Misty American Memories

The cast of characters that populate the "dream world" of Tennessee Williams often find themselves wishing--in vain, so it seems--that someone, anyone, would whisk them away to some far-flung and unknown planet, the farthest from earth the better--anywhere, but "here." Laura, the heroine of the playwright's other masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie, is a young woman who is constantly on the verge of self-discovery, but, due to a debilitating disability that hinders her from achieving just about anything she wants to achieve, never actually goes beyond the suffocating confines of a cramped St. Louis apartment and an overbearing mother whose idiosyncrasies (well-meaning, of course) could probably drive any sane person to the precipice. Laura, unlike Blanche, is sensible or sane enough to know her limits, but then, like Blanche, shuns the life she's been handed by retreating, without fanfare, into a world entirely of her own invention, a world in which a handful of loyal subjects, in the form of miniature unicorns made of glass, are under her watchful and loving care. When the curtain rises to reveal the living quarters of the Wingfields--seemingly enveloped at first glance in a mist of diaphanous fog--the vulnerability of the characters are laid bare. The foundation on which these lives are based hint at Williams' own colorful family, and this is nowhere more apparent than in the role of Laura, who, directly or indirectly, is modeled, too clearly, after the writer's own "troubled" and beloved sister, Rose. The beauty and pain of this line--spoken with anguish by Laura's brother, Tom, towards the end of the play--is quintessential Tennessee, in its unequivocal, rapturous use of language and his shameless love of it: "I didn't go to the moon, I went much farther--for time is the longest distance between two places. I traveled around a great deal. The cities swept about me like dead leaves. Perhaps I am walking along a street at night, in some strange city. I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The window is filled with pieces of colored glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colors, like bits of a shattered rainbow."
Tennessee Williams, in almost all of his plays--in fact I'm quite certain in nearly all of them--gave us "illusion that had the appearance of truth," and, through the sheer force of his protean, once-in-a-century talent, and his voracious, unquenchable thirst to capture the human condition in brutal candor and grace, offered and gave us "truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion." What a gift he has given and left the world with, a world in which illusion and truth are blurred, distorted beyond any comparable recognition that we constantly confuse and mistake the two on a daily basis. Tennessee, in Menagerie, in Streetcar, helps us to differentiate and recognize the truth and the illusion that make up the fabric of our lives a little more accurately and clearly.
Above, Odilon Redon's majestic pastel, Pegasus (c. 1900, Hiroshima Museum of Art), is a most apt image to accompany this post, don't you think? You see, Redon's a current obsession for me, and, as a matter of fact, to my eyes his strange and mystical paintings somewhat allude to the oeuvre of Tennessee Williams, or, in this case, vice versa. Like the master playwright, Redon was drawn to the mysterious and the fragile, the fleeting and the indelible. To peer into his canvases is to peer into the opulent forest of the subconscious, as we do when we watch a Tennessee Williams play. They are far removed from reality yet so utterly realistic all the same that we come away more aware of the world and ourselves than when we first came inside the theater.