For a variety of reasons, then, despite its high-gloss finish, the film did not achieve any real commercial success. This is not to say it was an artistic letdown, as in many ways the tensions inherent in both the movie’s making and its overly revised script gave it a palpable nervous energy. Still, the major performances do not entirely manage to convey the oblique message of Williams’ text and the classical, not to say archetypal, view of human nature undergirding it. And so, to move from the drama backstage to that which was on-screen, it makes sense to turn to a discussion of the Orphic elements that are designedly central to The Fugitive Kind.
* * *
The sense of a story that is not quite finished pervades The Fugitive Kind, the film version of Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending. There are a variety of reasons for this, chief among them being that by the time the movie was released in 1959, the author had been reworking the plot for at least two decades. The tale of four struggling souls in a small bigoted town of the Mississippi Delta had originally appeared as a play called Battle of Angels, which closed in Boston after only 17 performances. Williams did not give up on the drama, however, and a revised version ran a decade later on Broadway, though to only modest success. “Why have I stuck so stubbornly to this play?” Williams asked, in an op-ed piece for the New York Times about it entitled “The Past, the Present, and the Perhaps.” As he answers,
Well, nothing is more precious to anybody than the emotional record of his youth, and you will find the trail of my sleeve-worn heart in this completed play that I now call Orpheus Descending. On its surface it was and still is the tale of a wild-spirited boy who wanders into a conventional community of the South and creates the commotion of a fox in a chicken coop.
But beneath that now familiar surface it is a play about unanswered questions that haunt the hearts of people and the difference between continuing to ask them, a difference represented by the four major antagonists of the play, and the acceptance of prescribed answers that are not answers at all, but expedient adaptations or surrender to a state of quandary.1
The purpose of the present essay is not to examine why the playwright felt compelled – like Orpheus – to look back at this story again and again,2 but instead to explore what impact this apprehensive revision and other external artistic matters have upon the experience of the drama itself. Perhaps it is pretentious to speak of metacinematic analysis, but there is much behind and beyond The Fugitive Kind that we might properly consider Orphic. While it may not ultimately be a success, the failure of the film, like the classical figure on which it is patterned, bears repeated viewing nonetheless.
A little fuller discussion of the plot is in order, however, before we focus on the uses to which the Greek mythological material is put. Marlon Brando plays the film’s protagonist, Val Xavier, a drifter with a snakeskin jacket and a guitar, whose character owes a great deal to Elvis. Leaving New Orleans under personal duress, he has driven as far as his car will take him to arrive in the pouring rain at the unnamed town that is the movie’s setting. Here the sheriff’s wife, Vee Talbott, played by Maureen Stapleton, takes pity on him, and brings him to the dry-goods store in town operated by Lady Torrance and her husband, Jabe, a hateful character who spends most of the movie on his deathbed. Lady – played by Williams’ close friend Anna Magnani (the winner four years earlier of the Oscar for Best Actress in the film version of Williams’ Rose Tattoo) – is the daughter of an Italian immigrant who, years before, had been burned to death in the nightclub he owned, retaliation by the local Klan for serving alcohol to blacks. In her youth, Lady was, as she says, “sold” to her husband, Jabe, himself a member of the party that killed her father, as we will discover later in the film. While Val is in Lady’s store looking for work, the fourth of the struggling souls appears, Carol Cutree (Joanne Woodward) perhaps the film’s most lost character. A daughter of the town’s leading family, she has suffered ridicule and abuse for her civil rights activity; she has consequently given in to profligacy and been banned from the town.
As the story proceeds, Val’s presence leavens Lady’s despair, and she undertakes to open a nightclub of her own, like her father’s, in the “confectionary” attached to the five-and-dime. Indeed, as her husband draws closer to death, she wants it to open that very day, so as to celebrate her release from his grip and a newfound sense of life. In the end, however, the villainous Jabe rises from his bed and takes all hope from her, and like the Grim Reaper figure he represents, shoots her dead. In the meantime, the sheriff’s men use a blowtorch to burn Val up, a grotesque and pointedly diabolical image of the sort Williams frequently employed.3 The play Orpheus Descending, from which The Fugitive Kind is reworked, “sounds like all of Tennessee Williams,” in theatre historian Donald Costello’s estimation. “That is probably its trouble. It is the most obvious statement of his major theme, and it is jam-packed with his favorite devices,” among which Costello numbers “vivid theatricality of violence and horror,” “light-dark imagery,” “sacramental purification of fire and water,” “artistic visions of sex,” and “as a symbol of hope some pure natural object which has risen above earthly taint.”4 If the play’s baroque symbolism was too much for theater-goers in Boston and Broadway, there was confidence in Hollywood that a star-studded cast under the able direction of Sidney Lumet might be able to rein in its excess for a movie audience.5
Tensions on the set came to mar the final product, however, and Brando in particular never committed himself fully to the part of Val. In fact, his interest in the role had primarily to do with the paycheck he was able to negotiate, the not insubstantial sum of $1 million, the largest contract any actor had thus far ever gotten. “I was divorcing my first wife and needed money,” he writes in his autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me.6 Still more problematic was the relationship between Brando and his leading lady. When he went to meet with Magnani in a Beverly Hills hotel before shooting began, Brando writes that the following encounter ensued:
Without any encouragement from me, she started kissing me with great passion. I tried to be responsive because I knew she was worried about growing older and losing her beauty, and as a matter of kindness I felt I had to return her kisses; to refuse her would have been a terrible insult. But once she got her arms around me, she wouldn’t let go. If I started to pull away, she held on tight and bit my lip, which really hurt. With her teeth gnawing at my lower lip, the two of us locked in an embrace, I was reminded of one of those fatal mating rituals of insects that end when the female administers the coup de grâce. We rocked back and forth as she tried to lead me to the bed. My eyes were wide open, and as I looked at her eyeball-to-eyeball I saw that she was in a frenzy, Attila the Hun in full attack. Finally the pain got so intense that I grabbed her nose and squeezed it as hard as I could, as if I were squeezing a lemon, to push her away. It startled her, and I made my escape.7
Magnani, no doubt, had her own version of these events, but suffice it to say that after such an experience, even performers of this high caliber were going to have trouble evoking the latent chemistry between these Southern Gothic versions of Orpheus and Eurydice.
For a variety of reasons, then, despite its high-gloss finish, the film did not achieve any real commercial success. This is not to say it was an artistic letdown, as in many ways the tensions inherent in both the movie’s making and its overly revised script gave it a palpable nervous energy. Still, the major performances do not entirely manage to convey the oblique message of Williams’ text and the classical, not to say archetypal, view of human nature undergirding it. And so, to move from the drama backstage to that which was on-screen, it makes sense to turn to a discussion of the Orphic elements that are designedly central to The Fugitive Kind. Here it is worth considering the remarks by Jean Kontaxopoulos, who writes by way of background, that
the Orphic myth has repeatedly inspired not only literature but also painting and music, a fact which is clearly explained by the poetical nature of Orpheus and the everlasting symbolic message which approaches all the great philosophical dilemmas: life and death, love and hatred, tolerance and intolerance, conformism and maladjustment, poetry and philistinism, violence and tenderness, freedom and slavery…
Kontaxopoulos goes on to note, however, “Sometimes the modernization of the myth is so far away from the classical one that we could talk about a metamyth or even an absence of myth. Myths, after all, make truths visible we would not ordinarily see.”8
While this sentiment may be somewhat overstated, it is nonetheless true that the sort of one-for-one allegorical correspondence that we might expect between a work called Orpheus Descending and the Virgilian or Ovidian prototypes is largely not to be found. There are a variety of allusions in Orpheus Descending/The Fugitive Kind to the classical myth, but nothing so straightforward that you would call it an adaptation. The myth instead offers a sort of thematic setting for the film, with elements now and again brought forth into the foreground, but indirectly and never in any real programmatic fashion. As Rory B. Egan has aptly noted,
In evolving his own dramatic version of Orpheus he executes a sort of sparagmos on the Orpheus of literary tradition and then reconstitutes him, using all the original bits and pieces but in a different configuration.…9
It seems fairest to say with Egan, then, that the allusions to the classical Orpheus in The Fugitive Kind are not so much worked into the film as scattered through it, as the limbs of the poet were tossed hither and yon by the maddened maenads in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Considered in this way, we may readily identify various motifs. Jabe Torrance can easily be seen as a Hades figure, married to a recalcitrant and resentful woman who, like Persephone, was stolen away from her Italian home. In hopeful anticipation of her own return from the underworld, Lady advertises the opening of the confectionary (timed to coincide with her husband’s demise) by hiring a truck with a calliope to play through town: Williams, of course, knew that Calliope was the mother of Orpheus, and indeed, Brando’s Val is a singer like Orpheus, whose lyre became a constellation, while Val’s guitar is covered with the signatures of blues players whose, as he says, “names are written on the stars.” Viewers of the film will be able to pick out other such motifs without much trouble.
Other allusions to the myth in The Fugitive Kind are more oblique, however. So, for instance, Val wears a snakeskin jacket, and even goes by, or used to go by, the nickname “Snake-skin”; thus do the judge and Carol call him in the opening scenes of the movie, though Val each time indicates his uneasiness with it. This particular name points vaguely to a larger Orphic motif: from Ovid’s Metamorphoses as well as ancient mosaics, we recall that Orpheus was a master of animals, who drew near to him in great numbers to hear the dulcet sounds of his voice. The numerous animal references in Williams’ work generally and in Fugitive Kind specifically – foxes in chicken coops, birds, snakes, and the frequent descriptions in the stage directions of characters being like “wild animals at bay” – tells us something of the playwright’s own Orphic preoccupations. While this is not the place to go into an extended discussion of his employment of animal imagery, it is enough to note their significance in the titles of works like Sweet Bird of Youth, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Night of the Iguana, and of course, The Glass Menagerie.
Concerning snakes, Williams also knew that it was a snakebite in the Orpheus myth that was the cause of Eurydice’s death, and yet it is hard to see what precise significance this imagery serves in the movie. One famous misperception of its meaning proves the point. In David Lynch’s 1990 film Wild at Heart features a character named Sailor, played by Nicolas Cage, who has just been released from prison, like Val in The Fugitive Kind. Sailor is picked up by his girlfriend, Lula (Laura Dern), who brings him his beloved snakeskin jacket. As he tells her, “Did I ever tell you that this here jacket represents a symbol of my individuality, and my belief in personal freedom?” to which she responds rapturously, “About fifty thousand times.”
There is much to appreciate in what Lynch has done here; Sailor’s jacket is a learned reference to The Fugitive Kind, made all the more learned by the fact that – as David Foster Wallace pointed out in a brilliant review of Wild at Heart – Diane Ladd, who plays Laura Dern’s mother in the movie and who, in real life, is Laura Dern’s mother, met and married Laura Dern’s father, Bruce Dern, while the two of them were starring in an off-Broadway revival of (you guessed it) Orpheus Descending, the play written by Diane Ladd’s second cousin, Tennessee Williams.10 But despite this almost Hellenistic network of Mississippi cross-references, Lynch has the snake (or rather the snake’s skin) all wrong, for Williams had employed it not to assert his protagonist’s “individuality” and “personal freedom” but for a different purpose altogether.
At a critical point in The Fugitive Kind, Val reflects on humanity’s inherent loneliness, observing bitterly, “We’re all, all of us, sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for as long as we live on this earth.” Indeed, this image is powerfully rendered in cinematic terms as the film opens: the first shot is of a chain-link holding cell in which we see Brando as Val with his back turned to the camera; off one of his shoulders hangs the jacket. The snakeskin only half encompasses Val, however, and while the rest of his figure is dark and indistinct, it does not convey any suggestion of malice. Indeed, the malice instead is visited upon Val. At the movie’s end, after his gruesome murder at the hands of the sadistic small-town devils, all that is left of the protagonist is his snakeskin jacket, which Carol dons as she makes her own escape from the hellish little town. It is a horrific ending, of course, but in another sense it is hopeful. In a powerful act of symbolic regeneration, Val finally rids of himself of his old identity; since the film’s opening, he has been trapped in his old snakeskin, the symbol of his slavery to an old way of life, and been trying to shed it somehow.
We are sentenced to solitary confinement for as long as we live on this earth, he says; with death, however, it is possible to find release. The question is raised, then, of the afterlife, beyond the reach of fire, devils, and serpents. If, in putting it this way, certain biblical themes come to mind – of sin, redemption, and release – they are evidently intentional on the part of the playwright, who is tapping into a deep tradition of Christianizing the classical figure, along the lines of the medieval Ovide Moralisé: Val should be understood in this sense, then, as “Orpheus Christus Mississippiensis,” as Egan has entitled his study of this drama.11 Viewed in this context, the theme of descent and return, death and resurrection find a “pure natural object” (to use Costello’s term) in the figure of the snake, as imagined in both the biblical and pagan traditions. The Christian context of the drama is more submerged in the film than in the play from which it is drawn; it is specified in Orpheus Descending, for instance, that the events takes place over the Easter weekend, and numerous other Christian motifs can be detected.12
Still further in the background, there are the roots of Val’s musical nature to be considered. As John Uecker, one of Williams’ personal assistants, wrote me about a plausible backstory for Val, “Also the church songs are very important to this character. Did he at some point receive music training at a church?”13 The suggestion is not without basis. While Brando does not sing in the movie – for good reason I suspect, although I like his Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls, personally – he does strum, according to the stage directions in Orpheus Descending, some chords from a hymn Williams wrote called “Heavenly Grass”:
Then my feet come down to walk on earth,
And my mother cried when she give me birth.
Now my feet walk far and my feet walk fast,
But they still got an itch for heavenly grass.
The sense of descent in this hymn is a point on which Egan comments aptly:
Val Xavier, the singer of Heavenly Grass, is not only Orpheus but Christ as well, and the same song conveys images of the redemptive descent of Christ, not only from earth to hell, but from heaven to earth.…14
In the film, we never do hear these words from Val, so this sense of Orpheus’ descent remains unarticulated. Yet the insight here makes a connection to still another critical animal image in Fugitive Kind, that of the legless bird, although it is only a passing connection. About a third of the way through the film, Val is telling Lady his belief that “there’s just two kinds of people, the ones that are bought and the buyers.” He then imagines that there is one other category, “the kind that’s never been branded,” and in response to Lady’s dismissal, delivers the movie’s key speech:
There’s a kind of bird that don’t have any legs so it can’t light on nothing so it has to spend its whole life on its wings in the air. I seen one once. It died and fell to earth. And its body was light-blue colored and it was just as tiny as your little finger, and it was so light in the palm of your hand that it didn’t weigh more than a feather, and its wings spread out that wide and you could see right through them. That’s why the hawks don’t catch them, ’cuz they don’t see them. They don’t see them way up in that high blue sky near the sun.
Lady: What about in gray weather?
Val: Well, they fly so high in gray weather that the hawks would get dizzy. See, these little birds don’t have no legs at all and they live their whole lives on the wing, and they sleep on the wind. That’s what they do, they just spread their wings out and go to sleep on the wind. And they only light on this earth but one time, that’s when they die.
It is a beautiful image, but an arcane one. The bird Val is describing here seems ultimately to be the mythical cypselus apus, a type of swallow described by Aristotle in the Historia Animalium (9.30). In its more immediate dramatic context, Nancy M. Tischler has written that William’s “imagery of the legless bird is a fitting symbol of the artist who rejects the solid grounding in reality. The flight ends only with death.”15 Yet these points do not get us very far in understanding the bird’s significance to the drama.
But it may be that the meaning of the legless bird is best revealed in its filming. The intricate cinematography that director Lumet’s cameraman Boris Kaufman employs in this scene serves to emphasize the play’s light-dark imagery, with the store in the background fading slowly to black simultaneously as the spotlight on Val’s face increases in intensity. It was a difficult shot, made far more so by Brando’s trouble with the lines. Lumet writes about the filming of this scene in his memoir, Making Movies:
Marlon had told me about some personal troubles he was having at the time. I suddenly realized that there was a direct connection between his troubles and the line he couldn’t remember. We tried again. He stopped. I went up to him and said that if he wanted, we could break until tomorrow, but I didn’t want this block to build up overnight. I thought we should bull through it no matter how long it took. Marlon agreed. Take 12. Take 18. It was getting embarrassing. Magnani, the crew, all of us were in agony for him.…
Finally, on Take 34, two and a half hours after we started, he did it all. And beautifully. I almost wept with relief.…
What Brando’s troubles were at the time are not hard to imagine, if we recall the broken marriage, the subsequent custody battle, the financial difficulties, and of course the uncomfortable working relationship with Anna Magnani. Yet, for all those distractions, Brando’s soliloquy about “a bird that don’t have any legs” is without a doubt the film’s finest moment, perhaps because in it one senses the close proximity of the film’s failures to its successes.
There are bits and pieces throughout The Fugitive Kind that work, and others that do not, and often for the exact same reasons. There is Brando’s colossal faltering here with his lines, his near paralysis in the face of personal anxieties, out of which somehow he manages to produce the movie’s best part. There are the Academy Award-winning actresses who, neither of them, really capture their characters, although their futility conveys precisely the blightedness of their respective situations. There is Lumet’s handling of the screenplay, which, for all its explosiveness, fails to engage, and so perfectly renders the desperate small-town environment. And, of course, there is the playwright’s own evidently tireless reworking of the story, the strained relationship to the mythological source material to which it consciously alludes, and his elaboration of strangely beautiful and yet not quite comprehensible imagery. The snakeskin jacket is almost too meaningful, pointing in any number of directions – toward Genesis, Ovid, and David Lynch – while the legless bird, despite its central place in the film’s tangle of symbols, is almost too obscure to make out. Val has seen it, once, but it is hard to know who else might be able to do likewise.
Despite the protestations of how much his guitar means to him, in the end, the hero never really plays his instrument. The bird may land only once, but it is never heard to sing. The play may well be the emotional record of Tennessee Williams’ youth, out of which he fashioned some of midcentury America’s most enduring drama, but here the artist, in perhaps his most Orphic moment, spectacularly fails to achieve his end. Like Brando in the film’s opening, his symbolic snakeskin is only partially in evidence. There is a story, told by a not-so-reliable source, that Williams attended a sneak preview of The Fugitive Kind at New York’s RKO Theater. The screening did not fare well. Quite a few members of the audience walked out, while others remained behind only to boo. Someone spotted Tennessee fleeing the theater afterwards and began to hiss at him. Other patrons soon joined in. How else could Tennessee have responded to this rejection, but in kind? As he is later reported to have said, “I just hissed back.”16
* * *
Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the DVD of the film.
- Originally published March 17, 1957; reprinted in Tennessee Williams, Selected Essays: Where I Live, ed. John S. Bak (New York: New Directions, 2009), 80. [↩]
- For a fuller treatment of the relationship of the play and film, see Maurice Yacowar, Tennessee Williams and Film (New York: Ungar Film Library, 1977), 60-66. [↩]
- See in general John M. Clum, “The Sacrificial Stud and the Fugitive Female in Suddenly Last Summer, Orpheus Descending, and Sweet Bird of Youth,” in The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams, ed. Matthew C. Roudané (Cambridge, UK–New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997). [↩]
- Donald P. Costello, “Tennessee Williams’ Fugitive Kind,” in Tennessee Williams: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Stephen S. Stanton (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1977), 107. [↩]
- In contrast with Elia Kazan, whose handling of Williams’ dramas had been stormy but successful, Lumet was famous for a more technical formality. “He is a master of complex working situations, of limited time and space, of plot intrigue, of real-life settings and natural drama,” writes film critic David Thomson on the Criterion website. “Fantasy, expressionism, the deliberate splash of poetry are seldom felt in his pictures; it’s easy to see in hindsight that people lost in love are not his favorite subject.” http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1449-the-fugitive-kind-when-sidney-went-to-tennessee [↩]
- Marlon Brando and Robert Lindsey, Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me (New York: Random House, 1994), 260. [↩]
- Brando and Lindsey, 262. [↩]
- Jean Kontaxopoulos, “Orpheus Introspecting: Tennessee Williams and Jean Cocteau,” Tennessee Williams Annual Review 4 (2001), http://www.tennesseewilliamsstudies.org/journal/work.php?ID=36 [↩]
- Rory B. Egan, “Orpheus Christus Mississippiensis: Tennessee Williams’s Xavier in Hell,” Classical and Modern Literature 14 (1993) 82. Egan refers numerous times to W. K. C. Guthrie’s seminal work Orpheus and Greek Religion (1935), although he notes, “it would be foolish and futile to be dogmatic about the precise source of inspiration for Williams’s use of a particular element from the Orpheus tradition.” (73). [↩]
- “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” reprinted in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (Boston: Little, Brown, 1998). [↩]
- The standard treatment to be consulted is Sister Charles Murray, Rebirth and Afterlife: A Study of the Transmutation of Some Pagan Imagery in Early Christian Funerary Art, B.A.R. International Series 100 (Oxford, 1981), especially chapter 2, “The Christian Orpheus,” 37-63. [↩]
- Egan 64-69 provides an exhaustive list. [↩]
- Personal communication, September 12, 2012. [↩]
- Egan 90 [↩]
- Nancy M. Tischler, “The Romantic Textures in Tennessee Williams’s Plays and Short Stories,” in Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Tennessee Williams, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2007), 60. [↩]
- Darwin Porter, Brando Unzipped: A Revisionist and Very Private Look at America’s Greatest Actor (Privately printed: Blood Moon Productions, 2006), 568. [↩]