The Grotesque Children of The Rose Tattoo

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Author: Leland Starnes
Editor: David A. Galens
Date: 2003
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 18)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,431 words

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That realism should be the convention fundamental to the work of Tennessee Williams is altogether logical. Until his late adolescence, Williams had little opportunity to see any form of theater other than the American cinema, and this form, of course, is firmly grounded in the realistic approach. Even the external shape of Williams's theater shows especially clear evidence of this cinematic influence: a succession of episodes, "fade-outs" and "fade-ins," background music, gauze scrims, and expressive lights focussed to simulate "close-ups"--all devices immediately recognizable as film technique, itself a more poetic kind of realism. So it is, then, that our introduction to Serafina Delle Rose takes place in 'an interior that is as colorful as a booth at a carnival.'

Often clearly aspiring to the conditions of poetry, Williams creates for himself an advantage which is not always available to other dramatists who start from the realistic or naturalistic base: like Synge and O'Casey, he puts his words into the mouths of an essentially imaginative people who speak in the rhythms and colorful imagery of a region favorable to poetry. Even more to the point for our present subject, by staging his dramas in a realm just so much apart from "average" American life as the deep South and by having his characters speak in the distinctive language of that realm apart, Williams succeeds in distancing his plays from the purely realistic mode to a degree sufficient to justify and disguise a certain characteristic exaggeration and distortion of reality which permeates his entire canon. Under the speech of most of his characters there runs the faint but unmistakable thorough bass of grotesque folk comedy. The tone provided by this suggestion of the comic folk tale varies according to Williams's intention, and, accordingly, the success of its effect depends upon the amount of distance he would have us put between the characters and ourselves.

Williams's opening scene in Orpheus Descending, for example, is an excellent study of his use of regional elements for these ends; we have only to examine the craftsmanship in this Prologue to an imperfect play to perceive how ingeniously (and how meticulously) this restless perfectionist has always gone about the business of constructing the artistic reality he thought indispensable to the coming to life of his vividly theatrical people.

The set represents in nonrealistic fashion a general drygoods store and part of a connecting 'confectionery' in a small Southern town . . . Merchandise is represented very sparsely and it is not realistic . . . But the confectionery, which is seen partly through a wide arched door, is shadowy and poetic as some inner dimension of the play.

Then immediately, before this nonrealistic background, we hear language of such color that we realize the realm in which our action will take place is indeed very much apart.

DOLLY. Pee Wee!

BEULAH. Dawg!

DOLLY. Cannonball is comin' into th' depot!

BEULAH. You all git down to th' depot an' meet that train!

Pee Wee and Dog, "heavy, red-faced...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420050220