“I was thinking about what might entice the crowd in on a beautiful day in the Quarter and I thought: put sex in the title,” Tennessee Williams Festival moderator Robert Bray explained, and the title of “William’s Sexual Politics” is partly why I find myself at the Williams Research Center (named not for Tennessee, but for General L. Kemper and Mrs. Leila Williams, founders of The Historic New Orleans Collection).
How do you resist a title like that, suggesting Stella on the staircase, Maggie astraddle a conquered Brick?
I had started out in a room full of biographers talking about presidents, dutifully scribbling in my notebook until I came to the end of a line, stopped, and asked: What am I doing here? I scoured the program until I found the panel I had noticed earlier, the one with the come hither description.
This was the first time in several festivals attended I had set foot in the Williams Research Center, which is usually filled with academics and their acolytes, the people who own every word ever written by or about Williams. In dog-eared hardback. They sit through days of panel discussions that start out with a session for the reading of abstracts. If two hours listening to academics reading abstracts isn’t enough to keep you away, you should seriously step back from your life and reconsider.
The room at the Historic New Orleans Collection where the master classes are held is the porcelain blue tea room for the well-dressed lady’s book club sort who fill the place with just a scattering of writers hunched in the front and another set in the very back where they stumbled in late. The Research Center is just as formal a space, but instead of the pearls and porcelain chatter of the Collection this room is hushed as a temple, the last panelists renewing their long-standing acquaintance with the next set. The walls are a barely discernible light olive, the lighting largely directed at the portraits of vague historic figures in the front (is that Governor Claiborne?) and modern canvases of New Orleans in the back: a second line, a shotgun street, a scene out of Katrina. I take a seat under one of the few spotlights in the ceiling to I can take notes.
Moderator Bray starts out with William’s cover article in Time magazine in 1961, which called him a “kind of peddler of sex…intent on shock” and went on to catalogue play-by-play his written sins: rape, homosexuality, nymphomania, alcoholism, drug addiction, castration, masturbation, cannibalism. It concluded, Bray said, by calling him the world’s greatest living playwright.
David Savran, co-editor of the Journal of American Drama and Theater and Distinguished Professor of Theater at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, offered a quick explanation: “In historical terms, the period from 1946 until the early sixties was the most conservative period in American history, a time when McCarthy linked Communism and homosexuality, and here homosexuality was central to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire. Williams was making the theater-going public confront issues they didn’t want to confront but where incredibly curious about.”
Will Brantley of Middle Tennessee University quickly agreed. In plays like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth, he said, Williams built a play around the male sex organ, took a word that couldn’t be said in his era and “made it the center of his drama [but] the controversial was presented as symbolic and metaphorical so it stays with us.” Savran also noted the intense homophobic reaction to Williams in criticism through the author’s career.
Actress and filmmaker Jodie Markell, the one woman on the panel, disagreed with categorizing Williams as sexually political. “I think of Tennessee Williams as a poet, not political but writing from the heart about what makes people want to connect, what makes them want to desire each other. He speaks to so many people about human vulnerability. It was so universal. How brave it was to explore these territories without being perverse and not judgmental of his characters.”
Bray asked about depictions of Blance as a nymphomaniac, and Savran again asserted this was symptomatic of a time when “any woman of strong desires was called a nymphomaniac.” Markell says was drawn to Williams as an actress and now as a director of The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond because “I was interested in the women in Williams who were too sexual, too bright, too too too…women who project their desires onto idealized and flawed men.”
Ah, finally the audience was (OK, I was) being released from prurient curiosity and into the meat and bone of what the Research Center programs are about, the reason we were all here: peering deeply into Williams and finding ourselves.
Bray paraphrased Night of the Iguana: “Nothing disgusts me except intentional cruelty.” Savran chimed in immediately, “Williams’ theater is a theater without villains [but one] of connections, not villains but antagonists of desire. In so many of his plays there is the meeting and the parting,” which Savran said is found in Chekov as well. Markell said Williams was interested in sexual alienation. “He enjoyed the play of how opposites attract.”
Bray returned to sexual politics, suggesting that characters in Williams works approach sex with a manipulative praticallity, citing Maggie and Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie stuffing her daughter’s bra. He suggested Williams women were sometimes sexual predators. Markell agreed with the practical sexuality of William’s women and said that is what her film is about, but disagreed with the idea of the women as sexual predators.
The panel also considered the differences in endings between Williams’ plays and the film versions. “He was up against the Production Code Administration, which not only censored but encouraged happy endings.” One panelist suggested, “Williams wanted people to supply their own ending, to leave the end ambiguous,” and Savran agreed.
“Modern drama is about asking not answering questions. It doesn’t tell us how we should think or feel.”