The Eccentricities of a Nightingale

October 20, 2016

Tennessee Williams most consistently is a playwright that does not direct the audience toward any landing point. His plots start, and they end, with the continuity between the points being the travails and tempestuousness of, marvelously, the ordinary human life. It is to say, we can see Mr. Williams as an egalitarian, demonstrating that the common man, and not the special, nor the elite, nor the rarefied crust of a society, has as much truth to their daily bread as those strata commonly found to be investigated by a Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde. Perhaps we might suppose that the latter two playwrights had to force their hand to investigate subjects quite separated and comfortably so from the basest and determinate struggles, which is that of plain survival.


By survival, I mean of people working and working hard to feed themselves and clothe their children which uncontrollably are spawned out of the nature of sexual reproduction’s tyranny on the animal kingdom. Perhaps it is when a Mr. Williams enters onto the stage with his pen strokes, he is witnessing an epoch, a quite novel one in fact, wherein the common man now has as much leisure time as the wealthy classes, who perennially, immemorially in the playwright’s mind, have been subjected to drama because they actually had the time for such antics. No, this is not a condemnation of the medium itself, though certainly we can appreciate the epic writing, the mythological fusion, of the ancient Greek playwrights, who were actually transcribing a transcendent admixture with humanity, to thereby be pedagogical. Instead, the lives of the ordinary have become more interesting, more diversified, more complicated, than simply trying to make ends meet; and this is what Mr. Williams seeks to dramatically capture.


Drama itself, as a manifold of storytelling and of art, is here to transfer to the human audience a perspective on reality otherwise imperceptible and deductively extraneous if not transcendent to their experience; and hopefully, if the aim was true, the audience is left with a newfound impression on the reality which they inhabit, which is constantly inundated with social antics and the tangled webs of deception woven; but if the drama does not aspire to
pierce the social web, to rise above the canopy of the jungle, we must leave the theatre with disappointment. All to commonly, then, this is the verdict. The playwright is simply content with playing with dolls, live action figurines – and no doubt the intrinsic actor is happy just for the opportunity to imagine bringing such characters to life. The actor, in other words, is satisfied any which way the playwright guides the story; and how common the audience, too, is satiated with being mesmerized of such masterful craftiness of actors doing what they were born to do: which is bringing fiction to life.


True, character-studies as dramatic subjects exist, and The Eccentricities of a Nightingale is therefore a paragon example; whereby the character does not serve the story, but the story serves the character. And once more, this is Williams’ forte. He takes an ordinary story, a universal one at that, exhibited recurrently by the female sex, and is able to make the subject matter compelling, without melodrama. Here, we are witness to the constant tug-of-war society has on the female. How she is sentenced to conformity, lest she be ostracized and left, even in a time of material abundance, as a pitiful pariah, because the social convention did not accept her uniqueness. Or in this case, her eccentricities.


Alma, the female character in question, enjoys being uninhibited. She sings without a concern for how her mannerisms, being outside of normalcy, are viewed anxiously by the rest of society. And paradoxically, she is more openly castigated by her own father than by any outsider to her face. I say paradoxically, because it is counter-intuitive to think of men as being so sensitive to decorum; clearly, however, the play demonstrates the strong movement arm of women in deciding the direction of what are acceptable social standards in Little John’s – the man Alma is infatuated with – mother. The mother privately has the son aspire to climb the social ranks of society. To marry “up”, finding a pretty girl in the East, eschewing the likes of an Alma, the daughter of a preacher who is contemplating appealing to receive an early pension. Little John has it all, and his mother knows it. Yet it is amusing her parental guidance is an incognizant selfish desire for herself to continue the striving she plotted while younger, marrying “Big John” the doctor, perhaps a rank in society higher than herself, yet mildly disappointed with where she finished climbing. She wants a piece of that Eastern society and preaches as much to her son, who himself appears completely apathetic yet reasonably content with the plan.


This whole racket of a game, though, is tiresome. Which is why Little John enjoys the time out Alma provides, who herself appears incognizant to how to play the game; she doesn’t even bother to, which is unfeminine, and the point of the whole story. She doesn’t aspire to be beautiful, she doesn’t aspire to conform; yet simultaneously she is saddened with the fact that Little John will runaway to the East and marry someone who is up to the standards of his family (or ultimately his mother). Alma is at odds then, of being independent yet suffering the consequences of it. And while the subject matter is heavily feminine, men too can appreciate this tension, in becoming one’s own, while straddling the demands of convention. A man, at least in Alma’s day, could be eccentric, yet still be valuable to society.


Nikola Tesla is alegendary example. In contrast, a woman’s sole value as a participating member of society in reinforcing and contributing to culture has been in the proper upbringing of human beings, including the facilitation of proper morals, i.e. standards, to live by. Alma can continue to sing, but in choosing a path of independence, she is sealing her fate of spinsterhood. This is something we indeed as the audience feel are uncertain of; it is in her eyesight’s horizon; after all, she has an open affection for Little John, so she must feel the desire to conform, and face the music of her alternative path. We only know of her self-directed fate at the epilogue of the play. And this epilogue merely suggests she would rather live a lie, of fantasizing recurrently about an infatuation she had with a man she realistically would never be able to land, then to deal with the cold hard facts of life and of her society.


This, in its variegations in human life, exists as a universal condition: of confronting a world which does not correspond to one’s ideals. It is uncanny how frequently an ideal, when pummeled by truth, instead of adapting to the terms and conditions, is indignantly held steadfast, even at the consequences of harming the individual who holds it to be a truth and meaning for its sustenance. However, we do not taste any of Alma’s bitterness with how the
world and her life winds up. There is a moment of clarity, so to speak, where she nervously confesses the ludicrousness of her fantasy, of her desire of Little John while acknowledging its unlikelihood given the conditions of their society, and ultimately the disparate quality of Little John and her quality as measured by society.
But she makes a compromise with the world; the momentary bliss she is able to capture, she lives with indefinitely. Is her deal with the devil worth the price? Or is it more appropriate for a woman, or any human, to come to terms with the world, and learn to thrive within it, rather than force, until blunted, an idea of how the world ought to be, while gaining nothing in the process and instead self-destructing? I affirm then that Alma would rather dream, wish, distort the world so she can forever pretend to revisit the small taste of John she had.


Should we pity such a person and her decision? Yet we can empathize with the struggle to be, and the necessary ingredient of making an effort to anticipate, to dream, of what can be. This is a proper idealism; conversely it is a form of solipsism, which Alma ultimately decides to inhabit for the rest of her life; abandoning her singing and growing old forever addicted to a dream. Instead of changing the dream, and perfecting it, she chose to be arrested to it forever.


Tennessee Williams then, in capturing the life of an ordinary woman, does allow us to perceive through her own struggles, an educational lesson on how to be human. This, therefore, is the proper aim of a character-study. The sacred and transcendent does not need to be touched to still reveal a transcendent truth about the world, found within its most interesting creation: mankind.



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