Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Blow Out Your Candles, Laura

Because I often gravitate toward intellectual-type writers (I'm looking at you, Tom Stoppard) who flamboyantly display their wit, their craftsmanship, their insider knowledge of theatrical tricks, I can underestimate writers who aren't so overtly clever. Not always--I mean, I am in perpetual awe of how Chekhov creates such moving effects by such subtle means--but, for instance, I had tended to underestimate Tennessee Williams' skills as a craftsman. His plays seemed governed by lyricism, poetry, and emotion that sometimes slops into melodrama--not by any kind of formal rigor.

But Williams' works have endured for a reason, and when I saw a production of The Glass Menagerie last year, I finally realized that wow, he really knew what he was doing.

First, I have to applaud Williams' instinct that the final scene of the play needs to take place in candlelight--that the emotional spell it casts is too fragile and tender to withstand the harsh light of electricity. (Ha, and in Streetcar Named Desire there's the scene where Mitch rips down the paper lampshade and subjects Blanche to the bare glaring bulb... Tennessee are you repeating yourself?) This is a subtle, atmospheric kind of thing, and many playwrights wouldn't be aware of it. They'd say "This scene isn't working, I don't know why," and never figure out that it's because it's lit the wrong way.

Then the decision to include candlelight ripples out in multiple directions. By the end of the play, the candles become metaphoric instead of just physical, leading up to that unforgettable penultimate line, "Blow out your candles, Laura--for today the world is lit by lightning!" Candlelight as flickering and fragile and old-fashioned, dreamlike, easily snuffed out.

But in order to include the candles in the first place, there needs to be some kind of justification that the audience will accept. It would be too blatant a contrivance to say "Oops, there's been an inexplicable power outage on the night that Laura will receive her Gentleman Caller! Break out the candles!"

So, just as the scene is beginning, Tom tells Jim, casually, that he's been neglecting to pay his family's bills, in order to stash some money away for himself and eventually use it to leave home. To a large extent, this is a set-up to justify the family's electricity being cut off that night. But when Tom first says this line, it doesn't register as a set-up, because it also works so well to reveal his character. Perhaps for the first time, we understand just how deep Tom's frustration goes, and how thoughtlessly he can behave toward his mother and sister in order to achieve his own ends. He becomes less likable but more complex. And so this also sets up the feeling of guilt that hangs over the older Tom, the narrator--because now we've seen him do something that he really should feel guilty about.

So the whole thing functions on multiple levels. And when the power does go out...and the candles are lit...and everything clicks into place, you just have to admit that Tennessee Williams is a master craftsman, always a couple steps ahead of the audience, lighting the way.

1 comment:

katty said...
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