers were  given to Adolf Hitler by due democratic process.  Democracy can do many things.  It can even commit suicide.

Julius Caesar is set at a turning point in Roman history.  We watch the process, as the Republican period gives way to the Imperial.  We see these [democratic] rights forming in a later play, Coriolanus.

This is all no different than today.  Modern American history has reflected this same ebb and flow, and while there have been no such extremes of Empire vs. Democracy, the power of the Presidency vs. the Congress/Parliament/People has continued.  Currently in the United States with the Congress (the People’s representatives) shown to be venal, partisan, and irrational, there may be a move towards a stronger Presidency (although not in the coming 2012 election).

So, once again, Shakespeare has, 400 years ago, described and illustrated through his plays, the recurrent, predictable, and irresistible themes of world politics.  Reading Shakespeare is a must for all idealists, One World Utopians, and political optimists.  Until human nature has been changed through recombinant DNA and interface with the computer, thus creating a totally new human being, we are destined – or doomed – to repeat history.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Shakespeare’s and Tennessee Williams’ Women


An article in the 2003 Edition of Tennessee Williams Literary Journal by George Hovis entitled “Fifty Percent Illusion” takes a feminist, anti-historical, and very politically correct position concerning Blanche, Lucretia Collins, and Amanda (I would include Laura and Alma as well).  These women act the way they do, according to Hovis (who I think correctly interprets Williams), because of the repressive mores of the Southern Belle era and the equally repressive nature of the Episcopal Church.

Amanda and Blanche adopt the role of the belle in an effort to survive within a social milieu in which they are disempowered (my italics).  Unlike Lucretia, they both adopt the role as a means of literal survival by securing economic and social stability.  More importantly, in the case of Blanche, she performs subtle transformations in the role of the belle and thereby effects a revolution within the gender consciousness of Williams’ audience.

All these women understand their role as Southern belles and their means for survival (finding a socially acceptable and productive mate); but all three (four if one includes Laura) fail.  Hovis, and more importantly, Williams blame society for their failure and demise.  I understand, but I disagree.  Shakespeare’s women were all subservient to men and in today’s lingo “second class citizens”, but all of them understood that they could achieve great power within this system.  They schemed, they fought, they protected their interests and especially those of their children.  In other words, it is hard to have sympathy for the wilting and shrinking violets of Williams when the women of Shakespeare were heroic.  Think of Margaret who fought for the instatement of her son to the throne of England, despite the machinations of her weak husband, Henry VI.  Think about the mother of Richard III and Edward IV who was strong and outspoken in her virulent condemnation of Richard.  Think of the mother of Elizabeth, the wife of Edward IV; or the mother of the murdered (by Richard) Henry VI.  Think of Cleopatra; Portia, the wife of Julius Caesar; Lady Macbeth; Goneril and Regan; and perhaps especially Cordelia who mounts an armed invasion to vindicate her father although he has spurned her.  And then there is Joan of Arc, La Pucelle.  The list goes on.  These women were all born, raised, reared in a “repressive” society and rather than wilt under its repression, thrived under it.  Whether they were successful or not, they were undaunted in their aims.

We know that Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother was a deeply sexual being, and followed the path of her sexual desires and political ambitions by marrying Hamlet’s uncle.  She was unashamed of these desires, and unashamed of the way she, as a woman, could consolidate power while being sexually gratified.  Hamlet has a problem with her actions, but that is his problem, not hers.  She acted perfectly within the social mores and political structures of the time.  No psychosexual neuroses.  OK, there is Ophelia, but her schizophrenia and suicide cannot be laid to a conflict between morality and sexuality as it often is in Williams.  Her madness and suicide has been the source of much discussion over the decades, but no one, I believe, would compare her to the women of Williams. 

As Faulkner had, Tennessee Williams recognized the psychic damage done to Southern women by this stereotype of the belle and its attendant demand of sexual purity….(Hovis)

First, who said that Caddy and her illegitimate daughter, Miss Quentin, suffered under the same Southern belle yoke?  Neither one had sexual repressions and neither seemed to struggle or suffer under it.  It was the son/brother Quentin who could not bear the changes that were happening in his family and to himself and he was the one who committed suicide.  Was the hatred of  Rosa Coldfield, a spinster, for Thomas Sutpen due to these Southern belle traditions.  No indeed.

The more I read about Tennessee Williams from his memoirs, conversations, and essays, I know that he put a lot of himself into these plays; and therefore I can understand his characters, their motivations, and the consequences of their actions.  Williams’ plays are really about him and therefore have validity, power, and meaning.  I can only say that I prefer Shakespeare.  I learn more from him about the human condition and about human nature from him.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Tennessee Williams Selected Essays


As always I have found the words of Tennessee Williams the most interesting to read.  It is a new thing for me to read a playwright’s take on is work, immersed as I have been in Shakespeare, the Greeks, and 19th century authors.  As I have said, in some ways it takes the fun out of reading, because for me trying to analyze and interpret dramatic ambiguity is very satisfying; but in others it is good to see the authors keeping the critics honest.  Here are a few clips from Tennessee Williams: New Selected Essays – Where I Live, John Bak, ed. 2009.  In this first clip, Williams responds to the critical observation that he writes about frustrated women:

Was Blanche (Streetcar) frustrated? About as frustrated as a beast in the jungle! And Alma Winemiller? What is frustrated about loving with such a white hot intensity that it alters the whole direction of your life, and removes you from the parlor of an Episcopal rectory to a secret room above Moon Lake Casino?

This is a bit disingenuous, I feel, because both women have indeed been frustrated in their lives, and this frustration has been the cause of their later promiscuity.  Both Blanche and Alma grew up in a very strict Christian, Southern environment, and both fought desperately to escape it.  Not every frustrated soul turns to sexual libertinage, and despite TW’s applause for their coming out, their promiscuity, in my mind, was a neurotic response to a neurotic upbringing.

The following passage for me is perhaps the most eloquent statement of what TW is trying to do; and more importantly, is the truest and most insightful thing he has said:

About their lives, people ought to remember that when they are finished, everything in them will be contained in a marvelous state of repose which is the same as that which they unconsciously admired in drama.  The rush is temporary.  The great and only possible dignity of man lies in his power deliberately to choose certain moral values by which to live as if he, too, like a character in a play, were immured against the corrupting rush of time.  Snatching the eternal out of the desperately fleeting is the great trick of human existence.  As far as we know, as far as there exists any kind of empiric evidence, there is no way to beat the game of being against non-being, in which non-being is the predestined victor on realistic levels.

In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof which TW considered his most classical Greek play with unity of theme, time, and place, he feels he has achieved this perfect ideal world, this microcosm of life and the world.  Williams, I think, has expressed this so eloquently.

In speaking about The Rose Tattoo, TW writes:

The Rose Tattoo is the Dionysian element in human life, its mystery, its beauty, its significance.  It is that glittering quicksilver that still somehow manages to slip from under the down-pressed thumbs of the enormous man in the brass-buttoned uniform and his female partner with the pince-nez and the chalky-smelling black skirts….It is the dissatisfaction with empiric evidence that makes the poet and the mystic, for it is the lyric as well as the Bacchantic impulse….

Once again, I accept what TW has to say, but I do not believe that this play achieves the Dionysian glory he was trying for.  Serafina was disillusioned by her husband – or better, she disillusioned herself.  She is overly protective (in the Sicilian way) of her daughter who is of a different generation and who denies her.  She is irrationally swept away by Alvaro, with the head of a clown and the body (read: sexuality) of her husband.  So, Dionysian maybe, in both Serafina’s and her daughters lust; but little more.  This play, like Period of Adjustment is meant to be a comedy or tragi-comedy, but to me it is melodrama.

Did Brick love Maggie?  I am particularly interested in TW’s view on this because I intend to teach a course on love in TW and Shakespeare next Spring.  Although TW has said explicitly that Maggie is desperately and obsessively in love with Brick, what about him?

[Brick] says with unmistakable conviction: “One man has one great good true thing in his life, one great good thing which is true.  I had friendship with Skipper, not love with you, Maggie, but friendship with Skipper….” – but can we doubt that he was warmed and charmed by this delightful girl, with her vivacity, her humor, her very admirable courage and pluckiness and tenacity, which are almost the essence of life itself?

Yes, we can doubt it.  Obviously the relationship with Skipper was all consuming and all important.  Not that Maggie did not have these characteristics; just that Brick, at this moment in his life, was not ready to see, appreciate, or revel in them.  He did not love her.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Night of the Iguana


This is the play that will be performed at the Annual Tennessee Williams Festival here in Columbus, Mississippi.  I have tried very hard to like this play, to understand how it fits within Williams’ works and how it further elaborates on his previous themes; but I find it predictable, without the lyrical poetry that characterizes other works, and with uninteresting or even antithetical characters.

I know that Williams has stated that Shannon is a male Blanche DuBois – thus giving weight and importance to perhaps his most popular and perhaps best-developed character; but I only see indirect similarities. Both characters have come to the end of their ropes; and both have tried to reconcile spirituality with “the flesh”; but Blanche is by far the more sympathetic character.  Perhaps because she resembles Laura (Glass Menagerie), Alma (Eccentricities of a Nightingale), or Lucretia Collins (Portrait of a Madonna), all of whom express themselves with a lyrical poetry and madness which evoke an idyllic past; perhaps because of her apparent vulnerability (Williams makes it clear that Blanche is outwardly a swooning, delicate Southern woman, but inside she is a tiger), I find Blanche much more interesting, complex, and appealing.  Her ‘promiscuity’ is like that of Alma who, having been disappointed in an ideal love, and having been caught between spirit and flesh her whole life, turns to promiscuity.  That is, it makes sense given the dramatic tension that has been set up. 

Shannon is nothing of the kind.  Although we are supposed to believe that he is in similar conflict between spirituality and the flesh, he has summarily left the Church because of certain doctrinal differences – differences that most Christians have certainly felt.  Here he is talking about God:

Yeah, this angry, petulant old man.  I mean he’s represented  like a bad-tempered, childish, old, old, sick, peevish man – I mean like the sort of old man in a nursing home that’s putting together a jigsaw puzzle and can’t put it together and gets furious at it and kicks over the table.

And still, most theologies blame us for God’s faults in construction.  So, Shannon exhorts from the pulpit:

I shouted after them, go on, go home and close your house windows, all your windows and doors, against the truth about God!

What is new about this?  I certainly do not feel sorry for someone who should have known better, who should have realized this anti-truth before he joined the priesthood; and I am certainly not feeling sorry for him once he has left.  Moreover, he has not become promiscuous because of the need to resolve a great inner conflict, he simply likes underage pussy. 

I like Shannon even less because he has created in the image of Falstaff – a linguistic hero to the likes of Harold Bloom, but to me a blowhard braggidoccio.  His rant in Act I:

A tour by T. Lawrence Shannon is in his charge, completely – where to go, when to go, every detail of it…

And then he goes on talk about the perfect Chinaman cook and his artistry, a self-indulgent and self-important fugue on nothing of importance. Then in Act III, he continues with his bombast:

Ho, ho! Latta, it’s caught up with you, Latta, all the whores and tequila have hit your brain now, Latta,.  Don’t you realize what I mean to Blake Tours?  Haven’t you seen the brochure in which they mention, they brag, that special parties are conducted by the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, D.D. noted world traveller, lecturer, son of a minister and grandson of a bishop….

Falstaff exactly.  Not to be taken seriously.  He jests and japes with Maxine, shoving the liquor cart back and forth and other antics.  A foil to others more serious who might be Hannah, but more probably Maxine. Shannon, who is apparently in desperate need of spiritual succor and just plain human help in his emotional crisis turns first to Hannah, asking him if he can travel with her, then when she refuses, he turns quickly and easily to Maxine who as quickly says yes.  Are we to believe that such a self-serving and venal person is tragic?

Hannah, whom Williams has called one of his best characters because of her pure spirituality to me is nothing of the sort.  She is like a stern primary school teacher, not hectoring exactly, but certainly preaching.  Shannon should do this.  Shannon should do that.  Meanwhile she is penniless – why??? and basically mooching off whomever, dragging her grandfather with her and subjecting him to all kinds of difficulties.  OK, sixty-seven I can possibly understand, but NINETY-SEVEN?   Hardly.  And why?  I can understand why Mrs. Venable took Sebastian on all his European trips – she was clearly incestuously in love with him but Hannah?

Then there is Maxine, the Earth Mother, the welcoming and soothing soul.  What are we to make of her?  She is welcoming, I guess she wants company, even a broken down ex-priest, child abuser…Do we admire her?

And what about the Germans.  They are Nazis and the US is at war with Germany.  Why are they there in the first place?  Comic relief?  Williams describes them in a stereotypical way – blond, bronzed, etc. and full of burlesque hijinks.  What do they add?

The final line of the play is spoken by Hannah who says, “Oh, God, can’t we stop now? Finally? Please let us.  It’s so quiet here now”.  Yet, her wanderings with Nonno are not explained; nor does Williams paint her as an anguished person desperately needing rest.  Shannon, perhaps, but not Hannah.

Hannah states, earlier in Act III that she has considered permanence, or finding a resting place, but has discarded the notion because it has no meaning:

I still say that I’m not a bird, Mr. Shannon, I’m a human being and when a member of that fantastic species builds a nest in the heart of another, the question of permanence isn’t the first or even the last thing that’s considered…necessarily…?….always?

So why, then, the final lines which have more to do with a physical resting place than a spiritual one? Also in Act III she talks of the penniless, homeless, and destitute children she saw in Shanghai and their images have caused her spiritual angst, but there is no resolution to this particular crisis.  She neither decides to go and help them, or to turn to spiritual recourse – prayer, for example.  She simply recounts and goes on.

The recurrent theme of Williams – how we are doomed to live within our own skin and cannot or rarely achieve real communication with others – is not developed her.  There are the stage directions which show the compartments, or “cells” in which Maxine’s guests live, but then…..?  Is there finally real communication between Shannon and Hannah? Shannon and Maxine?  No.

So, I hope to get some insight from seeing the play put on her in Columbus, but I must say, I don’t expect too much insight.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Conversations with Tennessee Williams (3 and Last)


This is the third in a series of blog posts on Tennessee Williams’ thoughts and observations on his life, work, and plays.  I have found them the most fascinating of all my readings on Williams, because he is telling how and why he created certain characters and had them behave the way they did.  As I have said, this clotures much interpretive criticism, but important nonetheless.

Williams’ plays were considered violent when they were produced.  Much of what was considered almost unacceptably violent then – the grotesque murder in Orpheus Descending, the castration in Sweet Bird of Youth, the murder in Summer and Smoke – would not be considered so now; and yet one must take time and era into context.

Williams read Shakespeare and said “I was particularly enchanted by all the violent plays”, especially Titus Andronicus which is almost a melodramatic chainsaw play (one critic added up all the vicious and horrible murders and mutilations in it to emphasize their number; and of course there is the famous scene where murdered children are baked in a pie to be eaten by their mother).  It is not hard, of course, to find violence in Shakespeare.  Chopping off heads was routine; but more serious crimes, such as treason was subject to burning at the stake, but not before the prisoner was disemboweled while alive.  The blinding of Gloucester in Lear is particularly malicious, but reminiscent of Oedipus and therefore symbolic as well as cruel.  Henry V before the gates of Honfleur says:

If not, why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash'd to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,

He would have carried out this and worse violence if the citizens had not capitulated.  So, in Shakespeare beheadings, poisonings, burnings at the stake, disembowelments, blindings are common – but violence is part of the history depicted; part of the Elizabethan age, and not at all uncommon. 

I take Williams at his word, that he was attracted to violence; and I take the critics offended sense, for these were the sensibilities of the times; but I don’t think the violence in Williams is integral to the stories or the characters.  The cannibalism of Sebastian in Suddenly Last Summer was no necessary in a tragic sense and was an exaggerated statement by Williams of his feeling of revenge or just due or the corruption of the outside world.  The murder in Summer and Smoke (expunged happily in The Eccentricities of Nightingales, a much better play) was not necessary as the rewrite showed.  Jabe’s excesses were not necessary either because his hateful, vengeful, violent, and mean nature had already been established.  In short, although Williams mentioned his attraction to violence, it is not at all what the plays are about.

When asked (Walter Wager 1966) whether he is a religious man, Williams replied:

Well, I keep a Russian icon by my bed.  It was given to me by a dear friend in London for my birthday.  It is a very beautiful Russian icon and I don’t suppose I would keep it there if I didn’t have some religious feeling; it is obvious that I do have religious feeling.  It may seem ingenuous to have religious feeling to a lot of people, but to me it seems necessary.

Williams has also mentioned his praying before openings and at other important occasions. 

I know that every time I have a play opening I will go into a room alone and I’ll kneel down by the bathtub and I’ll pray, and I always get a sort of affirmative or negative answer, meaning the show will go or it won’t go, you know? (David Frost 1970)

His relationship to God, therefore, was a very active and interactive one.  It is never backdrop or symbolic in his plays either.

He also makes constant reference to the very positive influence of his grandfather, an Episcopal priest and talks of the Puritan-Cavalier conflict in him and in many of his characters.  The religious references in his plays are too numerous to mention here.

I have always been somewhat perplexed about the characters of Hannah (Night of the Iguana) and Val (Orpheus Descending), and especially Hannah.  Williams writes:

Hannah? She had to pass through a tunnel of despair.  She is a Blanche purified of confusion and sensuality.  She is nearly detached from life.  She feels for others.  She accepts everything from others.

Val? He is still trapped in his corruption and engaged in his struggle to maintain his integrity and purity.  He is in a sense more moving because of his struggle (Jeanne Fayard 1971).

The theme of corruption is repeated throughout Williams’ plays, and he refers to it often in these interviews:

Chance Wayne? He is the same kind of stud [as Val, Sebastian]. But that’s not what he wanted to be.  It was not his choice.  He went too far into his corruption….

I am not so sure about the depth of his corruption.  To me, Chance Wayne was a good American, hoping for fame and glory, unrealistic about his chances, and willing to do just about anything to succeed.  What’s new or tragic about that?

Williams also comments that "Blanche had personal, great strength and personal vulnerability that was finally broken”….I think that it was the only solution for her to go away, to be taken away, or to go away.  She was not adaptable to the circumstances as they were, that the world had imposed on her.  She was a sacrificial victim, you know; she was metaphorical as a sacrificial victim of society” (Cecil Brown 1974).

Again, I am not so sure about this corrupting influence of society.  To me, Blanch was always a bit mad and unable to cope with the real world.  It was not so much the “corrupting” mores and structure of society that were to blame; it was her. 

Williams at one point in one of the interviews in this edited volume says that Blanche was not raped by Stanley, but she gave in to desire.   Again, Williams has cut in many of his characters this duality between the spiritual and the physical, and in this surprising revelation absolves Stanley and society for her demise.  I have seen this quote and reference only once, so I need to do more research to be conclusive; but still, it is very revealing. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Conversations with Tennessee Williams (2)


As I have written in this blog, Part (1), it is fascinating to read Williams himself comment on his characters and his plays.  In one way it takes the fun out of interpretation and analysis (Shakespeare is endlessly intriguing because the reader is continually trying to figure out why Hamlet, Othello, Antony acted the way they did); but in another it helps to elucidate certain problematic characters.   For example in a very perceptive and insightful interview with Studs Terkel (1961), Williams states “In the portrait of Shannon (Night of the Iguana) I think I was drawing a male equivalent of Blanche DuBois”. This helped me understand the character of Shannon who I found somewhat antipathetic – an unhappy whiner who lost his spiritual base because of his fondness for the flesh of young girls; and who at the same time is drawn to his earth mother Maxine who he knows will not reject him and to Maxine who, in her virginity and devotion to her grandfather provides Shannon with an ideal.  If he is as desperate and close to despair as Blanche, then I need to reread the play.

Williams, when asked about Hannah, avows that he hasn’t really figured her out.

I meant Hannah…almost as a definition of what I think is most beautiful spiritually in a person and still believable.  I am still exploring the character of Hannah

I was glad to hear this so that in my reread of the play I could come up with my own conclusions as I have been so used to doing in Shakespeare.  Hannah’s spiritual beauty is not immediately clear to me.

Here are some more revealing quotes from the book Conversations with Tennessee Williams, edited by Albert J. Devlin:

“I have no idea what happens to Blanche after the play ends.  I know she was shattered.  And the meaning of the play is that this woman who was potentially a superior woman was broken by…society”. (Terkel 1961)

This is quite interesting.  What society broke her?  She was dunned out of the genteel society of Belle Reve because of her own promiscuous behavior.  How can society be blamed for that?  One can be critical of a society with Puritanical rules, but one cannot conclude that she was broken by it.

Williams writes of the relationship between his grandmother and grandfather and mother and father – two polar opposites, and both animated his writing:

Two different couples, my grandparents who grew together  in wholeness and love, and my parents who split violently apart and tore the children apart through division and conflict…(Studs Terkel 1961)

These characters appear in his plays – Nonno is the gentle grandfather in Iguana; his father is finally recreated in Big Daddy, but looms as the absent father in Menagerie.  For me, these insights are interesting because, as I have written before, are these family dissensions and/or unions the thing of tragedy? Look at the families in Shakespeare – Goneril and Regan are the evil characters that I think evade Williams.  Lear himself is a divisive and ignorant father.  The desperate ambitious mothers in Richard III, King John, Henry VI are far more compelling figures and have a greater historical reference.  Shakespeare’s father-child relationships are far more interesting (think of Henry IV and his son; or Henry VIII to name but two).

One key comment which elucidates his tendency towards floral speech is the following:

My great bete noire as a writer has been a tendency to what people call….to poeticize, you know, and that’s why I suppose I have written so many Southern heroines.  They have the tendency to gild the lily, and they speak in a rather florid style which seems to suit med because I write out of emotion, and I get carried away by emotion…(Funke and Booth 1962).

This is fascinating, because many critics have assumed that Williams was a man trapped in a female (Southern belle) body.  Maybe, but this comment seems to imply that he simply is a writer of emotion, and that  the Southern lady is a perfect vehicle for this expression of emotion.

When asked by the interviewers (Funke and Booth) whether or not he identifies with all his characters, Williams replies that he does, which is why Boss Finley (Sweet Bird of Youth) was nit right “…because I just didn’t like the guy, and I just had to make a tour de force of his part in the play….The one thing I cannot – I can understand maybe – but no, I don’t even understand it, is the kind of self-infatuated, self-blindness and cruelty, you know, such as he…Finley…personified” (1962).

And yet he created the character of Jabe (Orpheus/Battle) who was far more cruel, hateful, and brutal….?

Finally (for now), Williams explanation of his choice of characters:

I have always been more interested in creating a character that contains something crippled.  I think nearly all of us have some kind of defect, anyway, and I suppose I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person.

But these seemingly fragile people are the strong people really.  They have a certain appearance of fragility, these neurotic people that I write about, but they are really strong.  Blanche was much stronger than Kowalski.  When he started to assault her, he said, “Tiger – Tiger!” (Joanne Stang 1965).

These characters, as well as being expressions of Williams’s own character and worldview, put his feelings en relief …they are exaggerated forms of naturally occurring and common character phenomena.  Williams says his heroines are strong, but I prefer the very strong women of Shakespeare.  In fact, most are strong, with notable exceptions (Ophelia, Desdemona).

Conversations with Tennessee Williams (1)


I have read a number of books recently about Tennessee Williams including his own memoirs, a serious and insightful book of criticism Rebellious Puritan by Nancy Tischler, Magical Muse, edited by Ralph F. Voss.  By far the most interesting has been Conversations with Tennessee Williams, edited by Albert J. Devlin.  This book is comprised of various interviews with Williams from 1945 to 1981 when he comments on his life, his writing, and his plays.  In some ways his definitive comments on the plays – i.e. what he meant to say – took some of the interest out of my reading.  One of the great joys and challenges of Shakespeare, Ibsen, or Chekhov (who Williams says was one of his most important influences) is that the reader is left to interpret the text however he wishes.  Not so in much of the work of Williams.

In any case, much of my interpretation was right, others not quite; and in some cases Williams intended something that totally escaped my grasp.  In any case, I will discuss some of his thoughts as revealed in these interviews.

I asked Williams if he always wrote about unhappy, trapped, hopeless people.  “I hadn’t thought of them as hopeless”, he replied. “That’s not what I was writing about.  It’s human valor that moves me.  The dominant theme in most of my writings, the most magnificent thing in all human nature, is valor – and endurance” (Jean Evans 1945)

He most often speaks of the strength of Amanda, for she tries to hold the family together despite the threats, corruption, and danger of the outside world; and she tries to protect each of her two children in her and their own way.  She fails, ultimately, but she has valorously tried.  Williams thinks of Blanche as a strong woman, despite the delicate image in which she is portrayed.  She has struggled against the Puritan, restrictive life imposed upon her in Belle Rive, and although she has taken a radical path to liberation (unconventional sexual behavior, not unlike Alma in Summer and Smoke), she struggles  to find accomodation to the two sides of her character – the Puritan and the sexually liberated; or as Williams has called the two sides of his own character, The Puritan and The Cavalier.  She of course does not, but in Williams eyes, this does not diminish the valor.  Laura is another of Williams’ incomplete or damaged people, but she has the courage to take the step to meet the gentleman caller, even though she must take many steps backward to her own secure inner realm.

“Coming to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof I don’t think that either Brick or Maggie were sordid.  Brick was troubled.  Maggie was desperate.  I thought both were admirable in different ways.  I thought Big Daddy had a certain stature and bigness, almost a nobility, in his crude ways.

Shannon, Maxine, and Hannah – perhaps especially Shannon are heroic figures because they continuously struggle for that balance of spirituality-vitality until their end.  Blanche does not survive, Shannon does.

Much has been written about the nature of the outside world that Williams sees as so much of a threat – a corrupt world filled with so much mendacity:

It’s a social and economic problem of course, he said, not something mystical…The white collar worker, for instance.  Most people consider him pretty well off.  I think his situation is horrible…It’s insane for human beings to work their whole lives away at dull, stupid, routine, anesthetizing jobs for just a little more than the necessities of life.  There should be time – and money – for development.  For living. (Jean Evans 1945)

This feeling was conditioned, of course, by his early jobs in the shoe industry, and is quite idealistic.  He denied being a socialist, but he certainly held utopian ideas about the revolutionary changes that were required to improve the world as he saw it.  He often said that he was not a social writer – that he left to Saroyan and Miller – but that his social views influenced his plays.  The obvious example is Glass Menagerie set in the dismal neighborhood of St. Louis familiar to Williams.  Bricks railing against mendacity comes from the same source.

Williams has been quoted many times concerning his desire to create the perfect world of the play – an ideal world which may contain conflict and pain, but in its static, contained nature, perfect:

Plot has always had a secondary interest for Williams. “My chief aim in playwriting is the creation of character.  I have always had a deep feeling for the mystery in life, and essentially my plays have been an effort to explore the beauty and meaning in the confusion of living.” In writing The Glass Menagerie, he says, his ideal was a static drama –”play whose interest does not depend on incident or situation but holds its audience through the revelation of quiet and ordinary truths”. (R.C.Lewis 1947)

This observation is also true for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, where the action is all internal, although key incidents have occurred in the past.  Williams has been quoted as saying that this play was his most perfect and classical – unity of time, place, and action – reprising the Greek classical theatre.  Shakespeare also uses off-stage incidents to inform the action without disrupting it, although plot and character in Shakespeare certainly go much more together than in Williams.

There has been considerable discussion about Brick and whether or not he is a homosexual.  Williams states:

“Brick is definitely not a homosexual”, he declares and points out that in one key speech he has Brick’s wife attest to her husband’s innocence. “Brick’s self-pity and recourse to the bottle are not the result of a guilty conscience in that regard.  When he speaks of ‘self disgust’ he is talking in the same vein as that which finds him complaining about having had to live so long with ‘mendacity’. 

He goes on to say that the collapse and premature demise of Brick’s close friend Skipper have caused unjust attacks on Brick, not least of which coming from his wife, Maggie.

“It is his bitterness at Skipper’s tragedy that has caused Brick to turn against his wife and find solace in drink, rather than any personal involvement, although I do suggest that, at least in some time in his life, there may have been unrealized abnormal tendencies” (Arthur B. Waters 1965)

In this quote Williams gives his own analysis of his aims in Cat:

“…The bird that I hope to catch in the net of this play is not the solution of one man’s psychological problems.  I’m trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudly, flickering, evanescent – fiercely charged! interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis…”

This is certainly clear in the play.  It is the relationships between and among all the characters – Brick and Maggie; Big Daddy and Brick; Maggie and Gooper; Gooper and wife and Big Daddy, etc. – even though one tends to focus on the central one to which all other interactions contribute, that between Brick and Maggie.

On the subject of his morality, Williams writes:

I have a distinct moral attitude.  I wouldn’t say message. I’m not polemical, but I have a distinct attitude toward good and evil in life and in people.  I think any of my plays examined closely will indicate what I regard as evil.  I think hypocrisy and mendacity as almost the cardinal sins…I think that deliberate, conscienceless mendacity, the acceptance of falsehood and hypocrisy, is the most dangerous of all sins (Don Ross 1957)

And yet he has created in Jabe (Battle of Angels/Orpheus Descending) a truly mean, destructive, and hateful character with an evil that does not come from either hypocrisy or mendacity.

Williams has often been asked if he is a Southern writer.  He says:

I write out of love for the South…It is out of regret for a South that no longer exists that I write of the forces that have destroyed it…I don’t write about the North, because I feel nothing for it but eagerness to get out of it.  I don’t write about the North because – so far as I know – they never had anything to lose culturally; but the South once had a way of life that I am just old enough to remember – a culture that had grace, elegance….an inbred culture…not a society based on money, as in the North.  I write out of regret for that (Louise Davis 1957)

Fascinating, no?  More to come in “Conversations with Tennessee Williams (2).

Friday, August 12, 2011

Tennessee Williams–Relevance for Today?


Robert Siegel in “The Metaphysics of Tennessee Williams” writes:

From Parmenides’ insistence that language instead of empiricism could lead us to immutable truths; to Plato’s form of a cat as the ideal rather than any living cat; to Descartes’ distrust of an evil genie who deceives the senses, and to Kant’s sense of isolation, the human being trapped in his body without ever knowing what another body thinks and feels, Western rationality has regarded the flesh as an impediment and an impostor, a troublemaker thwarting the mind’s awareness of the self and the world.  Nowhere in modern theatre is this split examined and evaluated as it is in the work of Tennessee Williams.

I feel that a more encompassing theme of Williams’ plays is duality or ‘character in conflict’; I would not raise it to the rather esoteric level of metaphysics.  Human beings are always in some state of conflict because of our complexity.  Who of us has not been pushed or pulled in different directions or by conflicting forces? And I think that in many of the plays, the conflicts may be too rooted in Williams’ own history to be of enduring relevance.

There are many such conflicts, ambiguities, and dualities explored in the plays, not just that of a sublime spirit struggling for expression and release from the prison of the flesh – past vs. present; fantasy vs. reality; madness vs. sanity; individual purity vs. the corruption of the outside world; sexual approach-avoidance; the push-pull of homo- and heterosexuality; religion vs. secularity; and these are common enough.

The theme of past-present is most evident in Glass Menagerie, and Streetcar.  Amanda still lives in the memory of her idyllic Southern past which conflicts harshly with her gritty urban life in St. Louis (this of course was the case of Williams himself whose uprooting from the gentility of the South to St. Louis was traumatic).  Blanche and Stella both had a past in Belle Reve, but each of them dealt with their uprooting differently.  Stella fled the confines of Southern gentility and its delicate mores for the rough, sexual world of New Orleans and Stanley Kowalski.  Blanche was forced to leave, and in her madness creates an idyllic world of Belle Reve which never existed.

The theme of fantasy-reality is explored in Streetcar, as above, for both Stella and Blanche either have unreal visions of their past life or their present.  Stella has consciously left the reality of her past for the ‘reality’ of her present, but the fantasy of her happy life with Stanley is exposed during Blanche’s visit, when she faces the fact that she has left – and here I acknowledge Siegel – the more refined world of the past for the flesh of the present.  Blanche’s madness dilutes the tragic consequences intended by Williams of a woman torn between sexuality and refinement; and thus the metaphysical import of the conflict is lessened. 

Alma in both Summer and Smoke and Eccentricities of a Nightingale is the closest Williams comes to the spirit-flesh dichotomy illustrated by Siegel; but her madness (eccentricities) dilutes the importance of it.  She is sensitive spiritually and hungry sexually, and her madness distorts a rational resolution to the common problem. 

Laura is the character most at odds with the outside world, for she is afraid to step outside the fantasy world of her glass menagerie that she has created.  When she accepts the gentleman caller, and lets in the outside, she is disappointed and retreats, probably forever into a world which Williams is saying is indeed the better one, the more pure one.  Again, madness distorts the metaphysical point – most people, even those highly-attuned, sensitive individuals, find no such dramatic conflict.  Few doubt the corruption and, in Brick’s term, the mendacity of the outside world; but few are crippled by it.  Especially in today’s world where complexity and vast interconnected networks expand the potential for corruption, the most common action is integration.  That is, we accept the world as corrupt, and choose our own way of dealing with it – acceptance, civil action, retreat to ashrams.

Serafina in The Rose Tattoo deals with fantasy-reality and the related theme of outward-inward, or retreat.  She has so totally and unrealistically loved her husband, and when she dies, she retreats into her own isolated world of grieving.  Her love was part fantasy, because she did not even surmise the real life of her husband who had other lovers, and her grief was part madness, isolating herself as she did from the world.  She also never really accepted that her fantasized love for her husband was mainly sexual (her reference to Alvaro, her lover/savior who has her husband’s beautiful, sexual body).

The sexual approach-avoidance conflict is the most interesting; but again too common to be raised to a level of tragedy.  Jake is attracted to Rosa (Rose Tattoo) but runs away.  Nothing too deep here.  Rosa is the hungry one, hungrier than he.  Brick is attracted to Skipper, but pulls away because of Maggie’s insinuation about homosexuality.  Some critics (and some implications by Williams himself) have suggested that Williams despite the Book of Outing (his memoirs in which he relates one boring sexual encounter after another) was still guilty about his sexuality.  My two reactions are: 1) what’s new in this; and 2) this is 2011 where presumably this particular kind of guilt has receded into the deep shadows.

There is religious conflict in many of Williams’ plays.  In Night of the Iguana, Shannon is a defrocked priest running away from the Church, but not from spirituality.  Despite his very secular and venal pursuits (of young girls), he is looking for a spiritual salvation.  Alma’s father was a severe and doctrinaire man, responsible in part for her frustrations and for her sense of the spiritual. 

The one conflict which holds the most interest – that of incest – is compelling because of the complex and complicated relationship that Williams had with his sister.  There is the intimated incestuous love of Tom for Laura, that of Mrs. Venable for Sebastian, and the brother and sister, Clare and Felice, in Out Cry (The Two Character Play).  This obsession with incest is based on his lifelong relationship with his sister Rose, and in this much quoted piece from his Memoirs, Williams explains:

I may have inadvertently omitted a good deal of material about the unusually close relations between Rose and me.  Some perceptive critic of the theatre made the observation that the true theme of my work is “incest”.  My sister and I had a close relationship, quite unsullied by carnal knowledge. As a matter of fact, we were rather shy of each other, physically, there was no casual intimacy of the sort that one observes among the Mediterranean people in their family relations.  And yet our love was, and is, the deepest of our lives and was, perhaps, very pertinent to our withdrawal from extra-familial attachments.

The relationship, while certainly as overtly innocent as Williams explains, was more than likely less innocent very near the surface.  Rose was not Laura in Glass Menagerie as most have assumed but some critics  (Michael Paller) dispute.  Rose was committed in part because her rantings were aggressively sexual and obscene.  According to one Williams biographer, she yelled to the staff at Farmington that her father tried to rape her.  Although no other biographer has noted this, it was clear that her delusions in part were very sexual.  In the short story This Property is Condemned Willie, who is evocative of the young Rose and Tom, not her brother but a young friend who could be, come close to a sexual encounter – the same kind of young involvement, perhaps, that Tom Williams had for his sister Rose. 

Williams writes in his memoir of his confused sexual feelings and identity when he was young, and it was not until he was much older that he came out; so it seems that there is no doubt that the approach-avoidance to his sister was very much of a reality, a symbol, and a potent force in his drama.

Suddenly Last Summer explicitly refers to lobotomy, the brain operation that in part destroyed Williams’ sister, although Catharine is no Laura or Alma.  The threat of lobotomy is made to force Catharine into telling what happened to Sebastian, and then to assure that she would never again tell the horrific story.

In summary, while I understand where Williams’ major themes have come from, and how they are expressed, I am not sure they rise to the level of major tragedy as does Shakespeare, whose stories and characters are, like the Greeks, timeless.