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'Shut Up!' 'Be Quiet!' 'Hush!' Talk and Its Suppression in Three Plays by Tennessee Williams Thomas F. Van Laan Most of the full-length plays that Tennessee Williams wrote prior to Period of Adjustment (1960) dramatize one or more variations of an aggressor-victim pattern of action, in which a sensitive, often delicate, and poetic misfit, given to dreaming, fantasying, and self-dramatization, must confront—and usually succumb to—an adversary whose successful adaptation to the demands of a harsh reality has greatly reduced his or her sensitivity and ability to experience compassion, if such adaptation has not produced utter brutality and viciousness. In three of the four best plays of this group—The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Suddenly Last Summen—the moment-to-moment unfolding of this pattern of action largely consists of a motif that botii gives substance to the confrontation and provides a metaphor to define it. The characters in these three plays are given explicit awareness that they are trying to speak, to engage in talk or a talk, even at times to tell a story. Far more important, on every occasion that two characters interact, as the one attempts to speak, the other strives to shut the opponent up. Sometimes the characters use direct, crude, and nasty commands like those in the tide of this article, and sometimes they become even more overt and direct as their efforts to shut one another up prompt them to try physical violence. But, as Williams knew, there is more than one way to silence an opponent; in the three plays in which this motif is so prominent, the subtler methods are both more prevalent and, in the final analysis, more effective.2 THOMAS F. VAN LAAN is Chairman of the English Department at Rutgers University. His interests, which range from the Elizabethans to the moderns, currently center around Ibsen. 244 Thomas F. Van Loan245 The characters of The Glass Menagerie, none of whom is brutal or vicious, almost never use crude and direct commands in their efforts to silence one another (Amanda's telling Tom to "Be still!" [I, 184] is a rare exception ). Most of the time their efforts are unintentional, and occasionally they are not even themselves aware of them. Nonetheless, they constantly manage to interfere with one another's speech and other forms of self-expression, and in at least one case with devastating consequences. The motif is evident as early as the opening scene, when Tom, vigorously objecting to his motiier's criticism of his table manners, repeats many of her expressions as if to demonstrate their harmfulness, and when, moments later, Laura must prevent Tom from cutting off Amanda as she launches into her familiar reminiscence about the seventeen gentlemen callers. But Amanda herself is the most consistent and deliberate practitioner of the motif, and it is her first long quarrel with Tom that clearly establishes the motifs great prominence in the play. In this episode, which constitutes the bulk of Scene Three, both characters continuously interrupt one another, trying to shut up the opponent while at the same time gaining an opportunity to speak, but it is primarily Amanda who makes explicit the basic import of what is happening. While Tom keeps cutting her off simply through his determined effort to express his side of things, Amanda's speeches reverberate with her awareness that he is talking and with her determination to modify, curb, and even suppress his talk. "Don't you use that . . . expression!" she says. "Lower your voice!" "Stop that shouting!" "Let me tell you—" "You will hear more. . . ." "I'm not through talking to you!" "You're going to listen . . ." (I, 160-62). Tom at last manages to silence her temporarily, though not by direct attack. The gathering momentum of his monologues on his miserable life in the warehouse and his nefarious activities as El Diablo makes it impossible for her or anyone else to speak, and his characterization of her as an "ugly—babbling old—witch" (I, 164) renders her, according to a stage direction, "stunned and stupefied'' (I, 165). By calling her a "babbling" witch, Tom keeps up the explicit focus of...


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pp. 244-265
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