Tennessee Williams' play "Orpheus descending" - an analysis

Term Paper, 2006

16 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Tennessee Williams’ „Orpheus Descending“

The play “Orpheus Descending” was first presented on Broadway in 1957 where it only had a short run with modest success; it was almost universally condemned by critics. The play is a rewrite of an earlier play by Williams called “Battle of Angels”. In 1940 the Theatre Guild had produced “Battle of Angels” in Boston but it had been very poorly received. The play was withdrawn after Boston’s “Watch and Ward Society”[1] had banned it. The reason for this lay within the explosive topics it deals with such as racism, (suppressed) sexuality, adultery, corruption and murder. Even tough Williams rewrote his play several times and worked on it for 17 years,[2] “Orpheus Descending” too, was harshly criticized and widely considered a failure.

Nevertheless, the play has been made into a movie twice: The first movie version was titled “The Fugitive Kind” (1959) and directed by Sidney Lumet and Tennessee Williams himself. Starring actors were Marlon Brando, Joanne Woodward and Anna Magnani. The second movie version is a TV production from 1990 and bears the name of the play “Orpheus Descending”. It is directed by British theatre and film director Peter Hall, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Kevin Anderson.

Tennessee Williams drama “Orpheus Descending” involves a lot of aspects that can also be discovered in his more popular plays. To get a better grasp of the play and its interpretation I will concentrate in my thesis on these selected aspects:

1. the plot
2. time and place (in the play)
3. the main characters of the play
4. symbolism, the Orpheus legend
5. style
6. summary and interpretation

1. The play is set in a dry goods store in a small Southern-American town. Into this scene steps Val Xavier, a young man with a guitar, a snakeskin jacket, a questionable past, and the appeal of a “warm-blooded”[3] fellow. He gets a job in the store which is run by a woman named Lady, whose elderly husband, Jabe Torrance, is dying. Lady has a past and passions of her own. She is drawn to Val and the freedom he represents. However, she is by far not the only one who fancies Val and the men in town become jealous of the handsome stranger who doesn’t fit into small-town society. Carol – the town’s “crazy woman” – discovers a soul mate[4] in Val, who is, like herself more of an animal than of a small-town person (Val: “My temperature’s always a couple degrees above normal the same as a dog’s, it’s normal for me the same as it is for a dog …”[5] ) Val rejects her but she still cares for him and is afraid that staying in the little town might not do him good.

Val and Lady start having an affair, both knowing that this is more than risky. Lady gets pregnant but when her husband Jabe is near to dying it seems that she’ll soon be free. However, no happy end is near when Lady finds out that her own husband murdered her father years ago for making businesses with blacks. Lady realizes that she can’t stay in her hometown anymore. As she tries to leave together with Val, her husband discovers her plan. He attempts to shoot Val but accidentally kills his wife instead who immediately dies. Jabe convinces the people in town that Val committed a robbery during which he killed Lady, and the men in town lynch Val as a result.

2. The play is set in the early 1950’s in a small American town in the South. The time in the play mirrors trends in American culture at that period of time: The American generation is traumatized by the Great Depression and World War II. It has created a culture with emphasis on conformity and the strong belief in order. However, juvenile delinquency is said to be at an all-time high level in the United States in the 50s. African-Americans were still subject to racial segregation. In the play white authority figures such as Sheriff Talbott and Jabe Torrance refer to black people as “niggers”[6]. Carol tells Val that she protested against the execution of a black man named Willie McGee, who “was sent to the chair for having improper relations with a white whore”[7] This was an actual case in 1945 in Mississippi.[8] At court McGee’s defence had pointed out that he had been intimate with the woman that had claimed to be raped for several years and that she only accused him because he tried to break off the relationship. However, McGee was executed. As no white man ever was executed for rape in Mississippi, many people claimed that the judges decision was influenced by the fact that a lot of people in the South were simply against any relationships between blacks and whites.

Among the whites Christianity enjoyed broader popularity again and organizations such as Youth for Christ (1943) and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (1950) were founded. Society was conservative, especially in the so-called Bible Belt in the South. Sexual relationships were only approved in a marriage. In the play the women in town gossip about Lady because she had an affair with David Cutrere before she married Jabe.[9]

Small-town life in the play „Orpheus descending“ does not differ much from life in smaller towns anywhere else in the world and even at other times: the people in town know each other, rumours spread immediately, people are rather narrow-minded and sceptical towards everything and everyone they do not know. Small-town society in the play is marked by conformity, sexual frustration, narrowness, and racism. The town community is rather reserved towards the life outside of town, in particular life in the cities where life-style is regarded to be criminal, depraved and immoral. Even Lady is critical towards Val: “If I took on help, I couldn’t hire no stranger with a – snakeskin jacket and a guitar … and that runs a temperature as high as a dog’s!”[10]. However, this view of the outside world from the inside world of the town is not objective and shows rather self-deception than critical self-reflection.

3. The play involves 21 characters but the focus is on the gently evolving affair between Lady Torrance and Val Xavier. Therefore it is essential for any further interpretation to take a look at their characters first: Val is 30 years old and a man with an eventful past life. He bears the nickname “Snakeskin” because during his “wild times” he was always wearing a snakeskin jacket[11]. Val has been a wanderer who has enjoyed easy living, gambling and women. However, he has sworn off his wild ways and is searching for a new perspective in life; he wants to settle down and to do something steady. He is honest[12] and willing to leave his past behind. Val is “manly” and of animal attraction to half the women in town. However, he is not interested in affairs anymore. Val refers to his guitar as his “life companion”[13] ; and he treats his guitar with tenderness as the stage directions suggest: “He holds his guitar with a specially tender concentration, and strikes a soft chord on it.”[14] His music calms him down when he is angry and gives him hope when he is hopeless (“It washes me clean like water when anything unclean has touched me…”[15] ) – and it also opens the heart of women who hear him play: “I’d love to hold something, with such – tender protection! I’d love to hold you that way, with the same – tender protection![16], Carol tells him.


[1] The Watch and Ward Society was a Boston, Massachusetts organization involved in the censorship of books and the performing arts from the late 19th Century until the middle of the 20th Century.

[2] Williams, Tennessee. Orpheus Descending. In: Four Plays. Signet Classics (Penguin Group, USA). New York et al. 1976. Edition: 1. p. vi

[3] ibid, p. 47

[4] ibid, p. 39

[5] ibid, p. 48

[6] ibid, p. 121

[7] ibid, p. 39

[8] http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,935215-1,00.html (access date: 05/10/2007)

[9] Orpheus descending, p. 14 - p.18

[10] ibid, p. 49

[11] ibid, p. 37

[12] ibid, p. 52

[13] ibid, p. 50

[14] ibid, p. 73

[15] ibid, p. 50

[16] ibid, p. 74

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Tennessee Williams' play "Orpheus descending" - an analysis
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institut für England- und Amerikastudien)
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Tennessee Williams, American Drama, Theater, USA, Theatre, Theaterstück, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
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Katharina Kullmer (Author), 2006, Tennessee Williams' play "Orpheus descending" - an analysis, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/83419


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