A Streetcar Painted Pink
By TIM CORNWELL
THERE WAS ONE PLAY BY TENnessee Williams, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of such American classics as A Streetcar Named Desire, which he never wanted performed in his lifetime. It was And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens, with its central character of a transvestite who brings a sailor home in the hope of seducing him.
It was Williams’s only openly homosexual play. Central character Candy was based on Candy Darling, a friend of his and one of several transsexuals who worked in Andy Warhol’s art factory and starred in his 1968 film Flesh. It is set in New Orleans’ steamy French quarter.
More than 20 years after the playwright’s death, And Tell Sad Stories … is to get its Scott- ish premiere – next month in Glasgow’s Citizens’ Theatre . It is part of the Glasgay! festival, which has this year declared itself the Tennessee Williams festival, re-examining an author who kept overt homosexuality at bay in plays that are milestones of the 20th century American stage.
In a 1970 television interview, David Frost famously asked Williams if he was a homosexual. Williams replied that “I certainly covered the waterfront.” I Covered the Waterfront was a Billie Holiday number about a prostitute waiting on a sailor, a client she had fallen in love with. Williams’s response – just before the show abruptly went into a commercial break – reportedly brought gangs of youths to his door in Key West, throwing bottles and shouting “faggot”.
After Williams “outed” himself, he was attacked from a different quarter – criticised for failing to champion gay liberation in his work. He said: “If I wanna write a drag queen, I will write a drag queen, and I have written one, as a matter of fact, which will be produced some day.”
And Tell Sad Stories … was not staged in the United States until 2004, more than ten years after Williams’s death. It will be performed as part of Glasgay! alongside a new play, Elysian Fields, based on Williams’s life and bizarre death.
How much does it matter, when watching a play as powerful and emotionally elemental as Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, to know about Williams’s sexuality? Isn’t “queering” all very 1990s? Didn’t his intense relationship with the tragic figure of his schizo-phrenic sister Rose, for example – subjected to a lobotomy in 1937 and confined to mental homes for the rest of her life – exert a more powerful influence on his work?
Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie is usually assumed to be modelled on Rose. Obsessed by the world of her glass animals, as her mother hunts desperately for a suitable groom, her nickname is “Blue Roses”. But Sam Rowe, director of And Tell Sad Stories … at the Citz, describes Laura’s brother Tom as the “classic gay character from Williams’s work”. The play is the story of his escape from his family, especially his suffocating mother.
“Tom is the repressed, poetic, sensitive young man, who seems to be hiding some secret,” says Rowe. “It’s never quite clear what’s really happening with him. The play ends with Tom leaving. You definitely see a lot of Williams in that. It’s all very understated, there are question marks over what exactly is happening to him.”
The other haunting female character in Williams’s work – or perhaps any modern play – is Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, who is often said to draw on elements of Rose. But she is also commonly read as a surrogate gay character, dark, sexual and secretive.
“With the knowledge of Williams as a gay man, you can look for the clues,” says Rowe. “But those plays that made him such a canonical playwright, they speak to everyone no matter what their agenda or sexuality.” They are not gay plays, but are very accessible. At the same time there is within them a certain investigation of homosexuality, in the characters of Tom and Blanche – if you search for it.”
THE BBC THIS MONTH RELEASED an audio biography of another celebrated gay playwright, Nol Coward. Coward was born and died almost exactly ten years before Williams, but remained far more firmly in the closet. The BBC Audiobooks biography was written and narrated by the late Sheridan Morley, Coward’s literary executor, who died himself last year.
A marvellous survey of this playwright, songwriter and actor, who reinvented and revived his career repeatedly through his life, it skirts any discussion of his homosexuality. The tribute, with reminiscences from such luminaries as Sir Laurence Olivier and Joyce Carey, merely notes and quotes from his longtime male companions – as well as many close women friends.
The listener is simply left to wonder about such songs as I’ll Follow My Secret Heart, the 1934 waltz, one of the loveliest and most lasting of Coward’s compositions. It is full of the same idealised, romantic longing as other thoroughly mainstream Coward classics, like Someday I’ll Find You or I’ll See You Again. But the title has echoes of Secret Love, which Doris Day made a gay anthem in Calamity Jane.
The decade’s difference in the two writers’ ages made a huge difference. Homosexuality only became legal in Britain six years before Coward’s 1973 death. The American reviewer Charles Isherwood once noted that Coward was born only four years after Oscar Wilde was jailed for sodomy in 1895, and went to his grave without acknowledging his own homosexuality.
The massive popularity of such plays as Private Lives, Hay Fever and Blithe Spirit made him an international figure. Superficially, they were centred on the tight-lipped, tortured passions of upper- class love and marriage, expressed in the clipped tones of the drawing room.
But Isherwood makes the case that they carried “coded depictions … clearly recognisable as the gay male experience” which put gay characters on stage. He cites the lines in Present Laughter, with its promiscuous and flamboyant central character of actor Garry Essendine, when the butler announces: “The gentleman’s in the office, and the lady’s in the spare room, if you want either of them.”
Coward dealt openly with homosexuality in just one play, A Song at Twilight, in 1966 – and even then at a tangent. In it, the actress Carlotta Gray re-enters the life of an ageing novelist, Sir Hugo Latymer, and threatens to expose his hidden homosexual past. Latymer’s character was said to be based on the author Somerset Maugham.
Coward’s approach was always the light touch, vastly difference from the heavy psychology of Williams. Much of his theatre work, from the heyday of his writing in the 1920s and 1930s, which pushed boundaries in a wickedly comic but shocking way, tend to appear superficial and dated.
In sharp contrast to A Song of Twilight, Williams’s And Tell Sad Stories … is an open exploration of homosexuality, of gay men’s place in society, and their obsessions. “It’s clearly a play that he was proud of, in that it answered criticisms, but it was too controversial to be staged in any mainstream theatre context at the time,” says Rowe. “It’s far more flamboyantly out of the closet than any of his other writing, and shows a really comic touch which he is not best known for.”
Candy is dressed as a male for the first 15 minutes of the play but reappears in drag. He/she hopes that by seducing the sailor she will reach a level of normality, of a regular marriage, as a female alongside a “straight guy”, says Rowe. She faces the same fate Williams did – at least twice he was beaten up by sailors he tried to seduce.
The Glasgay! line-up of Williams events, between 1 October and 9 November, includes a revival of Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer at The Tron, and the UK premiere of his 1940 play The Parade. Inevitably, Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Marlon Brando, takes centre stage in the film line-up. The starting point for Elysian Fields, the new play at The Arches about Williams’ life, is his psychotic breakdown in the 1960s, when he was hospitalised for three months, says writer Derek McLuckie. Grant Smeaton plays Williams, while Pauline Goldsmith plays Vivien Leigh, who always blamed the part of Blanche DuBois for tipping her into madness as well.
Born in Columbus, Mississippi, raised by a domineering mother who longed to be a genteel southern lady, Williams “was from a very repressed background and we explore him breaking away,” says McLuckie. “In New Orleans he was introduced to wild gay life and found he liked it very much and was able to lose his pain in it. That was in the 1940s, and that’s when he started to write A Streetcar Named Desire. We have gone for this breakdown where little parts of his life go in and out, meet in a strange limbo world.”
The play’s portrait of Williams at the end of his life is of a man dependent on hustlers, surrounded by male prostitutes. He died at the Hotel Elysee in New York, after choking on an eye-drop bottle cap he usually placed in his mouth while treating his eyes. The police suggested that drugs and alcohol were a contributing factor, with many prescription medicines found in the room.
Gay audiences are much more open to Williams’s dramatic sensibility, his heightened lyricism, and the crazed theatrical women he creates, McLuckie says. “That comes directly from his mother, his sister. Gay men identify and they empathise with women like that. There’s always these butch men, or really pretty men in these plays. He said he could never write a piece unless he fancied at least one man he was writing about.”
Glasgay! The Tennessee Will iams Festival, various venues, Glasgow, 1 October until 9 Nove- mber, tel: 0141-552 7575 or visit www.glasgay.com
Nol Coward: An Audio Biography is available in bookshops or online at www.bbcshop.com
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