American Popular Culture Home American Popular Culture Home
American Popular Culture Home About Americana Contact Americana American Popular Culture Archive
Emerging Pop Culture
Magazine Home
Become a member!
Receive our

Fashion in American Popular Culture

Visit Press Americana


Could it be possible that Tennessee Williams was influenced by Elvis Presley's popularity and style? "IT'S MR. ROCK 'N' ROLL...IN THE STORY HE WAS BORN TO PLAY!" was the tagline for Elvis Presley’s first motion picture, Love Me Tender, released in November of 1956 at the height of Presley’s fame. Though never clarifying exactly how and why the movie represented the story that Presley was born to play, the tagline unabashedly trumpeted the rock icon’s presence on the Hollywood scene with all the fanfare we would expect to be associated with such a figure.

The fervor with which the movie was publicized, however, was matched only by the earnestness with which film critics condemned Presley’s performance. Peter Guralnick cites one particularly scathing review which classified Elvis's singing as a “vacillation between a shout and a whine” and his character as resembling an “obscene child.” In an interesting digression, however, this same newspaper article speculated that Presley’s performance typified the “new hero” of films: "The new hero possesses mannerisms by Brando cut out of the Acting Studio…. First of all he does not walk: he slouches, ambles, almost minces. His hand gestures are all tentative, incomplete, with arms out in front as though he were feeling his way along a wet-walled underground passageway, or folded back against the body as though he were warding off a blow…. The new hero is an adolescent. Whether he is twenty or thirty or forty, he is fifteen and excessively sorry for himself. He is essentially a lone wolf who wants to belong."

That Presley - even via a fictional movie character - could be termed a “lone wolf who wants to belong” might have struck some as odd at the time, given his by then mass appeal to mainstream American culture. The comment, however, would have more resonance than perhaps even the author of the piece could have realized.

Around this same time - the end of 1956, that is - celebrated American playwright Tennessee Williams was at work on a new play sixteen years in the making. Fresh off his Pulitzer-Prize winning Cat on a Hot Tin Roof of the previous year, Williams had turned his attention to revising a play called Battle of Angels, which he had composed in 1940. Perhaps leveraging the success he had had with Cat, Williams indulged himself in returning to a project that he must have felt he had never finished, even though Battle of Angels was staged professionally, if briefly, in Boston sixteen years earlier. Angels was, in fact, his first professional production. In an essay he wrote in 1957 entitled “The Past, the Present, and Perhaps” - which coincidentally would become the introduction for the published text of the revised play on which Williams was working - he noted that, crossing the Boston Common the morning after the play debuted, he heard a series of “loud reports like gunfire” coming from across the street. One in his company had shouted aloud, “My God, they’re shooting at us!” They had all had a good laugh at the overreaction. Though no mortal danger ensued, the play had all the makings of a playwright’s professional death: Williams was told just two days later that the play would close after it finished its run in Boston.

Battle of Angels’ failure had been a particularly devastating blow for Williams, who confessed that he had “put [his] heart into this play.” This devastation would explain at least partially the compulsion for the reclamation project that seems so incongruous to the writer’s prosperity at the time. The reworked play of 1957 would bear many of the same features of the 1940 precursor: the basic plot about a free-spirited young man who wanders into a conservative and ultimately stifling Southern community; his attempt to rescue a sexually frustrated woman from her moribund marriage; and the young wanderer’s gruesome demise at the hands of the male members of the community. Williams’s revisions were to remove much of the heavy-handed Christian symbolism of the former play and replace it with a mythological context in the latter: the tale of Orpheus, the famous musician of Greek mythology who was given the opportunity to save his recently deceased wife Eurydice from the underworld provided that, when leading her out of Hades, he did not look back until he reached the upper world. He did, however, break his promise, and he lost Eurydice forever. Williams, in effect, appropriated the tale as a framework for his revised version of Battle of Angels, produced in 1957 and renamed Orpheus Descending.

So what does any of this have to do with Elvis Presley? The premise of this essay is that Presley’s hold on the American popular imagination in 1955 and 1956 had also seeped into the artistic imagination of Tennessee Williams at a time when Williams felt compelled to resurrect a past project. Another of the major changes Williams made to Battle of Angels was to his main character, Val Xavier. While Williams’s protagonist retains the same name in Orpheus, the playwright’s stage directions reveal a very intriguing modification of Val’s character. In the original, Williams describes Val as follows: “He is about 25 years old. He has a fresh and primitive quality, a virile grace and freedom of body, and a strong physical appeal.” His “strong physical appeal” is evident in Val’s own confession that he has had to leave every job he has ever held because of a woman. Moreover, Myra Torrance (who becomes “Lady” Torrance in Williams’s rewrite) tells Val that the other women in the town come to the store in which Val works just for the “thrill” of being near him (48). Despite his appeal, there is clearly a reticence and ingenuousness about Val in Battle of Angels; he admits that he does not know how to dance, for instance, and carries around a pocket-sized Funk and Wagnalls dictionary. Battle of Angels’s Val is, essentially an effete artist - he is working on a book which he claims to be “about Life” - whose appeal to the opposite sex exists almost in spite of himself.

The Val Xavier of Orpheus Descending is, according to Williams’s stage directions, “a young man, about 30, who has a kind of wild beauty about him…. He does not wear Levi’s or a T-shirt, he has on a pair of dark serge pants, glazed from long wear and not excessively tight fitting. His remarkable garment is a snakeskin jacket, mottled white, black and gray.” In addition to his physical modifications, the Val of Orpheus Descending is also a more confident, more sexually provocative version of his former fictional self. He tells Lady Torrance - his Eurydice - that “he can burn down a woman… any two-footed woman.” Lady later tells Val that everything he does is “suggestive” and that she gave him a “plain, dark business suit to work in” so as not to incite the local females. While the Val of Orpheus is not as articulate as the Val of Angels, he has nonetheless a kind of savage eloquence about him, judging from observations he makes such as “nobody ever gets to know no body” and “we’re all of us sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life.”

The most notable difference in characterization, however, is that the Val of Orpheus carries “a guitar which is covered with inscriptions.” The change is necessary, clearly, in light of Williams’s mythologizing of Val as a modern-day Orpheus. I would argue, nevertheless, that Val’s transformation from a poet to a musician attests to Williams’s consciousness of the impact Elvis Presley had had on America. Williams’s own assessment of Orpheus and the debt it owed to Battle of Angels was that the story was “on the surface” still “the tale of a wild-spirited boy who wanders into a conventional community of the South and creates the commotion of a fox in a chicken coop.” In many ways, Williams’s comment applies to the influence Elvis’s music and personality had had on small-town America. Peter Guralnick, who wrote perhaps the best biography of Elvis, recognized that, in his early years, Elvis possessed such raw and feral force that his manager Colonel Tom Parker had to “define, and control, the level of acceptable danger” to the nation by exposing Elvis “only so much,” only a little at a time. The chicken coop that was the United States in 1956 was about to have its cages rattled by the fox in the person of Elvis Presley.

Williams’s new Val likely would not have materialized without the figure of Elvis to spur Williams’s imagination. The key in the whole transformation is the guitar that Val totes with him. After Val and Lady’s first conversation in Act One, scene two, Val leaves the stage, and Lady “throws back her head and laughs as lightly and gaily as a young girl. Then she turns and wonderingly picks up and runs her hands tenderly over his guitar as the curtain falls.” As phallic symbol, the guitar clearly was a crucial sexual component to Elvis’s act; his gesticulations and gyrations on stage were sometimes sans guitar - recall his appearance on the Milton Berle show in 1956 when he sang “Hound Dog” without his guitar - but, for the most part, the acoustic guitar was the sine qua non of his stage performance, as much a visual component of his image as musical necessity. In his book entitled Revolt into Style: The Pop Arts, George Melly noted that Elvis was “the master of the sexual simile, treating his guitar as both phallus and girl, punctuating his lyrics with the animal grunts and groans of the male approaching an orgasm.” Though Williams never portrays Val on stage in such a manner - more often he quietly sings soft, sensual ballads - the guitar clearly symbolizes for Lady the redemptive possibilities of an affair with Val.

Elvis’s iconoclasm was predicated on the communal bonds that held together small-town America in the 1950s, particularly those in the Southern towns, the kind from which Elvis himself hailed. And it was particularly symbolic that it was a musical phenomenon that challenged the strength of these bonds, for, as Greil Marcus observes in Mystery Train, his seminal book on rock and America, music has always been part of the cultural fabric of the South: "The poor man’s South that Elvis knew took strength from community. The community was based on a marginal economy that demanded cooperation, loyalty, and obedience for the achievement of anything resembling a good life; it was organized by religion, morals, and music. Music helped hold the community together, and carried the traditions and shared values that dramatized a sense of place. Music gave pleasure, wisdom and shelter."

Music was a Southern fixture, particularly country music, which was collectively a community-affirming musical form. That Elvis combined country with gospel and blues music into a new style to be termed “rock ‘n’ roll” was perceived by some as an implicit attack on communal stability. His upbeat reworkings of time-honored country staples such as Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was disturbing to many, to say the least. As Greil Marcus explains, such disruptive power lent “drama” to Elvis’s music, particularly because, according to Marcus, “as he sang he was escaping limits, testing them, working out their value.” As an artist whose goal was to produce theatre - in other words, “drama” - that provoked and disturbed, Tennessee Williams naturally would have appreciated the degree of social disruption Elvis caused.

The notion that Williams had Elvis in mind in his characterization of Val Xavier in Orpheus Descending is not a novel one. It was no secret at the time that Williams wanted Elvis to play the part of Val in the 1958 film version of Orpheus, which eventually became titled The Fugitive Kind. In her book Elvis Culture: Fans, Faith, and Image, Erika Doss conjectures that Williams was inspired by Elvis. Doss writes, “Provoked, perhaps, by newspaper accounts of 14,000 fans tearing at Elvis’s clothes during a 1955 concert in Jacksonville, Florida, Williams used Orpheus Descending to work out a cautionary tale about sexuality, desire, and postwar intolerance with a distinctly Elvis-esque character playing center stage.” The timing of Williams’s rewrite is perfect for this hypothesis; it was hard to ignore the fanfare surrounding Elvis in 1956, the year he burst onto the national scene with hits such as “Heartbreak Hotel,” made a number of TV appearances, and starred in his first feature-length motion picture, the aforementioned Love Me Tender.

I would hope to complicate further the connection between Elvis and Williams’s play. The complication lies in part in the final sentence of the previously cited review of Love Me Tender. Theorizing that Elvis both represented and enacted the new hero in the film, the reviewer called the new hero, vis-à-vis Elvis, “essentially a lone wolf who wants to belong.” The reviewer was more right about Elvis, perhaps, than he could know at the time. For Elvis’s status in American popular culture was a unique one; though he had very quickly moved beyond his small-town local appeal in his Sun Records days (1954-5) and enjoyed popular reception in mainstream America, he remained in many ways a liminal figure. He was both a national icon and an eternal outsider. He belonged neither to the conventional Southern community in which he was brought up nor to the mass public that had embraced his music nationally. Many white Americans rejected him for singing as a “black man,” while the black community more often than not treated him with resentment for having "stolen and commercialized" a native sound rooted in and tempered by racial strife.

Peter Guralnick reveals an interesting and revealing anecdote from Elvis’s early days on tour capturing the manner in which his rocker rebel exterior was belied by the commercial exigencies to which he was subject. Backstage one night, a singer named Ira Louvin caught Elvis singing a gospel hymn. Louvin challenged Elvis: “Why, you white nigger, if that’s your favorite music, why don’t you do that out yonder? Why do you do that nigger trash out there?” Elvis replied, “When I’m out there, I do what they want to hear - when I’m back here, I can do what I want.” Such is the irony of Elvis’s musical career: the very danger, the disruptive power, the destruction of limits that he and his music conveyed were the very elements that led to his mainstream appropriation and, thus, to his obeisance to the corporate exploitation that had enabled his fame and fortune. Greil Marcus encapsulates this irony in his remark that Elvis had conceded to “a rhythm of acceptance and rebellion.”

Elvis’s marginality is perhaps best articulated in the complex gender dynamics implicit in his public persona. Many have commented on the androgyny of Elvis’s sex appeal - that is, his ability to be sexually desirable to women while at the same time possessing physical features that seemed peculiarly feminine. Southern lore documents the zeal with which Elvis fans in the South commemorated his image on such items as people would bring to church: fans and handkerchiefs, for instance. Remarkably, the Elvis icon on these items would almost invariably portray a beatific image, glorified and feminized to portray a kind of unearthly beauty. Moreover, Elvis’s promoters would often have him wear eyeliner for both live and television performances, further blurring the boundaries of the normative constructions of sexuality. Doss wonderfully summarizes the public’s participation in what she terms “sexing Elvis”: "Elvis’s meaning as a sexual icon depends too on [fans’] understanding of Elvis’s own sexual dynamics. Especially during his 1950s 'rebel' years and then again in the 1970s when he honed his image as a jumpsuited superstar, Elvis slipped in and out of gender in performance style and sartorial display, rupturing notions about masculinity and femininity, encouraging new models of visual pleasure. Elvis had a kind of 'sexual mobility' that appealed to both men and women. His performance style and gender slippery sexuality outraged most critics (and set the pace for their critiques), but it meshed with other revolutions (most notably feminism) already in play."

For a writer so concerned with the complexity of sexual dynamics and constructing fictional narratives based on such complexity, Tennessee Williams would undoubtedly have seen in Elvis the opportunity to exploit the “sexual mobility” of which Doss speaks. Recall that Williams endows Val Xavier in Orpheus with “a kind of wild beauty,” a description that subtly transcends masculine/feminine boundaries. Generally, Williams is credited with being the poet of the outcast; from Blanche DuBois and Laura Wingfield to Chance Wayne and Reverend Shannon, his major characters exhibit an emotional or psychological fragility. For all Val Xavier’s cool and rugged style - his snakeskin jacket, his guitar, his sexual suggestiveness - he suffers the same fate as most of Williams’s other protagonists: a sentence of solitary confinement in his own skin. The same could be said of Elvis, who made his name not only on his music but also on his ability to use his skin/body to liberate American culture from sexual repression. Ironically, however, he was “sentenced” to his own physicality, which would continue to earn him both ridicule and notoriety through much of his early career.

Thus Tennessee Williams fittingly conjured the most famous musicians of both Greek mythology and twentieth-century America to analogize his story of the leather-clad, itinerant troubadour who happens upon a Southern town and attempts to rescue his “Lady” (Eurydice) from the hell of small-town myopia. Williams’s use of the mythic archetype, consistent with its use in most other of his plays, suggests the universality of the Southern experience - the timeless perspective of human loss, suffering, and the potential for redemption. Greil Marcus has written of the importance of myth to a culture: “It is a sure sign that a culture has reached a dead end when it is no longer intrigued by its myths (when they lose their power to excite, amuse, and renew all who are a part of these myths - when those myths just bore the hell out of everyone.” Perhaps for Williams, mythical allusion was a literary strategy to reinvigorate a stale American theatre. Had Elvis become Williams’s Orpheus? Was Elvis the male, American muse to exhume the buried Battle of Angels?

Elvis himself would certainly lose his own mythic appeal in the 1960s, appearing in countless schlocky movies and engineering a safe image almost antithetical to that of his early days in the mid-1950s. Williams’s Val Xavier represents in Orpheus Descending the implicit danger of a figure such as Elvis, an untameable nature that was so unnerving to America at large in 1956. That Williams has Val suffer a horrific end - he is blowtorched to death offstage in the play’s final scene - foretells the figurative purging in the 1960s of the dangerous Elvis. Williams, in other words, demonstrates that in small-town America, such threatening figures are not long allowed to hold such sway. Thus, if Williams indeed used Elvis as his inspiration for the refiguring of Val’s character and the mythic revamping of an old play, then he was more prescient than he could know. The Elvis of the 1960s and 1970s had been completely assimilated - made safe for consumption by the American public. As Greil Marcus points out, “once an artist gives an all-encompassing Yes to his audience (and Elvis’s Yes implicitly included everyone, not just those who say Yes to him), there is nothing more he can tell his audience, nothing more he can do for them, except blow them a kiss.” But in 1956-7, though the commercial appropriation was already well underway for the young rocker from Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis still had that danger about him, that wild beauty that seemed uncontainable. For a literary artist who himself had to resist the temptation to give the all-encompassing Yes to his own audience, Williams realized in Elvis the motivation to resurrect and transform a play long forgotten, even if it was still only about a “wild-spirited boy who wanders into a conventional community of the South and creates the commotion of a fox in a chicken coop.”

January 2009

From guest contributor Frank P. Fury

[back to top]

Home | About Us | Contact | Archive

© 2009 Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture

Website Created by Cave Painting