Completing the Sentence with a Gesture: The Deconstructed DialogueStage Direction Binary in the Work of Tennessee Williams

Bess Rowen

The more closely one examines the printed text (either the original or the Broadway version), the more eccentric it seems, its exorbitant stage directions swarming with philosophical reflections, almost microscopically specific character descriptions, and vividly pictorial metaphors.
— David Savran, Communists, Cowboys, and Queers

A playscript is a performance in potentia. The process by which a text is realized is a transformation, but it is essentially a transformation into itself. When a playscript is performed, it is not carried over directly; nor is it altered; it is fulfilled.
— Richard Hornby, Script into Performance

Stage directions are often taken for granted by readers, actors, and directors alike. They are the aspects of “reading between the lines” that actors and directors pride themselves on being able to interpret and that sometimes are accused of imposing certain movements or emotions onto actors. There is a long history of actors being encouraged to cross out the stage directions, leading to the belief that the spoken words are what playwrights provide for the construction of the world of a play, leaving stage directions to be cast aside and largely ignored as optional, extraneous ravings from literary-minded playwrights.1 Likewise, stage directions are often ignored entirely in a production considered unabridged, whereas the same treatment of a spoken text would be explicitly framed as an alteration by the director. When John Tiffany’s 2013 production of The Glass Menagerie on Broadway failed to have Laura blow out her candles, people did not react as though the director had cut Laura’s final line.

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Previous studies of stage directions have mainly come to question their form and function from a semiotic perspective, without accounting for exactly what they might offer a playwright beyond an added tool for the construction of narrative. Figures like Michael Issacharoff, Roman Ingarden, and even Keir Elam have produced studies of playscripts in which the use of stage directions by Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Tennessee Williams, and George Bernard Shaw are shown to be functioning similarly despite the playwrights’ different writing styles. Though Shaw is unquestionably one of the pioneers of more detailed stage directions (Worthen 13), the idea that he would be formally aligned with Williams, Beckett, or Pinter does not make dramaturgical sense. A comparison of writers like Shaw, Beckett, Pinter, and Williams requires a new categorization of stage directions that does not reiterate discussions about narrative function or semiotic value but rather takes into account the power dynamics of playwrights writing to their present and future producers, as well as their readers.

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In a 1961 interview, Williams tells Studs Terkel that he finds authors like Pinter and Beckett very creative (“Studs Terkel” 95). In a 1962 interview with Lewis Funke and John E. Booth, Williams is asked if the “sparseness, the style” of writers like Beckett and Pinter is something he likes, to which he responds, “It’s something that drives me crazy with jealousy. I love it. While I’m in the theatre, I’m enthralled by it and I say, Oh, God, if I could write like that. If only I were twenty-five and just starting out, what these boys could have given me” (“Williams” 98). As much as Williams admired Beckett and Pinter, however, and though they share a certain amount of notoriety for their specific brands of stage directions, Williams’s words function in a very different way. As one reads, it becomes obvious that in Williams’s work, not all stage directions are created equal. Williams ensures agency rather than prescription in his writing by blurring the boundary between dialogue and stage directions, which traditionally exist in binary opposition. By questioning this binary, Williams brings other binaries into question, such as that between the playwright and actor. Jacques Derrida’s work on binary pairs, and specifically the concept of the supplement, provides a lens through which to examine Williams’s destabilization of his own authorial power through the use of stage directions.

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Tennessee Williams and Samuel Beckett form two poles in this discussion of authorial power, with Williams writing for potential collaboration and Beckett writing for pure reiteration. Take, for example, the New Directions edition of Small Craft Warnings, in which there is a 120-line stage direction composed of dialogue spoken offstage (273–76). The most important aspect of this stage direction is that Williams did not write a single word of it. A letter from the playwright to the editors James Laughlin and Robert MacGregor, recently unearthed by the former New Directions editor Thomas Keith, reveals that the lines were actually improvised by the actors. That such a mistake was made is interesting in and of itself, but the impressive length of this section is a testament to the freedom that Williams’s stage directions provide the actors inhabiting them.2 Williams did not write these actions, but the edition’s inclusion of them shows that one or more people found it plausible that such lines—embodied movements that occur in between the lines of onstage dialogue—would have been written into the script of the play. In fact, long stage directions with a variety of movements and even spoken words occur throughout Williams’s oeuvre, some examples of which will be analyzed in this essay. The moments between lines of dialogue are, in Williams, moments of potential, which is not the case for playwrights like Beckett, whose authorial control extends from the dialogue to the stage directions. Williams has provided a space where actors can speak their own lines in his play, while Beckett was—and now his estate is—notorious for exercising control over productions.

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Though this distinction might sound like a value judgment, it is not meant as such. Beckett has forced people to take his stage directions seriously; should people treat all of Williams’s stage directions with the same care, productions would look very different from the way they do. My point is simply to explore the radical power dynamics created by his oeuvre’s deconstruction of the dialogue–stage direction binary. In the “false” segment of Small Craft Warnings, pieces of incomplete dialogue in the italicized format of stage directions blur the structural rules of how plays are generally written and read. While Williams did not write this particular stage direction, a look at other plays shows structurally similar instances, where the supposedly silent text of the stage directions calls for speech. As one reads through all the New Directions volumes of Williams’s plays, three distinct tinctures of dialogic form emerge: spoken stage directions, stage directioned speech, and a hybrid form.

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These combinations of dialogue and stage direction are certainly significant, mostly insofar as they challenge the concept that “exorbitant” stage directions equate with excessive authorial control over the actors.3 The more Williams wrote for his characters, the more possibilities he gave their bodies and their voices, which resulted in a thoroughly unconventional use of both written drama and theatrical performance. In addition to including dialogue in stage directions, Williams has his characters speak their scripted movements, in works such as The Two-Character Play. Here, contrary to the former example, Williams uses standard dialogue to convey stage directions. Even some lines in which the classical distinction between dialogue and stage direction is typographically preserved show characteristics of Williams’s fluidity between gestural and verbal expression. These mixed forms challenge the strict binaries between playwright and reader, playwright and actor, and playwright and director used by some of Williams’s contemporaries (such as Beckett and Pinter), and in so doing, they deconstruct those binaries—to the ultimate benefit of those actors and directors who want as many options as possible available to them.

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Beckett and Pinter, who are by no means the only figures who could be compared to Williams, are chosen here because their stage directions function in a manner that lends itself to productive comparison with Williams. Beckett, Pinter, and Williams all deconstruct the binary between dialogue and stage directions by taking the latter as seriously as the former, but they do so in very different ways. By looking at these three categories of speech and stage direction combinations—spoken stage directions, stage directioned speech, and hybrids of dialogue and stage direction—throughout Williams’s work, especially in the later plays, one can see how these moments work to subvert the authority and authorship of dialogue in favor of stage directions, allowing the actor and director the agency to interpret the balance of movement, emotion, and dialogue as they see fit. Williams’s writing style comes from both his spoken dialogue and his stage directions, which means that the fullest performance of a Williams play requires not just the production team’s subjective interpretations of the spoken portion of the script but also their interpretations of the lines between those lines.

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Although others have concentrated on Williams’s stage directions in plays such as The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and A Streetcar Named Desire, insufficient attention has been paid to the overall themes in stage directions throughout his work. The later plays especially, with their stylistic experimentation, have provided more concrete evidence of Williams’s attitude toward stage directions throughout his oeuvre. More recent studies such as Annette Saddik’s “‘Drowned in Rabelaisian Laughter’: Germans as Grotesque Comic Figures in the Plays of Tennessee Williams,” John S. Bak’s “A Streetcar Named Dies Irae: Tennessee Williams and the Semiotics of Rape,” and Brenda Murphy’s The Theatre of Tennessee Williams explore stage directions to make a great number of stylistic and thematic points about the plays under discussion. My intention here is to build on that work by looking at three overall patterns of stage directions in Williams’s plays—not to relate these patterns to each play individually but rather to interrogate what their unusual status in his work means for how we interpret these plays as actors, readers, and audience members.

A Brief History of the “New” Stage Direction

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In order to establish the full extent of what Williams accomplishes through dialogue–stage direction combinations, one must first understand what he is reacting against. Scholars such as Marvin Carlson (“Status”; Speaking), Martin Puchner, W. B. Worthen, Julie Stone Peters, Ryan Claycomb, and Manfred Jahn have written about the ways in which stage directions mark an evolution in how the theatre has dealt with language and text over time. Puchner in particular believes that increasingly excessive stage directions point to a shift away from theatrical staging and toward a reading audience. Yet this assessment writes off a shift in the ways in which theatre artists—actors, directors, designers, as well as informed audience members—can use these new kinds of authorial expression in an explicitly theatrical setting. In other words, this dismissal of stage directions that do something other than specify entrances and exits ignores the words written for living, acting bodies that follow this alternative method of playwriting.

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Williams is part of a lineage of playwrights who have used stage directions to change the way plays look on the page and therefore on the stage. Worthen cites the popular opinion that the major figure in this movement is George Bernard Shaw, whose “idiosyncratic notions about (well, about everything, but particularly about) how his plays should be done into print mark a decisive moment in the booking of modern drama, the effort to render the book a distinctive platform for the play’s realization” (13). Worthen and others generally include figures such as W. B. Yeats, Eugene O’Neill, Gertrude Stein, Bertolt Brecht, and Samuel Beckett in this genealogy.

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Interestingly, an experimental playwright and Williams contemporary like Beckett is a good place to begin looking at the impressive force of the segregation of dialogue and stage directions. As Puchner says, “The growing importance of stage directions reaches one climax in Beckett’s stage directions, not because they are particularly long, for in this respect they are trumped by those of Shaw and O’Neill, but because they enfold a universe parallel to, and thus at all times competing with, the drama of speech” (26). For example, at the end of Waiting for Godot, the existential joke of Vladimir and Estragon rests on a stage direction, which is in fact the last line of the play. Though Estragon says, “Yes, let’s go,” the stage direction informs us that “[t]hey do not move” (109). This final phrase, not spoken by the actors, is as vital as the line that precedes it: forget to do this action, or rather, do an action not prescribed, and one has missed the point of the play entirely. It also provides evidence of a particular use of stage directions described by Puchner: “Stage directions offer a mode of speech that is not tied to embodied actors and that can therefore be turned against them” (66). The active stage directions in Beckett’s plays either affirm or counteract the spoken dialogue that has just occurred. Furthermore, because of Beckett’s wording, the distinction between these two types of action is not up for interpretation by the actor or director. In this case, the stage direction is amusing because it contradicts the text, upon whose meaning it depends for its humor. This supplemental nature of Beckett’s stage directions is seen again in his “positive” reinforcing moments, where the gesture reiterates the action of the language. For example, in Endgame, when Hamm says, “But for me [gesture towards himself ], no father. But for Hamm [gesture towards surroundings], no home” (46), the gestures do not serve as additional pieces of information but simply reinforce the meanings of the words. This relationship between the two types of text is clearly separated, exists in a solid binary, and, as we shall see, fits in nicely with Derrida’s descriptions of the supplement.

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In Of Grammatology, Derrida says, “The supplement will always be the moving of the tongue or acting through the hands of others. In it everything is brought together: progress as the possibility of perversion, regression toward an evil that is not natural and that adheres to the power of substitution that permits us to absent ourselves and act by proxy, through representation, through the hands of others” (147). Anyone who has worked in the theatre will recognize in this description certain truths about the theatre as a whole: an actor’s body performing another’s words comes with the possibility of the infelicity caused by either an actor’s (or director’s) misunderstanding of a text or the failure to communicate the actor’s understood meaning to the audience. Derrida, using Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Ferdinand de Saussure, writes of the infinite supplementations that occur in the complex connection between language and meaning. Language is a supplement to a meaning it can never fully access, while writing is a supplement to language, and various kinds of language (words) supplement each other. In the case of theatre, text is a supplement to meaning, but there are also two kinds of text: spoken text and stage directions. If written text is less privileged than speech, then written text never intended for speech is a supplement to the already supplemental written text intended for speech. The spoken dialogue is presented as the more privileged term due to its presence on the stage, while the stage directions are verbally absent in this moment—stage directions aren’t spoken, and often they cannot be deciphered by an audience without knowledge of, or reference to, the actual text. Audience members might wait for a well-known spoken line and will notice if it is absent or even said in a way that is unexpected, yet they will rarely notice a missed or altered stage direction, as the latter is composed of words not easily accessible to them in the space of performance.4

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The slipperiness of transcribing language onto the mind or body of an actor, rather than into his or her mouth, seems to cause anxiety. The ultimate misunderstanding in this moment comes from the idea, as Issacharoff puts it, that stage directions disappear in production. They do not disappear, nor are they absent; rather they are transcribed, translated, and transformed. The words “she moves the cup” appear on stage as an actor moves a cup. Derrida says of the linguistic sign that it has a “twofold character: every linguistic unit is bipartite and involves both aspects—one sensible and the other intelligible, or in other words, both the signans ‘signifier’ (Saussure’s significant) and the signatum ‘signified’ (signifié)” (13). I am taking the pairing of “sensible” and “intelligible” to an extreme here, to posit that a play’s “twofold character” is made up of “body” and “words.” Williams makes this distinction harder to grasp than figures like Beckett and Pinter, thereby challenging the notion that this twofold character can be pried apart at all.

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Though from an audience perspective, the actor’s body performing stage directions would appear to be free from text, the language in the stage directions is made of the same linguistic signifiers as that of the dialogue, and they are often used just as tyrannically. Marvin Carlson uses a linguistic metaphor to explore this point: “Just how faithful actors, directors, and designers are to be in converting the stage directions into the operations of their various arts was a matter of considerable controversy and disagreement during the twentieth century, but there was general agreement that such directions, if followed at all, were to be converted into the various ‘languages’ of the stage itself” (Speaking 187). The “controversy” Carlson refers to is part of the sliding rubric of authorial control that will be discussed further, but for now the pertinent point is that Carlson refers to stage directions as having a direct connection to stage “language.” In the work of playwrights such as Beckett, Pinter, and, in another way, Williams, stage directions are part of the same linguistic system as dialogue, and serve as “performance guides to actors” (187) just as much as the spoken words.

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In a performance of a Pinter play, an actor may neither ignore the playwright’s dialogue nor his direction to “Pause,” while actors and directors in Beckett plays are practically forbidden to add anything not specified in the text.5 How do Williams’s stage directions compare? While Pinter says, “Pause,” “Slight pause,” “Silence,”6 Williams may include directions such as “There is silence during a pause” (Will Mr. Merriwether 264). Whereas Pinter’s use of the “Pause” contains a specificity that every actor knows to expect in his text, the pauses across Williams’s oeuvre are less easily parsed. This rigid structure of meaning used by Beckett and Pinter allows theorists like K. Jeevan Kumar to discuss the movements of Beckett’s Endgame characters, and therefore actors, in relation to the highly quantifiable moves in chess, with Hamm constantly attempting to be in the exact center of the stage. Just like Beckett’s stage directions, the movements and gestures that Beckett’s characters perform threaten to overtake the dialogue in the effort to convey the true meaning of the play’s language, the absolute center and source of signification. Yet even as words and movements appear to be in competition with each other, both in fact work together to reinforce binaries that show the impossibility of achieving any kind of meaning and that maintain a solid hierarchy between the players.

Spoken Stage Directions: “An Interval of Five Minutes”

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What I am here calling “spoken stage direction” in Williams’s oeuvre is a subtle distinction in definition, yet it functions radically in terms of the expression of authoritative power. At certain moments in several Williams plays, characters address their own theatrical function in language reminiscent of stage directions. The choice to speak aloud actions and words usually relegated to silence calls attention to the artificiality of differentiating stage directions from dialogue. Speaking stage directions aloud also encourages performers, audience members, and readers alike to challenge assumptions about the authority of the spoken word and the general erasure of the stage direction.

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Although these kinds of metatheatrical addresses occur in several of the later plays, those in The Two-Character Play are perhaps the most significant, because of both their quantity and functions within the piece. At the end of act 1, for instance, Felice says, “An interval of five minutes” (339). Such overt references to time are generally reserved for stage directions. Again, Williams’s subversive technique shows itself to be in direct contrast to Pinter’s and Beckett’s. Without stating specific durations for his pauses, Pinter nonetheless treats time as something wholly detached from his dialogue. For example, in Old Times, Kate’s pacing is dictated by the way her speech is repeatedly ruptured by scripted breaks, as follows:

Slight pause

Neither mattered.


He asked me once, at about that time, who had slept in that bed before him. I told him no one. No one at all.

Long silence (73)

Beckett, too, is precise, even adding suggested time signatures to some of his stage directions. In Happy Days, for example, the directions read, “A bell rings piercingly, say ten seconds, stops. She does not move. Pause. Bell more piercingly, say five seconds. [. . .] She clasps hands to breast again, closes eyes, lips move again in inaudible addendum, say five seconds” (8). Yet Beckett does not share this timed logic with the audience. Bearing this in mind, it is an interesting choice for Williams to have a character speak a line that could have (silently) read, “A five-minute intermission.

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Characters who speak of theatrical framing devices that they are usually not “meant” to be aware of not only blur boundaries between word and action, speech and silence; they also skew the authority in the play. When Williams says through his stage directions that he wants something to be a certain length or a certain way, the instruction carries authoritative weight: viewers often assume that such directions are always followed, and many an actor or director does choose to do so. However, in The Two-Character Play, Clare and Felice are not the playwright but characters—and not necessarily trustworthy ones: their saying that they want the intermission to be a certain length does not necessarily mean that it must be so. The actual time of the intermission, which is not prescribed in any stage direction, would therefore be the supplementary part of this equation. It is left to each individual production to decide if Clare and Felice have any authority at all, as their stated timed intervals either are or are not carried out to their specifications. The revelation of this assailable authority reminds the audience that while silent stage directions have the privilege of being the playwright’s direct words and as such are endowed with a certain authority, most viewers will have no way of knowing whether or not the playwright’s silent instructions were followed. It is left to each individual viewer to wonder how much authority the playwright ultimately has been granted.

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The technique invites directors, actors, and viewers to ask questions about textual authority throughout The Two-Character Play, as the other such instances of spoken stage directions are only occasionally supplied with actual stage directions. For example, when Felice and Clare have allowed the play to dissolve, they say:

FELICE: What do I do? Naturally I obey. [He turns and enters by the door.] I come back into the house, very quietly. I don’t look at my sister.

CLARE: We’re ashamed to look at each other. We’re ashamed of having retreated—surrendered so quickly.

FELICE: There is a pause, a silence, our eyes avoiding each other’s.

CLARE: Guiltily. (353)

Felice is instructed to do as he says he will by entering the house again through the door, but the other emotions and actions stated in the subsequent sentences are not necessarily performed. At least one is obviously false, in that they are certainly not silent at the moment Felice mentions silence.

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Clare and Felice are reminiscent of Williams’s arguably most famous character-narrator: Tom Wingfield. Tom begins The Glass Menagerie by describing a great number of things that could easily have been left as stage directions alone, such as the absent Mr. Wingfield. As Tom says, there is a “fifth character in the play who doesn’t appear except in this larger-than-life-size photograph over the mantel. This is our father who left us a long time ago. He was a telephone man who fell in love with long distances; he gave up his job with the telephone company and skipped the light fantastic out of town . . .” (145). Tom describes the lighting, the music, and props like the photograph so that a live audience will not lose these important pieces of background information. Does this mean that the dialogue is unquestionable or that all stage directions could be transformed into dialogue (or monologue) at any moment? If Tom is narrating, aren’t all of the stage directions his instructions, as we—readers and viewers—are all guests in his memory? Is he a reliable narrator? And what does this mean for production possibilities?7

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Another, almost film noir version of this technique occurs in Camino Real, where Gutman announces the blocks on Camino Real. The blocks also happen to be the scene breaks. Scene breaks are sometimes evident only in stage directions—much like intermission length, as discussed above—but here there is a character explicitly moving the play along from within. The prototype for Gutman can be seen in Not about Nightingales, where an announcer states all the scene titles and a loudspeaker describes the scenes. But Gutman’s integration into the world of Camino Real allows Williams to draw attention to the structure of the play more subtly: “Block One on the Camino Real” is not said over a loudspeaker or removed from the performance in any way (440). In fact, Williams takes matters a step further with this exchange at the end of Block One:

PRUDENCE [dazed, to Gutman]: —What block is this?

GUTMAN: Block One.

PRUDENCE: I didn’t hear the announcement . . .

GUTMAN [coldly]: Well, now you do. (442)

This is the staged version of a reader’s wondering which scene he or she is looking at or an actor’s asking a director which scene is being rehearsed. Williams’s characters appear to question their own stage progress, speaking aloud the structural script markers normally silenced by performance.

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These spoken stage directions are not always explicitly metatheatrical. Some, in fact, ask the actor or director to decide whether the line is metatheatrical or not: for example, in A House Not Meant to Stand, Bella has a moment of direct address to the audience that could be read either as her character commenting on her own situation or as the text and the actor commenting on the character herself. After Jessie tells a story, the reader is told that Bella responds thus:

BELLA [to audience]: I don’t understand what she is talking about . . . (10)

Bella could be delivering an internal monologue, a spoken version of what could have been the silent stage direction “[Bella doesn’t understand.]” But the line could also be read as analogous to the stage directions spoken by Felice and Clare—in which case Bella either replaces any look of confusion with a metatheatrical spoken description of her internal state, or supplements any gestures and or emotional affect with her statement. Whichever way the actor or director chooses to stage this line, it is another instance of deconstructed hierarchy, where no one answer is prescribed by the play.

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The spoken dialogue can thus be seen as supplemental to what was originally written words alone. In a written script, all language is the supplement to the meaning behind the words, but the spoken text on stage gets to move a step higher on the hierarchical ladder toward meaning. The stage directions, in their unspoken state, have a more distant relation to meaning and consequently more freedom of interpretation. In each of these examples, the moment where the lines between “dialogue” (which directors and actors are to some extent required to respect8) and “stage directions” (which have fewer rights in the world of the theatre) become obscured, the entire basis of what is “necessary” versus “optional” in the play comes into question. Beckett and Pinter challenge this distinction by equalizing dialogue and stage direction and claiming absolute authority over both fields. Richard Hornby remarks that Pinter’s pauses “all denote hesitations of increasing length, ‘silence’ being longest of all, and thus generate rhythmic patterns in the same way that line and stanza distinctions do in printed poetry of the traditional kind. They must be scrupulously adhered to” (193). This kind of rhythmic score is not Williams’s project. Williams empowers the stage directions and decenters the dialogue by having his characters speak lines that are recognizable as words from the unspoken side of the text, but he does not rule with an iron fist. This subversion of written dialogue does not produce answers but rather more questions, which are meant to be answered by each individual reader or production. The dialogue’s position of power has therefore shifted and become decentered.

Stage Directioned Speech: “Ad-Lib Dialogue Continues in Varying Intensity

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As the previous category shows, Williams takes his stage directions as seriously as his dialogue, but he uses this relationship to blur the boundaries between those two kinds of texts and open up a space for the production of meaning. Whereas the actor’s body is practically enslaved to Beckett’s and Pinter’s texts in rhythms of speech and movement, Williams’s stage directions leave room for collaboration. This collaboration is not just about working with directors, though Williams’s views on collaborations with figures like Elia Kazan are well documented. In a 1965 interview with John Gruen, Williams says that “the relationship between the director and the playwright is a very delicate, dangerous relationship. Kazan and I worked it out extremely well. We enjoyed working together” (“Tennessee” 122–23), while in a 1972 interview with Jim Gaines he describes how Kazan “would say, ‘Tennessee, come up here. Now how would you do this? Show us how you would do it’” (“Talk” 217). Yet the collaboration here is also a byproduct of the text itself. In The Politics of Reputation, Annette Saddik says, “By playing with the stability of the concept of authorship, Williams is challenging the boundaries between text and author, as the author becomes just another role or character, and there is no single authoritative voice on which to rely” (101). Another way of challenging this authority is shown in stage directioned speech, in which Williams allows the privileged term in the binary pair, the spoken text, to be mixed and mangled within the supplementary term, the unspoken stage directions.

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For Beckett there are words to be spoken and words not to be spoken, actions and gestures to be done, actions and gestures not to be done. For Pinter there are moments to speak and moments not to speak. But for Williams there exists a series of moments when the actor might or might not speak lines Williams may or may not have written. The binary pair is challenged in these specific moments, for the question arises as to which of the contradictory instructions should be followed in these parts of the scripts and in general. The binary is ruptured as the actor and director are allowed to apply voice to a stage direction—typically differentiated from dialogue primarily and precisely by its lack of vocalization. The lengthy segment of ad-libbed offstage dialogue erroneously included in Small Craft Warnings, for example, is introduced by a stage direction (presumably by Williams) that marks its status as separate from the spoken dialogue: the ad-libbed dialogue “continues in varying intensity as background to the business on stage” (273). This direction puts stage direction and spoken dialogue on equal footing: directors and actors may choose to grant the privilege to either the stage direction or the spoken dialogue, as the offstage dialogue can overtake the stage business at any point—and for a seemingly infinite period of time, as there is no discrete end point to this direction. While a Beckett or Pinter play would never grant actors the opportunity to speak their own words,9 let alone give them a choice of when to speak and do certain things, Williams has created a situation where all of these choices are possible.

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Dialogue appears in stage directions in many Williams plays, in a variety of forms. In The Two-Character Play there is a moment when Clare “smiles and forms the word ‘confined’ with her lips; then she says it in a whisper.” The mouthed word, which is then spoken, is not structurally framed as dialogue: instead, the spoken form takes its cue from the silent portion of the stage direction. Although neither the actor nor director is invited to supply his or her own word, Williams grants the stage directions both power and speech by putting this same word—a key theme in the play—in two different formats. In this moment, the stage direction is the term that is supplemented in the next moment with dialogue that repeats “Confined, confined!” (339). The New Directions edition has the line typeset in italics, the standard typographic treatment generally used for stage directions. If we assume this style was indeed Williams’s choice, this use of italics in the dialogue further reinforces the stage direction’s power, allowing it to escape its silent boundaries and inviting the actor and director to consider the possibility that the stage direction could be more important than the fully spoken dialogue. On a purely practical level, this also means that the actor and director must concentrate on the stage directions, or they might miss a “line.”

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The echoes of the stage direction’s power remain even when the spoken dialogue is not italicized. For example, a similar device is used in The Parade, where the first stage direction states, “Dick continues his dancing, muttering oom-pah-pah to himself” (170). Later on in the play, Dick says these words aloud, as dialogue: “Oom-pah-pah, oom-pah-pah” (190). In The Gnädiges Fräulein, the titular character has a moment in which “[s]he repeats her request for permission to come outside. After a slight pause she says, ‘Thank you’ and comes out on the porch” (260). Still another of these moments occurs in The Chalky White Substance, where Mark says, “—Who won?—Nobody. NOBODY! [The word ‘nobody’ is echoed, after a couple of moments, from the opposite side of the chasm.]” (11).10 These lines all include moments where text and stage directions repeat dialogue, though there are also instances—such as the “Thank you” in the above example from The Gnädiges Fräulein—where pieces of dialogue only exist in stage directions.11 The importance of stage directions throughout the play is magnified, as the actors must look to them for their spoken text as much as for their unspoken content. The stage direction is the half of the binary that allows the most freedom to the actor, and so the process of mixing this freedom into the dialogue itself is a process of actor liberation.

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This stage directioned speech reaches the pinnacle of interpretive freedom in plays such as A House Not Meant to Stand, where Emerson is taken away by two men and “[There is a struggle with a few ad-libs]” (54). This wide-open opportunity to add spoken dialogue to the text is a cousin of the Small Craft Warnings stage direction, and further relatives can be located by following Williams’s fondness for having his characters murmur and mutter. Take, for example, the maid in The Day on Which a Man Dies, who “keeps murmuring little apologies” and is seen “bustling and murmuring as she packs” (29–30). Then there is Ralph in Period of Adjustment, who “gets the window up and clambers through with some muttered invectives against the hostility of the inanimate objects of the world” (203), or even the old man in The Parade, who “stoops to gather the spilled mail, groaning and muttering” (191). While the previous examples challenged the dialogue–stage direction binary by revealing the importance and weight of certain stage directioned speech, the unintelligible speech in these examples seems to trivialize dialogue in general. By refusing to script every minute detail of the actor’s movements and words on stage, Williams’s text frees the actor from the anxiety produced by a script from Beckett or Pinter, where a slight variation in vocal inflection or physicality can change the entire tone of the play.

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Williams’s approach here is a vote of confidence as well as a reminder that words are just words. This is not to say that Williams wants his dialogue ignored, but the work of this kind of sentence is that of collaboration—an instant where the words of an actor or director can be neatly slipped in beside Williams’s own, without much concern for where one ends and the other begins. Besides challenging the stronger position of the dialogue in the normal binary structure of play text, these examples also disrupt the hierarchy that places playwright over actor, allowing the actor at least a moment of equal power with the author.

Hybrid Form: “Left Spoken by Just a Glance between Them

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So far these examples have subverted the traditional binary of dialogue–stage directions by inserting one into the space that convention usually reserves for the other. Yet there are also passages that exist in a kind of hybrid form, that have both dialogue and scripted gestures working together in such a manner that each part supplements the other, demanding a full combination to produce meaning. In contrast to Beckett’s use of gestures, which are certainly required for meaning but also maintain a discrete identity from the dialogue, Williams’s hybrid formats not only rely on the interplay of visual and verbal signifiers to create meaning for an audience, they also grant the image-producing words the same weight as the dialogue. In so doing, they invite one to question which part of the playscript is supplementing the other.

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A House Not Meant to Stand ends with a combination of a sentence of dialogue and a stage direction that allows each part of the script to bear part of the weight of meaning—combining words and gesture to create a more complex kind of expression while keeping them typographically separate. After Bella dies, Dr. Crane says:

Jessie, I think you might dismiss that subject in the presence of death.

[He completes the sentence by drawing his hand gently across Bella’s eyes to close them.] (86)

Even though this passage does not combine dialogue and gesture within one form, the content of the stage direction blurs the boundaries of authority between these two sentences. Because the action is specifically described as that which “completes the sentence,” it sheds its structural separateness and becomes a continuation of the dialogue above. Nothing in the gesture suggested is a simple transposition of the words spoken; taken by itself, the gesture would not give the audience member the exact sense of that line in the way that a Beckett stage direction might.

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Throughout Williams’s work one finds many places where stage directions become crucial conveyors of meaning—to the reader, at any rate. For example, in Will Mr. Merriwether Return from Memphis? Nora says, “but what I’ve been meaning to suggest to you, dear, is that you take more interest in, uh,—civic—enterprises, you know, in, uh, community activities, such as— [She can’t think of any.] [. . .] —Well, there must be many, such as— [She still can’t think of any]” (277). This example gives the actor and reader an important piece of information about Nora through the combination of what she says and what she cannot manage to say. Nora’s inability to complete her sentences stands in contrast to Lot’s unfinished sentence in Kingdom of Earth, when Lot says, “—I’m sorry, but tomorrow— [He doesn’t complete the sentence” (158). Lot stops in the dash, but that stop may be a deliberate choice not to continue. The fact that Williams chooses to give the reader some information at the end of a broken-off sentence raises the question of how the characters in this play and others are completing their unfinished sentences.12

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Williams’s plays often supply some of that information by giving to the body the words a character cannot speak. The gestures that make their way into the dialogue, often after ellipses or dashes, continue the logic of the words that precede them and acknowledge a failure of spoken words, such as when Jack in The Rose Tattoo says, “Maybe your Mama wants me to . . . [He makes an awkward gesture toward the door]” (322). In The Night of the Iguana, Shannon has a moment where he says, “Ah, God. [Words fail him. He shakes his head with a slight, helpless laugh and goes down the steps from the verandah]” (330). In Small Craft Warnings, Steve describes Violet by saying, “a pitiful scrap, but . . . [He shrugs sadly and lifts the beer bottle to his mouth]” (242). By moving the two separate components of these sentences into the same line of text, and often by including an ellipsis, which signifies possibility in and of itself, the text leaves the actor and director in charge: in charge of how much space there is to be between the spoken portion of the sentence and the gestural portion that occurs at the end of the statement—in short, of a good portion of the meaning.

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The reader of the Williams play is often given the sense that the spoken line continues into, or from, the stage direction, whether a gesture is involved or not. In The Two-Character Play, Clare’s line “—For anything but—[She means for ‘one other person’; but that touch of sentiment, is better left spoken by just a glance between them]” (364) shows how Williams views these stage directions as full extensions of the spoken text itself. A more active version of the same device occurs in Orpheus Descending, when Lady says, “Oh, God, no . . . you cheap little—[Invectives fail her so she uses her fists, hammering at him with them. He seizes her wrists. She struggles a few moments more, then collapses, in chair, sobbing. He lets go of her gently.]” (304). In this second example, the entire physical struggle becomes a part of the dialogue. Spoken words have failed her, and written words (for the reader) and physical movement (for the viewer) have intervened.

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There are also instances of this hybrid form that do not at first glance appear to contain both dialogue and stage directions. Some of Williams’s most poetic stage directions contain notes meant to exist throughout instances of dialogue. One theme in these kinds of stage directions is the mention of what is “unspoken” in plays. In the play Something Unspoken, there is (unsurprisingly) a stage direction that notes, “There is between the two women a mysterious tension, an atmosphere of something unspoken” (275). In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a similar instruction for the scene between Brick and Big Daddy says, “The following scene should be played with great concentration, with most of the power leashed but palpable in what is left unspoken” (115). These are single lines of text that color entire scenes and even plays, as well as lengthier examples such as the following stage direction in The Rose Tattoo: “The dialogue between them is full of odd hesitations, broken sentences and tentative gestures. Both are nervously exhausted after their respective ordeals. Their fumbling communication has a curious intimacy and sweetness, like the meeting of two lonely children for the first time” (360). This is an overall acting note for a scene between two characters and the written subtext of the scene. If the actors fail to include this layer of meaning in between and under the written words, the scene will read quite differently. Much like the previous examples of Williams’s instructions for ad-libbing, these stage directions leave room for actors to achieve meaning through their own gestures.

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A further and much lengthier example is found in Clothes for a Summer Hotel, entirely contained in a stage direction that states:

In this scene Zelda must somehow suggest the desperate longing of the “insane” to communicate something of their private world to those from whom they’re secluded. The words are mostly blown away by the wind: but the eyes—imploring though proud—the gestures—trembling though rigid with the urgency of their huge need—must win the audience to her inescapably from this point through the play: the present words given her are tentative: they may or may not suffice in themselves: the presentation—performance—must. (230)

These signified meanings, spelled out in words meant to be neither spoken nor heard, are vital parts of Zelda’s role, and even of the play itself. By trusting his stage directions to bear the load of such words, images, and meanings, Williams equalizes and sometimes even favors the supplementary term. He also blatantly says that the words he’s given Zelda to speak aloud are not enough to communicate meaning alone. The concept of communication as an equal partnership—or at least one in which the power shifts back and forth—between dialogue and stage directions is not unique to Clothes for a Summer Hotel but rather appears in most of Williams’s writing.13 Williams’s plays rely on the presumably supplementary text of stage directions to inspire in the actor, director, and reader emotions that help them interpret the play’s meaning. It is then up to directors and actors to convey this affect to the audience through dialogue and movement. These stage directions provide a window into Williams’s overall notion of the collaborative nature of the dialogue–stage direction relationship, as well as the playwright-actor’s relationship with the reader.

Completing the Sentence with a Gesture

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By using three different constructions that exist somewhere between the categories of dialogue and stage direction, Williams in his late plays challenges the conceptual divide between these terms. Whereas Williams’s contemporaries Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter use stage directions in a manner that directly reproduces the traditional binary of dialogue / stage direction—in which the latter term exists separately from, and only in relation to, the former—Williams shatters traditional usage. Beckett’s and Pinter’s uses of stage directions maintain the hierarchy in which the authority rests with the playwright, whose power is supplemented by the actor, director, and reader. In contrast, actors and directors working with Williams plays have greater measures of power and freedom: they cannot default to the dialogue as written, ignoring the italicized lines written between them, but instead must think about the stage directions in a different way. Because stage directions are pieces of writing meant to approximate emotion and physicality, two areas that showcase the failures of spoken language, their interpretations are harder to memorize, the way actors might memorize their lines. In a traditional binary model, the stage directions are pure supplements to the spoken dialogue, but Williams gives these unspoken words new weight. By cleaving these two terms, Williams’s texts make room for the actor, reader, and director to enter the space of authority, as the aspect of the play through which they can most fully express their individual interpretation has now become an equal or even privileged part of the text.

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The possibilities within Williams’s lines, and his attitude toward those purposeful moments for differing interpretation, are clearly reflected in this stage direction in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof:

Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life, even in one’s own character to himself. This does not absolve the playwright of his duty to observe and probe as clearly and deeply as he legitimately can: but it should steer him away from “pat” conclusions, facile definitions which make a play just a play, not a snare for the truth of human experience. (114–15)

Williams’s technique of challenging the boundaries between dialogue and stage direction might even be seen as a compliment to the texts’ various audiences: the plays require the collaboration of living and thinking readers, actors, and directors to create meaning. Williams’s particular use of stage directions makes his drama a playground of embodied potential.


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1 See Carlson, “Status”; Worthen; and Hagen.

2 The mistake here is likely the result of the publisher’s using a transcription of the notes from the stage manager, in which the actions performed by actors in the original production appear as stage directions, with no note as to their origin. The publisher Samuel French commonly created its versions of scripts by transcribing such notes. Carlson, among others, has written about the confusion this practice causes (“Status”), and it is the reason that “acting editions” of Samuel French scripts lend themselves to the practice I mentioned at the start of this essay: crossing out stage directions that simply say what other actors have done.

3 This sentiment is expressed by David Savran in the epigraph to this essay but echoed by many others.

4 The John Tiffany production of The Glass Menagerie mentioned at the start of this essay erased two obvious stage directions: the smiling photo of the missing Mr. Wingfield and Laura’s final action of blowing out her candles. The only people who seemed to be bothered by those absences were Williams scholars who knew the play well enough to notice the changes.

5 Or risk being shut down, as came close to happening to JoAnne Akalaitis’s production of Endgame, which was set in a subway instead of the empty room with two windows specified in the play. According to Carlson, this near-shutdown was part of what prompted his essay “Status of Stage Directions.”

6 See, for example, Pinter’s Betrayal, the entire text of which is permeated by these stage directions.

7 In Tiffany’s production, Tom’s authority seemed called into question: characters were not haunted by the picture of their lost father, nor did they look at the same location when referencing it.

8 Legally, the words must be spoken for production rights to be granted. Cut too much text, an amount which varies by playwright and playwright’s estate, and the production will not be allowed to call itself a production of that particular play. Also, certain plays have famous lines that audience members would be upset to miss. For example, it is unlikely that a director looking to cut Hamlet would strike the “to be or not to be” speech.

9 There is one Beckett exception to this, Come and Go, but the audience never hears the actors’ created words when the actors whisper to each other.

10 Echoes both visual and aural also appear in other Williams stage directions in plays including The Night of the Iguana, The Two-Character Play, The Purification, and Clothes for a Summer Hotel.

11 There is not room here to discuss every instance, but a short list of plays where this device is used includes The Day on Which a Man Dies, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Rose Tattoo, Summer and Smoke, The Night of the Iguana, Orpheus Descending, A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, and 27 Wagons Full of Cotton.

12 For a more complete discussion of Williams’s incomplete sentences, see Bray and Di Cintio.

13 Another example may be found in the opening stage directions for Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen. . . .

Works Cited

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Bak, John S. “A Streetcar Named Dies Irae: Tennessee Williams and the Semiotics of Rape.” Tennessee Williams Annual Review 10 (2009): 41–61.

Beckett, Samuel. Come and Go. Collected Shorter Plays. New York: Grove, 1984. 193–98.

———. Endgame: A Play in One Act. Endgame and Act without Words. New York: Grove, 1958. 1–84.

———. Happy Days. New York: Grove, 1961.

———. Waiting for Godot. New York: Grove, 1954.

Bray, Robert. “Moise and the Man in the Fur Coat.” Southern Quarterly 38.1 (1999): 58–70.

Carlson, Marvin. Speaking in Tongues: Language at Play in the Theatre. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2006.

———. “The Status of Stage Directions.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 24.2 (1991): 37–48.

Claycomb, Ryan. “Here’s How You Produce This Play: Towards a Narratology of Dramatic Texts.” Narrative 21.2 (2013): 159–79.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997.

Devlin, Albert, ed. Conversations with Tennessee Williams. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1986.

Di Cintio, Matt. “‘Ordered Anarchy’: Writing as Transitional Object in Moise and the World of Reason.” Tennessee Williams Annual Review 5 (2002). Web. 12 Jan. 2016.

Elam, Keir. The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama. New York: Methuen, 1980.

Hagen, Uta. Respect for Acting. With Haskel Frankel. Hoboken: Wiley, 2008.

Hornby, Richard. Script into Performance: A Structuralist Approach. New York: Applause, 1995.

Issacharoff, Michael. “How Playscripts Refer: Some Preliminary Considerations.” On Referring in Literature. Ed. Issacharoff and Anna Whiteside. Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1987. 84–94.

Jahn, Manfred. “Narrative Voice and Agency in Drama: Aspects of a Narratology of Drama.” New Literary History 32 (2001): 659–79.

Kumar, K. Jeevan. “The Chess Metaphor in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame.” Modern Drama 40 (1997): 540–52.

Murphy, Brenda. The Theatre of Tennessee Williams. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Peters, Julie Stone. Theatre of the Book, 1480–1880: Print, Text, and Performance in Europe. New York: Oxford UP, 2000.

Pinter, Harold. Betrayal. New York: Grove, 1978.

———. Old Times. New York: Grove Press, 1971.

Puchner, Martin. Stage Fright: Modernism, Anti-Theatricality, and Drama. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2002.

Saddik, Annette J. “‘Drowned in Rabelaisian Laughter’: Germans as Grotesque Comic Figures in the Plays of Tennessee Williams.” Modern Drama 55 (2012): 356–72. Web. 4 Feb. 2014.

———. The Politics of Reputation: The Critical Reception of Tennessee Williams’ Later Plays. Teaneck: Farleigh Dickinson UP, 1999.

———, ed. The Traveling Companion and Other Plays. New York: New Directions, 2008.

Savran, David. Communists, Cowboys, and Queers: The Politics of Masculinity in the Work of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992.

Williams, Tennessee. Camino Real. Williams, Theatre 2: 417–591.

———. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Williams, Theatre 1: 1–215.

———. The Chalky White Substance. Saddik, Traveling Companion1–12.

———. Clothes for a Summer Hotel. Williams, Theatre 8: 201–80.

———. The Day on Which a Man Dies. Saddik, Traveling Companion 13–46.

———. The Glass Menagerie. Williams, Theatre 1: 123–419.

———. The Gnädiges Fräulein. Williams, Theatre 7: 219–62.

———. A House Not Meant to Stand. Ed. Thomas Keith. New York: New Directions, 2008.

———. Kingdom of Earth. Williams, Theatre 5: 121–214.

———. Letter to James Laughlin and Robert MacGregor. 15 Dec. 1972. MS. Collection of Thomas Keith, New York.

———. The Night of the Iguana. Williams, Theatre 2: 247–375.

———. Not about Nightingales. New York: New Directions, 1998.

———. Orpheus Descending. Williams, Theatre 3: 217–342.

———. The Parade. Saddik, Traveling Companion 165–92.

———. Period of Adjustment. Williams, Theatre 4: 125–246.

———. The Rose Tattoo. Williams, Theatre 2: 257–415.

———. Small Craft Warnings. Williams, Theatre 5: 215–287.

———. Something Unspoken. Williams, Theatre 6: 275–96.

———. “Studs Terkel Talks with Tennessee Williams.” Interview by Studs Terkel. Devlin 78–96.

———. “A Talk about Life and Style with Tennessee Williams.” Interview by Jim Gaines. Devlin 213–23.

———. “Tennessee Williams.” Interview by John Gruen. Devlin 112–23.

———. The Theatre of Tennessee Williams. 8 vols. New York: New Directions, 1971–92.

———. The Traveling Companion. Saddik, Traveling Companion 287–302.

———. The Two-Character Play. Williams, Theatre 5: 301–70.

———. “Williams on Williams.” Interview by Lewis Funke and John E. Booth. Devlin 97–106.

———. Will Mr. Merriwether Return from Memphis? Saddik, Traveling Companion 225–302.

Worthen, W. B. Print and the Poetics of Modern Drama. New York: Cambridge UP, 2005.



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