Tennessee Williams's homosexual identity was a more or less open secret throughout his life, as he neither advertised nor tried to hide it. While he claims he was attracted to girls at a young age and that his first sexual experience was with a woman, he had his first homosexual experience in his late 20s while living in New Orleans, where he says he discovered “a flexibility in [his] sexual nature” (Savran 82). From then on, he was consistently interested in men. He finally “came out” in 1970, as sexual freedoms were being won both socially and politically in the United States. One of Williams's earliest relationships was with Pancho Rodriguez y Gonzales during the 1940s. Pancho lived with Williams in New Orleans while he was writing A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and they kept in touch until at least the 1970s. The most significant romantic relationship in Williams's life was with Frank Merlo, whom Williams met in 1947. Williams ended their relationship of approximately 14 years shortly before Frank's death from lung cancer in 1963. Williams never recovered emotionally from the death of his lover, and the sleeping pills and liquor he had used to quell his anxiety and depression only increased after 1963. Homosexual themes are prevalent throughout Williams's stories and plays, yet are often subtly woven in as subtext in his early work of the 1940s and 1950s. By the 1960s, however, he was able to address homosexuality more openly as a narrative topic.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Williams dealt with homosexuality more directly in his short stories than in his plays, since the short story is a less public genre and allowed for the explicit expression of homosexual subject matters, especially in the repressive atmosphere of the time. In “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio” and “Hard Candy,” both published in 1954, aging male homosexual protagonists engage in clandestine encounters with boys they find in “third-rate cinemas,” and in the short story “One Arm” (1945; published 1948), the ex-boxer turned gay hustler and murderer, Oliver Winemiller, is comforted by the “torrent” of love letters that he receives from his former sexual partners as he awaits execution on death row. In his later fiction, Williams continued to deal explicitly with homosexuality, and his novel Moise and the World of Reason (1975) is openly concerned with gay relationships; in fact, the cover of one edition even touted it as “an extraordinary novel of homosexual love.”
In both the notorious short story “Desire and the Black Masseur” (1946; published 1948) and the well-known play Suddenly Last Summer (1958), Williams deals directly with the question of polysexualities through addressing the consequences of “perverse” desires such as homoeroticism, sadism, and masochism, which exist outside the boundaries of social control. In both these works the fragmentation of social, sexual, and psychological identity experienced by the characters as a result of their unrestricted desire is transformed into a literal, physical fragmentation through the tearing apart and cannibalistic incorporation of the transgressive body. It is significant that only homosexual desire falls victim to cannibalism in Williams's works, as both “Desire and the Black Masseur” and Suddenly Last Summer contain protagonists who pursue homoerotic relationships. Steven Bruhm has described the “social anxiety surrounding homosexuality” in Suddenly Last Summer and points out that “the system of power relations which [Sebastian] cannot fully control … uses cannibalism as a trope for the social anxiety … of one male's relationship with another, of a mutually consumptive bond between men, and then turns that trope against itself” (532). In “Desire and the Black Masseur,” the sadomasochistic relationship between two men is characterized as something beyond perverse, and even subhuman. Cannibalism as the inevitable culmination of (or punishment for) transgressive, and particularly homosexual, desire occurs most prominently in this story, as the literal devouring of the individual subject is paralleled with the symbolic devouring of the individual by desire. In these two works, desire, especially desire between men in a homophobic society, is indeed for Williams a “mutually consumptive bond” (533).
Even in the repressive atmosphere of the 1940s and 1950s, however, Williams managed to indirectly engage with homosexual themes, as he did in The Glass Menagerie (1945), A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). In The Glass Menagerie, Tom escapes to the darkness of the movie theater—a place known for clandestine sexual liasons during the 1940s—seeking “adventure” every night. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche discovers her young husband, Allan Grey, in a sexual encounter with an older man, and her “disgust” fuels his subsequent suicide. In the 1951 film version of Streetcar, the reason for Allan's suicide is altered in order to comply with Hollywood standards of “decency”; rather than having his desperate act result from Blanche's discovery of a homosexual encounter, the film suggests that it was caused by Blanche's expression of disdain for his “weakness” after she discovered him crying. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the family plantation is haunted by the memory of its original owners, Jack Straw and Peter Ochello, “a pair of old bachelors” who shared both a room and their lives, and Brick's guilt over rejecting his college friend Skipper is the reason for his emotional paralysis, which is reflected in his physical injury. Brick's “disgust” of “mendacity” implies that he returned Skipper's romantic feelings, but Williams claimed in interviews that he himself was never sure if Brick was in fact homosexual, or simply wracked with guilt.
In Something Unspoken (1958), which premiered off-Broadway in a double bill with Suddenly Last Summer under the title Garden District, the unspoken love between two older “spinster” women who have lived together for 15 years as employer and secretary is almost revealed, but their frustrated desire ultimately remains hidden. Yet by the time he wrote Kingdom of Earth (1968), Williams was becoming more overt in his depiction of polysexualities. One of the main characters, Lot, is a transvestite who dresses in drag in imitation of his mother, “Miss Lottie.” In Small Craft Warnings (1972), Leona is mourning the death of her gay brother, and Quentin, an older gay man who is one of the earliest openly acknowledged gay characters in Williams's plays, appears with Bobby, a young boy from Iowa whom he had just picked up. In Something Cloudy, Something Clear (1981), Willliams dramatizes the first time he fell in love in 1940 in Provincetown, Massachusetts, with a dancer named Kip Kiernan, who left him for a conventional marriage and wound up dying young of a brain tumor. During the 1940s, Williams began an earlier play about his relationship with Kip, which was ultimately revised and published in 2008 as The Parade (1962). The Parade is related to Something Cloudy, Something Clear in theme, but is very different structurally and in terms of the overall plot.
Throughout his career, Williams was aware of evolving contemporary art and culture, and his own style changed during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s to reflect these new developments. Yet critics did not know how to evaluate the antirealistic later works of Williams, and so they often judged them via the standards of realistic theater, dismissing them as failures. In the same way abstract painting by artists such as Pablo Picasso or Jackson Pollock (whose acquaintance with Williams dates back to 1940) challenges realistic painting that reproduces what an object looks like on the surface—a bowl of fruit or a landscape, for instance—Williams's later plays often eschew realistic representation in order to access those truths beyond reality's surface. Moreover, homophobia played a part in the unnecessarily brutal negative reception of Williams's later work. Critics often judged these plays as uncontrolled “excesses”—too much, too personal, too “gay”—and instead of evaluating the plays on their own terms, they attacked Williams's personal life, which both frustrated and devastated him.
Many of Williams's later plays were clearly influenced by cultural and artistic developments such as pop art, camp, vaudeville, and a sense of the outrageous in the style of Charles Ludlam’s Theatre of the Ridiculous, for example, which Ludlam founded in 1969. The Theatre of the Ridiculous resisted conventional, formalized notions of “art,” preferring instead to reference icons of popular culture and current events alongside classical literary texts. In erasing the distinction between “high” and “low” art and indulging an ironic sensibility typical of postmodern aesthetics—that is, making a statement and simultaneously mocking and denying it—the performer/author “winks” at the audience members as co-conspirators in some kind of cultural joke. These plays combine serious social critique with a highly self-conscious and playful style. Ludlam's plays combine parody, pop culture, drag performance, and high “camp” theatricality. Williams too embraces a camp sensibility in many of these late plays, which spring from the 1970s, a time of new languages for cultural expression.
In Williams's Kirche, Küche, und Kinder (1979), a 99-year-old woman known as “Hotsy,” who is hypersexed and actually pregnant, was played by a man in drag in the 1979 production directed by Eve Adamson. Like many of Williams's later plays (collected in The Traveling Companion and Other Plays, 2008), Kirche, Küche, und Kinder employs highly theatrical or stylized forms and uses exaggeration and distortion of reality, along with humor and satire, for the purpose of social commentary. Of the 12 later plays collected in The Traveling Companion and Other Plays, 9 either mention or deal explicitly with homosexual themes. The Parade (1962) is the story of a sensitive writer, Don (modeled on Williams himself), in love with a self-absorbed dancer named Dick, who teases him but ultimately remains unresponsive to his advances. The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le Monde (1982) openly acknowledges homosexual desire and includes offstage acts of rape and violent submission between men, as “a delicate little man with a childlike face” named Mint, whose “legs are mysteriously paralyzed,” is repeatedly raped by his landlady's son, a “muscular” boy “hung like a dray horse.” In The Traveling Companion (1981), Vieux, an older writer, is accompanied by Beau, the lovely young man he met in a gay bar who tries to deny that his agreement to serve as a “traveling companion” involved sharing a bed with Vieux. In Will Mr. Merriwether Return from Memphis? (1969), the French instructor confesses that civil authorities have informed him that he must leave the town of Bethesda, Maryland, for cruising young soldiers at the Greyhound bus station after midnight, and the “Man” in Kirche, Küche, und Kinder is a retired gay hustler who comes out of retirement at the end of the play in order to support his family. The Chalky White Substance (1980) is set in a postapocalyptic world where there is little human tenderness. The two men in the play, the young man, Luke, and his older “protector,” Mark, live in a wasteland where cruelty and survival of the fittest dominate, and Mark will remain with Luke as long as his youthful attractions last. In The One Exception (1983), there is a brief mention of a gay couple, Bert and Steve, who have “finally” split up. In Sunburst (c. 1980), the sensual young Italian, Luigi, serves as the “companion” of a wealthy older man, Mr. Virgil Peterson, who “rolls over slowly and starts the Bangkok massage” with him. And in The Pronoun ‘I’ (c. 1975), Mad Queen May, a young woman masquerading as old, offers herself to the “Young Revolutionary” who breaks into her chamber to assassinate her, but not without first offering her narcissistic young male lover: “If your preference is for boys, well, there's Dominique, all but the genitalia exposed.”
In A Cavalier for Milady (c. 1976), the desire of the older women—the Mother and Mrs. Aid—is stereotypically depicted in terms of gay male desire. The women are predatory and pay “escorts” to satisfy them, even going so far as to have their rendezvous in “The Ramble” in Central Park, a section of the Park famous for the “cruising” of gay men. Moreover, the sexually frustrated main character, Nance, seems to be a composite of Williams (whose father even called him “Miss Nancy”) and his sister Rose, who was chastised by her mother for her “inappropriate” expression of desire. The Mother and Mrs. Aid, however, are still clearly women, and not “men in drag,” as had been suggested of Williams's portrayal of women. During the late 1950s and 1960s, certain critics attacked homosexual playwrights, notably Tennessee Williams, William Inge, and Edward Albee, for the submerged homosexuality in their plays, claiming that they were writing “transvestite dramas,” or closet plays about homosexuality. This reading of Williams's female characters, in particular—the accusation that he was writing men disguised as women—originated in a 1958 essay by Stanley Edgar Hyman for the journal College English and has been appropriated by some critics of Williams. Hyman argued that in both Williams's novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1950) and his play A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), the female protagonist is really a “metamorphosized” (6) boy. Other critics, however, such as David Savran, have shown that such arguments are unfounded and often “betray a crude (and homophobic) essentialism” (116), and Williams himself considered this reading of his female characters ludicrous.
Williams's exploration of freer dramatic forms and themes later in his career was a direct reaction to changes in society, in the theater, in television and popular culture, and in his personal views of life. He continued to write about the cruelty of the world as he did in the earlier plays, but he depicted this cruelty more graphically and literally, rather than veiling it in symbolism. He admitted in 1975 that his work had become “darker” and that “people find it painful” (Saddik 65). Politically and socially, American society was changing, and Williams's late plays respond to and address these issues. His plays were becoming more directly political and more overt in terms of sexuality in general, and homosexuality in particular. In the 1960s and 1970s there was no longer a need to downplay homosexual themes as subtext or subplot, as Williams had done in The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, for example. In 1968, laws forbidding the depiction of “sex perversion” in the theater, including homosexuality as it was classified at the time, were repealed in the United States (and similar laws were repealed in Britain), allowing for greater freedom in the theater.
In 1969, the Stonewall Riots in New York City—in which gay and transgendered patrons of the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street fought back against police oppression—brought attention to gay rights and marked a watershed moment for social and political recognition, sparking the national Gay Liberation Movement. The new freedoms that American society increasingly embraced also led Williams to finally come out publicly as a gay man on national television in 1970, which he could not have done safely, either professionally or personally, in 1950. Williams “came out” in 1970 on The David Frost Show, amid circulating rumors that he was gay. After Williams and Frost talked around the issue of homosexuality in general, Williams stated, “I think that everybody has some elements of homosexuality in him, even the most heterosexual of us.” Frost asked him if he felt that “no one is all man or all woman,” and Williams teasingly replied “Oh, in my experience, no. I don't want to be involved in some sort of scandal, but I've covered the waterfront.” By the time he wrote his Memoirs (1975), Williams was, for some, too candid in his revelation of his personal life and sexual escapades in print. The shocking “tell-all” style of Memoirs is not entirely accurate as an autobiography, but the book is significant in terms of Williams's stark honesty regarding his sexuality.
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