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literature

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Williams, Tennessee (1911-1983)  
 
page: 1  2  3  

Both Gooper and Mae see the plantation as rightfully theirs, for they have done all the right things. Gooper is a successful lawyer and family man. To him, it is outrageous that Big Daddy would favor the drunken wastrel whose marriage is a lie.

Fertility of the land and the womb is crucial to the future of the Pollitt plantation, but that plantation was the offspring of a gay couple and will go to Brick and his determined wife, Maggie. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof comes as close to valorizing homosexuality as Williams got in his plays.

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Suddenly Last Summer

Suddenly Last Summer is one of Williams's more poetic dramas, a meditation on desire and cannibalism, which combines many of Williams's more common themes and images. A young woman, Catherine, has been institutionalized and threatened with the possibility of lobotomy for telling the truth about the death of her cousin, Sebastian Venable.

Catherine is one of the many women in Williams's work (one thinks particularly of Laura in The Glass Menagerie and Blanche Dubois) whose fate (institutionalization and the threat of lobotomy) is that of his sister, Rose.

Catherine has been brought to the conservatory of the splendid New Orleans home of Sebastian's powerful mother to face her family and a psychiatrist. The conservatory is filled with carnivorous plants and filled with the sounds of the jungle. It is Sebastian's garden, representing his vision of nature, that he tried to capture in his poetry, but was most vividly depicted in his death as he was torn apart and eaten by the poor Mexican boys whose sexual favors he sought.

Sebastian saw the world as variations on cannibalism, but the ultimate violence is threatened by his mother: "Cut this hideous story out of her brain." Mrs. Venable, intent on protecting her son's image as an asexual visionary primarily devoted to his poetry and to her as his muse, will mutilate Catherine's mind rather than have the truth known about her son's homosexual activity.

However, the psychiatrist will not order the lobotomy and Catherine's narrative, the truth about Sebastian, will take precedence over his privately published poetry.

On one level, Suddenly Last Summer can be seen and read as Williams's depiction of the relationship between homosexual life and art, about the price paid for revealing the policed secret of homosexuality. Yet once again, the homosexual is dead, never seen but only discussed, like Skipper in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Blanche's first husband, who shot himself when Blanche publicly confronted him with his homosexuality.

Only Baron de Charlus in the more fantastic Camino Real (1953) appears on stage. When in the 1970s Williams could actually depict homosexuality more candidly, he created, in Small Craft Warnings (1970), a self-hating homosexual artist who laments the "deadening coarseness" in the lives of most homosexuals.

Conclusion

However, this literal reading of Williams's plays neglects the ways he brilliantly codes his plays so that gay readings are possible. A Streetcar Named Desire, in particular, can be seen and read as a gay play. Its theatrical transformations, camp, and careful use of gay slang (less known by a general audience in 1947) allow gay audiences to read their own transgressive text.

This is not to say that Blanche is literally a gay man in drag but can be read as male and/or female, gay and/or straight. Certainly the focus on the animal magnetism of the macho Stanley Kowalski, treating him as object of characters' and audience's gaze and desire and--in his silly, sometime brutal masculine posturing--also of their ridicule, can be given a gay reading.

Belle Reprieve, the 1991 gender-inverted deconstruction of Streetcar performed by the gay troupe Bloolips and the lesbian troupe Split Britches, offered a hilarious but cogent gay interpretation of Williams's classic.

[Information about "Tennessee Williams's Late Plays" may be found here.]

John M. Clum

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    Bibliography
   

Bergman, David. Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Self-Representation in American Literature. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Bigsby, C. W. E. A Critical Introduction to Twentieth Century American Drama, II: Williams, Miller, Albee. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Clum, John M. Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama. New York: Columbia, 1992.

_____. "Something Cloudy, Something Clear: Homophobia in Tennessee Williams." Displacing Homophobia: Studies in Gay Male Literature and Culture. Ronald Butters, John M. Clum, Michael Moon, eds. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1989. 149-167.

Keith, Thoms. "You Are Not the Playwright I Was Expecting: Tennessee Williams's Late Plays." glbtq.com (April 1, 2012): http://www.glbtq.com/sfeatures/williamslateplays.html

Leverich, Lyle. Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams. New York: Crown, 1995.

Roundané, Matthew, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Savran, David. Communists, Cowboys and Queers: The Politics of Masculinity in the Work of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams. New York: Ballantine, 1986.

St. Just, Maria. Five O'Clock Angel: Letters of Tennessee Williams to Maria St. Just, 1948-1982. New York: Knopf, 1990.

Summers, Claude J. Gay Fictions: Wilde to Stonewall: Studies in a Male Homosexual Literary Tradition. New York: Continuum, 1990.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Clum, John M.  
    Entry Title: Williams, Tennessee  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated April 1, 2012  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/williams_t.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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