Saturday, March 22, 2014

The oblique morality of Tennessee Williams

Last Friday, I saw three one act plays by Tennessee Williams. They were performed at an old mansion in the French Quarter here in New Orleans as part of the Tennessee Williams Festival. Each play, set in a hotel, was performed in a different room of the house. The rooms were small, and so there were times when the actorsnever more than four and usually twowere moving about right next to you. It was an enlightening evening.

The plays are Green Eyes, The Traveling Companion and Mr. Paradise. It's not easy to find out much about them. They were published in 2005 and 2008 respectively by the estimable house, New Directions, in volumes of TW's one-acts.  It appears these plays were written much earlier, but, as I say, it's not easy, even on the Internet, to determine that.

In any case, Williams' themes abound in these short plays. As does the characteristic florid, pained way his characters speak, using words that often deflect the truth but that, in the end, do not deny it. You can see that most readily in Mr. Paradise, where the landlady of a rooming house in the French Quarter demands the rent from two washed-up residents. The first is an alcoholic woman who goes on about a rich man she knows who owns a rubber plantation in Brazil. The second is a seedy-looking, dirty-robe-wearing, gut-hanging older man named Anthony Paradise who, we later learn, is—or was— a poet. When the landlady starts attacking the woman, who is obviously lying about the rubber plantation and probably about everything else, Mr. Paradise rises to defend her. In a long speech, he says to the relentless landlady, suppose it's true that there is no rubber plantation, and suppose I don't have any novel I'm working on as I claim I amsuppose all of it's a liewhy must you crush this fabrication? What difference does it make what kind of subterfuge we choose to hide ourselves behind?

One of the things I admire most about Tennessee Williams and for what I'm most grateful, is his understanding of the obliqueness of morality. Yes, there is black and white sometimes. The greatest sin is deliberate cruelty, he said, and at times, there is a plain line between yes and no. But there is also the kind of lie that has nothing to do with cruelty and which only serves to help that person through the day, the hour, the minute. It's a scenario that protects him or her from the glare of that harsh uncovered light bulb and which preserves that most delicate thingdignitythat should never be stripped from us.                                                                     

In A Streetcar Named Desire, when Mitch calls out Blanche for all the lies she told him about her past, she says, "Never inside! I never lied in my heart!"

Tennessee, let me have the courage to protect those who never lie in their heart.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Goncourt Brothers

They were Edmond (1822-96) and Jules (1830-70). They lived and worked in Paris as writers. They were inseparable.  

Their Journals, which they wrote together, are a delight to read, especially for a writer. They are chock-full of firsthand anecdotes about the era’s giant literary figures—Flaubert, Zola, Daudet, and so on. It was there that I read: "Flaubert told us that while writing the description of the poisoning scene of Madame Bovary, he had felt a pain as if he had a copper plate in his stomach, a pain which had made him vomit twice over."

Everything was fine until Jules (on the right) became very ill, possibly with MS.  Gradually, he became less able to fend for himself. Starting in 1870, the Journals were solely written by Edmond. Jules was no longer able to write. On April 18th, Edmond wrote about his deteriorating brother:

   "To witness, day by day, the destruction of everything that once went to mark out this young man…to see him emptying the salt-cellar over his fish, holding his fork in both hands, eating like a child, is too much for me to bear."

Then, this scene, which Edmond recorded on June 11:

   "We had nearly finished dinner at a restaurant.  The waiter brought him a bowl.  He used it clumsily.  People started looking at us. I said to him rather impatiently: 'Be careful, old fellow, please, or I shan’t be able to take you out to dinner any more.'  He promptly burst into tears, crying 'It’s not my fault, it’s not my fault!' And his tense, trembling hand sought mine on the tablecloth. 'It’s not my fault', he went on. 'I know how it upsets you, but I often want to and I can’t.' And his hand squeezed mine with a pitiful 'Forgive me'.
 "Then both of us started crying into our napkins in front of the astonished diners." 

Though it wasn't old age that killed Jules, the gradual helplessness that comes with growing old, accompanied by the various mind-destroying diseases that many of will face, seems, from everything I've seen, exactly the same. I look to my past to see my future. Who will be there to be tender toward me in my decline?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Audrey Meadows

I read that Sheila MacRae died on Thursday. She was the second Alice Kramden on "The Honeymooners," that wonderfully stark comedy that was part of the Jackie Gleason Show. I don't think I ever saw MacRae in the role of Alice. But I did see the original Alice, Audrey Meadows.  And thereby hangs a tale.

The original show, starred Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden, a Brooklyn bus driver; Audrey Meadows as his wife, Alice; Art Carney as his upstairs neighbor, Ed Norton and Joyce Randolph as Ed's wife, Trixie. It was filmed live and ranand I have a hard time believing thisfor just one year. The show was set in the Kramden's apartment in Brooklyn and gave a whole new meaning to minimalism. The program was in black and white. The characters dressed plainlyRalph in his bus driver's uniform, Norton wearing a white T-shirt and vest and a battered hat, Alice and Trixie in housewives dresses.
Ralph, Norton and Alice

I could go on, but that would make this post far longer that it should be and deviate from the aforementioned hanging tale.  But you do need to knowif you never saw the showthat AliceAudrey Meadowshad the most dry, deadpan responses to Ralph's absurd demands. And that nasalized beauty of a voice of hers! Our family watched it. Millions did. And for me, a kid in 1950s southeastern Virginia, this was like being transported to a kind of Baghdad on a flying carpet with rabbit ears.

I guess I was about ten. I remember my mother gathered the three of us kidsmy brother, sister and Itogether one afternoon and said, "We're going to have a very special guest tonight. I want you to be on your best behavior."

The special guest was Audrey Meadows.

And why was Audrey Meadows coming to our house at 107 63rd Street in Virginia Beach, Virginia?  Because, as it turned out, she was married to a good friend of my father's. Now, you have to understand that the only Audrey Meadows we knew was Alice Kramden, and she was a plain woman--sharp as she was, she was still plain. In any case, I remember that when she and her husband arrived, we had already changed into out pajamas. The four adults had dinner, and then weincluding a friend of my brothers' who was spending the nightwere allowed to come down and meet Miss Meadows.
Audrey Meadows
And this is who we saw. The woman in the picture here. A princess. A genuine princess. She had long, lush strawberry blonde hair. I didn't know the word lush then, but that's what it was. I remember she was sitting on our rug, her legs to the side as if sidesaddle. She wore a lovely crinoline dress that rustled when she shifted. I had never seen anyone as beautiful. When she saw us, she smiled.  Just like in the picture here. Only she was animated, and sweet, and kind.

"Come on down, all of you!" she said. And we did.  Introductions were made. The friend of my brother's had broken his foot recently and wore a cast. When she saw that, she said, "What happened to you? Did you break your foot?" Our little friend was so shy he almost disappeared into himself.

"Come over here," she said. Sit next to me," she said. He did, changing colors rapidly as if he were a magic trick.

"Now, look here," she said. And she raised her many-layered skirt up an inch or so to reveal her knee. "Do you see that? she asked out friend. I don't think he could stand to look. "See that scar?  I broke my leg when I was a little girl. It was before the doctors knew what they do now, and so they left me with this scar."

"Ok, now, all of you," my mother said, "scoot upstairs and go to bed."

We walked upstairs and before disappearing into our rooms turned around. And Audrey Meadows waved a big wave at us and threw us all a kiss that, sometimes, when I close my eyes and reach back in my mind, I still feel today.