I never really got Tennessee Williams. But then again, I don’t think I’ve tried very hard. On the face of it, his works should be right up my street: I love drama, after all, and just about anyone who knows anything about drama rates Williams as among the finest; I love writers of the southern States – William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, different though they all are from each other; and I like works that project emotional intensity. Tennessee Williams cannot be faulted on any of these points.
Yes, it is true that I had once dismissed his works as “overheated melodrama” – but that was in my younger days: now, older and, hopefully, a bit more mature in my judgement, I realise that it shouldn’t bother me if a work is “melodramatic”: as I had argued in an earlier post, it is entirely legitimate for an author to depict extreme and even violent emotions. And as for “overheated” – at what temperature precisely is a work heated to just the correct level? It is one of those glib, undefined terms that one should never, I think, use in literary criticism.
And in any case, my views of Tennessee Williams are mainly based on the film versions of his plays, and, having seen none of them on stage, and having only read a small handful (and that decades ago in my student days), I am not really sure how close these film adaptations are to the original works. The most famous of these films is A Streetcar Named Desire, its impact due to a great extent to the sheer intensity of the young Marlon Brando’s screen presence; but – and this may be due to my shortcomings as a viewer – I couldn’t really understand the central Blanche Dubois character: I could see what she was, but didn’t feel I was given any indication of why she was so – of what it was either in her psyche or in her environment that made her like this. But it is a work held in such high regard, that it’s best to reserve judgement till I’ve reacquainted myself with it.
I remember a few other films also – Baby Doll, Sweet Bird of Youth, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – and The Night of the Iguana. And it was with the last of these that I decided to start off my Tennessee Williams season. Quite often, one gets a good impression of a writer by reading a number of that writer’s work in close succession, and I am hoping that a reading of a dozen or so of his most highly regarded works would help dispel whatever prejudice I might harbour, and maybe even reveal to me a writer of genuine worth. After all, a reputation as high as that of Tennessee Williams could not have emerged from nothing.
I vaguely remembered the John Huston film from the early 60s with Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr; and I remember having enjoyed it quite a bit. The play itself is set in its entirety on the terrace of a run-down hotel overlooking the Mexican coast; the fairly long opening section of the film depicting the coach tour before reaching the hotel appears to have been the invention of the film-makers, strongly suggested though it is by what we find in the play’s exposition.
This exposition itself is very skilfully handled. It is one of the hardest things in a play to write expository dialogue without giving the impression that these characters are speaking these lines purely for the audience’s benefit and not their own; but Williams’ technique, both in this regard and in others, is seamless. Laurence Shannon, a former priest who had been locked out of his own church, is acting as a tour guide for a group of conservative Baptist ladies from Texas, and, as is fairly obvious, he is on the verge of a mental breakdown. He appears to have bedded a very young lady from the group, and the other ladies – quite understandably, it seemed to me – are after his blood. This particular hotel is not on the tour company’s itinerary, but Shannon insists, for reasons not made entirely clear, on keeping them there for as long as he can.
The proprietor of the hotel, Shannon is shocked to hear, has recently died, and his wife, the middle-aged and sexually predatory Maxine, who doesn’t seem entirely heartbroken about her recent loss, is now running the place. The only other guests (cut from the film, perhaps wisely) are a family of caricature Germans, described in the most grotesque terms in the stage directions: they are enthusiastic Nazis listening excitedly to wartime propaganda on the radio (this play is set in the early 40s). What these characters are doing in the play I really have no idea: for all their buffoonery, they seem too sinister to provide adequate comic relief, but too absurd to be taken seriously in dramatic terms.
Into this environment of the grotesque and the near-insane, all drenched by a merciless tropical sunlight, there enters a couple at least as strange as any of the other characters seen so far, but more subdued in their colouring: one of them is Hannah, a middle-aged spinster who makes a meagre living from sketching tourists; and the other is her grandfather, nearly a hundred years old and obviously close to death, who describes himself as the world’s oldest performing poet. Through the rest of the play we hear this aged man attempting to finish – while his mind still holds out – one final poem. One doubts whether this poem would make any list of the great American poems of the century, but the effect of its repetition on stage has about it a sort of incantatory power:
How calmly does the olive branch
Observe the sky begin to blanch
Without a cry, without a prayer
With no betrayal of despair
Some time while light obscures the tree
The zenith of its life will be
Gone past forever, and from thence
A second history will commence … etc.
It succeeds, it seems to me, in dramatic if not necessarily in poetic terms
However, the play itself does have a certain poetic quality to it. Its climactic sequence is not violent, as it might well have been: rather, it comes in the form of a quiet, intimate scene between Shannon and Hannah, in which an offer of moral redemption appears to be made, though not taken.
Perhaps it is no surprise that Tennessee Williams has such complete technical control: the pacing of the drama, the ebb and flow of the tension, the depiction of Shannon’s desperation and of Hannah’s stoicism, or, indeed, of Maxine’s fleshy sexuality, are all admirable, and quite clearly the work of a man who had completely mastered stagecraft. From a noted dramatist, such technical expertise is only to be expected. But the depiction of Hannah goes further than that – it is more than merely admirable: Tennessee Williams imbues her presence with a grace, with a sort of radiance, but without any sense of sentimentality or of the maudlin.
However, I can’t say I was entirely convinced by the play as whole. Too much that is important is left too vague. We can see Shannon’s desperation: like the iguana that has been captured and tied up to be fattened for the dinner table, Shannon is at the end of his tether. But, once again, I needed to know how he got to this stage: what is it in his psyche, in his environment, that has led to this? And similarly with Hannah: what is it that drives her to travel penniless through an inhospitable world with her old and decrepit grandfather? Why is she, too, so lonely? One does not, of course, seek answers to all questions in a work of art: indeed, in any art of any substance, it is essential to convey a sense of mystery, because, after all, the questions of life that can be answered with ease are not really questions that are worth posing. It may well be that there can be no clear explanation for Shannon’s incipient mental breakdown, or of Hannah’s outcast state. But when questions such as these are barely so much as considered, I can’t help feeling that there are major holes in the dramatic texture.
However, the obvious qualities of the play – its sure pacing, its theatrical effectiveness, its marvellously fluid dialogue, its sense of the poetic, and, finally, its hint of a possible redemption – cannot be ignored. I shall most certainly persevere with Tennessee Williams.