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Tennessee Williams


by Tony Fitzpatrick
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When you hang around New Orleans long enough, eventually you run into someone with a Tennessee Williams story. The legendary playwright lived there for a long time as a young man. And while his plays and repartee would lead you to believe that he lived in the Quarter proper and was part of that milieu, the truth is that actually lived out by Elysian Fields in a working-class enclave, one that was infinitely less glamorous than and without the transgressive chic of the gay Quarter culture.

My friend Henri Schindler told me stories of Williams flirting with the waiters at Galitoire's, while drinking the afternoons away. Schindler also relayed another tale of Williams, after he was famous -- meaning after A Streetcar Named Desire. In this story, Williams was waylaid by a group of blue-haired ladies from a book club who wanted to know all about New York City, and Williams was over his head, not quite knowing how to handle this group of curious interlopers.

But for all of the drunken Williams tales, he was actually quite shy -- or so those who knew him have told me. He is perhaps our greatest playwright; at the very least, he is probably our most internationally known. His is truly the story of an underdog.

Thomas Lanier Williams was born in Columbus, Miss., the son of an alcoholic, abusive shoe salesman and a fading southern-belle-type mother. He was closest to his sister Rose who, sadly, suffered from schizophrenia as she grew into her teen years. It is thought that Williams’ ability to write women characters with great insight and empathy has its origin in his close relationships with his sister and mother. It is rare to find anyone who writes better roles for women than Williams.

It is hard to over-estimate the impact of A Streetcar named Desire. It made a star of Marlon Brando and it holds up today as a great play. No matter where you are in the world, the sun never sets on this work of art -- at any given time, some company, somewhere, is sure to be staging it. And why not?

The play serves up the great thematic human desires in spades: sexual tension, madness, loneliness, abandonment and raw, animal longing. For actors, this play has it all. How many Blanche DuBoises wander our streets to this day, the perennial ingénues, still harboring illusions about their youth, beauty, and desirability? I would guess many -- I mean, really, where do you think all of that botox is going? And how many Stanley Kowalskis are out there, with his working-class furies and sexual piggishness knotted together like tangled kite-string? Hell, try any Lincoln Park sports bar.

But the character who interests me the most in this most American of plays is Stella Kowalski. Stella knows that her mentally-challenged pop tart of a sister, and her brutal, sexually rapacious husband are headed toward one another like two locomotives. It has always seemed to me that she practically curtsies to get out of the way as this happens, knowing that both will exact their temporary satisfaction as well as their own damning punishments from this act.

After Stanley rapes Blanche, he is finished as a man -- even he knows it. Blanche is taken away to an institution and is grateful for “the kindness of strangers,” and Williams hints that they get not only what they deserve, but perhaps, darkly, what they actually want.

My friend, the film maker John McNaughton, just directed a stage version of Streetcar in Pasadena, and loved it. There are stories of Williams, surreptitiously attending productions of Streetcar all over the country, and raising hell if they fucked with his play. He had many other successes, but Streetcar seemed to be the one he was most protective of.

The Rose Tattoo and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof were also hits, though later in his life his plays were not as well received. Recently, though, the darkly surreal Williams play about a dead-end Spanish town, Camino Real, got a fitful production full of imagination and great performances at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. I was bummed to have missed it, but by all accounts it was a sexually frank, no-holds-barred imagining of a wildly misunderstood play, directed by the great Spanish director Calixto Bielto.

The reviews were mixed, but everyone I spoke to loved it. They admired the fact that it was an adult piece of Tennessee Williams theater, one which holds very close to the milieu of his own life in New Orleans, with its people from the “other” side -- boxers whores, poets, strippers and stoned dreamers -- those Williams counted as his own, the marginalized and the mad, all coming out to dance.

TONY FITZPATRICK is an artist from Chicago. For his blog, click here.