Tennessee Williams: “Camino Real” (1953): In Praise of the Vagabonds

Camino Real was written in 1952 while Tennessee Williams was living in Key West. It was not well-received and the bad reviews left Williams depressed. The play was dedicated to Elia Kazan who directed the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. I must say, I tried to find a performance I could watch from Youtube or download, without much luck. I am not sure this is a play that was meant to read. (Williams deals with this in an afterward to the published version where he says that reading the play will not improve the experience for those who did not like it performed.) Perhaps its magic is hidden in the performances. The first draft of Camino Real was called something like Ten Blocks on the Camino Real. The final version contained fifteen of these “blocks.” We are fortunate that Williams wrote a rather reflective forward to the published version of the play, which deals with some of the negative feedback he received and gives some guidance to interpretation. He explains that the main motif of the play was intended to be freedom.

My desire was to give these audiences my own sense of something wild and unrestricted like water in the mountains, or clouds changing shape in a gale, or the continually dissolving and transforming images of a dream. This sort of freedom is not chaos nor anarchy. On the contrary, it is the result of painstaking design, and in this work I have given more conscious attention to form and construction than I have in any work before. Freedom is not achieved simply by working freely. (743—744)

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There so a lot of wisdom in there for libertarians who actual want to create a free society, and not just talk about it. What Tennessee Williams said he was after in Camino Real was a well-planned and thoughtfully-designed joyous experience of release.

The setting, which Williams insists is no real place but a separate existence, is an open plaza with a great deal of life and openness, but also a tension between vagabonds who pass through or well in the “Skid Row” part of the plaza and those on the luxury side. Class is not directly theorized in the play. It is just assumed as the context. Almost all of the characters in the play (and there are great many minor and significant) are from one or the other side of the town, or act as the gate keepers keeping the two separate. Many literary figures find their way into the play from Don Quixote, in the opening scene, to Jacque Casanova, a major character to takes on a role of a tramp.

All of the literary characters who take the stage in Camino Real have been pushed to the margins and are no longer really necessary for the world. Casanova, for instance, relies on remittance checks for survival. (Casanova is historical, no literary, but he has been internalized enough to work as an archetype.) Williams may be mourning the declining interest in this impressive gang of rebels and freethinkers.

The play read to me like a prolonged meditation on the freedom of mobility of the poor, marginalized, and criminalized against the restrictive forces of order. The central action of Block Six is about the efforts to capture the vagabond Kilroy. After dodging the police he says:

How do I git out? Which way do I go, which way do I get out? Where’s the Greyhound depot? Hey, do you know where the Greyhound bus depot is? What’s the best way out, if there is any way out? I got to find one> I had enough of this place. I had too much of this place. I’m free. I’m a free man with equal rights in this world! You better believe it because that’s news for you and you had better believe it! Kilroy’s a free man with equal rights in this world! All right, now, help me, somebody, help me find a way out. (780)

Help comes in the form of Esmeralda and the gypsies, but Kilroy ends the scene in the hands of the police. A very similar scene is acted out in the final block with a happier outcome. There Esmeralda give the following speech in praise of the vagabonds.

God bless all con men and hustlers and pitchmen who hawk their hearts on the street, all two-time losers who’re likely to lose once more, the courtesan who made the mistake of love, the greatest of lovers crowned with the longest horns, the poet who wandered far from his heart’s green country and possibly will and possibly won’t be bale to find his way back, look down with a smile tonight on the last cavaliers, the ones with the rusty armor and soiled white plumes, and visit with understanding and something that’s almost tender those fading legends that come and go in this plaza like songs not clearly remembered, oh, sometime and somewhere, let these be something to mean the word honor again! (839)

I guess that is as nice a place to stop as any. I am not sure what quite to make of Camino Real. I am interested in seeing it performed and would appreciate any leads.

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Tennessee Williams: “Summer and Smoke” (1948)

You talk as if my body had ceased to exist for you, John, in spite of the fact that you’ve just counted my pulse. Yes, that’s it! You tried to avoid it, but you’ve told me plainly. The tables have turned, yes, the tables have turned with a vengeance! You’ve come around to my old way of thinking and I to yours like two people exchanging a call on each other at the same time, and each one finding the other one gone out, the door locked against him and no one to answer the bell! (Alma, 638)

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Summer and Smoke opened in 1948 a year after the author, Tennessee Williams, put out his Pulitzer winning play A Streetcar Named Desire. The play, can be easily overshadowed by its greater sibling, but it remains an interesting effort looking at the difficult of two people incapable of finding love for each other because of the liquid nature of their worldviews. Although a bit troubling, Summer and Smoke is dramatically more liberating than some of Williams’ other plays. The Glass Menagerie suggests how people are unable to escape their condition or their ways of thinking, They are stuck in the past. A Street Car Names Desire suggests the possibility of change but paints a horrific picture of mental decline. Summer and Smoke suggest more benign chances. Alma becomes less coy about her love for John overtime. John starts out the story a bit earthier and open about his desires for Alma, but eventually settles down and become a good boy. So, they fly past each other. I do not want to so easily forgive the social forces at work. Alma begins the play a product of an overly romanticized view of the world, clearly a product of her upbringing and culture. John abandons his sensual origins in the pursuit of a career and a family. Alma outgrew her socialization while John becomes socialized. Alma ends up going her own way by seducing (or accepting the suggestions) of a young man, reversing the situation of the early part of the play.

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I suspect many wonderful moments are lost because people pass each other at different places in their life. I am also certain this would be less common and less tragic in a truly free society where people were allowed to be honest and open about their desires, needs, and points of view. Williams knows quite well that culture is horribly oppressive, most importantly to our psychology. Repression of desire (when mostly harmless at least) is one of the greatest possible crimes a culture can impose on individuals.

At the beginning, Alma suggests she is shocked by John’s sexual advances. He is to be a doctor and therefore should be above such lurid interests.

I’m afraid that you I move in different circles. If I wished to be as outspoken as you are, which is sometimes just an excuse for being rude—I might say that I’ve yet to see you in the company of a —well, —reputable young woman. You’ve heard unfavorable talk about me in your circle of acquaintances and I’ve heard equally unpleasant things about you in mine. And the pity of it is that you are preparing to be a doctor. You’re intending to practice your father’s profession here in Glorious Hill. . . But you have a gift for scientific research! You have a chance to serve humanity. (587)

Notice the moralism and class assumptions that invade that statement. It was probably lectures like this, given by many people through his life that convinced him to reform himself and settle down. Alma may, in the end, have regretted giving that lecture to him.

All in all, a play that should not be ignored for those interested in the relationship between sexual freedom and culture.

 

 

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.