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

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Tennessee Williams Selected Essays


As always I have found the words of Tennessee Williams the most interesting to read.  It is a new thing for me to read a playwright’s take on is work, immersed as I have been in Shakespeare, the Greeks, and 19th century authors.  As I have said, in some ways it takes the fun out of reading, because for me trying to analyze and interpret dramatic ambiguity is very satisfying; but in others it is good to see the authors keeping the critics honest.  Here are a few clips from Tennessee Williams: New Selected Essays – Where I Live, John Bak, ed. 2009.  In this first clip, Williams responds to the critical observation that he writes about frustrated women:

Was Blanche (Streetcar) frustrated? About as frustrated as a beast in the jungle! And Alma Winemiller? What is frustrated about loving with such a white hot intensity that it alters the whole direction of your life, and removes you from the parlor of an Episcopal rectory to a secret room above Moon Lake Casino?

This is a bit disingenuous, I feel, because both women have indeed been frustrated in their lives, and this frustration has been the cause of their later promiscuity.  Both Blanche and Alma grew up in a very strict Christian, Southern environment, and both fought desperately to escape it.  Not every frustrated soul turns to sexual libertinage, and despite TW’s applause for their coming out, their promiscuity, in my mind, was a neurotic response to a neurotic upbringing.

The following passage for me is perhaps the most eloquent statement of what TW is trying to do; and more importantly, is the truest and most insightful thing he has said:

About their lives, people ought to remember that when they are finished, everything in them will be contained in a marvelous state of repose which is the same as that which they unconsciously admired in drama.  The rush is temporary.  The great and only possible dignity of man lies in his power deliberately to choose certain moral values by which to live as if he, too, like a character in a play, were immured against the corrupting rush of time.  Snatching the eternal out of the desperately fleeting is the great trick of human existence.  As far as we know, as far as there exists any kind of empiric evidence, there is no way to beat the game of being against non-being, in which non-being is the predestined victor on realistic levels.

In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof which TW considered his most classical Greek play with unity of theme, time, and place, he feels he has achieved this perfect ideal world, this microcosm of life and the world.  Williams, I think, has expressed this so eloquently.

In speaking about The Rose Tattoo, TW writes:

The Rose Tattoo is the Dionysian element in human life, its mystery, its beauty, its significance.  It is that glittering quicksilver that still somehow manages to slip from under the down-pressed thumbs of the enormous man in the brass-buttoned uniform and his female partner with the pince-nez and the chalky-smelling black skirts….It is the dissatisfaction with empiric evidence that makes the poet and the mystic, for it is the lyric as well as the Bacchantic impulse….

Once again, I accept what TW has to say, but I do not believe that this play achieves the Dionysian glory he was trying for.  Serafina was disillusioned by her husband – or better, she disillusioned herself.  She is overly protective (in the Sicilian way) of her daughter who is of a different generation and who denies her.  She is irrationally swept away by Alvaro, with the head of a clown and the body (read: sexuality) of her husband.  So, Dionysian maybe, in both Serafina’s and her daughters lust; but little more.  This play, like Period of Adjustment is meant to be a comedy or tragi-comedy, but to me it is melodrama.

Did Brick love Maggie?  I am particularly interested in TW’s view on this because I intend to teach a course on love in TW and Shakespeare next Spring.  Although TW has said explicitly that Maggie is desperately and obsessively in love with Brick, what about him?

[Brick] says with unmistakable conviction: “One man has one great good true thing in his life, one great good thing which is true.  I had friendship with Skipper, not love with you, Maggie, but friendship with Skipper….” – but can we doubt that he was warmed and charmed by this delightful girl, with her vivacity, her humor, her very admirable courage and pluckiness and tenacity, which are almost the essence of life itself?

Yes, we can doubt it.  Obviously the relationship with Skipper was all consuming and all important.  Not that Maggie did not have these characteristics; just that Brick, at this moment in his life, was not ready to see, appreciate, or revel in them.  He did not love her.

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