In considering the vile and violent expressions of hatred towards queer people by the religious right wingers in our own age, I want to scream out: “Really? You want to live in a world without the contributions of Socrates, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Lord Byron, Walt Whitman, Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Leonard Bernstein, James Baldwin, Cole Porter, Noël Coward, John Maynard Keynes, Jasper Johns, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Willa Cather, Trey Speegle, Edward Albee, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bessie Smith, Stephen Rutledge, Stephen Sondheim, Christopher Isherwood, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Janis Joplin, or Aristotle!?!” Then I pause, take a breath and understand that the religious right would find a life without A Streetcar Named Desire to be just peachy. The great gifts given by gay artists could be lifted right out of our culture and the religious fanatics could live their lives free of asking questions, their biggest fear.
In my fairly large collection of favorite gay writers, there is my holy trinity: Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, and Tennessee Williams. Today marks the 107th birthday of Williams. I wish he could be here today to celebrate with me. He would have liked it; I am a big old enabler.
Thomas Lanier Williams III was passionate, prodigious and prolific. He brought life into his great characters like Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski in what in my opinion is the greatest American play, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and like most of his best characters, Williams was deeply troubled and self-destructive, an abuser of alcohol and drugs.
In his terrific book, Role Models (2010), John Waters wrote that Williams saved his life because Williams put gay desire on stage at a time when it was nearly unthinkable to do so. Sometimes you had to read between the lines to see why Brick and Maggie’s marriage was on the skids in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1955), or why Blanche’s young husband killed himself in A Streetcar Named Desire, or the reason Sebastian Venable was literally devoured by a gang of street boys in Suddenly Last Summer (1958). The clues are there. If his queer characters are a little troubling, that’s probably because their creator was a troubled. A straight man could never have written these plays.
When Memoirs (1975), Williams’ imaginatively titled memoir was published, the New York Times reviewer wrote: “If he has not exactly opened his heart, he has opened his fly“. Williams responded by saying that he had been offered $75,000 to write the book and he just assumed he would be dead by the time it came out. In Memoirs, Williams offers advice on sex with hustlers, recommending that “penetration be avoided as they are most probably all infected with clap in the ass“. He writes about the great love of his life, Frank Merlo, whose death from cancer sent Williams into a decade long depression. He recounts his many casual pick-ups in gay bars. He also talks about his friendships with everyone from Tallulah Bankhead to Candy Darling, everything, in fact, except his plays.
Williams won four Drama Critic Circle Awards, a Tony Award, a pair of Pulitzer Prizes (for A Streetcar Named Desire in 1948 and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof in 1955), plus the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980. He was also derided by most critics and he was blacklisted by the Roman Catholic Church, which condemned his work as “revolting, deplorable, morally repellent, and offensive to Christian standards of decency“. Thank God, I say.
Williams was born in a small town in Mississippi, the son of a shoe company executive and a fragile Southern belle. Williams described his childhood as happy and carefree. His sense of belonging and comfort were lost forever when his family moved to St. Louis. It was there he began to look inward and started to write “because I found life unsatisfactory“. Williams attended three different universities, and briefly worked at his father’s shoe company. To escape, he moved to his spiritual home, New Orleans.
His first critical acclaim came when The Glass Menagerie (1944) opened in Chicago to rave reviews and then moved to Broadway. There is a film version from 1950 that stars Gertrude Lawrence, Kirk Douglas and Jane Wyman that won the New York Film Critics’ Circle Award.
At the height of his career in the late 1940s and 1950s, Williams worked with the great artists of the time, including Elia Kazan, the director for stage and screen productions of A Streetcar Named Desire, and the stage productions of Camino Real (1953), Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, and Sweet Bird Of Youth (1959). Kazan also directed Williams’ shocking, scandalous screenplay, Baby Doll (1956).
After the death of Merlo, Williams became quite insecure about his work, which was sometimes of inconsistent quality. Williams began to depend more and more on booze and drugs to get through life, though he continued to write every day, completing a book of short stories and another play, but he had begun a downward spiral.
A bit of a mess in the 1970s, Williams still wrote more plays, that memoir, plus poems, short stories and a novel. In 1979, he was the victim of a hate crime attack by a group of teenagers in Key West where he had a home.
In the winter of 1983, Williams died in a Manhattan hotel room filled with bottles of booze and pills. Williams had been taking Seconal, a barbiturate, to help him sleep, and he had also had been drinking the night he died.
John Uecker, Williams’ “companion” and assistant at the time, told the New York City Medical Examiner:
“Look, people are going to think it’s suicide or AIDS or something, but we don’t know what happened. So the Medical Examiner, said: ‘OK, he choked on a bottle cap’. But really, his body just gave up and the eventual diagnosis was intolerance to the drug.“
It was in this sort of desperation that Williams so honestly writes about and showed his genius. He wrote with deep sympathy and expansive humor about the outcasts in our society. Though his images were often violent, he was a poet of the human heart. Williams’ works, which are unequaled in imagination, are a collection of conflicts, of the darkest horrors of life juxtaposed with a sort of purity. His greatest character, Blanche Du Bois, is presented as a monster and a butterfly, but as Williams created her, this is not a contradiction.
I have never performed in a Williams play, although I ran the light board for an excellent production of Streetcar in college. In the 1990s, I was once cast as Mitch in an all-male Seattle production of A Streetcar Named Desire. I quit after the third rehearsal, when I decided that the notion of casting all men was a bad idea. It is the only time that I have left a show after the first read-through. I am not a fan of “concept” productions of plays that are not yet in the public domain. I think we owe it to the playwright to give life to their work as they intended.
I never got to play one of his characters, but I find Williams’ 25 full length plays to often be overwrought and yet hauntingly lonely, lyrical, powerful, and hypnotic. I started reading him in my early 20s and he continues to fascinate 45 years later.
Williams had asked to be buried at sea, in the Caribbean, at approximately the same place as Hart Crane, the gay poet Williams considered to be his most significant influence. Against his expressed wishes, his family had Williams buried in the family plot in St. Louis, the city he fled.
In Memoirs, he writes:
“I’ve had a wonderful and terrible life and I wouldn’t cry for myself.“
If you want to more, and you really should, I recommend Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (2014) by The New Yorker theatre critic John Lahr.