Tennessee Williams - A True Gay Icon

Posted: Thu Feb 17 2011

The playwright's centenary is the perfect time to celebrate his continued relevance

Next week marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Tennessee Williams. The man responsible for such classics as 'A Streetcar Named Desire' and 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' wrote many more plays in his lifetime, some of which never even made it to the stage. To mark the centenary, The Cock Tavern is staging two of his plays, neither of which has ever been performed here before. 'I Never Get Dressed Till After Dark on Sunday' will run from March 1, followed by 'A Cavalier for Milady' from March 29.

The title of the former work hints at Williams's state of mind in the latter part of his life. When his memoirs were 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 he 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 was that he was in steep decline, both physically and artistically. Some said that he had pissed away his talent. He was certainly drinking heavily, and was addicted to prescription drugs. He 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 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 end 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.

But he also 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 60 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.'

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.