Saturday, 26 March 2011

Sweet Bird of Youth...

Today (26th March 2011) is the centenary of the birth of one Thomas Lainier Williams, better known to the world as Tennessee Williams!

A prolific writer and playwright, Mr Williams had the good fortune to begin his career just at the time when Hollywood was crying out for just the kind of dramatic, emotionally tangled and startling plots of which he was so much the expert.

His plays were perfect for the big screen, and indeed his prime roles were crying out for big stars to play them. And so it came to pass that The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer and Sweet Bird of Youth all became hugely-acclaimed (and hugely successful) movies - and cemented the acting reputations of Jane Wyman, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Montgomery Clift.

As for camp, Tennessee Williams (gay himself) managed not only to build some of the most memorable gay themes into the biggest movies in Hollywood, but also made characters that would forever be parodied and replicated by other performers (drag and otherwise) and film-makers.

In his anthology Camp - The Lie That Tells The Truth (my bible!), author Philip Core has this to say:

With this greatest of American poet-playwrights camp became a myth-making process, which homogenised unhappy homosexuality, drugs, family dependence, fear of women and hatred of his masculine erotic images into an elaborate pantheon of monsters - Blanche DuBois, Stanley Kowalski, Mrs Stone, Big Daddy - all of whom are Oedipal archetypes. Their fights and loves, hates and happinesses, spell out in code language the twisted and unhappy path of the artist's life on a level which is truer than his autobiography but less a de-personalised work of art than the similar characters of, say, Arthur Miller.

The degree of self-deprecating wit and ornate nostalgia which decorates Tennessee Williams' work is an essential concomitant of camp; if an author creates all his characters as transparent masks for the self, he needs to tart them up a bit to avoid monotony (a saving flourish which is often lacking in his later work). Williams is also, especially in The Rose Tattoo, and the screen version of The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (Boom), one of the most polished and original conscious users of camp, turning his Witch of Capri from the latter into a cameo role for Noel Coward and utilising the gay poetry of the tattoo so beloved of his translator, Cocteau.
"Why did I write? Because I found life unsatisfactory." - Tennessee Williams

His childhood and family background was a sad one - his father constantly derided him as "Miss Nancy", and his sister was lobotomised in a mental asylum - which certainly must have played a role in the instability of his own psyche. The young Tennessee was in therapy for many years, convinced he could cure himself of homosexuality, and suffered from frequent bouts of depression.

However, he was not "cured", he was not celibate, and his relationship with former sailor Frank Merlo provided at least some solidity over the years - they were together, on and off, for fifteen years until Merlo's death in 1963.

In his declining years, Mr Williams could not replicate the grand guignol stories of his younger career, and his health declined as his dependence on alcohol and prescription drugs went up.

Tennessee Williams died on February 25, 1983, after choking on the cap of a bottle of eye drops that became lodged in his throat. He was 71 years old. A dramatic end for a dramatic character.

Tennessee Williams on IMDB


  1. I loved the black and white films of his books. In two minds about his work though Its all so angst ridden.
    Now I can see why he was so negative.
    The films did have some camp in them though, who can forget katharine hepburn coming down in that lift in 'suddenly last summer'.

  2. I used to love his writing when I was at school but cared less for the film versions - they seemed to me to accentuate the "monstrosity" over the humanity.
    & wow, "Camp - The Lie That Tells The Truth" is a fabulously clever title!

  3. We cover a lot of the same territory, but in a very different way. I am a fan of your spot.

  4. Thanks, Stephen, for your kind words - I love your "spot" too! Jx


Please leave a message - I value your comments!