"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 (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).

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