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

Sunday, August 14, 2011

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).

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