The Dark and Light of Tennessee Williams

Long before I arrived in Columbus, MS, over 10 years ago, I had heard of Tennessee Williams. The Glass Menagerie was one of the plays I read in freshman Literature class in college. I enjoyed the play and my professor was an obvious Tennessee Williams fan. I found the play to be exciting, but I was also drawn to its darker qualities.

I remember my teacher saying she enjoyed Williams because he understood the strangeness of the South. Many in the class did not seem to understand that concept. The southeast portion of Virginia, where I was born, (Newport News, to be exact) was neither Southern nor Northern. It was a mishmash of military families, people who came from other states to work at our shipyard, and a few Mennonites who were now assimilating into the bigger community.

Newport News was not the “Bastion of Southernness” many of my northern friends thought it was. But my mom was from Mississippi and her family was the only extended family I knew. I loved them dearly, but I understood their thoughts were not the same as the folks in Newport News. Their attitudes were no better or worse, just different. And this was during the 70s, when southerners talked, well…southern.

So, I always felt Mississippi was an area that belonged to my family and me, and to no one else I knew. It was always a bit odd, however, since my dad was from the Boston, MA area. But that is a story for another time.

After the class, I thought about Williams, but not often.  When I arrived in Columbus, MS, the birthplace of Williams, I had that familiar feeling he still knew about the South.  More than even most southerners know about their region now. With television, mass media, and everyone wanting a McDonalds, a lot of regionalism is dead. Even the southern accent is not as deep as I remember.

Over the next few years, I made it my mission to watch most of the movies that had been derived from Tennessee’s plays. And to be truthful, I was shocked at his brutal honesty. Shocked that he pulled no punches with humanity.  Shocked that he understood mankind at its deepest core.

Yes, the themes were southern, but they applied to everyone. The harshness and brutality of Stanley Kowalski could have happened in New Orleans or New York City.  There are predators and victims everywhere. Williams just had the guts to say it and give them names.

As the movie version of A Streetcar Named Desire progresses, you see the raw ugliness of Kowalski and the world he lives in. Kowalski is a wife-beater, a bully, a megalomaniac, and a rapist. He is everything your soul wishes you not to be. It is everything you try not to be, so you can be a good person.

But there stands Stanley, in all his gross glory. He is happy to be all these things. Proud of his own raunchiness.

Even when Stella leaves (in the movie version) and Kowalski seems upset, the moviegoer does not know if Stanley is driven by love or the loss of his own power-hungry needs.  It is a hard call. How does one love deeply, while trying to possess, manipulate, and control the very person they love?  It is a tough question, but it is also real life. It happens every day.

Stella, who is often seen as a second victim in this vicious triangle involving her sister, Blanche, Stanley, and herself, is the most interesting character of them all. Stella knows that Kowalski is a brute and an animal, but there is something about Stanley she is chained to. Even in the sexually sterile world of 1950s Hollywood, you could not hide Stella’s lust and addiction to Stanley’s raw sexual power. When Stella talks about the colorful lights she saw with Kowalski, these are not city lights; these were the lights of an intense orgasm.

Williams pulled no punches and gave no quarter. Yes, there were brutes that preyed on innocent victims. These men are human animals that rip at the fiber of decent civilizations and destroy everyone and everything in their path. But more importantly, Williams knew that there were women who loved these men, who desired these men and who protected these men. Williams knew that without one, there could not be the other.

In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Hollywood once again tried to mask the raw sexuality that comes through in Williams’ well-developed characters. The stark contrast of Kowalski’s working-poor, sexual-driven “ape” of Streetcar, with the genteel, upper-class southern powerbroker “Big Daddy,” did not hide the addiction people have to sex, power, and rawness.

“Big Daddy’s” sway over his family is brutal and complete.  His total domination of his passive son, Gooper, and his Gooper’s wife, Sister Woman, is so thorough that it leaves little to imagine whether “Big Daddy” knows Sister Woman in the most carnal way. The passiveness of Gooper makes any idea possible.

Unfortunately, 1958 Hollywood destroyed any of the overt homosexual references, but the ideas still snuck through. The fact that the driven, working man, husband, and father would be the effeminate, cuckolded male, and that the closeted homosexual son, Brick, would be the star athlete was Williams’ way of reminding the audience that, in life, all is not what it appears. It was also Brick who challenged his father.

No movie, however, shocked the system the way Sweet Bird of Youth did. Though thoroughly cleaned up by Hollywood, the end was unnerving. Everyone had to know that the revenge dished out by Boss Finley’s henchmen was not just a beating. It was not just retribution. It was more than that.  It was more brutal and unforgiving than that. The fate awaiting the gigolo, Chance Wayne, was castration. Finley’s daughter was sterile and his revenge on Wayne would be complete.

Williams’ reckoning that one sterilization deserved another was alarming and cruel. But it also showed Williams understood that “an eye for an eye” is often the most brutal solution. One harsh injustice can often lead to another harsh injustice.

Williams, once again, showed the power of sexuality in all its meanness and viciousness. He had definitive moments where he addressed the taboo topic that sex is power. He did it unapologetically and without remorse. He did it like a man who knew what he was talking about.

Williams was not shy about his truthfulness about the human condition and he had a Carl Jung-like understanding of our dark side. It is the side that makes people uncomfortable. It is the side that makes people lie about their feelings and thoughts. It is the darkness that dwells in all of us. And, like Jung, Williams knew that without the dark, there is no light.


Joseph B. St. John