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

Friday, August 12, 2011

Tennessee Williams–Relevance for Today?


Robert Siegel in “The Metaphysics of Tennessee Williams” writes:

From Parmenides’ insistence that language instead of empiricism could lead us to immutable truths; to Plato’s form of a cat as the ideal rather than any living cat; to Descartes’ distrust of an evil genie who deceives the senses, and to Kant’s sense of isolation, the human being trapped in his body without ever knowing what another body thinks and feels, Western rationality has regarded the flesh as an impediment and an impostor, a troublemaker thwarting the mind’s awareness of the self and the world.  Nowhere in modern theatre is this split examined and evaluated as it is in the work of Tennessee Williams.

I feel that a more encompassing theme of Williams’ plays is duality or ‘character in conflict’; I would not raise it to the rather esoteric level of metaphysics.  Human beings are always in some state of conflict because of our complexity.  Who of us has not been pushed or pulled in different directions or by conflicting forces? And I think that in many of the plays, the conflicts may be too rooted in Williams’ own history to be of enduring relevance.

There are many such conflicts, ambiguities, and dualities explored in the plays, not just that of a sublime spirit struggling for expression and release from the prison of the flesh – past vs. present; fantasy vs. reality; madness vs. sanity; individual purity vs. the corruption of the outside world; sexual approach-avoidance; the push-pull of homo- and heterosexuality; religion vs. secularity; and these are common enough.

The theme of past-present is most evident in Glass Menagerie, and Streetcar.  Amanda still lives in the memory of her idyllic Southern past which conflicts harshly with her gritty urban life in St. Louis (this of course was the case of Williams himself whose uprooting from the gentility of the South to St. Louis was traumatic).  Blanche and Stella both had a past in Belle Reve, but each of them dealt with their uprooting differently.  Stella fled the confines of Southern gentility and its delicate mores for the rough, sexual world of New Orleans and Stanley Kowalski.  Blanche was forced to leave, and in her madness creates an idyllic world of Belle Reve which never existed.

The theme of fantasy-reality is explored in Streetcar, as above, for both Stella and Blanche either have unreal visions of their past life or their present.  Stella has consciously left the reality of her past for the ‘reality’ of her present, but the fantasy of her happy life with Stanley is exposed during Blanche’s visit, when she faces the fact that she has left – and here I acknowledge Siegel – the more refined world of the past for the flesh of the present.  Blanche’s madness dilutes the tragic consequences intended by Williams of a woman torn between sexuality and refinement; and thus the metaphysical import of the conflict is lessened. 

Alma in both Summer and Smoke and Eccentricities of a Nightingale is the closest Williams comes to the spirit-flesh dichotomy illustrated by Siegel; but her madness (eccentricities) dilutes the importance of it.  She is sensitive spiritually and hungry sexually, and her madness distorts a rational resolution to the common problem. 

Laura is the character most at odds with the outside world, for she is afraid to step outside the fantasy world of her glass menagerie that she has created.  When she accepts the gentleman caller, and lets in the outside, she is disappointed and retreats, probably forever into a world which Williams is saying is indeed the better one, the more pure one.  Again, madness distorts the metaphysical point – most people, even those highly-attuned, sensitive individuals, find no such dramatic conflict.  Few doubt the corruption and, in Brick’s term, the mendacity of the outside world; but few are crippled by it.  Especially in today’s world where complexity and vast interconnected networks expand the potential for corruption, the most common action is integration.  That is, we accept the world as corrupt, and choose our own way of dealing with it – acceptance, civil action, retreat to ashrams.

Serafina in The Rose Tattoo deals with fantasy-reality and the related theme of outward-inward, or retreat.  She has so totally and unrealistically loved her husband, and when she dies, she retreats into her own isolated world of grieving.  Her love was part fantasy, because she did not even surmise the real life of her husband who had other lovers, and her grief was part madness, isolating herself as she did from the world.  She also never really accepted that her fantasized love for her husband was mainly sexual (her reference to Alvaro, her lover/savior who has her husband’s beautiful, sexual body).

The sexual approach-avoidance conflict is the most interesting; but again too common to be raised to a level of tragedy.  Jake is attracted to Rosa (Rose Tattoo) but runs away.  Nothing too deep here.  Rosa is the hungry one, hungrier than he.  Brick is attracted to Skipper, but pulls away because of Maggie’s insinuation about homosexuality.  Some critics (and some implications by Williams himself) have suggested that Williams despite the Book of Outing (his memoirs in which he relates one boring sexual encounter after another) was still guilty about his sexuality.  My two reactions are: 1) what’s new in this; and 2) this is 2011 where presumably this particular kind of guilt has receded into the deep shadows.

There is religious conflict in many of Williams’ plays.  In Night of the Iguana, Shannon is a defrocked priest running away from the Church, but not from spirituality.  Despite his very secular and venal pursuits (of young girls), he is looking for a spiritual salvation.  Alma’s father was a severe and doctrinaire man, responsible in part for her frustrations and for her sense of the spiritual. 

The one conflict which holds the most interest – that of incest – is compelling because of the complex and complicated relationship that Williams had with his sister.  There is the intimated incestuous love of Tom for Laura, that of Mrs. Venable for Sebastian, and the brother and sister, Clare and Felice, in Out Cry (The Two Character Play).  This obsession with incest is based on his lifelong relationship with his sister Rose, and in this much quoted piece from his Memoirs, Williams explains:

I may have inadvertently omitted a good deal of material about the unusually close relations between Rose and me.  Some perceptive critic of the theatre made the observation that the true theme of my work is “incest”.  My sister and I had a close relationship, quite unsullied by carnal knowledge. As a matter of fact, we were rather shy of each other, physically, there was no casual intimacy of the sort that one observes among the Mediterranean people in their family relations.  And yet our love was, and is, the deepest of our lives and was, perhaps, very pertinent to our withdrawal from extra-familial attachments.

The relationship, while certainly as overtly innocent as Williams explains, was more than likely less innocent very near the surface.  Rose was not Laura in Glass Menagerie as most have assumed but some critics  (Michael Paller) dispute.  Rose was committed in part because her rantings were aggressively sexual and obscene.  According to one Williams biographer, she yelled to the staff at Farmington that her father tried to rape her.  Although no other biographer has noted this, it was clear that her delusions in part were very sexual.  In the short story This Property is Condemned Willie, who is evocative of the young Rose and Tom, not her brother but a young friend who could be, come close to a sexual encounter – the same kind of young involvement, perhaps, that Tom Williams had for his sister Rose. 

Williams writes in his memoir of his confused sexual feelings and identity when he was young, and it was not until he was much older that he came out; so it seems that there is no doubt that the approach-avoidance to his sister was very much of a reality, a symbol, and a potent force in his drama.

Suddenly Last Summer explicitly refers to lobotomy, the brain operation that in part destroyed Williams’ sister, although Catharine is no Laura or Alma.  The threat of lobotomy is made to force Catharine into telling what happened to Sebastian, and then to assure that she would never again tell the horrific story.

In summary, while I understand where Williams’ major themes have come from, and how they are expressed, I am not sure they rise to the level of major tragedy as does Shakespeare, whose stories and characters are, like the Greeks, timeless.

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