Glasgay! - Tennessee Williams
Queer and loathing
Steve Cramer talks to Glasgay! artistic director Steven Thomson and author Derek McLuckie about the Tennessee Williams retrospective that fronts this year’s festival
Some years ago, I attended a conference where a debate about the work of Tennessee Williams came very nearly to blows. The bone of contention involved Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which the character Brick confesses an attraction to a friend that surpasses the usual male bonding. One speaker spoke of this relationship as homo-social, that is, a relationship between two heterosexual men that extended beyond what would normally be expected in terms of fraternity. This, however, was not explicitly a homosexual relationship; perhaps we could take Brick at his word when he claims not to have had sex with his old hombre. This contention led to a legendary shouting match at the conference, with one faction defending Williams’ reputation as a homosexual writer codifying this experience into a heterosexual language, while the other side claimed for him the quite separate title of ‘queer’ writer.
The conflict epitomises an academic debate between traditional and contemporary queer theorists. The earlier variety is intent on uncovering hidden themes carefully concealed by writers who wanted to convey a homosexual aesthetic through codes not available to a heterosexual audience. The more modern approach is to look instead at the ways in which taboo subject matter can be keyed into by any audience, since all of us are a complex mix of gay/straight, male/female, infantile/adult beings.
The first group will, for example, make a great deal of the fact that ‘Earnest’ was a code word in Oscar Wilde’s concealed gay language of Victorian London, so the title of his most noted play had quite separate meanings for homosexuals and heterosexuals. The more contemporary queer theorist will speak instead of the way in which even the most ostensibly ‘straight’ couples might indulge in BDSM, anal intercourse or any number of activities that, in a traditional 50s nuclear family version of ‘straight’, would be seen as unacceptable.
All this is by way of a preamble to what looks to be a pretty interesting little festival in Glasgow this year. Glasgay! 2008, while including other work, is paying particular attention to the work of Tennessee Williams. Most theatregoers know about the tragic life often thinly disguised in his autobiographical plays, from the obvious gay male thinly masked under the character of Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, to the above hotly contested gay man at the centre of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But much of his work has been appropriated as specifically about the gay experience. While Steven Thomson, director of Glasgay!, does not question the undeniable homosexual experience catalogued in Williams’ oeuvre, his aim in this festival is more about ‘queering’ Williams’ work in the broader, more contemporary sense.
It’s a delicate balance for Thomson to tread, but the programme looks fascinating. As well as a production of the more common Suddenly Last Summer from the Tron house company, there is a series of almost completely unknown Williams short works which will be premiering in the UK. A new play by Derek McLuckie, Elysian Fields, will also premiere, while a new print of Kazan’s Streetcar will feature in the film component, alongside screenings of other filmed versions of Williams’ work.
Thomson speaks about the inclusiveness of this particular Glasgay!, reflecting the new aesthetic battles within ‘queer’ culture. ‘Things for us have really changed in the last couple of years, and this exploration of the plays of Tennessee Williams is part of that,’ he says. ‘The interesting thing – and something that concerns a lot of people in LGBT community – is this issue of mainstreaming and what it means. Hanging over this is the question of whether our queer, fucked-up identity is being written out of the safe annals of social history in a negative sense.
‘If you look at the work of Tennessee Williams, or for that matter, Alan Bennett, who we did last year, you discover a very strong sense of a queer underscore of adversity which runs through all of our lives, whether that be family adversity or other kinds of struggle. This applies not just in the lives of gay people, but through all of our lives. There really is that pill-popping, booze-soaked sense of strain under his work that anyone might relate to.’
Thomson is at pains to stress that gay themes are more directly addressed in these little-known one-act plays than they were in Williams’ better known works that had to be tailored to a heterosexual audience.
Still though, he maintains these aren’t simple ‘gay issue’ plays. ‘In these works, Tennessee Williams puts his gay characters right out there, but he gives them all the proclivities that straight people have, be it fucked-up relationships or dodgy parents,’ he says. ‘What he doesn’t do is represent them as victimised. What I was interested in was the meeting point between heterosexual culture and homosexual culture. In some of the works that we’re doing, the gay characters are out, but it’s less about their own sexuality than their acceptance by society. It’s often about their own self censorship, at least as much as the censorship of their behaviour by those around them.’
Another short piece premiering at the festival is more specifically about a gay experience. And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens picks up a similar story to the one at the heart of Streetcar, but with less reliance on metaphor and a more direct retelling of the experience. ‘It’s a story about a gay boutique owner, who picks up a very rough sailor and takes him home,’ says Thomson. ‘He’s fascinated by the sailor and the sailor is also quite fascinated by this very queeny, sceney guy. There’s a kind of dance of the seven veils and something almost happens, then the sailor changes his mind and decides to beat the crap out of the guy. Now that’s a story that would ring very true to a lot of gay guys.’
Elysian Fields also offers a lot of interest to Williams’ aficionados, not just in its discussion of queer issues, but also in its experimental, anti-naturalist approach. Derek McLuckie’s play uses a dream sequence, in which the repressed characters of Williams’ work express their hidden desires, as a starting point for a biographical piece, which takes place at a crucial point in Williams’ life. ‘We talk about the time when Williams was using a lot of amphetamines and tranquilisers,’ says the playwright. ‘We can move away from some naturalistic context and talk about the stuff that happens in a kind of dream world, because at the time of his life we’re focusing on, he was in that world of drugs and booze, so there’s a lot of his perspective.’
Glasgay!, various venues, Glasgow, Wed 1 Oct-Sun 9 Nov.