Tennessee Williams | Critical Essay by John Timpane

This literature criticism consists of approximately 13 pages of analysis & critique of Tennessee Williams.
This section contains 3,608 words
(approx. 13 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by John Timpane

SOURCE: "'Weak and Divided People': Tennessee Williams and the Written Woman," in Feminist Rereadings of Modern American Drama, edited by June Schlueter, Associated University Presses, 1989, pp. 171-80.

In the following essay, Timpane examines Williams's creation of female characters whose dynamic ambiguity resists the tendency toward idealization or oversimplification. Timpane contends that Williams offers "an authentic and authoritative depiction of female foolishness, limitations, and error."

Like much of Tennessee Williams's public image, the tradition that he was sympathetic to women began with Williams himself. In his essays, memoirs, and letters, throughout his compulsive project of self-exploration, he took pains to delineate how his experience of women surfaced in his drama. Mothers and sons war continually; brothers and sisters suffer adoration. Nancy M. Tischler has written well about the succession of predatory mother figures in Williams, ranging from Flora Goforth of The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore and Alexandra of Sweet Bird of Youth to Amanda of The Glass Menagerie, Violet Venable of Suddenly Last Summer, and Maxine of Night of the Iguana. Further, in one of the most public of his many public games, Williams toyed with the name Rose and the image of roses in play after play. Williams even suggested that his early adoration of his mother and sister had contributed to the development of his homosexuality. In a letter to Kenneth Tynan, he wrote, "I used to have a terrific crush on the female members of my family, mother, sister, grandmother, and hated my father, a typical pattern for homosexuals." That last phrase strikes a familiar Williams tone. Aspiring to the detachment of scientific observation, it amounts to a claim that the writer is knowledgeable and candid enough to be at once analyst and analysand.

Yet when we reread a number of Williams's plays, we might well question the nature of his "identification" with women. It will not be enough to say that Williams's women are like Williams himself—American, Southern, liminal, "mutilated," sexually compulsive, given to drugs and alcohol, mendacious, and so forth. Nor will it be enough to let pity speak for itself, to repeat with many critics that the typical Williams plot involves "the defeat or destruction of a highly pitiable protagonist." The call on the audience to pity the female protagonist is very strong. But the quality of this pity is strained; it is not pity because of what we know but pity in spite of what we know. Nor is it enough to say simply that Williams's characters simultaneously excite both sympathy and antipathy. They do, but they excite a range of other feelings as well. Those characters, especially his women, call on the viewer to regard a true pluralism of possibilities—which almost always includes ambivalence and repulsion. Female characters in Williams's drama are deliberately constructed to arouse these two feelings in the audience. This remarkably consistent technique suggests a great deal about the construction of a female character, as well as about "feminist" approaches to both drama and criticism.

Here I must pause to define what constitutes a worthy characterization of a woman. First, it does not seem necessary that she be written to a program—that is, that she have any required attributes at all. What does seem necessary is that there be a wide range of "play" in the character. I mean "play," for the viewer or reader, is the kind of ambivalent play that Mikhail Bakhtin sensed in the comedy of Rabelais and the novels of Dostoevski. The object of this play will be the feelings the written woman evokes. She should not be subject to complete consumption—that is, some of her attributes should escape paraphrase or easy reconciliation. To insist on such play is to insist that the written woman not be prejudicially reduced, oversimplified, or idealized. Such play can exist even in stereotypical characters; we find it, for example, in Falstaff. The few truly interesting female characters in canonical works (my list includes Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, and the Duchess of Malfi) benefit from this play. Their polytonality, which forces viewers or readers to take a judgmental stance—or a stance from which they presume to judge without actually being able to do so—is part of what produces the particular effect of Emma or Anna, Blanche or Alma, or Catharine or Amanda on the reader or viewer.

This ambivalent play is evoked by many Williams women, especially in those he claimed he "liked" best. Williams often named either Blanche DuBois, Alma Winemuller, or Maggie the Cat as his "favorite" character. Of Alma, he said, "You see, Alma went through the same thing that I went through—from puritanical shackles to, well, complete profligacy." Maggie the Cat was the subject of a celebrated debate between director Elia Kazan and Williams, partly over how the audience was to interpret her. As Williams told it, Kazan "felt that the character of Margaret, while he understood that I sympathized with her and liked her myself, should be, if possible, more clearly sympathetic to an audience." It is significant that a character with Williams's avowed sympathy—he wrote that "Maggie the Cat [became] steadily more charming to me as I worked on her characterization"—should be so ambiguous as to prompt the director to ask for a revision. Further, the so-called "Broadway Version" of act 3, although it gives Maggie the last word, is not successful in editing out the ambivalence. In this version, her last speech reads

Oh you weak, beautiful people who give up with such grace. What you need is someone to take hold of you—gently, with love, and hand your life back to you, like something gold you let go of—and I can! I'm determined to do it—and nothing's more determined than a cat on a tin roof—is there? Is there, baby?

It is startling to realize that this revision is supposed to make Maggie "more clearly sympathetic to an audience." The original version had ended with Maggie crying "I do love you, Brick, I do!" and Brick canceling her avowal with "Wouldn't it be funny if that was true?" In the revision, this dialogue is replaced by Maggie's lyric determination to mold someone else's life—"with love," certainly, but also with inheritance, "gold," in mind. Indeed, it has been claimed that once the audience knows her background, all her actions become ambiguous. The revision of Cat emphasizes that Maggie will succeed through manipulation and mendacity; she will not transcend her conditions but rather will feed off them.

Williams was similarly vocal about his admiration of Leona Dawson of Small Craft Warnings: "She is the first really whole woman I have ever created and my first wholly triumphant character. She is truly devoted to life, however lonely." Presumably, the modifiers "whole," "triumphant," and "devoted" are meant to be positive. Yet all of them belong to the explosively ambiguous Williams vocabulary. As a character, Leona is a descendant of Hanna Jelkes of Night of the Iguana. She is "whole" in the sense of being mentally sane and possessing moral integrity. She insists on "respect" and "responsibility," inveighs at "CORRUPTION," and at one point screams "LET ME SET YOU STRAIGHT ABOUT WHAT'S A LADY!" When Doc, drunk and drugged, leaves to perform an illegal delivery, Leona tries to prevent him out of a well-founded fear for the lives of mother and baby. Events in the play leave no place for Leona, however. Her strong moral code, out of place at Monk's Place, clashes with her drunken soliloquies, penchant for violence, and petty neuroses. She is forced to leave her present lover, job, and circle of acquaintances, all because of Violet, a woman with no integrity or respect. Leona's emphatic physical and moral presence contrasts with Violet's lack of both. The "amorphous" Violet "has a sort of not-quite-with-it appearance," and she speaks of her present life as "a temporary arrangement." To drive home the impression of Violet's not quite being there, her rope-bound suitcase is on stage during the entire action. Yet it is Leona who is forced to leave and Violet who is allowed to stay. Leona packs up her trailer, and her plans for the future are "triumphant" only in a most equivocal way: "What I think I'll do is turn back to a faggot's moll when I haul up to Sausalito or San Francisco." In the same speech, the confidence she projects is stripped bare: "it scares me to be alone in my home on wheels built for two…." Violet's incompletion earns her at least a temporary stay in someone's bedroom; Leona's completion earns her a nighttime escape into the fog on the highway.

Other women—we may call them tragic protagonists—advertise their own ambiguity. Alma of Summer and Smoke says of herself,

Oh, I suppose I am sick, one of those weak and divided people who slip like shadows among you solid strong ones. But sometimes, out of necessity, we shadowy people take on a strength of our own.

Alma and other of Williams's tragic women are in transition, from youth to age, from integrity to degradation, from illusion to disillusion, from sexual certainty to sexual confusion. Violet of Small Craft Warnings is described as "Amorphous…. Something more like a possibility than a completed creature." Jim, Doc, Chance, Stanley Kowalski, Brick, Val, and other Williams's men are very often set or decided in some important way, with a corresponding loss of scope. The women, by virtue of their weakness and lack of closure, have greater mobility. Weakness and division, the propensity of having "two natures" or more, give the women a surplus of possibility, which makes them more productive, less exhaustible as characters.

In constructing a tragic woman, the literary artist faces a paradoxical task: to create a character with whom the audience finds something in common and yet to compel that audience eventually to take a critical distance from that character. Both sides of the task are essential. If the audience finds nothing recognizable in the character, no ground to share, then her fate is not likely to mean very much. Meaning also will be lost if the audience is not prompted to take a critical stance on the character—if the audience never feels the urge or the necessity to judge.

As soon as we recite these requirements, we can see why it has been so difficult to construct the tragic woman. For reasons I will address later, both the misogynist/gynephobe writer and the advocate will have trouble achieving the ambivalence and ambiguity required for tragedy. In contrast, Williams's women are defeated or destroyed not by male dominance, patriarchy, or misogyny but by their own predilection for destruction—that is, by their own desires. Laura of Glass Menagerie is awkward partly because of her self-enforced virginity; Alma of Summer and Smoke chooses to take up with the young man at the end of the play; Lady of Orpheus Descending chooses both to have Val's baby and to throw herself in front of the bullet that kills her; Catharine of Suddenly Last Summer refuses to let go of Sebastian or her version of what happened to him. Male dominance is of little interest; Williams's plays feature some of the most inert male protagonists in drama. Instead, the emphasis falls on something literature needs: an authentic and authoritative depiction of female foolishness, limitations, and error. What worries so many critics about Shakespeare's treatment of Ophelia, Desdemona, and Lady Macbeth is here, too—indeed, much more consistently than in Shakespeare—the insistence that it is necessary, cathartic, and therefore healthy to suspect, hate, or despise certain women, especially those one "likes" best; to measure their failings, even when these failings are attractive; and to watch them destroy themselves by their own free wills, even when that freedom is an illusion.

A case in point is that of Catharine Holly of Suddenly Last Summer, whose "destruction or defeat" is predicted from the beginning of the play. The terms of Catharine's oppression are not dictated by men but by the rich, powerful Mrs. Venable, who tries to bribe Dr. Cukrowicz into giving Catharine a prefrontal lobotomy. Audience repulsion toward Mrs. Venable is carefully crafted: in the stage directions ("She has light orange or pink hair"); in stage setting, a surreal jungle of viscid flora that is to resemble "organs of a body, torn out"; and in her attitude toward her inferiors, including Catharine: "Most people's lives—what are they but trails of debris, each day more debris, more debris, long, long trails of debris." Thus Catharine has been denigrated before she even appears before the audience, and by an extremely unsympathetic character. Yet one of her first actions is to stub the burning end of her cigarette into Sister Felicity's hand—and suddenly Catharine shares in the repulsion.

That burst of senseless violence ignites a series of ambifying changes. The distinct (or indistinct) possibility of Catharine's madness is a standard appeal for audience ambivalence in that madness compels distance as well as pity: "How can you hate anybody and still be sane? You see, I still think I'm sane!" Catharine and her relatives may share in Sebastian's inheritance if she agrees to stop telling her version of Sebastian's death. Her justified fear of Dr. Cukrowicz initially attracts pity, but later she all but cooperates with him, almost inviting the needle. Her account of her first sexual experience and its possible implication in her possible madness similarly arouse both pity and distance. The former arises from the disastrous social and emotional consequences of her encounter at "the Duelling Oaks at the end of Esplanade Street" and the latter from the neurotic compulsiveness revealed in Catharine's character. She is given one of the play's most direct appeals for pity—"It's lonelier than death, if I've gone mad, it's lonelier than death"—and the play's bleakest, most repulsive pronouncement: "Yes, we all use each other and that's what we think of as love, and not being able to use each other is what's—hate."

Although near the end Catharine says that "I think the situation is—clear to me, now …," the closing ellipses resonate with the opposite possibility. At the end of the play, the audience knows very little for certain about her or the truth of her account of Sebastian's death. Her truthfulness is questionable from the start because she tells her story under compulsion and under the influence of thiopentone, widely believed in 1958 to be a "truth drug." Dr. Cukrowicz's last line, which closes the play, adds to the ambiguity: "I think we ought at least to consider the possibility that the girl's story could be true." This is a sentence divided against itself in an effort both to recognize and to deny the truth of Catharine's story. He has every reason to claim she has lied, yet he himself has administered the truth drug. Still, if he wants Mrs. Venable's bribe, he will refute the story and give himself grounds for ordering Catharine's lobotomy. His sentence is a timid attempt to buck the horror of Catharine's story and his own impulse to pity her. Yet it does suggest that Catharine may be lying—and she has reasons enough to do so. Her relatives can profit if she lies; she may wish to protect the sanctity of her relation with Sebastian. In the end, the truth of Catharine's story is only a "possibility." That possibility, the conflicting motives of all who surround Catharine, and her own conflicting motives add to the imminence of her destruction. She has sought her own undoing in a classical fashion, just as she had insisted on returning to the ballroom and ruining her reputation, had agreed to accompany Sebastian on his travels and then later had procured for him, and had followed him up the white hill of his destruction.

In short, the audience is not allowed to draw any conclusions about Catharine. In place of what the audience expects—a clear, unambiguous view of her there is instead a range of possibilities. To choose one way of interpreting her would be to deny the equal plausibility of other ways. As Williams knew, the standard bourgeois audience takes its first refuge in standard, bourgeois reactions. To deny such reactions or to mix them inextricably with more complex reactions forces members of the audience to play ambivalently with their repulsion. To use, hesitantly, a cant term, I might say that Williams has deconstructed his audience's response.

It is easy to see why ambiguity was dear to Williams. After all, ambiguity is a form of control. If an audience can consume a character completely, exhaust the possibilities of the character's meaning, the audience has exerted its power over the play, perhaps decisively so. If the playwright has designed the characters for the express purpose of being consumed, the playwright is playing to the audience, being a whore for the public. However, if inexhaustible characters and situations can be created, if there is always something that escapes paraphrase or immediate understanding, the play retains its power to arouse and perplex. (And, we might add, the playwright retains his or her power over the audience—the power of the originator, the privileged source.) Williams brooded constantly over such issues. His most spirited defense of ambiguity appeared in a note to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof:

Some mystery should be left in the revelation of a character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of a character in life, even in one's own character to himself. This does not absolve the playwright of his duty to observe and probe as clearly and deeply as he legitimately can: but it should steer him away from "pat" conclusions, facile definitions, which make a play just a play, not a snare for the truth of human experience.

Williams's main plea here is for the superior verisimilitude of ambiguity, but, in his essay "The Timeless World of a Play," he drives toward what might have been his main motivation:

Whether or not we admit it to ourselves, we are all haunted by a truly awful sense of impermanence. I have always had a particularly keen sense of this at New York cocktail parties, and perhaps that is why I drink the martinis almost as fast as I can snatch them from the tray. This sense is the febrile thing that hangs in the air. Horror of insincerity, of not meaning, overhangs these affairs like the cloud of cigarette smoke and the hectic chatter. This horror is the only thing, almost, that is left unsaid at such functions.

It is as if the playwright took refuge in ambiguity—a surplus of meaning, a refusal to eliminate interpretations—out of this horror of not meaning. In a way, ambiguity is a hedge against annihilation.

Williams's achievement is one of the most notoriously uneven in western drama. But, as suggested above, his method of writing women has advantages over both traditional and feminist methods. Writers who fear or hate women cannot allow the object of hatred or fear to be ambiguous; it must be idealized, stylized, trivialized. The written women must be made consumable, located on a pedestal, immobilized. Advocacy poses other obstacles. Women that undergo a programmatic fate cannot be tragic because their tragedy is largely external to the women themselves—theirs is supposed to be every woman's tragedy, being the inevitable effect of the male quest for dominance. The advocate writer thus will be ill-equipped to portray the truly ambiguous female because a clear brief must be carried for the plaintiff. (Advocacy has made it difficult to make one's women culpable.) A well-ground axe cuts too sharp, and the necessary tension between sympathy and judgment is lost. Both the misogynist writer and the advocate will have reasons for eliminating competing ways of reading the written woman. Neither kind of writer will allow the written woman to escape—and neither one wants that woman to escape the reader either. But, as seen above, Williams, perhaps out of his "horror of not meaning," seeks to place his women beyond reduction, to make sure they escape.

So we are driven to other possibilities, most of which carry us beyond standard questions of gender expectation. One early criticism was that Williams's women actually lost "universality" because their stories were too unique, not applicable to all humanity because they were individual case histories. But Williams's treatment of women does not admit of anything else. Of course one's women will refer to other women and other men, just as women do in the world outside the theater. But questions of "gender expectations" verge on the specious and banal because individual women differ so widely in their behaviors. What set of expectations could possibly hold for Alexandra del Lago, Blanche Dubois, Leona, Catharine, and Serafina? In the end, little of much importance. (What set of gender expectations would hold for Timon, Othello, Hamlet, and Macbeth?) Williams's women find themselves in circumstances that demand that they take on as many roles—psychological, sexual, and class—as they need to achieve the failure they desire. Thus, rereading Williams exposes the current hunt for such expectations as a reverse form of prejudice, a project of construction doomed by its own assumptions. Construction of the female must be largely idiographic—that is, the individual character must be built up on her own, out of continuities and disruptions specific to her. It is of women as Williams writes of drama: "By a sort of legerdemain, events are made to remain events, rather than being reduced so quickly to being mere occurrences." Women should be represented as events, as special, unrepeatable happenings in time; they are not replicas or occurrences of any other events. Otherwise, the woman we write will be the woman we wish to write, and, worse, the woman that everyone else has always written.

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