While reading the The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, I would like to have a closer look on how the drama mirrors the influence of Oriental philosophy, especially that of Zen Buddhism. When Tennessee Williams got acquainted with Yukio Mishima and visited him in Japan, he not only read old and modern NÅ plays, but also saw NÅ and Kabuki performances in Japan, and he used some elements of these in The Night of the Iguana (1961).  In Iguana Williams begins using limited amount of Kabuki elements, which will fully shown in The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, The Day on Which a Man Dies, and In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel. In my paper I am going to give a comparison of Williams's Milk Train to Japanese theatre and also, to point out the impact of Zen philosophy in Milk Train.
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Allean Hale has documented the galvanizing effect of Williams's introduction to Yukio Mishima in 1957 and how this inspired the American dramatist to revitalize his work with exploration into the theatre of the East. Williams read Mishima's Five Modern NÅ Plays, and visited him in Japan in 1959, where he saw a great deal of NÅ and Kabuki performances. On the trip home, he began writing, what he referred to as "an occidental Noh play" called The Day on Which a Man Dies (1959), which would become the template for In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (1969). He was working on four other plays on that voyage; one of them was The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore. As Hale has demonstrated, Eastern influences would also find their way into another work begun on that fertile journey, The Night of the Iguana ("Secret" 366-7). Milk Train, however, represents a more thorough-going attempt to integrate significant amounts of Eastern philosophy and dramaturgy with his own unmistakable brand of Western theatre.
Hale gives a detailed description of how Williams got acquainted with Yukio Mishima in the United States, and how Williams's affinity for the Japanese writer and playwright went deep. Although he was only thirty-two, Mishima had already published thirty-five novels as well as a number of plays and was one of Japan's most visible cultural figures ("Secret" 364). Both writers were devoted to their work above everything else, which led, on one hand, to prodigious output but, on the other, to largely unsatisfactory relationships with other people. Both came from families which claimed distantly aristocratic pasts, and both had childhoods that were almost mirror images of each other's violent fathers, over-protective mothers, early illness that isolated them from other children. Also, they were both were gay men who, despite their respective cultures' oppressive attitudes, recreated their loves and desires in their work ("Secret" 364).
Before giving account of the traditional dramaturgy of NÅ drama, I shall give a short description of NÅ and Kabuki theatre. NÅ and Kabuki are both traditional forms of Japanese performing arts. As all of the actors, even those in the roles of women, are male, the costumes, as well as the use of masks in NÅ and of makeup in Kabuki, are very important. NÅ originated in the 14th century as a form of entertainment at religious festivals and developed further under the protection of medieval shoguns. NÅ uses a variety of devices to enhance the meaning of gestures and movements. The protagonist always wears a carved wooden mask, of which there are six main types: holy men, gods and demons, old men, spirits, men, and women. Though the stage has little decoration, the costumes of the actors are ornate and massive: the actors wear at least five layers of garments, all of different colors and patterns. Costume and mask combine to give an unearthly quality to the performer. Hand props are also used to define and express meaning, most notably the folding fan.
Kabuki had its beginnings as a dance form in the 17th century. In a Kabuki play, singing and dancing are used to further the development of the plot. Common themes include the dilemmas of love, jealousy, and heroic bravery. In addition to brilliant costumes, many styles of makeup are used. One such called kumadori, or "making shadows," is an art form in itself. In kumadori, white foundation is applied to the entire face, and one of a set of established colorful patterns is painted on. The two most common colors used are red, which denotes virtues such as bravery, strength, and justice, and dark blue, which expresses negative traits like jealousy and fear. Black, terra-cotta, bronze, and gold are common as well.
Always on Time
Marked to Standard
In his Introduction to Mishima's plays, Donald Keene provides an outline for NÅ, the form which has changed little since the seventeenth century. The play
was likely to begin with a priest on a journey to some holy spot. There he meets a person of the vicinity whose strangely poetic words belie his humble appearance. The priest questions the unknown reaper or fishergirl, who gradually reveals the story of his former glory, and leads us to understand that some unsatisfied attachment to the world has kept his spirit behind. At the end of the play, a hope of salvation, of deliverance from the attachment, is offered, and the ghost fades away. (Five Modern No Plays x-xi)
The humble reaper or fisherwoman (this figure is called the shite) has another identity. After shedding an outer costume, the shite's true nature is revealed in a climactic dance: a demon, perhaps or a warrior or a beautiful woman.
Williams was led to Arthur Waley's The No Plays of Japan by Keene's bibliographical note, in which he mentions that four of the five original plays on which Mishima based his modern versions were available in English in Waley's famous volume. The book was first published in the United States in 1922, and then was reissued in 1957. It seems very likely that Williams turned to Waley's book before working on Milk Train. In addition to the brief play texts, Williams found a detailed history and description of NÅ theatre and, crucially, a "Note on Buddhism." From the former, Williams learned that a NÅ play is without active, meaningful conflict per se, which tells the pilgrim of his or her earthly life, and that the play's significant colors are "memory, longing or regret" (53). "The Note on Buddhism" informed Williams that at the heart of NÅ were tenets of Zen Buddhism; the belief that the soul's being will be absorbed into Nirvana, or Buddha, the understanding that the physical world is mere illusion, and that the only escape from material existence, or the "Wheel of Life and Death," is Enlightenment (58). The Note also contains information on the Bodhisattvas, "intermediaries between Buddha and man . . . beings who, though fit to receive Buddhahood, have of their own free will renounced it, that they may better alleviate the miseries of mankind." According to Waley, the most well known of the Bodhisattvas was Kannon, who might take either a woman or a man's form but in Japan was generally considered to be a woman (57).  I feel compelled to observe that this short summary is a mere simplification of Zen; it was written by a westerner, who has never practiced Zen, and read his own Western preconceptions into the philosophy of Buddhism. At around the same time, when Williams got acquainted with Buddhism, Zen masters, like Shunryu Suzuki, arrived in the United States, and gave authentic teachings. Although Suzuki arrived in San Francisco in 1959 and founded a Zen centre, where he conveyed his authentic Zen teachings, his talks were published in a written form only in 1970, in his book entitled Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. Until Shunryu Suzuki's work, there were numerous books available in English, but they contained some westernized, distorted views on Buddhism, which, in the 1950s became rather popular in the United States. Williams obtained the westernized, simplified philosophical underpinning for which he had been searching.
According to Hale, Williams was especially interested in Mishima's "woman play," The Lady Aoi, a story of possession, in which the soul of a jealous mistress invades the wife of her lover ("Secret" 366). The original version of this play, Aoi No Uye, appears in Waley and contains a character, which does not appear in Mishima's adaptation. She is the Witch of Teruhi, a diviner, who, by plucking a bow-string calls forth the angry spirit of RokujÅ, who is assaulting the ailing body of the Princess Aoi, and Williams seem to have borrowed her mystical powers for Milk Train. Prepared by his reading and by seeing several performances both in Japan and in New York ("Secret" 368), Williams could transform his short story, "Man Bring This Up Road" into his own version of a NÅ play, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (1962).
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Before reading The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, I wish to lay down my seemingly unconventional critical stance of "Zen-reading." As such a category is not used among critical theories, I would anticipate that a Zen-reading is not an exceptional way of approach to read cultural phenomena.  The main emphasis in my reading is based upon the assumption that the philosophy of Zen Buddhism is as important as western philosophy to approach the Zen-inspired plays of Williams.  From this preconception, it seems to be rational if I take both the Oriental and the Western motifs into consideration in my readings because Williams wrote Milk Train for a Western audience with both Occidental and Oriental dramaturgic means.
Sissy Goforth, the artist figure of The Milktrain represents a growing movement towards abstraction among Williams's visionaries. Like the Princess and Shannon in Iguana, she enters visionary states through intoxication, but because she exists in a more isolated world-an Italian villa on the Divina Costiera-her intoxicated visions more completely expand to fill the stage, privileging vision over journey. Sissy's villa is far from being an idyllic realm of freedom; while in Williams's successful plays such places served as a possible place to escape to, in Milk Train the villa and its surrounding seems much more a site of demonic incarceration. In his "Author's Notes" to the play, Williams suggests that "the play will come off better the further it is removed from conventional theatre, since it's rightly been described as an allegory and as a 'sophisticated fairy tale'" (3). Reviewers did not respond well to the "fairy tale" when the play opened at the Spolcto Festival in 1962; they regarded the play as a Tennessee Williams low point, an embarrassing failure of which the less said the better. The play opened on Broadway on 16th January 1963, and it seemed to reviewers at the time like a radical departure from what they had expected from Williams. The negative reviews closed the play after sixty-nine performances. A subsequent Broadway production in October 1963, with a revised script, met with a worse fate, closing after only four performances. Critics such as Stanley Richards concurred that the play was "totally inexplicable" (66), and John Gassner, an early supporter of Williams, declared the play to be a "fiasco . . . a reminder that silk purses simply cannot be made out of sows ears" (Theatre 186). Richard Gilman's review of the first production, "Mistah Williams He Dead," has become a landmark of negative criticism, in which he declares Williams's death as a playwright. As Gilman comments, the play is used "not to solve [Williams's] dilemmas aesthetically but to exhibit them in their inchoate form" (515). The play has, over the years of Williams's increasing departures from realist conventions, come to seem to academic critics to more closely resemble the earlier plays, as seen in Gilbert Debusscher's argument that Milk Train was "the last of his full-length plays . . . before acute personal problems forced the playwright into a prolonged artistic eclipse" (399).
The immediate journalistic reaction against the play was in response to the giant theatricalist step which Milk Train takes beyond Iguana's more limited metatheatricalism, moving toward the increasingly experimental theatricalist modalities that will characterize the rest of his work. The most obvious of these experiments in the play are the Kabuki-style stage assistants who change scenery in front of the audience, thereby creating a doubled awareness of for the audience of the theatrical subject of the play. Norman Fedder was not amused by these theatricalist effects and their departure from Williams's earlier poetic style, thinking that they "garishly reveal the structural aimlessness and mask the integrity of the play" (804), and believing that "the excessive theatrics serve to call attention to the insubstantial meaning" (804).
Milk Train does not resemble the earlier successful plays, as it has little meaningful conflict; it is a play in which two-dimensional characters exchange long, often narrative speeches, the subjects of which are the memories of a life almost done and the need to welcome death. Milk Train occurs on the border between living and dying, in which a pilgrim meets a character whose unfulfilled, restless spirit needs release from the world of materialistic illusion. Williams wrote not only his version of a NÅ play, but he opened the way to a new personal dramaturgy, with which he would sweep away most of his past statements and values, explore new territories, and arrive at new conclusions about the value of living and dying.
Even those few critics who have tried hard to like the play insist on admiring it on Western terms. Their intentions may be good, but in the end they only condescend to the play and contribute to the general misunderstanding. Some, as will be seen, have tried to redeem a "bland" Chris Flanders by viewing him as a St. Christopher figure or even as Christ himself. Chris is, indeed, a religious figure but his origin is Eastern: the Bodhisattva, a Zen Buddhist figure who, forsaking Buddhahood, devotes his life to others. Indeed, everything in Milk Train's symbolism, structure, and characters that struck critics as inept in Western terms is, in NÅ theatre, beautiful and appropriate.
For audiences of the first Broadway production, Williams provided a hint of his intentions in a program note, asking them to view Sissy not as a human being but as a "universal condition of human beings: "the apparently incomprehensible but surely somehow significant adventure of being alive that we all must pass through for a time" (Taubman). Before the revised version opened for a tryout at the Barter Theater in Abingdon, Virginia, in September 1963, Williams told The New York Times that a trip to Japan in 1961 had left him "deeply impressed" with Eastern philosophy. With ironic understatement, he described Milk Train as "vaguely Oriental with Occidental variations" ("Milk Train"). The published version of the text is preceded by an epigram Williams borrowed from Yeats, another playwright influenced by NÅ, in which the poet yearns for his heart to be set free from his dying body and released into eternity.
Among critics, only Allean Hale has taken Williams's interest in Zen Buddhism as well as Japanese dramaturgy seriously, and her work, especially on In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, is crucial to any real understanding of several of Williams's later plays ("Tennessee's" 211-12). Those few critics who have acknowledged any Eastern influence in the play at all have limited themselves to its most obvious and least important manifestation, the two Kabuki stage assistants, which they easily dismiss as "bogus" (Weales 66) and "camp Kabuki nonsense" which, one says, Williams had fallen victim to "after spending more time in Japan than was good for him" (Coveney). Another critic, Signi Falk minimizes the play's Japanese influence and inflates the importance of its alleged Christian symbolism: "The playwright seems to combine the Oriental idea of resignation, of accepting death, with the myth of Christ wrestling with the problem of good and evil, and finally, in behalf of mankind, carrying his burden of sins" (127). Indeed, Falk's criticism of Milk Train comes in a chapter entitled "The Deteriorating Artist." Far from deteriorating, Williams set out on a new course; the direction of that course was due east, and its destination Zen Buddhism and the NÅ theatre.
Williams based his own "NÅ play" on the 1953 short story, "Man Bring This Up Road," a stark, simple story about the meeting of a washed-up poet and maker of mobiles named Jimmy Dobyne, and the wealthy Mrs. Flora Goforth at her estate on a cliff north of Amalfi. He arrives hungry and exhausted, desperate for rest. Any chance of his recuperating at the villa is dashed, however, when he rejects Mrs. Goforth's amorous advances, and he is sent packing down the road as soon as lie came up.
In Milk Train Christopher Flanders, carries in his heavy white sack a mobile called "The Earth Is a Wheel in a Great Big Gambling Casino," and his practice of visiting dying millionairesses earns him the nickname "The Angel of Death." He has come because the formerly robust Mrs. Goforth of "Man Bring This Up Road" has acquired a fatal illness. She rejects the suggestion that she is dying of a "lung abscess," which would construct her as one of Williams's earlier metaphoric visionaries, disfigured through an ethereal and sexual burning. She theatricalizes her rejection of the tuberculosis metaphor by pushing an X-ray machine that looks to her like a "perambulator form Mars" (12) over a cliff, claiming that "my outside is public, but my insides are private" (120), also seeming to cast off the mode of expressionism, which presents drama from the "inner" perspective of a protagonist. Steeped in denial, Flora (now nicknamed "Sissy") is nonetheless racing against the clock to finish dictating her memoirs to her secretary, Blackie, and meditating on the meaning of life and death. A friend, unnamed in the story, who lives on a neighboring island, is now called the Marchesa Constance Ridgeway-Condotti, with the unexplained honorific, "the Witch of Capri." Her character seems to be Williams's playful tribute to the diviner of The Lady Aoi. In scene iii, her face lit by the eerie blue flame of a copper brazier, Williams's witch performs "a stylized recitation" in which she tells Sissy the story of Chris's first mystical-and fatal-visitation to a wealthy old woman (51).
Sissy's great wealth, barely mentioned in the story, is conspicuous in the play; she says from the beginning how she wedded to the material world, like a shite. "Blackie," she tells her young secretary, "this estate contains things appraised by Lloyd's at over two million pounds sterling, besides my jewels and summer furs, and that's why it has to be guarded against trespassers, uninvited intruders" (16). Indeed, her estate of three villas is more like a fortress, perched at the top of a cliff, like the "Hotel for the Dying" in Iguana, overlooking the Divina Costiera of Italy and guarded by armed watchmen and attack dogs. This hold is perched "Above the oldest sea in the Western world" (7), somewhere between earth and sky, between the material world and the realm of the spirit.
The play is framed with the appearance of those two "invisible" Stage Assistants. During a Prologue, they raise Sissy's heraldic banner, the device on which is the image of a griffin, "mythical monster, half lion, and half eagle, and completely human" (7). This Prologue is as Brechtian as it is Asian, for the Assistants tell the spectator/reader that the play occurs over "the course of the two final days of Mrs. Goforth's existence." In other words, like an epic Brecht play, Milk Train contains little in the way of conventional suspension of disbelief; it is out of question that the female main character will die, but the main question is how she will die. The play ends with the Stage Assistants' lowering the banner-life is over-but with a muted bugle playing Reveille rather than Taps. Reveille, the call that signals the beginning of another day, suggests that Sissy is moving on to the next stage of life after her death.
Around the villa monsters proliferate, "The sea is full of Medusas" (44), and although they are merely stinging jellyfish, they share the name of the mythical female monster, one of the three Gorgóns in Greek mythology, part-human, whose hairs are vipers. Like her griffin, Sissy is something of a monster herself, a devouring, egomaniacal demon, deeply afraid of death. Her first line, as she awakens to another day of pain, is ego personified: "Ahhhhhhhh, Meeeeeeeeee . . ." (8). As she becomes conscious, she utters a cry of physical pain and existential angst: "Another day. Oh, Christ, Oh, Mother of Christ!" (8). Sissy, wracked by illness and pain, needs to die. Still, although faced with the prospect of unbearable pain from the abscess in her lung, she cannot confront the mystery of what will come after. Like the Lady Aoi in Mishima's play, Sissy sleeps only under sedation, always accompanied by nightmares.
In one of the first NÅ analogues of the play, Williams literalizes Sissy's monstrous ego by demonstrating how it has devoured the villa. She has wired every building for sound, her voice penetrating wood, plaster, and stone in order to summon Blackie and launch into dictation at any moment. Sissy's ego demands immediate satisfaction and pervades every inch of her mountain kingdom, denying rest and privacy to her staff, whom she dismisses on a whim. Sissy has also made sure that she will maintain an earthly presence even after death: except for one dollar which will go to her daughter, the entirety of Sissy's estate will go to a cultural foundation named after her (12).
Like a shite figure, Sissy's life now revolves around her past. "Has it ever struck you, Connie," she says to the Witch, "that life is all memory except for the one present moment that goes by you so quick you hardly catch it going? . . . Practically everything is a memory to me, now. . . . Four husbands, all memory now. All lovers, all memory now" (46-47). Many of her speeches are monologues about her past in the term of dictated memoirs; dictating day and night over a loudspeaker system, Sissy produces a chaos of disjointed memory texts, leaving her secretary the impossible task of making some order on them for publication. In Milk Train there is a gradual shift from modernist memory plays to later metamimetic memory plays; modern memory plays are based upon the analytic structure of present/past, whereas in metamimetic memory plays remembrance juxtaposes two or more time frames in a non-hierarchical way.
Sissy's life has been as devoted to physical pleasure as it has been to acquisition of material goods. Not surprisingly, her memoirs speak largely about the earthly matter of sex with four husbands, numerous lovers, and about wild costume parties where Sissy appeared completely nude as Lady Godiva, and sex-crazed men competing to "dismount me so they could mount me" (36). Her description of her last husband, who, alone of all four, brought her that gift, is merely a recounting of his physical perfection and of sex they had on the first night of their marriage. Alex's body, she tells Blackie, was "god's perfection" (14). That's all she says about her husband number four.
Sissy's denial of her mortality drives her to embrace desire and egotism all the more closely. What she needs to fight off her depression, she tells Blackie, is a lover. "The dead are dead and the living are living!" (35). Carol Cutrere in Orpheus Descending could not express herself better, but in Milk Train, this credo proves to be another false one. Where Williams once proclaimed sex, love, and spiritual perfection as rough equivalents in this play, he mocks this way of thinking. In Milk Train, such a creed, in the mouth of a dying old woman, may at most be touching, or rather, comically grotesque.
Sissy's memory of Alex has not yet faded into silence when Chris Flanders arrives; he is a young man, but not as young as he appears. "He has the looks of a powerful, battered, but still undefeated fighter," Williams writes, while, in the distance, "female voices are heard exclaiming" (19). Sissy mistakes his true gift, which is not his sensual being but his ability to release the ego-driven from life. Chris's character is new in the playwright's oeuvre, since in Williams's typology, a character like him always stood for the victory of earthly desire and its spiritual analogue against the forces of repression.
The next morning, Chris's cue to reappear on the terrace is Sissy's line, "Meaning of life!" (60). In Williams's successful plays, virile young men served as a metaphor of a tribute to the spiritual ecstasy of physical desire. For the American audience in 1963, Chris probably seemed another version of Kilroy, Val Xavier, Stanley Kowalski, or Chance Wayne. As I shall read his character, Chris is actually Hannah Jelkes, and his role will be not to supply physical ecstasy but to provide a release from its coils. As Williams told The New York Times, the values Chris brings Sissy are "values that her life was the opposite of, an acceptance of what must happen ("Milk Train").
Critics have long associated Chris Flanders with Christian symbols. Gassner calls him a paraclete (76); to Norman J. Fedder he is "Christlike" (803) and Roger Boxhill considers him both a symbol of salvation and a prostitute (146, 149). Philip Armato considers Williams a "Christian playwright" altogether (570), while Gilbert Debusscher, more circumspectly, considers Chris a St. Christopher figure. Debusscher points out that the burden Chris carries summons images of St. Christopher bearing travelers across a river (155). Williams certainly seems to give several opportunities to view Chris as a modern St. Christopher transporting Christ across the river. When he first appears on Sissy's terrace and tries to explain his need to care for others, she replies skeptically, "Oh, you seem to be setting yourself up as a-as a saint of some kind . . . . " (75). Next, the Witch of Capri relates to Chris's story as if it were a legend of Christ, focusing upon the "miracle" (51) of healing and death he is reputed to have performed. Later Sissy asks Chris jokingly if he can "walk on water?" (112), and questions him: "You came here to bring me God, didn't you?" (113), challenging him to
bring Him, Him ready to lay out a red carpet for Him, but how do you bring Him? Whistle? Ring a bell for Him? (She snatches a hell off her desk and rings it fiercely.) Huh? How? What? (She staggers against the desk, gasping) (113).
Williams seems to have set up a trap for spectators/readers in the character of Chris, since they had gotten used to associating certain of Williams's young men with Christian martyrs. Sebastian in Suddenly Last Summer has received much attention as a symbol for his namesake saint, and Val Xavier, Kilroy, and Shannon have been interpreted as symbols of Christ. As Debusscher says, ". . . commentators . . . have managed to make each play yield its Christ figure" (149)
The St. Christopher metaphor seems to be a trap; Chris's nickname, "The Angel of Death," is, to a dying woman like Sissy, more terrifying than comforting. Debusscher is also puzzled that while St. Christopher carried people across a river to safety, Chris Flanders once bore an old man out to sea to his death and now has come to the mountain to escort Sissy to hers. The old man even paid Chris well for his aid, and "The Angel of Death" appears to steal Sissy's rings as she laboriously breathes her last. Debusscher claims that the St. Christopher parallel raises more questions than it answers: "Christopher's self-appointed task of helping old people, preferably dying women, he writes, "through the last few days of their existence . . . for a not altogether symbolic reward, prolongs the contrast embedded in the St. Christopher parallel" (155).
While one can view Chris as a Christian symbol, in his sack Chris carries another emblem, a mobile called "The Earth Is a Wheel in a Great Big Gambling Casino." Far from representing anything to do with Christianity, this is a symbol of Zen Buddhism, suggesting that his visionary stance is that of a gambler. Indeed, since Williams was employing NÅ conventions, Chris makes a much more convincing Bodhisattva than he does a Christian symbol. A Bodhisattva, according to Buddhist teachings, is always where he/she is needed; driven by no desire, a Bodhisattva with his/her mere presence is able to help, since he/she has no expectations, neither for good or bad. A Bodhisattva is void of all problems of life, without any desire he/she can act spontaneously at the given moment, and even if his/her deeds sometimes seem to be bad, essentially a Bodhisattva always has good deeds.
Sissy, whether she can admit it or not, needs help since she is caught in an existential crisis; clinging to her earthly existence, she is beginning to sense that it is no longer enough. When she proclaims, "Meaning of life!" the Bodhisattva enters-providing a tacit indication as to what life's meaning is, according to Buddhism, an illusion should be transcended. Just as Sissy may be seen as a demon woman still caught in the toils of ego and earthly desires, Chris is a pilgrim, a holy man who speaks a westernized version of Zen in his specific idiolect. He shares with Sissy, haltingly, as if still searching, an image of the world as experienced by two puppies who huddle together at night for security. They can never be sure of their place in a world of obscurity and illusion. They do not know whether they please their master, since they ". . . hear so many sounds, voices, and see so many things they can't comprehend!. . . We're all of us living in a house we're not used to . . . a house full of -voices, noises, objects, strange shadows, light that's even stranger-We can't understand!" (76). Later, Chris extends the metaphor: "Yes-we all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it" (107). Chris's speech is an elaboration of a line from Aoi No Uye, in which RokujÅ, the mistress who sends her spirit to torment Princess Aoi, tells the Witch of Teruhi, "I drove out of Burning House . . ." to attack the Princess. The "burning house" is a Zen metaphor for the material body from which Buddha lures the untutored-a piece of information Williams borrowed directly from one of Waley's footnotes (182). As for the windows Chris refers to, he elaborates on their Zen meaning as well: "these upstairs windows, not wide enough to crawl out of, just wide enough to lean out of and look out of, and-look and look and look, till we're almost nothing but looking, nothing, almost, but vision . . ." (108).
Chris as a visionary with his vision, unlike Sissy, seems to be different in Milk Train than the visionaries in Williams's previous plays. Sissy sees the world through her intoxicated vision; she seems to subsist on a diet of coffee, mineral water, cigarettes, many codeine tablets, and a lot of liquor. Chris is a poet, whom Sissy regards as a "trespasser" 834), and she searches his belongings to discover a book of poem which he has written under the title of Meanings Known and Unknown, a title which suggests Rimbaud's poetic vision into "the unknown" through the "disordering of the senses" (120)
Critics were particularly bothered about the long scenes between Chris and Sissy in which, they believe, nothing dramatic happens. While Weales believes that Sissy is a "potentially a vibrant comic character," she has no one to push against, Chris is simply too bland and symbolic to be her match, and Sissy's ultimate reversal is ". . . not presented dramatically or defined in any terms but philosophic generalization" (66). Fedder agreed: ". . . Chris is a negligible antagonist against the egomaniacal heroine who does him in at every turn . . ." (803). Robert F. Gross objects that while Chris and Sissy dominate the play, their relationship is impossible to understand (102), which would seem to be a particular problem in scene v.
Both main characters seem to be liberated from coherence. Although they dominate Milk Train, it is rather difficult, if not impossible to understand their relationship. Chris may be the "Angel of Death" and the avatar of Sissy's fourth husband, and certainly those attributions resonate throughout the play. However, Chris may be also seen as a gigolo, an aging hanger-on to wealthy elderly ladies, a burnt-out poet, a man bearing the weight of a notorious reputation, a mystic visionary, and quite possibly a cheat, a liar, a thief, or even, a murderer. A similar long list could be assembled to Sissy. Such multiple render character relationship unstable. At forty-two pages, scene v is by far the longest scene in the play. If to this point the play is viewed according to Western practice, then this scene should contain the bulk of the conflict between the antagonists as well as a suitably melodramatic climax, followed by the concluding action of scene vi. Rather than grounding the multiple roles of character relationship to plot development, the play is precisely about what does not happen. Instead, Sissy and Chris engage in an extended debate, interrupted by narrative monologues which sum up their lives and philosophies. These monologues are self-contained, they have little or no effect on the action or on the character who hears them. The slow action is elliptical and allusive, as it ought to be in a NÅ play, in which the pilgrim is not meant to provide conflict but rather the occasion for the shite to find release.
If the scene does not produce a climax in the Western sense, it approximates the climatic moment of a NÅ play. Here, however, "climax" is not to be understood as the point when the protagonist's fate is irrevocably sealed. Rather, it is the key moment of revelation. In NÅ, this is the shite's long dance, where she reveals her true past and real nature before her spirit can be released. In Milk Train, Williams provides his version of a westernized equivalent. First, Chris enters wearing an outfit Sissy left for him the night before, a Kabuki robe, girded by a samurai sword. Just as the shite, literally unveils himself or herself, Sissy has shed her own Kabuki robe which she had worn the previous evening. It was a gift, she explained to the Witch, given her by Harlan during a reconciliation trip to the East. For the Witch, she had indulged in an unconvincing masquerade of health and optimism. Now, shorn of disguises, she is no more than her own true, frail self.
Among the other new possessions Williams gave Sissy for Milk Train is a humble past which she now reveals, "born between a swamp and the wrong side of the tracks in One Street Georgia," she became a dancer at a carnival show where she was billed as the "Dixy Doxy" and, like Gypsy Rose Lee, worked herself up into the big time by displaying not only her anatomy but her wit. It was there, in her teens, where she met and married Harlan Goforth who died intestate a few years later, leaving her everything (67-68). From this humble beginning has emerged a demon of tremendous vitality and even larger ego.
Chris responds with the story of his own recent past and present existential confusion. He has come to doubt his vision of the world, one that has always left him alienated from others. Chris's gentle, enforced asceticism proves no match for Sissy's ties to her earthly existence; to prove her vitality to both of them, she attempts to seduce him. He suggests that death is merely one moment, and she replies that she prefers the many millions of her rich life. On learning that an ailing old woman Chris recently visited has died, Sissy is shaken but still refuses to believe that his presence suggests that her own time is near. "Sissy Goforth's not ready to go forth yet and won't go forth until she's ready . . ." she declares (95).
When Sissy finally does find release, in scene vi, it is with little of the grace or dignity which accompanies the true acceptance Chris has urged her to seek. Even in her dying moments she misunderstands why he has come and what he has to offer-not the pleasant, temporary release of the petit morte but the permanent liberation of morte. After suffering a hemorrhage, she retreats to her bedroom and arrays herself in her most valuable jewelry. As she dies, she is cataloguing her possessions: "The chandelier, if the dealer that sold it to me wasn't a liar, used to hang in Versailles, and the bed, if lie wasn't lying, was the bed of Countess Walewska, Napoleon's Polish mistress. It's a famous old bed, for a famous old body. . . ." (118).
Sissy's last words to Chris are, "Be here, when I wake up" (116). She still believes she will not die. To her last breath she struggles, fighting Chris off as he helps her to her deathbed. She draws a sharp gasp with each ring Chris pulls off from her fingers and dies. After all her struggle, the moment of her death is small-merely one moment among many, as Chris had promised (86). There is no melodrama, none of the theatricality of Lady's death in Orpheus Descending, of Chance's Sweet Bird of Youth, just the "boom" of the ocean below and the music of the mobile as it turns in the breeze. In Williams's earlier plays, Sissy's death might have been viewed as tragedy. In Milk Train, however, where Williams frustrates every expectation and repudiates virtually all of his traditional themes, Sissy's death-and Chris's failure to guide her towards acceptance-is a grotesque comedy.
Walter Kerr says that comedy is the battle between one's heavenly aspirations and one's earthly desires, where the desires prevail. "Comedy spends its hours counting-blandly, almost without comment-the manacles that cannot be gotten rid of" (146). In the ethos of NÅ, the proper action is to shed one's ego and transcend. On one level, Sissy knows this-"Another day, Oh, Christ, Oh, Mother of Christ!"-but she cannot do it. In a NÅ play there is no such thing, where the shite does not unshackle the chains of earth. In Western theatre, chains are the terra firma of comedy.
In fact, one can notice from the beginning that the play is a comedy and an almost thoroughly grotesque one. Williams is not content to show us Sissy's tenacious hold on life-an attitude he had championed in so many earlier plays-he also mocks her for it. Sissy, an old, ravaged, dying woman reveling in her past sexual glory, is a grotesque. Williams describes the effect of Sissy dancing in her Kabuki robe as "a sort of grotesque beauty" (43). She is grotesque when she repeatedly tries to seduce Chris; she is grotesque when, in an utter absence of self-knowledge, she tells the Witch of Capri that she could never marry a dancer because "they love only mirrors" (47). She is grotesque because, blinded by fear and her ego, she is not willing to accept the truth of her situation. Williams also suggests that in her self-imposed isolation, atop an almost inaccessible cliff where she no longer has to hear the sound of human voices, she is grotesque. Sissy is not the play's only grotesque figure, however. The Witch of Capri certainly fits the definition, in her "Fata Morgna" outfit which includes blue-tinted hair, "a cone-shaped that studded with pearls," and hands like claws, "aglitter with gems" (43).
The opposition of Sissy and Chris does not reinforce gender binaries, but subverts them. Sissy is sexually aggressive and casts Chris in the role of the object of desire; in comparison, the young man is passive. He is never identified as anyone's sexual partner, and withdraws from Sissy's advances. As binaries are weak, the English actor Rupert Everett has played Sissy twice in a production designed and directed by Philip Prowse, first at the Citizens' Theatre of Glasgow in 1994 and remounted in London in 1997. The latter production also provided a male actor, David Foxxe, as the Witch of Capri. The change of genders did not seem to illuminate the play according to reviewers; indeed, several mention an overabundance of camp and a concomitant lack of sexual attraction between Sissy and Chris. I would not like to make a performance analysis, or to trace the history of the productions of Milk Train; my mentioning this piece of its history of performance is meant to underpin my claim that the play is not only grotesque, but also dissolves the gender binaries, which was realized by actors and stage directors also in practice.
There is, however, another way of approaching the gender issue, at least in theory. Hale writes that when Williams saw the Grand Kabuki Company on his visit to Tokyo and in New York a year later, he was intrigued by the famous onnagata, or female impersonator, Nakamura Utaemon VI. Williams experimented with the idea of the onnagata in his plays The Day on which a Man Dies and In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel. If Chris is viewed as a Bodhisattva who may appear in both male and female forms, then one is invited to view the subject position of Chris as that of a woman-and perhaps Sissy' as that of a man. In this case, the central action of the play, to the extent to which it has one in the traditional Western dramatic notion of action, is that of a gentle, artistic woman nurturing a deeply pained man mired in spiritual crisis brought on by the snares of earthly disease and a fear of death. In The Night of the Iguana, the result of that action is positive: Shannon will live and may yet find peace. In Milk Train, the action ends in the "man's death-yet in the play's Eastern cosmology, this is also positive: Sissy will die, and in the release from the life of material illusion, she, too, will find peace. One might go as far as to claim that, when played by a man, the name "Sissy" acquires a new resonance: for in the face of death, Flora is a sissy, indeed, a comic figure unequal to the vital task before her.
As Milk Train moves to its end, not only do characterological and gender binaries dissolve, but the very landscape disperses into a final lack of differentiation that seems a reversion to a sublime primal chaos, with sky and sea "dissolving into each other. Wine-dark sea and wine-dark sky" (106). The dramatic space is depopulated: Sissy dies, her household staff scatters, taking her valuables along with them, and Chris contemplates his own disappearing into Sissy's small shack near the shore, which is called "'the Oubliette'-from the French verb 'oublier' means to forget" (81). Becoming forgotten, or unseen is one of the attributes of a Bodhisattva, who just "comes and leaves" according to Zen Buddhist teachings.
When leaving, in the state of "unseen and forgotten," Chris plans the creation of a catastrophic artifact. After the sound of powerful waves striking the rocks beneath the villa, Chris's mobile will be named "Boom," but the title does not provide an explanation. "It says 'Boom' and that's what it means. No translation, no explanation, just 'Boom.'" (120) he says. This "Boom" resembles a Zen koan. Koans, especially in the Rinzai branch of Zen Buddhism, are riddles designed to present intellectual impasses which serve to indicate and strengthen the idea of indefinability of life and the elusiveness of conventional binary logic upon which the practitioner's everyday thinking is based. The koan-like end of the play is another becoming-opaque, but in this case it is a moment of metadramatic commentary which reflects back on the entire play, wrapping all of it in a layer of resistance to interpretation.