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December 16, 2017

Tennessee Williams and Desire

When 28 year-old Tom Williams finally left his parents' Missouri home, he headed for New Orleans, for a new life as a writer, a newly-realized sexual identity as a homosexual, even a new first name: Tennessee. As he describes it in his Memoirs, the exchange of his mother's "monolithic puritanism" and the middle-class Midwest for the bars and bohemians of New Orleans was a late coming of age, as a person and a writer.

He lived and wrote among the artists and prostitutes and working poor of the French Quarter, in a neighbourhood where the streetcars had names. A decade later, Williams would turn a streetcar named "Desire" into one of the most famous plays in 20th century American theatre, and a Pulitzer Prize.

When Blanche Dubois first arrives at her sister Stella's tenement squalor, she is in white gloves and pearls -- a fading belle in considerable southern discomfort. She thinks she may be lost, but Williams makes it clear that this is not only her right, but her last, stop. The tenement is called "Elysian Fields," and she has in fact arrived at it by two streetcars: the first is called "Desire," but the second is called "Cemeteries."

Image: photograph of American playwright Tennessee Williams, author of A Streetcar Named Desire
In some early drafts, Williams called his play "The Moth." Blanche's white clothes and "uncertain manner" are meant, say the stage directions, "to suggest a moth." More often the early drafts are titled "The Poker Night." Williams's father loved poker and drinking and his life at the International Shoe Company -- but not, Williams felt, his doubly strange, gay-writer son. Williams himself spent three misfit years in his father's shoe company. While there, he became friends with Stanley Kowalski, fellow worker and namesake of the character who plays the bright, brutal flame to Blanche's moth. Williams said that there was only one theme in all his work: "the destructive impact of society on the sensitive, non-conformist individual." By "society," he meant people like Stanley Kowalski and his father; by "sensitive...individual," he meant people like Blanche and himself.

The other parallels between Blanche Dubois and Tennessee Williams are unpleasant. Despite homes in New Orleans and Key West, Williams was a compulsive, hotel-room nomad, unable to settle or find lasting relationships. He liked to believe and quote Blanche's exit line, that she had "always relied on the kindness of strangers," but in his case strangers were pretty much all he had. "My greatest affliction," he wrote near the end of his life, is "a loneliness that follows me like a shadow." The biographers dispute whether this caused or was caused by, his unrestrained appetite for casual sex, often of the very rough sort. Even in his late sixties he would attend rehearsals with an ever-changing group of young men, or miss rehearsals in search of another. Unlike his sister Rose, who spent all her adult life confined to a mental institution, Williams had only temporary breakdowns His Memoirs, completed in 1975, trail off into diatribe and incomprehension; the eight years that remained afterwards were marked by bouts of violence and paranoia and drug abuse.

Williams continued to work prolifically but, to both critics and crowds, the results seemed little more than an endless repacking of his emotional baggage. Play after play was panned; many closed early; some were aborted in rehearsal. As a reviewer in Life magazine put it, the star of the American theatre had faded to "a cinder," bound on a path of "infantile regression from which there seems no exit."

Decades earlier that star was rising, and perhaps at its zenith on December 3rd, 1947, when A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway, with Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski and Jessica Tandy as Blanche Dubois. Brando was a 23 year-old unknown and, said Tandy, "an impossible, psychopathic bastard" in rehearsal, but watching his performance, said another actor, was "like being in the eye of the hurricane." "In those days," producer Irene Selznick later wrote, "people only stood for the national anthem. That night was the first time I ever saw an audience get to its feet." They stayed on their feet for a full half-hour, "round after round, curtain after curtain, until Tennessee took a bow on stage to bravos."

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