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Saturday, July 7, 2012

‘The Strange, The Crazed, The Queer’–Tennessee Williams

In a review of the Liv Ullmann production of Streetcar Named Desire, New York Review of Books critic Hilton Als (6.10.10) focuses on homosexual themes and interpretations in the play.  Tennessee Williams himself always rejected critics who saw his male characters as gay and his female characters his own alter egos.  He resented the allegation that only because he was gay could he understand women; and the only way he could understand men was to cast them as gay characters.  One of his harshest critics was Mary McCarthy:
The sensitivity Williams brought to his characters—especially the female ones—in Streetcar was little appreciated, if not dismissed altogether, by Mary McCarthy when she reviewed the show’s 1947 début. McCarthy more or less characterizes Williams as a mincing faggot, unqualified to write about heterosexual lives except as a kind of pornographer. But McCarthy doesn’t stop there; she goes on to equate Williams with his delusional heroine, saying that, as a writer, he seems “addicted to the embroidered lie.”
While the theme of homosexuality is dealt with in a number of plays – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof being one and Suddenly Last Summer being another, it is not the central issue in the plays.  Williams adamantly insisted that Brick was not a homosexual, and that his struggle was not about dealing with his own sexuality, but about ‘mendacity’ and cowardice.  Brick was unable to deal with Skipper’s love for him, dismissed Skipper’s emotional dependence on him, and cut him off entirely, an abrupt and cowardly act that contributed to his friend’s suicide.  The play is about how such a moral failing can be corrosive and ultimately destructive and almost unredeemable.  Maggie may be Brick’s redeemer, for in the end she offers him love and a way out of the bottle and depression.

Image result for image liz taylor maggie the cat

Summer and Smoke deals with the homosexuality of Sebastian, the son of Mrs. Venable, but the play is more about mendacity – the lies that have protected the image of Sebastian – and the demands of the morally corrupt Mrs. Venable.  She wants the truth from Catharine and gets it while Catherine is under the influence of a truth serum.  Mrs. Venable has pimped for her son in a twisted incestuous relationship for years, is jealous that Catharine has taken her place, and wants to condemn her to a lobotomy and a life in a mental institution.

A straight playwright may not have introduced homosexuality at all into his plays, so it is natural that Williams has done so; but it is wrong to assume that homosexuality must therefore be the central issue in the plays.  If you are looking for it, you can certainly find it, as you could find anything when you base your search on a priori judgments; but to imply that Tom, Laura’s sister in Glass Menagerie is a closeted gay simply because he goes out at night with little explanation why, or because he has a close relationship with his sister, is the worst kind of dramatic interpretation.  Laura was Williams’ stand-in for his own sister, certainly, but nowhere in his memoirs or in his many interviews did he ever suggest more than a strong sibling relationship.
In his review of Williams’s Memoirs, Gore Vidal wrote, “At some deep level Tennessee truly believes that the homosexualist is wrong and that the heterosexualist is right.” To have any life at all, Williams had to internalize his homophobia; to become a writer, he had to dramatize it.
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While Williams himself has admitted this struggle – after all he came from a traditional, religious Southern family and grew up in an age where coming out was not done or was severely attacked, it is quite a jump to assume that all his plays were animated by the struggle as the reviewer suggests:
In a fair number of his long list of plays, we see the same narrative unfold again and again. A brutal and brutalizing “sexy” piece of nominally straight trade (Williams’s male lovers tend to “appear in his work as…youthful versions of the crude father, impersonated, much too excitingly, by Marlon Brando,” wrote Vidal) encroaches on the shadow world inhabited by a gallery of adrift queens, vibrant fantasists, and solitary-minded people of both sexes, eventually smashing their fragile sense of reality if not destroying it altogether.
This is a distortion of Williams’ work, and again represents more of a homosexual take on the playwright than what Williams himself said and wrote.  Williams’ male figures are varied and complex and far from any crypto-gay characterization.  Chance Wayne in Sweet Bird of Youth is an ambitious young man who will do anything to get to the top and latches on to the Princess Del Lago whom he betrays for his lost love, Heavenly.  The play, like many others of Williams, is about moral failing and betrayal.  While we can empathize with Chance’s romantic love for Heavenly, we are appalled at his selfish use of the Princess, whom he discards in a minute – the very minute when the Princess, herself an aggressive and manipulative person, has an epiphany (other people are indeed important).  Like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird is about moral failing, the consequences of it, and the possibility of redemption.

Image result for images paul newman sweet bird of youth

The biting characterization of Williams’s creations as a ‘gallery of adrift queens [and] vibrant fantasists’ makes his plays look like a circus act.  Yes, in his exaggerated Southern style, the characters of Laura, Alma, and Blanche can and have been caricatured, impersonated.  He admitted that he was interested in ‘damaged souls’; but to portray them as the products of a fevered and conflicted sexuality is wrong.  The comment that in Williams’ world their ‘fragile sense of reality’ is smashed or destroyed altogether is also off the mark.  The important aspect of Williams’ plays is the conflict between imagined or remembered realities and those of the harsh outside world.  Amanda, Laura’s mother in Glass Menagerie, is rooted to her Southern past, its gentility, and her family; and tries desperately to recreate it in the downtrodden neighborhood of St. Louis.  Laura herself has retreated from the same harsh outside world, but courageously steps out into it, risking rejection. 

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Lady in Orpheus Descending is no different.   She has lived within the harsh reality of an abusive husband and longs for the more idyllic times of her Italian past; and his charmed by the arrival of the beautiful, wandering troubadour, Val.  Blanche imagines an idyllic past, but in reality it was never so; and in her stay with Stella and Stanley, she courageously attempts to resolve the conflict.  To dismiss her as another one of Williams’ flighty women living in a fragile world does her a disservice. Williams has said that he does not consider his women fragile, fading violets, delicate creatures who are dependent on others.  He sees them as strong and courageous, facing their lives which are conditioned by the past, by memory, and illusions of it.

Williams was very influenced by Chekhov.  In The Three Sisters the same theme of nostalgia for an imagined idyllic life (Moscow) is present.  The narrow bourgeois world of the rural outpost where she and her sisters are living will never be enough:
Like many of Chekhov's works, it is about the decay of the privileged class in Russia and the search for meaning in the modern world. In the play, Olga, Masha, and Irina are refined and cultured young women in their twenties who were raised in urban Moscow but have been living in a small, colorless provincial town for eleven years. With their father dead, their anticipated return to Moscow comes to represent their hopes for living a good life, while the ordinariness of day-to-day living tightens its hold.(eNotes)
Image result for images chekhov three sisters

he dramas of Amanda, Alma, Laura, Blanche, and other characters are as much animated by this sense of conflict between a harsh, unexpected, and unwanted world and a perceived idyllic past as anything.  Williams, a symbolic, lyrical, and metaphoric poet was very progressive in his political philosophy, feeling that the modern industrializing world was very much a threat to a more civil and civilized way of life.  The world of these and other characters in is plays were certainly acting out this idea.
In Williams’s world, intelligence is the province of the deviate; straight boys have other qualities.
Where does the reviewer get this idea?  What does he make of Val in Orpheus Descending? Or Chance Wayne? or Brick? Shannon in The Night of the Iguana is as far from this disparaging and demeaning characterization as any; and the play has none of the crypto-gay themes suggested by the reviewer and the critics he quotes.  It is a play, like many of Williams’ about redemption.  Shannon is the central character of the play and is intelligent.  He is not a deviate, just a fallen man who is searching for spiritual renewal and salvation.  Archie Lee in Baby Doll is the central figure, a man of Nietzschean will and evil.  He is not deviate, nor closeted, but a powerful, immoral, mean force.

Image result for baby doll images tennessee williams

The reviewer does not like Liv Ullmann’s direction of Streetcar or Cate Blanchett’s interpretation of Blanche because it undoes the crypto-gayness of his reading of the play.  However, both director and actress seem to have gotten it exactly right:
Part of Blanche’s tragedy, of course, is circumstantial. She’s been chased out of a town that’s literally littered with her old tricks. Now she’s met her devil again—in her own (if provisional) home. In the end, Blanche runs flat against the brick wall of her desire; Stanley only gives her a little push in the direction she’s been headed in all along. But in director Liv Ullmann’s production of the play for the Sydney Theatre Company, performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this past winter, the scene where Stanley rapes Blanche isn’t treated that way; it’s presented as a kind of consummation—the resolution, through sex, of their difference. Afterward, when Stanley says to Blanche, “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning,” the line is spoken as a statement of fact. It’s that flat literalness that sweeps Williams’s complicated Puritanism off the stage of Ullmann’s production. Her staging fails to illustrate not only how Blanche is undone by desire, but also the more disturbing message that outsiders like her can be—and are—driven mad by the very brutality they court because it turns them on.
Williams himself has commented that Blanche was not raped – her sex with Stanley was not only consensual but the consummation of the frustrated desires from which she has suffered since her life in Belle Reve.  Therefore the reviewer’s comment that the scene in Ullmann’s hands is "presented as a kind of consummation – the resolution through sex, of their difference” is right on even though he doesn’t like it.  Did Williams really have a ‘flat Puritanism’? and what was it? And what is behind the comment “outsiders like [Blanche] can be – and are – driven made by the very brutality they court because it turns them on?

There is no doubt that Blanche not only has a rendezvous with Stanley evident from the beginning of the play.  In one brutal sexual encounter, she can finally realize the sexual power within her, have the man that she has idealized but never found in her series of sailors back home, finally submit to her erotic nature and expunge the illusory image of herself as nurturing mother to her gay husband.  She rejects her sister’s complaisance and gutter life with Stanley, and by having sex with him makes her own statement about her past, Belle Reve, class, and the confining nature of society.

Image result for images vivien leigh blanche

The reviewer is perhaps unhappy that this inevitable conclusion goes counter to his own preconceived notions about sexuality.  The brutal but vital, and redemptive heterosexuality of Blanche and Stanley may be disturbing to him.

As mentioned above, Mary McCarthy strongly disliked Tennessee Williams and felt that his characters and his plays were not believable: 
She goes after her with the single-mindedness of a misogynistic homophobe, writing that “the thin sleazy stuff” of Blanche’s character “must be embellished by Mr. Williams with all sorts of arty decorations.” More even than thinness, McCarthy takes issue with what she sees as the implausibility of Blanche’s backstory, writing:
“It is not enough that [Blanche] should be a drunkard (this in itself is plausible); she must also be a notorious libertine who has been run out of a small town like a prostitute, a thing absolutely inconceivable for a woman to whom conventionality is the end of existence.”
The reviewer is unhappy with McCarthy not because she has misunderstood the nature of Blanche or Williams’s characterization of frustration, loneliness, and the search for consummation and redemption, but because she has not realized the crypto-gay theme that motivates the play:
Williams lets us in on Blanche’s difference by degrees, and by having her speak a recognizably gay language: queer talk from a queer artist about a queer woman. For example, Blanche saying to Stella: “I don’t know how much longer I can turn the trick. It isn’t enough to be soft.” And Stanley to Blanche and Stella: “Who do you think you are? A pair of queens?” And to the “Young Man” she’d like to trick with: “I’m not a conventional person, and I’m so—restless today….”
Nothing of the sort.  Blanche here recognizes that her soft, passive, complaisant, and weak role is not enough; it will never get her to the final expression of who she is.  As I have mentioned above, Williams has said that his women were strong, not the weak sisters as they are often portrayed.  Of course she is not a conventional person, feeling restless today because she knows that the date with Stanley is coming.  Where does the reviewer decide that Blanche is ‘speaking a gay language: queer talk from a queer artist about a queer woman”?

In conclusion, the reviewer has given a biased and self-serving criticism of Streetcar.  While he has understood many of the intentions of Williams – Blanche the outsider; Blanche the sexual searcher; Blanche the creator of illusions – he has ignored the heterosexual elements of the play; or as Williams would have said, the normal elements of life led by people searching for resolution and redemption.  He has ignored the many examples of this in Williams’ other works; and chosen to focus on his own particular agenda.  Not what a good critic should do.

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