The Theatricalization of belief in Tennessee Williams's "Thank You, Kind Spirit".
"Thank You, Kind Spirit" belongs to the sub-genre of seance plays, e.g., Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, David Mamet's The Shawl, and Williams's own Will Mr. Merriwether Return from Memphis? (first published in 1997). Set in New Orleans at the "far end of Chartres Street in the Vieux Carre," "Thank You" tracks a group of believers and skeptics who visit a Creole spiritualist, the octoroon Mother DuClos, "a small grizzled woman with a hunched back, robed in white like an angel. A little white, frilled cap is on her head " (145). An ersatz chapel, her little "crib-like room" overflows with Williams's trademark symbols--"an altar with multitudes of prayer candles in little pearly white, pink and green glasses ... [a] wall covered with religious pictures ... Innumerable little crosses and plaster saints are stuck about the room ... [with] bunches of artificial roses and lilies" (145). Roses and "soft religious light" adorn The Glass Menagerie as well as The Rose Tattoo where Serafina delle Rose, like Mother, worships at a homemade shrine, but pays special homage to the Virgin Mary. Mother DuClos, whose name suggests an enclosure or a small house near a croft, welcomes all those searching for spiritual help. "On five crude benches are seated a dozen people, ranging from a girl of eight to a man of eighty" (145). Williams's opening stage direction, then, sets the scene, introduces key symbols, and differentiates characters at the seance by gender, age, and race.
But even more ambitious than Williams's other early short plays, "Thank You" raises postmodern questions about performance, identity, and memory that Williams's autobiographical Something Cloudy, Something Clear (1981) would answer 40 years later. A few days before writing "Thank You," he actually attended a "spiritualist meeting" in the Quarter, giving him the inspiration for "this little sketch." But, as he told his agent, Audrey Wood, "It did not end so dramatically as here represented but the characters are from life" (Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams, Vol. 1 [New York: New Directions, 2000]: 350). Like a stage magician, Mother puts on a show, or multiple plays, of conflicting desires. Her chapel becomes a performance space, where various plot(s) evolve from the service she holds for characters whose desires are uncovered as she reads their bodies as texts. By asking probing questions and then supplying responses from the spirit world, she elicits key information. Mother's petitioners ask about the source of a headache, the whereabouts of a husband "with a whiskery face" (149) who "quit" his wife, about "the drugged-out feeling I have in my legs" (151), or about a cure for a "little afflicted girl" (150). Mother also confronts angry skeptics, especially a loud woman "on the back bench" accusing her of fraud, drunkenness, and lying about a cousin's illness who did not recover as the spiritualist promised. This "unkind presence," according to Mother's spirits, disrupts her from enacting her spiritual script.
Throughout the service, Mother also communicates with the spirit world which instructs her in unheard voices and whispers, enabling her to see a deceased relative "on the other side of the river" as well as discover the "rottenness in the bones that won't come out" of the little girl (151). Though Mother describes the spirits as "delicate" (146), her language evokes the dark side of New Orleans spirituality. Responding to a woman worried that her grandmother was fatter in life than in death, Mother uses a grisly simile worthy of Marie Laveau: "Spirits shred off their fat like a snake sheds off its skin on a barb-wire fence" (146). Ever the performer, she uses religious props, including a bottle of "Lady of Lourdes spring water" for .25 cents (150), and frequently asks for donations--"a dollar, anything you can spare to convince the spirits" (149)--the admission price to her seance/play.
Despite Mother's flaws, sometimes comic like the Lourdes water, Williams's sympathies lay with her. Her detractors, the disgruntled members of her audience including a disguised priest, try to deflect their own bad faith through revenge so heinous that our sympathy for Mother is intensified. The "woman in rear" condemns her as "an ole Voodoo nigger puttin' on make-believe spirits ... in the name of Jesus" (152), and with her associates in villainy strip "the walls ... bare of colored pictures, the candles are all blown out," and they "remove all the religious articles," leading Mother to exclaim, "Leave me my precious Jesus! Please" (155). While their actions suggest "another sort of lynching" ("Introduction" Mister Paradise, xxvii), this public humiliation suggests the sexual (Voodoo), religious (stripping the altar), and psychic (ego destroying) torments that Michel Foucault outlines in his Discipline and Punish (1975). The episode may also trigger Williams's memory of calling his beloved black nurse Ozzie a "nigger," an "incident [that] was burned into his conscience" (Lyle Leverich, Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams [New York: Crown, 1995]: 43). Moreover, Williams often portrayed characters of color as victims of bigotry or symbolic narrators (e.g. "The Last of My Solid Gold Watches") with whom he identified and sympathized. An octoroon, Mother's race becomes a key factor in her performance of identity.
Williams also uses his onomastic magic to discredit the religious hypocrites attacking Mother. The disguised Father Bordelon emerges from Williams's relationship with a tainted former lover--"Eloi Bordelon ... [at whom he] 'raged like a fishwife'" (Leverich 433). For Williams the Bordelon name symbolized a perversion of love and the bad faith that stigmatize the cleric who takes Jesus away from Mother. Another pillager, Regis Vacarro, also hardly bears a flattering name; he was the worst drunk Williams ever knew (Leverich 401). Joining them is a Mrs. Duvenet, a name Williams used in "Auto da Fe" for a young man afraid of coming out of the closet and who believed that even the "air in the Quarter was impure." Punishing himself as well as his mother, Duvenet burned his own house down, killing both of them, certainly no example of sanctity assured by Mother's opposition. Another pillager, Mrs. Veninga, carries "an old name that originated in religious texts such as the Bible or the Quran and often stood for a shortened version of the name based upon a religious phrase such as 'Favored of God'" (www.ancientfaces.com, Aug. 15, 2012). In "Thank You," Mrs. Veninga is surely not a favorite of the deity. Williams's ending redeems Mother as well, taking us beyond stark realism. She accomplishes what Williams would later valorize as a playwright's mission, that is, "Snatching the eternal out of the desperately fleeting is the great magic trick of existence" ("The Timeless World of the Play," New Selected Essays: Where I Live [New York: New Directions, 2009]: 61). Vital to Williams's stage magic, Mother is rescued from the throes of the "desperately fleeting" in a moving conclusion refulgent with Biblical allusions. Fearing that she has lost all, Mother is uplifted by the faith of the little girl, played by a black actor in Tenn in the Quarter, who proclaims: "I believe in the spirits! I still believe in the spirits" (155). The stage direction reads as if Mother is emblematized as the Pieta: "Sobbing but tenderly smiling, the old woman gathers the child in the wing-like arms of her robe" (155). Validating Mother's agency as an intercessor, the little girl may also function symbolically as one of Mother's spirits, or at least her comforter, commencing a new phase in Mother's own spiritual healing. After all, "A little child shall lead them" (Isaiah 11:6). Williams's ending thus empowers Mother's performance/theatre to recoup spiritual vitality. The Turtle Shell production cleverly positioned the old octoroon as the inherent playwright by using "Thank You" as the frame out of which the other four Williams plays on the bill emerged. On stage throughout the entire production, Mother was, according to Byrne Harrison, "aware of the other stories in the five play repertoire as though psychically they appear from the ether. When she [did], the action in her play pauses, and the new play begins" (www.stagebuzz.com/2007/03/review, March 2007).
In "Thank You," Williams experimented with characters who transcended simple stereotypes and whose complexity resulted from theatricalizing their ambiguity. A woman with flaws as well as faith, Mother is both playwright and spiritualist, roles enabling her to work her magic on believing audiences.
Philip C. Kolin, University of Southern Mississippi
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|Author:||Kolin, Philip C.|
|Publication:||Notes on Contemporary Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2014|
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