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  • Writer's picturePaul Burston

Lockdown Bookclub – Tennessee Williams, Memoirs

When Tennessee Williams’s memoirs were first published in 1975, one reviewer wrote: ‘If he has not exactly opened his heart, he has opened his fly.’ Williams responded by saying that he was offered £50,000 to write the book and assumed he’d be dead by the time it came out.

In the book, he offers advice on sex with hustlers, recommending that ‘penetration be avoided’ as ‘they are most probably all infected with clap in the ass’. He describes his great love affair with Frank Merlo, whose death from lung cancer sent him into a seven-year depression. He recounts his many casual pick-ups in bars. He also talks about his friendships with everyone from Tallulah Bankhead to Candy Darling – everything, in fact, but his plays.

The consensus among critics at the time was that he was in steep decline, both physically and artistically. He was certainly drinking heavily, and was addicted to prescription drugs. Williams died choking on the bottle cap he used to take his meds, which is about as tragic as it gets.

Yet his legacy is enormous. In his book, Role Models, John Waters says that Tennessee Williams saved his life. Why? Because Williams dared to put gay desires on stage at a time when it was almost unthinkable to do so.

Sometimes you had to read between the lines to understand why Brick and Maggie’s marriage wasn’t working out in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, why Blanche’s young husband took his own life in A Streetcar Named Desire, or why Sebastian was literally devoured by street boys in Suddenly Last Summer. But the clues are there. A straight man couldn’t have written these plays.

Many gay critics find Williams problematic. They focus on the fact that he came out late in life and that his homosexual characters are often on the sidelines or wind up dead. But Williams was never one for fitting in. ‘My type doesn’t know who I am,’ he once said. And if his gay characters are a little troubling, that’s probably because their creator was himself a little troubled. ‘What is straight?’ he once asked. ‘A line can be straight, or a street. But the human heart? Oh, no, it’s curved like a road through mountains.’

As his memoirs make clear, Williams had a great appetite for life. Nobody was more driven by, or had a better understanding of, the laws of desire. And nowhere is this more obvious than in Streetcar, which is as relevant today as it was 70 years ago.

There’s a knowingness in the way the audience are invited to both lust after and laugh at the character of Stanley Kowalski. He’s the rough trade to Blanche DuBois’s fragile Southern belle, and it’s obvious that, like Blanche, Williams is both attracted to and repulsed by him.

On meeting Marlon Brando, who played Stanley on stage and screen, Williams remarked: ‘He was just about the best-looking man I have ever seen.’ He also claimed never to have felt sexually attracted to him, which I personally find a little hard to swallow. As Susan Sarandon famously said when it was suggested that her character in The Hunger should be drunk in order to make her seduction by Catherine Deneuve more plausible, ‘It’s Catherine Deneuve! It doesn’t matter if you’re gay, straight, male or female, animal, vegetable or mineral. It’s Catherine Deneuve!’

Often, Williams let his fragile heroines do his talking for him. When Blanche utters the immortal words ‘I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers’, it’s easy to imagine that this is Williams himself talking. But he was never one for self pity.

In his memoirs, he writes: ‘I’ve had a wonderful and terrible life and I wouldn’t cry for myself.’

Nor should we.

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