Tennessee Williams's Tom Wingfield and Georg Kaiser's Cashier: A Contextual Comparison

Article excerpt

Tom Wingfield in Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie, a defining work of "plastic theatre," written and first produced in 1944, has a distant relative, namely, the Cashier in Georg Kaiser's Von morgens bis mitternachts, a defining work of German Expressionism, written in 1912, first produced in 1917, and first translated into English in 1920 by Ashley Dukes as From Morn, to Midnight. Each character--Tom and the Cashier--is the mainstay of his family in money matters: Tom is the son who earns a living for his mother, his sister, and himself because his father deserted the family; the Cashier is the conventional head of the household who does, in a mindless way, what society expects him to do. In particular, each character is a wage-slave who thinks he can become a complete human being only by escaping from an imprisoning environment. Although both characters are in analogous situations, determining whether Williams was aware of a similarity between Tom and the Cashier is not the issue in this article. Instead, the emphasis is on the fact that a comparison of these two characters clarifies how Williams's world-view differs from Kaiser's. Moreover, the precise implications of each world-view are more apparent when they are scrutinized in the context of the other world-view.

In its selective use of Expressionistic techniques, From Morn to Midnight anticipates the "plastic theatre" that Williams elucidates in his Production Notes to The Glass Menagerie. Williams, like Kaiser, is seeking a stagecraft that allows him to transcend "the exhausted theatre of realistic conventions." He asserts that "Expressionism and all other unconventional techniques in drama have only one valid aim, and that is a closer approach to truth....truth, life, or reality is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest...only through transformation, through changing into other forms than those which were merely present in appearance" (7). As it developed in Germany just before World War I, Expressionism used all the resources of the theatre, such as lighting, sound effects, extended monologues, stylized dialogue and gestures, etc., to find ways of representing on the stage the protagonist's highly subjective, even dream-like, point of view. The ways and means of this movement continue to be a fertilizing influence on stagecraft.(1)

Mary Ann Corrigan suggests how Williams might have become aware of and responsive to various aspects of Expressionism (377). She goes on to show how the impact of Expressionism on Williams's sensibility can be documented in a work begun in 1940: "That Williams was familiar very early in his career with not only the theory of Expressionism but also its earlier dramatic manifestations seems evident from his unpublished play, Stairs to the Roof, a fantasy reminiscent of Kaiser's From Morn to Midnight, Rice's The Adding Machine and Lawson's Roger Bloomer" (378). She sees The Glass Menagerie and other Williams plays as influenced by the Stationendrama ("drama of stations"). Such a play, typical of Expressionism, is structured in a series of short scenes, each of which represents a significant station in the protagonist's intense quest--a quest that tends to invite failure.(2)

From Morn to Midnight, like The Glass Menagerie, organizes the quest into seven stations. The Cashier escapes from his imprisoning environment only to learn during the stations of his quest that money cannot buy self-fulfillment. In analogous fashion, as Corrigan observes, "[t]he episodes of The Glass Menagerie reveal Tom's gradually moving toward a break with his family that only years later he recognizes as a futile gesture" (379).

Corrigan's observation pinpoints a crucial difference between Tom and the Cashier: in his role as narrator, Tom is remembering the events leading up to his escape, whereas the Cashier experiences his escape and its consequences during the play. Moreover, the age of each character determines the kind of escape he seeks. …