Tennessee and Papa: my odd couple from Key West

Tennessee TimeThe knockout cultural event of my winter has been the ART production of Tennesee Williams’ first big hit, The Glass Menagerie, from 1944 – with the amazing Cherry Jones as Mama Wingfield and the TV-movie star Zachary Quinto as young Tom, aka Tennessee, who’s desperate to get out of the house and live his life. The play in Cambridge is all compounded now with my first visit to Key West and Ernest Hemingway’s house and reimmersion in the big novels, starting with For Whom The Bell Tolls (1940). I’ve entered a new Hemingway Period in my head, but Tennessee Williams is in there, too – holding his own with Papa around ideas of manhood, masculinity, masculinism and issues that resound in 2013 not least around guns and gun control, drone wars and who we are in the world.

First things first: about both of these men you gotta jump up and cheer the prose mastery of giant American writers of the last mid-century. They keep you gasping. “Yes I have tricks in my pocket. I have things up my sleeve,” says the playwright in the opening moments of The Glass Menagerie. “But I am the opposite of the stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of the truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” Reminded me of Hemingway’s line that the writer’s assignment, his job every day, was to make up “one true sentence.” The flow of language is like Hemingway’s rivers: clear and swiftly moving, embedded with pebbles and boulders, blue in the channels. And it makes your heart pound.

ernie timeSecond thing, of course, is that Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway are iconic opposites in our star culture. Tennessee Tom, originally from Mississippi, was a gay Southerner before you could imagine such a thing, and the stage poet of outcasts. Hairy-chested Hemingway was the doctor’s son from Oak Park, Illinois, recklessly out in the wide world lion-hunting in Africa, hooking giant marlin off Cuba, toting a typewriter in war zones half his life and exulting in all of it.

But then the third thing, for me anyway, watching The Glass Menagerie, is that the contrast turns itself upside down. Hemingway begins to feel like the kinky one, spiraling downward to prove himself as a writer, fighter, fisherman, big-game shooter, hunter and killer — of himself, finally, in 1961. And then in the ART’s Glass Menagerie production that makes the gay subtext almost disappear, you hear Tennessee Williams speaking for every single one of us, I think, trying to pull our grown-up selves out of the webs of family and the broken past.

So I can’t stop thinking about two giant American writers on the “ruin” of manhood, and I’d ask you to join a conversation here – specially if you’ve seen The Glass Menagerie and if you’ve been drawn one way or another to the Hemingway code, his peculiar way with a sentence, his novels, his stories…


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  • What’s the applied meaning of masculinity these days?

    I am black man who teaches middle school. So the operative definition I see a lot of is the commercial one: “whoever doesn’t have, isn’t”. The top rap albums are long commercials for luxury goods my kids will never be able to buy and the situation on the ground is one where the regular Ward Cleaver rules are either used to mock us, or club us into the commercial frame. The kids understand this very early. So, picture The Wire, with the Robb Report as the gospel and that’s what you get.

    Where are you feeling the real demands of manhood in our time, in your life?

    I was/am also a black male single parent. So I’ve always had the view of Ithaca from the home and not the battlefield (they’re really the same, but it takes awhile to realize this. I see the value of rocking the cradle, but I also see why many women are looking elsewhere for fulfillment these days. My friends and I don’t want the Ward Cleaver kit, and the trend on the web is to make men feel silly or childish for not wanting it. Well, we look at what those men got and-Judd Apatow movies aside-find a lot of it a little hollow. And therein lies the rub, it’s not that many men are too immature for the deal, they just know what it is, and have decided to pass.

  • Sean McElroy

    What’s the applied meaning of masculinity these days?

    I don’t know. I’m not masculine, I’m just a human who happens to be male. Still that does make me a practitioner of masculinity whether I like it or not. But a masculinity that can embrace anyone, man, woman, child, and feel their embrace. It’s this latter that brings me into the human flock where the masculine may lead me astray, tilting at windmills, arm wrestling with cosmologists, pushing that rock further up the hill. And you don’t have to be male to tread this particular knotted furrow.

    Where are you feeling the real demands of manhood in our time, in your life?

    The real feeling is in humanhood but again I cannot escape the perch upon which I was formed. These colored feathers are coded for demands not of this bird’s making. But when the other colored birds see a threat, a sultry song may not quite bridge the divide. That’s where these wings take flight or these claws draw tighter to the branch or just get tired of it and succumb. Nobody said a bird’s life would be easy.

  • dave bernard

    So, good to hear you back on terrestial. There’s a bonus in that you serve as a yardstick to compare your work with the advent of the Talk format that evolved almost coincident with your departure from B’dcast. I’ll cut the sermon here because your staff would (appropriately) remove my rant anyway. But to the point, understated manhood is a delicate balance of aesthetics, Psychology, etc, etc, etc. that’s a rarified achievement. As is good radio.

  • Potter

    it’s not that many men are too immature for the deal, they just know what it is, and have decided to pass.

    They couldn’t possibly.

    Regarding ART- we have been disappointed so many times with their productions. Those there were, to be honest, good, were so few and far between that we have ceased to believe anymore and to take a chance. When we have in spite of that- again we were disappointed. The last one to disappoint was a Clifford Odets play “Paradise Lost”.

    Wonderful to hear that The Glass Menagerie was one of the few perhaps that we might be sorry to miss.

    But regarding Tennessee Williams- there you have me! So happy to be reminded that I should get into that volume I have. I always wish instead for a good production. A play should be experienced in the theater with good actors if possible like the recent “Hamlet” from Arts Emerson.

  • Robert Zucchi

    There isn’t much about Williams here, but then his self-concealment, whether arising from nature or necessity (both good bets), frustrates a closer reading of the man. In contrast, Hemingway is so forceful a personality that the man’s life and mishaps sometimes overwhelm his works. Not always to his detriment–if given the choice, I’d rather pore over the fat catalogue of the injuries he dependably suffered than have to reread “Across the River and Into the Trees,” which one wag demolished by insisting that from the title alone, it had to be a book about golf.

    Two handsome men, roughly contemporaries and both writers, otherwise thought to be antipodal to each other but actually very much on the human continuum. Both were shadowed by a family history of mental illness, which in Hemingway’s case included an appalling number of suicides. Both seized on literature as a profession of faith (in themselves, in their gifts) rather than merely a career.

    I don’t think Hemingway’s masculinity was bravado. I note that he remained himself despite being indirectly attacked for rejecting the ordained role of the author as neurasthenic bookworm. (Anyone remember Norman Mailer being chastised on TV by a lady panelist who’d taken offense at his interest in boxing? “But you’re Jewish!”) Similarly with Williams’s characters, who were said to be reenacting heavily disguised, bitchy and impossible gay relationships. Chris Lydon refutes such naff thinking by observing, as I remember it, that what Williams depicted was the chaos that could erupt in family life, and in human connections generally.

    Anyway, It’s hard to transpose into anno 2013 the culture that shaped (and constrained) them a century ago. They were conditioned by, and to some extent had to play to, their era, but in their art and imagination they rang the changes on the themes that still confound us.

  • nother

    My favorite part of being a man is opening a door for a lady. They love when I do it, and I love to do it.

  • Commonwealth

    Sufism teaches that the only real male is God; that the rest of us are all female because we all identify with our physical form which is itself female and God is the One who penetrates the earth with His spark of Life, which gives us our life.

    The feminine is the gentle and kind, the compassionate and the loving. The masculine is the clear and the wise, the truthful and the rigorous. When we are at our best– whether we identify ourselves as either men or women– we are actually a blend of the two aspects of life. God contains both within Himself and so the human Soul does as well.

    It seems to me that Hemingway’s problem was that he tried to over-emphasize the masculine. Williams had the opposite problem: he over-emphasized the feminine. But neither could sustain their exaggerated sensibilities. All of which suggests that what we need in life is a sense of balance.

  • Steve Antinoff

    Forty-four years ago, when I first walked –– late –– into the great Richard DeMartino’s evening class on Religion and Literature (sub-theme Religion, Man and Woman) this chart was written on the board:

    Real Man
    Man’s Man
    Ladies Man

    Great Man

    (And then, under two drawn chalk lines to indicate an ultimate category):

    True Man

    The first words I ever heard the professor speak were: “A great man is not necessarily a true man.” He gave Charles DeGaulle as a case in point.

    The conclusion of Maynard Mack’s essay “The World of Hamlet” ends with these words on manliness:

    “After the graveyard . . . [Hamlet] accepts the world as it is, the world as a duel, in which, whether we know it or not, evil holds the poisoned rapier and the poisoned chalice waits; and in which, if we win at all, it costs not less than everything. I think we understand by the close of Shakespeare’s Hamlet why it is that unlike the other tragic heroes he is given a soldier’s rites upon the stage. For as William Butler Yeats once said, ‘Why should we honor those who die on the field of battle? A man may show just as reckless a courage in entering into the abyss of himself.’ “

    • Commonwealth

      Steve Antinoff,
      Once we knew one another– not well– but through Richard DeMartino. I had once been intrigued by him but found a Sufi Sheikh more truly true; we had a mutual friend, who studied with DeMartino for a time, Barry S. who had come to Temple’s Religion department originally to study with Maury Friedman, the great Buber scholar. I remain in Philadelphia. Where are you?

  • Potter

    I love you Nother!

  • nother

    Love you, Potter! xo

  • Sounds like a new phase has started, for Radio Open Source. Nice to see some regulars…
    Haven’t heard the episode, yet, and I’ve never seen Glass Menagerie. But I may still say that performing masculinity is, thankfully, an increasingly complex thing. In many contexts, it’s quite possible for me to act out, reflect upon, and discuss gender without having to resort to stereotypes or generalizations. It’s been interesting to notice a change in people’s reactions when I talk about my feminism. From bemused shock, it has transformed into knowing nods.

    While performing masculinity has become more freeing, there remains something about the demands of manhood that I still find constraining. Though my upbringing didn’t emphasize it as a key part of maleness, an expectation of competitiveness has accompanied me for much of my life. As I’m almost never driven by competitive urges, I often feel pressure to conform to an idea of manhood to which I don’t correspond. Not that I feel any less male or that people challenge me to be more manly. It has more to do with being given a higher status than I care to have. Several physical characteristics contribute to this, some of which are unrelated to sex and gender.

  • So great to hear you, Chris, over the airwaves again. I have taken to re-reading the American greats lately and on re-reading GLASS MENAGERIE after so many years, and having seen so many productions, and having taught it for years, I find (besides the things you discussed on air) it to be such an elegiac tribute to his sister, Rose. Williams said, “My heroines always express the climate of my interior world at the time in which those characters were created.” (Spoto) I think before us on stage is the memory play of a lonely girl, Laura, whose precious unicorn is broken, her (Rose’s) mind taken with the cut of a knife. Rose, who underwent a lobotomy, as we know, remained Tennessee’s muse, in my view.

    Alas, couldn’t get tickets for the ART production. So pleased you’re back.

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