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Tennessee Williams: The Theatrical Rationale of an Emotional Man|Rajsi Rajora

Rajsi Rajora

“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”

Writing from the heart is not something that comes easily to most men and women. Aspiring artists while their entire lives away in a desperate pursuit of truth in themselves and in the rest of the world- trying to fathom the poetry of honesty and the unspoken language of implicit ideas. They furiously bare their emotions on paper and battle looming creative blocks. They also usually fail, succumbing to the evil tentacles of self doubt and literary frustrations. But among these doomed romantics exist a few great minds who can “unzip” their hearts even as they stand swaying, drunk out of their wits, and tap magic away on their old  typewriters.

These minds know things. They change the world.

Thomas Lanier Williams III, born on 26 March 1911, in Columbus, Mississippi, assumed the name “Tennessee” in his later years when he decided to pursue writing professionally. He rose to fame after years of obscurity, becoming one of the biggest names in the history of American theater. What makes him unique is his recklessness in the enterprise of self- expression and his poignant representations of commonly perceivable pain. Williams’ own miserable family background served as valuable inspiration for his heartbreakingly profound creations, in which he fearlessly expressed outrage at oppressive cultural norms and strict parental rearing that he personally suffered from as a child. He did not cower from his personal truths, unapologetically exposing such scandalous ideas as those of sexual hypocrisy, obsession, hostility, desperation, and intolerance prevalent in the barbaric, overbearing society of the South. The social relevance of his work stems from his uncanny ability of apprehending and conveying the truest essence of reality while being genuinely entertaining in his endeavors.

The ingenious psychological representations of his own life in his work make Williams a force to be reckoned with.With the tone of a characteristic southern drawl, he uses American slang, interesting animal imagery, ferociously energetic actions and poetic stage lighting to bring out the most from his stories. The world respects the grit of this man. Williams never lied to his audience. All of his fiction still burns with his raw spirit.

Recently, I read three of his best known plays in an attempt to delve deeper into the mind of this literary genius. His life and his ideas, so glamourous and yet so simple, entranced me completely, prompting me to look beneath the surface of things  and between carefully crafted lines. Here is what I think of his prominent works.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

“I’m not good. I don’t know why people have to pretend to be good, nobody’s good.”

Set on a rich Mississippi plantation during the 1950s, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is a unique play that shows the central conflict between truth and illusion from various distinctive perspectives. Williams, who himself braved the prejudiced world of the 1950s as an openly gay man,  largely expresses his essential ideas through what is carefully left unsaid, rather than through what is explicitly revealed. He builds unsettling extents of tension by resorting to furtive subtleties, convoluted ambitions, darkly manifest fears, and very fundamental misunderstandings.

Brick, an alcoholic ex-athlete, refuses to be seduced by his effervescent wife, Maggie, apparently out of guilt over the tragic suicide of his old friend, Skipper; but what Brick is incapable of confronting is in fact his own latent homosexuality. On the other hand, Brick’s father, an imposing patriarch known as Big Daddy over whose inheritance the family shamelessly squabbles, is also unable to face the truth of his imminent death from cancer. These two primary illusions violently collide in the second act when the dramatic father-son argument takes place and both the characters are forced to face their respective realities.

The play successfully explores the impossibility of truth in the presence of socio-cultural expectations and the constructions of selfhood based on untruthfulness. It brilliantly connotes the raw, demanding nature of desperate femininity and the sanity-wrecking pain of denied personal truths that embody the painfully human struggles centric to this play. The emphasis on the existence of ‘mendacity’ in society by Brick further expresses his grudging hatred for the hypocrisies of our fraudulent realities (“Mendacity is a system that we live in. Liquor is one way out and death’s the other.” ) and the irony of his own unrealized untruthfulness, which makes him a victim of this very same phenomenon, is softly made obvious.

The ambiguous note on which the play ends leaves the readers speculating on the fogged-up future of the dysfunctional Pollitt family,  deciphering the cryptic emotions of all the unstable characters and comprehending the hidden meanings behind every strained conversation.

Cat on a hot tin roof is a remarkable work not only because of its realistic depiction of miscommunications and power struggles in families, but also because of its brave and unsolicited representation of homosexuality. It fearlessly addresses the social stigma associated with the idea of deviant sexual orientations and Williams reinforces on this personal disapproval of the same through the miseries of Brick, who fails to escape his self-created prison of unforgiving prejudices.

The Glass Menagerie

“Time is the longest distance between two places.”

Williams is considered one of the best symbolists in all of Literature and The Glass Menagerie is arguably his magnum opus when it comes to the slight art of metaphorical representations.

Set in St. Louis in 1937, The Glass Menagerie  is a ‘memory’ play. As Williams himself said, “Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart.”  The story, thus, unravels in accordance with the experiences and thoughts of the troubled narrator, Tom Wingfield. He is an aspiring poet who is sick of his dull, frustrating job at the shoe warehouse and aggressively wishes to leave, but is chained to the drudgery of an unsatisfying life because of his familial obligation to support his delusional and eccentric mother, Amanda, and his painfully shy and crippled sister, Laura. (Mr. Wingfield, Tom and Laura’s father, ran off years ago and, except for one postcard, has not been heard from since.)

If Cat was about deliberate suppressions of reality, Menagerie is about desperate  escapism from it. Each member of the Wingfield family fails to deal with the unrelenting problems posed by the cruel, uninterested world and as a result, withdraws into a private world of pleasant illusion where he or she seeks the comfort and meaning that the real world refuses to offer. Laura, the most socially inept of the three, finds solace in her beautiful glass animals, flinching away from her existence and revelling instead in the intricacies of her strange hobby (.“She lives in a world of her own – a world of – little glass ornaments…”).  Tom, who shoulders the financial burden of his poor family and constantly fantasizes about running away from his depressing life,  finds momentary relief when he goes to the movies everyday (“People go to the movies instead of moving.”).  Mrs. Wingfield, abandoned by her uncaring husband, wilfully distorts reality and escapes into her own past, refusing to acknowledge the truths of her predicaments and the shortcomings of her own children. Through these characters, we get to witness the  imperfections and weaknesses inherent to humanity, manifesting as flawed defence mechanisms and convenient lies to deal with life.

Centered around a simple plot involving a gentleman caller for Laura and Tom’s increasing restlessness to flee, the play beautifully portrays the reluctant confrontations with reality that the tortured characters eventually experience and emphasises on the unforgiving strength of memory, that relentlessly haunts the conscience of the guilty. It employs surrealistic symbolism to convey many of its ideas, the most prominent being the glass unicorn in Laura’s collection that represents the fragility of her illusions.

The Glass Menagerie,  full of subtleties, is an extremely touching play that pulls at heartstrings and leaves the reader distraught and nostalgic. Tom’s character is disturbingly relatable and his internal struggles feel uncannily like your own. It successfully pushes uncomfortable realities in your unsuspecting face and makes you empathise with the sort of pettiness that you would usually condemn. It is a masterpiece in the expression of universal dissatisfaction with existence and remains my personal favourite.

A Streetcar Named Desire

“I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth. And if that’s sinful, then let me be damned for it!”

Probably the most critically acclaimed of Williams’ work, A Streetcar Named Desire has been adapted into an iconic movie and numerous successful stage productions over the years. It is a play brimming with sexually charged energy and scandalous themes, that range from  the crippling dependency of married women on their dominant husbands to  the inability of fantastical dreams to overcome reality.

Blanche DuBois, a schoolteacher from Laurel, Mississippi, arrives at the New Orleans apartment of her sister, Stella Kowalski. She mournfully informs  Stella that she lost Belle Reve, their ancestral home, following the death of all their remaining relatives and requests temporary shelter at her house. Her evident social condescension wins her the instant dislike of Stella’s husband, an auto-parts supply man of Polish descent named Stanley Kowalski, who embodies immense masculinity and a wild, primeval aggression. Stella, who appears happy to have left behind the social pretensions of her background in exchange for the sexual gratification she gets from her husband, deeply confuses the  aristocratic sensibilities of Blanche that are not acquainted with such raw desires and fierce passion. The ensuing emotional conflicts interestingly convey the complex dimensions of these dark and damaged characters.

Blanche is quickly established as a pathological liar who clings on to her sense of youthful, sophisticated  beauty and performs all her emotions theatrically. Her frenzied attempts at escaping the creepers of old age through a promiscuous pursuit of her sexual desires makes her a weak character that raises both sympathy and contempt (They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!”) Stanley, on the other hand, represents the new, heterogeneous America to which Blanche doesn’t belong, because she is a relic from a defunct social hierarchy. He sees himself as a “social leveler” who contradicts her character and beliefs on a fundamental level and offends her with his crude, animalistic personality and rough lifestyle (“what I am is a one hundred percent American, born and raised in the greatest country on earth and proud as hell of it”). The collision of these two contradictory characters is quite intriguing to read and the famous rape scene in the closing act of the play has inspired diverse interpretations and curiosity.

At its core, Streetcar remains primarily about social realism and through the lamentable downfall of Blanche, movingly portrays the struggles of humanity in coming to terms with its own redundant perceptions. The play has morbid ideas but even as reality wins over fantasy by the end of the play, Williams still advocates the use of illusions as an important defence to survive in an urbanized world of harsh truths and brutal social climbing. It is, and will stay, a classic in the world of drama with its unique portrayal of unconventional ideas and memorable, if disturbing, characterisations.

All these plays managed to leave a great impact on me. In my opinion, Tennessee Williams is a man worthy of note in the vibrant worlds of Literature and Theater simply because he posses the incredible ability of unsettling  his readers. The autobiographical elements, whether it be Tom’s dead end job at the shoe warehouse or Brick’s agonizing existence as a homosexual, introduce honesty and compassion in his creations that are otherwise not easily found in the world of writing.

Williams was a brilliant man, capable of magical articulation,  and I hope he continues to be recognized for his mind  in the future as well.

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