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"Night, Mistuh Charlie": the Porter ion Tennessee Williams's "The Last of My Solid Gold Watches" and the kairos of negritude.

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS'S ONE-ACT PLAY "The Last of My Solid Gold Watches," included in 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, has been regarded as pretty much of a one-man show. Mr. Charlie Bolton, a seventy-eight-year-old shoe salesman billed as "the last of the Delta drummers,"(1) recounts both his past glories and his present woes in a dangerously encroaching technological world. The criticism on and stage history of the play contribute to the idea of Mr. Charlie's putative centrality. A typical critical response is "A play like 'The Last of My Solid Gold Watches,' which is built around character, may concentrate on the portrayal of Mr. Charlie so that he becomes a rounded personality in a very few pages."(2) In the 1947 Actors' Laboratory Theatre production in Los Angeles, Vincent Price was singled out for his "arresting characterization of the southerner, holding interest through most of the undue length of the writing";(3) eleven years later, Thomas Chalmers was applauded as "the central figure" of Mr. Charlie whom he "superbly played" in David Susskind's Kraft Television Theatre production.(4) While there is no denying that almost all of the events in the play revolve around Mr. Charlie's recollection of them, the ancient drummer is by no means the only character who should command an important share of our attention.

There are two other characters, one a cynical young white salesman (Harper) whose "new world" sales tactics infuriate Mr. Charlie; Harper is a simple foil for Mr. Charlie. And then there is an old black porter who works for the deteriorating Delta hotel where Mr. Charlie holds court. This old porter has all but been erased from critical commentary and theatrical notice of the play. Almost nothing is said about him in analyses of the play, except to note his lowly station. In terms of stage history, Clinton Rosemond, who played the porter in the 1947 Los Angeles production, did not even see his name listed in the playbill for the Actors' Lab production; nor was the actor playing the porter mentioned in the review for the 1958 Susskind production. Barry Davies omits the porter entirely from his sketch of the play included in the British anthology that includes "The Last of My Solid Gold Watches."(5)

On the face of things, the porter is a supernumerary. He has no name, speaks very few lines, and apparently exemplifies the stereotype of blacks in the South, circa 1930. He is subservient to whites, especially Mr. Charlie, and his dialect, mannerisms, and costume reflect his menial status in the black underclass. He is addressed as "Nigger" and suffers the indignities of a condescending racism. Mr. Charlie smugly confesses: "I like the Jews and I'm a friend to the niggers!" (p. 83). Even though the porter has little to say, he is a more solid and significant character than critics have allowed him to be. The porter can gain significance when freed from surface details which subjugate him historically and theatrically. While it can be argued that Mr. Charlie's attitude toward blacks "may reveal some of the unpleasant sides of the old South" (Burgess, p. 180), it does not necessarily follow that Williams is an unmitigated apologist for the ways of that old South. To the contrary, Williams does some fairly revolutionary things through the porter to unsettle white nostalgia and to override and deconstruct historybound stereotypes. The way the porter is presented valorizes a black timeless experience over a white legacy of compressed time.

Unlike Faulkner, Tennessee Williams may not include many black characters in his works but when he does they often appear in strategic places in the script. Black characters are found at the beginning of several major Williams plays as choric figures who frame the play sub species aeternitatis. A number of these black characters serve as their play's timekeepers, providing an alternative view of history and society to the white world that attempts to marginalize them. Opening their respective plays to a timeless world of "Black synesthesia"(6)--the negritude of kairos, or the eternal present, so to speak--are the old conjure man in Battle of Angels, the "Negro woman" who is Eunice's neighbor in A Streetcar Named Desire, and Fly in Sweet Bird of Youth. Each of them incorporates through their dialogue, admittedly brief, a series of references to the continuous flow of time as opposed to a marked present.

The conjure man in Battle of Angels is an "ancient Negro" with "awesome dignity"; he is "small and cadaverous, a wizard-like figure" with a fistful of eternal charms.(7) His oracular presence and chants suggest time past, present, and future--all time. The Negro woman in Streetcar likewise carries a symbol

reflecting the endless flow of time; she "fans herself with a palm leaf fan," suggesting stability through repetitive change. In the British edition of Streetcar,(8) incorporating Williams's most developed use of this black character, the "Negro woman" opens the play with a warning to the sailor (always a figure of travel and change) about staying away from a "clip joint," and adds another admonition: "Don't let them sell you a Blue Moon cocktail or you won't go out on your own feet" (p. 10). Her warnings focus on the ravages of passing time--clip joints, blue moons--directed to the sailor who prefigures the arrival of another traveler in the world, Blanche DuBois. Fly, the black barman in Sweet Bird of Youth, pulls Chance Wayne back into the past as he propels him into the future in his relationship with Heavenly with these words that start the play: "I waited tables in the Grand Ballroom when you used to come to the dances on Saturday night with that real pretty girl you used to dance so good with, Boss Finley's daughter."(9) But ultimately, Fly, like the conjure man and Eunice Hubbell's black neighbor, reminds us of the kairos, the timeless world that Williams associates with many of his black characters. It is Fly who informs Chance that "Yes, suh, it's Easter Sunday," a sacred event memorialized through passing secular time.

It is within this context--one is tempted to say convention--of positioning black characters at the beginning of plays as custodians of timelessness that I want to explore the function of the nameless porter in "The Last of My Solid Gold Watches." But, of course, given the date of this one-act play (1942), Williams seems to have been experimenting with the highly symbolic uses of black characters right from the start of his career. And from that perspective, the porter becomes an important figure not only in "The Last of My Solid Gold Watches" but for what he prefigures in Williams's later works.

Like the black characters described above, the porter helps to frame his play in literal and archetypal ways. By appearing at the very beginning and ending of the play, he brackets "The Last of My Solid Gold Watches" in actual playing time. He opens and closes the door to the stage playing area--Mr. Charlie's hotel room--and thereby controls an audience's (and the other characters') sense of passing stage time. And in doing so, he represents a particular stereotype--the black servant--at a particular time in the South. However, it would be misleading to fix the porter in one specific historic time, that is, the time of the servantholding South. He incorporates the vastly greater sense of timelessness in his role as the archetypical messenger of death whose job it was to transport the souls of mortals from this world into the next. If it is anything, "The Last of My Solid Gold Watches" is a death watch, the record of "anguish of a life that is finished" (Gould, p. 3). The epigraph from Rimbaud's Illumination--"As you go farther, it could only be the end of the world"--alerts us to Mr. Charlie's symbolic dark journey. The "white iron bed with a pink counterpane" (p. 75), which many directors rightly make the focal point on stage,(10) is Mr. Charlie's coffin, his last chariot. In embodying a host of mythological and Biblical messengers of death, the old porter expresses the timelessness of negritude--a black kairos--at odds with the white supremacy of hurried finite time. Williams conflates the characteristics of such messengers as Charon, the Grim Reaper, Eliakim, and the Angel of Death into the porter's role to access the kind of black timelessness central to this play. Mr. Charlie's journey into death is Tennessee Williams's Everyman, in which the ultimate theology is black-inspired.

As Charon, the ferryman on the River Styx, the old porter transports Mr. Charlie from this life into the next. Quite literally, the porter carries the sign and substance of the man himself, Mr. Charlie's travelling salesman's bags, from the hall into his death room. The bags symbolize Mr. Charlie's earthly, waning accomplishments. Tradition required that Charon be paid for his services, and so a coin was placed in the dead passenger's mouth for the ferryman. The stage direction in the first line of "The Last of My Solid Gold Watches" alludes to such a payment: "Mr. Charlie hands the coin to the old Negro" (p. 76), and with a veiled reference to water, Mr. Charlie "fishes in his pocket for another quarter and tosses it" (p. 76). Like Charon the ferryman, too, the porter is associated with water: he "enters with a pitcher of water" (p. 85) for Mr. Charlie shortly before night falls, symbolizing Mr. Charlie's death, and his ultimate transport into eternity.

The old porter's physical appearance and his dramatic function also suggest a Medieval figure of death, the Grim Reaper--death as the harvesting skeleton with scythe in hand. The porter is "thin and toothless and grizzled" (p. 75), and for Mr. Charlie he and his race figure prominently in the demise of the world the old drummer knew. "Well, it's mighty slim pickin's these days. Ev'ry time I come in a town there's less of the old and more of the new and by God, nigguh, this new stand of cotton I see around the Delta's not worth pickin' off th' ground" (p. 76). Expressing his reactions to the staple crop of his old South, Mr. Charlie confides in the porter, whose appearance suggests the blighted crop for Mr. Charlie as he laments old times passing. That crop, like the drummer, must "Go down," orders Mr. Charlie.

But the old porter is not a callous angel of death preying off the old salesman. Williams invests in him an almost sacramental function in the last few lines of the play, using Biblical models. Behind Williams's porter lies the Old Testament guardian of the gates between life and death, Eliakim in Isaiah 22.19. It falls to Eliakim as God's faithful servant to open or shut the gates to the king's palace in Jerusalem. As the king's major-domo, prime minister, Eliakim determined who would have entrance into eternal life and who would not. In his capacity as the gatekeeper, the porter, like Eliakim, is invested with far more authority than a servant would be. The parallels are significant culturally and theologically. By associating the porter with the heavenly palace gatekeeper, Williams radically reverses the historical notion that blacks are to be disenfranchised and thereby unable to affect their or the white race's destiny.

Suggesting the lines of the old Negro spiritual sung by the slaves, the porter has "come for to carry" Mr. Charlie home. The porter is thus a kind angel who helps Mr. Charlie leave this life with a sonorous and dignified "Night, Mistuh Charlie" (p. 85). The black porter thereby invests the older drummer with more dignity than the callously technological white world has. In fact, Mr. Charlie, through the porter, is appropriated into dignity by being assimilated into the porter's theological sphere--the luminous black world of darkness and night. Through his compassionate replies and gentle ushering, the old black porter fulfills the highest Christian promise of quietude and dignity impossible for Mr. Charlie in the white world. As a gentle angel of death, the porter and the black race for Williams ultimately triumph in grace at the very moment the white race is most vulnerable and powerless. To emphasize the point, Williams has the old porter at Mr. Charlie's hotel function just like the other black angel of death who gently attends the old white patrician Gus Hanna at his hour of death (p. 85).

There is no doubt that Tennessee Williams was a strong and continuing advocate of human rights, especially for individuals whom society marginalized or oppressed. His portrait of the old porter in "The Last of My Solid Gold Watches" reflects his sympathetic rapport with blacks, but, as I have argued, this character points to some far more complex and controversial issues for Williams. The old black porter allows Williams to air his views about blacks and the white patriarchal South. Representing the black kairos, or timelessnesss, the porter can offer the racist Mr. Charlie more dignity and grace than can the white world which now spurns him. The theological and social implications behind the premise by which the porter operates have revolutionary implications as well for an understanding of later Williams plays in which black characters appear.

(1)The Last of My Solid Gold Watches," in 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (New York: New Directions, 1949), p. 75.

(2)Charles O. Burgess, Drama: Literature on Stage (New York: Lippincott, 1969), p. 316.

(3)W. E. Oliver, "One-Acters Fine Stage Bill; Jessica Tandy Wins Ovation in Role," Los Angeles Herald-Express, January 16, 1947, B6.

(4)Jack Gould, "TV: Tennessee Williams: Three One-Acters on 'Kraft Theatre' David Susskind's Bow as Producer," New York Times, April 17, 1958, p. 63.

(5)See Roger Mansfield, ed., The Playmakers One (Huddersfield: Schofield, 1976), p. 29.

(6)A term coined by Philip C. Kolin, "Black and Multi-Ethnic Productions of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire," Black American Literature Forum, 25 (1991), 147-181.

(7)Battle of Angels, in The Theatre of Tennessee Williams, Vol. 1 (New York: New Directions, 1970).

(8)A Streetcar Named Desire (London: John Lehman, 1949).

(9)Sweet Bird of Youth, in The Theatre of Tennessee Williams, Vol. 4 (New York: New Directions, 1972).

(10)See, for example, Margo Jones, Theatre-in-the-Round (1951; rpt. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1970), pp. 149-150.
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Author:Kolin, Philip C.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 1994
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