National Commentary

Recovering ‘My God!’ From ‘Oh, Well’

bentonmug

This month, marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of playwright Tennessee Williams, has seen a plethora of less-frequently produced plays by Williams, including four of them in this neck of the woods: “The Milkman Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore,” “Small Craft Warnings” and “Vieux Carre” in New York and “Orpheus Descending” at American University.

This month, marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of playwright Tennessee Williams, has seen a plethora of less-frequently produced plays by Williams, including four of them in this neck of the woods: “The Milkman Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore,” “Small Craft Warnings” and “Vieux Carre” in New York and “Orpheus Descending” at American University.
When matched with his better known works like “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “The Glass Menagerie,” “The Rose Tattoo,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Suddenly, Last Summer,” “Sweet Bird of Youth,” “Night of the Iguana” and others, two consistent themes emerge that are interrelated and of timeless value.
The first, and most evident, is his uncompromising commitment to raw truth, his unflinching, rugged, in-your-face portrayal of human mendacity (penchant for lying), lack, brutality and, of course, mortality. He allows his audiences no options to staring ugly truth right in the face.
The second is the struggle, at least his struggle, against the kind of crass, jaded cynicism that is usually the price paid for living amidst all that. Therein lies his underlying hope, optimism, capacity for a real sense of humor and humanitarian soul.
In Williams’ late play, the explicitly autobiographical “Vieux Carre,” about living as a struggling writer in a dumpy boarding house in New Orleans in the late 1930s, it’s revealed that the famous character of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Blanche, the one who says, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” was a cloaked version of Williams, himself. Just as Williams, autobiographically in the later play, encounters the brutality of a male-dominated and subservient female-abused relationship, so did Blanche in “Streetcar,” and with a similar sensibility.
The same theme comes across in Williams’ 1972 play, “Small Craft Warnings,” in the form of two characters who are, as I see it, in fact one. They arrive together in a Southern California seaside dive bar.
One is an older, cynical and jaded homosexual, and the other a wide-eyed teenager the older one had picked up, who’d come from middle America to encounter the Pacific Ocean for the first time.
The soliloquy by Quentin, the older homosexual, is classic, especially if it is understood that the youth he’d encountered is himself at a younger age:
“There’s a coarseness, a deadening coarseness, in the experience of most homosexuals. The experiences are quick, and hard, and brutal, and the pattern of them is practically unchanging. The act of love is like the jabbing of a hypodermic needle to which they’re addicted but which is more and more empty of real interest and surprise. This lack of variation and surprise in their love life spreads into other areas of sensibility.
“Yes, once, quite a long while ago, I was often startled by the sense of being alive, of being myself: living! Whenever I would feel this, feeling this shock of, what?, self-realization?, I would be stunned, I would be thunderstruck by it. And the existence of everything that exists, I’d be lightening struck with astonishment. It would do more than astound me, it would give me a feeling of panic, the sudden sense of…I suppose it was like an epileptic seizure, except that I didn’t fall to the ground in convulsions; no, I’d be more apt to try to lose myself in a crowd on a street until the seizure was finished…
“…This boy I picked up tonight, the kid from the tall corn country, still has the capacity for being surprised by what he sees, hears and feels in this kingdom of earth. All the way up the canyon to my place, he kept saying, ‘I can’t believe it, I’m here, I’ve come to the Pacific, the world’s biggest ocean!,’ as if nobody, Magellan or Balboa or even the Indians had ever seen it before him; yes, like he’d discovered this ocean, the largest on earth, and so now, because he’d found it himself, it existed, now, for the first time, never before…And this excitement of his reminded me of my having lost the ability to say ‘My God!’ instead of just ‘Oh, well’…”


Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected]