‘The Strange, the Crazed, the Queer’

A Streetcar Named Desire

by Tennessee Williams, directed by Liv Ullmann and performed by the Sydney Theatre Company
at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, November 27–December 20, 2009

The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams, directed by Gordon Edelstein
at the Roundabout Theatre Company, New York City, March 5–June 13, 2010
Richard Termine
Cate Blanchett as Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire


In those days, they called it “trade.” And the queens and fag hags who used the word—especially when there was a chance of sex with a particularly butch-looking (or “str8”) man in their midst—did so conspiratorially; after all, in the Eisenhower era, to talk openly about one’s desire in mixed company could lead to physical harm, even arrest.

But not all trade was heterosexual. As the queer linguist and philosopher Paul Baker has pointed out, some could be of “unfixed” sexual orientation—a fact that wouldn’t have interested Tennessee Williams much. The Mississippi-born author and playwright, whose grandfather was a closeted Episcopalian minister and whose mother was a frigid hysteric, never escaped his legacy. In his review of Williams’s Memoirs, Gore Vidal wrote, “At some deep level Tennessee truly believes that the homosexualist is wrong and that the heterosexualist is right.” To have any life at all, Williams had to internalize his homophobia; to become a writer, he had to dramatize it.

And dramatize it he did. In a fair number of his long list of plays, we see the same narrative unfold again and again. A brutal and brutalizing “sexy” piece of nominally straight trade (Williams’s male lovers tend to “appear in his work as…youthful versions of the crude father, impersonated, much too excitingly, by Marlon Brando,” wrote Vidal) encroaches on the shadow world inhabited by a gallery of adrift queens, vibrant fantasists, and solitary-minded people of both sexes, eventually smashing their fragile sense of reality if not destroying it altogether.

But Williams’s hunky male figures don’t set to ripping up dreams—or antimacassars—straight off. They’re usually provoked into a violent reaction by an intellectual superior, a crepe-de-chine-wearing outsider who can’t help but belittle them; it’s too easy, and it’s part of the emotional dance of death. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche Dubois dances all over her dull suitor, Mitch:

Have you ever had anything caught in your head? Some words, a piece of music? That goes relentlessly on and on in your head? No, of course you haven’t, you dumb angel-puss, you’d never get anything awful caught in your head!

In Williams’s world, intelligence is the province of the deviate; straight boys have other qualities.


What gets caught in Blanche’s own head—and finally undoes her completely—is her desire for postwar American theater’s ultimate trade: Stanley Kowalski. In his profile of Marlon Brando, who originated the role on Broadway in 1947, Truman Capote captures something of the erotic thrill both the star and his character brought to the stage, certainly from a “homosexualist” point of view:

I hadn’t a clue to who he might be when, arriving too early at the Streetcar rehearsal, I found the auditorium deserted and a brawny young man stretched out atop a table on the…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.