Analysis of Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending

Orpheus Descending (1957) is set in Two Rivers County, Mississippi. The action takes place in the Torrance Mercantile Store, owned and run by Jabe and Lady Torrance. It is a two-story building with the store in the lower portion and the Torrance living quarters upstairs.

Prologue

The time is late afternoon in late winter or early spring. Dog Hamma and Pee Wee Binnings are in the confectionery, playing pinball. Their wives, Dolly Hamma and Beulah Binnings, set up a buffet table in the store. Dolly and Beulah discuss the severity of Jabe Torrance’s illness. Beulah gossips (and directly addresses the audience) about Lady’s father, Papa Romano, who was a bootlegger during Prohibition. He owned a clandestine wine garden where lovers drank and made love during the dark summer nights. Beulah nostalgically recalls frequenting the wine garden, but she also remembers the night the Ku Klux Klan burned it down because Papa Romano also served African-American clientele. After the Klan set fire to the garden, the fire department refused to put out the flames. Papa Romano burned to death trying to fight the fire single-handedly. Beulah also relates the story of Lady’s wild courtship with David Cutrere. She was devastated when he left her to marry a “society girl,” and that is when she married Jabe, never knowing that he helped start the fire that destroyed the wine garden and killed her father.

Act 1, Scene 1

Carol Cutrere enters the store through the confectionery. She carries a gun and a pint of bourbon. Dolly and Beulah and two townswomen, Eva and Sister Temple, are scandalized by Carol’s presence. Carol’s brother, David, has paid her to stay away from Two Rivers County, and Carol is preparing for her departure. She helps herself to the store’s cash box and several bullet cartridges for her gun. The Conjure Man (Uncle Pleasant) enters. Carol asks to hear his Choctaw cry, and when the loud sound subsides, Valentine Xavier, a handsome young stranger, enters with Vee Talbot. Val is a musician who was passing through town when his car broke down, and Vee is a townsperson who paints her religious “visions.” Carol is immediately drawn to Val; she asks him for a date, but he ignores her offer. Carol recognizes Val from a nightclub in New Orleans; however, he adamantly denies that they were previously introduced.

Lady enters with Jabe, who has just been released from the hospital. He has undergone experimental surgery to remedy cancer. The townswomen converge on him with feigned joy and mock tears. Jabe immediately goes to bed. The women flock around Lady seeking details of Jabe’s impending death. Lady escapes upstairs while the women gossip about the “death sweat” on Jabe. Vee attacks Dolly and Beulah for being corrupt, hosting drinking parties, and playing cards on Sundays. Dolly responds by calling Vee a “professional hypocrite.” Carol tells Val about how she acquired a bad reputation by using her inheritance money on projects for the African-American population. She is forced to leave the store when the gossipers turn their attention to her.

Act 1, Scene 2

A few hours pass, and Val returns to the store in the hope of securing a job. Lady descends the stairs to find him in her store. She asks about his background, and Val asks her nationality. She tells him the story of her immigrant father and the wine garden. Val says that his most prized possession is his guitar. Signed by many famous people, it is the only thing important to him. Lady entertains the idea of hiring Val by quizzing him about shoe sales. Val and Lady have a lengthy exchange about the human condition: People are bought and sold as are cattle, and one is either the buyer or the bought. Lady gives Val money to have dinner at the diner and tells him to report to work the next morning.

Act 2, Scene 1

Several weeks later Lady receives a complaint from a female customer, who claims that Val “got familiar” with her. Lady confronts him, and he decides to quit. She begs him to stay because she has not yet had the chance to get to know him. Val believes no one ever truly knows another person. He talks about his severe loneliness, growing up in the solitary world of Witches Bayou. He was abandoned and forced to care of himself. When he finally made contact with another human being, a young beautiful woman, he thought he had found the meaning of life; however, after he made love to her, he became bored and ran away.

Beulah, Dolly, and a Woman rush into the store to telephone David. Carol is causing a scene after being denied service at the Red Crown Service Station. Beulah urges Lady to refuse to serve Carol if she enters the store. Dolly phones Mr. Dubinsky at the pharmacy, advising him to refuse to serve her as well. In the meantime, Carol has entered the store, and she overhears Dolly’s instructions. Wild-eyed and feverish, Carol sits down while Lady tries to help her. Beulah, Dolly, and the Woman whisper in the background. When Lady realizes that David is on his way to collect his sister, she angrily announces that she will not allow him in her store. Beulah happily gossips that David was Lady’s lover. Lady forces Dolly, Beulah, and the Woman to leave. Carol says she has arrived to deliver a private message to Val. Lady obliges her request for privacy, but she warns Carol that she will have to leave “like a shot from a pistol” when David arrives.

Carol expresses her need for affection to Val. She is wild with passion to touch him. Val responds by exclaiming that she is too fragile: She could not withstand a man’s body on top of her. Carol recognizes the Rolex watch Val is wearing as her cousin’s. Val confesses that he stole the watch, and that at that moment he decided to stop running with the wild nightclub crowd. He advises her to clean up her life as well. Carol warns Val that he is in danger if he remains in Two Rivers County. Carol’s brother arrives in his blue Cadillac, and Lady shouts for Carol, who has collapsed in tears at the table inside the confectionery. David enters, grabs his sister, and walks toward the door. Sharply, Lady orders David to wait. She asks Val for privacy while David tells Carol to wait in the car.

Lady reminds David that he is not welcome in the store. For the first time, she bitterly confesses that she was pregnant with his child the summer he left her to marry a rich, well-established young woman. She admits she had an abortion, and her heart was removed as well. This was also the summer Lady’s father died in a raging fire that consumed the wine garden. She says that they have both been bought and sold in marriage, and he is to blame for their mutually unhappy lives. Lady proudly declares that she was the best thing that ever happened to him. Stunned, David walks toward the door, admitting that she is right. Lady reiterates that under no circumstance is he to enter her store again.

Act 2, Scene 2

Several hours later and at sunset, Vee Talbot takes a painting to the store for Jabe. She discusses her art and her visions with Val. Her husband, Sheriff Talbot, catches Val kissing Vee’s hand, and he becomes suspicious.

Act 2, Scene 3

Val plays his guitar while he and Lady converse about the day’s explosive events: his encounter with Carol and her encounter with David. The sound of chain-gang dogs chasing a convict is heard, and one gunshot is fired. Lady does not want Val to leave, so she offers to let him use the store’s back room as living quarters. While she fetches linens from upstairs, Val takes money from the cash box and leaves with his guitar.

Imogen Stubbs as Lady Torrance/Jonathan Keenan

Act 2, Scene 4

Later that night, Val returns to the store and replaces the money from a large wad of cash. Lady walks down the stairs, accusing him of stealing. He explains that he took less than the amount she owes him and he was very lucky at blackjack. Lady says she left the money in the cash box to test Val’s integrity. Val accuses her of wanting him as her “stud.” Lady vehemently denies any sexual interest in Val but pleads, “No, no, don’t go . . . I need you!!! To live. . . . To go on living!!!” Val exits to the back room, and Lady follows.

Act 3, Scene 1

It is early morning, the Saturday before Easter and the opening of the Torrance confectionery. Lady rushes down the stairs to warn Val that Jabe is about to inspect the inventory. Val frantically dresses as Jabe does not know that Val lives with them. Accompanied by Nurse Porter, Jabe meets Val and peruses the new confectionery. With its trees, arbors, and lights, it reminds Jabe of the “Wop’s” wine garden he burned down. Lady is traumatized by the information that she married the man who killed her father. A Clown enters announcing the gala opening. The Nurse rushes to call Dr. Buchanan as Jabe has started to hemorrhage.

Act 3, Scene 2

At sunset, Vee Talbott enters the store dazed and fumbling. She has experienced a vision of her “Savior” and has been struck blind by the brilliance of his blazing eyes. Val places a compress to soothe her eyes, but at his touch, she is struck again with the eyes of Christ. Violently she falls to her knees, wrapping her arms around his legs. Sheriff Talbott rushes in to apprehend Vee, but she clings to Val. The Sheriff and his posse attack Val for accosting Vee. He demands that Val leave Two Rivers County by sunrise the following morning.

Act 3, Scene 3

Half an hour later, Dolly, Beulah, Eva, and Sister gather in the store to discuss Jabe’s sudden turn for the worse and Lady’s indifferent absence. Lady returns from the beauty salon ready for the gala opening of the confectionery. Carol Cutrere enters looking for Val, followed by the Conjure Man. Dolly and Beulah run out of the store in fear. Dog and Pee Wee remove the Conjure Man from the store. When Val enters, Lady asks him to wear a white waiter’s jacket for the opening, as a means of reinventing the wine garden while Jabe is alive. Val puts on his snakeskin jacket. He has returned to tell Lady that he loves her and will wait for her at the edge of the county. She does not want to leave until Jabe dies, but he has to escape Sheriff Talbot. Nurse Porter argues with Lady, and Lady admits that she is pregnant with Val’s baby. The Nurse leaves to report this news. Fearing for Val’s life, Lady urges him to leave; she will follow him. Now that he knows she is carrying his child, Val refuses to leave her behind.

Jabe descends the stairs with a revolver. Lady shields Val as Jabe fires the gun and shoots her twice. Jabe then runs out of the store calling for help and claiming that Val shot Lady and robbed the store. Lady dies in the confectionery. As Val tries to escape through the confectionery, Sheriff Talbott’s posse rushes into the store. Val is caught (the action happens offstage), and grabbing a blowtorch from the store’s shelf, the posse directs its flames toward Val and the confectionery. Screams are heard, and finally Carol and the Conjure Man enter from the confectionery. The Conjure Man finds Val’s snakeskin jacket and gives it to Carol. Sheriff Talbot tries to prevent Carol from leaving the store. She brushes past him triumphantly, wearing Val’s snakeskin jacket.

COMMENTARY

Orpheus Descending is a revision of Williams’s earlier, first professionally produced work, Battle of Angels. Over a period of 17 years Williams revised this tale of sexual liberation and repression in abigoted rural Southern town. Although much of the play remains the same, this version of the events in Two Rivers County is significantly pared down and the drama is more focused. The most significant alteration is the shift in the principal female character. Myra Torrance transforms from a “retiring Southern housewife” (Brustein, 25) into Lady Torrance, passionate daughter of an Italian immigrant. This change adds dimension to Lady’s isolation and otherness and heightens the sense that she is caught between the “bright angels of sexual freedom and the dark angels of Southern repression” (Brustein, 25). As is Val, she is an outcast in a strange land. She is here more clearly a Eurydicean figure in need of a liberating Orpheus.

In Battle, there is no wine garden, and Myra allows herself to be taken advantage of by the townswomen. Carol Cutrere was Cassandra Whiteside in Battle of Angels, where Williams focuses on her wealth and her mythological namesake. Carol retains Cassandra-like qualities: She prophesies disaster to Val, who ignores her warnings.

Williams cleverly uses the Orpheus myth to depict the South of the 1950s. He changes Val from a poet to a musician, following the story of the ancient lyre player who could charm the gods with his performance. Orpheus’s beloved Eurydice dies of a snakebite soon after their wedding. He is so brokenhearted that he pursues her in the underworld. His lyre playing is so entrancing that Hades and Persephone release Eurydice on the condition that Orpheus not look back at Eurydice until they have left the underworld. Nearing the end of their journey back to the world above, Orpheus accidentally turns and faces his wife. In that moment, she dies a second time. Orpheus withdraws to the mountains, where he lives as a recluse for three years. He shuns the love of women. Bacchic women discover Orpheus in the woods. Enraged by his rejection of women, they tear his body to shreds in their trance.

As does Orpheus, Val encounters death in the character of Jabe, as he holds the key to release Lady from her death/marriage. Orpheus journeys through the underworld for the chance to regain Eurydice, and he makes a simple mistake that costs him everything. Val’s descent is his entrance into the world of this volatile town, which ostracizes prophets and ridicules mystics. Nurse Porter serves as a catalyst similar to the serpent that bit Eurydice: Without her, Lady and Val could have escaped without harm. Lady is ultimately lost in the underworld of the Torrance Mercantile Store, and Val suffers a hideous, violent death in the name of love. He is destroyed by the mob of townspeople who function as the Bacchic women in the Orpheus myth.

CHARACTERS

Binnings, Beulah

Beulah is one of a collection of gossiping, spiteful townswomen who frequent Jabe and Lady Torrance’s store. She is married to Pee Wee Binnings and is Dolly Hamma’s best friend.

Binnings, Pee Wee

Pee Wee is a local townsman in Two Rivers County, Mississippi. He is married to Beulah Binnings and is a member of Sheriff Talbot’s posse.

Clown

He is hired by Lady Torrance to announce the gala opening of her confectionery.

Conjure Man

He is an old African-American man who sells magic charms and serves as a supernatural force in the play. Also known as Uncle Pleasant, the Conjure Man is a reworking of the character the Conjure Man in the play Battle of Angels.

Cutrere, Carol

She is the daughter of the oldest, wealthiest, and most distinguished family in the Delta. Described as “an odd, fugitive beauty,” Carol is a reckless, eccentric aristocrat. Although she has been banned from the town of Two Rivers County, she returns to warn Valentine Xavier that he is in danger. She is a reworking of the character Cassandra Whiteside in the play Battle of Angels.

Cutrere, David

He is Carol Cutrere’s brother and Lady Torrance’s former lover. David abandoned Lady to marry a wealthy socialite. He encounters Lady for the first time in several years when he arrives to collect Carol at the Torrance Mercantile Store. David learns that Lady was pregnant with his child the summer he abandoned her.

Dubinsky, Mr.

Mr. Dubinsky is the pharmacist in Two Rivers County. He takes Lady Torrance sleeping pills in the middle of the night after she phones him.

Hamma, Dolly

Dolly is Dog Hamma’s wife. She is one of the gossiping, spiteful townswomen in Two Rivers County. This gaggle of women includes Vee Talbot, Eva, Sister Temple, and her best friend, Beulah Binnings.

Hamma, Dog

Dog is a member of Sheriff Talbot’s posse and is married to Dolly Hamma. He is a reworking of the character Pee Wee Bland in the play Battle of Angels.

Nurse Porter

Nurse Porter cares for the dying Jabe Torrance in his convalescence after unsuccessful surgery. She is shocked by what she perceives as cold indifference from Jabe’s wife, Lady Torrance. Nurse Porter suspects that Lady is having an affair with the Torrances’ handsome shop clerk, Valentine Xavier. She confirms that Lady has become pregnant, informs Jabe, and serves as the catalyst for the violent ending of the play.

Talbot, Sheriff

Sheriff Talbot is married to Vee Talbot and is a close associate of Jabe Torrance’s. He attacks the Torrances’ shop clerk Valentine Xavier and accuses him of accosting his wife. He is a revision of the character Sheriff Talbot in the play Battle of Angels.

Talbot, Vee

Vee is the tormented wife of Sheriff Talbot. She is a member of a group of gossiping townswomen who frequent Jabe and Lady Torrance’s store. Vee is quite unlike the other women in her circle as she is a passionate painter of some local renown. Vee Talbot is a reworking of the character Vee Talbot in the play Battle of Angels.

Temple, Eva

Eva is Jabe Torrance’s cousin and Sister Temple’s sister. Eva and Sister are two of a group of gossiping, spiteful townswomen who frequent Jabe and Lady Torrance’s store.

Temple, Sister

Sister is Jabe Torrance’s cousin and Eva Temple’s sister. Sister and Eva are two of a collection of gossiping, spiteful townswomen who frequent Jabe and Lady Torrance’s store.

Torrance, Jabe

Jabe is married to Lady and is the owner of the Torrance Mercantile Store in Two Rivers County, Mississippi. A mean and spiteful man, Jabe led the Klu Klux Klan on a raid of Lady’s father’s wine garden. Lady’s father died in the fires they set that night. Jabe is dying of cancer.

Torrance, Lady

An elegant Italian woman, Lady is a troubled beauty who has suffered tragic events in her past. She witnessed the death of her father during a Ku Klux Klan raid when she was a teenager. Unknowingly, she marries the wretched man, Jabe Torrance, who instigated the raid. Lady finds life, passion, and release with her lover, Valentine Xavier. Her character is a reworking of the character Myra Torrance in the play Battle of Angels.

Uncle Pleasant

Uncle Pleasant is an elderly African-American man who sells magic charms and tokens. He is also known as the Conjure Man. Woman She is one of a collection of gossiping, spiteful townswomen in Two Rivers County. She heads the crusade to ostracize Carol Cutrere.

Xavier, Valentine

Val is a handsome young guitar player who drifts into Two Rivers County, Mississippi. Vee Talbot helps him find a job in the Torrance Mercantile Store, which is owned by Jabe and Lady Torrance. The presence of this sexy young stranger creates an uproar in the small repressed community. Val has an affair with Lady, who becomes pregnant. Val is a reworking of the character Valentine Xavier in the play Battle of Angels.

FURTHER READING

Brown, Dennis. Shoptalk: Conversations about Theatre and Film with Twelve Writers, One Producer—and Tennessee Williams’s Mother. New York: Newmarket Press, 1992.
Brustein, Robert. “Robert Brustein on Theatre: Orpheus Condescending.” The New Republic, 30 October 1998, 25–27.
Wallace, Jack E. “The Image of Theatre in Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending.” Modern Drama 27, no. 3 (September 1984): 324–353.



Categories: American Literature, Drama Criticism, Literary Criticism, Literature, Theatre Studies

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