Thursday, 14 February 2013

Tennessee Williams

The Depression of the 1930s had left many questioning the extent to which the America envisioned by the Founding Fathers, the America of idealism, of optimism, and of equality, had really succeeded. The old American values – happy families ensconced behind white picket fences, in rural small towns – these values were now disappearing from the American imagination as a reflection of anything other than a deluded utopianism. If the Depression had not been enough to savage such rosy idealisms, the reality of the second world war certainly would be. As Christopher Bigsby writes:

"American notions of the autonomous self, secure and morally inviolable, seemed suddenly more difficult to sustain. The enemy was no longer simply modernity, the inhuman scale, the mechanical rhythms against which Eugene O’Neill and Elmer Rice, Sidney Kingsley and the young Miller and Williams had railed. It was a flaw in the sensibility that made betrayal seem a natural impulse and the self complicit in its own annihilation. It was no longer a case of pitching an integral self against anonymity and social despair for now that self is presented as fragmented and insecure" (Bigsby, 1992. p. 32)


Machinal, by Sophie Treadwell, is the story of a woman so beaten-down by the mechanistic life she leads, that she murders her husband.

The Adding Machine

The Adding Machine, by Elmer Rice, depicted a world in which human beings were being replaced by machines.

For all the high ideals of America, the combination of rampant capitalism and desperation had created a world in which the compromise of self had become the only sustainable reality (a theme which David Mamet explores more fully in Glengarry Glen Ross). Playrights like Elmer Rice and Sophie Treadwell explored this theme in their plays, and showed a world in which the individual was oppressed by the faceless and mechanistic processes of social expectations and of industry. As Bigsby suggests though, if such plays explored the fragility of human beings against the evils of machinery, as the 40s emerged there were many reasons (not least World War 2) which made people question the fragility of human beings against their own selves: The capacity of humanity to destroy each other, or the capacity of human beings to destroy themselves.

In such a world, and at such a time, it is, perhaps, no wonder that many of the plays produced in the mid- to late 1940s share an obsession with the past. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche desperately tries to stave off the encroaching signs of aging – of a move into the future – and instead attempts to constantly re-create herself in a moment of the past that epitomised all her then hopes for the future: descriptions of hardships are flowered with a language of privileged education.

In Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the past becomes something glorified – a fiction of a better day, but also (ironically) a fiction of a better day which was obsessed with a glorious future:

The whole wealth of Alaska passes over the lunch table at the commodore Hotel, and that’s the wonder, the wonder of this country, that a man can end up with diamonds here on the basis of being liked! … And Ben! When he walks into a business office his name will sound out like a bell and all the doors will open to him! I’ve seen it, Ben, I’ve seen it a thousand times! You can’t feel it with your hand like timber, but it’s there! (Willy Loman, Death of a Salesman, p. 184) 

For Willy, this idealisation of the past becomes fused with his own memories until he becomes a character in his visions of success. Willy re-invents his own past to cast himself as the man who achieved success on the basis of his own more human, personlity-driven skills. He envisions his own funeral as the funeral of a brilliant and well-liked Salesman:

Ben, that funeral will be massive! They'll come from Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire! All the old-timerss with the strange license plates - that boy will be thunder-struck, Ben, because he never realized - I am known!
Such visions are not only symptomatic of Willy's delusional state, but of his desperate need to protect himself from a reality about himself that he cannot face: That he is a failure as a salesman, a husband, and even a father. And that his funeral his wife will ask "where are all the people he knew?". Later on, Mamet’s Shelly Levine in Glengarry Glen Ross will (in an echoing tribute to Willy Loman) consistently hark back to a past imaginatively re-created to picture himself as a success. Again, we see a past imaginatively re-shaped to present an idealised image of himself as having achieved all the things his real past had hoped for as a future: A desperate attempt to find protection from the inevitable consequences of his own failures:

Lately kiss my ass lately. That isn't how you build an org... talk, talk to Murray. Talk to Mitch. When we were on Peterson, who paid for his **ing car? You talk to him. The Seville...? He came in, "You bought that for me Shelly." Out of what? Cold calling. Nothing. Sixty-five, when we were there, with Glen Ross Farms? You call 'em downtown. What was that? Luck? That was "luck"? Bullshit, John. You're burning my ass, I can't get a **ing lead... you think that was luck.My stats for those years? Bullshit...over that period of time...? Bullshit. It wasn't luck. It was skill. You want to throw that away, John...? You want to throw that away?

The past is merely an invention. It has no influence on the present, and cannot protect us from it. Indeed, the dreams of the past which Willy and Shelly use to protect them from the present become prisons which entrap them, and keep them locked in a destructive system. In Sam Shepard’s plays, the past is often depicted as something dead, or disrupted. In The Tooth of Crime, the rebellious past of Hoss and his Rock’n’Roll rebelliousness, has become a present which is “respectable and safe”. The Tooth of Crime presents us with a science fiction distortion of the music industry, in which the hopes of the past were for a kind of rebelliousness against the mainstream. However, the present is one in which that very rebelliousness has become the mainstream. This very distortion of a past dream eradicates the past itself, and traps the lead character Hoss into a present that forces him to recognise that even by becoming the thing he wanted to be, he remains rootless:

Can’t you see what’s happened to us. We ain’t Markers no more. We ain’t even Rockers. We’re punk chumps cowering under the Keepers and the Refs and the critics and the public eye. We ain’t free // no more! Goddamnit! We ain’t flying in the eye of contempt. We’ve become respectable and safe. Soft, mushy chewable ass lickers. (The Tooth of Crime, pp. 214-5)

In Buried Child, Vince’s father rejects the past completely, like a time outlaw in the frontier-lands of chronology – a ‘man with no name’ hero of personal history: “That isn’t me! That never was me! This is me. This is it. The whole shootin’ match”. The same sentiment is repeated in A Lie of the Mind, when Lorraine burns the photos of her past: “What do you wanna save it for? It’s all in the past. Dead and gone. Just a picture.”

This disintegration, or distortion, o r loss of the past creates a rootlessness. The self is no longer fixed and stable. It can no longer look to its place in history to trace the contours of its place in society, and so has become shapeless. Aimless. Even the dreams of the future which had given shape to Willy Loman’s sense of self, Hoss’s sense of self, have disintegrated into a destructing present. In all of these movements - so strikingly repeated by American playrights from the 40s onwards - there is a consistent sense of fragility in the central characters which has its root not in the opposition of the self to the forces of a nameless society, but in opposition to the realities of their own selves. 

For Blanche, Stanley comes to represent a force of reality which tears away all her attempts to escape from the realities of her own failed marriage, her own sexual anxieties, the moral corruptions of her past and the inevitability of her age precluding any possibility of redemption.

In the plays of Tennessee Williams, we see these themes reflected in a very personal, and therefore powerful way. Christopher Bigsby describes Williams as a “romantic in an unromantic world” (p. 33), and his plays often reflect this sense of high ideals which have decayed through contact with a world which is harsh and unfeeling by comparison. This brings the element of tragedy to Streetcar: Blanche’s romantic desire to construct a life and a past of beauty, an artistic creation, is contrasted with the unromantic and ugly realities with which Stanley eventually destroys her – although in a strange kind of paradox, Blanche, the imaginative re-creator of self, is attracted to the destructive force of Stanley, a unimaginative being who does not need imagination to hide his past.

In this scene, near the beginning of the play, we see straight away the confrontation of Blanche's romantic view of the past, and Stanley's unsentimental and pragmatic realism:

Belle Reve, the family home which Blanche has lost, has a romantic (i.e. emotional) significance for her. Her focus is on the stories behind the home: The family loved and loathed, loved and lost. For Stanley though, the house represents nothing more than an asset, and Blanche's feelings towards the past of the house will not deter him from digging into it. While digging, he comes accross Blanche's love letters - to him, nothing more than old paper from a past which is meaningless to the present. For Blanche though, the past of those letters is something sacred. Stanley's interferrence with those letters is, for Blanche, sacriledge. Stanley introduces something to her perception of those letters which threatens the romantic significance they hold for her.

The force of realism which Stanley comes to represent is one which is destructive to Blanche. Her idealism, the fantasy world of her own past which she has woven for herself to protect herself from the reality of her life, is threatened by the force of Stanley's realism. This is symbolised in the play by the sound of the train, which often accompanies the arrival of Stanley on the scene.

A part of this threat to Blanche comes as well from the forceful masculinity of Stanley. He is a powerfully sexual presence, and for Blanche sex exists in only two forms: That of a (largely a-sexual) romantic fantasy (a Disney-like fantasy of dancing, old-fashioned courtship and gentlemen bowing to ladies); and that of a seedy and immoral corruption which is the reality which she was eventually forced into. For Blanche, there is romance (which is good) and sex (which is bad). For all her flirtations, Blanche actually seems uninterested in sex. She is more interested in the courtship with Mitch, and seems uncomfortable when Mitch makes any more tactile advances. The sexuality of Stanley though, is intensely physical - indeed, Blanche frequently describes Stanley as animalistic, or primative. Stanley personifies a very physical type of sexuality, and for Blanche this makes him crude and immoral. Stella shares, and is excited by that sexuality, and in this we see a strong contrast between the two sisters. Blanche is a compulsive flirt, but Stella is the more sexual. In this scene we see Stella relishing the physical sexuality of her relationship with Stanley, and this concerns Blanche. Blanche tries to persuade Stella that this kind of sexuality, the kind which is so central to Stanley's character, is evidence that Stanley is like a brute:

Blanche herself is far more interested in a kind of love which can remind her of her own innocence. Again, she is running from the reality of herself, looking to re-live her past. Perhaps this is the reason she strikes up a relationship with a 17-year old pupil at her school. Perhaps this is what she sees in the young and innocent boy who comes to the home looking for donations. For Blanche, the boy represents the innocence she lost - a glimpse again of romance in an unromantic world:

As the play continues we come to understand perhaps a little more about why Blanche is so despeate to re-conenct with an innocent romantic past. Her first husband was everything she longs for now - young, beautiful and innocent. His love for her she describes like a 'spotlight', which made things brighter and warmer. He was like a child who looked to her for protection. His death she sees as her own fault because she failed to provide that protection. Instead, she turned upon her husband's own fragility and derided him:

Blanche feels responsible for the death of her husband - and indeed with some justification. Her husband was a man who was conflicted with doubts about his own sexuality and sense of self, and rather than helping protect him from the pain of such doubts, Blanche confronted him head-on with his own reality. Indeed, in many respects Blanche behaved to her husband in the same way that Stanley is behaving towards Blanche. She was a force of harsh reality that refused to make any concessions for the personal fragility of her husband. The tables are now turned: If Blanche was in the position of knowing the true reality of her husband, then Stanley has gained posession of her reality:

In some ways, Stanleys's response is understandable. He wants to protect his freind Mitch from being decieved by Blanche. This results is Stanley telling Mitch about Blanche's past, and in the scene which follows we see the revearsal even more completely. The spotlight of her husband's love, which she described in so positive a term, becomes the harshness of the unfiltered light: A light which exposes the truth about her, eposes her vulnerability and fragility. Mitch is the one to expose her both literally (by tearing away the lamp shade) and figuratively (by seeing her true aging face):

By this stage we are seeing cracks in Blanche - the sheen of flirtacious innocence has worn away, and the periods where she is vivacious and energetic are being intersperced with increasing periods of an alcaholic wretchedness. The climax of the play builds towards a final confrontation with the character who, like a streamtrain or like a blazing floodlight is systematically tearing away at each layer of protection which Blanche has put in place to shield her from reality. There is a sense of inevitability about this climax. It is difficult to think, from the beginning of the play, that it could ever have ended well. This sense of inevitability is what gives the play its tragic air - as Stanley says 'we've had this date from the beginning'. His final act of raping Blanche is shocking not only because of its violence, but because of the harshness of its symbolic value as well. The rape of Blache is an aggressive penetration of her romantic sensibility with the brutal and primative reality of the sexual act. The very clothes which Blanche wears - the gowns, furs and jewels which enable her to play-act the innocent ingenue - are torn away and her last defence destroyed. In the scene before this we see Blanche in a last desperate attempt to retreat into fantasy - a movement perhaps towards the insanity which finally engulfs her. Notice in this scene all the ways in which Blanche's fantasies and unrealities are each aggressively confronted by Stanley: 

Blanche is a character attempting to retreat into both her past, and into an unreality. In Williams' earlier play The Glass Menagerie we see a similar pattern. Indeed, this play begins with Tom stating:

“The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic. In memory everything seems to happen to music. That explains the fiddle in the wings.”

Dimly lit (not spotlit). Unreal. Sentimental. The symbolism of music - all traits which Williams brought into A Streetcar Named Desire. Laura, the central character in Glass Menagerie, is someone who like Blanche has retreated from the the real world into a protected world of memories and her collection of glass animals. The glass animals symbolise her own fragility. Her mother, Amanda, tries to get Laura to confront reality and paints a picture of a women who retreats into fantasy which seems a close match for the character of Blanche:

Amanda: [Hopelessly fingering the huge pocketbook] So what are we going to do the rest of our lives? Stay home and watch the parades go by? Amuse ourselves with the glass menagerie, darling? Eternally play those worn-out phonograph records your father left us as a painful reminder of him? We won’t have a business career – we’ve given that up because it gave us nervous indigestion! [She laughs wearily.] What is there left but dependency all our lives? I know so well what becomes of unmarried women who aren’t prepared to occupy a position. I’ve seen such pitiful cases in the South – barely tolerated spinsters living upon the grudging patronage of sister’s husband or brother’s wife! – stuck away in some little mousetrap room – encouraged by one in-law to visit another – little birdlike women without any nest – eating the crust of humanity all their life!

In the case of Amanda, the last thing she wants is to destroy Laura. Stanley is certainly a less sympathetic character, but even in Streetcar there is a sense that the tragedy of the play is not that Stanley sets out to destroy Blanche but that the two characters are forced to confront each other, and make little or no effort to try and understand each other (notice that Blanche, from the beginning, describes Stanley is quite nastily derogatory terms). 

Citation:  Tulloch, J. (2013) Tennessee Williams [Internet]. Available from: <> [Accessed 14 February 2013].


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Corrigan, M. A. (1987). ‘Realism and Theatricalism in A Streetcar Named Desire’, in Parker, D. ed., Essays in Modern American Drama. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 27-38

Krasner, D. (2006). American Drama 1945 – 2000: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell
Bak, J. S. (2004) "Criticism on A Streetcar Named Desire: A Bibliographic Survey, 1947-2003." Cercles No. 10. pp. 3-32

Crandell, G. (2011), 'Beyond Pity and Fear: Echoes of Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire and Other Plays', Southern Quarterly: A Journal Of The Arts In The South, 48, 4, pp. 91-107

Wei, F. (2008), 'Blanche's Destruction: Feminist Analysis on A Streetcar Named Desire', Canadian Social Science, 4, 3, pp. 102-108

Bigsby, C. W. E. (1987). ‘Tennessee Williams: The Theatricalising Self’, in Bigsby, C. W. E, Modern American Drama, 1945 - 1990. Cambridge: Cambirdge, 32-71

'Something Wild in the Country: The Fugitive Life of Tennessee Williams' (2011), Southern Quarterly, 48, 4, pp. 11-31

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