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

Friday, July 15, 2011

Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams - Sex and Madness


As those of you who have been following my Literature postings on my blog know, I have been immersed in Shakespeare for the last eight months or so, and have re-read all the Histories, most of the Tragedies, and one comedy – The Merchant of Venice.  I am now taking a hiatus to focus on Tennessee Williams because I am going to spend much of the summer in Columbus, Mississippi, Williams’ birthplace.  There is a TW festival the first two weeks of September, and I will be staying with the organizer, chief patron, and guiding spirit behind this annual event.  I met her about five years ago when Peggy and I were staying at her B&B, were delighted to meet her (she quoted from a Williams play at every breakfast), and arranged an extended visit.  I am looking forward to the trip because of my original reason for going – to continue my exploration of the Deep South, my stories, and my oral history project – and the added and unexpected benefit of being involved with Williams, his life and history.

In preparation for the visit, I have been re-reading all of Williams’ plays, and reading some that I overlooked years ago – in particular his one-act plays collected in 27 Wagons Full of Cotton.  The change of dramatic gears was difficult.  I had just finished two readings of Hamlet in preparation for a live performance at Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, and after months of dealing with the complexity of Shakespeare’s characters, plots, and poetry, Portrait of a Madonna – which I saw at the Washington Shakespeare Company’s production, and then read – seemed overly romantic, melodramatic, and simple; but as I read more – The Glass Menagerie, Summer and Smoke, and The Rose Tattoo – I began to forget Shakespeare, all the philosophical exegesis, psychological deconstruction, and parsing of poetic passages as mysterious as Blake’s, and simply immersed myself in Williams’ world.

This world is as well-known as Greeneland – Graham Greene’s world of displaced expatriates, Catholic guilt, sex and infidelity in shabby outposts. Williams’ world is one of delicate Southern spinsters, living in their own fantasy worlds, desperate for love and sex but unable to have love because of their impossible, romantic dreams, and able to have sex but in hopeless and meaningless acts.

I soon realized that I did not have to , nor should have to puzzle over motives and character as I had done in Shakespeare, and in so doing satisfy so much intellectual curiosity – why did Hamlet delay in killing Claudius? What was his relationship with his mother and Ophelia? What was the character of Iago that he could take such cruel vengeance on Othello, whose wrong was common and slight minor? Why did Antony not see that his affair with Cleopatra would lead to his downfall.  Why did Lady Macbeth turn from insidious plotter to guilt-ridden wreck?  And so on.

It was the world of these mad, effusive, melodramatic women that mattered – and the enjoyment in reading and seeing the plays is not so much to figure out why they are the way they are, but to imagine what this world must be like.  The madness is elusive, because it borders on caricature.  The madness of Blanche DuBois, Alma, Laura, Amanda, Lucretia Collins, so rooted in Southern gentility and 19th Century manners, is unfamiliar.  We are used to ranting schizophrenics on the streets of New York and San Francisco, and psychopathic murderers.  The closest thing we come to the madness of Williams is that of Alzheimer’s sufferers whose fantasy worlds are those of lost loves, imagined and real hurts and indifference.   Williams’ women are too often Castro men in drag, oversimplified and diminished.

So why are these characters so enduring, and the plays so compelling? I think it is because their madness in its evocation of.  Williams says it best in his stage directions, suggesting how the character of Amanda should be played in The Glass Menagerie:

A little woman of great but confused vitality clinging frantically to another time and place.  Her characterization must be carefully created, not copied from type.

Williams understands how his characters can be made caricatures, but he wants to convey much more:

She is not paranoiac, but her life is paranoia.  There is much to admire in Amanda, and as much to love and pity as there is to laugh at.  Certainly she has endurance  and a kind of heroism, and though her foolishness makes her unwittingly cruel at times, there is tenderness in her slight person.

The character of Lucretia Collins in Portrait of a Madonna is the prototype Williams woman.  Williams' stage notes suggest:

She is a middle-aged spinster, very slight and hunched of figure with a desiccated face that is flushed with excitement.  Her hair is arranged in curls that would become a young girl and she wears a frilly negligee which might have come from an old hope chest of a period considerably earlier.

Her opening lines suggest an insanity which becomes more evident as the play moves on.  In that sense, the outcome is predictable, made even more so by Lucretia’s similarity to Blanche (and both plays end with both women being taken away to a mental institution).

However, it is impossible to dismiss Lucretia because of her insanity – “There is nothing in her that I recognize”.  On the contrary, there is that remembrance of past or imagined love that is recognizable; and her impassioned and mad soliloquy in which she tells of passing the house of the man whose love for her she has imagined is powerful, and emotional.  We are not like her, but we could be.  We might be if we loosened the straps that keep such lunacy under control:

Never, never forget it! Never, never! I left my parasol once – the one with the long, white fringe that belonged to Mother – I left it in the cloak room at the church so I didn’t have anything to cover my face as I walked by, and I couldn’t turn back either, with all those people behind me – giggling back of me, poking fun at my clothes! Oh dear, oh dear! I had to walk straight forward – past the last elm tree and into the merciless sunlight.  Oh! It beat down on me, scorching me! Whips! Oh, Jesus….Over my face and body….

…their automobile drove up in front of the house, right where I had to pass by it, and she stepped out, in white, so fresh and easy, her stomach round with baby….I tried to speak but I couldn’t, the breath ran out of my body.  I covered my face and – ran! Ran! Ran!

The difference between the madness of Williams’ characters and those of Shakespeare is that Shakespeare’s become mad; Williams’ always were mad; and therefore the evolution of the plays are totally different.  Lear is not mad at the beginning of the play, otherwise we would dismiss him.  Ophelia is driven mad by Hamlet.  Hamlet’s feigned madness may not be feigned at all, but his willing exposure, in an exaggerated and theatrical way, the real madness that comes from the horrors (imagined and real) that he sees and suffers.  So again, we deconstruct, analyze, probe for the reasons for madness; whereas in Williams we accept it from the beginning and let ourselves be drawn into the made, poetic, and sad world of his women.

Sex is always present in Williams’ plays – simple, always often indirect or implied, but passionate nonetheles; and sometimes, as in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof explicit. There is nothing circumspect or indirect about Maggie. Sex is the source of quiet frustration for his delicate women like Blanche, Lucretia Collins, or Alma who, because of their madness invent or create sexual encounters. Blanche was virginal, but not a virgin.  Her “rape” by Stanley is complicated by her implied past, by her coquettish come-on behavior, and by her sexual insults to and about Stanley.  There was zero sexual attraction for Mitch, only for Stanley. Sexual frustration in his strong women, especially Magggie the cat is overt, direct, and aggressive. The more interesting women are those with illusive fantasy pasts. There is something intriguing and enticing about these insubstantial but real worlds.

Alma in Summer and Smoke was obsessed by sex – in its opposite (Southern honor and chastity), and in its frustrated expression (her obsession with John since childhood), and in its final real expression at the end of the play when she picks up travelling salesmen.  It is there in the sexual tension between Maggie and Brick, between Brick and himself (over his desire for his male lover).  It is there between Serafina and Alvaro (her imagined recreation of her dead husband).  It is there in Willie, the young girl in This Property is Condemned, even though as a thirteen-year-old she cannot fully articulate it.  It is very definitely there in Portrait of a Madonna because her insanity (see above) is at least partly due to her imagined love for a married man.  The play, which is the last act of her life, is about her imagined rape by this same man. 

Sex is never central to Shakespeare’s plays (I have not yet read Romeo or the Comedies, other than Merchant) in the way it is in Williams’.  Sex of course is at the center of Othello, and his obsession is a function of the love-hate relationship that is common to most men when the suspicion of infidelity arises; but the main issue of the play is Iago’s villainy, Othello’s blindness to the truth, the destruction of a noble character because of this flaw and that villainy – and not the sex per se.  We are interested in why such a military hero and strategic genius could possibly go so far astray when it came to his wife – his native, African innocence?  His masculine weakness regarding cuckoldry?

Sex is even more at the center of Hamlet.  Even before Hamlet sees the ghost of his father, he is obsessed with his mother’s marriage to Claudius; and thinks of this marriage as sexually-driven, considers his mother a wanton, sluttish woman.  Even after he vows to avenge his father, his real motivation comes from his sexual feelings towards his mother.  This sexual conflict carries over to his feelings for Ophelia – the same love-hate feelings that Othello has for Desdemona.  But sex is not the landscape for Hamlet as it is for all of Williams’ plays.  It has to be analyzed and factored in to the decisions that Hamlet takes, but as one factor among many.

In closing, I am very happy to be in Williams’s world for the rest of the summer.  In Columbus, I will attend lectures, meet the actors who will perform in his plays, read personal journals and historical references, and come away with a much better understanding of the playwright.  I can’t wait.

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