The Books: “The Frosted Glass Coffin” (Tennessee Williams)

Next on the script shelf:

TokyoHotel.jpgNext Tennessee Williams play on the shelf is The Frosted Glass Coffin, a one-act from 1970, included in The Theatre of Tennessee Williams, Vol. 7: In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, and Other Plays. Short and simple, here’s the plot:

It takes place on the sidewalk outside the Ponce de Leon – a cheap hotel filled with old people in Miami. They all live there. Across the street is the cheapest cafeteria in Miami, and every meal-time all the geriatric cases line up in the blinding hot sun for a cheap meal. There’s a huge controversy afoot because the cafeteria is raising their prices by about a nickel. And now you can’t get free refills of coffee. This sends shock-waves of alarm and anger through the Ponce de Leon.

Three old men – (called One, Two, and Three) sit outside the Ponce de Leon, early one morning, watching the line form across the street. They talk about the price hike, they talk about a woman in the hotel who died suddenly the night before, they gossip. Underneath all of this casual chit-chat, is an overwhelming awareness of death. They are all close to death. Not that they are sick … but when you’re in your 70s and 80s, you know that you’ve gotta be close.

One is only in his 60s while the other two are in their 70s – and One was also once the mayor of a small town in one of the Carolinas – so he basically feels superior to the other two. He’s kind of a blowhard, truth be told.

Three is almost completely deaf.

I’ll excerpt the part of the play where, while watching the line form across the street, they see one of the little old ladies collapse from heat exhaustion. I like this play because there’s a lot of humor in the banter between the three old men. I like it when Williams lets his humorous side out. It’s wonderful.

From The Frosted Glass Coffin, included in The Theatre of Tennessee Williams, Vol. 7: In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, and Other Plays, by Tennessee Williams

[Excited outcries across the street catch their attention]

ONE. What’s that commotion over?

TWO. Looks like one of ’em’s collapsed right before the locked door.

[They rise and shuffle out to the proscenium, leaning forward peering, commenting]

THREE. Man or woman?

TWO. Woman.

ONE. Then it ain’t coronary, women don’t git coronaries.

TWO. I’ve known ’em to get heart failure.

ONE. Unusual.

THREE. Too damn unusual.

VOICE. [offstage] Will somebody call an ambulance for the lady?

TWO. Can you see who collapsed, is it anybody we know?

ONE. Yep, it’s little old Miss Walker. I thought it was but I wanted to be sure before I said so because in this company, it’s absolutely imperative to be absolutely certain before you commit yourself to an opinion of something.

TWO. Little Miss First-One-In, well, how about that.

ONE. Yep, Little Miss First-One-In is now Miss First-One-Out before she even got in.

[They chuckle together. Three loses his balance and almost falls into the orchestra pit]

VOICE. [shrieking] You men over there, will one of you run to the taxi stand on Flagler and git a taxi for this unconscious woman?

[They turn about and shuffle back to their seats, not desiring involvement]

ONE. [sitting down] “Run”, she said. [He chuckles sadly] She must be practickly blind. In our age bracket you’re living in a glass coffin, a frosted coffin, you just barely see light through it.

TWO. Yep: that’s about it.

THREE. What?

ONE. Light through it.

THREE. Who? What?

ONE. [turning away from Three who is cupping his ear] In some cases the conversation consists of almost nothing but one-syllable questions like who, who, what, what, where? The silent question is WHEN. The silent meaning of it is: when do I go? There’s no one to answer that question, if it was asked out loud, and mighty damn few would have the guts to ask it if there was. Now take what happened last night to Mr. and Mrs. Kesley ….

THREE. What, what? Who?

ONE. See what I mean about living in a frosted glass coffin unburied? He don’t even know what happened last night to the Kelseys.

THREE. What about the Kelseys?

ONE. Frosted glass coffin, unburied! [He raises his voice to Three] You mean to sit here and tell me you’re the only resident of this twelve-story hotel that don’t yet know what happened to the Kelseys last night at Mercy?

THREE. Not a word of it: what happened?

ONE. [oratorically and unctuously] At nine p.m. last night little Mrs. Kelsey was struck by what they thought was a little gall-bladder trouble. She had put Kelsey to bed: you know he has to be cared for like an infant. Then this sharp pain hits her in her abdomin, in the gall-bladder region, so she got dressed and came down to the lobby so she wouldn’t distract ole Kelsey. I was down there, jawing with the night clerk. She don’t come up to the desk. She sits down on a sofa. After a while I notice she’s clutching the right side of her abdomin and that she had sweat on her forehead which she kept patting off with those sheets of toilet tissue she carries instid of Kleenex. I whisper to the night cler, I said, “Sam, will you look at Mrs. Kelsey? That woman’s in pain, and she’s sitting down here at this hour so Kelsey won’t know about it.” Sam, he looked over at her and said, “Goddam it, you’re right, she’s got the death-sweat on her,” and without another word he picked up the phone and called up Mercy Hospital to send an ambulance for her.

THREE. Holy Moses. Great Scott.

ONE. They picked her up and removed her to Mercy Hospital just before eleven p.m. An hour later I was about to go up to our room, when the telephone rang. It was Mercy. They said, “We’d like to speak to Mr. Kelsey about his wife.” Sam said, “I don’t think I better disturb Mr. Kelsey unless it’s absolutely critical.” Well, they said it was so critical that unless Kelsey got out there inside of an hour, they couldn’t promise he’d see her alive again.

THREE. Lawdamighty!

ONE. Well, I woke up Betsy and between the two of us, we got Kelsey up. Of course we didn’t inform him how critical it was, we just said Mrs. Kelsey had had a little stomach upset and had gone to Mercy.

TWO. Sam got a taxi for him and I gave him the fare. Well, he got there too late.

ONE. Betsy went with him to Mercy. She says that Mrs. Kelsey had the sheet over her head and was already cold. You know what Kelsey said? He said, “She seems sort of weak,” and Betsy said he wouldn’t believe she was gone even when they rolled her down to the morgue at Mercy.

THREE. I never thought Mrs. Kelsey would go before Kelsey.

ONE. Vital statistics show that two or three times as many men go as wimmen.

TWO. That’s a ridiculous statement: if that was true, the world population would of been nothing but female for a thousand years now.

ONE. I’m talking about OLD COUPLES! There must be —

TWO. Excuse me: Mr. Geriatrics Journal: I’d like to point out that the men fight the wars and that the wars have hit every single generation of men in this country, and if, in addition to that —

ONE. You’re off on some tangent.

TWO. Wait: if in addition to that, what you say is true about men dying two or three times the rate of wimmen —

ONE. Will you shut up for a second so I can say what I was actually saying?

[There is a pause. One glares at Two in real fury]

TWO. — What was you actually saying?

ONE. — Nothing. My time and my breath are too valuable, too important to me, to —

THREE. [cutting in] Who would of thought that Kelsey would outlive his Mrs.? Why, Kelsey was in and out of Mercy like a jack rabbit.

TWO. Yep. Ev’ry whipstitch little ole Mrs. Kelsey would come down without him. I’d say, “Where’s your ole man this mawnin’?” — The answer was: “Back in Mercy.”

THREE. In, out, out, in, in, out like a jack rabbit. So now she’s gone. Explains why they haven’t come down yet. Did they keep him at Mercy?

ONE. Nope, he’s back. Betsy had him hauled out of Mercy in a wheelchair and all the way out to the taxi he kept calling for Winnie. In the taxi she held onto his hand: and he thought her hand was his Missus’.

THREE. Don’t he realize she’s gone yet?

ONE. Betsy says he started to realize it when she’d got him back into bed and hollered to him, “Now go to sleep, Mr. Kelsey. Everything is going to be taken care of, don’t you worry.” Then he seemed to realize a little that Winnie was gone, not till then. — You know, it’s not so surprising that Winnie went first after all, because old Kelsey has crossed that age limit where the human body, all its functions and its processes, are so slowed down that they live a sort of crocodile existence that seems to go on forever. The question is what to do with him.

TWO. He ought to have a practical nurse but can’t afford one, I reckon.

ONE. The answer’s a nursing home, huh?

TWO. I reckon that’s the only possible answer unless they chloroform him like an old dog.

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