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

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Tennessee Williams’ Fugitive Kind

Donald P. Costello has written an excellent essay (May 1972) about the work of Tennessee Williams in which he discusses characters in terms of their fleeing the corrupt world around them.  They are fugitives longing for repose, a meaningful place, a respite from the pain and suffering of life, and most importantly, a spiritual comfort or at least a release or an understanding of life and their place in it.  Looking at Williams’ plays through this lens and from this perspective is one of the best ways to read and interpret his works.  

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This flight can be described as either active – Val (Orpheus Descending), Chance and Princess (Sweet Bird of Youth), Blanche and Stella, Shannon and Hannah – or passive – Alma (Summer and Smoke/Eccentricities of a Nightingale), Laura and Amanda (Glass Menagerie), Brick (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof).  Val is an itinerant, looking for a place to settle, to rest, but he is either fleeing or pursued.  Shannon is fleeing from the confines of the church.  Hannah is wandering, like Val, as a pure spirit accompanied by her poet grandfather, but to find a home and settle. Maxine is a fugitive from something (not as clear as the reasons given or intimated for Hannah and Shannon). 

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Both Chance Wayne and the Princess del Lago are fleeing age.  The Princess goes on a physical fugue, leaving Hollywood and the revealing close-ups which cannot lie.  Chance accompanies her, hitching his hopes to her fading star, knowing that it is his last chance before his looks and his body will have no more currency.  Stella has fled Belle Reve and the faded Southern aristocracy she hated for the more real but rough life with Stanley.  Blanche has fled because she was ostracized. 

Alma, Laura, Amanda and Brick retreat more than flee – and their retreat is psychological, not physical -  but they are still fugitive from the rude reality that surrounds them. 
The basic given in a Tennessee Williams play is that the earth is a corrupting place.  The word “corruption”, which he uses throughout Orpheus, is his favorite word for the earthly world of men….Similarly Brick…sees the pervasiveness of corruption…and sees “the whole thing” as “a world of mendacity, of lying, and liars…(Costello)
The alley behind Amanda and Laura’s apartment in St. Louis represents the dirt, grime, and corruption of the “real world”. Shannon talks of “the encroaching jungle”, another metaphor of Williams.  ‘The setting of Suddenly Last Summer combines the corrupting jungle imagery with the Williams symbol of devouring: ‘The Venable garden is “like a tropical jungle…There are massive tree-flowers that suggest organs of a body, torn out, still glistening with undried blood; there are harsh cries and sibilant hissings….”

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Characters flee from the repetition, boredom, and deadening life of mundane jobs (Tom in Glass longs for freedom from his warehouse job and the freedom to follow his vagabond father’s footsteps).
Characters want to flee bondage.  In Orpheus Val says about Jabe and extends it to the human race:
I’m telling you, Lady, there’s people bought and sold in this world like carcasses of hogs in butcher shops…there’s just two kinds of people, the ones who are bought and the buyers.
Boss Finley has tried to sell his daughter to a “fifty year-old moneybag”.  Sebastian (Suddenly Last Summer) has used his mother and then Catherine as ‘mere objects to attract male companions’ (Costello).
And so she (Lady, in Orpheus) begins her long monologue of escape through ritual cleansing: “The room will be shadowy, cool, and filled with the murmur of…Yes, rain…Then I’ll dress in white….I won’t have any idea what’s going on in the world…I’ll look in the mirror and see that my hair has turned white.  At last “the white clean wind that blows from the edge of the world”  will so purify her that “finally I will have no body at all.” The perfect, pure state for Williams is to be thus bodiless with no touch of the earthly (Costello).
In Suddenly Last Summer, there is a similar purification or desire for it.
Thus, in Suddenly, the jungle noises which, as in Iguana, represent the corruption of rotting earth, are contrasted with the pure song of a bird….”The raucous sounds in the garden fade into birdsong which is clear and sweet” indicates Williams in his stage directions when Catharine finally tells what really happened to Sebastian.
The resolution of this fugitive dilemma in most cases is predictable and pessimistic. The corrupted world usually wins.  The hope of Maggie loving Brick and giving him salvation from his guilt is unlikely.  Laura retreats into the world of her glass menagerie having given the world a try with the gentleman caller.  Alma chooses promiscuity and chance encounters as a rejection of her search for pure, ideal love that she sought with John.  Blanche, a pure spirit despite her transgressions, becomes mad (chooses madness) as the only safe refuge – like Laura with her glass menagerie – from the harsh realities of life.  Val is incinerated by the forces of the real world when all he wanted to do, consciously or not, was to bring love into the world.  Chance is castrated.

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Hannah ends in despair, worse than when she began:
Hannah: Oh, God, can’t we stop now? Finally? Please let us.  It’s so quiet here now.
Stage Directions: With a soft intake of breath, she extends a hand before his [Nonno) mouth to see if he is still breathing.  He isn’t.  In a panicky moment, she looks right and left for someone to call to.  There’s no one….
Tom (Menagerie) appears to have beaten the world with his determined release from the prison of his mother and sister; but finds he has not and will not:
Oh Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!
I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger – anything that can blow your candles out – for nowadays the world is lit by lightning! Blow out your candles, Laura – and so good-bye.
Sometimes the world loses.  Shannon may or may not have been resurrected.  Maxine says:
I’ve got five more years, maybe ten, to make this place attractive to the male clientele, the middle-aged ones at least.  And you can take care of the women that are with them.  That’s what you can do, you know that, Shannon.
He chuckles happily.
The Princess survives her temporary slight of the world, returning to Hollywood as a star once again.  Although the victory is pyrrhic – age cannot be defeated – she has at least pushed it back more than most could.  Serafina (Rose Tattoo) has found love, even though it is perverse, burlesque one (Alvaro has the head of a clown and the body of her adored former husband), and is pregnant with new life.  All characters in Period of Adjustment live happily ever after – although Williams calls it and Tattoo comedies.

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A look through Williams’ lens of the fugitive is revealing and useful.  Life is certainly a drama with protagonists of idealism and antagonists of reality.  Few are only in one realm.  Williams understands this, and writes of this dilemma, this expansive search, this moral heroism, this frequent defeat, but this perennial optimism.

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