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Running head: literary criticism of Tennessee Williams

 

Literary criticism of Tennessee Williams

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While Williams is best known as one of the greatest American dramatists of the post-World War II era, he also wrote short stories that explore isolation and miscommunication within families and small groups of misfits and loners. These stories have often been viewed as simply apprentice works for his dramas, developing themes and characters that he later incorporated into his plays, but a number of critics have argued that they deserve to be considered on their own merits and have drawn comparisons between them and the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas Mann. His troubled family provided inspiration for much of Tennessee Williams' writing. He was born in Columbus, Mississippi, in the home of his maternal grandfather, the local Episcopal rector (the home is now the Mississippi Welcome Center and tourist office for the city). His father, Cornelius Williams, was a traveling salesman who became increasingly abusive as his children grew older. Dakin Williams, his brother, was often favored over him by their father. His mother, Edwina Dakin Williams, was a descendant of a genteel southern family, and was somewhat smothering. She may have had a mood disorder. The family moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi, by the time Thomas was three. At five, he was diagnosed with diphtheria, which caused his legs to be paralyzed for nearly two years. He could do almost nothing during this time, but then his mother decided she wouldn't allow him to continue wasting his time. She encouraged him to use his imagination and gave him a typewriter when he was thirteen.

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The critical reaction to William’s short fiction has been mixed. Certainly his contribution as a short story writer has been overshadowed by his fame as a playwright, and scholars have often focused on how Williams developed his plays from ideas he introduced in his short stories. Some have regarded the stories as simplified and sharpened versions of his plays. Many reviewers have found his fiction morbid and grotesque and have compared it to that of Edgar Allan Poe. Detractors of William’s work contend that he is a sadist who creates characters only to humiliate them, but his supporters assert that in general he treats his characters with sympathy and compassion. Some critics have seen in the stories' concern with the interplay of death and desire a similarity to works by Thomas Mann. Commentators have also examined autobiographical aspects of William’s short stories, particularly his treatment of homosexuality and family dynamics. Recent studies have elucidated the role of women in his fiction, and have investigated his unconventional themes, experimental narrative technique, and use of symbols, particularly religious ones. William’s gayness was an open secret he neither publicly confirmed nor denied until the post-Stonewall era when gay critics took him to task for not coming out, which he did in a series of public utterances, his Memoirs (1975), self-portraits in some of the later plays, and the novel, Moise and the World of Reason (1975), all of which document, often pathetically, William’s sense of himself as a gay man. (Roger Boxill, pp. 202 )

There are several volumes of witty, confessional letters to friends Donald Windham and Maria St. Just and a raft of cynical, exploitative kiss-and-tell books by men who claimed to know Williams well in his later, declining years. However, anyone who had read his stories and poems, in which Williams could be more candid than he could be in works written for a Broadway audience, had ample evidence of his homosexuality.

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Tennessee William’s work poses fascinating problems for the gay reader. At his best, Williams wrote some of the greatest American plays, but though homosexuals are sometimes mentioned, they are dead, closeted safely in the exposition but never appearing on stage. In his post-Stonewall plays, in which openly homosexual characters appear, they serve only to dramatize William’s negative feelings about his own homosexuality. In the 1940s and 1950s, Williams presented in his finest stories poetic renderings of homosexual desire, but homoeroticism was always linked to death. Only in his lyric poetry does one find positive expression of homoerotic desire.

These contradictions are not presented to damn Williams for not having a contemporary gay sensibility but to say that his attitude toward his own homosexuality reflected the era in which he lived. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the McCarthy era, during which Williams wrote his best work, homosexuality branded one a traitor as well as a "degenerate." William’s best work was an expression of his homosexuality combined with the intense neuroses that fueled his imagination and crippled his life. Gay critics have debated in recent years whether William’s work is marked by "internalized homophobia" (Clum) or whether he is a subversive artist whose work can be best interpreted through the lens of leftist French theorists like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault (Savran).  David Bergman sees William’s characteristic linking of homosexuality and cannibalism as both religious (the homosexual as martyr) and Freudian (homosexuality as accommodation to and rebellion against the father figure), as well as part of a Central American gay literary tradition that has its roots in the work of Herman Melville.

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The diverse but complementary work of these critics can be read as necessary counters to the heterosexist critics of the past who either ignored William’s homosexuality altogether or saw it as the root of his personal and artistic failings. As is the case with many gay artists, the gay critical discussion of Williams, however lively, is just beginning. A starting point for gay readers of Williams is not the plays but the short stories, particularly the two set in the decaying Joy Rio movie theater, "Hard Candy" and "The Mysteries of the Joy Rio." The Joy Rio is a once opulent opera house with horseshoe tiers of boxes above the orchestra and balcony level. Now the theater shows westerns, mass-produced myths of conventional American masculinity, while in the dark, roped-off upper boxes, various combinations of people engage in furtive sex. However, this literal reading of William’s plays neglects the ways he brilliantly codes his plays so that gay readings are possible. A Streetcar Named Desire, in particular, can be seen and read as a gay play. Its theatrical transformations, camp, and careful use of gay slang (less known by a general audience in 1947) allow gay audiences to read their own transgressive text.

This is not to say that Blanche is literally a gay man in drag but can be read as male and/or female, gay and/or straight. Certainly the focus on the animal magnetism of the macho Stanley Kowalski, treating him as object of characters' and audience's gaze and desire and--in his silly, sometime brutal masculine posturing--also of their ridicule, can be given a gay reading. Belle Reprieve, the recent gender-inverted deconstruction of Streetcar performed by the gay troupe Bloolips and the lesbian troupe Split Britches, offered a hilarious but cogent gay interpretation of William’s classic. (George W. Crandall, pp. 1948-1982)

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References

Harold Bloom, (editor), (2000), "Tennessee Williams", Chelsea House Publishers, 112 pages,

Roger Box ill, (2003), "Tennessee Williams", Palgrave, formerly Macmillan Press, 202 pages,

Michael Borski, (2003), "Outstanding Lives: Profiles of Lesbians and Gay Men".

Tom Cowan, (1996), "Gay Men and Women Who Enriched the World". Pp. 149-167

George W. Crandall, (2004), "The Critical Response to Tennessee Williams", pp. 1948-1982

 
 


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