Magical Muse: Millennial Essays on Tennessee Williams

By McHaney, Pearl Amelia | Southern Quarterly, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Magical Muse: Millennial Essays on Tennessee Williams


McHaney, Pearl Amelia, Southern Quarterly


Magical Muse: Millennial Essays on Tennessee Williams. Edited by Ralph F. Voss. Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 2002. $39.95. The title of this collection indicates its intention to take account of Tennessee Williams and his art at the turn of the century. The twelve essays and panel discussion from the twenty-seventh Alabama Symposium on English and American Literature (1999) are arranged in three categories: bibliographical and biographical, critical and theoretical, and "broadly cultural." Such groupings, indicated in Voss's Introduction but not in the content listing, organize what might otherwise seem an uneven set of perspectives. The topics range from influence studies (Vachel Lindsay, Richard Halliburton, Rose Williams, Pirandello, Yukio Mishima, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and New Orleans) to thematic and stylistic considerations (apocalypse, film censorship, masculinism, Apollonian/ Dionysian impulses, and crucifixion). The essays, written by a variety of Williams scholars, academics, a drama critic, and a director-writer, are interesting and beneficial for an equal variety of readers: scholars, all manner of students, aficionados, and general audiences.

As sometimes happens with published proceedings of conferences, readers may miss the best and most innovative contributions. Perhaps only the reviewer and the doctoral candidate read an essay collection cover to cover. Most will rely upon the table of contents and the index, and here, one should look also to Voss's Introduction. While all of the essays present their information and argument in a sound manner, two of the essays in Magical Muse strike me as essential to Williams scholarship; three others should not to be overlooked.

Anyone writing on Tennessee Williams today should begin with George W. Crandell's "Tennessee Williams Scholarship at the Turn of the Century" (8-34). Author of Tennessee Williams: A Descriptive Bibliography and The Critical Response to Tennessee Williams, Crandell neatly surveys the trajectory of Williams scholarship-biography, textual studies, bibliography, critical books, letters, journals, and new primary publications-particularly for the 1990s. He reviews the debate and range of responses on Williams's radicalism and gives an especially good reading of David Savran's Communists, Cowboys, and Queers: The Politics of Masculinity in the Work of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, while challenging some of Savran's readings. While Crandell, unfortunately I think, stops short of prescribing a course for scholarship, he does "reflect upon what has been accomplished in recent years" and offers plenty of suggestions for those "who have the vision" to be leading Williams scholars of the twenty-first century (24). Crandell provides a valuable list of 128 works cited, only ten of which were written prior to 1990.

The next most significant essay in Magical Muse, I believe, is Allean Hale's "In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel: Breaking the Code" (147-62). Hale has been the driving force behind the discovery, recovery, reading, producing, and publishing of Williams's late plays. In this essay, she extends her research on Williams's interests and connections with Yukio Mishima and Japanese Noh drama. Reading even the title of Williams's latest play In the Bar of a Tokyo Holdback through Japanese culture, myth, and drama, Hale demonstrates that Williams co-opts both Eastern and Western (the crucifixion allegory) traditions "under the surface of a third realistic plot" that she defines as "the artist's fear of not being able to separate himself from his material" (159). That the play's complex meaning "cannot easily come through in production" is no reason, says Hale, for dismissing this rewarding "tour de force" (159). She draws further interest in explicating the play's reference to Jackson Pollock. Hale's argument is cogently and thoroughly presented; her knowledge of Williams's late writing and of his biography lead her and her readers to consider other late, and heretofore dismissed, work such as "The Two-Character Play. …

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