by Sophie Soprani
I joined the O’Neill/Williams Delve seminar two weeks into its run due to a lasting case of influenza, which in truth provided an uncomfortable but appropriately nauseating context in which to read Eugene O’Neill for the first time. Prior to my arrival, our Delve Seminar had gathered for two sessions to discuss O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff and The Iceman Cometh.
On this night in question, I found the seminar group gathered around the table at Literary Arts to discuss our play of the week, A Long Day’s Journey into Night. Lucas Bernhardt, our Delve Guide, opened the discussion by reading from a biographical essay about O’Neill. This set the stage for our approach to the play, as we discussed the context of the play’s creation in 1940, O’Neill’s obsession with the ever-present war news blaring on the radio, and the deeply personal nature of the material he put on the page. “Dearest,” O’Neill inscribed in his dedication of the play to his wife,” I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood…But you will understand. I mean it as a tribute to your love and tenderness…”
Here we began our discussion of a play that is an excruciating drama of a deeply intertwined family, wracked by drug addiction, alcoholism, and illness. We sought to answer a question prompted by O’Neill’s dedication and posed by our thoughtful leader: To what extent is this a play about love? We discussed as a group the discomfort we experienced reading the play. Many Delvers found themselves “wrecked” watching it, even more than reading it, due to the relentless nature of the action. They described the tonal agony and discomfort created by the play’s repetitive, self-aware presentation of a family of characters whose love and attachment to each other also serves as their source for blame, bitterness, and performance of various personal renditions of reality that slowly break over the course of the drama.
In A Long Day’s Journey into Night, Edmund, the youngest member of the Tyrone family, discovers that he has tuberculosis. From the first scene when his mother insists on the pretense of his having a “summer cold” to the end of the play when she has dosed herself with morphine and is raving madly in her living room decked out in her old wedding dress, the audience is caught in a claustrophobic, repetitive family affair in which old hurts and blames are retraced and revisited. Many in our Delve Seminar expressed their surprise at the contemporary feel of O’Neill’s presentation of addiction and its resonance within a family. Everyone is on tenterhooks, hyper aware, and yet equally prone to lashing out upon each other. Increasingly, moments of love come at a price between them. One member of our group expressed his desire to map out these complex interdependencies, and as we traced in turn how each character blames the others for their suffering, illnesses, and addictions, we notice how they simultaneously emphasize the familial love and ties each has to the other, even while undercutting them.
This led us into a discussion of the play’s formal structure, its tonal resonance and repetitions, as we examined the ways in which these familial relationships manifest in the play and effect the reader and viewer. As the interconnectedness and responsibility becomes so complex between characters, they also echo each other’s phrases and sentiments, pull lines from the books set on the shelves on the stage set, and explicitly acknowledge that they are all telling and retelling stories they have told a hundred times before. We found that these indicators of the characters’ self-awareness highlighted the melding of reality and performance within the play. The stage, and the performance upon the stage, is never far from the character’s awareness, and as they perform monologues and pull passages from Shakespeare and Baudelaire as part of their family banter, the viewer is reminded repeatedly that the drama itself and every move within it, in its most intimate portrayals of this family’s private life, is a performance.
Scene change: A new room at Literary Arts, and the Collected Works of Tennessee Williams now on the table
We shifted our focus from the works of Eugene O’Neill to Tennessee Williams. But even as we moved on to a new author, O’Neill’s work continued to resonate in our discussions. Lucas, our Delve Guide, read a quote from a review of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, written by Robert Garland for the New York Journal-American in 1945, just after the play’s premier: “[Tennessee Williams] has something definite to say, and he knows how to say it definitely.” Even while we laughed at the reviewer’s glibness, we considered their prophetic implication and began our discussion with the surprisingly difficult question: Is there a definite thing being said, and if so what?
A Glass Menagerie is a memory play, told from the perspective of Tom, a merchant marine looking back into his past at his prior life with his mother and sister in a cramped apartment in Brooklyn. Despite Garland’s confident declaration, we found in our discussions that the play contains little that we could call obviously definitive, as it reels through the memory of its narrator. Exaggerated and interrupted by legends from a screen projector, dramatic lighting, and musical accompaniment, the play undercuts obvious representations of “reality” at every turn and leaves all characters besides the narrator suspended within the memories they occupy. Repeatedly, we found ourselves turning to the words of Tom’s mother, Amanda, to inform our reading of the narrative and tonal arc of the play: “The past is the present, the present is the future, and the future turns into everlasting regrets…” she warns her son. Time, its pace and immutability, is the ever-present framework of the drama.
And within this time capsule are Laura, Amanda, and Jim. Laura: The crippled, “different” sister, abandoned by Tom, uncourted by gentlemen callers, and the dedicated collector of glass animals. Amanda: The former debutant from the South and a single mother, completely fixed on securing a future for her children. And finally Jim, whom Williams calls an “emissary from reality” and one of our Delve members dubbed the “All-American Dreamboat, High-school Has-been,” who visits Tom, Laura, and Amanda for dinner. As a group, we examined these characters and their unique escapist tendencies. Each seems to lean upon a dream, imagination, or reminiscence as a way to cope with their own reality. Lucas read a quote from Williams’ essay Catastrophe of Success, in which he elaborates on his vision of man—namely that the natural condition of man is frustration and anger at the loss of the idea that we live in a caring world: “Time is short and it doesn’t return again,” Williams writes. “It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.”
We concluded our evening considering the portrayal of reality upon the stage in this play. “I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve, but I am the opposite of a stage magician,” states Tom as narrator, in the first lines of Act One. “I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” Our guide remarked that all of the symbols and extra paraphernalia attached to the play, like legends upon screens and thematic music, operate as an assault upon the play, as if Williams is testing the strength of the reality he intends to portray by assailing it with these devices. Yet still, the merit of actually breaking the spell of fantasy is unclear. Laura, set apart from the “real world” of Jim and even her own family, holds a dignity and a beauty even as she lives in her fantasy world of glass animals. Would it really be better for her to abandon her own self in order to join Jim in his world? The question seems to hang in the air as she blows out the candles in her living room and the play ends in darkness.
We picked up our discussion from the previous Wednesday and began our evening with Williams’ essay Catastrophe of Success: “Then what is good?” Williams writes. “The obsessive interest in human affairs plus a certain amount of compassion and more conviction…the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote yourself to its opposition.” Our Delve Guide Lucas in turn posed a question to us: Do you see within A Streetcar Named Desire part of this intention?
A Streetcar Named Desire does indeed reveal to its audience the complexity of human affairs as it details the interactions of a fraught family drama, over the course of several months. In our discussions, many Delve members expressed their surprise at the levels of ambiguity and complicity they found in the relation between characters when reading the play. They felt that the play’s expanse of time and nuance contrasted with the renowned Marlon Brando film adaption with which we were so familiar. While reading the play, one Delver remarked, one got the sense that Williams just places his characters carefully in cramped, close quarters, each with their pasts, fears, and compulsions, and then stretches out time, excruciatingly, to see what will happen. And even as each exhibit their underbellies of weakness, abusive behaviors, intentional blindness, and loss of control, the play allows its readers and viewers to see them in a compassionate, human light. Over the course of the drama, it becomes clear how hard each of them hold onto their own unique reality and the lengths to which they are willing to go to preserve it. In a chilling, heartbreaking final scene, Stella choses to institutionalize her sister rather than have her own domestic life broken by her husband’s rape of her sister. Even while the reader and viewer are cut to the quick by her decision, we see her suffering and grief and remorse at her own actions.
This led us into a conversation about the historical context of play and whether there was even a common concept of “domestic violence” in 1940s American culture. Lucas pointed to reviews of A Streetcar Named Desire, dated up to the mid-1960s, in which Stella and Stanley’s relationship is fondly described as “tumultuous, but loving.” Many of our group felt that Williams offers an astounding, probing glimpse into the realities of those suffering from domestic violence, whether or not it was culturally labeled as such at that time. We noticed as well that the entire culture surrounding Stella, Stanley, and Blanche exhibits a general acceptance of violence—from the couple upstairs fighting violently to Stanley having “trouble” at the bowling alley to the way in which their entire community accepts Stanley’s violence towards Stella as ordinary. Many in our group felt that this violence is the focus of the play. As one Delver pointed out, if Stanley hadn’t raped Blanche, his behavior elsewhere might not look so bad. But it is precisely with this rape, and the cover-up that follows, that the play ends.
We concluded our evening by considering the singular, personal “realities” that each character holds onto so dearly. Even Blanche, who seems to exist in an objectively “untrue” version of events, says in a moving moment of wishful vulnerability, “I tell the truth as it ought to be told.” Returning to the Williams quote with which we began our evening, Lucas offered us a way to tie this into Williams’s intentions as a playwright: If the purpose of the artist, in Williams’ eye, is to contradict the ticking of the clock, we can extend this to say that the bizarre tragic flaw in these characters is their very attempts to accomplish the artist’s intent. And in their failures, we see something rather nasty being stated about “reality” and what it is to live in the real world or butt up against each other’s interpretations of it. The tragedy unfolds within these conflicting views of reality and the actions that each character is willing to take to preserve their reality. This extends to the community at large, as well: “You really wonder how much civility is just being polite about other people’s delusions,” Lucas remarked with a smile.
On our final Wednesday evening together, we finished our Delve series with an animated discussion of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Unlike A Streetcar Named Desire, this play takes place over the course of one evening, as family members gather at an estate in the South for the birthday celebration of Big Daddy, the family patriarch. An impending cancer diagnosis for Big Daddy shadows the scenes, as members of the family intuit and prepare for his decline. The tensions are not hidden; the drama is unmasked, direct, even grotesque; and the social impasses are front and center for everyone to see: Brick’s alcoholism, Brick and Maggie’s lack of child, Big Daddy’s illness, Big Mama’s preference for Brick over his older brother, and Brick’s heavily-implied homosexuality. With these familial issues on full display, we were captivated during our two hours together by the ambiguous and complex glimpses Tennessee Williams provides into the interior lives and motivations of his characters.
Throughout the play, Brick is on a personal mission to numb himself. As act supersedes act, he speaks less and enters more into his alcohol-infused dream state, seeking the ever elusive “click” that will put him at peace. Some members of our group suggested that it is through this disconnection that Brick manages to retain some control over the situation at hand. He secures for himself a safety even in Maggie, his wife, with whom he has no sexual intimacy or, it seems, any lasting interest. As long as he does not divorce her, he can maintain a morally superior high ground from which safe viewpoint he can slowly drink himself into obscurity.
We also considered the parallels between Brick and his father, Big Daddy, who has been living a similarly love-less marriage for most of his life. Given the situation at stake, why doesn’t Brick divorce his wife? Does Brick’s relationship with Maggie mimic the relationship of his parents? What does Brick’s father mean when he suggests to his son that he may not only be a man of the world, but also be open to or even condone a tolerance for homosexuality? As we turned over these questions, we found many layered motivations. One of our group remarked that the interpersonal relationships remain frustratingly ambiguous. For example, Big Daddy’s speech on tolerance to his son that seems to open an unexpected door between them also operates as a not-so-veiled attempt to get his son to validate his desire for a mistress.
This led us to Williams’ opening essay on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, entitled Person to Person. In it, Williams tells an anecdote of a young girl on a street in Mississippi with her friends, all dressed their fancy best, each trying to gain the attention of the other. The young girl falls in the mud, and even in her grotesque flailing, continues to shout, “Look at me! Look at me!” to her compatriots, who pay her not a whit of notice. In Cat on A Hot Tin Roof, we see how within these ambiguous, complex human interactions, each character similarly vies for the attention of the others. As the banter runs high, and the noise and permeability of privacy within the house is in perpetual crescendo, the family members each push and pull for each other’s attention, vying for their own coveted spotlight. The drama emerges in this context as a grotesque display of the human compulsion to be seen and highlights Williams’ interest in the deeply personal compulsions of his characters. “I want to go on talking to you as freely and intimately about what we live and die for, “ Williams writes in the final lines of the essay, “as if I knew you better than anyone else.”
Lucas, our fearless guide for these past six weeks, brought the evening to a close with the observation that in all of the plays we have been reading together, the authors seem to present an immovable impasse against which the characters push and pull. Perhaps why A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is so appealing among Williams’ plays is because it pares this process down to such a stripped scenario, he suggests. No more memory-lapses, thematic music, or narrators. The play reads as one continuous stretch of time, an unrelenting stream of action. We called to mind the image of a cat choosing to stay on a hot tin roof as it grows hotter and hotter. While at first glance it would seem obvious that it should jump off the roof, Williams exposes the internal complexities of his characters that make them remain, stubbornly, within the excruciating scenario that causes them so much trauma.
Over six weeks, our seminar brought together a truly thoughtful and engaging group for our discussions. We found wit and humor in the midst of these dark plays, and it was clear that each of the Delvers valued the time we had together to get our questions on the table, dig into lines and characters, and discuss Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams at length. These were fantastic evenings of shared inquiry and commentary, and I am very grateful to Lucas for graciously guiding us through the murky waters.
 (Tennessee Williams is not at all vocal about his opinion of such living quarters: “[It is] one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living-unites that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centers of lower middle-class population and are symptomatic of the impulse of this largest and fundamentally enslaved section of American society to avoid fluidity and differentiation and to exist and function as one interfused mass of automatism.” The Glass Menagerie, Scene I).