Gaze and Resistance in the Plays of Tennessee Williams
Timpane, John, The Mississippi Quarterly
The problem is to seize the glimpse. --Robert Motherwell(1)
When we see Stanley Kowalski on the stage, we aren't seeing Stanley at all. Nor are we seeing an actor playing Stanley, since Stanley never existed. Actors do not play people-they play roles, sets of ideas organized to represent the illusion of a living persona. As Bernard Beckerman put it in his brilliant study, Theatrical Presentation,(2) one of the best of all books of representation theory, we are seeing an actor representing the image of an idea-in the case of A Streetcar Named Desire, of what Stanley Kowalski might have been like had he existed. Whose idea? Not the author's (he isn't with us) but the actor's, the director's, the producer's, the other cast members' and crew members' (lighting, set design, and costume), and not least the audience's, with their own readings and interpretations. This idea of Stanley is a product of negotiation; since it cannot be exactly what Tennessee Williams intended, it is (usually) a guess, a version, of what he might have intended.(3)
Consider, further, what it is actually like to see a Tennessee Williams play. Whenever I see one, no matter the troupe's conception, I am aware of a certain resistance. On one hand, I am resisting much that the play presents and suggests; moreover, something about the text appears to be resisting me, almost as if some agent somewhere had anticipated my expectations and reactions (and those of other members of the audience) and moved to frustrate them. Friction like this is an essential part of the pleasure of seeing a Williams play. You might call it the pleasure of being shown you are wrong.
Recent theory sometimes seems to do away with the author, and as the previous paragraphs show, it can sometimes seem, as simple things effloresce into very complicated things, that we can never retrieve anything authorial at all from a play. The following essay is an attempt to account for our sense that what we behold in a Tennessee Williams play has already been seen by someone else. The arrangements of men and women in Summer and Smoke or Small Craft Warnings or Night of the Iguana, their modes of self-presentation, their efforts to respond to or ignore one another--all these come to us already mediated through the lens of someone else's perception. So it was even before director, cast, and crew came to the text. Plays by Tennessee Williams present versions of a world seen from a particular vantage point, a peculiar, often idiosyncratic one, full of aesthetic and moral values not our own.
We used to use the words point of view to denote such a perspective, but we now have another word--gaze--that purports to carry much more meaning. The term was first broached by Laura Mulvey in her essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," which first appeared in 1975.(4) Mulvey's topic was the controlling, organizing look of the camera, the gaze of desire taking pleasure in gazing. Her main target in that essay was how men represent women in film. The male gaze is proprietary. It stylizes women in prejudicial ways, makes them not themselves, but objects as men wish to see them. As soon as we say this, it is clear that, first, there is a very strong gaze in Williams, and, second, that the Williams gaze is far different from the male cinematic appropriation of the feminine that Mulvey describes. I would like to speculate on what the Williams gaze encompasses: "place" as a construction of the imagination, a metaphor for the chaotic determination of identity; people as subjects rather than selves; humanity as a single group composed of infinite, resistant versions, any of them potential objects of desire; and the "Southern" as a metaphor for a kind of conflicted identity. In Williams, the pleasure of the gaze is masochistic pleasure, and whatever the gaze rests on always includes a gaze at the audience. With Williams, the problem is indeed to catch the glimpse.
In her essay, Mulvey uses Freud's term scopophilia, or "pleasure in looking. …