Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Brokedown Palace II: The Funny Edition

The Rose Tattoo
By Tennessee Williams
122 pages, plus supplemental material
New Directions
April 23, 2010
Original Pub. Date: 1950

They make the life without glory. Instead of heart they got the deep-freeze in the house. The men, they don't feel no glory, not in the house with them women; they go to the bars, fight in them, get drunk, get fat, put horns on the women because the women don't give them the love which is glory, - I did, I give him the glory. To me the big bed was beautiful like a religion. Now I lie on it with dreams, with memories only!

My first Tennessee Williams play was The Night of the Iguana, originally performed in 1961, which I read back in March as part of the Non-Structured Book Club. It was a bit much at times, but I enjoyed Williams's decadent setting and the vivacity of the characters. Another Williams production, The Rose Tattoo, which debuted at Chicago's Erlanger Theater in 1950, has been recently re-released with a new introduction by playwright John Patrick Shanley. Once again, I would like to thank Frances for sending me her extra ARC.

The Rose Tattoo concerns one Serafina delle Rosa, a first-generation Sicilian-American who lives somewhere on the Gulf Coast with her 15-year-old daughter Rose. Her husband Rosario, a small-time drug smuggler, was murdered and Serafina lost the baby she was carrying shortly thereafter. Since then, she has sequestered herself and her daughter from their small Italian community and spends her listless days in a worn shift, sewing gowns and fine clothes for other people's special events. Three years have passed and it is now Rosa's high school graduation, signaling her movement out from under her mother's authority and into adulthood and her own self-realization. This terrifies Serafina, who wants Rosa suspended in time with her and her late husband's memory. Even worse is that sailor Rosa has fallen for! But then Alvaro Mangiacavallo ("eat-a-horse" in Italian), a goofy truck driver with a sexy body, arrives that afternoon and - oh Dio! He reminds Serafina of Rosario and has even gotten his very own rose tattoo!

According to Shanley, "The Rose Tattoo is over the top. It is a lurid play, redolent of the smell of goats, the cries of ragged children and squawking birds. Its perimeters are defined by women, hairy-legged women, gossiping, clownish women, whores, and witches." I actually had a feeling of déjà vu. The oppressive tropical ambiance; the voluptuous, larger-than-life widow; the emotional stagnation and pervasive carnality - The Rose Tattoo and The Night of the Iguana feel like two versions of the same story. Written about a decade later, Iguana comes across as a more mature work, with its themes of sexuality, religion, mental illness, and human nature. It also lacks the neat resolution of The Rose Tattoo and the cast of characters is more diverse, ranging from pure and detached (Hannah) to Serafina-like (Maxine) to falling apart as we speak (Shannon).

Which isn't to say that The Rose Tattoo is a mediocre play or not worth it if you've already read/seen Iguana. It's a comedy starring a tacky, ridiculous woman who lives surrounded by dress dummies and Catholic kitsch. Alvaro is a love-struck doofus. The Italian accents are preposterously exaggerated and the overall setting is clearly a satire of the close-knit, gossipy immigrant community. Serafine tries so hard to be spiritual she simply ends up ironic.
SERAFINA: Oh, Lady, Lady, Lady, give me a sign!

[As if in mocking answer, a novelty salesman appears and approaches the porch. He is a fat man in a seersucker suit and a straw hat with a yellow, red and purple band. His face is beet-red and great moons of sweat have soared through the armpits of his jacket. His shirt is lavender, and his tie, pale blue with great yellow polka dots, is a butterfly bow. His entrance is accompanied by a brief, satiric strain of music.]
Iguana certainly has comic relief but Tattoo is such a self-parody that it borders on metatheater. It knows its atmosphere is overheated and blatantly sexual and populated by caricatures. The humor comes from its own premise and execution. If anything, The Rose Tattoo, despite being the earlier of the two, is also a parody of The Night of the Iguana, which has many of the same elements but asks to be taken seriously. It's like Iguana reflected in a funhouse mirror.

This new edition of The Rose Tattoo also includes The Dog Enchanted by the Divine View, an earlier one-act piece by Williams that became the genesis for Tattoo. I haven't read anything else by Williams so I wouldn't know if his other plays are more differentiated, but I found The Rose Tattoo to be a great companion piece and counterpoint for The Night of the Iguana. I enjoyed reading them and would love to see both onstage.


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