Myth as a Basis of Dramatic Structure in Orpheus Descending

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Editor: David A. Galens
Date: 2003
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 17)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,066 words

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Tennessee Williams's first professionally produced play, Battle of Angels (1940), failed during its Boston tryouts. However, the play did not die. Williams continued to rewrite, to add, to modify and in March, 1957, with the great successes of Glass Menagerie (1945), Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) behind him, he committed Battle of Angels, now titled Orpheus Descending, to another Broadway production. "I honestly believe," Williams wrote, "that it is finally finished. About 75 percent of it is new writing, but what is much more important, I believe that I have now finally managed to say in it what I wanted to say . . ." Few plays have been so long meditated and so staunchly believed in by their creators, yet after seventeen years of perpetual revising by America's most successful playwright and one of the most influential figures in the international theater, Orpheus Descending played only sixty-eight performances. Even if we approach the play as text rather than production, Williams has managed, to a remarkable degree, to integrate five major myths into a dramatic structure.

The purpose of this essay is to suggest through an analysis of the myths creating the dramatic structure that Orpheus Descending is a better play than its dismal performance record suggests, a play which has yet to fulfill its potential in production but which even in the printed text represents a significant attempt to recreate myths in the context of our own time.

Although I will consider only those myths with obvious referents in the text to the exclusion of whatever subconscious archetypes we might posit, Williams' autobiographical impulses are important, as he superimposed and strengthened the Orpheus myth upon the myth of the battle between light and dark, the good and evil angels who war in heaven. Williams does not suppress this battle-in-heaven myth, as Hugh Dickenson clearly demonstrates in his comparison of the two published versions of the play. Rather, Williams comes to emphasize the responsibility which love places upon the poet/singer Orpheus and the pull toward life and fruitfulness that the Orpheus figure creates in those dead souls he meets in the hades of the Torrance Mercantile Store. Williams himself always considered Orpheus Descending autobiographical. "Well," he wrote, "nothing is more precious to anybody than the emotional record of his youth, and you will find the trail of my sleeve-worn heart in this completed play . . ." The hero/savior Orpheus or Val, as Williams calls his hero, embodies the playwright as he chooses to see himself, heart on sleeve, "a wild spirited boy who wanders into a conventional community of the South and creates the commotion of a fox in a chicken coop."

In the play itself we are able to distinguish five separate myth patterns: the loss of Eden, the battle of angels, Christ, Orpheus, and Adonis. The setting of the play is the Torrance Mercantile Store, from late winter in Act I through the dark night before Easter dawn at the end of Act...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420045786