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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Tennessee Williams and the White Body


TENNESSEE WILLIAMS AND THE WHITE BODY

Excessive attention to the black body in America is a bit of a crisis for those who believe the white body is the peak of human evolution.  The sense of alarm is not trivial.  Have you noticed, of late, that a disproportionate number of white female bodies do not conform to the universal standards of beauty?  It is a crisis making its way to being a tragedy "when many women past forty or even thirty have boobs like a couple of mules hanging their heads over the top rail of a fence."  The quoted words did not spew from the mouth of Donald Trump.  They come from dialogue assigned to Celeste Delacroix Griffin, one of "a pair of old bitches" in the 1966 play The Mutilated by Tennessee Williams.  A great American dramatist and paragon of pan-sexuality, Williams earned his place in American theatre history by writing such remarkable  plays as The Glass Menagerie,  A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Suddenly Last Summer.  All of these focus from one angle or another on the white female body as a prized object.  Well, Laura's disability in The Glass Menagerie may make her slightly less of a prize; not all of Williams' female characters could win blue ribbons at the county fair.

Williams' obsession with the white female body reaches a climax in The Mutilated.  The play is vintage New Orleans  in its subject matter, its setting in the sleazy  Silver Dollar Hotel on South Rampart Street and in the exquisitely cruel language the unrepentant trollop  Celeste uses to torture and manipulate her  rich "friend" Trinket Dugan, who is by her own admission a mutilated woman.  That Trinket has had a mastectomy is the great secret that Celeste threatens to expose to the world.  The no-nonsense reckoning with the problem of mutilation comes from Slim, the drunken sailor Trinket finally gets up enough nerve to seduce: "You being mutilated is your own business except it's a stinking trick to take a fellow to bed without letting him know he's going to bed with someone mutilated."  It's a stinking trick for the white female body not to announce that it lacks some of its parts.  Slim's reckoning is very American, very male.  In everyday life,  American males, until recently, could only deal with the white female body between two stops: either the body was a virgin to be worshipped or it was a canine to be violated to achieve phallic pleasures and confirmation of male power.  Pleasure and power shrivel when they have to deal with the grotesque.

It will be a revelation of the contemporary state of  white male and female minds when audiences see the revival of The Mutilated at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans, November 19-21, 2015. The play is actually about human cruelty and mental anguish in the lower depths of the Crescent City in the 1940s (I suspect), but it brings to the foreground how inadequately American society and the academic world has dealt with the white female body, feminists notwithstanding.  The brutal honesty Tennessee Williams brings to the subject of the body in pain is most often in a state of arrested development.  The Mutilated negates undue preoccupations with and envy of the black body and necessitates dealing with what the white body might actually be and what Donald Trump is talking about.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.     August 16, 2015

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