Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Tennessee Williams's "Serious Comedy": Problems of Genre and Sexuality in (and after) Period of Adjustment

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Tennessee Williams's "Serious Comedy": Problems of Genre and Sexuality in (and after) Period of Adjustment

Article excerpt

Five months before the Broadway premiere of Period of Adjustment: High Point Over a Cavern (1960), Tennessee Williams informed Newsweek's T. H. Wenning that he was "through with what have been called my 'black' plays." His new play's second subtitle--"A Serious Comedy"--seemed to emphasize the point. (1) But Williams's later plays would not prove long on luminescence. At the time of the interview, Williams was already at work on The Night of the Iguana (1961), The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (1963), and probably The Mutilated (1966). (2) Although the spiritual buoyancy of the first and third of these plays is undeniable (as is their darkness), and although Williams in 1960 conceived of Milk Train as "a comedy," he would never abandon "black," however skilled he would become at making it funny. (3)

Its prognosticative shortcomings aside, Williams's statement affirms his commitment to jettisoning his past. Period of Adjustment is a pivot between his best-known work and the assortment of plays that followed. More specifically, the play constitutes his first sustained rejection of comic norms with which he had once been content to experiment, respectfully and by way of developing his familiar theme of alienation. Some examples of prior practice are well known. The Stanley/Stella plot of A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) resolves on a comic note; but the rape and institutionalization of the de facto senex demonstrates comedy's cruel power to protect sanctioned, propagative unions. Summer and Smoke (1948) is both Nellie Ewell's comedy and Alma Winemiller's tragedy. The Rose Tattoo (1951) inverts comedy's generational hierarchy, casting youth as an obstacle to mature sexual coalescence. But in Period of Adjustment Williams is keener on mocking than on molding the assumptions of the genre: the "happy rustle of bridal gowns and banknotes" that Northrop Frye identifies as the terminus of low-mimetic comedy is inaudible, the play's mimicking of this mode notwithstanding. (4) Closure torpedoes comedy's fantasy of future delight by pairing off a quartet of feckless losers in accordance with the genre's mandate of domestic stability but in contradiction to the play's sense of who best suits whom.

Hostile reviewers who recognized Period of Adjustment as formally eccentric were of course unable to consider the play in the context of Williams's later career. But, as I will demonstrate in this sometimes metacritical essay, they were on to something. I will pay particular attention to John Simon's bludgeoning of the play, the astuteness and intolerance of which hint at what Williams was trying to do and at the resistance he faced in trying to do it, and the organization of which provides a useful template for my own analysis. The naysayers were not alone in finding the play confused: differences among textual states suggest that Williams himself was unsure about the terms of his rebellion. The threat to comic convention is more pronounced in pre-performance texts than it would be on stage. Specifically, in the states that preceded the play's debut, Williams amplified Ralph Bates's parasexual interplay with both Isabel Haverstick and Isabel's husband George, thus presenting proscribed pairings as credible impediments to comic closure rather than alluring if airy obstacles.

In 1975 Williams would say that in Period of Adjustment, "I began to go into areas of my own head which were not easily communicable to a large audience." He added that only then was he "beginning" to work through the problem. (5) Williams would push more aggressively against comic constraints in his later work, most pertinently Kingdom of Earth (1968), Will Mr. Merriwether Return from Memphis? (1969), and A House Not Meant to Stand (1982). These bluntly "queer" comedies own a mode of generic critique about which Williams apparently became anxious as Period of Adjustment moved toward production. But they do so fantastically, without authorizing the dignified homosexual bond that Williams had tried and failed to write into his "serious comedy. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.