Tennessee Williams, “Not About Nightingales” (1939)

Tennessee Williams dedicated Not About Nightingales to one of his heroes, Clarence Darrow. Its major them would have been attracted to Darrow for it looks at the tension between the individual and the institution. This play is set entirely within an island prison, an apparently thinly veiled allegory for Alcatraz, but Williams claims that the prison is a model for all prisons. There are actually a series of interlocking confinement devices at work in the play. The island imprisons everyone who arrives, the prison contains 3,500 “criminals,” and “Klondike” is a solitary confinement cell—a place feared more than any by the prisoners. The action of the play centers on the arrival of a new secretary Eva, devastated by unemployment and desperate for work, and her love affair with an inmate Jim, who works in the office close to the warden and Eva. The second related plot is about a hunger strike that the inmates stage in protest of poor conditions and poor food. These two plot lines come together in the tragic aftermath.

Not About Nightingales was very timely in 1938, but it would take sixty years before it would be performed on the stage. A production (on Youtube at the time this post was written) is posted below.

As the play opens we meet a woman from Wisconsin who comes to the prison to visit her son, a sailor, who was put in prison for larceny. She is suspicious about the end of his letters. It is revealed that her son, Sailor Jack, has gone insane. Jack is just one of many prisoners at nearing this state. The warden, seemingly capable but largely indifferent to the running of the prison and unwilling to face what is going on within the walls of the prison, shovels most of these problems under the table, whether it is a financial irregularity or even the death of inmates.

He hires Eva almost as soon as she walks into the door because he is attracted to her. Eva is desperate for work. The bad economy has driven her to work in a prison, something she dreads for a variety of reasons. The immorality of working for a prison is made clear to Eva during a conversation in the second act with Jim, from which the title of the play emerges. Jim is disgusted by the Keats poem “Ode to a Nightingale” proclaiming that “Don’ those literary punks know there’s something more important to write about than that? They ought to spend a few years in stir before they select their subjects!” (149) For Jim, art must be directed toward class war. Eva defends Keats with: “He got out of prison by looking at the stars. He wrote about beauty as a form of escape.” (150) This part of the discussion highlights Williams view of art in the Great Depression era. This view was shared by many leftist writers of the time, who saw the proper role of art as polemical. In a follow up conversation, Eva and Jim discuss the morality of working for the prison. Jim states that she is contributing to the system that he and the other inmates are working to overthrow. Eva, desperately poor sees herself as having no choice but to work in the prison. In a way she is like many of the inmates who were forced to crime by the times. This strikes me as the key point in the entire play and its moral center.

The institution corrupts all people. The good-natured and intelligent Jim is drive toward violent rebellion. Eva serves a police force she does not empathize with and sees her authentic love affair with Jim transformed into something criminal (subject to voyeuristic investigations by the guards). Most importantly, the warden uses his power to constantly sexually harass Eva. He seems to have hired her due to her attractiveness, being largely disinterested in her credentials. He is on the outs with his wife, who leaves him at some point during the course of the play, and has had affairs. The warden sees Eva much as he sees the inmates, a captive person who must respond favorably to his advances. Once he learns of her feelings for Jim, he uses his upcoming parole decision to extort the promise of sexual favors. “Suppose I—I did sympathize—do as you say—and—and kept my mouth shut and anything else that you want! Would you send the letter? Would Jim get his parole? . . . The mailboat leaves at eleven-forty-five. You could have it sent over by that. Don’t worry. I won’t back out. I’m not afraid of you now. I like you—I’d like to show you how much.” (181)

The outcome of this is cut short by the outbreak of violence in the hunger strike. The prisoners jury-rig the solitary confinement cell to reach 150 degrees, using it to kill a guard. Jim participates in the murder of the warden. The arrival of the military forces the prisoners to either try to escape and swim to shore or fight it out against the military. Jim chooses flight and is never heard from again.

The causes of the prison rebellion seem to outsiders to be slight, but to the prisoners they are matter a great deal. Struggles need to be understood in their context, but all too often privileged people critique oppressed people for their strategies of resistance, their values, or their goals. Certainly people not in prison would not understand starting a hunger strike over monotonous food, but from that it should not be said that their struggle was meaningless or silly. As Jim attempts to explain to Eva, food was almost all they had.

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