Tennessee Williams spent the last few years of his life writing, revising, rewriting, and reworking a play that would become his final frustrated howl at the world.
And he considered it a comedy.
In fact, Williams subtitled A House Not Meant to Stand “a gothic comedy.” But instead of creepy, stately old castles or Victorian mansions, the gothic environment Williams creates is a Faulknerian, dilapidated-glory-of-the-South sadness embodied by a ramshackle house that leaks through the entire play.
“The dilapidation of this house is a metaphor for society,’ Williams writes in his opening stage description, throwing subtly to the storm that rages outside the house. “It is as if the panicky disarray and imminent collapse of society were translated into this stage setting.”
Worse yet, in Williams’s opinion, the audience/reader is complicit in society’s demise. “[W]e, that participate in it and are an audience to it, are rightly appalled by this ‘see-through,'” he says.
Having made his intentions clear at the outset, Williams then constructs a ferocious but flawed play that creates levels of engagement for the audience/reader. The play itself becomes easier and less-easier to see.
Parts of the set are obscured then revealed through scrims (a type of fabric curtain that can be lit in different ways to make the fabric transparent or opaque). The storm raging outside causes power outages that plunge the action into darkness. Key scenes take place outdoors, putting the action offstage and out of the audience’s sight.
But in the most obvious attempt at underscoring the audience’s complicity in society’s disintegration, Williams frequently has his characters directly address the audience. In The Glass Menagerie, for instance, Williams uses the technique as a crucial conceit for character revelation. In House, the technique is far less successful, coming across as polemic ranting in the cheap guise of Brechtian disengagement.
The deteriorating house mirrors the family that lives in it just as the storm outside mirrors the storm inside. Cornelius and Bella McCorkle have just returned from the funeral of their eldest son, a gay man Cornelius had driven from the home years earlier. The parallels between Williams and his own father, also named Cornelius, are unmistakable to those who know Williams’s personal story.
Cornelius tries to wrangle from his wife the location of a secret stash of money she’d inherited from her dying grandfather decades earlier. Bella, who experiences mild dementia but who’s also disarmingly crazy like a fox, resists. Cornelius threatens to have Bella “put away.” The couple’s youngest son, Charlie, a ne’er-do-well who can’t keep a job and who has brought his pregnant, holy-rolling girlfriend home with him, tries to defend his mother.
The play’s main themes—sanity and dementia, sexuality, family, and time—wash through the story like waves: just as one crests, the next one washes up, then the next. Williams’s subtle craftsmanship in that regard creates an excellent internal rhythm to the play, which starts soft and slow and builds momentum as it goes.
When the play works, it almost achieves the strength of Williams’s most enduring writing. But then one of the characters will start ranting to the audience—even just a line or two—and the spell snaps. Not only do the rants seem like heavy-handed attempts by Williams to say, “We should all be worried about this particular social travesty,” they rob from the play its sense of timelessness. For a play that’s very much about time, such a shortfall is particularly noteworthy.
Fortunately, even with its flaws, A House Not Meant to Stand does still stand after all these years despite the fact that it has never before been available in print. Editor Thomas Keith has painstakingly assembled an excellent edition for New Directions that is now finally available, twenty-six years after the play was produced in its final form. Keith’s introduction provides excellent analysis of the play and sets the play in its proper context in the Williams canon.
The forward by Gregory Mosher, the director who originally helped Williams develop the play from a one-act into its final, full-length form, provides a fascinating glimpse into Williams’s creative process. By that time, William’s fame had long-since peaked and the playwright was struggling to prove that he was still relevant.
Williams had no way to know House would be his last chance to howl his relevancy to the world. Nine months after House premiered, Williams would die in a New York hotel room.
While A House Not Meant to Stand might not be a comedy in the traditional sense (although there are some legitimately funny lines), the play has a gentility, and Bella has a sympathy, that makes the script a worthwhile read. House might not stand among William’s greatest literary achievements, but it certainly makes for a thoughtful curtain-call.