The Character who wasn’t there

by nkronos on January 29, 2011

I’ve been revisiting the works of Tennessee Williams lately and two of his plays in particular have made me think of all the many narratives–in whatever form–that feature an absent character who is of critical importance to the story. The classic example of this device is Godot in Waiting for Godot, in which the play’s entire action centers on the device of anticipating the arrival of Godot–who never comes. This, however, isn’t exactly what I mean as Godot can’t truly be called a character. He–or it–is merely a symbol, most often interpreted as God or perhaps “little God.”

Beckett’s build-up is more a Triumph of the Will that fails, intentionally and absurdly, as der Fuehrer never descends from the clouds and our desultory anticipation of his arrival ends in bathetic disappointment.

Likewise in cinema, countless flashback movies start out with a dead main or relatively important character; the narrative is about how he or she came to his or her end (for example, Citizen Kane).  Alex in The Big Chill is another device for the other characters to act off more than a character himself, but it is a nearer example of what I want to talk about.

That is, in both Cat on a Hot Tin Roof but even more so Suddenly, Last Summer,  Williams features characters who are crucial to the action and understanding of the actual dramatis personae but never utter a line themselves. In fact, it occurs to me that in all the Williams plays with which I’m familiar he does this, though not to the extent he does in these two plays.

In Williams first big success, The Glass Menagerie, Tom’s father is represented–at least as Williams intended in his stage directions–by a smiling portrait. And many times both Tom and his mother refer to him, but his character is not especially round: he’s the “telephone man who fell in love with long distance!” That is, unlike the trapped Wingfields at play beginning–Mr. Wingfield, like Tom at play’s end–“has attempted to find in motion what was lost in space.” He’s an escape artist, and like him Tom descends the staircase and just keeps going.

In Allan Gray, Blanche DuBois’s deceased husband in A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams’ second major play,  I see the first example of what will become a repeated motif for Williams: the dead-when-play-begins sensitive homosexual in denial. Gray is the least fully realized of the three I intend to discuss, but he is the prototype. Like the others, he fails sexually with the woman he substitutes for men, is hypocritical about his sexual orientation, and eventually seeks his own destruction as a “cure” for his condition. Before the play begins Gray has killed himself because Blanche confronted him about his homosexuality.

The second is Skipper in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Although Big Daddy’s illness and necessity of deciding the fate of his plantation may seem to be the pivotal crisis of the play, I would argue that the drama’s “point of attack” is Skipper’s suicide–which again has occurred before the curtain rises. It is the cause of Brick and Maggie’s estrangement, Brick’s drinking, and Brick’s desire to high-hurdle when he no longer can. And the audience is more interested in the explanation for all that than who will inherit “28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the Valley Nile.”

Unfortunately the film version skirts Skipper’s homosexuality, so that Brick’s motivation in declining his friend’s phone calls is unsatisfactory. Thanks to wonderful performances by all the principals, the movie is still a must-see–Big Daddy *is* Burl Ives as far as I’m concerned–but it is not the play Williams wrote.

Skipper, too, dies at his own hand because Brick rejects Skipper’s homosexuality.

The most striking use of this absentee character by Williams, however, is Suddenly, Last Summer and Sebastian Venable. Interestingly, in each play the character comes more and more out of the closet, with Sebastian making the least effort to hide his sexual preference so that it is obvious to everyone except his self-deluded mother. Even so, he uses Catherine Holly as a beard and it is that the street urchins “shouted vile things about [him] to the waiters” that makes him too embarrassed to return to the safety of the cafe. Moreover, that his mother wants Sebastian’s homosexuality to remain a secret every bit as much as the way he died forms the linchpin of the play’s plot.

In the film version–another great cast, starring Katharine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift, and Elizabeth Taylor and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz–we never see Sebastian’s face, instead having camera shots like this:

and this:

As with Cat, the 1959 film downplays Sebastian’s homosexuality, and messes with Williams’ ending to leave it less ambiguous.: we know Catherine will be spared the surgeon’s knife, whereas in the script Dr. Sugar says only that we must consider she might be telling the truth. As a consequence, I like the BBC production’s faithfulness, especially the late Nastasha Richardson’s performance.

Here, Williams completely focused his play on the absent character. Although the point of attack is whether Catherine–like Williams’ real-life sister–will receive a lobotomy to satisfy the corrupt wishes of a genteel Southern belle (another Williams motif), everything is a reaction to the nature of Sebastian, especially his self-destructive impulses driven by an almost theological view of his homosexuality. That is, there is a good element of blood sacrifice as an atonement for sin behind the cannibalistic ritual that eventually costs Sebastian his life.

Because the movie “cheats” with flashbacks featuring the cropped presence of Sebastian, it’s more a Citizen Kane-like treatment of the absentee character. As Williams wrote it, however, Suddenly, Last Summer is a play in which the main and most developed character never utters a line. It is the fullest execution of this device that Williams repeatedly employed I can think of.

I wonder whether there are other examples that do it as effectively.

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