The Books: “Battle of Angels” (Tennessee Williams)

Next in my Daily Book Excerpt:

Next on my script shelf:

I had to take a slight breather in the “excerpt of the day” thing. (haha. For me, a ‘slight breather’ means one day) Why? Because I finished with Oscar Wilde and now we have Tennessee Williams coming up. I just needed to gear up for it. I have all of his plays. Many I haven’t read in years. But God. He’s my favorite. Also, there’s a slight case of autism here in that I know WAY too much about his life, and will want to jam all the information in. I know some about Oscar Wilde’s life, I know some about Eugene O’Neill’s life … but I have studied Tennessee Williams’ life – like a lulnatic … so I feel a bit nervous about what to leave out, how to move forward. But regardless – here we go! I will also attempt to go in chronological order (without making a fetish out of it).

BattleOfAngels.jpgTennessee Williams’ first produced play was Battle of Angels (in 1940). Battle of Angels is an earlier version of Orpheus Descending. Same characters, same themes, and you can already hear the “voice” – the “voice” of Tennessee Williams … even though he was a young man when he wrote it – the voice already existed. It’s extraordinary to read it – especially if you know all the rest of his plays – because it’s like: everything he ever wrote about – his main concerns, ideas, themes – are all in that play. You can project out from certain spots in this early play and predict Streetcar, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and all the others. Tennessee Williams is, like all the great playwrights, really an “idea” man. BUT he never sacrifices (or let’s say – he rarely sacrifices) drama for “ideas”. He writes indelible characters. That’s his main focus. But these plays are all really “about” something. Something in the human spirit. It’s about life. He never (and I mean never) descends into didacticism, like Arthur Miller had a tendency to do (great playwright though he was). He never EVER put the idea first.

Battle of Angels was not a success. As a matter of fact, it flopped – and also whipped the censors into a frenzy. This would not be the last time it happened. Here was a new voice. But the things he wrote about, with such honesty: sexuality, mainly. The censors didn’t like that. Especially when it has to do with female sexuality, which he always wrote about. It’s a good trick to remember that Tennessee always did put himself into his plays – but always through the female characters. The men he created: Stanley, Brick, Dr. John – these were the kind of men who made HIM swoon. These were the kind of men who made him feel helpless, erotic, in love. It’s an interesting dynamic. You feel for Blanche. You do not ridicule her. Tennessee had great great compassion for his female characters, and we see the world through their eyes, mainly.

In Battle of Angels, a young virlile guy named Val (described by Tennessee as: “a fresh and primitive quality, a virile grace and freedom of body, a strong physical appeal”) is driving through a small town when his car breaks down. He walks into a dressmaker’s shop – obviously a world of women … and sets everyone a flutter. One of the women actually says to him, “All of the women here are suffering from sexual malnutrition!” Bet the censors loved that one. Women? Sexual malnutrition? What?? That whole vibe: that you can actually suffer from a lack of sex – especially if you are a certain type of female (and not a slut – actually quite opposite – Tennessee is talking about love here) – anyway, that whole vibe predicts the entire plot of Summer and Smoke, one of my favorites of his. “Sexual malnutrition” is actually something that crushes the soul, if you are a sensitive spiritually-minded woman, looking for a mate in life. It warps you. It kills all that is good in your heart. Poor Miss Alma. But I’m getting ahead of myself. (I think this whole “sexual malnutrition” idea which comes up again and again in his plays – think of Maggie the Cat!! her sexual frustration – comes a lot out of the mental breakdown and eventual lobotomy of his sister Rose. There are stories of Rose masturbating in the public room in the institution where she was locked up. Rose was what you hear about: a woman suffering from sexual hysteria. She was a virgin, though. This is not about a woman who actually gets what she needs. It’s tragic. No other playwright has really touched on this theme – at least not so often, and so compassionately and well.)

Myra, the female lead, is described by Tennessee as: “a woman who met emotional disaster in her girlhood and whose personality bears traces of the resulting trauma. Frequently sharp and suspicious, she verges on hysteria under slight strain. Her voice is often shrill and her body tense. But when in repose, a girlish softness emerges — evidence of her capacity for great tenderness.” Stuff like that is why you should always read the italicized parts in Tennessee Williams plays. Often, with other playwrights, they’re just stage directions, or adverbs, or adjectives – nothing that will help you as an actor. But a character description like that, actually written by Tennessee, is enormously revealing.

Okay. See this is why I had to take a breath before the Williams section of the bookcase. Why? Because I’m a total blowhard.

Onward.

Myra is trapped in a loveless marriage to a dying man named Jabe. She gives Val a job in her store. And of course – the mere presence of a man stirs up a bunch of shit for everyone. Especially such a man. He’s not conventional, he’s not bound by polite society, he’s a man who works with his hands, his body – he’s a REAL man.

Here’s a brief excerpt. Val has been at the store for a while. This is the end of Act Two, Scene One. Watch how carefully Tennessee has crafted this. There are no accidents here. And while this play certainly is a bit stiff, and a bit stilted – please remember that a mere 2 years later, he would write Glass Menagerie. This is amazing. The leap he took. Yes, Battle of Angels was a flop, and its failure crushed Tennessee. But he learned fromt he mistakes – although that’s probably a tad too easy to say, too tepid. He harnessed his energies once again, he focused everything down to a laser, and out came Glass Menagerie – which catapulted him to such success that it still cannot be matched by other playwrights. He hada written an instant classic. People KNEW that Glass Menagerie would be done again and again and again … that they were seeing the birth of a new voice, a new important voice … It’s so thrilling.

But anyway. Here’s the scene. It’s between Val – the virle man, and Myra – the damaged sensitive woman.


EXCERPT FROM Battle of Angels, by Tennessee Williams.

VAL. Myra, did you ever see a red church steeple?

MYRA. [absently] No.

VAL. [chuckling] Neither did I.

MYRA. Jabe’s took a turn for the worse. I had to give him morphine.

VAL. So?

MYRA. He must be out of his mind; he says such awful things to me. Accuses me of wanting him to die.

VAL. Don’t you?

MYRA. No! Death’s terrible, Val. You’re alive and everything’s open and free, and you can go this way or that way, whichever direction you choose. And then all at once the doors start closing on you, the walls creep in, till finally there’s just one way you can go — the dark way. Everything else is shut off.

VAL. Yes … [then abruptly] You got the sun at the back of your head. It brings the gold out in your hair!

MYRA. [diverted] Does it?

VAL. Yes, it looks pretty, Myra. [They stand close together. She moves suddenly away with a slight, nervous smile]

MYRA. It’s closing time.

VAL. Uh-huh. I’ll put these back on the shelves. [He picks up the wedding slipper] She had a small foot.

MYRA. Rosemary Wildberger?

VAL. Naw, naw, that Whiteside bitch.

MYRA. I could wear these slippers.

VAL. They’d be too small.

MYRA. You want to bet? Try them on me.

VAL. [laughing] Okay! [He slips the shoes on her feet] Pinch, don’t they?

MYRA. No, they feel marvelous to me!

VAL. [doubting] Aw!

MYRA. They do! [She looks down at them] Silver and white. Why isn’t everything made out of silver and white?

VAL. Wouldn’t be practical, Myra.

MYRA. Practical? What’s that? I never heard of practical before. I wasn’t cut out for the mercantile business, Val.

VAL. What was you cut out for? [A derelict Negro, Loon, stops outside the door and begins to play his guitar in the fading warmth of the afternoon sun. At first the music is uncertain and sad; then it lifts suddenly into a gay waltz] What was you cut out for, Myra?

MYRA. [enrapt with the music] Me cut out for? Silver and white! Music! Dancing! The orchard across from Moon Lake! You don’t believe me, do you? Well, look at this. You know where I am? I’m on the Peabody Roof! Yes, with silver stars on it! And in my hair I’ve got lovely Cape jasmine blossoms! I’m whirling; I’m dancing faster and faster! A Hollywood talent scout, a Broadway producer: “Isn’t she lovely!” Photographers taking my pictures for the Commercial Appeal and for the Times-Picayune, for all the society columns and for the rotogravure! I’m surrounded by people. Autograph seekers, they want me to sign my name! But I keep on laughing and dancing and scattering stars and lovely Cape jasmine blossoms! [Her raphsodic speech is suddenly interrupted by Jabe's furious knocking on the ceiling. Her elation is instantly crushed out. She stops dancing] I thought he had enough to go to sleep …

VAL. Why don’t you give him enough to …?

MYRA. Val! I’m a decent woman.

VAL. What’s decent? I never heard of that word. I’ve written a book full of words but I never used that one. Why? Because it’s disgusting. Decent is something that’s scared like a little white rabbit. I’ll give you a better word, Myra.

MYRA. What word is that? [The guitar changes back to its original slow melody]

VAL. Love, Myra. The one I taught the little girl on the bayou.

MYRA. That’s an old one.

VAL. You’ve never heard it before.

MYRA. You’re wrong about that, my dear. I heard it mentioned quite often the spring before I got married.

VAL. Who was it mentioned by — Jabe?

MYRA. No! By a boy named David.

VAL. Oh. David.

MYRA. We used to go every night to the orchard across from Moon Lake. He used to say, “Love! Love! Love!” And so did I, and both of us meant it, I thought. But he quit me that summer for some aristocratic girl, a girl like Cassandra Whiteside! I seen a picture of them dancing together on the Peabody Roof in Memphis. Prominent planter’s son and the debutante daughter of … Of course, after that, what I really wanted was death. But Jabe was the next best thing. A man who could take care of me, although there wasn’t much talk about love between us.

VAL. No. There was nothing but hate.

MYRA. No!

VAL. Nothing but hate. Like the cancer, you wish you could kill him.

MYRA. Don’t! You scare me. Don’t talk that way. [She crosses slowly to the door and Loon sings as the scene dims out]

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2 Responses to The Books: “Battle of Angels” (Tennessee Williams)

  1. brittany says:

    Just so you know, her monologue is missing a piece: “I’m on the Peabody Roof! I’m dancing to music. My dress is made out of mousseline de soie – Yes, with silver stars on it!”. Thank you for posting the rest of the scene! It’s very informative of Tennessee’s intention in his writing.

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