New Plays: The Seven Descents of Myrtle

  • Share
  • Read Later

Tennessee Williams is a regional play wright in a far subtler sense than that of merely creating bizarre Southern characters. Until recent decades, the mind of the South had been haunted by the disastrous defeat of the Civil War and by memories of pre-bellum graciousness, leisure and glory. The hab it of viewing human beings as wound ed by life, just as the South was wounded by history, permeates Williams' plays.

From the beginning his characters have been great reminiscers. In The Glass Menagerie Amanda cherishes the "one Sunday afternoon" she entertained "17 gentleman callers." Blanche DuBois reveres the beauty of her father's plantation, Belle Reve. Dying of cancer, Big Daddy recalls his power as king of the Delta. In his earlier plays, Williams would rip apart this Chekhovian mood music with staccato drum bursts of violence. But in recent years he has virtually abandoned violence without discovering a substitute. Drive has succumbed to drift.

Tense Trio. His latest drifting drama The Seven Descents of Myrtle, is middling-quality Williams at about the level of Period of Adjustment. The three characters who constitute the cast are scarcely well adjusted. Lot (Brian Bedford) has come home to the Delta to claim the decayed house and rich land bequeathed to him by his mother. He brings with him his two-day bride, a jittery ex-showgirl named Myrtle (Estelle Parsons), without having told her that they will confront his half brother Chicken (Harry Guardino). He is partially of Negro blood, and has lived in the house and slavishly farmed the land for years.

They make a very odd trio, indeed. Lot is impotent, a transvestite, and facing imminent death from TB. Myrtle is a sometime prostitute, and Chicken is a cut below Neanderthal man. A flood is in the offing, and Chicken gets his nickname from the fact that in a previous flood, he climbed to the roof with a few chickens and subsisted by biting their heads off and drinking their blood. Who will drink whose blood before this latest flood? Chicken is furious at losing the property to Lot's wife, and he has in his wallet a previously signed agreement willing it to him. Lot assigns Myrtle the task of getting that piece of paper and destroying it.

Sleepwalking Tour. The tension should build, but instead it is dissipated. This is partly because the playgoer knows from the first skitterish-tigerish encounter that Chicken and Myrtle are fated to be sexmates. The dialogue is surprisingly colloquial for Williams and lacks the requisite venom or eloquence. Most damagingly of all, the play becomes a sleepwalking tour of the dusty attic of memory. Between coughing bouts, Lot recalls his Oedipalsy life with mother, and Myrtle shuffles through an account of her showgirl days with the Five Hot Shots from Mobile. The actors are uniformly admirable, and Estelle Parsons (Buck Barrow's wife in Bonnie and Clyde) is more than that as she makes of Myrtle a tender, vulnerable woman of tattered gallantry and frail flesh.

As usual, Williams polarizes his males —the sensitive soul and the brutal stud —and the division is as unconvincing as ever. He also preaches his favorite doctrine of physical redemption: "There's nothing in the world that can compare with what's able to happen between a man and a woman."

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2