The Books: “The Purification” (Tennessee Williams)

Next on the script shelf:

27WagonsFullOfCotton.jpgNext Tennessee Williams play on the shelf is The Purification, included in 27 Wagons Full of Cotton And Other One-Act Plays. This play, an extended poem, contains some absolutely superb writing – although the format is pretty pretentious. It’s one of those plays which you can easily imagine being done SO EARNESTLY and SO AWFULLY at some community theatre — with horrible declamatory acting, and people behaving as though they are really upset and earnest. You would have to REALLY treat this material delicately and sensitively – or it could be god-awful. First of all: the whole thing is in in verse. So there’s a lot of opportunity for schmacting here. It takes place in the 19th century, out in the western ranch-lands of America. The wild west. A trial is taking place. A woman has been murdered. The community gathers. It’s informal – because there isn’t a real structure set in place yet for justice … but there is a Judge – an honorable member of his community – to hear all the sides.

What is eventually revealed is that the murdered woman had been having an affair with her brother. Her husband (a grizzled lonely old rancher) found out about it, and murdered her with an axe.

Occasionally, the murdered woman appears in the courtroom – but there are two versions of her – depending on who sees her. When the brother sees his dead sister, she is Elena of the Springs – a cool refreshing image, supposed to represent mountains and cool mountain springs, holding a candle, smiling. When the rancher sees her, she is Desert Elena – a parched vision – wearing a bleached-out dress, holding dried flowers. The rancher, in a sexless marriage to her, felt parched with her, deprived. He always felt that she had some reservoir within her, some deep spring she could draw on … This made him feel left out.

Other characters are a cackling old Indian servant – who was a witness to the fact that brother and sister were having an affair.

Mother and Father refuse to believe it.

Meanwhile, as background (Tennessee usually adds some element of nature into his plays – the heat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is as much a character in the play as Brick is) – they are in a drought. The land has dried up. Everyone is just waiting for rain, watching every wisp of cloud hopefully. But they are all losing hope. The rain will never come.

Other elements: there is a Chorus, meant to be watching members of the community – they speak in unison – repeating things that other characters say in a droning mantra … There is a guitar player, who sits in the courtroom, and accompanies the entire thing with music.

And there you have it!
I’ll excerpt a bit from when the Rancher starts to tell the story of his marriage to the woman.

From The Purification, a play in verse by Tennessee Williams.

Your passion is out of season.
This is the time for reflection to calm the brain,
as later, I hope, the rain will cool our ranches.
I know that truth
evades the certain statement
but gradually and obliquely filters through
the mind’s unfettering in sleep and dream.
The stammered cry gives more of truth than the hand
could put on passionless paper …
My neighbor from Casa Rojo,
Stand and speak your part in this dark recital.
You say that the woman Elena
never allowed you freely the right of marriage?

Never freely, and never otherwise.
It was no marriage.
They have compared her to water — and water, indeed, she was.
Water that ran through my fingers when I was athirst.
Oh, from the time that I worked at Casa Blanca,
a laborer for her people, as they have mentioned,
I knew there was something obscure — subterranean —
cool — from which she drew her persistence,
when by all rights
of what I felt to be nature
she should have dried — as fields in a rainless summer,
a summer like this one that presently starves our grain-fields,
she should have dried, this seemingly loveless woman,
and yet she didn’t.
Yes, she was cool, she was water,
even as they have described her —
but water sealed under the rock — where I was concerned.
I burned.
I burned.
I burned …

[Three dissonant notes are sounded on the guitar. There is a feverish, incessant rustling sound like wind in a heap of dead leaves]

RANCHER. [hoarsely]
I finally said to her once,
in the late afternoon it was, and she stood in the doorway ….

[The dissonant notes are repeated. The rustling is louder. A sound of mocking laughter outside the door, sudden and brief. The Desert Elena appears. It is the same lost girl, but not as the brother had seen her. This is the vision of the loveless bride, the water sealed under rock from the lover’s thirst — not the green of the mountains and the clear swift streams, but the sun-parched desert. Her figure is closely sheathed in a coarse-fibered bleached material, her hair bound tight to her skull. She bedars a vessel in either hand, like balanced scales, one containing a cactus, the other a wooden grave-cross with a wreath of dry, artificial flowers on it. Only The Rancher observes her.]

‘Woman,’ I said to her, ‘Woman, who keeps you alive?’
‘What keeps you sparkling so, you make-believe fountain?’
[to the vision]
‘You and the desert,’ I told her,
‘You are sisters — sisters beneath the skin!’
But even the desert is sometimes pregnant with something,
distorted progeny,
twisted, dry, imbecilic,
gives birth to the cacti,
the waterless Judas tree.
The blood of the root makes liquor to scorch the brain and put foul oaths on the tongue.
But you — you, woman, bear nothing,
nothing ever but death — which is all you will get
with your pitiful — stone kind of body.

Oh, no — I will get something more.

More? You will get something more?
Where will it come from — lovely, smiling lady?
[The dead leaves rustle]
Will it come singing and shouting and plunging bare-back
down canyons
and run like wild birds home to Sangre de Criso
when August crazes the sky?

ELENA. [smiling]

RANCHER. [to the Judge]
Yes, she admitted, yes!
For in their house, these people from Casa Blanca — no one
can say they fear to speak the truth!

Perhaps it will come as you say — but until then
The fences are broken — mend them.
The moon is needing a new coat of white-wash on it!
Attend to that, repair man! Those are your duties.
But keep your hands off me!

My hands are empty — starved!

Fill them with chicken-feathers! Or buzzard-feathers.

My lips are dry.

Then drink from the cistern. Or if the cistern is empty, moisten your lips with the hungry blood of the fox that kills our fowls.

The fox-blood burns!

Mine, too.
I have no coolness for you:
my hands are made of the stuff in the dried sulphur pools.
These are my gifts:
the cactus, the bleached grave-cross with the wreath of dead vines on it.
Listen! The wind, when it blows,
is rattling dry castanets in the restless grave-yard.
The old monks whittle — they make prayer-beads in the cellar.
Their fingers are getting too stiff to continue the work.
They dread the bells. For the bells are heavy and iron
and have no wetness in them.
The bones of the dead have cracked from lack of moisture.
The sisters come out in a quick and steady file and their black skirts whisper dryer and dryer and dryer,
until they halt
before their desperate march has reached the river.
The river has turned underground.
The sisters crumble: beneath their black skirts crumble,
the skirts are blown and the granular salty bodies
go whispering off among the lifeless grasses …
I must go too,
For I, like these, have glanced at a burning city.
Now let me go!

[She turns austerely and moves away from the door. Three dissonant notes on the guitar and the sound of dead rustling leaves is repeated. A yellow flash of lightning in the portal, now vacant, and the sound of wind.]

My hand shot-out, whip-like, to catch at her wrist,
But she had gone …
My wife — that make-believe foundtain — had fled from the door.

[He covers his face with his hands]

THE JUDGE. [rising]
Player, give us the music
of wind that promises rain.
The time is dry.
But clouds have come,
and the sound of thunder is welcome.
Now let the Indian women tread the earth
in the dance that destroys the locust!

[The three white-robed women rise from their bench and move in front. They perform a slow, angular dance to drums and guitar. Their movement is slow. The music softens. The dance and the music become a reticent background for the speech]

Elena had fled through the door as the storm broke on us.
She had fled through the open door, out over the fields
darkening down the valley
where rain was advancing
its tall silent squadrons of silver.
Her figure was lost
in a sudden convulsion of shadows
heaved by the eucalyptus.
[The dancers raise their arms]
The rain came down
as sound of rapturous trumpets rolled over the earth,
and still
and delicate warmthless yellow
of late afternoon persisted
that transparent curtain of silver.
At once the clouds
had changed their weight into motion,
their inkiness thinned,
their cumulous forms rose higher,
their edges were stirred
as radiant feathers, upwards, above the mountains.
Distant choral singing. Wordless. “La Golondrina” is woven into the music]
A treble choir
now sang in the eucalyptus,
an Angelus rang!
The whole wide vault of the valley,
the sweep of the plain
assumed a curious lightness under the rain.
The birds already, the swallows,
before the rainstorm ceased,
had begun to climb
the atmosphere’s clean spirals.
Ethereal wine
intoxicated these tipplers,
their notes were wild
and prodigal as fool’s silver.
The moon,
unshining, blank, bone-like,
stood over the Lobos mountains
and grinned and grinned
like a speechless idiot where
the cloud-mass thinned …
I saw her once more — briefly,
running along by the fence at the end of the meadow.
The long and tremendous
song of the eucalyptus described this flight:
the shoulders inclined stiffly forward,
the arms flung out, throat arched,
more as though drunk
with a kind of heroic abandon — tahn blinded — by fright.
[He covers his face]
Forgive me …

[The cloud that darkened the sun passes over. The stream of fierce sunlight returns through the door and the window. The women return to the bench]


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2 Responses to The Books: “The Purification” (Tennessee Williams)

  1. Patrick says:

    adj. Pretentiously rhetorical; bombastic.

    Thanks for the new word. :-)

  2. red says:

    hahaha That definition states exactly what I mean!! We’ve all seen horrible Shakespeare productions … declamatory acting is what it’s all about.

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