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

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Tennessee Williams Maggie the Cat - A Shakespearean Woman


I have written (From my blog Shakespeare’s and Tennessee Williams’ Women) before about the women in Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams and expressed my admiration for Shakespeare:

Shakespeare’s women were all subservient to men and in today’s lingo “second class citizens”, but all of them understood that they could achieve great power within this system.  They schemed, they fought, they protected their interests and especially those of their children.  In other words, it is hard to have sympathy for the wilting and shrinking violets of Williams when the women of Shakespeare were heroic.  Think of Margaret who fought for the instatement of her son to the throne of England, despite the machinations of her weak husband, Henry VI.  Think about the mother of Richard III and Edward IV who was strong and outspoken in her virulent condemnation of Richard.  Think of the mother of Elizabeth, the wife of Edward IV; or the mother of the murdered (by Richard) Henry VI.  Think of Cleopatra; Portia, the wife of Julius Caesar; Lady Macbeth; Goneril and Regan; and perhaps especially Cordelia who mounts an armed invasion to vindicate her father although he has spurned her.  And then there is Joan of Arc, La Pucelle.  The list goes on.  These women were all born, raised, reared in a “repressive” society and rather than wilt under its repression, thrived under it.  Whether they were successful or not, they were undaunted in their aims.

Maggie the Cat, heroine of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is very Shakespearean and unlike any of the “wilting and shrinking violets” of Williams.  She embodies not only the ambition of  the above-cited women, but of the men in Shakespeare as well – especially Richard III; but also Iago, Edmund, and Aaron the Moor.  These characters all reflect the philosophy of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, characters endowed with an indomitable will to succeed, to overreach beyond the constraints of conventional morality. 

Maggie, in Williams’ own words, is obsessively in love with Brick and will do anything to keep him; and, like her Shakespearean counterparts, eliminated all competition.  By forcing the homosexual, but conflicted Skipper into a sexual encounter she knows he will not be able to complete, he commits suicide, presumably because of the final recognition of the sexual reality he has been trying to hide; and by Brick who, in his own sexual confusion, rejects his close friend.

In a lengthy speech of justification, [Maggie] describes how she ended the dream by confronting Skipper about his homosexual love for Brick, "telling him the truth," which ultimately destroyed him.  It was … she recalls, Skipper's "pitiful, ineffectual little attempt to prove that what I had said wasn't true". Brick's response to this is violent. He twice attempts to strike his wife and finally "hurls his crutch at her" in an impotent rage and ends up sprawled on the floor. Kenneth Elliot 2010

Despite Maggie’s revelation and the fact that she has been the principal catalyst for Skipper’s death, Maggie continues in her obsessive love of Brick, and in the final act locks up the liquor cabinet of her alcoholic husband, and blackmails him into sleeping with her and resuming their married life.

Much has been written about Brick’s suffering and pain, his nobility and the noble, pure, friendship he had with Skipper, about his conflicts, his moral angst about mendacity and the ways of the world, but in reality he is a weak, indecisive, crippled person just as his friend Skipper was.  Even in an era of sexual repression, revelation of a fact that must have been obvious to him, should not have been cause for Skipper’s suicide.  Williams does not explore the nature of Skipper, and he is used as an unseen vehicle to propel the action of the play; but we have to assume that a more normal, health individual – homosexual or straight – would not have been driven to such despair.  Skipper must have been imbalanced, unable to deal with reality, and weak.

Brick is a frustrating character.  Throughout the play, he thumps on the stage with his cast and crutch, drinking, or looking for a drink, and offering cynical comments about life, mendacity, and responsibility.  Yet, he does nothing.  What is noble about this kind of whining suffering, this search of the elusive ‘click’ which is no more than a desire for alcoholic oblivion?  What is noble or strong about his capitulation to Maggie. “Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true?”, he says in response to her “I do love you, Brick.  I do!”

Maggie, on the other hand, never wavers, and although her success – reinstating her marriage with a weak, romantic, drunkard – is slight compared with Shakespearean heroines, she at least has will, desire, and singular vision.  In away, she is similar to another of my favorite Williams’ women – Maxine of Night of the Iguana.  Both women are earthily sensual, strongly heterosexual, and direct and clear in the purpose of claiming the men they love.  Again, in the case of Maxine, it is not clear why she wants to reclaim a broken-down, defrocked, weak whisky priest; but she does and triumphs in the end.  I also like Mrs. Venable, the smothering and destructive mother of Sebastian in Suddenly Last Summer for the same reasons of singularity of purpose, will, and control.

There are a few strong men in Williams’ plays and attractive for their villainy – like Jake in 47 Wagons of Cotton; or Jabe in Orpheus Descending – and a few more with some allure, such as Val in Orpheus, the unseen Rosario, Serafina’s husband in Rose Tattoo; or the much more developed, but still inconsistent Chance Wayne in Sweet Bird of Youth; or Williams’ favorite, Big Daddy, in Cat who is less a dominant male character than a caricature of one; but a strong, male one nevertheless, and a refreshing presence in Williams’s world of ambiguous and weak men.

I prefer Shakespeare because of its balance of men and women, especially in the Histories where both are strong.  Both are important.  Both are decisive and focused.  Both are vying for power in their own ways within the social context of the times.  The balance is often undone in the Tragedies – Antony and Cleopatra seem equal but ultimately are not.  The women in King Lear are as strong or stronger than the men (not Lear himself, but Edmund, Edgar, Gloucester, Albany and Cornwall, Kent).  Lady Macbeth is stronger than her husband, but the tables turn.  Gertrude is the equal of her husbands and stronger than her son, Hamlet. 

I have liked the lyricism of Tennessee Williams.  Zhang Min has eloquently described the best of this lyricism as arias – individual flights of beauty and fantasy marginally connected to plot and movement.  I have liked the sets, the symbols, and the coherence of all elements of the plays.  But I do not like the characters, do not identify with their conflicts and crises.  After three months of immersion into the works of Tennessee Williams, criticism, and personal acquaintances (men and women who knew Williams), I vastly prefer Shakespeare.

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