Sex and death with Tennessee Williams

The epigraph for A Streetcar Named Desire comes from the American poet Hart Crane’s Broken World. Like Williams who was born a decade later Crane was queer. He died age 32 while travelling from Mexico to New York via steamship, suiciding shortly after the boat had stopped in Cuba. Williams was much impressed by Crane. In his will he requested that he be buried at sea like his idol.

So it feels significant that Blanche Dubois, the hero of Williams’s first Pulitzer-winning play A Streetcar Named Desire, expresses the same desire. It comes at the end of the play, when Blanche has been ruined and punished and driven to madness by the preceding events. As she awaits, unknowingly, to be taken to an institution, she reflects:

I’ll be buried at sea sewn up in a clean white sack and dropped overboard – at noon – in the blaze of summer – and into an ocean as blue as … my first lover’s eyes.

Blanche, a well-to-do woman with a frailty that “suggests a moth”, turns up out of the blue one early summer evening at her sister Stella’s place in New Orleans, taking the titular streetcar as she navigates her way through the city. She’s on a leave of absence from the school where she teaches and has apparently lost the family’s estate. It’s hard to to tell. She’s had some kind of nervous breakdown and has a penchant for embellishing her stories and age. At her sister’s place she comes head to head with Stella’s husband Stanley, who begins to suspect that Stella and himself are being swindled out of their share of the Dubois estate.

The play is the focused study on desire suggested by the title. Stanley is a seething pressure cooker of brooding, masculine lust. He’s also an object of lust. After getting thrown in the shower to cool off after a poker game turns violent, he emerges from the shower “in his clinging wet polka dot drawers”. At the same night he and his friends gather around the table, “men at the peak of their manhood, as course and direct and powerful as the primary colours … vivid slices of watermelon on the table”. Stanley’s presence shapes the play even when he is not there. Blanche finds him irresistible, even though he sends a shiver through her.

As the play progresses we learn more about why Blanche has come to New Orleans. She fell in love at a young age to Allan, a man with “a nervousness, a softeness and a tenderness which wasn’t like a man’s” about him. Read: queer. When the romance comes to a tragic end, Blanche blames herself and tries to console herself with a series of affairs that gives her something of a reputation.

Brick, the alcoholic, brooding heart of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Williams’s second Pulitzer-winning play published nearly a decade later, is doing his best to drown out memories of a similar tragedy. Once a star college footballer, his life has come undone after the death of his best friend Skipper. Everyone but him can see that the two of them were in love. Even Brick’s father Big Daddy tries to patiently explain it to him, in a portrait of a father-son relationship in its own way more aching and tender than the much-loved scene in Call Me By Your Name.

Whether in denial or simply lacking the words to articulate his feelings, Brick is making life miserable for his wife Maggie, the “cat” of the play’s title dancing on the hot rage of her husband’s discontentment. Unfolding over one evening on a Mississippi plantation that used to be home to two old “bachelors” (they were just “good friends”), the play’s action centres around the birthday celebrations for Big Daddy, who has just been given the all clear after being tested for cancer – or so he thinks.

While A Streetcar Named Desire is hot and filled with latent and explicit violence, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is a much more meditative, elegiac play, even if Williams’s wit and quick-tempered characters are present in both. Both consider the poles of life, and particularly sex, and death. Williams is fascinated by the ways we navigate or fail to navigate the journey in between, and particularly how we fail to talk about it. “We’ve always talked around things,” Big Daddy laments to Brick in the play’s pivotal scene. Williams’s characters are obsessed with truth and lies, talk and silence, light and dark. Encoded into the bones of these plays is the limitations of language to truly capture human experience.

But to return to the queerness. These two plays are a nuanced examination of the gendered and heteronormative treatment of desire. Blanche’s desire is as ravenous as a man’s, yet she is punished severely for it. Meanwhile Stanley’s “animal” lust is celebrated, and is triumphant when it becomes violent. Curiously his wife is permitted to confess a “thrill” at the lust she has for Stanley, perhaps because she is married and therefore her desire is rendered safe. If you read Blanche as a queer man, and Williams seems to encourage such a reading, the play suggests the danger women and queer men share in desiring men if they are not or cannot be married and therefore neutered. Perhaps Williams has the last word though in his depiction of Stanley, a white-hot example of the queer gaze directed at men.

While much more explicitly queer, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof examines the agony of the silences around desire. Maggie is wild with unrequited lust for her husband, who has gone cold since the object of his love has died. In Williams’s carefully rendered South, the true depths of life hide in the dark and silence, and only occasionally are allowed into the light.

Gay rating:

A Streetcar Named Desire – 3/5 for suggested queer characters, queer gaze and themes.

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof – 4/5 for explicit queer characters and themes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s