Sitting in the Rectory living room, ostensibly working on a picture puzzle, Mrs. Winemiller, wife of the Episcopal minister of Glorious Hill, Mississippi, and mother of Alma, suddenly throws a piece on the floor and shouts in frustration, “The pieces don’t fit!” That’s a moment from scene two of part one of Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke, but I’ve always felt that it’s a kind of clue to Williams’s dramaturgy—the answer, if you will, to why some readers and viewers of his plays have trouble with the dramatist’s writing.
There are still people, both theatergoers and theater pros like directors and reviewers, who view Williams as a Realist. Sometimes they modify that characterization by calling him a romantic Realist or a lyric Realist, but he’s usually categorized, however informally, with Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, and his own contemporary Arthur Miller. But the label doesn’t actually correspond to the dramaturgy so there’s a lot of equivocating, explaining, noting exceptions—and complaining. There are too many symbols, some object. The dialogue is too flowery and ornate. The action is extreme, the characters are overdrawn, the situations are contrived. Like Mrs. Winemiller’s picture puzzle, in other words, the pieces don’t fit.
The problem with this common view of Williams’s playwriting is that it’s off-base. He isn’t a Realist—and he never was. As City University of New York English professor Roger Boxill bluntly stated: “[T]he fact is that Williams is never a realist in the photographic or journalistic sense.” When someone sees his plays, from Glass Menagerie in 1944, his first major success, to A House Not Meant to Stand and In Masks Outrageous and Austere, his last plays in the 1980s, through the lens of Realism, it’s exactly like trying to force square pegs into round holes. Some shapes tessellate, other’s don’t; the tiles of Williams’s creations aren’t designed to. Even a cursory examination of certain Williams plays like the 1953 Camino Real, Will Mr. Merriweather Return from Memphis? of 1969, I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow from 1970, or 1984’s The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. LeMonde, will make that very clear. (The playwright’s one-acts are nearly all strikingly non-realistic, ranging from Expressionistic to Surrealistic to Brechtian to Absurdist. Many of his short stories, too, contain salient non-realistic elements.) The pieces just won’t fit, no matter how much you try to jigger and force them. They weren’t meant to.
First let’s remind ourselves that Williams was, first (and always), a poet. Before he adopted the identity of Tennessee Williams, playwright from New Orleans, he was Thomas Lanier Williams III, poet from St. Louis. Poetry was his first love, and he published volumes of poems throughout his career, even when he was a famous and successful playwright. When Williams turned his hand to writing plays, he didn’t leave his poetry behind or set it aside. Williams biographer Lyle Leverich, who called his subject “a unique American phenomenon: the poet-playwright,” insisted that the dramatist “was never able to reconcile the diametric pull in being both a poet and a playwright” so that “it was the fusion of poet with playwright that gave him his uniqueness in the American theatre.” In his 1987 criticism of the dramatist’s work, Boxill asserted that Williams “is not a poet in the theatre but a theatre poet.” In his discussion of the plays, Boxill invoked the writer’s “poetic detail,” “the natural poetry of Southern American speech” in which Williams composed, and “his poetic temperament.” Poetry, in other words, infuses the very essence of Williams’s dramaturgy. Indeed, Williams’s friend from St. Louis, college schoolmate, and fellow poet Clark Mills McBurney, affirmed, “I think he has more poetry in his plays than in his poetry.”
If poetry depicts emotionally and sensuously charged human experience, usually in heightened language, then what Williams wrote is surely distinct from Realism—which by definition portrays the world on stage, including the speech, as a refection of actual life. (In another argument I would submit that the most renowned realistic playwrights, such as Ibsen—who introduced the form to theater—Strindberg, Chekhov—an inspiration for Williams—and Shaw, are not entirely Realists either. But that’s a discussion for another time.) Known as Clark Mills, Williams’s hometown friend went on to expand his sense of the dramatist’s writing:
I would say there is a quality that I think is unique to him. It has to do with the flow of his language and dialogue: It has some kind of a poetic quality to it. I don’t know of any other American playwright, living or dead, who has it. . . . [I]t wasn’t the language or the words or the sentences or the way they were put together; it was the “sound” of the voice that came through somehow. He seemed to “hear” the voice as much as he heard the words. And I think when you hear the voice like that, you’re in the realm of poetry.
In his biography of the writer, Leverich quoted the playwright from his journal: “The tragedy of a poet writing drama is that when he writes well—from the dramaturgic, technical pt. [sic] of view he is often writing badly. One must learn—(that is the craft, I suppose)—to fuse lyricism and realism into a congruous unit.” In other words, if you insist on judging by the prescribed criteria of dramaturgy (or, conversely, poetry), well . . . the pieces won’t fit. Because, as Leverich saw, the “antithetical pull of the poet, his truer self, against that of the dramatist,” can’t be reconciled. And I’ll argue that they aren’t meant to be.
In her analysis of Williams’s playwriting, Alice Griffin noted that playwright David Mamet described the esteemed artist’s plays as “the greatest dramatic poetry in the American language.” Griffin, a prolific theater scholar and noted educator, posited that Williams didn’t compose “poetic plays” in the vein of Maxwell Anderson (Elizabeth the Queen, Mary of Scotland, Winterset), but rather “dramatic poetry.” But though Griffin relied on Williams’s heightened speech to distinguish his writing, there was far more to the distinction than poetic language.
We should remember that, among his other important interests and preoccupations, Williams was also a painter and student of visual art. (He invoked many famous artists in his plays and in his commentary, from El Greco, an intuitive and subjective painter, to Giorgio de Chirico, a metaphysical artist and proto-Surrealist, to Hans Hofmann, an Abstract Expressionist. In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel features an artist who resembles Williams’s friend Jackson Pollock, another Abstract Expressionist.) Boxill noted that the playwright “plans his sets, costumes, and lighting with a painter’s eye,” for instance, and English and theater professor Signi Falk wrote that “Williams makes full use of light and color as if he himself were a painter.”
The playwright “employs a highly articulate visual language through which he gives concrete shape to his poetic perception,” asserted Esther Merle Jackson, “transposing the interpretive forms of the painting arts into the theatre.” In addition to the writer’s painterly style, she remarked that Williams “gives to the composition of scenes a more sculptural quality as he manipulates form, volume, texture, line, color, light, shade, and space.” The writer’s plays, longtime University of Wisconsin-Madison drama professor Jackson explained, are “conceived . . . as a visual composition.”
There was yet another visual medium that was influential on Williams’s dramaturgy. As a boy, the incipient poet was enamored of movies, the escape he needed from his often burdensome childhood and the strictures of growing up in a small-town church rectory. (The young writer had also done a stint as screenwriter at MGM where his first stage success, The Glass Menagerie, was conceived as a screenplay.) “Throughout the canon, film techniques undermine the conventions of stage realism,” wrote Boxill. In his essay “Cinematic Structure in the Work of Tennessee Williams,” George Brandt, a British professor of theater and film, pointed out the movie techniques Williams adapted for his stage writing. Brandt asserted that Williams, “of all American playwrights has most effectively learnt the lessons in freedom that the cinema has to teach.” The plays reveal “strong cinematic features” which add “a degree of stylization imposed on more or less naturalistic material.”
Williams’s “attempt to turn the playhouse into a picture theatre,” Brandt added, is an aspect of the playwright’s “frequent experiment aimed at overcoming the leaden immobility of the naturalistic set.” But Williams use of cinematic techniques isn’t just relegated to the visual effects it generates. As Brandt also observed, “Williams’s careful orchestration of sound—music as well as effects—is almost as deeply indebted to the cinema,” which took the theater’s consciousness of sound effects much further, and the playwright employed “sound as he does light, i.e. atmospherically.”
Williams’s use of lyrical language is embedded in his scripts, of course, and you can hear it whether you simply read the plays from the page or see them on the screen or stage. It’s unmistakable, especially among the many characters whom the playwright endowed with artistic or poetic temperaments. As for the other aspects of his dramatic structure, reading the notes he almost always appended to the beginning of his published texts will reveal his focus on non-realistic elements of the production he envisions. Take, for example, this excerpt from his instructions concerning the setting of Summer and Smoke (noting the painterly allusions):
There must be a great expanse of sky so that the entire action of the play takes place against it. This is true of interior as well as exterior scenes. In fact, there are no really interior scenes, for the walls are omitted or just barely suggested by certain necessary fragments, such as might be needed to hang a picture or to contain a door-frame.
During the day scenes the sky should be a pure and intense blue (like the sky of Italy as it is so faithfully represented in the religious paintings of the Renaissance) and costumes should be selected to form a dramatic color contrast to this intense blue which the figures stand against. (Color harmonics and other visual effects are tremendously important.)
In the night scenes, the more familiar constellations, such as Orion and the Great Bear and the Pleiades, are clearly projected on the night sky, and above them, splashed across the top of the cyclorama, is the nebulous radiance of the Milky Way. Fleecy cloud forms may also be projected on this cyclorama and made to drift across it.
A few paragraphs further on, Williams makes direct reference to a specific artist and one of his canvasses: “[Giorgio de] Chirico has used fragmentary walls and interiors in a very evocative way in his painting called ‘Conversation among the Ruins’ .” In an addendum to Williams’s production notes, the text’s publisher remarks: “The play as originally produced had a good deal of incidental music, especially composed [by Williams’s friend Paul Bowles], and more selected from the popular music of the period. Because it has been practically impossible to secure the texts and necessary legal clearances of such music, the author urges that such music as may be used by nonprofessionals be chosen from music already available—which should be compositions originally published at least 56 years ago [i.e., 1890s]—or that music should be especially composed or arranged.” Both statements demonstrate how integral to his plays Williams considered the so-called production aspects of the performance, and how delicate and careful his considerations were. Note, of course, that these are not realistic elements of a production—fragmentary scenery inspired by a nearly surrealistic painting and music effects more akin to a film soundtrack than a live stage presentation.
Now, many writers include production notes in their scripts, some more detailed and specific than others, especially in the theater of post-World War II. But I don’t think any author has focused his attention on the production elements of the script as closely as Tennessee Williams—and that wasn’t just an accident of his temperament. It was purposeful and deliberate, and Williams intended to compose his plays as composites of all the arts and technologies available in the contemporary theater. Williams, in a way, was just harking back to the etymology of the word ‘playwright,’ which means more than a mere writer of plays. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘wright’ as “a constructive workman”; the obsolete verb ‘wright’ means “to build” or “to construct.” In other words, Williams envisioned dramatists who, rather than just writing scripts, wrought them from all available materials—not to be limited to the realistic and naturalistic realm. As he advised fellow dramatists, the so-called production elements of a performance should be the métier of the playwright, not left to the directors and designers, who may not share the same vision as the writer, to apply after the script has been written. (As we’ll see, many of Williams’s interpreters haven’t complied with the author’s overall conception.)
This idea was something the writer had begun to conceptualize even before his first successful Broadway production, The Glass Menagerie in 1944. Longtime followers of this blog may know already that I’m referring to Williams notion of “plastic theater,” which he publicly discussed first in his “Production Notes” to every published version of Glass Menagerie from the 1945 first edition on. (In a journal entry composed between January and April 1942, three years before the publication of Menagerie, the playwright discussed what he then called “sculptural drama” in terms that are very similar to his concept of plastic theater. I wrote an article on this subject entitled “‘The Sculptural Drama’: Tennessee Williams’s Plastic Theatre” for the Tennessee Williams Annual Review and republished it on ROT on 9 May 2012.) It is in this technique that Williams explained his rationale for paying such close attention to the non-literary parts of a play, the ones usually left to the director and the designers, and directly expressed his deviation from stage Realism.
It’s significant to note here that not all stagings of Williams plays hewed to his production wishes. Eddie Dowling, who co-produced and co-directed the Broadway première of Menagerie, ignored all the distinctly Brechtian production elements Williams included in that play’s stage directions—including dozens of slide projections, film-like soundtrack music, and lighting dissolves and fades—presenting an essentially realistic stage picture of the Wingfield home. So seeing the plays may not always reveal Williams’s non-, even anti-realistic bent. Reading the texts (particularly the front matter) can, and Williams’s notes to Menagerie are a dead giveaway:
Expressionism and all other unconventional techniques in drama have only one valid aim, and that is a closer approach to truth. 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 who speak exactly as its audience speaks, corresponds to the academic landscape and has the same virtue of a photographic likeness. Everyone should know nowadays the unimportance of the photographic in art: that truth, life, or reality is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest, in essence, only through transformation, through changing into other forms than those which were merely present in appearance.
Just to be certain there was no misunderstanding that this concept was a consistent part of Williams’s dramaturgy, he continued:
These remarks are not meant as a preface only to this particular play. They have to do with a conception of new, plastic theatre which must take the place of the exhausted theatre of realistic conventions if the theatre is to resume vitality as a part of our culture.
To be sure, a plastic production could probably end up being essentially realistic if the creator selects elements to collate that are in themselves predominantly realistic and naturalistic. Where Williams included carefully chosen music used atmospherically, other playwrights could incorporate only real-world sounds and even music heard over radios and phonographs. But that’s clearly not what Williams conceived for his plastic theater. This is once again why many critics and analysts complain that the pieces of some Tennessee Williams plays don’t fit. But I think this is a misreading of Williams’s concept of dramatic structure. Let’s go back to the term “plastic theater” (and the argument I made for its derivation in my TWAR and ROT article, which I won’t recap here). In the novella Moise and the World of Reason, Williams specifically credited artist and teacher Hans Hofmann, whom the writer knew, with an idea Williams called “plastic space.” I posited that the playwright coined his term “plastic theater” based on his understanding of plasticity as expressed by Hofmann.
Hofmann defined plasticity as the communication of a three-dimensional experience in the two-dimensional medium of a painting. He contended that plasticity derives from the tension between the forces and counter-forces—which he called “push-pull”—created by the separate elements of the painting. (The juxtaposition of empty space and filled space in a painting, sculpture, or installation of objects, for instance, creates this kind of tension.) The tension creates the sensation in the viewer that the painting breathes, even seems to move. Hofmann also believed that an artist mustn’t simply copy nature, but must create an artistically imagined reality which requires the careful and deliberate manipulation and juxtaposition of the elements of the artwork. We may posit, then, that the tension among the disparate arts and techniques employed by Williams—the “push-pull” of the parts that don’t seem to fit—would create the plasticity of the theatrical experience. Just as the viewer of a plastic painting has a three-dimensional experience from a two-dimensional work of art, the audience of a plastic theater work has a theatrical experience beyond the mere image of actual life. All because the pieces aren’t quite meant to fit.