March 24, 2011 | by David J. Hoffman
America’s Bard

Tennessee Williams' homosexuality widely informed his work, often in coded ways. (Photo courtesy of the Tennessee Williams Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University)

He is the poet laureate of the American theater.

He pursued young men and boys with sexual voracity, especially hustlers, often rough trade, and those obsessively so in his latter years, but he also delighted greatly in the company of women.

His greatest creations on stage were in fact women, though some argue they were really coded figures who were actually gay males in drag. Certainly most of his heroines — especially perhaps Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar named Desire” — were extensions of himself, valorous but doomed, haunted by desire, shadowed by failure, driven to despair and sometimes even to madness or to death.

He is Thomas Lanier Williams, born 100 years ago this weekend on Palm Sunday, March 26, 1911, in Columbus, Miss., to Edwina and Cornelius Williams. He was reared in an Episcopal rectory there, where his grandfather, Rev. Walter Dakin, was the local Episcopal priest, and later changed his name to “Tennessee” in honor of that same grandfather, who was born in that state.

Williams’ sense of sin and salvation in sexuality was central to his inner drives, says Derek Goldman, artistic director of this weekend’s Tennessee Williams Centennial Festival, a raft of plays and staged readings and panel discussions featuring appearances by among others Edward Albee and John Waters (Visit performingarts.georgetown.edu/tenncentfest/festival/ for details). For a long time, Williams was closeted about being gay, though he let it be known to his friends. Goldman says that though Williams had a long-time love relationship with his life partner Frankie Merlo, he was also “very promiscuous, and slept around a lot,” when “his need was for several boys a day at times, and the younger and prettier the better.”

Georgetown University's production of 'Glass Menagerie,' one of Tennessee Williams' most famous works. From left are recent alumni Rachel Caywood and Clark Young with Prof. Sarah Marshall. (Photo by Sue Kessler, courtesy of Georgetown University)

In his writing, however, Goldman says, the thirst to slake his need for for constant sexual consummation, took a different form through sublimation, because in his writing, he “explores not so much the sex but how those desires have a place in society” — or do not. Goldman is also associate professor of theater and performance studies at Georgetown University, where the Williams Festival — known for short as “Tenn Cent Fest” — is housed, and he directs the university’s Davis Performing Arts Center. Goldman says the festival, most of which runs from today through Sunday, has “certainly been a labor of love,” including being able to teach a seminar on Williams work and “for this past year” he says he has been “steeped in all things Williams.”

Goldman’s own first encounter with Williams came on cable TV, however, when he was about 13 and saw the film adaptations of “Streetcar Named Desire” (1951,)  and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958). In each case, of course, Hollywood producers insisted in excisions, and Goldman admits that “I now blush at the fact that they were so sanitized, taking much of the sexuality out.”

For example, Goldman points out that in the original version of “Cat” (which was on Broadway in 1955 when it was directed by Elia Kazan and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama), it’s clear that Brick (first played by the actor Ben Gazzara) is actually bisexual, or even gay, as he admits to his feelings for his pro football buddy Skipper who has committed suicide. Goldman says that “the back story for Brick is his relationship with Skipper,” and that while Brick’s “sexuality is pretty complicated,” he has certainly “lost interest in Maggie sexually,” and “we understand that he definitely has homosexual desires.”

We, of course, mainly know Williams from his work. That is the only reason he rates such a “Tenn Cent Fest” weekend, more than a quarter century after his death, as Goldman is now curating. But behind and beneath that work was always his beating heart. Reading his private writing shows him “so emotionally naked, as he was working out his own stuff,” Goldman says.

“It shows the undulation between guilt and shame (at being gay), not being accepted for who he really was, and also being able to claim it with pride,” Goldman says. “It was not just one thing. It was a stew of contradictions pulsing back and forth in private.”

In one of Williams’ one-act plays, “Suddenly, Last Summer,” that opened off-Broadway in 1958 as part of a double-bill titled “In The Garden District,” the play is basically two long monologues, considered one of his starkest and most poetic works. Best known from the 1959 film adaptation, it is a mystery melodrama about why Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor in the film) has been institutionalized for severe emotional disturbance, the result of the violent death of her cousin Sebastian by dismemberment and cannibalism by local boys, the objects of his predatory sexual desire, she had witnessed during their trip to Spain. Sebastian’s wealthy mother, Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) is determined to hide the exact circumstances of her son’s death and the fact that he was gay.

Maya Roth, Georgetown’s director of theater and performance studies, is directing “Suddenly, Last Summer” at the Davis Performing Arts Center April 7-16. “It is a play about violence against homosexual men,” she says. “It’s about Sebastian,” who is never seen, except at a distance in memory, “and his queerness that can’t be mentioned, the love that dare not speak its name, that’s what ‘Suddenly, Last Summer’ is about.” Though sanitized in the film version, it was written as one of his early plays but for a long time remained unproduced. When it was finally presented on stage, it was a kind of “coming out” for Williams, she says, “and it was really radical, and the reason why Hollywood had to airbrush it out.”

Asked about the legacy of Williams — his many plays as well as novels and short stories and occasional screenplays — Goldman says, “it’s more than a legacy, it’s the urgency still in his work, because it’s still very fresh,” in what he calls its “incredible lyricism and heat, the poetry of its fierce and ferocious imagery, in its language as windows into the soul.”

“He’s the poet of the vulnerable, whose compassion is in the size of his tenderness and faith in the beauty of the broken, those who have suffered the collateral damages of a world that doesn’t celebrate individuality, that doesn’t make allowances for the beauty of the broken,” Goldman says. “He’s the one who pierces the heart and the intellect, but it’s the heart, the emotional connection that we have to his work, that is most indelible.”

“He’s our American Shakespeare,” Goldman says, “combining the elevation of lyricism and magician-ship of language with the power of great story-telling,” and for Goldman, of all of Williams’ work there stands what he calls “the holy trinity,” his own “personal pantheon” of Williams’ three greatest creations: “The Glass Menagerie” (1944), “Streetcar Named Desire” (1948) and “Camino Real” (1953). The latter is being performed in a staged reading directed by Goldman tonight at 7:45 p.m.

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