Tennessee and Sexual Exploitation

Published in: January-February 2014 issue.


“A CATALOG of unattractive aspects of his personality would be fairly extensive,” Tennessee Williams wrote of his father some eighteen years after the latter’s death, “but towering above them were, I think, two great virtues … total honesty and total truth, as he saw it in his dealings with others.” Despite the abusive remarks that Cornelius Coffin Williams made during Williams’ boyhood about his son’s effeminacy, laziness, and exasperating impracticality—and despite Cornelius’ drunken tyranny over, and eventual abandonment of, his family—Tennessee Williams’ father apparently planted in his son an admirable repugnance for people who cheat or take unfair advantage of others, or who carry about them what Big Daddy calls, in the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), an “odor of mendacity.”

Tennessee Williams by Charles Hefling         Williams extended to sexual behavior his own disgust with dishonesty, insisting that people have the courage to acknowledge the nature of their desires. For Williams, sexual appetite is the most natural thing in the world, yet the majority of people are so ashamed of the basic realities of human nature that they drape themselves in a cloak of gentility, feigning a disinterest in, or outrage over, sexual matters. In the process, they render themselves hypocritical and grotesquely unnatural. Artists and other independent spirits who have been marginalized because of their supposedly anti-social sexual behaviors are tacitly applauded in Williams’ plays for their willingness to admit the truth of their desires and to actively pursue what Williams terms “the lyric quarry.” They prove heroic in their sexual honesty.

Such naturalness is not without its own problems, needless to say. Williams also admired his father’s repugnance for people who exploit others. Throughout his life and career Williams brooded over the question of how an individual can exercise the courage to satisfy his or her appetite without physically brutalizing or being unkind to others. At what point, Williams repeatedly asked, does defiance of social convention risk becoming insensitivity to the needs of one’s partner, if not the outright exploitation of another person?

Only in Something Cloudy, Something Clear (1981)—his last play to be produced in New York City in his lifetime—did Williams hit upon a metaphor to represent his life as a sexually active gay man. August is living in penury in a shack on the beach in Provincetown—much as Williams himself did during what he calls in his Notebooks “that brilliant little summer of 1940,” when at age 29 he finally overcame his puritanical upbringing and enjoyed his first fully sexual love affair with another man. A cataract in one eye has caused that eye to cloud over, while the other eye remains clear, suggesting the way in which August needs to find a balance between sexual rapaciousness and gentleness. Williams was persuaded that, just as two eyes are needed to enjoy full vision, so one needs to be both sexually selfish and emotionally compassionate if one is to find sexual happiness without hurting other people.

A second metaphor is offered when August explains to Clare that all his life he has felt like a child “waiting for a circus parade to come by. I hear the calliope in the distance. It gets louder slowly, that light, haunting music,” only to be drowned out by “a sudden torrent of rain” that sends everyone else scurrying to take shelter while August continues to wait hopefully. Finally a black-coated policeman tells him that the parade’s been canceled. In the play, August is finally able to enjoy the parade only after he pressures a reluctant Kip into spending the night with him—much as Williams, looking back upon that pivotal summer of 1940, understood his sexual life to have begun when he convinced the physically spectacular, and largely heterosexual, Kip Kiernan to have sex with him repeatedly during a two-week affair. Like August, Williams had waited with growing anxiety to enjoy the sexual parade that social authorities (represented by the policeman in the black rain slicker) had squelched.

“A Wild Sort of Sweetness”

The tension between sympathy for others and sexual selfishness—between compassion for one’s economically disenfranchised and emotionally dejected companion(s) and the need for personal gratification—pervades nearly everything that Williams wrote. On the one hand, as Williams acknowledged in a 1961 interview, as a playwright he was himself most interested in “people that have problems, people that have to fight for their reason, people for whom the impact of life and experience from day to day, night to night, is difficult, people who come close to cracking.” These are the nonconformist romantics who, like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire and Hannah Jelkes in The Night of the Iguana, possess “the spirit of anarchy” and refuse to “let the world drag [them]down to its level.” “This country used to be wild, the men and women were wild and there was a wild sort of sweetness in their hearts, for each other, but now it’s sick with neon,” Carol Cutrere laments in Orpheus Descending. Only “the night people” (whom Williams terms elsewhere the “fugitive kind”) retain this quality, which their greedy, hard-hearted contemporaries are determined to stamp out.

On the other hand, Williams was enough of a survivor to recognize, as Billy and Cora learn in “Two on a Party,” that “sex has to be slightly selfish to have real excitement.” When the two friends have sex together for the first and only time,

it was not very satisfactory, perhaps because they were each too anxious to please the other, each too afraid the other would be disappointed. … Start worrying about the other party’s reactions and the big charge just isn’t there, and you’ve got to do it a number of times together before it becomes natural enough to be a completely satisfactory thing. The first time between strangers can be like a blaze of light, but when it happens between people who know each other well and have an established affection, it’s likely to be self-conscious and even a little embarrassing, most of all afterwards.

If one partner is “too anxious to please the other, each too afraid that the other would be disappointed,” the result will be disappointment tantamount to “not yet being completely alive.”

Williams deals with the issue of sexual selfishness as an outrageous comedy of manners in stories like “Miss Coynte of Greene” and “The Killer Chicken and the Closet Queen.” Valerie Coynte is one in a series of Williams’ women who dare to seek sexual comfort from a man who is not her husband. These include: Cassandra Whiteside in Battle of Angels (like Carol Cutrere in Orpheus Descending), who propositions Val to “stud” for her; Maxine Faulk, the “affable and rapaciously lusty” middle-aged hotel owner in The Night of the Iguana who keeps two young male employees at the Costa Verde Hotel for sexual companionship and seeks to make the spook-haunted Lawrence Shannon her consort; the “nice monster,” Alexandra del Lago, in Sweet Bird of Youth, who has an “unsatisfied tiger” raging within her and employs bisexual hustler Chance Wayne as her chauffeur and sexual companion; and Sissy Goforth, the not-very-nice monster in The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, who is not above attempting to starve Chris Flanders into sexual submission in order to secure “some male companionship” at her isolated Mediterranean villa. Valerie Coynte, by the way, “an erotic, not a frigid, spinster approaching thirty,” opens an antique shop and hires a series of young black men to haul furniture for her—and provide sexual services on the side.

Readers unfamiliar with Williams’ dark humor may be offended by Miss Coynte’s apparent lack of a sexual ethic and by the story’s stereotyping black men as sexually and morally compliant. But the story is a rich satire aimed at revealing the hypocrisy of exactly such concerns. For, as the narrator comments, “it is easy to lead a double life in the Delta; in fact, it is almost impossible not to.” Williams inverts the gender norms of the South’s traditional double standard that allows white men to take advantage of black women sexually without the men suffering any social recrimination. Instead, he offers a white woman as the imperturbable sexual aggressor who escapes any real social censure. Unlike the Texas woman who vengefully pursues Val across state borders after he rejects her sexual advances in Battle of Angels, Miss Coynte does not persecute a partner who grows tired of her. The first time Sonny Bowles resists his employer’s sexual overtures, she simply sends him off on a paid vacation and during his absence replaces him with “his two younger brothers, a pair of twins named Mike and Moon.” Rather than criticizing Miss Coynte for her selfish sexual pursuit, Williams—with tongue in cheek—celebrates her behavior as a possible way of bridging the racial divide in the South. (In a similar manner, in “The Killer Chicken and the Closet Queen,” repressed 36-year-old Wall Street lawyer Stephen Ashe is liberated by a gloriously amoral sixteen-year-old male hustler from Arkansas.)
“The One Unforgivable Thing”

“Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable,” Blanche explains to her nemesis Stanley in Streetcar. “It is the one unforgivable thing.” Sebastian Venable in Suddenly Last Summer is the antithesis of Miss Coynte. Sebastian speaks of sexually desirable young men “as if they were—items on a menu—‘That one’s delicious-looking, that one is appetizing,’ or ‘that one is not appetizing.’” Kenneth Holditch and Richard Freeman Leavitt, editors of the two-volume Library of America edition of Williams’ selected plays, describe Suddenly Last Summer as “a dark portrayal of the dehumanizing quality of the failure to love and to respect other human beings.” But such a categorical dismissal of Sebastian is inimical to the ambivalent sexual scheme that pervades Williams’ canon. Clearly, there is a poetic justice to Sebastian’s being physically devoured by the same male youths whose bodies he’d bought and enjoyed earlier. But the play carefully presents appetite as part of the natural order of things and the suppression of appetite as the way to certain madness.

In Suddenly Last Summer, Williams takes an unflinching look at the nature of sexual appetite and, unlike Holditch and Leavitt, does not pass any kind of moral judgment on his characters. Rather, as Williams commented in an interview, Sebastian “is completely enslaved by his baser nature and this is what destroys him. … And when he fails, when he is unable to write his poem that summer, then he is completely lost. He was [only]a little more decadent” than Blanche DuBois and Night of the Iguana’s Lawrence Shannon.

By grouping Sebastian with two characters for whom audiences generally feel great sympathy, Williams pre-empts the pat condemnation of Sebastian as a sexual predator. Like the homoerotic icon for whom he’s named, Sebastian is martyred, but not for attempting to satisfy his sexual appetite. Rather, to use the language of Something Cloudy, Something Clear, Sebastian is destroyed because he allowed both of his eyes to cloud over, thereby losing the balance that the clear eye (the one that allows him to write poetry) provides—and committed Blanche’s one unforgivable sin. However rapacious she has become sexually, Blanche remains to some extent the warm-hearted, idealistic girl that Stella remembers from their youth. And, however badly Shannon is driven by his demons, he is still capable of feeling compassion for others; thus, he is surprisingly gentle with Nonno, and he runs interference with Maxine for Hannah.

As a meditation upon the individual’s need to strike a balance between sexual selfishness and feeling for others, Something Cloudy, Something Clear is the logical conclusion to the dramatic career that Williams launched to great acclaim with The Glass Menagerie. Most obviously, both August and Tom Wingfield are avatars of Williams himself, making Something Cloudy and The Glass Menagerie the only two full-length plays in which Williams presented on stage modified versions of his own life. Tom escaped the claustrophobic confines of his life in St. Louis where his spiritually deadening job in a factory inhibited his writing poetry, and where, like Pablo Gonzalez (“The Mysteries of the Joy Rio”) and Mr. Krupper (“Hard Candy”), he searched for sexual adventure in movie houses. By financing his escape with the money that his mother had given him to pay the utility bill, Tom has left Amanda and Laura quite literally in the dark at play’s end. Amanda is a survivor and no doubt will somehow find a way to support herself and Laura after Tom’s desertion. But Tom spends his adult life feeling guilty and “pursued” by the memory of his fragile, trusting sister, Laura. Like Blanche, who hears in her head the music from the Varsouviana that played when her young husband shot himself, Tom Wingfield is haunted by guilt over abandoning his sister, even though he needed to do so in order to fulfill his desire to become a writer. Like August, Tom displays the paradox of heroism and cruelty in acts of self-fulfillment.

Unlike Tom, August seems to have escaped feeling any guilt over the fate of Kip, the handsome young man that he took advantage of, or over that of Kip’s friend and protector, the sickly Clare. For if The Glass Menagerie concludes on a note of haunting loss for a fragile world of glass, Something Cloudy, Something Clear concludes in a mood of quiet exhilaration as August reconciles with his “victims,” Kip and Clare, who enjoy a final meal with him and watch a shooting star travel across the sky. The difference between the two endings is accounted for by the fact that something had changed in Williams. In the forty years that had transpired between his completing each play, he’d learned to accept and even to appreciate his own divided nature.


Raymond-Jean Frontain is professor of English at the University of Central Arkansas and editor of the academic quarterly ANQ.