Nature as a wild and sacrificial world: Tennessee Williams’ view point.

Colloquium on Violence and Religion, annual Conference 2004, Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico, June 2-5, 2004.

 

Daniel Lance

Arts, Communication and Languages Department

Nice-Sophia Antipolis University, France

 

Abstract: Tennessee Williams often puts the natural world as a dangerous and sacrificial world. Suddenly Last Summer is an example of a perfect sacrificial crisis according to Rene Girard’s specifications. The play shows perfectly how human nature follows mimetic desire to its peak: a sacrificial crisis. Sebastian, the absolute absent hero of the play, saw God, as he saw, on the Galapagos Islands, sea-turtles attacked and devoured by a sky full of flesh-eating birds. Nature eats Nature. Human beings use and are used by each other, according to the play. And Sebastian is eaten by a flock of famished young boys in the small Village named Cabeza de Lobo. The play is a fairy tale, a sad and pessimistic one, on Nature and human nature. But Tennessee Williams asks a radical and fundamental question: the question of the human being and his desire. And this will be the question we will ask ourselves.

 

 

Key words: mimetic desire, literature, Nature and sacrifice, Tennessee Williams, sacrificial crisis, human beings.

 

 

Tennessee Williams as a main author of the twentieth century puts desire as a centered and symbolic place in his work. It could be kind of naive to ask this simple question: “where does this tramway named desire lead?” Nevertheless, it will be the main question we will ask ourselves, with a certain innocent pleasure.... What is the particular relationship between desire and Nature in two particular plays, and their adaptation as films: Suddenly last summer and A streetcar named desire? In those two plays—and the films made, for the first one, by Mankiewicz, and the second one, by Elia Kazan — Tennessee Williams seems to make a link between a certain kind of desire and a primitive and a savage Nature which would have no mercy of any kind.

Blanche Dubois leaves the play, the scene, following a stranger. Her exit line became famous: “I always depended of the kindness of strangers[1]”. Tennessee Williams, himself, could have said the same words. He defends it in his Memoirs:

I thought of the exit line for Blanche, which later became somewhat historical: “I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers.”

Actually it was true, I always had, and without being often disappointed. In fact, I would guess that chance acquaintances, or strangers, have usually been kinder to me than friends— which does not speak well for me.”[2]

The quote could fit Tennessee Williams so well that a critic makes a book on the author: The kindness of strangers[3]. As a matter of facts, Elia Kazan, who made the movie in 1951, after having directed the play, sees many common characteristics between Blanche and Tennessee. They look and act the same for Kazan they follow their desire, they like those dangerous and beautiful strangers, they represent a certain fragility of desire, a certain instinctive desire, both fragile and pulsionnal. Kazan remembered Tennessee Williams and his friend at the time of Streetcar: 

Tennessee was not what I had expected. Sometimes he gave the impression of a man released from a “protective confinement,” or a sailor on a long-delayed shore leave in a foreign country. I found a curious combination of a foolhardy boldness- he and Pancho « cruised » of a certain streets together, picked up sailors and « rough trade », took them home, endangering themselves, I thought - and a rather prim, well-brought-up boy of the gentlest sensibilities[4],.

Could Blanche be seen as a substitute of Tennessee Williams? Blanche is a moth like character, afraid by the light as light could represent a particular truth, the truth of reality. Blanche is a symbol of ambiguity. Is she a liar, is she crazy, is she nymphomaniac, is she a lost girl in a cruel world? Elia Kazan thought ambiguity represented a main base of the play, and a reason why he liked so much Tennessee Williams plays. Tennessee Williams main character represents a lot of himself, symbols and questions about the meaning of desire: what kind of desire leads us? Ambiguity as a symbol of human beings trapped between different desires.

Does Stanley, in Streetcar, represent desire: an animal, instinctive, intuitive desire? Does Blanche, who hides her loneliness, represent desire? She is so lonely that she cannot resist any man. She just kisses a young man, the collector for the Evening Star, just as she abused one of her own students, only seventeen years old, when she was a teacher. She kisses this young man just before seeing the pale and weak Mitch, who could be the only one to save her from her own tumble. She is not able to say the truth, she lies to Stanley who is not fooled by it, but at the same time she affirms a certain kind of truth. “I didn’t lie in my heart”[5], she said to Mitch.

Stanley first appears in Streetcar with a peace of meat that he throws to his wife Stella. The sexual meaning of the entrance of Stanley is obvious, too obvious maybe. Tennessee Williams specifies:

Stanley […] Animal joy in his being is implicit in all his movements and attitudes? Since earliest manhood the center of his life has been pleasure with women  […] He sizes women up at a glance, with sexual classifications, crude images flashing into his mind and determining the way he smiles at them.[6]

Stanley represents this pure, raw and primitive desire. This kind of desire not teamed. He is like a cat, a tiger, some kind of feline animal. Kazan had a brilliant idea in the movie, when, for the first meeting between Blanche and Stanley, Stanley just perfectly imitates a cat in the street. He is a wild cat. Blanche reproaches her sister Stella, she has married a primitive person, she has forgotten her education, where she comes from, from Belle Reves, their former property, from upper class people. Stella, before her sister, has chosen the pure and genuine abandon to the raw and feline desire of his ‘Pollack Stanley”. She was the first to betray her social class, not behaving according to its standards. But she is now married, she has a room in the social life. When Blanche comes to visit her sister. She is lost. She is in loss. She has lost the family property, her job because of abusing this young boy, she has been intimate with many men. But Stella, is too a fallen star, Stella in Latin. The young man, that Blanche has kissed, the collector of the Evening Star is a symbol of this dark side of desire, of those fallen stars, symbol of loss and loneliness.

Blanche has been married too, when she was very young. She was a first married to a boy, not to a man. They discovered both of them the world of Desire. As Adam and Eve, they left the Paradise of youth and innocence because they experienced the desire of knowledge. They were kids, after the Event, they are wife and husband.

He was a boy, just a boy, when I was a very young girl. When I was sixteen, I made the discovery— love. All at once and much, much too completely. It was like you suddenly turned into a blinding light on something that had always been half in shadow.[7]

Since then, Blanche, like a moth, hides from the light, the burning light, because, unfortunately, Desire outside of Paradise is not what is expected by others. Her former husband is gay and commits suicide. Blanche goes from man to man, as a lost woman trying to be secured for once, trying to keep a part of Paradise in a fake and harsh world. 

Natural Desire, intuitive desire seems to be a bound to illusion and deceit. Nature can show a savage face, as Tennessee Williams’s points out in Suddenly Last Summer. Nature is not this innocent and pure world that some admirers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau would ask us to believe; Nature is to be dominated as the Bible asks for. Nature, and its inherent desire, is dangerous, not teamed, but brutal. Nature doesn’t belong to Paradise, to Belle Rźves, but to real and destructive world, a world in which people abuse each other.

Suddenly Last Summer is one of the most personal and touching play of Tennessee Williams. A play he “put his heart in”, and his life too.

The play represents a perfect example of a sacrificial crisis according to René Girard’s specifications as well as an attempt to describe Nature as a wild and dangerous symbol of uncontrolled desire. There is a continual opposition between what should be mastered and tamed and the wild Nature.

The play turns around an absent center: Sebastian who used to go each year with his very rich mother, Violet Venable, on holidays, in Europe. But because of a stroke, illness which is a taboo too, she couldn’t go “last summer” with her beloved soon, this unknown and so elegant poet. Her niece, Catherine, went with Sebastian, and Sebastian died there, in this strange place named Cabezza del Lobo, the wolf head. Catherine since then, keeps “babbling”: she says “horrible things about Sebastian. Miss Venable wants her niece operated, lobotomized, and she asks Dr Cukrowicz to perform the operation. The plot is the pretext of a fairy tale, a sad and pessimistic fairy tale about human beings and their desire.

The plot is very personal, it’s Tennessee Williams world and history described in a way. But as Elia Kazan puts it, the more personal is the most universal too. That’s the reason why, this fairy tale, this personal plot of a writer might ask a very deep and essential question about our desire.

First it’s very personal. Tennessee Williams had a sister, Rose, and he let her being operated, following his mother wish. Rose was one of the first persons to be lobotomized in United States. If for Freud, the dream is a fulfillment of a wish, this play is also a kind of fulfillment of a wish: thanks to Dr. Cukrowicz investigation, Catherine should not be operated at the end of the play.

Rose was a kind of a double of Tennessee. As Donald Spotto mentioned:

 

(Tennessee Williams) always knew that the only thing that kept him from sharing Rose’s fate was the hair’s breadth of accident; they had both endured breakdown. According to the artist Vassilis Voglis, who had by this time known Williams socially for several years and would see him frequently to the end of his life, » he was devoted to Rose, but in a way she was an extension of himself. He could have had a lobotomy. He felt the outsider, marred in some way. He really cared for her, and perhaps he never really cared for anyone else in this life, ever. And I think he knew it.» [8] 

If Rose is so important in Tennessee Williams’ life, the character of Catherine says a lot about his own thinking, on lobotomy first:

Tom’s opinion of lobotomy in general is stated clearly in his play Suddenly Last Summer  (...) Tom considered it to be a kind of living death. He says he would never have permitted Rose’s operation, and blame his mother for having it done. [9] 

Catherine says a lot about principle of desire. She has some resemblance with the character of Blanche. She is guilty of not behaving the way she should. As Catherine’s brother points out:

You can’t tell such a story to civilized people in a civilized up-to-date country[10]

And the main question comes out: What kind of desire is allowed in a civilized country? Not of course what describes Catherine. Catherine was “procuring” for Sebastian. He used her as a lure. He asked her to wear a white and indecent swimsuit, so she could attract the young boys in Cabeza del Lobo. Sebastian, as a master of mimetic desire, just after takes away the object, Catherine, and puts himself as the subject of desire. Because Sebastian was homosexual and described as a flesh eater by his Catherine:

 Cousin Sebastian said he was famished for blonds, he was fed up with dark one and was famished for blonds […] he talked about people, as if they were- items on a menu.- ‘That one’s delicious-looking, that one is appetizing,’ or that one is not appetizing’- I think because he was nearly half starved from living on pills and salads… He was fed up with dark hair people”[11].

 

Human beings as objects of consumption. He was famished, he found human beings “appetizing”, or not, according to his own words. Donald Spotto points out that Tennessee Williams used the same vocabulary about young men:

Sebastian Venable’s exploitation of others, his empty, decreative life, and his abuse of his cousin Catherine were for Williams the clearest portrait he could draw of his own remorse. The play is, then, both confession and act of penance. He perhaps misjudged his own best gifts and the healing effects of those gifts when he told the interviewer that he hoped to have done with violence, and to write with serenity. « Suddenly Last Summer is a play he would have liked to have back — as if regretted writing it, » said Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who directed a brilliant film of it the following year. « There is something not only of confession in the play, but of wish fulfillment, too. Tennessee might have liked to have a garden with statues like Sebastian's, a study with painting like Sebastian’s. If he had distaste for anything, it was for his own aging and his own humble background and circumstances. Suddenly Last Summer enabled him to have what he despised, in a way. And Mrs Venable is certainly a composite of the women who defended and accompanied him all over the world. [12]

So the subject of the play is more than personal, and according to Elia Kazan, more than universal. Because the play is about sacrificial crisis, which is a universal process.

The well-groomed jungle of Sebastian already contains his own destiny. Sebastian used to grow a Venus Flytrap, this kind of symbol of a creature of Nature eating other creatures, alive creatures. This Venus, this love eating plant, has his own reflection later in the play, when Miss Venable describes their last trip, their last poem, since they live their life as a piece of Art. Sebastian saw God during his last trip with his mother to the Galapagos Islands. Sebastian saw there, those thousands of great sea turtles eaten up by flesh-eating birds. As the Venus Fly trap, the jungle represents a primitive state of desire, as in Streetcar, Stanley is also presented as a primitive person. Desire is a form of cannibalism.

Everything is symbolic in Suddenly last summer, those “terrible Encatadas”, mysterious and Sacred, are a reminiscent of old times, of primitive times, they are a survival of “extinct volcanoes[13]”.

On those islands Sebastian saw God, but as his mother quotes “Sebastian “ meant that God shows a savage face to people and shouts some fierce things at them, it’s all we see or hear of Him.[14]

For Tennessee Williams’s primitive Nature, Primitive desire is a representation of this harsh world in which in order to survive one’s needs to “eat” the other.

And Sebastian, at the “playa of San Sebastian” assumes his role of a saint. As a new symbol of a Christ, agnus dei, here agnus naturae, he assumes his own destiny and the deep meaning of desire, which is consumption and abuse of others, by offering himself as a sacrificial lamb. Because nature is savage and sacrificial; so he will be the one to be sacrificed.

Primitive God has his own representation in this Sacrificial Nature. Human Beings are lost in the labyrinth of Desire.

Thanks to Dr Cukrowicz, Catherine can describe and tell the true story of Sebastian, he has been devoured and eaten by a flock of famished young boys, the same young boys he was himself famished (before being fed-up with them, full, he had eaten enough…). 

Catherine re-lives this final sacrificial crisis:

The band of naked children pursued us up the steep white street in the sun that was like a great white bone of a giant beast (...) I heard Sebastian scream, he screamed just once before this flock of black pucked litlle birds that pursued and overtook him halfway up the white hill. (...) Cousin Sebastian had disappeared in the flock (...) They had devoured parts of him. Torn or cut parts of him away with their hands or knives or maybe those jagged tin cans they made music with (...) There wasn't a sound any more.

Sebastian finally accepted the inner meaning of desire:

[Sebastian] accepted all- as-how!-things!-are- And thought nobody had any right to complain or interfere in any way whatsoever, and even though he knew that was awful was awful, that was wrong that was wrong![15]

Sebastian, always in white, always looking for Art, the perfect words for his poem, went to his destiny. Everything was white as Catherine points out: “It was all white outside? White hot, a blazing white hot, hot blazing white, at five o’clock in the afternoon in the city of Cabeza del Lobo[16]

Suddenly Last Summer ends with a sacrificial crisis. We won’t follow “psychological critics” who thought that the death of Sebastian would represent the guilt of Tennessee Williams. We would, in fact, prefer a new interpretation about the impossible and unreachable meeting with the other, the stranger.

Speaking with somebody, falling in love with somebody represent a kind of impossible meeting; the perfect meeting with the Other, the one who is not me and whom, by some miracle, I could speak to or meet.

Blanche, in Streetcar, who, as we wrote before, has “always depended of the kindness of strangers” and leaves the play, holding onto the arm of the doctor who came to pick her up. Those strangers represent opposite meaning. The are a symbol of intimacy with strangers, Blanche going for any kind of strangers, they represent all the lovers of Tennessee Williams, the loss. But at the same time they are the impossible reach of a different relationship, an impossible relationship.

They have opposite signification. They are the symbol of an impossible and sad mimetic desire. The desire that never ends up and leads to loneliness, loss and death. But at the same time they show a dream of the pure meeting with other. Blanche is ambivalent. She lies, she believe in some purity of the heart, the compromised herself with strangers, she is weak and touching. Sebastian used those low class people, with his money, his fading beauty, but at the same time he reaches a new state of Desire. He points out an impossible end of Desire itself.

Let’s quote Catherine: “We’re all of us children in a vast kindergarten trying to spell God’s name with the wrong alphabet blocks”[17]

Is this sentence symbolic of human creatures trapped in crisis and mimetic desire? That’s the open question I would like to close my paper with. The jungle of our desire is never well groomed enough…

 

 

Copyright: Daniel Lance

Retour page d’accueil: http://daniel.lance.free.fr/

 

 



[1] Tennessee Williams (1947), A Streetcar  Named Desire, Harmondworth, Penguin Classics, 2000, Scene Eleven, p. 225, .

[2] Tennessee Williams, Memoirs, New York, Doubleday & Compagny, Chapter 8, p. 130-131.

[3] Donald Spotto, The Kindness of Strangers, The life of Tennessee Williams, Boston, Little, Brown and Company, 1985.

[4] Elia Kazan, A life, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1988, p. 348.

[5] Tennessee Williams (1947), A Streetcar named Desire, and other Plays,Harmondsworth, Penguin Books,  2000, Scene Nine, p. 205.

[6] Streetcar, op. cit., Scene one, p. 128.

[7] Streetcar, op. cit., Scene Six, p. 182.

[8] Donald Spotto, The Kindness of Strangers, Little, Brown and Company, 1985, page 223.

[9] Dakin Williams, Shepherd Mead,  Tennessee Williams, An Intimate Biography, New York, Arbor House, 1983, page 64.

[10] Streetcar, op. cit., Scene Two, p. 134.

[11] Tennessee Williams, Baby Doll, Something Unspoken, Suddenly Last Summer, Harmondsworth, Penguin Plays, 1987, Suddenly Last Summer, (SLS), Scene two, p 130.

[12] The kindness of Strangers, op. cit., pages 223-224.

[13] SLS, op. cit., Scene One, p. 117.

[14] SLS, op. cit., Scene One, p. 119.

[15] SLS, op. cit., Scene Four, p. 156.

[16] SLS, op. cit., Scene Four, p. 157.

[17] SLS, op. cit., Scene Two, p. 130.