The Glass Meangere Essay, Research Paper
Thesis: The outcasts in Tennessee Williams’s major plays suffer, not because of the acts or situations which make them outcasts but because of the destructive effect of conventional morality upon them.
More than a half century has passed since critics and theater-goers recognized Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) as an important–perhaps the most important–American playwright. Two recent events, however, have created renewed interest in his work. The first is the death in 1996 of Maria St. Just, who controlled the late playwright’s papers1. The second is the publication, in that same year, of Lyle Leverich’s Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams. Both events represent access to information about this playwright that has, heretofore, been unavailable to scholars an influx of so much new information that a reexamination of Williams’s work is not only possible, but necessary.
My dissertation will reexamine Williams’s work in light of his claim that “plays in the tragic tradition offer us a view of certain moral values in violent juxtaposition” (The Rose Tattoo 151). Williams’s plays outline a struggle between the moral values of non-conformists, who are outcasts because they can not, or will not, conform to the values of the dominant culture, and of conformists, who represent that culture. The outcast characters in Tennessee Williams’s major plays do not suffer because of the actions or circumstances that make them outcast but because of the destructive impact of conventional morality upon them. The outcasts are driven, in the conflict between their values and those of conventional morality, to: 1) confess their transgressions against conventional morality, and 2) suffer, at their own hands or by placing themselves in dangerous situations, in atonement for their non-conformity.
That Williams’s outcasts are miserable is evidence of his opinion that the demands of conventional morality can be destructive. Chapter One of my dissertation will provide a foundation for discussion of this argument. Chapters Two, Three, and Four will contain extensive examples from Williams’s plays in support of his statement that “…I have only one major theme for my work which is the destructive impact of society on the sensitive non-conformist individual” (Letter, 1939, to Audrey Wood)1. I will further distinguish between three types of outcasts–religious, sexual, and fugitive and will devote a chapter to examples from Williams’s plays that illustrate the juxtaposition of values within each of these three types. In my final chapter I will argue against the notion that Williams’s outcasts suffer because they are immoral.
Chapter One: “”More a Minister’s Son’: An Introduction to Tennessee Williams”
I deal with the decadence of the South. I don’t ever deal with the decadence of the North. It’s too disgusting. But I’m writing about a South that is fast becoming a memory. (Williams, in Haller 60)
This chapter will provide biographical and critical information about Tennessee Williams. Using personal interviews with the playwright’s brother, Dakin Williams, and with biographer Nancy Tischler, along with published scholarship and accounts, I will reveal that the playwright considered himself an outcast and that his outcast characters represent an attempt to prove that “outcast” and “immoral” are not mutually inclusive terms. I will also show that Williams’s over-arching motivation, his drive to reveal in his plays the suffering inflicted on non-conformists by the dominant culture, is a reflection of his personal experiences with family, friends, and society.
Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams was born to Cornelius and Edwina Dakin Williams on March 26, 1914, in Columbus, Mississippi. At age 12, Williams and his family (which included a brother, Dakin, and sister, Rose) moved to St. Louis, Missouri. He attended the University of Missouri from 1931 to 1933, and finished his BA. in 1938 at the University of Iowa.
The playwright’s mother, a model for Amanda in The Glass Menagerie, was an aggressive woman, devoted to the idea of genteel Southern living. His father, also known as C.C., was a salesman for a large shoe manufacturer and, consequently, traveled extensively. Leverich reports that Edwina filled the void caused by her husband’s absence with stories about the South:
Over and over again, she would tell Tom [Tennessee Williams] about garden parties and cotillions and her gentlemen callers, until he could recite the stories by rote. She said that in those days she saw only “the charming, gallant, cheerful side” of the smiling bridegroom who had been a telephone man “in love with long distance.” In Tom’s mind, these images of his mother once upon a time a young and pretty southern belle whose venturesome husband had deserted her to go on the road–eventually became entangled with perpetually dark apartments, with Rose’s tragic turns, and with his own desperate attempt to free himself from the web of family. (49)
Rose is the only other strong female figure in the playwright’s life (Leverich 40). Both Edwina and Rose are the foundation for two characters, Amanda and Laura, respectively, in The Glass Menagerie.
According to Leverich, Williams was “more a minister’s son than the son of a traveling salesman” (37). Williams writes that he was tormented by his father because, at age 14, he “would rather read books in my grandfather’s large and classical library than play marbles and baseball and other normal kid games” (Williams, Where I Live 106). The playwright credits his grandfather with instilling in him a love of books (Leverich 37), that led to writing as escape from the torment of his heterosexist peers (Williams, Sweet Bird of Youth x). Leverich writes that Williams “made every effort to keep the knowledge [of his homosexuality] from his mother in particular”; however, he shared this knowledge with his grandfather, who not only accepted his grandson’s homosexuality but also “enjoyed the gay life peripherally and was especially fond and approving of Williams’s companion, Frank Merlo” (368-369). That Williams feared his mother’s rejection, and confided so freely in his grandfather, establishes these two persons as extremely important influences in his life.1
Tracing the influences of individuals and circumstances on Williams’s work has been difficult because of the restrictions I mention earlier in this prospectus. Of the existing scholarship the most thorough is that written by Leverich: Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams. The first volume of this two-volume set follows the fortunes of the Williams family for half a century, from 1900 to 19452. As the official Williams biographer, Leverich has been the only scholar to gain access to Williams’s notes and papers held by St. Just.
Williams’s brother, Dakin, is a resource that, although not bound by St. Just’s restrictions, has remained largely untapped. Although biographers and researchers have neglected Dakin Williams,3, I have met and discussed my thesis with him. He has agreed to cooperate with me in my research. The two brothers discussed religion on numerous occasions, and Dakin Williams’s book, Nails of Protest: A Critical Comparison of Modern Protestant and Catholic Beliefs, was (according to the author) extremely influential in the playwright’s conversion to Catholicism4. Nails of Protest is a polemic, a criticism of Protestantism that the author generated while studying law and Church history (Dakin Williams, personal interviews)5.
Harry Rasky’s 1986 book, Tennessee Williams: A Portrait in Laughter and Lamentation, is another personalized account of Williams’s life. This work contains priceless and irreplaceable photographs of Williams in Key West and in New Orleans. The infrequent occasions wherein Rasky sets aside his authorial voice and presents block quotes from Williams are historically valuable, as well.
Yet another anecdote-based account of the playwright’s life comes from his mother, Edwina Dakin Williams. Her Remember Me to Tom is a narrative about the youth and career of Tennessee Williams. The book presents stories told by the playwright’s mother to Lucy Freeman, and includes some passages indicating Tennessee Williams’s attitudes toward religion. Also included is a considerable collection of correspondence–from the playwright to his mother and brother, from his grandfather, and to and from several agents and critics1.
A very thorough critical work is Judith Thompson’s Tennessee Williams’ Plays: Memory, Myth, and Symbol. Thompson closely examines William’s experiment with the “memory play,” and provides an outline of his approach that is consistent and clear. She also examines the symbolism in these plays, grouping them into religious, mythological, and existential symbols and imagery. I expect Thompson’s groundwork to be a foundation on which I will build.
Published a year before Thompson’s work, Roger Boxill’s Tennessee Williams is a New Critical examination of the life and major works of the playwright. The critics in this collection provide a thorough textual analysis of selected Williams plays.
For an overview of critical and biographical works relative to Tennessee Williams, I turned to The Modern Language Association electronic database. The MLA lists only 288 entries using the descriptor, “Tennessee Williams.” From 1981 to 1995, fewer than 300 dissertations touching on this playwright in any way were written1. These figures represent a fraction of the number of dissertations, essays, and books written about other important American writers. For example, the MLA database lists 4,019 entries using the descriptor “William Faulkner,” and more than 1,089 entries using “Eugene O’Neill.”2
Chapter Two: “Promiscuity and Penance: Sexual Outcasts as Martyrs in Suddenly Last Summer, Orpheus Descending, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”
Catherine: They had devoured parts of him….Torn or cut parts of him away with their hands or knives or maybe those jagged tin cans they made music with, they had torn bits of him away and stuffed them into those gobbling fierce little empty black mouths of theirs. There wasn’t a sound any more, there was nothing to see but Sebastian, what was left of him, that looked like a big white-paper-wrapped bunch of red roses had been torn, thrown, crushed!–against that blazing white wall….(Williams, Suddenly Last Summer 92)
Many of Williams’s sexual outcasts are devoured, literally or figuratively, and in this chapter I will show how these characters suffer because of the two drives I mentioned earlier. Sebastian Venable and Catherine Holly in Suddenly Last Summer are particularly good examples of Williams’s literal and figurative depiction, respectively, of sexual outcasts as martyrs.
Martyrdom is a major theme in Suddenly Last Summer. Refusing to accept the possibility that her deceased son, Sebastian, was a homosexual, Mrs. Venable tries to silence her niece, Catherine, who insists upon telling the story of Sebastian’s sexual misconduct and murder. Catherine is haunted, having witnessed her cousin, Sebastian Venable, being cannibalized by Mexican youth (whom he has sexually victimized). She feels compelled to tell the story of Sebastian’s death, despite Mrs. Venable’s threat to have her lobotomized1 and even though no one believes her.
Mrs. Venable worships the memory of her son, Sebastian, relating her experiences with him as a prophet would relate her or his contact with a Christ-figure. In his stage directions, Williams has Mrs. Venable hold up a bound collection of Sebastian’s poetry: “She lifts a thin gilt-edged volume from the patio table as if elevating the Host before the altar….Her face suddenly has a different look, the look of a visionary, an exalted religieuse” (Williams, Suddenly Last Summer 13). Her threat to have Catherine lobotomized is meant to further her truth about Sebastian (Williams, Suddenly Last Summer 12); she appears to see truth as relative, determined by the privileged and powerful. She says of her forthcoming confrontation with Catherine, “I won’t collapse! She’ll collapse! I mean her lies will collapse not my truth not the truth….” (Williams, Suddenly Last Summer 12).
According to Mrs. Venable, Sebastian spent his summers in search of the image of God. Her identification of that image is the picture of a vengeful God, the God of Lex Talionis (the just God, who exacts an eye for an eye): “…God shows a savage face to people and shouts some fierce things at them, it’s all we see or hear of Him. Isn’t it all we ever really see and hear of Him, now?–Nobody seems to know why….” (Williams, Suddenly Last Summer 20).