Sunday, October 22, 2006

Artists and Fair Hope

October 22

Yesterday's post re-ignited a discussion of the meaning of art, and the information coming from a reader in Sweden should at least inform the discussion.

To broaden the discussion to an art I have a little more knowledge about, I am reprinting the following. It is a reprint of a post I wrote in the height of our discussion of the theatre, when a certain commenter had said that all the women in Tennessee Williams' plays were psychopaths, pure and simple. I tried to weave this into a definition of this blog, of Fairhope and fair hope, and the application of an education in Fairhope on an appreciation of all the arts.

Paul Gaston wrote a book years ago, which I'm sure is still available, called Women of Fair Hope. Its title gave me the idea for the name for this blog. In the book he dealt with the lives of a few women from Fairhope's early days who would be standouts in any locale, in any generation: Nancy Lewis, the former slave from whom the land for the Single Tax Colony was purchased, Marie Howland, the unconventional intellectual who became the town's first librarian, and Marietta Johnson, who was to found an extraordinary Progressive school. His book does much to define the women of Fairhope by these role models. Howland in particular had such a colorful story that readers of today have trouble believing it is not fiction -- and that she actually lived in Fairhope.

In The Butterfly Tree, Bob Bell describes a character that always struck me as generic-Southern rather than "Fairhope." There was a remotely tragic look about Miss Billy, as though she had lost something and wouldn't know when she found it, if she found it. Her eyes were that pale lavender color that made you think of crushed sweet peas. Ladies like this abound in Southern literature. We can read about them in early Truman Capote, in Carson McCullers, in Tennessee Williams. But in reality they were a rarity in Fairhope. To give him credit, Bob Bell's portrait of Winifred Duncan as Miss Claverly does deal with another type of woman altogether. My argument with Bob was that he saw Claverly as an aberration and I knew Winifred Duncan (the very real woman upon whom the character Miss Claverly was based) as a force to be reckoned with among the women of Fairhope of the 'fifties.

I am grateful that, although in the South, Fairhope is not really of the South. Because it was founded by those people from Des Moines, and because it was the kind of little intellectual enclave that attracted nonconformists, to live in Fairhope is not like living in any other place on earth. Those dewy, sweetpea-eyed ladies who exist in other southern U.S. locales are not at home in Fairhope. In Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree I add to Bob's portrait of Miss Duncan the likes of Gretchen Riggs, Verda Horne, Anna Braune and Emma Schramm, who built a house supported by tall pine trees in the woods just off the main street. None of these women was a delicate fading flower or what you would think of as a Southern lady. They were women of Fairhope.

Are Tennessee Williams' women Southern ladies or not? His writing covered such an astonishing range of experiences that the question hardly seems pertinent to anything. I once heard Williams, late in life, railing at some critic who said his women were all "drag queens." "I never wrote a play about drag queens in my life," he said, "and if I wrote about drag queens, they would be drag queens. The women I write about are real women."

A comment here said all the women in his plays are psychopaths. This is an unfathomable interpretation to me. Amanda in The Glass Menagerie, whom the commenter particularly hated, is a well-written, full human being, with goals, humor, personality, and a certain tragic outlook. She is not a victim, except of her own mistakes. She works for a living. The audience is meant to see her as a whole, sympathetic figure doing exactly the wrong thing all the time. She wants the best for her children although she has no idea what it is. She has a son who is a poet and a daughter who is an emotional cripple. Williams wrote, "Her life is a paranoia, but she is not paranoid." Williams' mother said, "I can't see anything about me in that character." My own mother said she disliked the play because she couldn't help but identify with the mother.

In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Maggie is a Southern belle who happens to be in love with the wrong guy. There are themes in that play that fold back on themselves in unexpected ways. The homosexual conflicts of Brick and the clever manipulation of the frustrated Maggie against the backdrop of the towering character of Big Daddy make a riveting play -- about real people who might be seen as exotic if one were not raised in the American South.

Anyone who thinks Blanche DuBois is a psychopath hasn't seen or studied the play. She is deluded, yes, afraid of losing her youth and beauty, the only currency she has ever had. Raised to be a classic lady, she is in conflict about her sexual nature, and the only way she sees to resolve that conflict is to split herself in two -- the virgin and the whore -- and to live in the state of denial that is very often a Southern way of life. The inevitable confrontation with reality in the guise of Stanley Kowalski is too much for her fragile hold on sanity, which brings the audience to its own realization of the duality of the nature of man. Excuse me, maybe that should be the nature of Woman. Southern woman, at that.

In Fairhope I saw little of this. My parents, however, were more Southern than Fairhope, and the family I was exposed to had traces of the kind of offbeat reality that pervades the region. My first husband was from a very repressed Alabama town and family; he felt much more kin to the characters of Tennessee Williams than I did.

But what a gold mine those plays were for a young actress. And how lucky I was to have had enough Southern orientation, overlaid with the realistic intellectualism of Fairhope, to "get" the meaning, and to have the opportunity to play some of those roles.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for repeating as it give me a chance to repeat as well. Here was my response to the original post.

“It seem you two are having quite a talkfest lately. I wonder if there is much room here for any one else to get a word in. So I will take up the challenge of TW hating all women. I don’t think that you can derive or infer that from his work. You can certainly force that interpretation on the work but it doesn’t come from the works themselves. The women and men portrayed in his plays are all very rich complex sets of expressions and reactions to the social dynamics of their roles in the southern society of the fifties. If he hated women and wrote to express that, the roles could never be so complex or evoke the empathic response to their plight.

William’s plays, from my strictly viewer’s perspective, show the corrosive and distorting effects of social structure and it’s power dynamics on a human being’s basic desire, needs and ability to find and receive love. This corrosive distortion is best recognized in the women, as corrupted figures of southern innocence, and therefore their actions may seem more vile, which would place them in a more unfavorable light. This of course could lead some to think that William’s hates women. TW is not I would argue is not portraying women or men to be loved or hated, but rather like all good writer’s letting them evolve from their interactions with each other.”

I’ve only known two southern women. I loved them both and consider myself lucky to have enjoyed their charm, wit, intelligence, grace and style. I will quote the other one, “He burned my grits! It made me so mad I could spit.” She was Joyous in all her southerness.

Mary Lois said...

It's pretty hard to burn grits, as a matter of fact. That guy must have been a real loser.

Anonymous said...

You've obviously havn't had many dealings with club owners, but I imagine there are a few on the planning commission that could do it.

Mary Lois said...

Let's see...who can I think of who's stupid enough to burn grits? First name who comes to mind: George W. Bush. We may have invented a new parlor game here...

Rupert Schmitt writers blog said...

I am not an expert at judging the women of Tennessee williams plays. I only know Fairhope ruined me. whenever i hear the voice of a southern woman I want to keep listening to her. A southern woman can easily wrap me around her little finger and have me cook her grits without burning them. I just finished Absalom Absalom. The best women in the novel were the black women. They had values and could do things. The white women were pretty useless. and as for the Sutpen's and their sense of honor, those men were living in another world which valued so called honor over life and family and regarded it as a disgrace to have one drop of colored blood in them.