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

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. 


  1. Hi there,
    Which edition of "A Streetcar Named Desire" did you find this interview in? I am especially intrigued by the quote of Blanche giving in to desire.

  2. Sorry. Don't remember, but Brenda has the complete collection of TW conversations


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