A House Not Meant to Stand by Tennessee Williams

  During the time Williams began writing the earliest version of this play, the one-act Some Problems for the Moose Lodge, a new conservative movement, later misnamed “The Moral Majority,” was becoming vocal in America. In response politicians from Carter to Bush, Sr. declared themselves “born-again.” Williams’s choice to make Stacey what he calls “a born-again Christian,” and one of the most outrageous characters in the play may have been his not so subtle comment on this faith-on-the-sleeve trend in public life. Stacey’s “holy-roller” fit in the second act is a riotous kind of madness, yet the appellation of born-again Christian is a misnomer; as Stacey speaks in tongues and rolls on the floor she acts out a parody of a Pentecostal. Stacey, the outsider, is sensitive to the viciousness in the McCorkle house. Despite the dogma associated with her faith, she displays genuine empathy for the late Chips, going so far as to fondly describe gay men she has known—an annoyance to Cornelius and a comfort to Bella.

  A comedy. Williams’s notes, drafts and many revisions on House during 1980, 1981, and 1982 reveal his search for a core theme. A master of play titles, Williams’s prospective titles for House offer clues to how his thinking evolved. The title of the original one-act, Some Problems for the Moose Lodge, was plainly chosen for comic effect. In the next draft, The Dancie Money, Williams shifted his focus by introducing Cornelius’ interest in Bella’s moonshine inheritance. Our Lady of Pascagoola embodies both Williams’s vision of Bella’s boundless love as well as her comic potential. Other titles—The Legendary Bequest of [a] Moonshine Dancer, Laundry Hung on the Moon, and For Tatters of a Mortal Dress—also position Bella as the central figure of the play. Cornelius dominates the prospective titles, Being Addressed by a Fool, A House Not Meant to Last Longer than the Owner, and What Odds are Offered by the Greek in Vegas?, which reflect his fear of mortality and his ambitions, financial and political. Still other draft titles—The Disposition of the Remains, Terrible Details (A Gothic Comedy) and Putting Them Away—contemplate the sad lives of the McCorkle children. The Disposition of the Remains (a double entendre on the disposition of “living” remains), places the focus on Cornelius’ indifference and Bella’s agony regarding Chips’ death. Putting Them Away and The Terrible Details can refer to both Chip’s interment and Joanie’s confinement in a mental ward, and could also suggest the threat of institutionalization to Emerson and Bella. Williams chose A House Not Meant to Stand for the title of the second Goodman production and did not change it again. Not such a funny title.


  Parallels are frequently drawn between Williams’s characters and the population of his own life—sometimes explicitly intended by the playwright as in his frankly autobiographical works Vieux Carré and Something Cloudy, Something Clear. Keeping in mind the shades of Tennessee Williams’s father found in Big Daddy from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Boss Finley from Sweet Bird of Youth, and Charlie Colton from The Last of My Solid Gold Watches, there has never been another character like Cornelius in the Williams canon who so clearly stands for Williams’s own father, also named Cornelius. Aspects of Williams’s brother Dakin are also present in Cornelius—pointedly, his failed aspirations for political office. The three McCorkle children, a gay son, a straight son, and a mentally disturbed daughter, can be easily equated with Tom, Dakin and Rose Williams. Bella and Cornelius McCorkle are a natural parallel to Williams’s parents, Edwina and Cornelius—a married couple perpetually at war. But more curiously in Cornelius and Bella McCorkle and in Emerson and Jessie Sykes one can find Williams himself. It seems he found a repository in A House Not Meant to Stand for his fears about illness and death, for his frustrations with growing old, and possibly for some of his failures and his follies. Williams’s experiences as he aged are evident in each of these characters: Cornelius’ aggression toward his family and deep sense of failure; Bella’s weight and health troubles and her desperate need to recover love lost; Emerson’s betrayal by his wife and his best friend; Jessie’s fixation with youth and sex. By the late 1970s Williams had the osteoarthritis Cornelius complains of, his heart and weight problems, not to mention his smoking and drinking, and he got along with a daily battery of pills, including Cornelius’ cotazyme and Donnatal. Cornelius, Emerson and Bella spill enough bottles of pills on the stage to create a potential hazard for the actors. In A House Not Meant to Stand Williams was able to integrate his overwhelming feelings about aging and health in a way audiences might empathize with, or at least share a laugh about.

  When Cornelius McCorkle responds to a description of his dead gay son Chips as “the handsomest boy at Pascagoula High” by saying he was actually “the prettiest girl at Pascagoula High,” it is a potent connection to the real Cornelius Williams. It may have satisfied Williams to put that scorn on stage to garner a few groans, rather than solicit pity for the son. Instead, the father becomes the one to be pitied, not the gay sons—neither the fictional one who moved away and died, nor Williams himself. In the gallery of Williams’s leading male characters, Cornelius is an ornery buffoon without precedent. The absent father of The Glass Menagerie works neatly as an off-stage antagonist, and it is quite possible that Williams’s relationship with his father was too messy in the 1940s for him to have even considered rendering the father as anything but absent. Nearly forty years later, Williams felt comfortable enough in A House Not Meant to Stand to draw this father as a comic menace rather than the intensely difficult figure he was in Williams’s childhood. By 1982 Williams had come to better terms with his father (who died in 1957) and would have been inclined to portray a man he understood himself to be more like than he had ever realized in his youth. As he expressed in his superb 1960 essay “The Man In The Overstuffed Chair”: “I almost feel as if I am sitting in the overstuffed chair where he sat, exiled from those I should love and those that ought to love me.”

  In an unfinished early draft from 1981, when Williams first began writing the full-length version of the play, he writes of Bella and Cornelius as:

  “The woman—whom I want you to love—and her husband—whom I want you to understand as much as you are able . . .”

  Williams could just as easily have been talking about himself instead of the two characters: “. . . as much as you are able . . .” is the key. Williams’s recognized his own weaknesses—he had been dramatizing them for decades—but in the dozen years after his release from the psychiatric ward of Barnes Hospital, he gradually began to make peace with some of his demons, and it seems he hoped the public would make peace with them as well.

  In another draft fragment, tentatively titled Our Lady Of Pascagoola, Williams describes Bella this way:

  “Bella should be presented as a grotesque but heart-breaking Pieta. She all but senselessly broods over the play as an abstraction of human love and compassion—and tragedy . . .

  Her entrances and exits, especially while Charlie is with her, should be somewhat formalized. He conducts her on and he conducts her off: a ceremonial effect.

  Whenever she appears the play is suspended as all turn to regard her as if she were indeed an unearthly apparition. Despite the great accretion of flesh, there is a quality of grace and loveliness about her . . .”

  Perhaps Hannah from The Night of the Iguana most closely corresponds to Bella in her compassion and gentleness. In one important aspect Bella also bears a strong affinity to the first and foremost Tennessee Williams former Southern belle and mother figure, Amanda Wingfield from The Glass Menagerie: they are both women obsessed with the past and unable to function in the present without relying on their memories. However, that is where the similarity ends—if anything, Bella could be dubbed the “anti-Amanda,” or her counterpoint. Created over thirty-five years later, Bella shares none of Amanda’s particular survivor skills, assertiveness or flirtatiousness. Bella treasures her children, and her love for them is unconditional. Amanda treasures her children, and she places all her own failed dreams and hopes on their shoulders, relentlessly pushing them, mo
stly away from her. Not only is Amanda proud of the beauty she possessed in her youth—as an aging woman she wears her sexuality like a corsage. Not the least concerned with her appearance, Bella overeats and seems to have little or no worry about the excess weight and asthma endangering her health. Amanda’s eccentricities are vivid, overbearing, and often charming—she is the kind of character audiences wait on to hear the next droll thing she will say. Bella’s eccentricities are low-key; she speaks very little and the measured way she moves through her personal fog is almost unnerving. Bella has the ability to snap out of it and make a sober observation, but then, just as quickly, recede into her more common state of what appears to be mild confusion. Though it is probably something closer to devastating awareness: she can’t bear bright lights—the Christmas lights cause her to cry out—she cannot look at her husband or her neighbors most of the time, and she willfully refuses to acknowledge that her oldest son is dead. Although implausible on the surface, Bella’s resolve to reclaim her children is, as it turns out, more achievable than Amanda’s seemingly more realistic goals. In the face of difficult odds, Amanda fights with the world to give her children the life of which she feels they all have been deprived; she plots, she plans, she is cunning and when her most ambitious scheme ends in failure and the departure of her son, she will rise like a phoenix ready to do it all over again. Bella can also be cunning when she needs to be, but unlike Amanda she turns more and more inward; it is from “spirits” that she draws the moment of happiness she has sought so fervently.

  There couldn’t be a much more dramatic contrast between the two Williams characters forged in essentially the same fire. In Bella’s authentic warmth, there is possibly something of Williams’s beloved grandmother, Rose Otte Dakin, who was the most nurturing figure in his childhood. By the time Williams’s mother died in 1980, he had long since distanced himself from her emotionally, but as he developed the character of Bella, the death of his mother, Edwina, could not have been far from his mind. Amanda was the ultimate dramatic portrait of Edwina, despite her life-long protests to the contrary. Perhaps Bella is in part an echo of the gentleness that Edwina may have possessed but rarely exhibited.

  While the major characters from The Glass Menagerie are augmented or inverted in A House Not Meant to Stand, the domestic settings in the two plays are strikingly similar. Both consist of a living room, a dining room behind an opaque scrim, a kitchen or part of a kitchen, and a staircase or fire escape. Both spaces have a negative effect on the emotional lives of the families living in them, and each of the scrimmed dining areas is used cinematically to gracefully convey elements of character and plot: the meals and preparations in The Glass Menagerie, and Bella’s scenes with Charlie, and her spectral children, in A House Not Meant to Stand. Both sets function as what Williams referred to as “architectural metaphors”—the former standing in for a cage, and the latter the corrosion of the social order. In both cases Williams brought contemporary political and cultural references directly into the atmosphere of the play. In The Glass Menagerie’s opening scene, a sense from the greater world of the 1930s is raised on their St. Louis fire escape by the character of Tom:

  TOM: . . . In Spain there was a revolution. Here there was only shouting and confusion. In Spain there was Guernica. Here there were disturbances of labor, sometimes pretty violent, in otherwise peaceful cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Saint Louis . . .

  In A House Not Meant to Stand, Cornelius decries runaway inflation, rising health insurance costs, corrupt government, a weak economy, imperialist aggression, germ warfare and overpopulation. He also turns to the audience and brings the specter of nuclear destruction right into the house with the other living spooks:

  CORNELIUS: . . . —Sinister these times. —East—West—armed to the teeth. —Nukes and neutrons. —Invested so much in every type of munitions, yes, even in germs, cain’t afford not to use them, fight it out to the death of every human inhabitant of the earth if not the planet’s destruction—opposed by no one . . .

  Williams’s overarching metaphor of decay—the flesh and blood apparitions, greedy and self-serving, in an imminently collapsing house—reflects, as in a funhouse mirror, our world “house” as he saw it in 1982: full of indifference, cruelty, aggression and potential self-annihilation.

  A comedy. The 1982 production of A House Not Meant to Stand was fairly well received by the local critics. Glenna Syse of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, “A meticulous honeycomb of a story, with a gossamer heart and a granite spine. This is a playwright who has shed his tears, but you know there’s a cackle around the next corner.” Richard Christiansen of The Chicago Tribune, who reviewed all three incarnations of House, was encouraging, though he found the play flawed:

  “From its beginnings, Tennessee Williams’s A House Not Meant to Stand has never veered from its powerful original impulse. Then, as now, it is a loud, harsh, bitter pain filled shriek at the degenerative process of life . . . [it is] a play that remains, as in its earlier two workshop versions in the Goodman Studio Theater, a tantalizing and frustrating creation.”

  And, in a comprehensive review of The Miami International Festival of the Arts where the same production of A House Not Meant to Stand ran for a week in June of 1982, even Time magazine weighed in, calling the play, “The best thing Williams has written since Small Craft Warnings.” National media attention was needed to extend the life of A House Not Meant to Stand, or perhaps move it from Chicago to Broadway, but by then it was too late. For over a decade Time, Newsweek, Variety and The New York Times had been reviewing Williams’s late plays on Broadway, off-off Broadway, and regionally. Their reviews evolved from angry hostile disappointment in the late 1960s to resigned uncomfortable pity in the early 1980s. For an artist who considered himself a bohemian poet/playwright to find himself one of the most successful commercial playwrights of his generation—as Williams did in the 1940s and 1950s—was one thing. But during Williams’s lifetime—though quite commonplace today—it was simply unheard of for a commercial playwright of his stature to return to experimentation, or to off-off-Broadway and regional theater. It was more than a demotion: it was inherently a sign of failure. And though Arthur Miller and Edward Albee experienced similar periods of rejection from the critics and the public, each lived long enough to be lauded for his entire body of work.

  Neither an attempt to go back to the kinds of plays that had established Williams’s reputation, nor one of his overtly experimental plays of the later period (such as The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le Monde), A House Not Meant to Stand, stakes its own ground, rather artfully encompassing some of the changes to Williams’s style: like a chef with an array of seasonings from which to choose, Williams mixed techniques he had developed over the years. The impressionistic sets for his commercial plays had now become something closer to hyperrealism. In a feature article on the final Goodman production for the Chicago Tribune, Williams is quoted:

  “Finally, I think the “German expressionist” treatment was right for my material. I hadn’t realized how far I had departed from realism in my writing. I had long since exhausted the so-called “poetic realism.” This, after all, isn’t twenty years ago.”

  Emerson and Stacey swing from unlikely extremes of the cartoonish—like characters from The Gnädges Fräulein or Kirche, Küche, Kinder—to the conventional. Cornelius and Emerson carry on dialogue that verges on the absurd. In spite of the surface familiarity of the domestic setting and its plot elements, A House Not Meant to Stand has the structure of a collage: there is no concern in this play about breaking the fourth wall, about raising themes or introducing characters and then dropping them, or about what time it really is, or whether or not there can be ghosts of living people, or where the wraithlike voices are coming from, or whether or not the “men in the white coats” will actually show up to take someone away in the middle of the night, or how the action can come to a standstill in a Mississippi farce. What was truncate
d or unfinished Beckettian dialogue in The Bar of a Tokyo Hotel or The Two-Character Play becomes, in A House Not Meant to Stand, staccato and yet still complete. And it also bears traces of his former fire, perhaps because he returned to the familiarity of Mississippi cadences such as:

  CHARLIE: How was the funeral, Mom? Did it go off all right?

  CORNELIUS: Yeh, perfect.—Grave dug.—Body interred.

  Or when Bella is about to run out of the house and into the road:

  EMERSON [ineffectually attempting restraint]: Now, now, no, no, Bella. Awful weather outside.


  And there are instances where Williams’s language reaches a gothic pitch, such as when senior citizen and recent plastic-surgery patient Jessie Sykes, speaking in her frilly pastel negligee to the audience, rambles from flirtation to death to agony:

  JESSIE: It is a forgivable, understandable sort of deception in a woman with my—sometimes I think almost unnatural attraction to—desire for—sex with young men . . . Spud at the Dock House, he understands the looks I give him and the large tips, he knows what for—expectation! [She lowers her voice confidingly as she continues speaking to the audience.] He knows my name, address and phone number!—and so does Mr. Black—that’s what I call death . . . Oh, I didn’t give it to him, but of course he knows it. Everyone’s address is jotted down in his black book, but some for earlier reference than others. Still, I refuse to take cortisone till the pain’s past bearing, since it swells up the face which would undo the pain and expense of all those lifts at Ochsner’s . . .

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