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The program will be Tennessee Williams as a social writer and cultural commentator. The series: "Ideas and the Theater" The actual views and voices you will hear: author-scholars Kenneth Burke Edmund Fuller, and Dr. Solon T. Kimball; drama critics Richard Watts Jr., Thyra Samter Winslow, John Bothurt, and Joan Felisonurse. You will also hear playwright Arthur Miller go to veto and the subject of today's program: Tennessee Williams. Plus a summary by the consultant for this series, Dr. David W. Thompson. Those who make this series possible: The University of Minnesota radio station KUOM, under a grant from the Educational Television and Radio Center in cooperation with the National Association of Educational Broadcasters. And now here is the producer of "Ideas and the Theater": KUOM's critic at large Philip Geld. While this program will discuss Tennessee Williams. It probably will not discuss him in the
two ways in which you may be used to thinking of this Pulitzer Prize winning playwright. The first way--the way of the deep and sensitive artist--is neatly summarized, I think, in this statement recorded for us by the well known short story writer and drama critic for Gotham guide, Cyrus Samter Winslow. Well, to me, Tennesee Williams is the greatest American playwright writing today and I think he's completely important because he writes about very real emotions. He goes so deep into our emotions that a lot of people are afraid of him. They don't like to go deeply into feelings and that's what he does. The second extensive manner of viewing Tennessee Williams is in terms of the writer who was obsessed with the despairing and the degenerate. This view was compactly stated by Edmund Fuller, teacher, critic, and author of Man in Modern Fiction. Mr. Fuller: I would say that in the theater I would cite that perhaps in some ways most gifted of all our contemporary writers Tennessee Williams as an
example of the negative despairing fragmented view of man. And that does not gainsay the fact that he gives one an absorbing evening in the theater. Well if we're not going to analyze Tennessee Williams as the poet or the moralist what is our approach? I would like to think of our approach here as a social cultural view. It probably is seen most clearly in the setting for Mr. Williams' works: the southern scene in the motion picture "Baby Doll": a New Orleans residence in Streetcar Named Desire. Or most particularly the town in Orpheus descending which was presented on Broadway during the 1956-57 [19]57 season. Kind of cultural view also can be seen in a few of the character types that continually present themselves in William's writing. The Southern setting at least two of the reoccurring character types were highlighted by drama critic Richard Watts Jr. in his review of Orpheus descending.
Incidentally don't be disturbed if you're not familiar with the plays and the characters mentioned. I believe you will find them self explanatory and significant in any case. Now here is the distinguished columnist and drama critic for The New York Post: Mr Richard Watts Jr. reading from his review with the play Orpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams. He has portrayed for us the surroundings that've driven his sympathetic figures into their desperation by dramatizing the community in which they exist. And his account of the malice and decadence of a small Southern town has the dramatic ring of brutal truth. There are two comparatively secondary characters in the play that have been drawn with particular sympathy. One is the half mad wife of the sheriff who tries to find relief in her crazy painting from the memories of her husband's cruelty as a public official. The other is a recurrent figure in Mr. Williams' work. The spiritual sister of Blanche DuBois; a sensitive girl driven to sexual allusionist by her very
idealism. In my review I foolishly called her a prostitute but other reviewers were equally wrong in terming her a nymphomaniac. Actually she is a girl uncomfortable in sex who uses the kind of savage self scourging for the failure of her dreams. That was the drama critic for The New York Post Richard Watts Jr.. Mr. Watts made several observations worth keeping in mind first that Tennessee Williams portrayal of the Southern scene has the ring of brutal truth. Secondly that a sexually delinquent female image keeps reoccurring in William's works, an image that may be more confused and wishful thinking than fact. But what happens when these two portrayals are joined. We then get a kind of social statement or is this female image too much of a fantasy to be social or perhaps Tennessee Williams just doesn't ever make any kind of a social statement. For one view of this
I turned to John Beaufort for drama critic for The Christian Science Monitor. Mr. Beaufort. Often an inverse way he will make quote in another playwright might be called a social statement. For instance: in Orpheus Descending the young sort of wild delinquent girl a kind of blanche character of Orpheus says at one point that after a lynching she tried to walk two hundred miles barefoot and dressed in a gunny sack or something like that and she was arrested. Well I think this is William's way of stating a social protest and he does it in a in a kind of wild and ambiguous way. But I don't think the point can be missed. And although he's not doing it as a writer of - of a social tract he's doing it in very poignant human terms.
That was John Beaufort, drama critic for The Christian Science Monitor. I used Mr. Beaufort for his observation about the sort of wild delinquent girl of Orpheus in talking with Dr Joan Allison Nurse, drama critic for the Catholic News. I couldn't help but point out to Mrs. Nurseorris however that I hardly thought that the actions of the sexually delinquent girl in our Orpheus to be any kind of affective social political statement. Yes young girls do attractive oddly degenerate talks about the time when she marched somewhere for the rights of the negro and for to avoid prevents additional suffering and injustice and however she keeps repeating that I'm sick or something to that extent you see. Obviously there is something wrong with me I'm an exhibitionist I mean I once did the positive things that would help other people but look at me I've fallen apart and I'm uh an exhibitionist and I guess I was then. So even even when Williams admits to the possibility of a humanity type of
motive he immediately says well don't get me wrong I'm not political. He went on my to bosses and kept insisting that all evening. [Speaker 2] In all his plays he has that That certainly, that sense of small town viciousness. The the uh person who tries to be a little differently. Usually either the slightly decadent intellectual or the rough crude immigrant type. They are little they don't quite fit into the uh pattern and if they try to to add a little beauty, uh they are sneered at, they are rejected and quite often they are either killed or hustled off to an asylum. You get a sense I think in Williams that the ordinary people are ordinarily vicious. Speaker 1 -That was Dr. Joanne D??? Nourse, a drama critic for the Catholic News.
We'll hear shortly from an outstanding anthropologist an expert on the southern scene as he discusses the presence and validity of what critique Nourse sees as the viciousness of the ordinary people and of what critics Watt sees as the sexuality of finer type females in the Tennessee Williams plays. But first let's hear briefly from the man in question and from social philosopher Kenneth Burke. Here was Tennessee Williams reply when he was asked by Mike Wallace if he were a social writer (Williams) I don't think I haven't devoted any, I'm not a polemical writer I don't deal with social problems. It was really because of problems that move me. I repeated Tennessee Williams statement to philosopher author Kenneth Burke. The writer of a grammar of motives and the philosophy of literary form felt that Tennessee Williams could not help but be social that he could not help but have a message. Here's why. Kenneth Burke: The way I look at the works
of art like that, it would be absolutely impossible for a man not to have a method because, because anybody who who fundamentally works out the basic relationships of his society and then carries them at the end of the line they get them and their moment dramatic form he is representing some of the fundamental law attentions of that particular hierarchical structures that you can't get around it. Uh groups are piled up with superior and inferior relationships in all kinds of ways I mean they also have ways of complicating it.You may be superior uh somebody may be superior to you financially but then you can say well he's inferior intellectually or aesthetically or something so you get all your angles but the fundamental hierarchical structure is I think was the basic goad there. Kenneth Burke's observations of the hierarchical nature, the personal social inferiority use and superiority is implicit in Tennessee Williams
plays became the focal point for the following analysis of "Orpheus Descending" by Dr. Solon T. Kimball Professor of Education of the Teachers College of Columbia University. It may be more important for you to know however in terms of this discussion that Dr. Kimbell was former Chairman of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Alabama. That he is also the author of the book "The Talladega Story: A Study in Community Process", which was the result of an extensive sociological study in the south. Dr. Kimbell is an authority on just the type Southern community portrayed by Tennessee Williams in "Orpheus Descending". Here now is recorded especially for ideas and the theater is social anthropologist Solon Kimball analyzing Tennessee Williams play "Orpheus Descending". This play can best be interpreted, I think, as either a fantasy or a nightmare. And the point of reference from which the action unfolds
is that of lower class America and maybe specifically southern lower class. If you see the whole thing the whole play the whole action as framed within within a fantasy of a lower class person's view of the world. You can then understand that the characters which are portrayed here are not intended to be real but they are intended to be the distortions which the veil of a perceptive system that comes out of being at the bottom of the society gives to one. Thus it is the unattainable ,the educated, the wealthy, the uh law physically attractive upper class girl is seen as an
individual who really is worse than you are and is attainable to you and and uh your ?glasses? seen not as she really is. If one examines the violence that occurs here all of the violence is controlled by or instigated by or is the direct outcome of middle class enforcement of moral values. For example, Here is a lady whose father was presumably, according to her perception, a joyful happy uh male producing fruit from an orchard uh selling uh wine to people who came to a beautiful garden where they drank it in comfort.
But an individual who in his activities and in himself could not be tolerated by middle class morality and the consequence is that Night Raiders come and burn his orchard and in the process of turn her father into a flaming torch. Out of this action of course comes a deep hatred for the persons who perpetuated this act against her father and against the way of life. And it's also curious, you see, that Tennessee Williams has the daughter be married to one of the Raiders uh who carried out this act of violence. One has to understand that what I am saying is this is not what middle class behavior is but this is the fantasy which a person from the lower class interprets or within the fantasy he interprets this kind of behavior as being oppression of any kind of difference of his right to live of his right to live differently.
There are certain strong characters that appear in the play. One of these is the sheriff obviously the protector of middle class morality, obviously the individual who maintains the order in the society. And yet you when he appears on the scene he is as a character he is portrayed as being uh massive in size, commanding in presence, and supported by an obviously displayed uh six shooter strapped to his hips. And then you have a contrast of this commanding male presence, this powerful oppressor the sheriff. And his wife, the individual who has visions who has dreams of beauty who on occasion can grasp something outside this this world of of terror.
But uh who is so who even the middle class world is so oppressed that there is the impossibility for any kind of real creative expression whatever and that the kind of sympathetic bond which is established between her and Val, our guitar playing hero is one which is completely misunderstood by her husband and by others and which actually leads to the destruction of the hero of the play. This distortion is not the distortion of the failure to adequately document but the distortion is the necessary distortion of the perception which an individual of lower class status has about the kinds of methods which the middle class world uses to impress its uh itself. If at least from the lower class point of immoral destructive morality upon people who are attempting to live free happy
lives in this fantasy of a of a lower class individual. I think uh this is kind of important to your uses of the phrase a person of the lower class you are not reflecting on the man personally or the lower reaches in any of the remarks which I've made here. I have not intended to imply nor do I know what kind of social background Tennessee William comes out of. The role of the artist can be a varied role and if he has the capabilities of shifting his perceptive position to any one of a great many places within a society then he can be a very great artist. But it seems to me that Tennessee Williams taking a point of reference such as the one which I have suggested here is perfectly legitimate but it is also one which ought to be understood because if this is not understood then the likelihood is the audience or even the
critics will take the portrayal as being some kind of a an approximation to the realities of Southern life which it is not. I perhaps will be permitted to quote from a book of mine at least two paragraphs that I of which I'd like to quote are taken from the Talladega story which is the analysis of a southern community solving a problem of health. Stereotypes of the South have served to obscure and distort the true nature of the indigenous culture. There are elements of truth in all such representations but by and large they are the glamorized portrayal of only small segments of the whole. The sound of reality has been composed of a bi racial rural population of big farmers, small farmers and tenants and their town living professional business and laboring counterparts. They are mostly ordinary folk who work well with each other in accomplishing the world's
business but who at the same time are deeply divided in cultural outlook. The south is characterized by two widely and often times antagonistic currents of behavior which have their origins in the very beginnings of English settlement. They are rooted in distinctive agrarian patterns which persist to the present day. The folk farmer of the Piedmont is little different from his kind elsewhere. He views the big landowner whether Presbyterian or Episcopal and his negro tenants with suspicion and dislike. The significance of these basic differences within the white population has tended to be obscured in recent years at least by the non-Southerner or by the more dramatic aspects of White-Negro relationships. Many of the legal and custom barriers which define the relations between whites in general and negroes apply with equal effectiveness to the relations between the upper and lower white groups. Now what has happened over the years is that the agrarian pattern in which
violence had its part has been rapidly changing toward an industrial pattern and the pattern of industrial life is one in which violence as a customary device by which you meet the problems of life no longer is one that can or is accepted. It is for this reason that although there still may be found these instances of violence as Tennessee Williams portrays them they are as of the present day degenerate. That was author and social anthropologist Dr Solon T. Kimball. I hope you'll relate Professor Kimball's analysis of "Orpheus Descending" as a fantasy of the lower class view in terms of his later description of the extent of class division in the south. I think the key to our discussion lies here. Also I'm sure the first person to agree with Dr. Kimbell's conclusion that the use of violence in the south is now outdated and degenerate would be Tennessee Williams.
Well if playwright Williams needs any further defense here I can think of no more qualified defender than another Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Arthur Miller as recorded especially for ideas in a theatre. Here is Arthur Miller. I think Williams is primarily interested in passion in ecstasy in creating a synthesis of his conflicting feelings and that it is perfectly all right of course for an anthropologist to make an observation that his picture of the South is unrepresentative. It probably is, but at the same time the intensity with which he feels whatever he does feel is so deep is so great that we do end up with a glimpse of another kind of reality that is the reality in the spirit rather than in the society. When a
writer sets out to create high climaxes he automatically is going to depart from the typical and the ordinary and the representative. The pity is of course that Williams works out of Southern material. I work out of some big city material so instantly our characters are compared in the journalistic sense to some statistical norm. Truly I have no interest in the selling profession I'm sure, I am reasonably sure that William's interest in the sociology of the South is only from the point of view of a man who doesn't like to see the brutality, unfairness, a kind of victory of the Philistine, etc. He's looking at it emotionally and essentially I am too. That was playwright Arthur Miller. For me a kind of final word on the worth of a Tennessee Williams was put forth in my interview with author philosopher Kenneth Burke.
Mr. Burke took the view at the Tennessee Williams type of drama in which sensitive people become the victims or scapegoats of the unfeeling mob on stage that this fulfills a sort of ritualistic or safety valve function in our society. Burke sees the skateboard idea as a great and necessary principle for our drama. Structure of order as such. There is this danger to think that we could be redeemed by victimizing somebody else. If things particularly intensified today because of the fight between communism and capitalism so that each side thinks that they could be redeemed if only the other side didn't exist. That's the big scapegoat in the world today and of course that's the terrible danger of all because it makes scapegoats of all of us. And that's why the thing is so immediate to me as I don't think that the issue can ever be allowed to be approached
that way. You must was never be allowed to get anything so lined up with this great dramatic principle which is the essence of drama actually uh invades our personal life so that we actually try to conceive the world after that principle. We want that in our drama we want to have that build our dramas that way so that we won't let grammar spill over. But I would like when he was to go on doing what he's doing. if a second is needed to Kenneth Burke's conclusion I too would like to see Tennessee Williams go on doing what he's doing. Well is there any danger that Tennessee Williams won't go on doing what he's doing? I listen to Mr. Williams now again from his Mike Wallace interview. [Mr. Williams] If I should give up writing that I think I would be a better person than I am but you can't nor do you want to. I don't know. (Laughing) Maybe sometimes I will. In the process of interviewing Gore Vidal
author of the Broadway hit "Visit to a Small Planet". I learned that Mr. Vidal was a friend of Mr. Williams. I took this opportunity to point out my concern over Tennessee Williams to Gore Vidal. I was very startled by the last sentence. He said something that he might not write if he turns to living and I think that was rhetorical. [Vidal] I think the point he was making is a very true one of writers like Tennessee and even writers like me which is that those of us who do a lot of work it finally becomes compulsive and at the end you find that you that reality for you is the act of writing not the act of living. I think he was drawing attention to that but there's not a chance in the world that he would ever stop writing for a minute. He works every day of his life. We used to travel together. For about two years we traveled around Europe and every morning of his life he works just sits down and writes whether to pull out an old short story and reworks it or writes a poem
or works on a play. He usually has two or three plays sort of sitting around at any given moment and he'll work on one or work on the other. And this to him is reality this is what holds him together this is what this is the focus to his life and it was just rhetoric, southern rhetoric. He said he would exchange that for a living. That was author Gore Vidal and now for a summary of today's program. Here is the consultant for ideas and the theatre, Dr. David W. Thompson, a professor in the theater arts at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Thompson. Mr. Williams by restricting himself to such an intensely personal anti-social point of view may be imposing a serious limitation on himself as a playwright. Then what accounts for the success and popularity of his plays. Of major importance certainly is his skill and sensitivity in portraying sexually disturbed and neurotic characters. He may be writing a kind of poetry but his audiences often
find it satisfying as merely shocking sensationalism. The Southern lower class point of view titillates northern middle class audiences. These audiences as Mr Burke said may need Mr. Williams plays to release their own desires to make scapegoats of those who differ from them. But that leaves unanswered the more important questions as to why we members of the audience think in Mr Burke's words that we could be redeemed by victimizing somebody else. And why Mr. Williams thinks that sensitivity occurs only in sexual and social misfits. Perhaps we are all about only children looking for scapegoats to relieve the shame of our own childishness. That was Dr. David W. Thompson consultant for the series and a professor in the theater arts at the University of Minnesota. "Ideas in the Theater" is produced by Philip Gelb KUOM's critic at
large and the commentator for this series. Next week. An analysis of TS Eliot and a special guest E. Martin Brown the original producer and director of TS Eliot's plays."Ideas in the Theater" is produced by the University of Minnesota radio station KUOM under a grant from the Educational Television and Radio Center. This series is distributed by the National Association of Educational Broadcasters. This is the NAEB Radio Network.
Ideas and the Theatre
Tennessee Williams
Producing Organization
University of Minnesota
KUOM (Radio station : Minneapolis, Minn.)
Contributing Organization
University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Episode Description
This program focuses on the work of Tennessee Williams and includes Williams' own thoughts on the matter.
Series Description
The series presents a discussion of the current American theatre; its values, beliefs, patterns, and problems. Participants include Arthur Miller, Eric Bentley, Gore Vidal, Brooks Atkinson, Cyril Ritchard, Clinton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, and others.
Broadcast Date
Williams, Tennessee, 1911-1983
Media type
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Guest: Burke, Kenneth, 1897-1993
Guest: Fuller, Edmund, 1914-2001
Guest: Kimball, Solon Toothaker
Guest: Watts, Richard, Jr.
Guest: Winslow, Thyra Samter, 1893-1961
Guest: Beaufort, John
Host: Kerwin, Jonathan W.
Producer: Gelb, Philip
Producing Organization: University of Minnesota
Producing Organization: KUOM (Radio station : Minneapolis, Minn.)
Speaker: Williams, Tennessee, 1911-1983
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 58-7-6 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:29:04
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Chicago: “Ideas and the Theatre; Tennessee Williams,” 1958-01-01, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed February 26, 2024,
MLA: “Ideas and the Theatre; Tennessee Williams.” 1958-01-01. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. February 26, 2024. <>.
APA: Ideas and the Theatre; Tennessee Williams. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from