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Damaged and Dangerous

A view of women in modern American drama with reference to Sophie Treadwell’s “Machinal” and Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire”.

The “mad bad” woman has been a prevalent force in many literary and theatrical works; indeed the concept of the damaged and dangerous female works as a canon for the author or playwright to explore issues relating to the feminine condition; issues that perhaps are taboo in nature, or create unpopular opinion.

The dysfunctional female works both on a dramatic and political level; by exposing the causes and social factors that work accumulatively as combining forces to create the “damaged female”; we are creating a didactic understanding of woman fighting to survive in a patriarchal infrastructure. In this way the female character becomes a revolutionary or a rebel, merely reacting to oppression or persecution accordingly.

Of course there is also the matter of dramatic intent, a female character that does

not adhere to the “normal” restraints of womanhood is a far more interesting concept, far richer in emotional depth than a two dimensional often male view of what “woman” is. So again in a dramatic sense the “dangerous” female can be a symbol of rebellion. Whether indeed then Sophie Treadwell’s and Tennessee Williams’ female characters are damaged and dangerous is testament to the constraints of both the era and society that they are a part of. Gillbert and Gubar’s first volume in their critique of modernist works, “The War of Words”, describes the madwoman figure of nineteenth-century women’s texts who escapes from the attic to take center stage in a number of works by twentieth-century women writers. Linked with militant feminism and violence against the patriarchy, Gilberts and Gubar’s madwoman embodies female anger and anxiety over male dominance and most importantly the power to resist the formidable pressure to conform to male prescribed roles.1

What we have in these two plays, are innate differences in form; ‘Machinal’ is an expressionistic non-realist play, whereas “A Streetcar Named Desire” is much more traditional in form; Williams writes in the realms of realism. But both plays address women as the product of their environment. In Sophie Treadwell’s play “Machinal”, first written in 1928, the main female protagonist is forced into a loveless marriage through lack of choice. For if she turns down her bosses offer of marriage, then surely she will lose her job; which in turn will leave her unable to provide for her Mother. It is this feeling of feminine societal constriction that forces the “young woman” into a desperate action; the murder of her husband. Similarities can be found of this within Tennessee Williams play also. Blanche Dubois finds herself alone, trying to support herself on the wages of a school teacher, attempting to retain the family home “Belle Reve”, from being lost. It is the pressure of death, debt, poverty and loneliness that creates the flawed and unstable dimensions in the character of Blanche. Incidentally, it is the sins of the forefathers and their frittering away of the family inheritance that underlies the eventual loss of “Belle Reve”, not Blanches misdemeanours.

Although both plays differ in form, some of the techniques are similar.

The steady progression of events that act cataclysmically to bring about the downfall of both characters. It is the cause and effect that both Treadwell and Williams highlight as intrinsic to the emotional and mental makeup of both female characters. In fact if indeed these female characters are damaged, it is the patriarchal infrastructure that is both the damager and perhaps by proxy the dangerous too. We see this danger in the characterisation of Stanley Kowalski; his machismos, his brutality, his plunder of Blanche’s metal fragility and indeed her physical sexuality. Stanley takes the Napoleonic code a step further; for what belongs to his wife belongs also to him, including it seems the care, or rather the destruction of Blanche. Stanley is the embodiment of a Neolithic patriarch and it is Blanche’s descent into madness that is exacerbated by this.

We can draw parallels with this in “Machinal”, for isn’t the young woman also a commodity of an automated, mechanical male society? The young woman’s episodic declination into “dangerous” behaviour is signalled by her confinement;

which is produced by Treadwell’s use of structure and language. The young woman is a prisoner in a male dominated “cage” that encloses her. The act of murder then, becomes seemingly an act of self defence, of feminine defiance against a system that is claustrophobic for the female spirit. Treadwell encapsulates this in both the language and physical characterisation of the young woman. The lack of breath, the claustrophobia, the loss of appetite, the gagging, she is literally suffocating.

Both Sophie Treadwell and Tennessee Williams are interested in the female story. Treadwell worked as a journalist and based her play loosely on an actual murder case involving a woman called Ruth Snyder and her lover Judd Gray. Treadwell was interested in how the press demonised Ruth Snyder; Snyder was the epitome of the dangerous woman, more dangerous in fact than her male counterpart. The marginalization of women then is a theme that is apparent in Treadwell’s and Williams work. Treadwell was also interested in the institution of marriage and how perhaps it can be a negative union for the woman, borne out of necessity rather than love. Williams though a male writer seems to understand and sympathise with the female story. Williams as a homosexual in the early part of the twentieth century perhaps understands woman as being on the periphery of a male dominated society.

For is not Blanche Dubois merely looking for social acceptance? This approval can never be gained by Blanche though, as she does not fit into what is assumed by society to be a “proper” woman. It is Stanley Kowalski’s unearthing of her sordid past and the consequences of this denouement that enables Blanche to take final refuge in insanity. Williams’ character is prohibited from taking on the “good” female mantel, perhaps we can conclude from this then that the playwright is symbolising the female position within a patriarchal society. The dangerous female, the damaged female has no legitimate place within the confines of what is seen as the social order. Both characters are institutionalised, Blanche to a mental hospital and the young woman to jail and finally to the electric chair.

Williams’ plays were imbued with his own personal story; in fact the theme of madness was an issue that was extremely close to home. Tennessee Williams’ sister Rose had been forced into a mental institute, where she then was lobotomised with the consent of their mother. Williams was to be ridden with guilt over his absence at home the day the decision had been made and never forgave his mother. In fact Williams’ mother’s decision was rooted in her wish to “keep up appearances”. In Blanche Dubois character then we see a dichotomy, we have the mother and the sister. The faded southern belle which represents Williams’ mother, set against mental instability; Williams’ sister Rose.

The terms “damaged and dangerous” then and whether this applies to the female characters in these two works. “Machinal “we are informed by Treadwell is the story of an ordinary woman. Treadwell makes it clear that there is nothing particularly special about this young woman, we are not given a name, she is cast generically in this play, she could be you or I, this is the point Treadwell is making, that all women have the capacity for the action of murder given the right conditions.

The play opens with the frenetic sounds of the office, the automated talk and responses of the workplace, the monotonous cacophony of typewriters, adding machines, buzzers and telephone bells. From the opening conversation regarding the young woman we glean that the young woman is late and she lives alone with her mother. When she finally arrives she is bombarded with the staccato office conversation, the young woman seems distant, she gives the reason for her lateness; she cannot breath. From the outset of this play we can see the young woman is unhappy; both at work and at home. The language of the play is not realistic and the young woman’s speeches seem to be a stream of consciousness, in this way Treadwell allows us to explore the inner workings of this woman’s mind. The young woman is torn, she understands the confines of her sex, she must get married, she recognizes that all women marry. But she already feels trapped by a decision she feels she has to make wrought out of survival and not love. Episode One ends in a frenzy of contradictory language as Mrs George H. Jones she can rest, but she will have to pay the price for she will have to endure a man who makes her cringe at his very touch. Here Treadwell exposes the pressures for women and their effect and the ways, in which these pressures can manifest, here we see the damage beginning; this is further piqued by her mother’s lack of understanding. The young woman reaches out to her mother for advice, comfort and understanding; Sophie Treadwell’s young woman wants love, she wants to believe in love, her mother merely reinforces the view of woman as a commodity. In this scene Treadwell brings to light the instability of the young woman’s mental state, borne out of a need to escape what she sees as a inevitable; her marriage to George H Jones. In this scene she threatens to kill her mother. For an ordinary woman, I must say that Sophie Treadwell’s character is, perhaps not so ordinary, she seems to me hyper-sensitive, other world almost, she floats above the action or indeed the actions of every day life go on before her she is merely swept along with the tide of events.

Sophie Treadwell’s woman is indeed damaged then and she proves also to be dangerous; in her act of murder against her husband. What is interesting then, is that as the reader you do not feel that she is dangerous, her act proves her to be so, but her general persona is that of the victim rather than the perpetrator. Treadwell’s young woman becomes a martyr to a society that can only institutionalise or inevitably kill her.

The character of Blanche Dubois is different in theme perhaps, but like Treadwell’s young woman Blanche is also aware of what women “should” behave like and this is what is most interesting about Blanches character. The juxtaposition between what is and what seems. Seemingly Blanche presents herself in a superior way; there is no doubt that class is heavily accented in this play. Blanche is literary, she is of good family, she is well mannered and follows certain social etiquette, but on the other hand she drinks, she has had numerous sexual liaisons, her past is a salubrious affair. But like “Machinal” we have a sense that life has been the deciding factor on Blanches behaviour, this is shown poignantly in her speech to Stella;

Blanche: I, I,took the blows in my face and my body!

All of those deaths! The long parade to the graveyard!

Father, mother! Margaret, that dreadful way! So big

With it, it couldn”t be put in a coffin! But had to be

burned like rubbish! You just came home in time for the

funerals, Stella. And funerals are pretty compared to

deaths. Funerals are quiet, but deaths – not always.

Sometimes their breathing is hoarse, and sometimes it

rattles, and sometimes they even cry out to you, “Don”t

let me go.’ Even the old, sometimes, say, “Don”t let me

go.’ As if you were able to stop them! But funerals are

quiet, with pretty flowers. And, oh, what gorgeous boxes

they pack them away in! Unless you were there at the

bed when they cried out, “Hold me!” you’d never suspect

there was the struggle for breath and bleeding. You didn’t

dream, but I saw! Saw! Saw! And now you sit there

telling me with your eyes that I let the place go!’

I think these female characters are damaged, as result of the restrictions and social confines that women had to endure, and to some extent still do.

But again what makes these female characters interesting dramatic emblems is their ability to highlight not necessarily the finest positive points of the female condition. For then that gives no room to explore the issues that relate to female bondage, or to challenge the notions of correct female behaviour. These female protagonists remain in our psyche for this very reason, these kind of “damaged and dangerous” characters challenge our views, pervade our thinking and provide a new order for concepts of femininity.

Pg 102. Schlueter Modern American Drama: The Female Canon (1990) Associated University presses

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