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Williams, Tennessee (1911-1983)  
 
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Conflicted over his own sexuality, Tennessee Williams wrote directly about homosexuality in his short stories and poetry, but only rarely in his plays.

Like many twentieth-century writers who were celebrities as well as artists, particularly writers whose work is often autobiographical, Williams's life is almost as well known as his work.

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He was born Thomas Lanier Williams On March 26, 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi. His mother was a prim minister's daughter, his father a tough shoe salesman who called his son "Miss Nancy." He spent his formative years in St. Louis, Missouri.

In the autobiographical The Glass Menagerie (1945), Williams includes his father only as a smiling photograph on the wall, a case of artistic wishful thinking. Williams's deepest attachment was to his sister, Rose, institutionalized in the 1930s and lobotomized after accusing her father of sexual abuse.

A published writer of fiction and poetry since he was a teenager, Williams studied writing at the University of Iowa and, after some initial failures, became the best known playwright of the 1940s and 1950s.

The last twenty years of his life were spent trying to recapture the success of his early plays, but substance abuse and a loss of self and artistic control are evident in his later work. He died from choking on the cap to a medicine container.

Williams's Attitudes toward His Homosexuality

Williams's gayness was an open secret he neither publicly confirmed nor denied until the post-Stonewall era when gay critics took him to task for not coming out, which he did in a series of public utterances, his Memoirs (1975), self-portraits in some of the later plays, and the novel, Moise and the World of Reason (1975), all of which document, often pathetically, Williams's sense of himself as a gay man.

There are several volumes of witty, confessional letters to friends Donald Windham and Maria St. Just and a raft of cynical, exploitative kiss-and-tell books by men who claimed to know Williams well in his later, declining years.

However, anyone who had read his stories and poems, in which Williams could be more candid than he could be in works written for a Broadway audience, had ample evidence of his homosexuality.

Tennessee Williams's work poses fascinating problems for the gay reader. At his best, Williams wrote some of the greatest American plays, but though homosexuals are sometimes mentioned in his most famous plays, the men are dead, closeted safely in the exposition but never appearing on stage.

In his post-Stonewall plays, in which openly homosexual characters appear, they serve only to dramatize Williams's negative feelings about his own homosexuality. In the 1940s and 1950s, Williams presented in his finest stories poetic renderings of homosexual desire, but was always linked to death. Only in his lyric poetry does one find positive expression of homoerotic desire.

These contradictions are not presented to damn Williams for not having a contemporary gay sensibility but to say that his attitude toward his own homosexuality reflected the era in which he lived. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the McCarthy era, during which Williams wrote his best work, homosexuality branded one a traitor as well as a "degenerate."

Williams's best work was an expression of his homosexuality combined with the intense neuroses that fueled his imagination and crippled his life. Gay critics have debated in recent years whether Williams's work is marked by "internalized " (Clum) or whether he is a subversive artist whose work can be best interpreted through the lens of leftist French theorists like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault (Savran).

David Bergman sees Williams's characteristic linking of homosexuality and cannibalism as both religious (the homosexual as martyr) and Freudian (homosexuality as accommodation to and rebellion against the father figure), as well as part of a central American gay literary tradition that has its roots in the work of Herman Melville.

The diverse but complementary work of these critics can be read as necessary counters to the heterosexist critics of the past who either ignored Williams's homosexuality altogether or saw it as the root of his personal and artistic failings. As is the case with many gay artists, the gay critical discussion of Williams, however lively, is just beginning.

The Short Stories

A starting point for gay readers of Williams is not the plays but the short stories, particularly the two set in the decaying Joy Rio movie theater, "Hard Candy" and "The Mysteries of the Joy Rio."

The Joy Rio is a once opulent opera house with horseshoe tiers of boxes above the orchestra and balcony level. Now the theater shows westerns, mass-produced myths of conventional American masculinity, while in the dark, roped-off upper boxes, various combinations of people engage in furtive sex.

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Tennessee Williams celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the opening of The Glass Menagerie in 1965.
  
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