Magazine article The Spectator

Journey of the Soul

Magazine article The Spectator

Journey of the Soul

Article excerpt

It is a Monday morning, after a week's run of Summer and Smoke, and following the example of Tennessee Williams I have just brewed myself a coffee pot of liquid dynamite, and sitting down immediately after breakfast I am hoping its pressure on my heart will stimulate this article.

Tennessee Williams was a proud punisher of his heart and, if I wished to follow his example to the letter, I would just now be preparing myself a little intramuscular injection of a secret formula concocted by my doctor. While I would still hate the business of pushing a needle into my skin, the immediate rush of creative energy, combined with the calming effect of subsequent pills and a single Martini, would give me the necessary strength.

For Tennessee Williams, doctors in all guises -- psychologists, pathologists, surgeons -- were people to keep closer than enemies. Intimacy with strangers was welcomingly simpler than intimacy with people he had lasting relationships with. As is evident from the candid interviews he frequently gave, he loved to talk about his medical history, as if turning himself inside out for people would beguile them away from making their own judgments.

He felt happier with those who didn't know him well -- any lasting intimacy was mistrusted till, by the end of his life, he was pushing away all those who had helped him most. As early as 1945 he told the New York Times:

'The real fact. . . is that no one means a great deal to me, anyway. I'm gregarious and like to be around people but almost anybody will do.' He went on to say, 'I'm rather selfish in picking my friends anyway. . . that is, I prefer people who can help me in some way.' In his plays, intimacy -- the struggle for it, the fragility of it, the impossibility of it -- is always at the centre of the drama. He bears a hopelessly romantic attitude towards life, while at the same time despairing of lasting human relationships being achievable. His characters, like himself, are misfits, at home among freaks, strangers, addicts, the depressed, the lonely and the confused. They are always searching for ways to complete themselves. His women, his heroines in particular, are often starved of sex, of love, of happiness, and have to seek ways of patching up the void. A number of his female characters -- Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, my character Alma in Summer and Smoke, Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire -- are ambassadors for an old-world elegance of propriety and grace, but all are brutalised by the aggressive tide of an uglier world destroying their flimsy ideals.

Exploring Alma in Summer and Smoke over the last few weeks of rehearsal and now in the early stages of performance, I have come to realise that Williams called her Alma (Spanish for 'Soul') precisely because that is what this play explores: the journey of the soul. In Alma's moral world, the richest life is that which is outside the body, that which escapes the physical demands of sex and appetite and immediate sensual gratification. For her it is the spiritual striving for 'more than our human limits have placed within our reach' that brings purpose and shape to life. Her ideal of love, something which is above the sexual, something that is a union of souls, is what drives her in pursuing the man she has loved since childhood, John Buchanan, the son of the local doctor. However, what characters say and believe they mean is not always the truth, and Alma is one such woman. It is deeply fascinating to play someone unable to see the real truth in herself: the fact that she is labouring under a profound and unexpressed burden of colossal sexual desire which, until the summer of the play, she has been unable to confront.

Arthur Miller once claimed that Tennessee Williams did not write from the head, or the heart, but from the abdomen. If this is true, then it is because he believed the life of the mind and the soul to be permanently threatened by the subculture of sexual desire. …

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