TWO ABOUT TENNESEE WILLIAMS
Paller, Michael. “Gentlemen Callers: Tennessee Williams, Homosexuality, and Mid-Twentieth Century Drama”. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
Williams, Tennessee. “Memoirs”. New Directions reissue, 2006.
What a man Tennessee Williams was and what a mind had! We are not likely to see a man like him again. When I lived in New Orleans I had the pleasure of knowing the genius whom many have called the greatest American playwright. He was perverse, he was smooth, and he was brilliant. His masterpieces include “A Streetcar Named Desire” (with a gay theme, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (with a gay theme0, “Suddenly Last Summer” (so very gay), and “The Glass Menagerie” (with a supposed gay character who mirrored the author himself0. Interestingly enough, mainstream America did not see the gayness which exists to some degree in almost all of his work and hailed him back then. Today he is being looked at as the harbinger of modern gay drama.
Michael Paller’s new book “Gentlemen Callers” discusses that very issue. In doing so he shatters the myth of the man and says that “10” as we called him was a walking tragedy. He was a self-hating homosexual (Hello!) but he was a social artist and he was revolutionary, a ground-breaking “social pioneer”. Paller re-evaluates Williams as he deals with the gay side of the author’s works and he does so brilliantly. The importance of Williams’ homosexuality is the spine of his thesis and the fact that he hated himself for being gay propelled him to write some most endearing works of the theatre. The book is full of wonderful insights into not only the man but his plays and the world of the theater that he was a part of. What we get is a picture of America with her oppressive laws and cruelties against gays and that indirectly gave rise to an author that became a national treasure. Paller looks at Williams’ works objectively (and with a passion) and free from the distortions and exaggerations that many other critics have used. It is an innovative, perceptive and extremely readable examination of the plays of Tennessee Williams. What interested me so much is the extent that those politically correct critics have, up until now, prevented a judicious reading of Williams’ works. “Gentlemen Callers” is sensitive and informed, in no way judgmental. It is something that cried out to be written for so long but because Williams had become a theater icon, people were not willing to talk about the homosexual aspect of some of the most beloved woks of the American theater.
Quite a different look at Williams is his own story which he published under the title of “Memoirs” and originally hit book market in 1972. It has been reissued by New Directions Press and this edition contains a wonderful introduction by “Pink Flamingos” John Waters.
For Williams the past and the present were one and the same and his memoirs are constantly shifting between the two time periods. It tells not only of his life in the theater but of his days growing up in Mississippi and St. Louis, his struggles as a starving artist, his “overnight” success with the brilliant “The Glass Menagerie”, the death of his lover, his mental illnesses and his life as a homosexual. It is also filled with a roster of famous people—Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Vivien Leigh, Katherine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando, to name a few.
When the book was first published it caused a hullabaloo because of Williams’ candor and unprecedented openness. This is a great companion piece to “Gentleman Callers” because it centers on the life of the man and not the literary output. Here are the stories that eventually became the dramas that we have grown to love and embrace (and I am even in the book but thinly disguised). I remember those carefree days in the French Quarter when a typical night meant a visit to the infamous “fruit loop” in the days before AIDS. It was not rare to see Williams out and cruising and he was always glad to see everyone.
Both books are wonderful and if you are interested in the life of a man who alone did so much to make the world a better place for gays, then Have a look at these books and gain a view of the inside genius of America’s gift to world theater.