Except for Mark Twain, perhaps no other American writer’s work and life have been more closely associated with the Mississippi River than Tennessee Williams. He has fittingly been hailed as the “Scribe of Mississippi”(Tucker). His plays take us on a literary tour of the river just as Faulkner’s novels do to the hill country of North Mississippi. In his works as in his life, Williams visits—in a pilgrimage of memories—places and people on the Mississippi from St. Louis downriver to New Orleans. In fact, he spent good portions of his life in river towns and knew the landscapes and culture of the Mississippi very well—its currents, crests, bluffs, miles of green levees, channels, cypress brakes, coves, breakwater, backwater, mists, music, and, above all else, the power of its floods. In some of his plays, he displays an even more technical knowledge of how river shallows and eddies influenced navigation and flood waters. The Mississippi flows throughout Williams’s canon and, like Langston Hughes, he could say, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” (“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”).
Studying the river in Williams’s works not only reveals his knowledge of the Mighty Mississippi but also shows how he mapped and transformed the river to create his own Southern landscapes, both lyrical and grotesque. The river gave him many of the polarities, and the paradoxes, for which his plays and stories are famous, and he gave the river the poetry which further mythologized it in the American imagination—on stage and in film. The river in Williams’s works was always more than just historical landscape; it was a poetic prism. Through it he mixed “memory and desire”(to quote T.S. Eliot, a fellow St. Louis resident, in The Wasteland), reality and myth, tranquility and mutability, fertility and death. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, for example, the alluvial deposits from the Mississippi make Big Daddy’s plantation “twenty-eight thousand acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile” (88), while in Battle of Angels and Kingdom of Earth the river swells with death-dealing floods.
Williams doubtless inherited a keen sense of riverlore from his mother, Edwina Dakin Williams, who grew up in Port Gibson, Mississippi, and was famous for her stories. In her autobiography, lionizing her “writin’ son,” Remember Me to Tom, Edwina recalls:
I spent the happiest years of my life in Port Gibson, a plantation center located between Vicksburg and Natchez. It was called “Port Gibson” although it wasn’t a port at all, for the Mississippi River flowed five miles away. The colored people told the story that when the Lord made the earth he had a lot of water left over and he said it could go where it pleased and that’s the Mississippi. Once it had flowed through Port Gibson, then it “went where it pleased” and wandered over to Lyons. (172)
Edwina’s anecdote about the willfulness of the river re-surfaced years later in her son’s Orpheus Descending (1957), where he provided geographic information about one of the most poetic places in his canon linked to the river, Moon Lake. Attacking an Italian immigrant, Papa Romano, for selling liquor to blacks, Beulah, the town’s gossip, reveals that “He picked up a piece of land cheap, it was on the no’th shore of Moon Lake which used to be the old channel of the river and people thought some day the river might swing back that way, and so he got it cheap. . .” Unquestionably, the river went where it pleased in Williams’s imagination, as he represented it in all its contradictions. Young Tom also heard “magical stories”(Leverich 40) about the river from other members of his family, including his beloved African American nursemaid, Ozzie. Not surprisingly, Williams would frequently associate black characters in his plays with the Mississippi. In his poem “In Jack-O’-Lantern’s Weather,” he notes that the river was the place “where blacks in white shifts held springtime baptismals”(Collected Poems 5).
Though he was born in Columbus, Mississippi, Williams grew up in Clarksdale, only 14 miles away from the river. Clarksdale was also situated on the banks of the Sunflower River that Williams frequently described, most notably in his short story “The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin.” Because Cornelius Coffin Williams, his father, spent so much time away from home as a traveling salesman, Edwina and her children lived with her mother (Rosina Otte Dakin, or “Grand”) and her father, the Rev. Mr. Walter Dakin, an Episcopal priest, whose congregation of St. George’s stretched far beyond the confines of Clarksdale. Young Tom often traveled the Great River Road from Clarksdale to Tunica accompanying his grandfather on pastoral visits near the river. And later he traveled “up the Mississippi Delta” on his way to St. Louis (Memoirs 102). Thus Williams was familiar with the places close to Clarksdale or directly on the river—Friar’s Point, Tutwiler, Sumter, Lyons, etc.—for he mentions them in numerous plays/screenplays, including Battle of Angels,Summer and Smoke, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Baby Doll/ Tiger Tail, Orpheus Descending, and Kingdom of Earth, and in stories such as “Completed.”Because of its location, Clarksdale was particularly vulnerable to floods, storms, and overflowing levees, and Williams unquestionably heard stories about the devastation caused by the floods of 1922 and 1927. After all, he spent the 1920-1921 school year (4th grade) in Clarksdale.
Williams frequently associated ferrying across the river with trickery, a dangerous escape, or even death. In Baby Doll, set in Benoit, Mississippi, for instance, Archie Meighan, the clownish and lecherous husband, is sent on a wild goose chase for a spare part—in a ferry across the river to Memphis—so Silva Vacarro, the new gin cotton manager, can seduce his wife, Baby Doll. In Orpheus Descending, Carol Cutrere, who has angered the racist establishment for her radical views on civil rights, has to escape the community’s vengeance by crossing the river with another outcast, Val Xavier. As she says, “They stopped my car, you see, I don’t have a license; my license has been revoked, and I have to find someone to drive me across the river—the Marshall suggested I get him [Val] to drive me over the river since he’d be crossing it, too”(Act 3, Scene 3). And in Williams’s story, “Miss Coynte of Greene,” an old woman describes what happens to “twin angels,” Mike and Moon, when ferrying across the river. They had “died almost as closely together in time as they had been born, one dying instantly as he boarded the ferry on the Arkansas side, and the other as he disembarked on the Mississippi side with his dead twin borne in his arms halfway up the steep levee” (Collected Stories 501).
In 1918, the Williams family moved from Clarksdale to another river location—St. Louis—when Cornelius was transferred to become a sales manager with the International Shoe Company headquartered there. The family lived in several areas of the city, renting apartments that would collectively be models for the Wingfield tenement in The Glass Menagerie. One of those apartments—at 4633 Westminster—was only six miles from the river. But St. Louis possessed none of the idyllic peace that Clarksdale held for Tom Williams, and the move north proved disastrous, causing him to rename the city “Saint Pollution.” In Fugitive Kind (1937), a play set and first performed in St. Louis, the river symbolizes the suffering that society’s misfits endured, even during the Christmas season. The stage direction in Scene Two reads: “It is dull outside: a fog has rolled up from the river a few blocks east . . . The Christmas bells and streamers about the cracked plaster walls are totally unconvincing—life here is more like a perpetual Ash Wednesday than any other holy day of the year” (34). The riverfront in St. Louis in the 1920s and 1930s was a haven for the nomadic homeless, the derelicts with whom Williams would later identify and sympathize. Their way of life became his as well in the 1930s and 1940s and beyond. Like the river, Williams was a wanderer.
But the river was also famous for elegant, even romantic recreation. In his Memoirs, he points out that “Going out on excursion steamers at night was a popular diversion” in St. Louis in the 1930s (18) and then he describes two occasions when he took advantage of such diversions. “One evening I took Hazel [Kramer] on the river steamer ‘J.S.’ and . . . we went up on the dark upper deck and I put my arm about those delicious shoulders, and I ‘came’ in my white flannels” (18). The second time he attempted to have a date on one of the steamers with “a beautiful young lady [from a] distinguished family,” but she rebuffed his affections (Memoirs 19). Tom records happier memories of the river in a 1936 letter to his grandmother telling how he and his sister Rose and brother Dakin were invited to a swank mansion on the river: “This next week-end Mrs. [Florence] Ver Steeg is driving Rose, Dakin, and I out to her country place on the Mississippi. We’re taking a picnic lunch and will spend the day out there” (Letters 1:86). Appropriately, the opening of Spring Storm, one of his journeyman plays from the 1930s, occurs at a church picnic on the banks of the Mississippi. A year earlier, in 1935, Williams wrote to his grandparents about a trip he made south of St. Louis, again citing a pleasant experience at the river: “We stopped at Cape Girardeau and had lunch at the beautiful Marquette Hotel there while Dad was visiting his salesmen. After lunch Rose and I took a walk around the business section and went down by the water front which was very old and quaint” (Letters 1:80). Associating the river with the elegiac world of the past would remain a frequent comparison in his plays.
If the river sheltered the homeless and symbolized romance and elegance, it could also offer a soothing but fleeting source of inspiration for Tom Williams, who worked as a typist-clerk and errand runner at the Continental Shoemakers, a branch of the International Shoe Company, for three years (1932-1935). Displeased with his son’s receiving an “F” in ROTC, Cornelius withdrew Tom from the University of Missouri in 1932 and sentenced him to the deadening routine and mind-numbing work at the warehouse, poetically recalled in Tom Wingfield’s experiences in The Glass Menagerie(Leverich 43). International manufactured several brands including Red Goose shoes, sold by Archie Kramer, the randy drummer, who arranges an assignation with Miss Alma at the conclusion of Summer and Smoke. The International Shoe Company was located at 1501 Washington Avenue in St. Louis, and from the top floor afforded panoramic views of the city, including the river which was about a mile away. Like his persona, Tom Wingfield, Williams stole time from his job to write, and he recorded how the river assisted him in that creative process. As the frustrated Tom Williams noted, “I retreat to the 12 story building overlooking the Mississippi River . . . so I used to linger up there for longer than a cigarette to reflect on a poem or a short story I would finish that week” (qtd. in Berliner).
Returning to St. Louis in the 1940s, Williams again went to the river to escape his abusive, alcoholic father and his puritanical, censorious mother. Writing to his friend the novelist Shelby Foote on 4 April 1943, he chronicled his river experience at a local tavern in Laclede’s Landing near Ead’s Bridge:
I am taking it easy here, not writing at all since I got here. Reading a lot of Lawrence, his letters and novels, and absorbing my Grandparents’ reminiscences. I have no friends here, see nobody, but every afternoon about five thirty or six I go down on the river-front and have a beer and listen to a juke-box in one of the dusky old bars that face the railroad tracks and the levee. That is the only part of St. Louis which has any charm. I feel much calmer. I want to continue this sort of life—quiet and contemplative, I mean—for about five months. By that time I should know what I want to do with my life from now on and have the resolution to do it. (Letters 1:436)
The river’s hold on Williams’s imagination would be evident in many plays to come, and even after his brother Dakin had committed him to the psychiatric ward (for violent patients) of Barnes Hospital in the early 1960s, Williams thought of the river. In a satiric prose poem entitled “What’s Next on the Agenda, Mr. Williams,” he chronicles his “season in the Friggins Division of Barnacle Hospital in the city of Saint Pollution on the gobble-nobber of waters” (Collected Poems 151). This strange phrase for the Mississippi—“gobble-nobber of waters”—may be a distortion of a nickname for the river, like those for Barnes Hospital and St. Louis, or“gobble”may suggest the river’s power to devour anything that stood in its way.
At the end of his imprisonment years at International, in the summer of 1935, Williams visited his grandparents in Memphis, where they had retired and where he recuperated from a mental breakdown. Memphis and the river were synonymous for him; not coincidentally, Memphis was the largest city on the Mississippi. In a letter dated 1 September 1935, he expresses his relief at moving to a new section of St. Louis where the “street is quiet as the country.” But he confessed nonetheless, “In spite of everything being so nice I surely miss Memphis. I felt like I was saying goodbye to an old friend when we crossed the river and I saw the Memphis skyline disappearing in the river mist. But I guess that was just because I had such a pleasant, restful time down there” (Letters 1:81). The river mist, embedded in nostalgia here, later took on an ominous meaning in a Williams’s one-act play entitled “Green Eyes” (1970) where a honeymoon couple viciously quarrel and break up because the bride has “bruises” all over her body, which arouses the suspicion of her jealous husband. Staying in a French Quarter hotel room that “is silvery dim as if the river mist had entered it” (Traveling Companion 151), the husband learns his wife had intercourse “five times” with a man with “enaumus green eyes” (163) on their wedding night while the groom was drunk in a local bar. The “silvery mist” hardly symbolizes the couple’s romantic happiness but, in fact, suggests the opposite. The mist, like the bride’s evasions, not only clouds their relationship but stresses the immense disparity in how each of them sees and describes reality. Another reference to river mist also resonates with marital disharmony. When the bride watches an “ole middle-age couple . . . sittin’out there in the patio,” she tells her one-night husband, “They’re havin’breakfast in the rain,” but he corrects her misperception, “Awright, it’s not a yard, it’s a patio, it’s not rain, it’s mist of the river . . .” (154). Like the mist mistaken for rain, their short-lived but unconsummated love affair has been mistaken for a marriage. Once more, Williams went to the river—this time its mists—for his symbols, paradoxes.
In late December 1938, when he was 27, Tom Williams, soon to be called Tennessee, moved to a third river city, the most famous and influential of his career—New Orleans. Ironically, when he was asked what brought him to New Orleans, he quipped, “St. Louis.” He arrived in the Crescent City the same year that the Huey P. Long Bridge was completed across the Mississippi River. In a letter to Edwina, dated January 2, 1939, Tom extolled the fascinating sights and sounds of his new home, including the river. “I’m crazy about the city. I walk continually, there is so much to see . . . I visited Audubon Park which is lovelier than I could describe, blooming like summer with Palm Trees [sic] and live-oaks garlanded with Spanish Moss. Also visited the batture-dwellers (squatters) along the river, and, for contrast, the fine residential district . . . .” (Letters 1:140). Williams’s early visits to see the“squatters” on the New Orleans riverfront brought him close to the blue collar neighborhood of Faubourg Marigny, just downriver from the French Quarter, where Stanley Kowalski lived. As in St. Louis, New Orleans was (in)famous for the vagabonds who set up tent cities or lived on river banks in the midst of the cruel Depression.
Relatedly, in January 1939 Williams wrote “Vieux Carré,” a poem describing Jackson Square with the statue of Andrew Jackson, and, memorably, personified the river as no respecter of persons. Deflating Jackson’s heroic dominance of the square, Williams wrote:“Iron horseman before the Cabildo, / your cocked bravado / is lost in the river’s slow breathing!” And in the next stanza, he again linked the river to the city’s outcasts: “Shuffling remotely / among the vastness of dreams / drunk vagrants/ stumble along Toulouse” (quoted in Notebooks 134). In a letter dated April 1950 from New Orleans to Carson McCullers, he described his own apprehension about being a vagrant when he stayed in Key West. “A person can be arrested here for sixteen different kinds of vagrancy and I’m sure that I must come under one heading”(Letters 2:309). The seamy side of life that drew him to the riverfront spilled over into many of his non-river plays ranging from Camino Real to The Mutilated and to Chalky White Substance.
For the rest of his life, New Orleans would be Williams’s “spiritual home,” and the river became a vital part of his experience there. He lived in numerous apartments in the French Quarter abutting the river. One of his earliest residences was at 722 Rue Toulouse ,“the most historical street” in the French Quarter, which he reincarnated as the boarding house inVieux Carré (88). All of Williams’s New Orleans homes, however temporary, were within walking distance of the river, and from many of them he could easily see the wharves off Jackson Square and the barges meandering down the Mississippi. When he was writing A Streetcar Named Desire, in the autumn of 1947, he lived in a third floor apartment at 632½ Rue St. Peter, which boasted a skylight, just a few blocks away from the river. In his Memoirs, he recalled the importance the skylight had for his work and the role the river played in what he saw from it.
What I liked most about it [the apartment] was a long refectory table under a skylight which provided me with ideal conditions for working in the mornings. I know of no city where it is better to have a skylight than New Orleans. You know, New Orleans is slightly below sea level and maybe that’s why the clouds and the sky seem so close. In New Orleans the clouds always seem just overhead. I suppose they are really vapor off the Mississippi more than genuine clouds and through that skylight they seemed so close that if the skylight were not glass, you could touch them. (109)
Ironically, the river vapor (or mist) pulls Williams back into reality even as it encourages him to think he could touch the clouds. His garret paradise was also located only a half of a block from St. Louis Cathedral where he could hear the bells, “the only clean thing in the Quarter” (Streetcar 170), according to Blanche DuBois, as well as inhale the river’s aromatic scent (3). His other residences in the Quarter included several apartments on Orleans and Royal as well as his own home at 1014 Dumaine that he purchased in 1961 (Holditch and Leavitt 88). Oftentimes, too, he stayed at the Monteleone Hotel from which he could watch the river in all its seasons. But whether in the Mississippi Delta, Memphis, St. Louis, or New Orleans, Williams found a kindred spirit in the river and, reciprocally, acknowledged its inspiration in his works.
Spring Storm, a three-act drama Williams wrote in 1937-38 for a playwrighting class at the University of Missouri but which went unproduced until 1999, contains some of his most lyrical and political comments about the Mississippi. Set in Port Tyler, a “small Mississippi town on the Mississippi River” in 1937, the play begins with a highly symbolic stage direction that presages the significance the river would have in the lives of Williams’s characters.
The curtain rises to reveal a high, windy bluff over the Mississippi River. It is called Lover’s Leap. On its verge are two old trees whose leafless branches have been grotesquely twisted by the winds. At first the scene has a mellow quality, the sky flooded with deep amber light from the sunset. But as it progresses it changes to one of stormy violence. (5)
The setting is a mixture of locations from Clarksdale as well as Columbia, Missouri (e.g., Lover’s Leap). As Dan Isaac points out in his edition of the play,“The geological setting . . . might well have been of the Chickasaw Bluff . . . the three hundred foot high Chickasaw Bluff on the east shore [of the river] that extends from Cairo, Illinois down to Memphis. . . .”(Spring Storm 151).
Williams used this setting and its “atmospherics” (Orpheus 83) to symbolize the dreams as well as the traumas (“stormy violence”) in the lives of his four main characters—two men (Dick Miles and Arthur Shannon) and two women (Heavenly Critchfield and Hertha Neilson)—who are caught in various tragic love triangles and scandalous affairs. In many of Williams’s Delta plays, a character’s fate is often tied to the river’s fortunes, e.g., Battle of Angels, Kingdom of Earth, Loss of a Teardrop Diamond. But in terms of the river in Spring Storm, Dick and Heavenly are the most important couple. In fact, Dick Miles may be the Williams character most physically connected to the river as his description of its power attests: “Watchin’ the rivuh. She’s risen plenty since mawnin’. See how she’s pushed up Wild Hoss Crick up there no’th o’ Sutters? Ole man Sutter’s gonna go to bed some night in the state o’Mississippi and wake up in Arkansaw. That is, if he’s lucky. If he isn’t lucky he’s gonna wake up a hell of a lot fu’ther south ‘n any state in the Union. Now if they’d just put that breakwater ha’f a mile fu’ther—’ (6). Young, adventuresome, and earthy, Dick is defined by his symbolic name—suggesting travel and sexuality, traits Williams developed through Dick’s symbolic references to the Mississippi, and which also characterized the peripatetic Tom Williams.
Like the river, Dick wants to be on the move. “I’d like to follow that river down there—find out where its goin’” (11). “I still like to watch things goin’ places” (13), he tells Heavenly. Restless and unconventional, he leaves the church picnic, attended by the swells and gossips of Port Tyler, at the start of the play so he can watch the river. He longs for the romance it promises. Stuck in a job as a lowly clerk at a pharmacy, Dick is eager to explore the world. But Heavenly, who loves him, holds the opposite point of view. “Can I compete with the river?” she asks, imploring Dick to return to the picnic and to advance socially in Port Tyler. But he is a free spirit and, like Williams’s persona, Tom Wingfield, Dick wants to escape. Like Williams, the iconoclast, too, Dick wants to be unfettered, freed from the conventions by which Heavenly and her parents lead their life. Isaac compares Dick to Huck Finn (Spring Storm xix), a link that rightly emphasizes Dick’s fascination with the Mississippi but which, unfortunately, does not shed light on his intense sexuality. For instance, he takes Heavenly to one of the tourist cabins on Moon Lake, Williams’s archetypical sexual rendezvous, to spend the night, spiking gossip that is guaranteed to ruin Heavenly’s reputation.
Again disregarding the social conventions of Port Tyler, Dick busts in on a party given by the fashionable Lamphrey family to tell Heavenly “something important” about the river, but he succeeds only in embarrassing her. Covered with mud from the Mississippi, Dick declares, “I’ve been rasseling with the river” and announces, “I been to Friar’s Point—that where I picked up this mud I got on me. [He places his hands on Heavenly’s shoulders]. Heavenly, I’ve got a job on the Government levee project” (100) and then asks her to join him as his wife. Outraged by Dick’s appearance and his thwarting her dreams, she reveals her bigotry and arrogance. “I thought those levee workers lived with niggers,” and adds, “I heard they kept colored women in their shacks with them” (101). Her racism, something Williams decried (Kolin “Civil Rights”), is matched by her disgust with life on the Mississippi.
Trying to convince her otherwise, Dick delivers two long speeches—closer to arias—that further help Williams to characterize him in terms of his relationship to the Mississippi. In the first speech below, Dick vividly describes why and how he intends to work on a government project on the river:
When you’re fighting a river you’re fighting something your size. Don’t you see? They’ve put out flood warnings up at Friar’s Point. She’s rose six feet since morning. Fifty-nine, that’s flood stage, and God only knows when she’ll stop. They’re fighting like crazy to hold her back but she keeps on coming, big an’ yellow an’ daring ’em all to try an’ make her stay put. She’ll win this time maybe. Push right through their sandbags an’ run ’em out of the country, tearin’ down sharecroppers houses an’ drownin’ the stock. If the people are lucky they’ll climb on top of their roofs an’ we’ll take ’em off in boats. But some of ’em won’t be lucky. Ole Mammies with breakbone fever ain’t good at roof climbing. The river’ll catch ’em at night an’ they won’t have a chance. But maybe next time we’ll win. We’ll catch her an’ tame her an’ make her stay in her place. That’s a big job, honey, the kind of job that I want! (101)
Dick’s motives are intensely honorable—to rassel the river to save lives from its flood waters—and in them we hear Williams’s own socio-political and racial sympathies for those victimized by the river’s unleashed power, especially the “Ole Mammies with breakbone fever [who] ain’t good at roof climbing.” Moreover, Dick’s “big job” with the government biographically segues with Williams’s own desire to be a writer for the Works Project Administration (WPA) in the 1930s, a job he never won, though in the 1940s he did land a temporary position with the US Corps of Engineers—in New York City doing clerical work.
But when Heavenly informs Dick that he cannot have both her and the river (“I can’t live like that, in a shack on the river—You can’t ask me to” ), he insistently responds, “Well, that’s what I am asking. You’ll have to go with me or. . . . ” His ultimatum leads to further wrangling between the couple, inciting Dick’s attack on Heavenly’s “ancestry, your marvelous ancestry!” which leads him to conclude sarcastically, “I’m not good enough for you” (103). Angered, Heavenly threatens to marry the poet Arthur Shannon, the scion of a Port Tyler patrician family. But in one last attempt to entice Heavenly to accompany him, Dick delivers a second speech answering the question “Have you ever spent a night on the river, honey” (104):
That clean wet smell of the woods and maybe a hole in the roof you can see the stars through? Katydids hummin’ an’ bullfrogs off in the shallows. That dark warm smell of the water real close an’ the sound that it makes that’s so quiet it’s sca’cely a sound, just a big, big blackness movin’ around you, an’ that lazy soft rise an’ fall of the water under the boat an’ the lightnin’ bugs blinkin’ way off over there on the flat cotton fields or down in the cypress break an’ that wild coon laughter all of a sudden comin’ up out of the dark where they’re makin’ love on the levee—like cryin’ almost—an’ then not a thing anymore but that slow slappin’-slap of the water. . . . (105)
Dick’s speech contains some of the most poetic words Williams would write about the Mississippi. Through a synesthesia of graphic images, Williams evokes the river’s power to appeal to all five senses. Furthermore, Dick’s poetic travelogue of life on the river demands comparison with Mark Twain’s idyllic reveries about Ole Man River and also with the panegyrics in Creedence Clearwater Revival’s popular song “Proud Mary Keeps on Turning” (1969). (Apropos of music about or emanating from the river, Williams includes a banjo player performing “Way Down Upon the Levee” in his surrealisticWhen Will Mr. Merriwether Return from Memphis?) Judging from Dick’s words, then, Williams knew the Mississippi, its flora and fauna, its geography, its romance, all realistically captured in the sounds of the coons’ laughter.
Along with his earlier monologue on “rasseling” the river, Dick’s paean on living on the Mississippi underscores Williams’s fascination with the river’s paradoxical qualities—flooding people out of their homes one season yet offering them incredible peace, beauty, and joy in another. However enchanting Dick’s words are about the river, though, Heavenly does not dash off to the levees with him but plans to marry Arthur until, that is, he has to leave town for fear of being implicated in Hertha’s killing at the train yard. Heavenly is left to wait as a “porch maiden” hoping that either Arthur or Dick will return to take her as a bride. It is safe to conclude, however, that it will not be Dick, who has fallen in love with her rival, the river he rassels with yet which brings him immense delight.
Battle of Angels (1940), Williams’s first professionally produced play, introduces his mythic Two River County, the setting for several subsequent plays including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) and Orpheus Descending (1957), the heavily revised version of Battle of Angels that he worked on for 17 years. He claimed in the first published version of the play that “The stage or setting of [Battle] was the country of my childhood,” the Mississippi Delta (Battle, Pharos ed., 112). Set in “an old fashioned town in the Deep South”(5), Battle far more ambitiously tropes the Mississippi River, and its backwaters than did Spring Storm to highlight the fatal passions of its tangled love affairs. Williams’s prototypical hero/sacrificial stud is Val Xavier (Clum), an itinerant who wears a snakeskin jacket and who finds work as a clerk in a mercantile store owned by the terminally ill Jabe Torrance whose fertile wife, Myra, falls in love with him.
But Myra is not the only one. The town’s most scandalous character, Sandra Whiteside, ostracized for her ideas about blacks and her loose moral conduct, also loves Val. Vee Talbott, the Sheriff’s wife, a visionary and an artist, likewise horrifies Two River County by painting Val as Christ in her depiction of the Last Supper. As the passions of these characters rise, so do the flood waters of the Mississippi and Sunflower Rivers, as they did in and around Clarksdale in 1922 and 1927. As Val points out in the topic sentences about the Mississippi in Battle, “River’s way up over flood-stage at Friar’s Point Landing. They say sometimes this place is cut off by water” (80). Val, Myra, Sandra, and even Vee become members of Williams’s “fugitive kind,” trapped by the river, by a Klan-dominated town, and by their own forbidden desires.
Linked to the river’s menacing approach, Williams’s water, fire, and wind imagery in Battle intensify the struggles of these lovers to avoid being “cut off.” Val proclaims, “The atmospherics are pregnant with disaster” (83). As the action accelerates, the weather and the river become even more hostile, unforgiving. The county is drenched in a “nasty spring rain” (79) swelling the river; Val tells the black shaman of the play, the Conjure Man, that “You can stay back there [in the store] all night if it does not stop raining” (96). Of course, it doesn’t. Bridges collapse everywhere. Sandra reports that “I couldn’t get over the river. The bridge is out” (97). The winds pick up as well, and the electricity goes out. When Myra asks, “What happened to the lights?” Val declares, “Death’s in the orchard” (113) as Jabe comes downstairs. She then tries to explain to her Klan-member husband, “rotten with death,” why Val is stranded at the store—“He couldn’t go home in the storm so we took advantage of the extra time.” But there is no escape for these fugitives from the punishment of this bigoted Delta town, or from the river that becomes an agent of their destruction. Unable to flee from Jabe’s wrath, Val is lynched; Sandra commits suicide by driving her car into the river; Jabe shoots Myra; Vee Talbot goes mad; and the store, which was to be recreated as a confectionary, is blowtorched. There is nothing idyllic or nostalgic about the river in Battle. Instead, it is part of the apocalyptic nightmare that envelopes the characters in this early Williams play.
More so than in any other Williams works, except Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, the levees play a defining, vital role in the action in Battle of Angels. In Act Two, Scene Three, a black musician named Loon is arrested for being a transient. When the Sheriff indignantly asks, “Where you livin’ ?” Loon replies, “Nowhere right this minute. Slep’ on the levee las’ night” (67) and, because he does not have a job, adds, “Cap’n, I’m dispossessed” (67). Val tries to save Loon from being taken into custody for vagrancy by giving him ten dollars, informing the Sheriff, “You can’t fine a man for vagrancy when he has ten dollars . . . Not if I am acquainted with the law” (68). But Loon is arrested nonetheless because the “land wasn’t his” (70), which includes the levees. The dispossessed Val identifies with Loon, claiming that “Nothin was his. Nothin but his own black skin and that was his damnation” (70). Ironically, what happens to a black man, Loon, on the levee, prefigures what befalls the fugitive white characters because of their actions on or near the levees in Battle. Val, for instance, is tragically linked to black characters in both Battle and Orpheus; in Battle the Sheriff orders him out of town by “sunrise” and in Orpheus he is musically and metaphorically associated with an escaped black convict. In Battle, Sandra is accused of inter-racial mingling, the subject of Beulah Cartwright’s gossip: “She’s got a nigger chauffeur. At least, I hope he’s a chauffeur” (84) and later, Eva, another Two River crone, confirms the suspicion.“Yes. An’ some bright-skin nigger was in the car with her. It’s really created a perfectly terrible stir” (87). Radical for the times, Williams’s Baby Doll (1956) even more boldly identified white characters with black ones (Kolin “Civil Rights”).
Unlike the levees in Spring Storm, which become an idyllic site for romantics like Dick Miles, in Battle they are among the most dangerous/transgressive places to find oneself. In a long speech explaining how she endured Jabe’s touch while inside she “started to come to life” because of Val, Myra uses an extended metaphor of the river and a levee to express her uncontrollable passion:
It was like a battle had gone on between us those ten years, and I, the living, had beaten him, the dead one, back to the grave he climbed out of! Oh, for a while I tried to fight myself but it was no use. It was like I was standing down there at the foot of the levee and watched it break and knew it was no use running. I tried to get rid of the key [to lock Val out] but that didn’t work. Since then all decency’s left me, I’ve stood like a woman naked with nothing but love—love, love. (110)
When the levee breaks, letting the flood waters in, so does Myra’s resistance to denying Val her love. She fully embraces him, realizing that she was a woman without “decency.”
The levee also functions symbolically in Vee’s portrait of Val as Jesus. When one of the town busybodies asks her, “I thought you said you’d never paint the Lawd until you actually seen Him face to face,” she replies, “I have this mawning. On the way to church, by the cottonwood tree where the road branches off toward the levee . . . Veils seemed to drop off my eyes. Light—light! I never have seen such brilliance. Like needles it was in my eye. They actually ached when I stepped out in it. . . .” (88). Ironically, Vee sees Val as Christ near a levee, the symbolic site of Myra’s exploding passions and Loon’s quest for safety and freedom. Not coincidentally, Val is lynched on a cottonwood tree that alludes to the cross. While levees, practically speaking, were constructed to hold back the rising river, in Battle of Angels they are part of Williams’s painful Southern landscape bringing tragedy to his fugitive kind.
Two one-act plays included in Williams’s 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (1945) also take audiences to the dark side of the river. “Hello from Bertha” and “The Last of My Solid Gold Watches” reveal the “terrible-fast-dark-rush of events in the world!” (83). “Hello from Bertha” is set in “A bedroom in ‘the valley’—the notorious red-light section along the river flats of East St. Louis” (183). The occupant is a “large blonde prostitute named Bertha who is dying.” The contents of her room match the seedy riverfront location Williams chose for his setting—“a low table with empty gin bottles,” “a heavy, old-fashioned dresser with gilt knobs, gaudy silk cover and two large kewpie dolls” as well as an “old-fashioned chandelier, fringed with red glass pendants” (183). Like the scandalous river district where she lives, and which symbolizes her lusty occupation, Bertha is one of the dirty souls Williams encountered at riverfronts in St. Louis and New Orleans. Prefiguring Blanche DuBois’s plight in Streetcar, she waits for a wealthy, old beau—Charlie, who owns a hardware store in Memphis—to bail her out (Kolin “‘Hello’”), but he never arrives. Her landlady, Goldie, calls for an ambulance to take her to “a nice clean ward” (192), the fate confronting the dying painter Nightingale in Vieux Carré. Refusing to leave, Bertha prefers instead to be cast into the Mississippi, the very river with which her derelict life has been associated: “Tell ’em to throw me in the river and save the state some money” (192). One of society’s expendable misfits, she tries to forestall going to the hospital (a prison-like institution) telling her friend Lena, “Listen, sweetheart, I know the Mayor of this . . . little burg. Him and me are like that. See? I can beat any rap you try to hang on me and I don’t give a damn what. Vagrancy, huh? That’s a sweet laugh to me” (191). Here, as elsewhere, Williams associates the Mississippi with travel, vagrancy, and outcasts. Ironically, “outside in the reception room [in the boarding house] someone has started the nickel phonograph playing the St. Louis Blues” (187), an appropriate musical eulogy for the river and the washed-up prostitute who makes her home on its banks.
The river is also associated with death in “The Last of My Solid Gold Watches” about an ancient Delta drummer, Mr. Charlie Colton, modeled after Williams’s father. Having traveled the Delta for 46 years, Mr. Charlie realizes that his way of doing business is coming to an end. In conversation with a callow young salesman, Harper, in a Delta hotel, he bemoans the passing of time and links the river to loss. Commenting on the state of political affairs in Washington, circa 1940, Charlie declares: “My pockets are full of watches which tell me my time’s just about over. . . All of them—pigs that was slaughtered—carcasses dumped in the river! Farmers receivin’ payment not to grow wheat and corn an’ not t’ plant cotton! . . . Meaning unknown to men of my generation!” (83). Federal subsidies lead to dead pigs polluting the river, the same end Bertha predicted for herself. In two further allusions evoking the river, Mr. Charlie mourns the loss of friends who meet their end in Friar’s Point. “You know ole ‘Marblehead’ Langner in Friar’s Point, Mississippi? . . . They found him dead . . . ” (78-79). Charlie also says farewell to a “mighty good customer this week . . . Ole Ben Summers—Friar’s Point, Mississippi—Fell over dead like a bolt of lightning. . . .” (81). Mentioned in several of Williams’s Delta plays—Spring Storm, Battle of Angels, Summer and Smoke—Friar’s Point offered boat rides on the river to tourists. But in “The Last of My Solid Gold Watches” it becomes the jumping-off place for the trip to eternity.
Undeniably, Williams’s most famous description of the Mississippi River appears in the opening stage direction to A Streetcar Named Desire (1947):
You can almost feel the warm breath of the brown river beyond the river warehouses with their faint redolences of bananas and coffee. A corresponding air is evoked by the music of Negro entertainers at a barroom around the corner. In this part of New Orleans you are practically always just around the corner, or a few doors down the street, from a tiny piano being played with the infatuated fluency of brown fingers. This“blues piano”expresses the spirit of the life which goes on here. (3)
Williams’s description of the river and New Orleans brought something new into the American theatre. Never before had the Mississippi been personified in these terms. This description of the river in Streetcar markedly contrasts with the more conventional poetic catalogue found in Dick Miles’s speeches in Spring Storm. Unlike a river to be rasseled or to be rhapsodized as Ole Man River, the Mississippi in Streetcar suggests a mysterious brown god that oversees the haunting, exotic lifestyle of the French Quarter. Williams captures the ethos (“breath”) of the river behind the warehouses through the rich confluence of sensual smells and sounds of the Bohemian city to which he and Blanche DuBois were drawn. With “faint redolences of bananas and coffee,” the river combines the lyrical (the sweet smell of fruit) with Southern decay (chicory), depicting the southern decadence Williams portrayed in Streetcar, Cat, Baby Doll, Sweet Bird of Youth, andSuddenly Last Summer. That decadence leads to death. According to Williams’s biographer, Lyle Leverich, Williams was also keenly aware of “the ominous presence of the Mississippi, its brownish blend of marsh water and mud snaking its way around the crescent curve of the city, pressing against the levee that kept the old quarter from turning into a vast swamp”(285). The river could be both dreamlike and fatal.
To heighten these polarities, Williams linked the river to the music—the blues—that African American artists created and which made the Delta and New Orleans famous. It’s as if Williams further personified the river through the blues performed in the Quarter by the “infatuated fluency of brown fingers,” suggesting the “warm and easy intermingling of the races” as well as the intoxicating, even dangerous passion of New Orleans. Though only briefly mentioned in Williams’s opening stage direction, the river and the music it inspires thus evoke the potentially tragic forces at work in New Orleans, especially in the bacchanal Elysian Fields. In this city inseparable from the brown river that colored its passions, its spirit, past, present, and future, Blanche descends into madness amid the “blues piano” and “hot trumpets” signaling the libidinous life Stanley, her brother-in-law and “executioner,” revels in. Elsewhere in his canon Williams coupled the sound of the blues with the explosive passion the river was capable of unleashing. In Vieux Carré, for instance, as Tye rapes Jane, “He throws her onto the bed and starts to strip her; she resists; he prevails. As the lights very gradually dim, a Negro singer-pianist at a nearby bar fades in” (86). Later, when the Writer (Tom Williams) recalls Jane, he links her again to music: “She was crying without a sound, and a black man was playing the piano at the Four Deuces round the corner. . . .” (102-103).
Not surprisingly, the sight and sounds from the river flow from this initial stage direction into the characters inStreetcar. Most immediately, we see a “Negro Woman,” the embodiment of the brown river, conversing with Eunice, Stanley and Stella’s neighbor; she agrees to“tell”Stella that her sister has arrived, setting in motion Blanche’s fatal sexual destiny with Stanley. Williams continues to thread the “brown,” ominous desire the river represents through his protagonists. He invests in Stanley Kowalski, the satyr-man of eros, the stereotypes attributed to men of color (Crandell); Stella suffers a lover’s heartbreak blazoned in the blues; and the Kowalskis’s upstairs neighbors, the Hubbells, Eunice and Steve, claw each other one minute and then revel in the sexual gamboling that characterized New Orleans. Williams thus depicts the river as the defining feature of a balmy, exotic New Orleans as well as a fearsome orgiastic force pulsating just down the street from the Kowalskis’s Elysian Fields apartment.
Blanche’s arrival is also allusively linked to the Mississippi, with all of its paradoxes—redolent scents, lyrical airs, passion, decadence, and even death. As we saw, the Kowalskis live in the Faubourg Marigny district, the boisterous, blue-collar neighborhood immediately downriver from the French Quarter. At first, Blanche is incredulous that her sister Stella would tolerate such a squalid environment. Telling Eunice how she arrived at Stanley’s, Blanche not only pinpoints specific locations connected to the river but also invests mythic significance in them: “They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!” (6). Desire, one of the longest streets in New Orleans, begins at the Mississippi River, thus associating Blanche’s journey with the complex of symbolic meanings the river had for Williams. In 1947, when Streetcar premiered on Broadway, the Desire streetcars ran from the river through the housing projects in the city; but they were replaced by a bus line in 1948. Years later, capturing the river’s legacy, the streetcars were brought back as part of the riverfront line, again joining Desire to the rest of the city’s routes. Williams’s symbolic geography, therefore, strategically positions Blanche, like the river, in a location that embodies both the lyrical (Desire) and the deadly (Cemeteries).
Continuing the river’s foreboding presence, Blanche is joined to the Mississippi with tragic consequences in Scene Six. Keeping Mitch at bay all summer by playing the role of a chaste Southern lady, Blanche returns from a date with him “out to the amusement park on Lake Pontchartrain, for Mitch is bearing, upside down, a plaster statuette of Mae West, the sort of prize won at shooting galleries . . .” (100). Geographically, Lake Pontchartrain is connected to the Mississippi through the adjoining Lake Maurepas and the industrial canal, and for decades New Orleans residents have worried about Lake Pontchartrain overflowing into the river. The precarious, topographic relationship of the lake to the Mississippi, and vice versa, serves as both the background and analogy to Blanche’s double tragedy. She is caught between Stanley’s anger and Mitch’s retribution just as the city is trapped between two adjacent bodies of potentially dangerous water—the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain.
As we saw, the ominous desire the river portends in the opening stage direction culminates with Stanley’s brutal attack on his sister-in-law. Little wonder that Arthur Miller branded Stanley a “sexual terrorist” (xii). In associating Mitch with Lake Pontchartrain in Scene Six, Williams continues to take advantage of New Orleans river geography to tell Blanche’s tragic tale. Mitch is not only linked to Lake Pontchartrain by virtue of taking Blanche there on a date but Williams also uses the geographic reference to comment on Mitch’s sexual inadequacy, symbolized in his holding the statue of Mae West, the profane sex queen, upside down. Like the lake, Mitch’s eventual disillusionment and anger at Blanche spill over into Stanley’s rage—his ominous river of passion—to expose and punish her. Williams brilliantly blends the Mississippi’s topography with his trademark symbolism.
A final allusion to the Mississippi relates Blanche’s tragedy to the river. Near the end of Scene Six, she confesses to Mitch what happened to her young husband, Allan Grey, when she found him alone in a room with an older man. After she condemns Allan, “You disgust me,” he shoots himself while he and Blanche are at Moon Lake Casino—“Suddenly in the middle of the dance the boy I married broke away from me and ran out of the casino. A few moments later—a shot!” (115). Williams does not spare audiences the graphic details of the suicide—“He’d stuck the revolver into the back of his mouth, and fired—so the back of his head had been—blown away!” (115). As in the opening stage direction, Blanche’s tragedy is played out against the backdrop of the Mississippi nearby, for Moon Lake is “truly one of the most ubiquitous of the many images and symbols in Tennessee’s dramas, and one can only imagine how much that backwater of the Mississippi must have impressed” him (Holditch and Leavitt 46). One thing is certain: the Mississippi, whether at the big curve near Stanley’s apartment in Faubourg Marigny or in its backwaters at Lake Pontchartrain or Moon Lake did not presage a happy love affair for Blanche, or for Myra Torrence, Sandra Whiteside, or Heavenly Critchfield, either.
Of all of Williams’s plays, though, the Mississippi River is at its most forceful in Kingdom of Earth (1968) where it dominates every scene. In fact, the river almost becomes an unseen character in Kingdom of Earth, as in Streetcar, exerting its presence, its passion, its invasion into human love affairs. Set in Williams’s mythic Two River County in the Delta, the site for Battle of Angels and Orpheus, Kingdom never lets audiences forget that the flooding river threatens to destroy the land and Williams’s three major characters whose future are dependent on it. Williams envisions the river in mythic, even epic terms, as if its flood resulted in a cosmic upheaval. From the beginning to the end of the play the foreboding sounds of the river in turmoil are heard. An opening stage direction records “the rattling and moaning wind” while throughoutKingdom we hear a “moaning wind” (33). Everywhere, “The wind is penetratin’. Sharp as a butcher’s knife” (5). In addition, “Continually through these sounds is heard the low insistent murmur of vast waters in flood or near it” (1). In Scene Two, for example, “water runs busily along in the gutters and down the spout,” and, as Kingdom closes, “There is a great booming sound” as the river gets louder ultimately overtaking the land. The impending floods caused by the Mississippi in Kingdom are eerily proleptic, as if pointing to the devastation the river caused 43 years later in the Spring of 2011.
The river frames the action of the play. Kingdom opens as the minor characters plan to escape to higher ground. Scurrying about, they shout, “We’re goin’ up to Sunset. That’s over the crest of the river” (1); later we learn that a “colored girl Clara . . . took to the hills to get away from the flood”(72). A few minutes into the play, we learn that “This county is half under water” (5). And the news grows even more dire. Echoing Dick Miles’s predictions in Spring Storm, Kingdomtells audiences that “The river gauge is thirty-two foot of water at Friar’s Point and the crest is still above Memphis. And . . . that ole man Sikes is about to blow up the South end of his levee to save the rest of it, he’s planning to dynamite it tonight” (19). As in Spring Storm and Battle of Angels, Williams recollects his first-hand experience with floods in the Delta and the preparations and trauma that accompany them.
In the way of the inevitable flood is “a Mississippi Delta farmhouse” where Williams’s three protagonists struggle for control of the land and for each other—two half-brothers, Lot and Chicken Ravenstock, and Lot’s new wife, Myrtle, a Memphis floozy whom he supposedly married only a few days ago on a television show. Lot and Chicken share the same white father, but while Lot’s white mother was married to his father, Chicken confesses that“My son of a bitch of a daddy got me offen a dark-complected woman he lived with in Alabama” (76), making him a “wood’s-colt.” Lot, the antagonist, accurately describes himself as “an impotent one-lung sissy who’s got one foot in the grave and about to step in with the other.” He “bleaches his hair” (85), puts on his dead mother’s dress, and sits in her white-only parlor while Chicken lurks in the kitchen. Years earlier, Lot’s mother threw Chicken off the property, but after she died and Lot could no longer run the plantation alone, he wrote to Chicken to return in promise of inheriting the land. But the duplicitous Lot ends up marrying Myrtle to disinherit Chicken, to ensure he never gains the “kingdom of earth.” Further complicating the plot, each brother jealously guards a piece of paper that protects his rights—for Chicken it is a notarized copy of Lot’s letter and for Lot it is his marriage certificate to Myrtle.
The Delta farm house, besieged by the impending flood outside, becomes Williams’s stage for the conflicts his characters confront. As the house is buffeted by wind and water, so are Chicken, Lot, and Myrtle. “The cellar is [already] half flooded,” Chicken reports to a terrified Myrtle, and the house itself is unsteady against the encroaching Mississippi. As he warns Myrtle again, “This house ain’t built out of rock or brick or cement. This is an old wood house. Oh, I’ll git you up on the roof whin the levee collapses. But that’s no guarantee that the crest of the flood of a river as big as this might not uproot this house like a weed and wash it down around till not a board or shingle are stuck together” (97). But there will be no escape from the river’s destruction for the tubercular, transvestite Lot. Unable to breathe, he could never climb to the roof, a fact Chicken gloats over with Myrtle. But even if Lot could, Chicken continues, his half-brother does not have a window to climb out of when the flood waters overtake the house.
Williams joins the wild, unleashed force of the Mississippi and the passions of his characters. He describes the river, and the means of controlling it, in terms evoking human emotions. Learning that Myrtle takes “them little white tablets to keep her nature down,” Chicken compares the failure of her medication to control “terrific attraction” (his patois for Stanley’s “colored lights”) with a failing levee system (97). Reminiscent of Myra’s extended levee metaphor in Battle, Chicken explains to Myrtle that those tablets are “Like a levee holds back a river up till a point where the pressure is too strong for it” (97). Just as the levees become too weak to stop the flood waters of the Mississippi, so, too, are Myrtle’s tablets unable to deter her from being swept away by Chicken’s overriding sexuality. Therefore, just like the flood rushing over the levee, Chicken’s desire to possess the woman, the land, and respectability are unstoppable (Kolin “Sleeping”). His plans to own the property and to keep Myrtle for himself are too strong for anyone, including Lot, to stand in his way.
However destructive the cascading river is, paradoxically, it works to Chicken’s advantage. Like the Mississippi, he is filled with raw, pulsating passion. Characterizing himself, Chicken claims he “is a country boy with common habits” and realizes that “floods make the land richer”(72), which will improve his fortunes as well. Hearing the “great booming sound” (111) of the river crashing into the house, he boasts, “Chicken is king!” (111). When Lot dies, Chicken will inherit the land. Lot’s death also brings him Myrtle and with her the preservation of the property through Chicken’s lineage. Unabashedly, he declares, “I’ve always wanted a child from an all-white woman” (110). Moreover, by marrying Myrtle, Chicken invalidates her claim to the property through marriage to Lot. Ameliorating his crafty plotting, Chicken becomes Myrtle’s savior, promising her, “If it’s necessary to climb on the roof tonight, I’ll git you up the ladder in the hall upstairs with a blanket in case we need more ‘n than each other to keep us warm” (104). Accepting him as her protector, Myrtle comes close to deifying Chicken, suggesting he has superhuman powers. “Why, you look like a man that could hold back the flood of a river!” (103).
But while Chicken knows he is no match for the wide sweep of the Mississippi, he believes he can survive its devastation, informing Myrtle, “No man can hold back the flood but some can live through one” (103). Surviving the flood will bring Chicken victory, again expressed in terms of the flooding Mississippi. “The place is gonna be mine whin the house is flooded an’ I won’t be unhappy sittin’ on the roof of it till the flood goes down” (92). With all of Lot’s—and his mother’s—corruption washed away, Chicken becomes the offspring, or beneficiary, of the river itself. It frees and empowers him, baptizing him as a new man whose racial heritage goes back to the great brown river god in the opening stage direction of Streetcar. The same exotic, jazzy Mississippi that infatuated Williams in New Orleans, but spelled Blanches downfall, now confers blessings on Chicken Ravenstock in Kingdom of Earth. After all, as Chicken declares, “a flood [is] a natural act of God” (93).
A very different Mississippi River runs through The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond. This relatively forgotten Williams screenplay (1957), made into a film by Jodie Markell in 2008, drenches the river in moonlight and memory, but also laments the wounds inflicted on the river. Faithfully adhering to Williams’s intention and voice, Markell in her directorial debut prominently features panoramic, romantic views of the river in four key scenes, including the opening and closing ones, as well as threading references to the Mississippi throughout the film. No other Williams work, or film version of his plays, contains more idyllic river scenes than The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond. Set in the Mississippi Delta and in Memphis (Markell’s hometown) in the late 1920s, Loss was filmed on location so that it would be “rooted in authenticity” (“Jodie Markell”). In several interviews, Markell stressed that she “selected a levee in the middle of nowhere but we had to wait for river traffic to pass in order to shoot a scene.” Unlike the raging, swollen Mississippi in Battle of Angels orKingdom of Earth, the river in Loss is more a victim of human aggression than an environmental hazard. As in earlier Williams plays, the river symbolizes losses of the heart. Despite all its beauty, though, the Mississippi in Loss represents the protagonists’ aching, almost Chekhovian longing for the fulfillment of their dreams.
The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond opens dramatically as Alex Willow, a wealthy planter, blows up a levee on his property with a stick of dynamite. He is one of Williams’s unseen characters (like Skipper in Cat or Sebastian in Suddenly Last Summer), for all we see of him is his hand holding a cigar lighting the fuse. But his daughter—Fisher Willow (played by Bryce Dallas Howard, director Ron Howard’s daughter)—must endure the sweeping consequences of her father’s actions. After the explosive opening scene, the film, canvassing the rich, open Delta landscape, turns to Mr. Dobyne, the drunk overseer of the Willow plantation, who tells Fisher that when her father “blew up the south end of his levee, all the planters south of his bridge were underwater and held him responsible for drowning two white men.” The result is that Fisher must “suffer the actions with their tragic consequences to persons south of here.” As she confesses, her father’s deed “is well known in Memphis and is held against me.” Though she will not speak to him, she nonetheless registers her “moral objection” to his action. But her excuse that her father “got telephone warnings to every place south of the levee” strikes Dobyne, and his son Jimmy as lame.
Ostracized by genteel Memphis society, Fisher hires Jimmy Dobyne to “escort her to fashionable debutante parties,” including one at the Peabody Hotel in all its sophisticated glamour, where her outrageous behavior, e.g., doing a blatantly sexualized flapper’s dance, reaps only scorn. Defying the conventions of Southern courtly society, Fisher resembles other rebellious Williams women including Sandra Whiteside, Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Lady in Orpheus, and the Princess Kosmonopolis in Sweet Bird of Youth. Like them, she is reckless and restless.
But unlike them, Fisher is repeatedly linked to the river in her desire to find love and be loved. Like the river, after her father blasted his levee, she is wounded, dislocated, “out of her element.” At the debutante ball at the Peabody, she invites Jimmy to escort her to the terrace “overlooking the river,” a scene that Markell captures in luminous Southern moonlight. Suspended in a romantic reverie, Fisher tells Jimmy “how cool the river winds are” but then sings about the loss of love associated with the river—“See the boat go round the bend, goodbye, my lover, goodbye.” Ironically, when she turns around, Jimmy has left her alone and sad. As the film progresses, Fisher increasingly reveals her desire for Jimmy who rebuffs her again in another river scene.
Not invited to the “most important party of the season,” the ever-resourceful Fisher again pays Jimmy to accompany her instead to a Halloween party given by her college roommate, Julia. On the way to Julia’s, the couple stops on a levee on an early moonlit evening to watch the mist.“Nothing is more beautiful to me,” Fisher purrs in her impeccable Southern accent. Parked in her car with Jimmy next to her, she reveals her vulnerability.“It’s so lovely, so peaceful here. I am never at peace.” Asking Jimmy, “Am I crowding you,” Fisher nestles next to him, laying her head on his chest. “I miss you, Jimmy,” she admits. Commenting on the river mist, she sees the location as a perfect place for Jimmy to be romantic. But he is not, and the river with its wispy mists only underscores Fisher’s fading chances for love. Sadly, too, Jimmy nurses his own wounds; his mother, committed to a state asylum, does not even recognize her own son. If the river symbolizes Fisher’s romantic hurts, it also suggests Jimmy’s loss because of his mother’s mental illness, another perennial Williams affliction.
Much of the action in Teardrop Diamond occurs at Julia’s party where Fisher loses one of the $10,000 teardrop earrings her aunt allowed her to wear. Suspecting Jimmy of thievery, she does not know that Julia’s “loud-voiced” cousin Vinnie picked it up, after Fisher unknowingly dropped it, and then buried it in the yard. As at the debutante ball in Memphis, Fisher is scorned by Julia’s guests and, even more serious, is betrayed by Jimmy who, true to Williams’s ability to shock audiences, makes love to Vinnie in a parked car in under “three minutes.”When Vinnie, a clerk “in a drug store on a side street in Memphis,” confesses that she took the diamond, Jimmy orders her to give it back, insisting it is her “moral” obligation, echoing Fisher’s words about her father’s transgression at the levee. But Vinnie retorts, “Finders keepers; losers weepers,” expressing the underlying theme about loss and restoration in this Williams screenplay. Eventually, though, Vinnie returns the diamond earring, and Jimmy drives Fisher home.
The final scene finds Fisher and Jimmy once more looking at a levee.“Turn up to the levee. It’s so lovely with the moon on the river,” instructs Fisher. To which Jimmy replies, “The moon is in the sky not the river” but she quickly, and romantically, retorts, “Which is reflected on the river.” Behaving as if he will have no further contact with Fisher, Jimmy advises her, “You don’t belong here.” But as The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond closes with one of the most portrait-perfect views of the Mississippi, Fisher declares, “I can’t keep running away. Somehow I must make amends for what my father has done,” thus bringing the screenplay back full circle to the opening scene where the levee is dynamited. Fisher’s last words—“Let the river flow where it wants to”—not only demonstrate that she has made her peace with her birthplace but also with Jimmy who, in the last seconds of the film, now extends his hand to her. Rich with riverlore and symbolism, the Mississippi, like Fisher’s heart and spirit, has been set free. Her epiphany further suggests that she will repay the river and those who make their living from it for the violence her father inflicted on them both. Ironically, Fisher’s last words about the river echo the story Edwina Dakin Williams told her son about the Mississippi wandering “where it pleased.”
The mighty Mississippi was an established part of Williams’s life and literary landscape. It flows from his early apprentice play (Spring Storm) to a late screenplay (The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond) and to so many plays, poems, stories, and letters in between, including Battle of Angels, Streetcar, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Kingdom of Earth. Having lived in such river towns as St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans, as well as places close to the river such as Clarksdale, he knew the river firsthand, its moods and music, its balmy, exotic side as well as the terrifying floods that ravaged the land and its inhabitants. As his plays and stories attest, Williams realized the Mississippi could be romantic, cathartic, and destructive all at once. Portraying the river in all its seasons, Williams’s works take us on a virtual tour of the Mississippi in all its tranquility, contradictions, and paradoxes. Undeniably, Williams covered the waterfront.
University of Southern Mississippi
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Philip C. Kolin, University Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Southern Mississippi, is an international authority on the works of Tennessee Williams. He has published seven books on Williams, including a stage and cultural history of Streetcar Named Desire for Cambridge UP, the Tennessee Williams Encyclopedia (Greenwood, 2004), The Influence of Tennessee Williams: essays on Fifteen American Playwrights (McFarland, 2008), and an edition of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for Methuen, 2010. His more than 40 essays on Williams have appeared in such journals as Modern Drama, Theatre History Studies, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Missouri Review, etc. He serves on the editorial board of the Tennessee Williams Annual Review and is also the editor of the Southern Quarterly. The 10th edition of his popular Successful Writing at Work has just been published by Cengage. A poet as well, Kolin has published four books of poems, the most recent being A Parable of Women (Yazoo River Press, 2009). He is also the editor of Vineyards: A Journal of Christian Poetry.
© Philip C. Kolin