Aristotelian Spectacle Shown Through Beds in the Plays of Tennessee Williams
An extremely specific author, Tennessee Williams is known for his elaborate and in-depth descriptions of sets, costumes, sound, and general staging, often appearing to have the last detail written out in his seemingly endless supply of stage directions. This descriptive style would, at first, make one assume that Williams’s plays do not conform to what Aristotle believed was the proper use of spectacle. According to the latter, spectacle includes all sets, costumes, and things to do with the staging of the show, and is by far the least important element of a proper tragedy, never to drive the plot or provide crucial details that could not be gleaned elsewhere. However, despite the contradiction that might appear to arise as a result of Williams’s copious stage directions, he not only acts within the bounds of Aristotle’s definition of spectacle; he appears to epitomize it. One of the most salient examples of this dynamic is Williams’s use of beds in several of his most famous plays, specifically in The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. In examining this interaction, it is important to note both what the beds do and do not do in their respective roles in the plays. In this way, Williams’s use of beds in The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire is a near perfect example of the way Aristotle believes spectacle should be used in theatre.
Of the six major elements that comprise proper Aristotelian tragedy, spectacle is by far considered to be the least important. In Poetics, Aristotle states that spectacle—which B. R. Rees defines as “the visual aspect of the drama”—is “connected least with the art of poetry,” and that the spectacle should never be the driving force behind the plot (Rees 10, Poetics 13). Aristotle also makes it clear that while “fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means,” the play ought to be able to be only spoken and still arouse such feelings (24). This clearly highlights the fact that in Aristotle’s view of the ideal tragedy, the spectacle should be used as a subsidiary device by the plot. This means that crucial plot points should not be hidden in the spectacle where they must be seen to be understood, as evident by his statement that the play must function equally well if there is no visual aspect at all. Instead, the spectacle should enhance what is already present and powerful, and provide both support and embellishment to the plot. It is in this way that beds in Tennessee Williams’s two plays The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire function as perfect examples of spectacle.
As pieces of the scenery, the beds certainly count as aspects of the spectacle. They are included in the floor plans of each play, and serve as visual aids for the audience and offer the actors a wide range of choices for how to interact with them. Specifically, the two beds that are of most note in each play are, in The Glass Menagerie, the daybed in the center of the living room on which Tom sleeps. In A Streetcar Named Desire, it is located in the bedroom and labeled as “iron bed” in the floor plan, and is also where Stanley rapes Blanche at the end of the show (Streetcar 104). In both cases, the beds each have two key traits that make them the ideal form of spectacle in Aristotelian terms. The first of these is the fact that they are relatively understated. Neither of them are shoved to the very center of the stage according the floor plans, and in the case of Streetcar, the bed is located as far upstage as it can go (104). In The Glass Menagerie, the day bed is located further downstage, but it is also set far closer to stage left and, given that it could not be located in the dining room, is located far enough upstage so as not to be the obvious point of focus (Menagerie 68). In addition, the daybed’s location allows for the actors onstage to interact with it at their leisure, meaning that when attention is fixed on it, that is only a byproduct of the focus given to the characters and plot. This understated nature of these two beds in their floor plans is reflected in productions of the plays.
In an image from article on Walter Schoen’s production of The Glass Menagerie, performed in 2009 at the Saratov Academic Theatre in Saratov, Russia and discussed in a piece by the University of Richmond, the stage is clearly set so that the daybed, as well as the other set pieces, are not so flashy or vital seeming that they draw attention away from the plot or the character, which Aristotle states are the two most important elements of tragedy (U of Richmond, Poetics 11). Correspondingly, in a revival production of A Streetcar Named Desire by the Walnut Street Theatre, located in Philadelphia and also performed in 2009, director Malcolm Black also stays true to Williams’s stage design and, by extension, to the beliefs of Aristotle. In pictures of the production taken by Mark Garvin and published by the Walnut Street Theatre on their website, Black’s staging has the “iron bed” located in the same far upstage region as Williams’s floor plan indicates, and, like Schoen’s Glass Menagerie, the bed is not used in such a way that attention is drawn from the plot or characters (Walnut Street Theatre). In both of these case, the beds in and of themselves do not provide any information that is absolutely essential to the plot that could not be gleaned elsewhere, meaning that the Aristotelian requirement that the spectacle could be removed entirely and the story preserved is fulfilled. An example of this improper use of spectacle with the beds would be if they were located so that they blocked the actors, or were decorated in such an extravagant fashion that the audience would choose to focus on them to the exclusion of the plot. In both of the productions cited above, the beds are set in the same unassuming and practical locations the Williams wrote they should be, and were both very standard looking and not at all attention stealing (coincidentally, they were nearly the exact same light golden-yellow color). In this way, the beds in both Glass Menagerie and Streetcar each possess the first of the two key traits that Aristotle believed were essential for the spectacle: they do not draw attention away from the plot or characters, and did not contain any essential information in their composition that would be lost if the show were down without visuals. They fulfill the second requirement by the fact that while the beds are not absolutely essential to the play, they do provide some amount of either support or embellishment for the plot, as shown by the different ideas they symbolize in their respective stories.
While Aristotle clearly believes that the spectacle of a play should not be essential to the show, he does not state that it ought to be useless or superfluous; rather, he focuses on the fact that the other elements are much more important, and that the spectacle should never take priority. The spectacle does have, he states, “an emotional attraction of its own,” albeit a less artistic or important one (Poetics 13). Thus, in order for the spectacle to be of most use to the show, its attraction must be directly tied to that of the plot, and instead of being an integral piece of the plot, it should instead increase the level of tragedy in a non-essential manner, so that the show may still be performed without visual aid, but when that aid is present, something is gained. This is precisely what the beds in Glass Menagerie and Streetcar accomplish.
In each play, the represent some idea or theme present throughout the show, but only do so by way of the plot and not through any special characteristic of their own. In the case of The Glass Menagerie, the very name of the “daybed” is suggestive. Because it is not even a proper sleeping area, the fact that Tom uses it and does not have his own room represents both his lack of proper privacy and accommodations, as well as the sacrifices that he is making for the family (Menagerie 22). By having Tom’s bed not even be a real one, as well as its being located in the living room, Williams emphasizes an idea that occurs numerous times in the text in such a way that without the bed, the feeling is still communicate, but its presence does add embellishment and additional detail. This dynamic is also visible by the fact that when Tom finally confronts Amanda about all the sacrifices he makes, the stage directions have him sitting on the daybed for most of the rant (23). This is another example of a place where the spectacle is not required for the advancement of the plot, but its inclusion does further the latter. In Streetcar, the bed represents something must more ominous, but equally important to the plot. Given that it is the location where Stanley rapes Blanche, its presence onstage serves as further vindication of his climactic statement that he and Blanche have been heading for this “from the beginning” (Streetcar 94). However, the bed’s continual presence throughout the show is not necessary for this line to be understandable; there is ample evidence in the dialogue throughout the play that tension was building between Blanche and Stanley, and also that Stanley might be the type of man who would do this. Thus, the bed does not usurp the role of the plot and provoke “fear and pity by spectacular means” (Poetics 24). Instead, it continues to support and vindicate elements that exist already. The fact that the final stage direction of this scene states that Stanley “starts towards the bed” also proves this dynamic between spectacle and plot, since the audience can already clearly see what is going to happen through the dialogue and characters, but the additional visual cue by the spectacle aids in this advancement (Streetcar 94). In this way, in both plays, the spectacle does not have any power or meaning in and of itself, but rather is given symbolic value by the nature of the plot.
Thus, in both the case of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams use of beds is a perfect example of how Aristotle believes spectacle ought to be employed: they neither pull attention away from the plots nor provide crucial information by themselves, meaning that were the shows done without a spectacle at all, the absences of the beds would not destroy the plays’ abilities to provoke fear or pity. However, they are not useless, and do serve the plot by adding additional meaning or understanding to ideas that already exist, while still not being fundamentally essential to the show. Thus, Tennessee Williams manages to accomplish a difficult feat in the eyes of Aristotle, and does it with such effectiveness that one almost feels back for the old Athenian, given that he unfortunately could not use Williams’s works as one of his many examples in Poetics.
Aristotle. Poetics. Edited by S. H. Butcher, Mineola, Dover Publications, 1997.
“A Classic American Masterpiece to Celebrate!: A Streetcar Named Desire.” Walnut Street Theatre, edited by Ralph Weeks, www.walnutstreettheatre.org/season/show/a-streetcar-named-desire. Accessed 15 Nov. 2016.
“The Glass Menagerie Professor’s Tennessee Williams Production Wins Big in Russia.” Review of The Glass Menagerie, Saratov Academic Theatre, Saratov. University of Richmond Newsroom, edited by Cynthia Price, U of Richmond, 30 Oct. 2009, news.richmond.edu/features/article/-/162/the-glass-menagerie-professors-tennessee-williams-production-wins-big-in-russia.html. Accessed 15 Nov. 2016.
Rees, B. R. “‘Pathos’ in the ‘Poetics’ of Aristotle.” Cambridge University Press, vol. 19, no. 1, Apr. 1972, pp. 1-11. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/642517. Accessed 15 Nov. 2016.
Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. Acting ed., New York, Dramatists Play Services, 1945
. —. A Streetcar Named Desire. Acting ed., New York, Dramatists Play Services, 1947.
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