Tennessee Williams on the death penalty

This post lists 71 interesting facts about Tennessee Williams, in honor of the 71 years of his life.

tennessee-williamsItem 19 is: “I don’t believe in individual guilt. I don’t think people are responsible for what they do. We are products of circumstances that determine what we do. That’s why I think capital punishment’s an outrage.”

Williams was a playwright and not a logician, but still: If people aren’t responsible for what they do, then that includes those administering capital punishment. So if one is a determinist, then it makes no sense to be outraged by capital punishment. One has to believe that circumstances lead some people to be murderers and rapists and others to be executioners.

Of course one can reply that circumstances have conditioned one to be outraged by the death penalty, but one would also have to grant equal status to those conditioned to be in favor of it.

The general point: Environmental determinism undercuts any value judgments.

Side note: Item 53 says that Anton Chekhov was a major influence on Williams, Chekhov being “a literary sensibility to which I felt a very close affinity.” That makes sense, given that Williams represents a further position on the spectrum of human pessimism and despair. I’m reminded of Professor Nina Baym’s summary of Williams’s work: williams-streetcar

“We are less concerned over contemporary criticisms of Williams’s plays for their violence and their obsession with sexuality, which in some of the later work was regarded by some critics as an almost morbid preoccupation with ‘perversion’ — murder, rape, drugs, incest, nymphomania. We now know that the shriller voices making such accusations were attacking Williams for his homosexuality, which, we must remember, could not be publicly spoken of in this country until comparatively recently. These topics, however, also figure as instances of his deeper subject, the themes of desire and loneliness. As he said in an interview, ‘Desire is rooted in a longing for companionship, a release from the loneliness that haunts every individual.’ Loneliness and desire propel his characters into extreme behavior, no doubt, but such behavior literally dramatizes the plight that Williams saw as universal.” (Nina Baym et al. eds., The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 3rd edition, 1989, p. 2148.)

Note the descriptors of Williams’s universe: violence, obsession, morbid, perversion, murder, rape, drugs, incest, nymphomania, loneliness, plight, and so on.

2 thoughts on “Tennessee Williams on the death penalty

  • August 1, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    1. There is an interesting OPERA of STREETCAR with music by Andre Previn, not entirely without passion or charm. Previn suggests that, by the use of New Orleans jazz idiom, that some of the pathos comes from the slummy side of the city, and, perhaps, its musical lassitude.
    2. Let’s not forget that Williams wrote some delightful comedies. My best experience is the movie of NIGHT OF THE IGUANA with Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, and Deborah Kerr. Down and out people having a laugh, and a drink. It may be that Williams works best on the cinema screen, but he could hardly have gotten there without a theatrical power.
    3. The despair of hopelessness of love is possibly inherent with Williams’ homosexuality. Love between men, I think, cannot be physically expressed. Yet, love it is, as in King David’s lament over Jonathan, “thy love gave me more joy than that from women,” and that’s no “gay” lover weeping. At my 50th prep school reunion I spoke with my former roommate, gone queer, and he sighed and himself lamented that he’d not found love…but would keep looking. I feel he’s seeking an escape from love in the “right fellow.” The overpowering female figures (even though they be fragile) abound in Williams’ work (ROSE TATTOO, written for Anna Magnani, no shrinking Eye-talian violet). All the homosexuals I’ve met share that fate : domineering mother, spineless or vagrant father.
    4. CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF seems to express the fear some men have over a sexually hungry (as in cat’s caterwauling on a fence at midnight) and physically irresistible woman, errr…Liz Taylor, anyone? Brick and Skipper (his departed friend) are obvious homosexuals in the play. In the movie, Brick’s failing is expressed in a broken leg (jock no more), conflict with his father (retreat to the bottle), an older brother who married a “brood sow” (fertility, okay, but quantity over quality). The father figure is terminally ill and finds out on his birthday.
    5. Williams somewhat fits Edith Hamilton’s (THE GREEK WAY) dictum that “only a poet can write tragedy.” (See that work on tragedy as a genre, you won’t find better commentary). He concocts some beautiful phrases and his lines are carefully composed. Indeed, the dramas are always interwoven with many philosophical, legal, and religious threads. Loyalty — man to man — like Damon and Pythias, is a foremost bulwark for Williams. This gives Williams’ work a sense of hope, unlike Chekov’s.

    If the personae dramatis cannot find love, it does not mean love is within their reach…somewhere.

  • August 1, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    EMEND : [last line] s/r “does not mean love is not within their reach…somewhere.’

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