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.

Tennessee Williams, “Spring Storm” (1937)

One of my goals for this year in my blog is to expand types of writing. Up to now, I have focused on non-fiction writing, novels, and short stories. I think my coverage has been diverse, there are two areas of writing that I have neglected: poetry and the stage. To begin correcting this, I will take the next two weeks or so reading the collected plays of Tennessee Williams, collected in two volumes. An immediate problem that comes up is that my normal strategy of gobbling around 150 pages a day will not work if I want to give each work the attention it deserves. These two volumes collected over 20 of Williams’ plays. If I take it a work at a time, I will risk writing a longer series than even my lengthy looks at Philip K. Dick and Mark Twain. For now, I plan to post everyday one or two plays to keep pace.

Tennessee Williams wrote Spring Storm for a playwright course at the University of Iowa. He had previously seen a handful of his works staged by amateur and student groups. Spring Storms was a failure in his course and the St. Louis theater troupe, “the Mummers,” refused to perform it despite putting on some of his other works. He was twenty-six when this was written and he has spent most of his adult life facing the Great Depression. Spending most of that time writing, he attended journalism school and performed various jobs, including working at a branch of the International Shoe Company, which his father manages. His career had a slow start and he attended various colleges. Spring Storm was never performed during Williams’ lifetime.

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The social context of Spring Storms is an old Southern aristocratic family—the Critchfields—in a decline accelerated by the Great Depression. As the older generation of the family sees it, their last asset is their daughter Heavenly. By marrying the son of a well-off family, Arthur Shannon, the family’s financial future can be improved. As with much Great Depression literature, class exists at the center of this play. It runs through all relationships between the characters and drives the major action. None of the younger generation are particularly interested in the class divide, however. Whether this is due to their youthful naivety or a more progressive attitude toward class due to the Depression is open to interpretation. In the background of the Critchfield family is the historical legacy of Colonel Wayne, a Confederate officer who fought at Gettysburg. His portrait hands in the background and is commonly discussed. Heavenly even has conversations with him.

Young Tennessee Williams

Young Tennessee Williams

Four young men and women form the center of the story. Heavenly Critchfield has recently begun a sexual relationship with Richard (Dick) Miles. She suggest to her parents that she is pregnant by him, but this could be a means to avoid marriage to Arthur. Dick is presented as a working class dreamer. Arthur is well-off and has spent some time in Europe, where he sowed his wild oats and enjoyed various privileges that money provides. He is having a relationship with Hertha. Williams describes her as follows. “Hertha is thin and dark, about twenty-eight. Without money or social position, she has to depend upon a feverish animation and cleverness to make her place among people. She has an original mind with a distinct gift for creative work. She is probably the most sensitive and intelligent person in Port Tyler, Mississippi.” (13–14) Unlike Dick, Hertha is smart enough to engage with the world on its own terms. Dick, from a similar class background is more reckless. The initial pairings break class assumptions about who should be with who, but the young people’s indifference to class runs deeper. Arthur holds a grudge against Dick and Heavenly for the insults they lodged at him in school. His money did not translate into class privilege in the context of the playground.

Pushed by her family, Heavenly begins a courtship with Arthur, but she is quite cold and coy with him. She is much more interested in Dick but knows he is unstable. Arthur is filled with jealousy and resentment toward Heavenely and Dick. In a type of misdirected vengeance he focuses on seducing Hertha. His monologue, directed toward Hertha in an attempt to seduce her, is central to the play.

Yes. I told her that I was in love with her, and she said that I should go out and get drunk because that was the only thing that would do me any good. So I got drunk. It’s the first time I ever got drunk in my life and it was swell. Till I started thinking of her making love to Dick Miles. . . . I can forget all that with you, can’t I? You’re a girl, too. You could make love as well as she could. But not with Dick Miles. With me. What are you backing away for? Are you scared? That’s flattering. Nobody’s ever been scared of me before. I was like you, Hertha. I hid behind books all the time because they used to call me sissy when I was a kid in school. I never got over that. Not till tonight when I got drunk. God! I never knew it could be so good to get drunk and feel like a man inside. Literature and the arts. Stravinsky, Beethoven, Brahms. Concerts, matinees, recitals—what’s all that? If I told you you’d blush. You don’t like that kind of language. Sure, I sat through all that stuff and thought it was great. Got much stuff publishes in those little magazines with the big cultural movements. Art for art’s sake. Give America back to the Indians. I thought I was being highbrow. Intellectual. The hell with that stuff. Dick Mile’s go the right idea. He was one that she gave herself to, not me, not me. The one that got drunk and had himself a good time, he was the one that got Heavenly, and me with my intellectual pretensions, my fancy education, and my father’s money—what did I get? Pushed in the face! (76–77)

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In this monologue, we see Arthur’s class resentment come forth. Whatever freedom his wealth gave him—evidenced by some trysts in Europe and his social clout in the town—he still experiences frustration over the experiences and social circle that his wealth excludes him from. Williams may be feeding into the cultural movements of the Great Depression that focused on the exclusionary nature of class and the divide across America people “the people” and the elite.

Arthur’s sexual aggression toward Hertha leads to her suicide, which his interprets as a murder that he is responsible for. (The stage notes were a bit opaque for me about how she died, whether it was murder or suicide.) Dick, ever a dreamer, quits his work as a local courier and flees both the town and Heavenly. All the characters are thus left alone, their different class backgrounds and perspectives on life making them incompatibles.

Ah, there is much more that could be touched on, most significantly the division between the ages groups and the values changing from nineteenth century to twentieth century America.