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The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone by Tennessee…
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The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1950)

by Tennessee Williams

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Tennessee Williams

The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone

Vintage Classics, Paperback, 1999.

8vo. 116 pp.

First published, 1950.

Contents

A Cold Sun
Island, Island!
The Drift

=================================================​

I am sorry Tennessee Williams didn't write more novellas like this one. It has a kind of perfection he seldom achieved in his short stories. The latter are often marred by verbosity, obscurity or plotlessness; and sometimes the poetry in prose doesn't fit very well. But here, for once, everything just goes swimmingly from beginning to end.

Comparisons with Somerset Maugham's Up at the Villa (1940) are difficult to resist. But they should be resisted! There are countless similarities between the two works but they are entirely superficial: both are something in between novel and short story (called "novella" for the sake of convenience), both are superbly written and both deal with widows who have some remarkably meaningful adventures in Italy. But that's all. The writing styles, the characters and the main themes couldn't have been more different.

Spoilers ahead

The plot is very simple and very naughty. Karen Stone is an aged and faded actress who quits the stage only to have her husband dying of heart attack during their extended holiday. She settles in Rome trying to burn as many bridges with her past as possible. But being notoriously wealthy, she becomes a prime target of the old Contessa, a female pimp who lives by offering gigolos to rich American ladies and sharing the profits. After several abortive attempts, Paolo finally succeeds in breaching Mrs Stone's formidable defences. A passionate but predictably doomed romance ensues. That is all.

Well, almost. There is one mysterious stranger, a beautiful but very poor young man, who follows Mrs Stone everywhere she goes, occasionally accompanying his presence with obscene gestures. When she is at home, he hangs on the Piazza di Spagna below, keeping an eye on her terrace. Day and night, sun and rain, he is always there, generous offers by homosexual tourists to relieve his destitute condition notwithstanding: "for when a man has an appointment with grandeur, he dares not stoop to comfort."

As you have rightly guessed by now, the greatness of the book is not in the plot. It never is. It's in the characters. Even the minor ones are drawn with spectacular vividness. The Contessa, for instance, appears but seldom yet her "artificial but convincingly effusive warmth" is wonderfully conveyed by her elaborately formal speech - and so are her gluttony and her rapacity, both obviously endless. Even the lesbian Meg Bishop, a childhood friend of Karen's and now a successful journalist who plays a very minor role in the novella, jumps from the pages with startling brightness, both physically and psychologically:

Meg Bishop was a woman journalist who had written a series of books under the basic title of Meg Sees, all dealing with cataclysmic events in the modern world and ranging historically from the civil war in Spain to the present guerilla fighting in Greece. Ten years of association with brass hats and political bigwigs had effaced any lingering traits of effeminacy in her voice and manner. Unfortunately she did not choose to wear the tailored clothes that would be congruous with her booming, incisive voice and her alert, military bearing. The queenly mink coat that she wore, the pearls and the taffeta dinner gown underneath, gave her a rather shockingly transvestite appearance, almost as though the burly commander of a gunboat had presented himself in the disguise of a wealthy clubwoman.

Just for the record, it should be mentioned, again as already obvious, that the writing is ravishing. What other writer would describe menstruation as "those red tides that bear organic life forward"? Or airplane as an "incredibly soaring but lifeless bird"? Such poetic flights may sound pompous out of the context. Oddly enough, they never do on the pages. At least I find the prose, not just smoothly readable, but evocative and affecting. But I guess somebody less enamoured with Tennessee's writings might find it affected and long-winded.

The Roman spring of Mrs Stone is a cathartic experience in many ways. For the first time in her life Karen is free from the hectic pursuit of her career, from learning new parts, from the tension of first nights, from the competition with her colleagues, from noisy parties and never-ending hypocrisy. For the first time in her life she actually has some time to think. Since she is by no means stupid, there are many hard truths to accept: her mediocrity on stage, the extreme emptiness of her life, how big a loss the death of her husband really is. Most of all, being a woman of peculiar sensitivity who is exposed to the disturbing influence of the Roman spring, Karen Stone is horrified by "the drift":

There are intervals when a life becomes clouded over by a sense of irreality, when definition is lost, when the rational will, or what passed for it before, has given up control, or the pretense of it. At such times there is a sense of drifting, if not of drowning, in a universe of turbulently rushing fluids or vapors. This was the condition that Mrs Stone had lately been conscious of...

[...]

The drift was everything that you did without having a reason. But was there a reason for anything at all? Oh, you could invent a reason, and some were plausible. Some were plausible enough for being accepted the way a polite excuse is accepted for convenience or social policy.

[...]

In the last year or two, the time since the death of her husband and the abandonment of her career, there had been a great but soundless and invisible collapse of barriers in her mind, a great entrance and blowing through of candid acknowledgments, but these did not have to be inscribed on the walls of her rooms. They could be known without even saying, I know them. The drift had direction, if it did not have purpose, and sometimes direction is all that we know of purpose.

It is at such moments, when she tentatively discovers herself and questions the meaninglessness of the world, that Karen Stone becomes a heroine I can easily identify with and care a good deal about. So, no doubt, could Tennessee. He unfolds her past life and describes her present spiritual quest with great sensitivity and with great sympathy. It is beyond me how some people could see "cruelty" in the portrayal of Mrs Stone. (Actually, not least of the book's merits is that even disagreeable characters like Paolo and the Contessa are presented without even a hint of empty moral indignation.) As always in his works, Tennessee takes the trouble to extrapolate from the personal experiences of his characters to some truths of universal significance.

The love affair with Paolo is Karen's way to stop the drift, or at least to give it some sort of direction if not purpose. But it also helps that her Roman spring should neatly coincide with her sexual awakening. She's fifty? Well, it's never too late. Though she was devoted to her husband and he simply doted on her, Karen had married Tom Stone - in Meg's blunt words - "to avoid copulation". Now he is dead and she is menopausal. So she can satisfy her carnal appetites without pangs of conscience and without fearing some conceivable problems. But she needs more than sex and that's all Paolo can offer. In fact, in the end he takes more than he has given:

And yet even Paolo, with his minimal perception, had noted in Mrs Stone the existence of a certain loneliness, unusual in kind as well as in degree, which a young adventurer no more encumbered by scruples than himself could turn to his great advantage once he got past her little wall of proprieties and defenses.

As both parties are aware that "to become the aggressor in a relationship is to forsake an advantage", it takes some time to walk the short way from the table to the bed. For a while Karen is blissfully happy and Paolo acts being in love very convincingly. Occasionally he comes with a revelation that's almost too perceptive for his stupendously superficial mind, all of it virtually concentrated in his groins. Here is one remarkable example of his insight into intimate human relationships:

And besides, when you love somebody, you mustn't listen to what they say. They say things to hurt you because they're afraid of being hurt themselves. You must look at the their eyes, said Paolo, and feel their hearts.

It's difficult to say how much of that he really means, though he is probably sincere at the moment of speaking. He even defends Karen against the vitriol of the Contessa who urges him to get as much of her money as possible, arguing that there is "no such thing as great American lady" because great ladies do not occur in country less than two hundred years old. European snobbery is the least of the Contessa's defects. Whether because of the dreadful poverty or because of other reasons, she has lost much of her humanity; only an outer shell of aristocratic elegance has remained. Her assertion that Mrs Stone has no dignity turns out to be quite wrong.

Paolo is merely a "marchetta", as derisively referred to by the Contessa, a boy on the market. Behind his dashing looks and his phony title, below his sleek hair and smooth skin, he is as fickle a creature as there ever was one. Whatever the intensity or the sincerity of his feelings towards Karen, they are soon burned out. Perhaps the Contessa has more to do with this than it seems at first glance, for she plays masterfully on his vanity by accusing him of being infatuated with Mrs Stone and by offering him new opportunities. However that may be, when Karen's residual dignity asserts itself, the dreadful end finally comes.

In her desperation and humiliation, on the spur of the moment, Karen did the only other thing she could to stop the drift again: she admitted into her house the mysterious stranger who had followed her everywhere. Knowing Tennessee's passion for symbols, it is pretty clear that this youth, this constant in a world of drift, is a symbol of death. This forms the tantalising ending of the novella. What is he going to do with her? Rape and kill her? Perhaps. Become her despotic lover and ruin whatever is left of her dignity? Maybe. Turn out to be everything Paolo was and yet everything he could never be? Equally likely. That's something every reader should decide for himself.

The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone is an extremely powerful and disturbing work. For mere 116 pages, loosely printed and easily read in a single sitting, it delivers superb characterisation and provokes serious reflection on several not entirely unimportant issues: from personal revelation and sexual obsession to social vacuity and (lack of) cosmic purpose. Essential read for all fans of Tennessee Williams. Not suitable for prudish readers.

By way of conclusion, few words about the two movie adaptations of the novella. The first one is the 1961 film with Vivien Leigh, Warren Beatty and Lotte Lenya, directed by José Quintero and with screenplay by Gavin Lambert. The second is the 2003 made-for-television production starring Helen Mirren, Olivier Martinez and Anne Bancroft, directed by Robert Allan Ackerman and with screenplay by Martin Sherman. Neither movie does full justice to the literary original. But the former is much closer than the latter.

The 1961 movie is visually rather badly dated. Most of it was shot in studio and, despite the lavish production, it's difficult to be taken in that it's Rome. But the screenplay is a fine adaptation, using most of the best lines in the novella, and Quintero is an excellent director (amazingly, this was his debut on the screen, having previously directed only on the stage). Of course any hints about Meg's lesbian inclinations or Paolo's bisexuality (one of his previous clients was a Baron) are eliminated completely, but neither are they central to the work. Few other "straight" sexual references are toned down but the character of the book is on the whole preserved.

(So many people so wrongly think that Tennessee was concerned in his works with exploration of homosexuality, repressed or not. Not at all. It is confused sexuality that he finds most fascinating. And the confusion refers to both the direction and the intensity. But that's another story.)

Although A Streetcar Named Desire remains my absolutely first choice, it is not hard to see why Tennessee Williams called this version of The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone "a poem" and his personal favourite of all movies based on his works.

Vivien Leigh is splendid, conveying Karen's vulnerability, yet also her dignity, with marvellous restraint. Warren Beatty never was much of an actor, but in his twenties he looks totally gorgeous and that's the most important thing for the part; still, he puts on a passable Italian accent and brings off Paolo's childish ingenuity rather convincingly. Lotte Lenya is a very sneaky Contessa, apparently of German descent as her chilling "Wunderbar" in the end suggests.

Unfortunately the chemistry between Warren and Vivien doesn't always work. That's the basic defect of the movie once you get past the artificiality of the studio sets and Vivien's slightly horrible wig. Otherwise this is a poignant film, cleverly directed and beautifully acted.

The 2003 movie is visually spectacular. That's the best I can say about it. In every other aspect it is significantly inferior to the earlier one. The screenplay is much less successful, extending unnecessarily the part until the death of Karen's husband and omitting more from the original than the older version. There is a great deal of nudity and numerous sex scenes (the vigorous one in the car was especially glorious), but this doesn't prevent the movie from being a total disappointment. After that steamy adventure in the car comes the first of only two original additions in the screenplay worth mentioning:

Karen: Do you love me?
Paolo: I am hungry.

The universal fame of Helen Mirren is one of the great mysteries of modern times. She does a decent job here, and she looks pleasantly haggard (Vivien was accused of being too beautiful for the part), but her performance is nothing to rave about. If Warren Beatty never was much of an actor, Olivier Martinez is no actor at all; and if the chemistry between Vivien and Warren was insufficient, the one between Helen and Olivier is completely missing. Apparently the producers and the screenwriter thought that when they load the movie with nudity and sex, the chemistry would somehow materialize. Nope, doesn't work that way. Most of the scenes with Karen and Paolo are pathetic.

After the visual side, the best in this movie are the supporting roles. Anne Bancroft is a scary Contessa, not easily forgettable. Roger Allam plays Christopher, a dramatist who takes the role of Meg from the novella. The remarkable thing about this character is that he was clearly intended as a portrait of Tennessee Williams. The moustache, the voice, the laugh, the body language: everything is carefully imitated. It's a very clever touch, brilliantly executed. To him belongs the second memorable original line in the screenplay:

Beautiful boys are medicinal. Like penicillin, they should be taken twice a day until the course is finished, after which you should in theory recover.

Karen Stone never fully recovered, though. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Jul 25, 2012 |
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At five o'clock in the afternoon, which was late in March, the stainless blue of the sky over Rome had begun to pale and the blue transparency of the narrow streets had gathered a faint opacity of vapour.
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