Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Review: A Streetcar Named Desire and Other Plays (Penguin Classics) by Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams

A Streetcar Named Desire and Other Plays

Penguin Classics, Paperback, [2000].
8vo. 313 pp. Contains The Glass Menagerie (1945), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959). Author's Foreword to the last, 1959. Edited by E. Martin Browne.

The Glass Menagerie first published, 1945.
A Streetcar Named Desire first published, 1947.
Sweet Bird of Youth first published, 1959.
This collection first published, 1962.
Reprinted in Penguin Classics, 2000.


Sweet Bird of Youth

The Characters
Synopsis of Scenes
Act I, Scenes 1-2
Act II, Scenes 1-2
Act III, Scene 1

First presented at the Martin Beck Theatre, New York, on 10 March 1959 by Cheryl Crawford:
Chance Wayne - Paul Newman
The Princess Kosmonopolis [Alexandra Del Lago] - Geraldine Page
Boss Finley - Sidney Blackmer
Tom Junior - Rip Torn
Miss Lucy - Madeleine Sherwood
Heavenly Finley - Diana Hyland
The Heckler - Charles Tyner
Directed by Elia Kazan.

*First published in the New York Times, 8 March, 1959.

A Streetcar Named Desire

Scenes 1-11

First presented in the Schubert, New Haven, Conn., on 3 December 1947 by Irene Selznick:
[shortly afterwards moved to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway, New York]
Blanche DuBois - Jessica Tandy
Stella Kowalski - Kim Hunter
Stanley Kowalski - Marlon Brando
Harold Mitchell [Mitch] - Karl Malden
Directed by Elia Kazan.

First London production in the Aldwych Theatre on 12 October 1949:
Blanche DuBois - Vivien Leigh
Stella Kowalski - Renee Asherson
Stanley Kowalski - Bonar Colleano
Harold Mitchell [Mitch] - Bernard Braden
Directed by Laurence Olivier.

The Glass Menagerie

The Characters
Production Notes
Scenes 1-7

First presented on Broadway at the Playhouse Theatre, March 31, 1945:
Amanda Wingfield – Laurette Taylor
Laura, her daughter – Julie Haydon
Tom, her son – Eddie Dowling
The Gentleman Caller [Jim O’Connor] – Anthony Ross
Directed by Eddie Dowling and Margo Jones.

First presented in London at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, on 28 July 1948:
Amanda Wingfield - Helen Hayes
Laura - Frances Heflin
Tom - Phil Brown
The Gentleman Caller - Hugh McDermott
Directed by John Gielgud.


He was a born dramatist as few are ever born. Whatever he put on paper, superb or superfluous, glorious or gaudy, could not fail to be electrifyingly actable. He could not write a dull scene… Tennessee Williams will live as long as drama itself.

If these words came from a critic, I would not pay any special attention to them. But they did come from no other but Peter Shaffer himself, the author of Equus (1973) and Amadeus (1979), the closest British approximation to Tennessee – at least in terms of popularity. Only after finishing the three plays in this volume did I realise the hidden wisdom in Mr Shaffer's words.

There is something especially compelling about the plays of Tennessee Williams. They are hot and cool at the same time, hot because they invariably deal with sex in one way or another, and cool because they never degenerate into cheap pornography. They often contain a great deal of (usually mental but sometimes physical) violence, but they always remain stylishly written mixtures of fiercely dramatic dialogue and evocative stage directions, both regularly adorned by marvellous poetic flights. They are dark, brooding, disturbing and superbly crafted pieces of drama. They deal with human nature in a profound and uncompromising manner.

The three plays in this Penguin Classics edition may be seen as a very abridged version of Tennessee's most successful years. In March 1945 The Glass Menagerie was the first massive success on Broadway for the dramatist who had just turned 34. It ran for the impressive 563 performances. When A Streetcar Named Desire took Broadway by storm in December 1947 and lasted for 855 performances in the course of two years, everyone knew that this fellow was here to stay.

During the 1950s Tennessee had a string of successes, though none of them was measured by such an amazing run as Streetcar. Still, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), with 694 and 375 performances respectively, at least came close. But then Tennessee's constant anxiety about the transitory nature of his success started becoming reality. He continued to write plays until the end of his life more than twenty years later. But during the 1960s and 1970s – The Night of the Iguana (1961) was his last Broadway hit – he had to put up with lots of negative criticism, lacklustre first nights and embarrassingly short runs.

Enough preliminary rambling. Let us have a look at the plays.

Spoilers ahead!

There is one question about A Streetcar Named Desire that must be answered in the beginning. Does it make any sense reading this play if you already know intimately the 1951 movie version directed by Elia Kazan? Well, not much. Unless you have a special predilection for reading plays on paper, as opposed to seeing them on the stage or the screen – as you might guess, I have this defect of character – you don't really need to read Tennessee's original if you have seen this particular screen adaptation. It is as close to definitive version as possible. And there are formidable reasons why this should be so.

First of all, it was Tennessee Williams himself who adapted his own play for the screen. It shows. The screenplay contains virtually the complete play. There are very few cuts, most probably made to satisfy the prudish requirements of Hollywood at the time. Reportedly, the movie was once badly cut by the censors – even such innocent lines like Stanley's ''You know, if I didn't know that you was my wife's sister, I would get ideas about you'' were cut – but in modern DVD editions all omissions are restored. Even in the boldest version of the movie some passages of the original had to be toned down, but none of them is of critical importance. For example, in the play Blanche had many ''meetings'' with strangers, while in the play these are ''intimacies''. You do get the point either way, don't you?

Also, of course, there is nothing mentioned on the screen about her husband being homosexual (under the code name ''degenerate'' as well as Blanche's direct evidence as given in Scene 6). But this is not crucial either. Much too much has been made of it. Probably it was a shock for Blanche to discover her husband in the bed with another man, but surely the greater problem was that Allen proceeded to drive to the Moon Lake casino and blow his brains out. Another essential part of that tragedy is the fact that Blanche not only worshipped him, but it was she, unable to restrain herself, who precipitated the suicide by revealing that she knew the truth.

The only other notable moment that's missing even in the fully restored version of the movie is the rape in Scene 10. Of course there is nothing explicit in the play, but Stanley does take Blanche to the bed – and you can figure out the rest, can you? The alternative in the movie is more elusive but wonderfully shot: after a short struggle we have the reflection of the unconscious Blanche in the broken mirror.

There are several small additional scenes in the movie – the arrival of Blanche, her meeting with Stella at the bowling arena, the quarrel between Stanley and Mitch at work – but none of these is of any great importance. More importantly, the first scene between Blanche and Mitch is transferred from the Kowalski's flat to the romantically lit waterfront. The setting is more evocative and thus the advantages of cinema over stage are explored to the full.

But on the whole the screenplay is very close to the original play. The dialogue is nearly word for word the same in both mediums, including many unforgettable lines:

Stanley [bottle in hand]: Have a shot?
Blanche: No, I – I rarely touch it.
Stanley: Some people rarely touch it, but it touches them often.

Stanley: I never met a woman that didn't know if she was good-looking or not without being told, and some of them that give themselves credit for more than they've got.

Blanche: Whoever you are – I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.

Blanche: Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable. It is the only unforgivable thing in my opinion and it is the one thing of which I have never, never been guilty.

Blanche: They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at – Elysian Fields!

Blanche: No, I have the misfortune of being an English instructor. I attempt to instil a bunch of bobby-soxers and drug-store Romeos with reverence for Hawthorne and Whitman and Poe!

I don't know why but I think there is something really sweet about the word ''bobby-soxer''.

The rumour has it that Tennessee was unhappy with the alternative ending in the movie, apparently having supplied it under external pressure. I don't see why this should be. It's an improvement. In the play Stanley tries to console the crying Stella after Blanche is taken away. But in the movie Stella takes their child, mutters resolutely that she's never going back and runs the stairs to the neighbours above; the movie ends with an offstage version of Stanley's trademark shout: ''STELA-A-A-A''. Now this is a most tantalising ending. You know that Stella, despite her words, will come back to Stanley. But you somehow feel that their marriage will never be the same again. The ''Blanche episode'' has marked it for good.

Then there is the visual side of the movie, perfectly conveying the sweaty and oppressive atmosphere of the play. One component of the latter largely missing in the former is the constant musical accompaniment, meticulously described in the stage directions and every bit as maddening as the heat, but there is an ample compensation on the screen. The sets and the costumes are superb. They marvellously capture what Tennessee calls the ''raffish charm'' of the poor quarter of New Orleans where the action takes place.

Then there is the director Elia Kazan. He not only had a priceless experience with the play on Broadway, but he apparently had a special gift for the screen as well. Despite the additional scenes, most of the action is concentrated in the small and squalid apartment of the Kowalskis. Yet the movie never feels static. Kazan makes a superb use of different visual angles, constant camera movement and, above all, imaginative lightning; the last one is particularly important since Blanche, as you know, is quite a bit preoccupied with light. Last but not least, the numerous perfectly placed close-ups give you an ample opportunity to appreciate some of the greatest acting ever captured on film.

The perfect cast, from l. to r.:
Vivien, Marlon, Kim and Karl.
The cast in the movie I at least cannot imagine that it will ever be surpassed. Again, there are very good reasons for that. The Penguin edition, for some obscure reason (British arrogance perhaps?), prints only the cast from the first London production. This is unforgivable. The original Broadway cast must be given as well. The reason for this is that it was ripped off almost complete for the movie. The only difference is Blanche. But Vivien Leigh was not just a star and a beauty: she came from West End where she had played the part quite a few times under the direction of her husband. That's why the acting in the movie is superlative and will probably remain unsurpassed: because all four principals came on the set with intimate knowledge of their parts from the stage.

Vivien as Blanche.
There are those – like Karl Malden, for one – who rather object that Jessica Tandy was dumped on the way to Hollywood; but even Mr Malden realises that had she remained, he and Kim Hunter would probably have been discarded. Quite apart from the fact – for which I don't really care anyway – that Vivien Leigh was necessary to pull off the star status of the picture, I cannot possibly imagine a better interpretation of Blanche DuBois. The ambiguous relationship with Stella, alternating between affection and accusations, the coquettish flirtations with Mitch, the mighty clash with Stanley; her incredible vanity, her manner that ''suggests moth'' (as beautifully put by Tennessee), her intellectual superiority, her emotional breakdown, her dreams, her delusions, her pathos: Vivien is excellent on all fronts. This is a tour de force for the ages.

Blanche (Vivien) and
Stanley (Marlon).
One of the chief glories of the movie is that Blanche DuBois is fully matched by Stanley Kowalski. Today it is difficult to imagine a time when Marlon Brando was all but completely unknown. When he came to portray Stanley on the screen – after a great run on Broadway, let us remember – he was but 27 years old, starring in just his second movie. Small wonder that he was catapulted to fame by A Streetcar Named Desire. To the everlasting shame of the Academy he didn't win an Oscar for his incandescent performance. But it must be admitted that Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen is a serious competition.

In his stage directions, Tennessee has described Stanley in a most unforgettable way. Such stage directions, superb character sketches really, are one of the major reasons why I love reading plays:

Animal joy in his being is implicit in all his movements and attitudes. Since earliest manhood the centre 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 centre are all auxiliary channels of his life, such as his heartiness with men, his appreciation of rough humour, 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.

Can you imagine a more perfect Stanley Kowalski than Marlon Brando? If you can, let me know about him. I am almost tempted to believe that Tennessee wrote the part with Brando in mind – but historical evidence refutes this tantalising speculation. However that may be, Marlon brings to Stanley Kowalski an astonishing vitality and intensity, an explosive, apocalyptic energy that fits the character perfectly and makes for a mind-blowing screen experience. Just remember his throwing the radio through the window or his fit of rage at supper – Blanche's birthday, no less – with the two sisters sitting with their eyes glued to their plates. Brando once said he detested the character; I wonder if this is why he was able to infuse it with such elemental fury.

Blanche (Vivien) and 
Stanley (Marlon).
It is important to stress that even Stanley is not entirely without redeeming qualities. I don't, of course, mean his bogus morality, as when he refuses to kiss his wife in front of her presumably promiscuous sister, nor his equally sham pretension of being well-versed in legal matters: ''In the state of Louisiana we have the Napoleonic code according to which what belongs to the wife belongs to the husband and vice versa. […] It looks to me like you have been swindled, baby, and when you're swindled under the Napoleonic code I'm swindled too. And I don't like to be swindled.'' All right, Stanley, we got the point. However, he is not stupid, though he is shrewd rather than intelligent, his sense of humour is very funny if not exactly subtle, and his anger at Blanche's snobbishness, however unseemly its expression, is a justified one. And he is certainly not indifferent to Stella, despite the social gulf between them of which he is also aware:

When we first met, me and you, you thought I was common. How right you was, baby. I was common as dirt. You showed me snapshot of the place with the columns. I pulled you down off them columns and how you loved it, having them coloured lights going! And wasn't we happy together, wasn't it all okay till she showed here?

That said, it is devilishly difficult to like Stanley Kowalski. Although the violent behaviour is the least of his shortcomings, raping your sister-in-law is not quite the most wonderful thing you can do while your wife is in hospital giving birth to your child. What's worse about Stanley is that he is the ultimate incarnation of the practical man; for him ''imagination'' is a dirty word. He has his feet firmly on the ground and he is excessively proud of that. I think this total indifference to anything spiritual is the primary reason for his callous attitude to Blanche, although it is certainly aggravated by his temperament and her flirtations. But it's news to me that only likeable characters make for great reading. Rather to the contrary: bad guys are far more fascinating. Stanley Kowalski is definitely among the most compelling ones ever created.

Coming back to Marlon Brando's performance – ''you can't take your eyes off him'', as Karl Malden accurately put it – there is, of course, his justly legendary sex appeal to convey Tennessee's revolutionary message. Again, one needs a huge dose of historical imagination to appreciate the shock at the time. Gore Vidal has described it beautifully:

Finally, when Tennessee wrote A Streetcar Named Desire, he inadvertently smashed one of our society's most powerful taboos. He showed the male not only as sexually attractive in the flesh but as an object for something never before entirely acknowledged, the lust of women. In the age of Calvin Klein's steaming hunks, it must be hard for those under forty to realise that there was ever a time when a man was nothing but a suit of clothes, a shirt and tie, shined leather shoes and a gray felt hat. If thought attractive, it was because he had a nice smile and a twinkle in his eye. Marlon Brando's appearance of stage, as Stanley, in a torn sweaty T-shirt, was an earthquake; and the male as sex object is still at our culture's center stage and will so remain until the likes of Boy George redress, as it were, the balance. Yet, ironically, Tennessee's auctorial sympathies were not with Stanley but with his ''victim'' Blanche.[1]

The last sentence is telling, and I am not sure the quotation marks are really necessary. It is certainly true, however, that Blanche's mental degradation is sensitively and compassionately depicted. One of the many pivotal questions of the play, as I see it, is whether Blanche would have ended in the same way if she had met with more understanding from Stanley and less prudishness by Mitch. Perhaps yes; she is already on her way down when the play begins. But it is just conceivable, if not very likely, that she might have recovered her wits had she been treated otherwise. That's what makes her a real tragic character. As Stella, in response to Stanley's doubtless ironic ''Delicate piece she is'', memorably puts it:

She is. She was. You didn't know Blanche as a girl. Nobody, nobody, was tender and trusting as she was. But people like you abused her, and forced her to change. 

Yet this may be too idealistic a treatment. The clash of cultures is far too harsh for a happy end. It is amazing that Blanche and Stella are supposed to have more or less the same background: they have drifted apart through the years until they have come to occupy the opposite sides of the same equation. Perhaps the chief reason for this is that desire, purely sexual desire, is enough for Stella to bear Stanley's boorish stunts without any ill feeling. Blanche is by no means a saint; her vast store of knowledge does include the carnal one. But her make-up is altogether different and she would never be able to reconcile herself to such things like ''apes'' playing a noisy game of poker or physical violence that easily lends itself to animate objects. There is something noble and moving in Blanche's attempts, however unsuccessful, to supplement physical desire with spiritual richness.

Marlon and Vivien on the set of Streetcar (1951).
If you can combine the best features of Blanche and Stanley in one human being, you will get more or the less the best combination that so imperfect a material as human nature allows.

The only drawback of characters like Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski – especially when played so magnificently by Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando – is that they tend to obscure supporting roles like those of Stella and Mitch (both wonderfully acted in the movie by Kim Hunter and Karl Malden, respectively). The neglect is unjust. Both Stella and Mitch are essential for the play. Indeed, the whole thing makes sense only with the complete quartet. It is significant that both Stella and Mitch have their share in Blanche's destruction, yet both retain some affection for her until the end: Stella is inconsolable; Mitch even challenges Stanley to a fight. Of course it is too late. Stella's inability to oppose Stanley and Mitch's moral horror at Blanche's past had already taken their toll.

Before leaving this endlessly fascinating play, two further notes about two misconceptions that often find their way in reviews.

One is the preposterous notion about Mitch and Oedipal complex. This is simply nonsense. Karl Malden was right on target when he remarked that his character hates his mother. Isaac Asimov's words about Hamlet may well be applied, in a less intense way, to Mitch as well: it is "not unconscious love that explains his actions, but a very conscious and reasonable hate." It may be argued that Mitch's hate is not conscious, but nor is there any indication on his part about love or sexual desire for his mother. He makes few comments about her and they never suggest anything but the attitude of a man who is submissive son and not an insensitive human being. Also, it should not be forgotten, as demonstrated by his cigarette case and the story connected with it that he tells Blanche (Scene 3), that Mitch has already escaped once from the tyranny of his mother, or at least he would have if the girl in question hadn't died.

The second misconception is to disparage the character of Stella because she endures Stanley's brutishness without any complain, let alone resistance. Leaving aside her lack of physical strength to resist and the uselessness of verbal arguments with somebody as cocksure as Stanley, Stella has her own, if purely sexual, justification: ''But there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark – that sort of make everything else seem – unimportant.'' If this too is offensive to the more fastidious readers, who are well advised to skip reading the works of this particular playwright, it is worth mentioning that what Stella has to cope with is by no means a rarity. This is clearly demonstrated by the scene between Eunice and Steve Hubbel. It's a very minor incident between very minor characters, but a consummate dramatist like Tennessee Williams would never have introduced it unless he wanted to show that domestic violence in New Orleans from the late 1940s is common. Whether this really was the case is of course absolutely irrelevant.

The cliché goes that nobody lives on an island. I believe this to be an illusion. The truth, it seems to me, is exactly the opposite: nearly everybody lives on an island. Most people just manage to build bridges. Some of these are rickety rope affairs, others are as mighty as the Golden Gate, so the quality of communication varies greatly. Very few are fortunate enough to build whole isthmuses between the islands, thus enjoying the most perfect merging of personalities (or souls, if you like) in so imperfect and appallingly material a world. But there are also those who never manage to build even the most miserable bridge. They have to be satisfied with glimpses of other lands; distant or not, blurred by clouds and mists or not, but inaccessible all the same.

So, in the end, don't we all, in one degree or another, depend on the kindness of strangers?

Never mind all the above. It's a great play and a great movie. Somehow I can't quite separate them; even Blanche's confused way of talking is uncannily well-matched by Tennessee's masterful use of the art of punctuation, dashes and commas especially. Despite quite a few topical references that have become dated, the major themes of Streetcar are every bit as relevant today as they were when the play opened on Broadway nearly 55 years ago. This will remain so as long as people want to be together and maintain meaningful relationships on a long-term basis.

So much for Streetcar. The other two plays could hardly have been more different. It has been claimed – by Gore Vidal, no less – that Tennessee always worked with the same stock characters. I don't see it that way. If you are so inclined, you may find a number of superficial similarities between Amanda and Blanche, Boss Finley and Big Daddy, even Brick Pollitt and Chance Wayne if you like. But that's just scratching the surface. Immediately beneath that surface all those characters have marked individuality. And so do the plays.


Sweet Bird of Youth is set in St Cloud, a mythical town along the Gulf Coast (perhaps in Florida?), and the whole action takes place within less than 24 hours. It's a very seedy story of drugs, blackmail, lechery, frustration, violence and venereal disease, regularly spiced up with family conflicts, transitory glory, political propaganda and, above all, passed youth. In lesser hands such material would have turned as a cheap shocker, at best giving a few hours light entertainment. But under Tennessee's hands an absorbing, poignant and disturbing study of human weakness emerged. It extends way beyond its limited time span and it delves far deeper than the unpleasant surface may lead you believe.

Chance Wayne has the same problem as the Count of Monte Cristo: he can't defeat time. He has passed his youth – at 29! – and there is nothing left for him. He comes to realise, finally, that it was only the seemingly imperishable glory of youth that made him endure his miserable life so far. The discovery is fatal. Do you think his first name is accidental? Not at all. The man has no chance.

At first glance it's easy to be impatient with Chance. How on earth could he ever think that this crazy plan of his may succeed? Kidnapping this fading movie star and blackmailing her with drugs like that. And why should he suppose that ''his girl'', Heavenly, whom he hasn't seen in years, would be interested in his dreamy fairy-tale about Hollywood career? Especially considering that the last time they saw each other she came only so far as to shout ''Chance, I'm sick of your lies.'' Several times does he come back to St Cloud to be with her – only to leave her again, ostensibly to make money/name/whatever for their happiness together. Meanwhile he was in the army for a while, when ''that thing in Korea came along'', but made a living mostly as a gigolo. And now he is going to become a Hollywood star!

In short, Chance is a weak and spineless creature, utterly incapable of facing the hard reality of life. His vain posturing as a would-be success on the West Coast is outrageous. His tremendously condescending attitude to his old acquaintances, even more so. Throughout much of the play he is indeed obnoxious. Yes, it is very easy to be enraged by Chance Wayne. But if you really are, you’re only scratching the surface.

At second glance, Chance is a good deal more than an ordinary misfit. He is a humanist and an idealist; in short, he is a dreamer. He dreams of the same thing that all human beings want, consciously or not, but seldom achieve: freedom to fulfill themselves. Unlike the vast majority, however, he is not willing to sacrifice it for security. Though capable of cruelty when his impulses are thwarted, he is entirely devoid of envy and malice, his ironic, but good-natured, comments on his former friends notwithstanding. This is quite an achievement considering the life he had so far led. In the end, he even reveals himself capable of rare magnanimity: he goes down, but he refuses to take others with him. As for his philosophical speculations, you may be tempted to regard them as ridiculously simplistic, but I think you’d do better to consider them seriously:

Princess, the great difference between people in this world is not between the rich and the poor or the good and the evil, the biggest of all differences in this world is between the ones that had or have pleasure in love and those that haven't and hadn't any pleasure in love, but just watched it with envy, sick envy. The spectators and the performers. I don't mean just ordinary pleasure or the kind you can buy, I mean great pleasure, and nothing that’s happened to me or to Heavenly since can cancel out the many long nights without sleep when we gave each other such pleasure in love as very few people can look back on in their lives…

Of course he is wrong. The events of the play, largely but not entirely due to his incapacity and irresolution, did “cancel out” whatever there was, however beautiful, between him and Heavenly. In some parallel universe, where free will is a little more than illusion and people care a little more of each other, Chance Wayne would have made something decent of his life. Not in this universe, not in this society, not in this play. “Society often forgives the criminal; it never forgives the dreamer.” These words of Oscar Wilde, written well over half a century before Sweet Bird of Youth, summarise the tragedy of Chance Wayne better than anything.

For Chance, as far as I’m concerned, is a genuine tragic character. Like all tragic characters, he precariously balances on the thin rope between bliss and despair. The fatal flaw in his nature, if you can pinpoint but one reason for his downfall, is not vanity or vacillation; these are secondary side effects. It is his goodness; the inclination to cause no harm, the desire to give more than he has taken. Ironically enough, this is expressed most eloquently by his work as a gigolo which did more good than many a preacher and missionary:

Princess: What did they pay you?
Chance: I gave people more than I took. Middle-aged people I gave back a feeling of youth. Lonely girls? Understanding, appreciation! An absolutely convincing show of affection. Sad people, lost people? Something light and uplifting! Eccentrics? Tolerance, even odd things they long for…

Hypocritical, you say? Just make-believe? Yes, certainly, but so what? All those people Chance brought happiness to never knew it was make-believe. For them it had all the appearance of reality.

The curious relationship between Chance and the Princess forms the core of the play. It starts as mutual exploitation but ends on a much warmer note, meanwhile passing through some pretty tempestuous stages. It is a shattering experience for both of them. She comes to realise, not without surprise, that she is still capable of tenderness towards other people. She still cares. The callous world of show business hasn’t destroyed everything. He comes to realise that the sweet bird of youth has flown. It is not coming back and he has nothing to fall back to.

The Princess is a bafflingly fascinating character herself; together with Karen Stone, she is among Tennessee’s finest creations in the “depressed aging actress” category. Like Chance, she is a combination of misleading surface and surprising depth. Unlike Chance, however, she has a greater capacity for both internal analysis and external action. The difference between them is one of degree rather than of kind. And as so often happened, the female psyche brought out the best in Tennessee. It is left to the Princess to make the most perceptive portrait of Chance and herself. She sees clearly what is quite beyond his meagre powers of observation:

Princess: We are two monsters, but with this difference between us. Out of the passion and torment of my existence I have created a thing that I can unveil, a sculpture, almost heroic, that I can unveil, which is true.

This is precisely the point. Chance’s life is one of profound emptiness. The only thing he ever had that gave it some semblance of meaning was Heavenly. And now he’s lost her forever, not least because he was responsible, though he didn’t know it at the time, for infecting her with a hideous, disfiguring venereal disease. It’s a fine stroke of dramatic irony on Tennessee’s part to make Chance’s work as a gigolo source of both some of his best and some of his worst deeds.

One of the hallmarks of the truly great play, and something Tennessee confessed to aim self-consciously at[2], is the essential uncertainty about the characters that gives you ample room for speculation after the final curtain. What chance would they have had, Chance and the Princess, if they had left the stage together? Would she really help him to find himself? Or would he turn into a kept man on a leash? I’d say the chances are fifty-fifty. The Princess herself has the Hand of Doom hanging over her. Does she realise it? In the stage directions, Tennessee has given us priceless clues under the form of a “note”. Just like Chance’s “attitude should be self-recognition but not self-pity”, so the Princess is “really equally doomed”. He is emphatic that “to indicate she is going on to further triumph would be to falsify her future.” Deep down inside, she knows that comeback she has achieved with her last movie, no matter how promising it may seem at the moment, would be short-lived. “Both are faced with castration”, Tennessee brutally finishes this note, Chance literally, the Princess figuratively. Perhaps the author in this case was a trifle overzealous to explain himself; quite the same conclusion may be drawn from these poignant words:

Princess: Chance, we’ve got to go on.
Chance: Go on to where? I couldn’t go past my youth, but I’ve gone past it.
Princess: You’re still young, Chance.
Chance: Princess, the age of some people can only be calculated by the level of – the level of – rot in them. And by that measure I’m ancient.
Princess: What am I? – I know, I’m dead, as old Egypt… Isn’t it funny? We’re still sitting here together, side by side in this room, like we were occupying the same bench on a train – …

This is how that odd romance ends. Well, almost. In the very last lines, the Princess, then in the presence of Tom Junior and his gang of butchers who apparently don’t object, offers to take Chance with her. This is the moment when we realise that she has, not just a real empathy with Chance’s predicament, but more than negligible amount of goodness in her. Many others would have given up Chance as a lost cause – and with good reason. Even more would have refused to have anything to do with him if they had been treated as the Princess was in Act II, Scene 2. “Get the lady a wheelchair”, said Chance in the middle of the crowded bar. But she understood it was the frustrating circumstances, not his real self, that was speaking.

You have to love a girl named Heavenly, but she is the least developed of the main characters. Like her brother, Tom Junior, she seldom escapes the menacing shadow of her father. Boss Finley may well be the most detestable character Tennessee ever created. Nasty father, corrupt politician, vile racist, pseudo-religious power-obsessed megalomaniac, there is not a single even faintly redeeming quality in his make-up. Yes, he condemns “a certain operation on a young black gentleman” (castration by the white mob, in other words), he thinks it is “deplorable”, yet he understands “the emotions the lay behind it”. To his credit, it’s never made clear whether he shares such notions personally or is only using them in his speeches to manipulate the crowd (though that’s quite bad enough). Consciously or not, this man is using everything and everybody for his own self-aggrandizement. This certainly includes his children whom he treats with a combination of faint contempt (Tom Junior) and phony affection (Heavenly).

Even Boss Finley, for all his power, cannot altogether escape the ravages of Time. He finds it harder and harder to play God in St Cloud. The skeletons in his cupboard (Heavenly’s venereal disease and subsequent hysterectomy) creep out; more and more often hecklers interrupt his ridiculous speeches in order to ask embarrassing questions. Tennessee being Tennessee, he does not neglect the carnal aspect, either. Boss Finley can no longer “cut the mustard”, as his mistress Miss Lucy, a small character with big charm, has been careful to inform everybody by writing this message on the mirror in the ladies’ room with her lipstick. And yet, Boss Finley more or less avoids the tragedy in the end. There are indications that his glory is coming to an end, but it may still endure for quite some time. He is much less doomed than either Chance or the Princess. This is one of the things that make this play a tragedy.

The only fault with the whole work I can find is the melodramatic finale, the very last words of Chance which close the curtain. It seems to me unduly sentimental that he should address his cold-hearted butchers thus:

I don’t ask for your pity, but just for your understanding – not even that – no. Just for your recognition of me in you, and the enemy, time, in us all.

This would be a terrific conclusion if it were addressed to the audience as a soliloquy. Then again, maybe it was. I know in twentieth-century prose drama the practice was long considered outdated. But in many of his later plays – for example Small Craft Warnings (1973) and Vieux Carré (1977) – Tennessee did use monologues that were addressed, if not directly to the audience, certainly not to any of the characters either; they seemed to happen outside of such mundane conventions like time and space. Perhaps he started as early as 1959. Perhaps Chance’s last words were the closest to genuine soliloquy he ever came to (though his life story in Act II, Scene 2, comes pretty close, too); the stage direction before them reads simply “rising and advancing to the forestage”. For my part, this admittedly a little speculative addressing of the audience makes the conclusion much more affecting. If I were a director, I would certainly suggest it to the actor playing Chance Wayne.

Sweet Bird of Youth is one of Tennessee’s masterpieces, possibly his greatest dramatic study of his lifelong obsession: Time. Improbable as the plot may be, the people ring true. Like the two other plays in this volume, there are four main characters here, two major ones (Chance and the Princess) and two relatively minor ones (Boss Finley and Heavenly), and none two of them could have been more different. Thus the play has the emotive power of a great operatic quartet, for example “Bella figlia dell’amore” from Verdi’s Rigoletto. What a masterful feat of characterization! And what a devastating tragedy! Only the disagreeable characters (Boss Finley and the watered-done copy of himself), as it often happens in this world, survive the apocalypse. All of the rest are either ruined (Chance, Heavenly) or well on their way to be ruined (the Princess). The reasons are extremely complex of course, but the common denominator is clear enough. Time is an enemy to us all.


The Glass Menagerie is an intimate, lyrical, wistful and poignant play. It’s a memory play in which everything happens in a kind of surreal atmosphere. There is no need for me to try to give any idea of it. I can merely quote the dramatist’s beautifully written and highly revealing essays “The Characters” and “Production Notes” (a very good reminder that such pieces are well worth reading) as well as the opening speech of the central character, Tom, a poet working in the warehouse of a large shoe company, obviously based (please note: based) on Tennessee himself.

The Characters” should be quoted complete. It supplies concise insight into all four characters that no actor or actress can afford to miss:

AMANDA WINGFIELD [the mother]: A little woman of great but confused vitality clinging frantically to another time and place. Her characterization must be carefully created, not copied from type. She is not paranoiac, but her life is paranoia. There is much to admire in Amanda, and as much to love and pity as there is to laugh at. Certainly she has endurance and a kind of heroism, and though her foolishness makes her unwittingly cruel at times, there is tenderness in her slight person.

LAURA WINGFIELD [her daughter]: Amanda, having failed to establish contact with reality, continues to live in vitally in her illusions, but Laura’s situation is even graver. A childhood illness has left her crippled, one leg slightly shorter than the other, and held in a brace. This defect need not be more than suggested on the stage. Stemming from this, Laura’s separation increases till she is like a piece of her own glass collection, too exquisitely fragile to move from the shelf.

TOM WINGFIELD [her son, and the narrator of the play]: A poet with a job in a warehouse. His nature is not remorseless, but to escape from a trap he has to act without pity.

JIM O’CONNOR [the gentleman caller]: A nice, ordinary, young man.

The “Production Notes” contain one of Tennessee’s most brutal attacks on realism. I can’t say that I share his near-contempt for photography as an art, but I do see his point. It is striking to observe how many writers, profoundly different in each and every aspect, have steered clear of realism: as far as playwrights are concerned, we may start with Shakespeare, include Wilde and Shaw in between, and finish with Tennessee himself; as far as writers of narrative fiction are concerned, Maugham and Maupassant, or Balzac and Dickens, are but a few examples. For what is realism? An imitation of reality! This may be a convenient way to hide one’s mediocrity, but it’s definitely no art at all. Is it strange that it appears to be largely a twentieth-century phenomenon? Tennessee was an exception, though. He never was a realist. He was a writer who aimed at realistic presentation of truth – a very different matter. Be that as it may, Tennessee’s reflections are very much worthy of reflection:

When a play employs unconventional techniques, it is not, or certainly shouldn’t be, trying to escape its responsibility of dealing with reality, or interpreting experience, but is actually or should be attempting to find a closer approach, a more penetrating and vivid expression of things as they are. The straight realistic play with its genuine frigidaire and authentic ice-cubes, its characters that speak exactly as its audience speaks, corresponds to the academic landscape and has the same virtue of photographic likeness. Everyone should know nowadays the unimportance of photographic in art: the truth, life, or reality is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest, in essence, only transformation, through changing into other forms than those which were merely present in appearance.

Finally, Tom opens the play in a most captivating way, immediately capturing the attention of the audience:

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.
The play is memory.
Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.
In memory everything happens to music. That explains the fiddle in the wings.
I am the narrator in the play, but also a character in it. The other characters are my mother Amanda, my sister Laura, and a gentleman caller who appears in the final scenes.
He is the most realistic character in the play, being an emissary from a world of reality that we were somehow set apart from.
But since I have a poet’s weakness for symbols, I am using this character also as a symbol; he is the long-delayed but always expected something that we live for.
There is a fifth character in the play who doesn’t appear except in this larger-than-life-size photograph over the mantel.
This is our father who left us a long time ago.
He was a telephone man who fell in love with long distances; he gave up his job with the telephone company and skipped the light fantastic out of town…
The last we heard of him was a picture postcard from Mazatlan, on the Pacific coast of Mexico, containing a message of two words –
‘Hello – Good-bye!’ and no address.
I think the rest of the play will explain itself…

Isn’t this a tantalising opening? And yes, the play does explain itself with rare lucidity. I will limit myself to a few observations.

It is of utmost importance to approach this play without any preconceived notions. This is true of every work of art, of course, but it is especially pertinent to highly original works. The first time I read Menagerie I was rather disappointed. I had just finished Streetcar which I thought (and still do) one of the finest tragedies ever to have reached the theatre stage. After this shattering experience, I found Menagerie a lacklustre chamber piece of no special merit. Human folly is truly endless! My initial reaction was very unjust, not to use stronger words. Now I know that Menagerie is every bit as great a tragedy as Streetcar. It is just different, more subdued, more subtle, more elusive. Both plays are built around quartets of main characters, both are set in specific, charmingly romantic suburban surroundings (St Louis and New Orleans), and both consist of separate scenes not noticeably organised into acts. But that’s just about all they share.

(To be precise, it is not entirely accurate to claim that Menagerie is not separated into acts. The last two scenes are considerably longer than the others and are usually considered as something like Act II. This makes perfect dramatic sense as these are the only scenes in which the gentleman caller appears and there is very little time (one dinner) that elapses between them. Indeed, the author himself separates the play in his notes to “Part I. Preparation for a Gentleman Caller.” and ”Part II. The Gentleman calls.”)

At first reading, or seeing, the play may strike one as rambling without rhyme or reason. Nothing could be further from the truth. Each scene is carefully crafted as to contribute to the character and plot development. Only when the play is over does one realise how inexorably it has worked towards the tragic denouement. And make no mistake: this is tragedy. The gentleman caller is the only one who escapes the devastation; then again, I wonder how often he will look later at that broken glass unicorn and remember wistfully the strange girl that gave it to him, uneasily wondering what happened with her. It’s frightening to contemplate the future of Amanda and Laura. Without the only breadwinner in the house, they will at best starve. Both are completely unfit – though for very different reasons: old-fashioned refinement in Amanda’s case, pathologically introvert personality in Laura’s – to earn their living in this society. Tom’s bleak fate, of course, forms the chilling conclusion of the play. He is doomed to be haunted by the demons of his past, no matter how far away he runs. Each of these characters contributes to the family tragedy, yet all of them are presented in a sympathetic light. Tennessee’s formidable powers of characterisation have seldom been employed with greater success.

Biographical parallels should not to be carried too far. Much as Amanda, Laura and Tom were based on Edwina, Rose and Tennessee himself, respectively, they still are characters in a fictional story. The very nature of the play as “memory”, and even more so the author’s stressing the “poetic license” memories usually take with facts, should warn amateur biographers about the dangers of their fiction-to-life method. The real Tom, for example, never left his mother and sister for good. On the contrary, he kept in touch and supported them until death intervened. And that was a long time indeed; Edwina died in 1980, aged 95, less than three years before her son; Rose outlived her younger brother by 13 years. As soon as Menagerie started making pots of money, Tennessee assigned half of the royalties to his mother, thus allowing her, for the first time in her life, to become independent of his dissolute father whom she couldn’t stand. For all we know, Edwina did indeed disapprove of her son’s passion for “the insane Mr. Lawrence”, and though she refused to recognise herself in Amanda she probably was much the same incarnation of Southern vivacity and politeness, yet she was also much more appreciative of Tennessee’s vocation than Amanda’s “you selfish dreamer!” suggests. The same caveat must be kept in mind when comparing the play to “Portrait of a Girl in Glass”, a short story from the early 1940s that provided the basis – please note: the basis – for the play. Such parallels, biographical or artistic, make for a nice diversion, but they seldom lead to deeper understanding.

One of the things that strike me most strongly in Menagerie is the astonishing range of moods and styles for such a short play. It covers the whole gamut from high-voltage drama (e.g. the quarrel between Tom and Amanda in Scene 3) to meltingly beautiful romance (the last scene). All scenes are permeated with Tennessee’s prodigious sense of humour, in itself a most diverse phenomenon that spans the mini-universe between Amanda’s constant chattering about her glorious youth, not to mention her singing the great Southern hit “Lemonade, lemonade / Made in the shade and stirred with a spade – / Good enough for any old maid!”, and Tom’s subtle irony at the expense of everybody else (save Laura), sometimes turning into harsh sarcasm when he touches on social issues. All this is clothed in some of the most perfect, most powerful and most deceptively simple prose ever put on paper. Gorgeous turns of phrase abound in the stage directions, for instance the fire-escape being “a touch of accidental poetic truth, for all of these huge buildings are always burning with the slow and implacable fires of human desperation.” As an example of superb characterization in the dialogue, succinct yet penetrating, I give here the personal history of Jim O’Connor as presented by Tom in the beginning of Scene 6:

In high school Jim was a hero. He had tremendous Irish good nature and vitality with the scrubbed and polished look of white chinaware. He seemed to move in a continual spotlight. He was a star in basketball, captain of the debating club, president of the senior class and the glee club and he sang the male lead in the annual light operas. He was always running or bounding, never just walking. He seemed always at the point of defeating the law of gravity. He was shooting with such velocity through his adolescence that you would logically expect him to arrive at nothing short of the White House by the time he was thirty. But Jim apparently ran into more interference after his graduation from Soldan. His speed had definitely slowed. Six years after he left high school he was holding a job that wasn’t much better than mine.

Though I’m convinced that Tennessee was much less of a social reformer than some critics try to make him out, the play does have its share of social critique. The Wingfields are presented as members of the “largest and fundamentally enslaved section of American society to avoid fluidity and differentiation and to exist and function as one interfused mass of automatism”, their lives wasted in “vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living-units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centers”. It’s all very Huxleyan; very dystopian, claustrophobic, pessimistic and frightening. And it’s all, alas, still very relevant to our own times, often mistakenly thought to be more advanced and more progressive. Tom describes all this to the audience with complete simplicity; no high-flown obscurity or bombastic phrases for him. Yet his monologue certainly has a peculiar kind of poetry:

Across the alley from us was the Paradise Dance Hall. On evenings in spring the windows and doors were open and the music came outdoors. Sometimes the lights were turned out except for a large glass sphere that hung from the ceiling. It would turn slowly about and filter the dusk with delicate rainbow colors. Then the orchestra played a waltz or a tango, something that had a slow and sensuous rhythm. Couples would come outside, to the relative privacy of the alley. You could see them kissing behind ash-pits and telephone poles.
This was the compensation for lives that passed like mine, without any change or adventure.
Adventure and change were imminent in this year. They were waiting around the corner for all these kids.
Suspended in the mist over Berchtesgaden, caught in the folds of Chamberlain’s umbrella.
In Spain there was Guernica!
But here there was only hot swing music and liquor, dance halls, bars, and movies, and sex that hung in the gloom like a chandelier and flooded the world with brief, deceptive rainbows….
All the world was waiting for bombardments!

But my favourite what-a-sick-society part is the blistering picture of Hollywood as a giant brainwashing machine bend on producing mass delusions. This is hardly less relevant nowadays. Since going to the movies, together with his writing poems on shoeboxes, is Tom’s favourite form of escape from reality (as are the past for Amanda and the glass menagerie for Laura), he is in excellent position to sum up the matter:

People go to the movies instead of moving! Hollywood characters are supposed to have all the adventures for everybody in America, while everybody in America sits in a dark room and watches them have them! Yes, until there’s a war. That’s when adventure becomes available to the masses! Everyone’s dish, not only Gable’s! Then the people in the dark room come out of the dark room to have some adventures themselves – Goody, goody! – It’s our turn now, to go to the South Sea Island – to make a safari – to be exotic, far-off! – But I’m not patient. I don’t want to wait till then. I’m tired of the movies and I am about to move!

“People go to the movies instead of moving!” Change “movies” for any form of moronic mass entertainment (e.g. reality TV, the most pernicious of all) and “moving” for “living” and there you are.

Finally, the final scene deserves a special mention. This is the perfect romance: beautiful and doomed. It happens in real time, right before your eyes, yet it feels entirely convincing; the fact that Jim and Laura had known each other in high-school (a moment missing in the short story) is crucial for that. You know it would have worked out flawlessly. You know it is the only thing that could have saved Laura. This makes it all the more painful when it is shattered, completely and unexpectedly – yet convincingly. This is Laura’s breaking point. The girl of glass has been broken and she can’t be mended. You feel she would never resume contact with reality. This is what makes this play a devastating tragedy as far as I am concerned. After this extremely affecting scene, every other ending but a bleak one would have been inappropriate. This is what Hollywood did in the 1950 movie version – and it totally ruined the original. Tennessee knew better. He finished the play in the only possible way – the saddest one:

I left Saint Louis. I descended the steps of this fire-escape for a last time and followed, from then on, in my father’s footsteps, attempting to find in motion what was lost in space –
I traveled around a great deal. The cities swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from the branches. I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something. It always came upon me unawares, taking me altogether by surprise.
Perhaps it was a familiar bit of music. Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass –
Perhaps I am walking along a street at night, in some strange city, before I have found companions. I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The window is filled with pieces of colored glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colors, like bits of a shattered rainbow.
Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes . . .
Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!
I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger – anything that can blow your candles out!
(Laura bends over the candles.)
 – for nowadays the world is lit by lightning! Blow out your candles, Laura – and so good-bye. . . .
(She blows the candles out.)

P.S. The cover is credited as ''The Poker Night, 1948, detail, by Thomas Hart Benton'', but this is surely Scene 3 from Streetcar, probably inspired by the Broadway production at the time. The standing man in the background bears more than a passing resemblance to Marlon Brando, as does the blond woman to Jessica Tandy.

[1] Introduction to Collected Stories by Tennessee Williams, New Directions, 1985, pp. xxiii-xxiv.

[2] See the essay "Critic Says "Evasion," Writer Says "Mystery", reprinted in Where I Live, New Directions, 1978, ed. Christine R. Day.

The point is, of course, arguable. You may prefer to be told precisely what to believe about every character in a play; you may prefer to know precisely what will be the future course of their lives, happy or disastrous or anywhere in between.

Then I am not your playwright. My characters make my play. I always start with them, they take spirit and body in my mind. Nothing that they say or do is arbitrary or invented. They build the play about them like spiders weaving their webs, sea creatures making their shells. I live with them for a year and a half or two years and I know them far better than I know myself, since I created them and not myself.

But still they must have that quality of life which is shadowy.


Frankly, I don't want people to leave the Morosco Theatre knowing everything about all the characters they have witnessed that night in violent interplay, I don't want them to be quite certain what will happen to these characters that night or in the morning. Because they themselves, when they step out of the Morosco, cannot be certain that a truck will not run them down while they are hailing a taxi. I give them views, but not certainties.

Every moment of human existence is alive with uncertainty. You may call it ambiguity, you may even call it evasion. I want them to leave the Morosco as they do leave it each night, feeling that they have met with a vividly allusive, as well as disturbingly elusive, fragment of human experience, one that not only points at truth but at the mysteries of it, much as they will leave this world when they leave it, still wondering somewhat about what happened to them, and for what reason or purpose.

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