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Aristotle Doesn’t Like your Definition of Happiness (And Neither Do I)

May 25, 2011

Full disclosure: I’ve never been a fan of Tennessee Williams. Maybe it’s because I don’t understand Southern culture or maybe it’s because his characters are even more larger than life than those in most musicals, but I just never liked his work.

That said, The Rose Tattoo is about as close as I suspect Williams has ever come to writing a comedy, by which I mean that it ends in a manner that is meant to be happy. It’s the story of a woman, Serafina, so idolatrously devoted to her husband that his sudden death keeps her from living. Soon enough, rumors of his infidelity tarnish the happy memories she wallows in and she spirals into an even deeper depression. And it’s the story of how a man who reminds her severely of her dead husband brings her to life again.

There’s no doubt that the play is masterfully written. Williams, clearly a well-read man, weaves in all sorts of elements found in dramatic history from the Greeks to Shakespeare to modern Realism, giving them all his own twist. Chorus-like staging of scenes, Dionysian bawdiness, tragic flaws, heavy-handed imagery, and specifically limiting stage directions all ensure a play rich with texture, but it’s important not to let the stunning tapestry distract from the overall themes.

Williams wants us to think it’s a woman’s journey back to happiness, but her preoccupation with happiness is the problem of the entire play. In Act Three she makes a big show of breaking her idolatries—she hurls the urn containing her husband’s ashes across the room and she puts out the candle before her statue of the Madonna. But, in reality, these idols are the same. She clung the the happiness she’d found in her husband, she relied on the happiness she would find in the Madonna’s guidance, and, when those failed her, she turned, at last, to the living, breathing happiness she hoped to find in the arms of Alvaro.

But Alvaro is only a man—and one much like the husband that ended up bringing her sorrow. Eudaimonia, this is not.

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