Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams


Surely Tennessee wasn’t his real name? No, he was born Thomas Larnier Williams. His pen name was originally a nickname accorded him by his college friends, who gently mocked him for his Southern Gentleman’s accent. He was actually born in nearby Mississippi.

What were his influences? Early on in life, he read a good deal of DH Lawrence, whose subject matter, particularly the exploration of sexual repression, seemed to appeal to Williams. His influence can be vaguely detected throughout Williams’ plays.

And she was the model for Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire? Well, some say she was, though more recent queer theory readings have inferred that Blanche was a cipher for Williams himself. A gender change, and there are many parallels between Blanche and an isolated and stigmatised homosexual. Long after its composition, in 1979, Williams was the victim of a gay bashing by a group of youths.

And what of the Dundee Rep production of Sweet Bird of Youth? This 1959 play was Williams second most commercially successful after Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. It speaks of a man who has returned to the town of his younger years in order to make a last attempt to woo his childhood sweetheart. Now, given that the last time around, he’d given her a dose of clap, things don’t look promising. And it all ends pretty violently at the hands of the lady in question’s father.

How violently? Better not tell, but nearly as violently as the end of the absent hero in Suddenly Last Summer, who’s actually cannibalised by a group of hungry South American children. Still, Williams himself came to a peculiarly gothic end, choking on a bottle top at the end of a characteristically long drinking bout in 1983. What would you expect from a man whose father’s middle name was Coffin? Really!

Melodramatic, and pretty gothic then? Yes. There’s melodrama and a rather despairing version of torch song atmosphere in Williams, making him a taste not everyone acquires Joe Orton complained of ‘Tennessee Williams fag and drag’.

Sweet Bird of Youth, Dundee Rep, Wed 25 Oct-Sat 11 Nov

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