HOMOSEXUALITY IN THE WORKS OF TENNESSEE WILLIAMS
(on-line plays - http://library.thinkquest.org/27864/data/williams/twworks.htm
Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams has gained worldwide recognition as one of the most productive, interesting and successful playwrights of twentieth-century America. His dramas are generally seen to reveal a world of human conflicts and frustrations in which sex and violence contrast with romantic, usually Southern, settings and characters. Born in Columbus, Mississippi, in 1911, Williams spent his youth in a lower middle-class neighborhood in St. Louis. His environment was one in which women dominated his home life; his father was a traveling salesman who was rarely home and displayed open hostility towards young Tom and his family. Williams was also a sickly child; for this reason his mother, Edwina, his grandmother, Grand, and his sister, Rose, tended to protect him rather than to place him in competition, assertive circumstances. After a lonely childhood, Williams worked for several years in a shoe factory during the depression. He attended the University of Missouri and Washington University in St. Louis and eventually graduated from the University of Iowa in 1938. During this time he began writing and worked with local little theatre groups in his spare time.
In 1939 Williams achieved widespread recognition when a group of his one-act plays, American Blues, won a Group Theatre Award. Battle of Angels, a full-length play, appeared the following year, produced by the Theatre Guild in Boston. The play failed because of its juxtaposition of sex and religion; the audiences were basically conservative at this time, and this play was considered shocking. (1) The Glass Menagerie opened for a year’s run on Broadway late in 1944; it received the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for that season. Williams’ next public success was A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), winning for the playwright a Pulitzer Prize and a second Critics’ Circle Award. In 1953 Williams presented a controversial fantasy play to the theatre world: Camino Real. It was a commercial failure. In 1955 he won his third Critics’ Circle Award and a second Pulitzer Prize for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Williams won another Critics’ Circle Award in 1962 for The Night of the Iguana. Best known for his dramas, Williams has also written numerous short stories, verses and three novels.
In 1975 Williams published his MEMOIRS, in which he discusses a lifetime of homosexual activities and tells of his many love affairs with men. (2) Because of his canded revelations and because of the number of works in which Williams uses themes of homosexuality, his writings need to be studied within this context. Two important thematic implications of Williams’ attitude toward homosexuality, and consequentially the uses he has made of this theme throughout his various works, are examined in detail in this thesis.
1. What uses does Williams make of homosexuals and homosexual themes in his dramatic and fictional works; and how do the appearances of these characters influence the meaning of particular works?
2. What changes do we find in Williams’ artistic employment of homosexuals and homosexual attitudes during the decades since 1940, and are these changes of a negative or a positive?
There are also several peripheral questions that can be asked concerning Williams’ homosexual themes. How would Williams’ homosexual characters and changing attitudes affect women’s audiences and readers, and how would these same changing attitudes reflect the social climate during this time period?
In order to study these thematic implications, I have divided Williams’ artistic productions into three time periods: 1940 – 1950, 1950 – 1960 and 1960 – 1975. Within each of these time periods, the homosexual’s relationship with men, women, families and society in general will be analyzed. Specific works serve as the basis for these discussions. The pieces chosen for analysis have been selected because of their varied backgrounds, settings and depictions of certain kinds of intimate relationships.
The selections from the 1940s include the short stories “One Arm” (1948), “Desire and the Black Masseur” (1948) and the play A STREETCAR NAMED DISIRE (1957). These works illustrate the male homosexual within different sectors of our society – the homosexual cruiser interested only in sexual gratification, the self-destructive homosexual and the male homosexual in a heterosexual marriage.
Selections from the 1950s include the short stories “Hard Candy” (1954), “Mysteries of the Joy Rio” (1954_ and “Two on a Party” (1954). In CXAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1955) and SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER (1958), the homosexual is observed as an individual alone and apart from any meaningful society, in the company of wome and finally as a male procurer dying through an act of cannibalism. During the 1960s and the early 1970s, selections include THE SEVEN DESCENDENTS OF MYRTLE and THE KINGDOM OF EARTH (1968), depicting the latent homosexual as a transvestite; SMALL CRAFT WARNINGS )1972) showing the aging homosexual as lifeless as well as homeless and MOISE AND THE WORLD OF REASON (1975) representing Williams’ latest novel in which the homosexual’s view of the world and those around him is seen as senseless.
In each of the works selected for analysis, the homosexual character (or characters) is viewed in his relationship with other characters and in terms of what his sexual needs seem to do to his own life. Observations will also be made as to the possible effects these characters and their behavior and beliefs might have upon audiences and readers. Can women, without benefit of study and through only viewing Williams’ works upon a stage or screen, identify with the situations and the circumstances into which he places his homosexual characters? Does a homosexual viewpoint, as depicted by Williams in the works discussed here, given a typically mainstream audience, in the decades before Gay Rights, an opportunity to identify with Williams’ characters and situations? The genius of Tennessee Williams has been acknowledged by the great majority of audiences during the past six decades but there is a question as to what effect his personal homosexuality has had on the content of his work and upon writings that were to dominate the theatrical world during a span of thirty-five years.
Before examining notable instances of Williams’ dramas and short fiction, certain characteristics of homosexuality, together with some of its problems, should be introduced. According to the New Encyclopedia Britannica homosexuality can be defined as “the sexual attraction of a person to one of the same sex (Greek homo-, ‘same’: not from Latin homo, ‘man’). This deviation usually, but not always, leads to physical contact culminating in orgasm.” (4) Here the word deviation is important. The Great Encyclopedia Dictionary defines deviate, i.e. deviation, as “One whose actions and beliefs differ considerably from the standards of his society. A sexual pervert.” (5) In the works selected here, there is an obvious lack of emotional ties between a homosexual and others. The Britannica also observes:
Homosexuality appears to be more frequent among men than among women
And more likely among men than women to be characterized by a divorce of
Sexual activity from affection or a stable relationship. (6)
Because of contemporary concerns for individual rights, both for and against homosexual behavior, there is no purpose served in attempting to justify or condemning homosexuality: however, certain dimensions of homosexual behavior should be usefull noted. The father of psychiatry, Sigmund Freud, gives this account of the subject:
The genesis of male homosexuality in a large class of cases is as follows. A
Young man has been fixated upon his mother in the sense of the Oedipus complex. But at last, after the end of his puberty, the time comes for exchanging his mother for some other sexual object. Things take a sudden turn: the young man does not abandon his mother, but identifies himself with her; he transforms himself into her, and now looks about for objects which can replace his ego for him and on which he can bestow such love and care as he has experienced from his mother. (7)
In The Prtoblem of Homosexuality in Modern Society, Freud comments: “We consider homosexuality to be a variation of the sexual function produced by a certain arrest of sexual development.” (8) In support of Freud, Hendrik Ruitenbeek reports that:
Freud brought homosexuality within the framework of the classic psychoanalytic concepts of human development. By explaining homosexual behavior as the outcome of a distorted relationship to the parent of the opposite sex, he brought homosexuality out of the region of severe psychopathology into the area of neurosis. (9)
When looking back into his childhood, Williams recalls the neurosis that was prevalent in his family. After having his only friendship with a neighborhood boy ended by his mother, Edwina (who thought the boy’s normal childhood pranks were too rough), Williams became friendly with a “plump little girl” living across the street. However, this friendship also ended by Edwina who “never seemed to want me to have any friends. The boys were too rough for her delicate son, Tom, and the girls were, of course, too ‘common’’”(10)
Neurosis is common among homosexuals and their families. Freud’s treatment of this subject is not only medical but also cultural in its description:
We have found, especially in persons whose libidinal development has suffered some disturbance, as in perverts and homosexuals, that in the choice of their love-object they have taken as their model not the mother but their own selves. They are plainly seeking themselves as a love-object and their type of object-choice may be termed as narcissistic….We say that the human being has originally two sexual objects; himself and the woman who tends him. (11)
Further clarification of this point comes from Wilhelm Reich. In Character Analysis, Reich defines the phallic-narcissistic character in much the same way:
The most pronounced types tend to achieve leading positions in life and are ill suited to subordinate positions among the rank and file . . . they have an overwhelming concern for themselves and their actions show a far deeper and broader tendency to be influenced by irrational motives . . . Relationships with women are disturbed by the typical derogatory attitude toward the female sex … Almost all forms of active male and female homosexuality, most cases of so called moral insanity, paranoia and the related forms of schizophrenia and moreover many cases of erythrobphobia and manifestly sadistic male perverts, belong to the phallic-narcissistic character type . . . In the case of the male representatives of this type, the mother is often the stricter parent or the father died at an early age, was not married to the mother or was never present. (12)
Where Williams’ early life is considered, this environment certainly existed; however, where Williams and his works are regarded, we are not concerned with the fact that he is a homosexual but with his homosexuality as it seems to influence his writings. Of special interest is the negative attitude of homosexuals towards women and general and female characters in particular. According to Dr. Edmund Bergler, in Homosexuality: Disease or a Way of Life, the attitudes of male homosexuals towards women in general are entirely negative:
The homosexual is a frantic fugitive from women; unconsciously he is mortally afraid of them. As if the greater distance the greater his safety, he flees as far from women as he can, going to “another continent,” man. The homosexual’s typical assurance that he is “indifferent” to women is not more than wishful thinking. Inwardly, the homosexual hates women with the compensatory hatred of a fear-ridden masochist. (13)
Bergler goes on to say:
A male homosexual is a person who predominately uses the unconsciously based defense mechanism of man-man relationship to escape his repressed masochistic attachment to the mother and who predominately exhibits the mechanism of injustice -collecting in his personality. These two elements are invariably combined in the homosexual. (14)
From early infancy, Williams was admittedly far more attached to his mother, Edwina, to his grandmother, Grand, and to his mentally ill sister, Rose, than he was to any male. Williams was a sickly child and preferred to play alone or with his sister. As he admits in MEMOIRS:
My adolescent problems took their most violent form in a shyness of a pathological degree . . . In my high school days I had no disguise, no façade. And it was at University City High School that I developed the habit of blushing whenever anyone looked me in the eyes, as if I harbored behind them some quite dreadful or abominable secret. . . . I would blush whenever a pair of human eyes, male or female (but mostly female since my life was spent mostly among members of that gender) would meet mine. I would feel my face burning with a blush.
I was a very slight youth. I don’t think I had effeminate mannerisms but somewhere deep in my nerves there was imprisoned a young girl, a sort of blushing school maiden much like the one described in a certain poem or song “she trembled at your frown.” Well, the school maiden imprisoned in my hidden self, I mean selves, did not need a frown to make her tremble, she needed only a glance. (15)
Apparently Williams was aware of his introversion of personality. The difference between an introverted and an extroverted personality is thought by psychoanalysts to be important. In Modern Man in Search of Soul, C. G. Jung states:
Introversion and extroversion as a typical attitude means an essential bias which conditions the whole psychic process, establishes the habitual reactions and not only the style of behaviour, but also the nature of subjective experience. (16)
Through this type of behavior, the individual sees himself as different from others and perhaps feels excluded, in the minority, where his own behaviour is concerned. Jung goes on to state in Psychological Types: “Individuation . . . finds itself . . . in opposition to the collective norm, since it means a separation and differentiation from the general and a building up of the particular.” (17)
Homosexuality as an individual behavioral problem would then be classified within a personality neurosis rather than as activity of a severe psychopathology. With this diagnosis in mind, we begin to understand the effects that such a condition might have upon an artistic temperament – particularly one that finds itself in a repressed, hostile environment. Freud himself recognized this problem and spoke directly of how it might involve the artistic temperament:
The artist is originally a man who turns away from reality because he cannot come to terms with the demand for his renunciation of instinctual satisfaction and who then, in fantasy life, allows full play of his erotic and ambitions wishes. His creativity is a way to return from his world of fantasy back to reality. (18)
The artist then perceives himself as different from the collective majorities of man. C.G. Jung gives additional insight into the pattern of a homosexual personality in Two Essays on Analytical Psychology:
Neurosis not only involves attempts to compensate, but also attempts at a new synthesis of life - - unsuccessful attempts let it be added - - yet attempts nevertheless, with a core of value and meaning. (19)
THIS IS A WORK IN PROGRESS AND WILL BE FINISHED AS I GET TO IT. THANK YOU FOR YOUR PATIENCE
I knew that my brother, Jim, was different when he was 8 and I was 12. I didn't know what it was but I knew he was not like other boys. Although he later was engaged to be married and told me that he had a physical relationship with his fiancé, I was not at all surprised, after she jilted him, that he came out of the closet, so to say. This was in the early 60s. Because of this I have always been interested in what makes one a homosexual. Jim and I were very close and I was devastated when he died of AIDS in 1989. He was more than my brother – he was my friend.
This thesis is a result of my investigation into this sexual preference. It was written for the completion of my MA degree in Literature in 1980. In it I tried to understand my brother, and others like him, through the works of Tennessee Williams, who had been my neighbor in the French Quarter before he died. I hope that in doing this research I have kept my compassion for those who follow their own course, yet have exposed what one very famous writer is actually saying about the ramifications of homosexual behavior.