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 stage under the gloomy glare of work lights, solidly asleep. Because he was wearing a white T-shirt and denim trousers, because of his squat gymnasium physique—the weight-lifter’s arms, the Charles Atlas chest…—I took him for a stagehand…. It was…rather an experience to observe, later that afternoon, with what chameleon ease Brando acquired the character’s cruel and gaudy colors.
While Capote offers up one description of trade, Blanche—the quin- tessential fruit fly (her early marriage ended when her gay husband shot himself)—supplies another. One evening, Stanley lays into his wife, Stella, in the grim New Orleans apartment they share. Soon after storming out, Stella returns to him. They have sex. The next day, Blanche—Stella’s older sister, who witnessed the fight—returns to the apartment, where she has been staying with the couple. She’s horrified to find her sister in an obviously postcoital state. “You saw him at his worst last night,” Stella offers by way of an excuse. To which Blanche responds:
On the contrary, I saw him at his best! What such a man has to offer is animal force and he gave a wonderful exhibition of that!—But the only way to live with such a man is to—go to bed with him! And that’s your job—not mine!
Blanche’s admonishment, while sincere, is also absurd; by this point in the play we know that she is virtually incapable of talking about anything but herself. She’d like nothing more than to have Stella’s job—or at least one aspect of it. But while indirection is part of Blanche’s speech pattern, Williams never lets her obscure her intentions. Blanche wants Stanley but hates that she has a weakness for him and his kind. “A man like that is someone to go out with—once—twice—three times when the devil is in you,” she says, with the memory of various roadside inns, hangovers, and sad hotel rooms haunting her heart and head.
Part of Blanche’s tragedy, of course, is circumstantial. She’s been chased out of a town that’s literally littered with her old tricks. Now she’s met her devil again—in her own (if provisional) home. In the end, Blanche runs flat against the brick wall of her desire; Stanley only gives her a little push in the direction she’s been headed in all along. But in director Liv Ullmann’s production of the play for the Sydney Theatre Company, performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this past winter, the scene where Stanley rapes Blanche isn’t treated that way; it’s presented as a kind of consummation—the resolution, through sex, of their difference. Afterward, when Stanley says to Blanche, “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning,” the line is spoken as a statement of fact. It’s that flat literalness that sweeps Williams’s complicated Puritanism off the stage of Ullmann’s production. Her staging fails to illustrate not only how Blanche is undone by desire, but also the more disturbing message that outsiders like her can be—and are—driven mad by the very brutality they court because it turns them on.
At one point during Blanche’s final mad scene, a woman sitting across the aisle from me at BAM last December began to sob uncontrollably. Despite her obvious pain, she could not look away from the stage’s brightly lit scene of daytime disaster. I wondered about the source of that spectator’s tears: Was it the sight of Blanche being led to her dark future, her sister Stella’s flush-cheeked confusion, or both?
At the end of the play, Stella has just had a baby. Returning from the hospital, she sets about restoring order to her home. First things first: she commits her older sister to a mental institution. Stella, it seems, cannot live with the fact that Stanley, her husband, has had his way with Blanche. She prefers to treat Blanche’s report as further proof of just how destructive her fantasies have become. The new mother loves her sister, but she loves her life more; if she believed Blanche’s story, she’d have to leave Stanley and forgo the very aspects of her existence that Blanche envies and disdains. Without a man, who would Stella be? She needs to be needed, but she also enjoys being put upon. Her marriage defines her. A divorce from Stanley would likely lead to a life as her sister’s custodian—a life condemned to the pitiful, powerless female world that brought Blanche down in the first place.
But as Williams makes clear about halfway through his drama, Stella would never dream of leaving Stanley. His crude, working-class demeanor degrades the memory of his wife’s genteel upbringing in Mississippi (“I pulled you down off them columns,” he brags); as a result, Stanley makes Stella feel alive, charged, present. Not wanting to forfeit that feeling, Stella is complicit in her own brutalization, and, ultimately, in her sister’s too. In the end, Blanche matters less to Stella than does her future as a happily controlled woman, dutifully attending to her home and honoring her husband. And it’s this kind of “normalcy” that Blanche would like to achieve, if only she could.
Relatively few feminists have articulated the ways in which some women may find stereotypical male behavior necessary, if only because it enables them to act out its supposed counterpart, femininity. Part of Williams’s genius, of course, was to recognize and represent this dynamic, without overstating or theorizing about it. He generally left self-awareness, and thus irony, about sexual role-playing to his gay characters, and to women who refused to be defined by convention. Sometimes he put both kinds of characters together, as in his 1951 long story, “Two on a Party.” Two middle-aged singles, Cora and Billy, cruise together across America:
They’re two on a party which has made a departure and a rather wide one.
Into brutality? No. It’s not that simple.
Into vice? No. It isn’t nearly that simple.
Into what, then?
Into something unlawful? Yes, of course!
Cora is Blanche—if she’d made a friend and had the financial freedom to live as she wished.
The sensitivity Williams brought to his characters—especially the female ones—in Streetcar was little appreciated, if not dismissed altogether, by Mary McCarthy when she reviewed the show’s 1947 début. McCarthy more or less characterizes Williams as a mincing faggot, unqualified to write about heterosexual lives except as a kind of pornographer. But McCarthy doesn’t stop there; she goes on to equate Williams with his delusional heroine, saying that, as a writer, he seems “addicted to the embroidered lie.”
In the end, McCarthy’s distaste for Williams’s work is not unlike Stanley’s for Blanche’s dreams. Ostensibly, McCarthy was criticizing the play for not being what it never claimed to be: Ibsen- inspired realism. In fact, one could easily read Blanche’s famous line “I don’t want realism, I want—magic!” as a cry against the prevalent stodgy, realist, and heterocentric theatrical style in vogue during Williams’s era. (The men in Arthur Miller’s postwar world, for instance, are never without long-suffering wives who put their husbands first.) But McCarthy isn’t drawn to any aspect of Blanche’s personality. She goes after her with the single-mindedness of a misogynistic homophobe, writing that “the thin sleazy stuff” of Blanche’s character “must be embellished by Mr. Williams with all sorts of arty decorations.” More even than thinness, McCarthy takes issue with what she sees as the implausibility of Blanche’s backstory, writing:
It is not enough that [Blanche] should be a drunkard (this in itself is plausible); she must also be a notorious libertine who has been run out of a small town like a prostitute, a thing absolutely inconceivable for a woman to whom conventionality is the end of existence.
But part of Blanche’s tragedy is that even though she tries on conventionality, once she takes up with the big, befuddled Mitch, it doesn’t fit: her intelligence, and her status as a defiant outsider, keep getting in the way. Stanley and Mitch’s horror of and fascination with Blanche’s sexuality stand in for what really frightens—and excites—them: her difference from the straight wives and mothers who people their world. Blanche can comment on her femininity even as she tries to exploit it, as when she first flirts with Mitch by having him put a paper lantern on a naked light bulb, or having him guess her weight by lifting her. But she recognizes when she can’t turn the trick, too—saying to Stanley, “I cannot imagine any witch of a woman casting a spell over you.”
Perhaps McCarthy, like Stanley and Mitch, was ultimately too uncomfortable with Blanche’s difference to take her reality on. Here is a female character who is unmarried but has loved; who has no money, no property, and no social equity but whose memories of the boys she has taken to her breast are a kind of sustenance. Williams lets us in on Blanche’s difference by degrees, and by having her speak a recognizably gay language: queer talk from a queer artist about a queer woman. For example, Blanche saying to Stella: “I don’t know how much longer I can turn the trick. It isn’t enough to be soft.” And Stanley to Blanche and Stella: “Who do you think you are? A pair of queens?” And to the “Young Man” she’d like to trick with: “I’m not a conventional person, and I’m so—restless today….” And then Blanche again to Mitch, in reference to her dead gay husband:
There was something different about the boy, a nervousness, a softness and tenderness which wasn’t like a man’s, although he wasn’t the least bit effeminate looking—still—that thing was there…. He came to me for help. I didn’t find out anything till after our marriage when we’d run away and come back and all I knew was I’d failed him in some mysterious way and wasn’t able to give the help he needed but couldn’t speak of!
To read Blanche as she demands to be read (as, indeed, she was written), McCarthy would have had to abandon the desire to conform to the politics of the time—which didn’t include queer visibility or rights—something she was clearly unable to do.
Blanche is the forerunner of certain other characters in Williams’s gallery of difference. There is some Blanche in Brinda, the black woman who must endure the crude advances of a white male nurse who feels he can mistreat her because of her color in Williams’s long 1965 story “Mama’s Old Stucco House.” (When it came to Williams’s need to talk about difference, race was often as powerful a metaphor as queerness.) Blanche’s affectations are amplified in Candy Delaney, from his 1970 play And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens…; she is also part of the spirit Williams expresses through verse in his 1966 play The Mutilated:
I think the strange, the crazed, the queer
Will have their holiday this year
And for a while, A little while,
There will be pity for the wild.
A miracle, A miracle!
A sanctuary for the wild.
However it was manifested, Williams’s expression of his queer self generally met with a Mary McCarthy–like resistance.
In Streetcar, Blanche is undone in part by the gossip Stanley spreads about her. He tells Mitch about all the men and boys from her hometown his sister-in-law has slept with, and how she was suspended from her job teaching high school English. Mitch, feeling duped, goes over to the Kowalskis and confronts Blanche. Then he tries to sleep with her. Why not? She’s cheap goods. To get rid of him, Blanche threatens to scream “fire.” Given that Mitch is her last hope of escaping Stanley and Stella’s home and living a “respectable” life, Blanche should by then give the impression that she’s screaming for help for the rest of the play, even when she’s sitting quietly. But Cate Blanchett, who played Blanche in Ullmann’s production, didn’t vibrate with the kind of intensity and ambivalent need for acceptance that one tends to associate with an outsider. Instead, Blanchett’s Blanche tried to engage with, or defy, the male members of the Kowalski-centered community. Audiences were rapt by the acclaimed actress’s “new” reading of the part.
But this was also a pitfall. Ullmann and Blanchett’s Blanche was entirely too sturdy a woman; an intellectually superior being who doesn’t so much engage with her sister as lecture her. Ullmann used Blanche’s vulnerability to advance the plot; but she didn’t add anything especially insightful to our understanding of the character, and seemed even to find humor in Blanche’s nearly indefatigable need to connect.
Watching Blanchett, I couldn’t help but wonder how Bryce Dallas How- ard might have interpreted the role. In the recent film The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, based on a screenplay Williams wrote in 1957, Howard plays a Memphis-based heiress named Fisher Willow, an iconoclast adrift in a world of stultifying convention. She fights back in a number of ways, chief among them her involvement with Jimmy Dobyne (Chris Evans), a gentle piece of working-class, Kowalskiesque trade. Howard’s performance tapped into what Blanchett failed to access: moral anarchy and a kind of physical recklessness.
In Ullmann’s production of Streetcar, the actors traversed the large set with little ease and no understanding of the thick New Orleans atmosphere Williams insinuates into the action of the play, like a minor but essential character. Under her direction, the Kowalskis’ suffocating apartment was just another prop, like one of Blanche’s summer furs; Ullmann never infused the rooms with a sense of dread, something that should be obvious from the moment Blanche arrives: Stella and Stanley aren’t there, and their landlady and neighbor, Eunice, shows Blanche in. As Eunice chatters on, Blanche rudely cuts her off. But instead of exhibiting a mix of emotions—gratitude, her own wretchedness—Blanchett’s Blanche merely barks at the proprietress like a drill sergeant. Left alone, the errant schoolteacher spies a bottle of liquor and takes a big, hearty gulp, again less out of a feeling of desperation than simply as a way of quenching her thirst.
While Joel Edgerton as Stanley Kowalski stressed—as he must—Kowalski’s physical appeal, he, like the rest of the cast (Robin McLeavy’s Stella Kowalski was especially weak, sounding and acting like an emotionally underwhelmed schoolgirl), shrank in relation to Blanchett’s star wattage, her air of unvanquished health. Still, Edgerton didn’t act with any real sense of urgency; he kept close to Williams’s text while trying not to mimic Marlon Brando, who still owns the part.
Brando’s shadow over every new Kowalski is unquestioned, but what’s less acknowledged is that it also requires a Brando-like intensity to play Blanche. Blanchett doesn’t yet seem to possess the kind of imagination that understands degradation; she is too competitive a spirit to grovel in the ways Blanche has groveled just to stay alive. In fact, the moments leading up to Blanche’s rape—the cutting of the final cord of reality—rang especially false, because Blanchett played it as though Blanche was drunk, confused, and fitful, not a willing female victim to Stanley’s male need for control—which Stella runs toward, arms wide open.
As with his near contemporary James Baldwin, the church was never far from Tennessee Williams’s characters’ locutions. And it’s in the playwright’s monologues, especially, that one can hear the biblical rhythms he no doubt absorbed in his grandfather’s church, speech that elevates his characters’ dialogue past being just dramaturgically functional and into the realm of the ecclesiastic. For good or ill, though, most of Williams’s characters live in the church of the self, even as they reach past its doors toward a world that either accepts, or (more often) brutally rejects their difference. In The Glass Menagerie (1944), Williams’s first commercially successful play, the narrator, Tom Wingfield, speaks directly to the audience. A writer, he tells us he recognizes that he’s an illusionist of sorts:
Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.
Tom, like Blanche, is no doubt enamored of his tricks, but his desire is not central to Menagerie. Looking back at the time he lived in a tenement in Depression-era St. Louis with Amanda, his Southern belle of a mother, and his sister, Laura, who’s been crippled by pleurosis and who lives in a shadow world of glass figurines and old phonograph records, the story ultimately centers on Tom bringing trade home for his sister—a “gentleman caller” who, like Mitch vis-à-vis Blanche, is supposed to rescue Laura from her difference.
While the current production of the play in New York distinguishes itself from recent revivals largely in its staging—the director, Gordon Edelstein, has placed Williams’s characters in Tom’s hotel room, where he’s writing the memories we watch unfold—it also emphasizes the narrator’s queerness. In talking to his sister about why he leaves the house at night and goes “to the movies” but returns home drunk—all in an effort to escape his responsibilities at home and his nagging mother—Tom (Patch Darragh) describes how after the film there was a floor show, where he met a magician, another illusionist:
He performed wonderful tricks…. A very generous fellow, he gave souvenirs…. He gave me this. This is his magic scarf. You can have it, Laura.
Darragh’s Tom plays this scarf-wielding scene for its subtext. As he flourishes the garment with sad eyes, we see his secret history with trade, his closeted being.
In his insightful book Gentleman Callers,1 Michael Paller writes that “those who can read the signs…will see Tom’s gayness.” Peeling away the metaphors Williams needed to talk directly about himself may, Paller notes, annoy those gays who would prefer that Williams talk more openly about his sexuality. But that wouldn’t be his art, let alone his person. In 1974, the television personality Dick Cavett asked Williams if he was gay. The writer smiled and said, “I cover the waterfront.” In the old days, docks were a not unfamiliar area to find trade. And where one could leave after whatever needed to be acted out had been. Williams followed that routine for most of his adult life. As Mohamed Choukri remarks in his recently reissued memoirs, In Tangier,2 “Tennessee likes solitude, I thought. But he’s afraid of being alone.”
June 10, 2010