Williams, Tennessee (Thomas Lanier) (1911– 1983)
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Although Tennessee Williams is known primarily as a playwright, one can fully understand him as a gay writer only if one also knows his fiction and poetry. Williams’s dramas of the 1940s and 1950s demonstrate the playwright’s courageous but cautious insertion of “the love that dare not speak its name” into his plays, from Blanche’s description of her discovery that her husband was “a degenerate” in A Streetcar Named Desire (1948) to the Baron Charlus in El Camino Real (1953) to Brick’s discovery that his best friend, Skipper, loved him in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) to Sebastian’s pederasty in Suddenly Last Summer (1958). Except for the Baron Charlus in the fantastic El Camino Real, the gay characters in Williams’s major plays are relegated to the exposition, dead before the opening curtain. He inserted homosexuality into mainstream Broadway drama without putting gay characters on stage. It was easy, if clumsy, for the film studios to excise homosexuality altogether in their film versions, making the plays safe, if somewhat incoherent (though it was the films that made Williams a millionaire). The short stories written during this period offer vivid glimpses into the ways in which Williams’s homosexuality merged with his other major obsessions: death, devouring, delinquency, defiance of social convention. Some of them, particularly “One Arm,” “Desire and the Black Masseur,” “Hard Candy,” and “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio,” are among the classics of gay short fiction. And the poetry often depicts the loneliness of anonymous homosexual encounters.