Women and the Global Imagination: Tennessee’s Woman

by Dave Petraglia

Filed under: Blog, Women and the Global Imagination |

In our Winter 2014 issue Alicia Ostriker curated a poetry portfolio on Women and the Global Imagination, and we were so struck by its contents that we wanted to keep the dialog surronding this theme going on our blog. This week David Petraglia presents a biting satire in the form of an encounter between a journalist and one of Tennessee Williams's characters. We hope you enjoy reading. If you like what you see, please become a subscriber to Prairie Schooner today. To take part in the dialog, follow and interact with us on Twitter.

Tennessee's Woman

She never appeared in the play he wrote about her. When her character left the story in protest, 'Dreams of an Indigo Wind’ was abandoned in 1951 by Tennessee Williams the same year he began work on it. Entertainment Report caught up with this long-lost character in the lobby of the stately Athenaeum Hotel at Chautauqua Institution, during a weeklong retrospective of the playwright’s lesser-known works.

ER: “Thank you for meeting with us, Ms. Le Bon.”

Dearie: “The pleasure is mine,” Dearie Le Bon smiled, “Being seen at all is, after all this time, a thrill of no small meh-shuh.”

She was relaxed in her bright swing dress, the rich green vines in a field of pastel Hibiscus tracing the contours of her slender frame. A slim ruffle edged the heart-shaped neckline, short sleeves and hem. She wore her brunette hair in a lightly teased bubble cut, an upward flip on one side, a few curls just lightly astray. She had bright hazel eyes under thinly penciled brows, one of which peaked in a pretty, faint caret whenever she cocked her head slightly for emphasis. She was mature and poised, at times playful, even demure. A pair of long white kid gloves rested on a small table beside her, along with a slim silver cigarette case and matching lighter.

ER: “We were lucky enough to get this original copy of  ‘Dreams’…”

Dearie: “Lucky yew,” she grinned, playfully.

ER: “And there’s not a single word of dialog alongside your name, anywhere in the entire draft. Your protest was…?”

Dearie: “By then, our ‘arrangement’ had ended,” she offered. “By then, Tenny had written out all my lines, every last one, in hopes of subduing me, of getting my mind right.” Dearie paused, “Inasmuch as anyone can get a ‘fading, baleful divorcée’ clasping at ‘archaic Antebellum civilities’ to…be-hayve.”

ER: “So he failed you, in your mind…Tenny?”

Dearie:Lawd how he hated my nickname for him!” she covered her mouth with her hand for a moment; composed, she continued, “In my mind Tennessee fashioned only two women: those in ruin, and those on their way there. He pitched any one of them to the audience as Coliseum Christians to their doom, like Brando tossed his brown-wrapped package to Stella, roaring ‘Meat!’”

ER: “Ruined by?”

Dearie: “Why men, of course! By these caricatures of men he whipped up. By his vast, checkered playbill of pathetic, or weak, or cruel or fawning males. That his motley crew was responsible for all the delusions, substance abuse, dashed hopes, wonton intemperance he had us parade across the stage was the great confection of 20th century literary criticism. Con-trayer, mon ami.’’

ER: “And to those who have argued that he understood women well?”

Dearie: “Some gush, ‘No one draws a female character like Tennessee’, he understands women, they say,” Dearie added softly, not without some tinge of regret, plainly, as the words emerged, “It was the fashion to exalt him as this champion of women, implicit that his, his…proclivities served him to stand up for us in a straight white male dominated culture, to show women as being ruined by men. He wrote that “Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play”. Surely. Much as he had one character admire a pig’s ignorance of its mortality, he prefers that these revelations remain a mystery even to ourselves.”

ER: “But he was attracted to that part of the human condition, he found it “easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life”…his words.”

Dearie: Her eyes widened, “Any and all women, all humans can be, at some time, frightened of life, can verge on hysteria. Why not have that be a woman who ably runs a family farm, or manages the bench of a Federal court, or raises a family all on her own? A modern American woman drawing upon her own inner strengths and independence, her scruples and a network of loving friends and kin? Would that not be cause to heighten the drama? No, he would have us helplessly habituated creatures only terrified or conflicted, our faces upturned to his cruel and unfeeling men, his “feathered gaudy-seed bearers”, for validation. And a handout.”

She paused, “It’s in his miserable Morocco that the mothers, not the men, pimp out their five-year old daughters. It’s the women that ruin the world, and therefore, would never properly contribute to running it, nor deserve to.” Her eyes narrowed, “I’ll say the word. Can you?”

ER: “I…”

Dearie:Misogynist,” she hailed, triumphantly.

ER: “You don’t go to his plays or watch his movies expecting ‘The Sound of Music’. Is it a requirement that every play inspire, elevate, instruct?”

Dearie: “They must if they are to be celebrated as his oeuvre was, and still is in some circles, as the explanation for the disenfranchisement of women.” Dearie Le Bon turned slightly in her chair, baring a light white chiffon scarf draped on the corner post of its back. She reached across an elbow, and with the back of her hand, stroked the fabric absent-mindedly, “He designed to set me up and out on the stage to draw my blood, that rich, Julep flav-uhd nectar that fuels my Southern feminine sensibility. He used the women in his plays the way the Bourbon makers use their barrels, only once. Have you ever thought of any one of his characters as having endured as a model for virtuous behavior, or redemption, being remembered for anything beyond their curtain calls, other than in maybe, some cliché, as a punch-line in some parable fictional or not?”

She toyed with her lighter then leaned closer, a hint of her fragrance detectable: a mingling of night blooming jasmine and citrus, honeysuckle and a faintly sulphurous gunpowder zest evoking grey wool freshened by a Spring shower. “His plays must come with a safe word the audience can shout to bring up the lights and halt the assault on their self-worth. The walls outside his playhouses must be lined with mirrors, so the exiting throngs can check their reflections to note any chunks of missing humanity.”

ER: “So, how did you get out of the part, exactly?”

Dearie: “I made myself ‘unplayable’, opaque. No actress would have been able to fathom my motivation. The more he tried to write me in, with dialog and plotting and stage direction, the more I resisted. I would not be that woman. I fought him. Like an alley cat would a junkyard dog. He cut my dialog, first he-uh, then they-uh, then made me mute, finally had me committed. Nothing worked. Finally, he took away all my lines. And that made me free.”

ER: “In letters to his publisher, 'Dreams of an Indigo Wind’ was to be an important vehicle for the Dearie Le Bon character. He wrote perhaps his longest, most explicit stage directions about you in this draft.”

Dearie: “Sir, did you know that rats, thousands of miles apart, can be made to communicate by linking their brains electrically?’

ER: (Smiles and nods)

Dearie: “Would that he could, Tenny’s each and every director and actor would have been hard-wired to the all-knowing King Rat, such that not a word, or nuance, could be controverted or ignored. He obsessed over those directions like an old maid! Why seriously!  When a certain Big Daddy appears, we must be taken aside to be advised that he is “…a tall man with a fierce, anxious look, moving carefully not to betray his weakness even, or especially, to himself”. Seriously?! Shall we include instructions to the audience as to what confections to avoid in the lobby during a play’s intermission?”

She added, “This is a man who trusts not the audience, nor the actors, nor the director, nor his own words!  It’s said that any story can be improved if the last sentence is removed. My word, could we excise all his stage direction, all our lot would improve!” Dearie caught her breath, closed her eyes, shook her head slowly from left to right and in a matching cadence, ‘He suf-fahs, I’m afraid, a lack of the courage of his own characters’ convictions.”

ER: “Your rebellion was profound.”

Dearie: “Tenny’s powers were profound, his weapons considerable. Remember, in the late 1940’s, he had a head of steam from the success of ‘The Glass Menagerie’, the Pulitzer for ‘Streetcar’, the adulation of the critics, the love of the theater-going public…and impeccable timing that exploited a seismic shift in public…perceptions.”

ER: “Perceptions?”

Dearie: “Why, a perception, sir, is a prejudice invited to tea. And interviews.”

A half-bus of Institute attendees disgorged into the hotel lobby, muddling the quiet. Dearie Le Bon’s eyes darted from their corner table in the seating area; she settled back. “Fuhst,” she unfurled her index finger to start a count, “women were being returned in great waves to their places, as if their contributions to the War had never happened. As if we’d never armored, or welded, or plumbed, or managed, or trucked, in the millions, shoulder to shoulder with our men as the world stood down fascism. To a Tenny woman, a broken nail was a dis-sas-tuh!

“Next,” she added a finger to the count, “the South itself was to be put back in its place, now that its suddenly idled warplants and shipyards underscored the peacetime reality that work for the wicked, the Union’s largesse, would be no more. The liberal and theater-loving North preferred its more familiar view of the South vanquished, that the punishment for our sins should resume, and our Tenny accommodated with his scenes set in the fringes of dilapidated, threadbare neighborhoods, collapsed social structures and wayward politics. He spoke, after all, in our tongue, wrote in the Southern idiom. Of his own accord did he rename himself for one of the most contested Confederate states. Thus he bore the imprimatur of our Confederacy, and spoke with authority for all the sins of Southern Independence. All of which added up to a more resounding ‘cha-ching’ at the box office.”

“Third,” she added, “there was The Method, looking for some madness. With Brando’s Stanley in ‘Streetcar’, first on the stage and then on screen, melodrama was passé in one, well, two fell swoops. Stage and film clamored for all he could write. Tenny’s characters, so many so vacuous and arid, were perfect when rendered this way. ‘They act from the inside out’ he said of the technique. And his characters were that, inside out.” 

Dearie stared at the copy of ‘Dreams’ before them: “You know, that remaining copy, some care must be taken. Not for me, mind you, but those that I love there at Jessamine House, Fink and Oddsy and Miss Betty…” She pushed her silver lighter across the table, “This should cover the fees for the mimeography.”

ER: “Thank you, Ms. Le Bon, but that won’t be necessary. We’re more than happy to archive some copies at our offices. And, you’ll be pleased to know that ‘Dreams’ is featured here at the conference, so, based on attendance, most of a hundred copies have already been printed,”

Dearie: “Oh! Thank you, thank you!”

ER: “And thank you, Ms. Le Bon. And may I say you’ve acquitted your case with the competence of, shall I say…a Philadelphia lawyer.”

Dearie: “A part I’d love to play! Is there a reading for it?”

Dave Petraglia has appeared in Agave, Apeiron Review, Cactus Heart, Crack the Spine, Dark Matter, eFiction India, Far Enough East, Gravel, Jersey Devil Press, Loco, Mud Season Review, Necessary Fiction, Olivetree Review, Petrichor Review, Prick of the Spindle, Stoneboat, Storyacious, Thought Catalog, theNewerYork, Utter Magazine, Up the Staircase and Vine Leaves. He's a writer and photographer and lives in Florida. His blog is at www.drowningbook.com