In considering the vile & violent expressions about queer people by the Religious Right Wingers, 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, Noel Coward, John Keynes, Tchaikovsky, Willa Cather, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bessie Smith, Stephen Rutledge, Christopher Isherwood, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Janis Joplin, or Aristotle!?! Then I pause, take a breath & understand that these people would indeed, find a life without West Side Story to be preferable. The great gifts from gay artists could be lifted out of our culture & 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 always my holy trio: Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, & Tennessee Williams. Today marks the 102nd birthday of Thomas Lanier Williams III. I wish he could be here today to celebrate at Post Apocalyptic Bohemia. He would have liked it; I am a big ol’ enabler.
Tennessee Williams was passionate, brilliant & prolific, breathing life into characters like Blanche DuBois & Stanley Kowalski in the greatest American play- A Street Car Named Desire, & like his best characters, he was troubled & self-destructive, an abuser of alcohol & drugs.
Williams won 4 Drama Critic Circle Awards, a Tony, 2 Pulitzer Prizes, & the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was derided by the critics & blacklisted by the Roman Catholic Church, condemning his work as “revolting, deplorable, morally repellent, & offensive to Christian standards of decency”.
Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi in 1911, the son of a shoe company executive & a Southern belle. Williams described his childhood in Mississippi as happy & carefree. His sense of belonging & comfort were lost when his family moved to the urban environment of St. Louis, Missouri. It was there he began to look inward, & he began to write “because I found life unsatisfactory.” Williams attended 3 different universities, & briefly worked at his father’s shoe company. He moved to New Orleans, which began his lifelong love of the city.
His first critical acclaim came in 1944 when The Glass Menagerie opened in Chicago & then moved to Broadway. It won a Pulitzer Prize, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. The film version won the New York Film Critics’ Circle Award. At the height of his career in the late 1940s & 1950s, Williams worked with the great artists of the time, including Elia Kazan, the director for stage & screen productions of A Streetcar Named Desire, & the stage productions of Camino Real, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, & Sweet Bird Of Youth. Kazan also directed Williams’ shocking screenplay- Baby Doll.
In 1961, his longtime lover, Frank Merlo, died of cancer. Merlo's death left Williams with a deep depression that lasted more than decade. He became quite insecure about his work, which was sometimes of inconsistent quality. Williams began to depend on alcohol & drugs, though he continued to write, completing a book of short stories & another play, he had begun a downward spiral.
In the 1970s, Williams wrote plays, a memoir, poems, short stories & a novel. In 1975 he published Memoirs, which detailed his life & discussed his addiction to drugs & alcohol, & his homosexuality.
In the winter of 1983 Tennessee Williams died in a NYC hotel room filled with bottles of booze & pills. It was in this sort of desperation that Williams would so honestly write about & show his genius.
He wrote with deep sympathy & expansive humor about outcasts in our society. Though his images were often violent, he was a poet of the human heart. Williams's work, which was unequaled in passion & imagination by any of his contemporaries' works, was a collection of conflicts, of the darkest horrors juxtaposed with purity. His greatest character- Blanche Du Bois is presented as a monster & a moth, as Williams created her, there is no contradiction.
I have never performed in a Williams play, although I ran the light board for an excellent production of Streetcar. I was once cast as Mitch on an all-male production of A Streetcar Named Desire. I quit after the third rehearsal, when I decided that the idea of casting all men was a bad one. 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 find Williams’ 25 full length plays to often be overwrought, & yet hauntingly lonely, lyrical, powerful, & hypnotic. I started reading him in my early 20s & he continues to fascinate.