During the Great Recession, I didn’t have any spending money to go and buy new books or even used books for that matter, and I needed to read some good literature to help me get through the economic crisis I was facing. As I browsed the shelves of my bookcase looking for something good to read, I discovered a section of Tennessee Williams. I forgot I had bought this collection of used books in a more profitable and less stressful time at one of my favorite used bookstores before it went out of business.
I have read a few of Tennessee Williams’ plays throughout my life. I read The Glass Menagerie when I was fifteen and would repeat over and over Tom Wingfield’s line: “I’ll rise——but I won’t shine.” I loved mimicking the Southern drawl. Maybe I related to the sarcasm and the sense of confinement and yearning those six words contain. Of course, I’d read and heard excerpts from A Streetcar Named Desire in acting classes.
“Let’s read Tennessee Williams,” I said, and then scanned the titles and contents of the half dozen used books. I chose Dragon Country——the title seemed appropriate; I guess I wanted to breathe a little fire myself.
I began reading Dragon Country: A Book of Plays, published by A New Directions Book, Ninth Printing, and copyrighted in 1970. It is a collection of eight short plays: In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel; I Rise in Flame, Cried the Phoenix; The Mutilated; I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow; Confessional; The Frosted Glass Coffin; The Gnädiges Fräulein; and A Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot.
The brilliance of Williams’ sense of theatre and how he forces me to witness with new understanding and experience the powerful theme of “endured but endurable pain” that runs through each of these plays; the way he designs a set to fit the character’s journey; the way the action moves from one place to another by variations of lighting design is truly amazing. In The Mutilated, one of the stage directions exemplifies Williams’ artistry: “[She squares off like a bull about to charge. There should be flashes of bluish-white light on the stage as if an acetylene torch, a soundless one, was drilling the street, throwing fantastically long, tall shadows over the street- fronts. Inside the bar, the electric piano plays a paso-doble.]”
His use of sound creates an other-worldliness to the harsh reality a character faces. In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel “shows an artist, worn to a nervous ruin by a breakthrough in his painting technique, abandoned and destroyed by his witch of a wife.” This is Williams’ stage direction for the husband’s entrance: “[The wind chimes are heard. The woman’s husband enters. He is her age but ravaged looking. There are vivid paint stains on his unpressed suit.]”
I was hooked. I read through the collection. I wanted more.
I scanned the shelf of my bookcase again and chose The Theatre of Tennessee Williams, Volume 1, A New Directions Book, Ninth Paperbound Printing. Because Dragon Country: A Book of Plays is a later work of Williams, I chose this volume because I wanted to begin at the beginning of his career. Volume 1 contains Williams’ first plays: Battle of Angels (which later becomes Orpheus Descending); The Glass Menagerie; and A Streetcar Named Desire.
Again, Tennessee Williams grabs me and pulls me deeper and deeper into the human psyche, as his characters try to find his or her place in the world, try to make sense or meaning in the friendless and brutal world, try to find his or her place inside the emotional terrain inside each character. Throughout my life I have heard the famous line of dialogue, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” As I read it at the end of A Streetcar Named Desire when the Doctor is leading Blanche Dubois out of the Kowalski’s home and toward the paddy wagon——the mental institution its destination——my heart leapt out with an empathy, an understanding, a yearning to put the broken pieces back together inside the depths of Blanche’s life, but also knowing that it is beyond my control, just like it is beyond the control of Blanche or her sister Stella, or any of the characters on stage. Too much damage has been done to Blanche; she has experienced too much grief and has succumbed to the too many existential crises she didn’t know how to get through. She is too fractured and never coming back as she holds tight to the Doctor’s arm and says with the little dignity she has left, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
Here are the stage directions as the doctor leads her away: “[The poker players stand back as Blanche and the Doctor cross the kitchen to the front door. She allows him to lead her as if she were blind. As they go out on the porch, Stella cries out her sister’s name from where she is crouched a few steps up on the stairs.]” Such simple stage directions for the exit of one of the most broken and beaten-down, tragic characters in American literature.
In Scene Six of A Streetcar Named Desire action, sound and light are woven together in a brief stage direction: “[A locomotive is heard approaching outside. She claps her hands to her ears and crouches over. The headlight of the locomotive glares into the room as it thunders past. As the noise recedes she straightens slowly and continues speaking.]” This is when Blanche tells Mitch what really happened to her first marriage. The sounds and lights create a metaphor (or symbol as Williams might suggest) for the crack appearing in Blanche’s character.
Williams is a master at writing character description. He weaves the mundane with the carnal, adding a touch of spiritual. He paints characters in ways that are accessible and identifiable. Here is the description for Vee Tablott’s entrance in Battle of Angels: “[VEE enters from the street. She is a heavy, middle-aged woman, about forty, whose personality, frustrated in its contact with externals, has turned deeply inward. She has found refuge in religion and primitive art and has become known as an eccentric. Although a religious fanatic, a mystic, she should not be made ridiculous. Her portrayal will contain certain incidents of humor, but not be devoid of all dignity and pathos. She wanders slowly about with a vague dreamy smile on her face. Her expression is often bewildered.]”
Stanley Kowalski, one of the truly great characters of American theatre, is another example of Williams’ brilliant character description. I have watched the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire but it was when I read the character description for Stanley’s character that he literally jumped off the page: “[More laughter and shouts of parting come from the men. Stanley throws the screen door of the kitchen open and comes in. He is of medium height, about five feet eight or nine, and strongly, compactly built. Animal joy in his being is implicit in all his movements and attitudes. Since earliest manhood the center of his life has been pleasure with women, the giving and taking of it, not with weak indulgence, dependently, but with the power and pride of a richly feathered male bird among hens. Branching out from this complete and satisfying center are all the auxiliary channels of his life, such as his heartiness with men, his appreciation of rough humor, his love of good drink and food and games, his car, his radio, everything that is his, that bears his emblem of the gaudy seed-bearer. He sizes women up at a glance, with sexual classifications, crude images flashing into his mind and determining the way he smiles at them.]”
Is there any wonder that the young, virile, chiseled and hot Marlon Brando was cast as the first Stanley Kowalski for the production that opened on December 3, 1947, in New York? Ah, to have been there!
If I had a lot of money, I’d produce a Tennessee Williams’ Festival and put on every play and pay the cast and crew and let the audience in for free so we could experience the greatness of a truly great American playwright. I can only imagine the movement, the voices, the sounds, and the moods created by light. In a way, my yearning to see the productions performed is testimony to how Williams evokes the power of the theatre onto the page.
But I don’t have a lot of money, so I reach for another used book of plays from my bookshelf, another A New Directions Book, eleventh printing. It’s Camino Real (pronounced the Anglicized way: Cá-mino Réal).
It’s interesting to note that the first published version of the play was a one-act called, “Ten Blocks on the Camino Real,” and copyrighted by Williams in 1948. But it was such a failure during the opening of the play that he re-wrote the play over the next few years. He then published it again as “Camino Real” in the revised and published version, with the copyright of 1953.
In the forward for Camino Real, Williams writes: “We all have in our conscious and unconscious minds a great vocabulary of images, and I think all human communication is based on these images as are our dreams; and a symbol in a play has only one legitimate purpose which is to say a thing more directly and simply and beautifully than it could be said in words.
“I hate writing that is a parade of images for the sake of images; I hate it so much that I close a book in disgust when it keeps on saying one thing is like another; I even get disgusted with poems that make nothing but comparisons between one thing and another. But I repeat that symbols, when used respectfully, are the purest language of plays. Sometimes it would take page after tedious page of exposition to put across an idea that can be said with an object or a gesture on the lighted stage.
“To take one case in point: the battered portmanteau of Jacques Casanova is hurled from the balcony of a luxury hotel when his remittance check fails to come through. While the portmanteau is still in the air, he shouts: “Careful, I have——“ ——and when it has crashed to the street he continues——“fragile——mementos…” I suppose that is a symbol, at least it is an object used to express as directly and vividly as possible certain things which could be said in pages of dull talk.”
Williams ends the forward to Camino Real with these words: “…I would like to admit to you quite frankly that I can’t say with any personal conviction that I have written a good play, I only know that I have felt a release in this work which I wanted you to feel with me.”
Camino Real was not a success by any means when it was first produced in 1953. “At each performance a number of people have stamped out of the auditorium… and there have been sibilant noises on the way out and demands for money back if the cashier was foolish enough to remain in his box,” Williams muses. However, others thought it was Williams’ best play.
I can only say that after reading the Forward and the Prologue of the play, both of which I find captivating and profoundly insightful and evocative, I look forward to deciding myself where Camino Real ranks in the genius of Tennessee Williams. And even though I wish I could have experienced the opening performances of Tennessee Williams’ plays, all of them, I will be happy to read, in my humble opinion, our greatest American Playwright.
If you are a novelist, screenwriter, and poet or an aspiring playwright, I highly recommend reading and studying Tennessee Williams. Sometimes the dialogue reads from another era (which it is), and for my 21st century taste the dialogue sometimes reads like it is telling too much what the actor is doing on stage. But such things can be forgiven because the complexity of characters; the depth of the inner worlds thrown against the harsh realities of the outer realities of William’s creations; the brilliant sense of theatre; the characters pitted against and at each other; the brilliant character and set descriptions; the fluidity of movement of bodies and light; the richness and believability of the dialogue all push the reader into the primal world of Williams’ evocative and provocative theatre.