Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Tennessee Williams Economy

  By Christa Tinsley Spaht, Project Manager.

We all know America's postwar era saw major, major changes in the economy, especially in the Deep South which had not benefited from the earlier Industrial Revolution as dramatically as its neighbors to the north. And no one made dramatic changes into must-see melodrama like celebrated writer Tennessee Williams. Each spring my friends and I revisit several of his works committed to film—both famous and obscure—in honor of his March birthday. This year’s viewings got me thinking about the snapshots of economic transition he created through his sad and hilarious characters and their unfortunate circumstances.

Watching so much Tennessee Williams in a condensed period of time (which I don’t recommend doing alone—and why we assemble an audience) really draws out the themes he heavily relies upon over and over. Williams’ characters are always coming to terms with some sort of forced transition, most frequently the passage of time and advancing age but with that a changing economy and the implications that holds for their sources of income, lifestyles, traditions, and family histories. (With the exception of the Pollitts in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—I’m still not sure how they could be living in such luxury off of cotton in the late ‘50s, when most farms had switched to soybeans, corn, and the like.)

Most of Williams' protagonists seem to be on the decline, representing a time and economy on its way out while the forces of the modern world push in on them. There are never any clear winners or victors in these struggles; everyone loses something (it wouldn’t be Southern gothic if it had a happy ending, now would it?) but it demonstrates the human scale of the massive economic shifts that were occurring at that time.

Some of his works precede World War II, most notably The Glass Menagerie, set in St. Louis during the Great Depression—as Tom Wingfield puts it, “That quaint period, the thirties, when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. Their eyes had failed them, or they had failed their eyes, and so they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy.” However, the most intriguing plays are those set in the Deep South during that remarkable postwar era of boom and transition.

Arguably Williams’ most famous and revered work, A Streetcar Named Desire sets up two characters to face off over the South’s genteel (for a very tiny group) past and its brash present. Think of Blanche DuBois, clinging to her last delusions of grandeur from a pampered life in the well-appointed family mansion in rural Jim Crow Mississippi, while sharing a cramped two-room apartment in the bustling, dirty New Orleans with her sister and brother-in-law who has no regard for Blanche’s once-elegant origins. Stanley Kowalski represents working-class America, diversity (in the casual mingling of different classes and races), fast-paced urban life, new styles of music (jazz and blues), and new immigrants.

Even Blanche’s relationship with the modern convenience of electric lighting is fraught at best, and she definitely doesn’t understand her demotion from inherited ancestral wealth to the working world, and that one can’t buy furs and pearls on a schoolteacher’s salary or solely depend on the kindness of strangers to make ends meet.  

In the struggle over the old and new modes of making a buck, entrepreneurs are often punished in some way for refusing to play by the rules of the Old South economy. There’s Siliva Vacarro in Baby Doll, whose newer, modern cotton gin is putting Archie Lee Meighan out of business; Lady Torrance’s father in The Fugitive Kind (or Orpheus Descending), who served African-Americans at his winery to the chagrin of bigoted townsfolk; and ultimately Lady herself the day of her new venture’s grand opening. These characters watched their livelihoods and dreams go up in smoke, literally, when the outdated competitor (Archie) or small-town vigilantes (the residents of Two Rivers County, Mississippi) decided they weren’t going to just "let the market decide" if the new business could succeed or not.

One character who tries to exploit the past for economic gain—Lot in The Seven Descents of Myrtle—succumbs to TB before he realizes his dream to transform his rotting family plantation into an antebellum amusement park. (The plantation, set right on the banks of the Mississippi River, is then swept away in a massive flood.)

Okay, enough doom and gloom. Williams definitely had a flair for the tragic and for laying on consequences that far outweigh any crime, lapse in judgment, or risk on the part of his characters.

Watching these plays and films now makes me wonder about today’s Dodson, Mississippis, the fictional setting of This Property is Condemned that falls to ruin when the railroad company lays off most of the town. Just allow me to force this metaphor when I’m talking about Tennessee Williams, the king of heavy-handed symbolism: I wonder who are the Blanches and the Stanleys of the 21st century? And who will be the Tom Wingfields, looking back on this time from some point in a future of even greater radical change?

And I also wonder whose canon is framing this time so poetically and prolifically for us. David Mamet? Because thirty years from now, I certainly don’t want to be hosting a mini-festival for Thomas Friedman books adapted to film.