Apr 6, 2014

The 8 Dead Gay Guys of Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) was one of the most popular playwrights of the 1950s.  He won two Pulitzer Prizes and was nominated for four Tony Awards.  Film versions of his plays topped the charts at the box office. Though his main characters were usually emotionally-fragile Southern belles with dark sexual yearnings, he introduced gay- or gay-coded characters everywhere.  Unfortunately, they were usually off-camera, just discussed by the other characters.  And they were usually dead or dying.

1. Tom in The Glass Menagerie (1944), the brother of fragile Southern belle Laura.  He isn't actually dead, but he's sensitive, artistic, and poetic (1950s code for "gay").

2. Allan (off-camera) in A  Streetcar Named Desire (1945).  Why is faded Southern belle Blanche so crazy?  Long ago she married Allan without realizing that he was gay.  When she found out, she confronted him, and he ran outside and killed himself.  In the movie version, she just calls him a "poet," and doesn't explain why he got so upset.

3. Rosario in The Rose Tattoo (1951).  Three years after he dies, his ex-lover Alfaro shows up and begins an affair with his widow, the emotionally-fragile Serafina. He gets a rose tattoo on his chest in Rosario's memory, and the disgusted Serafina throws him out.  They reconcile. (Shown: William Vaughan as Alvaro in a 2012 production at the University of South Carolina.)

 4. Kilroy in Camino Real (1953). A gay American G.I. arrives in the backwater town of Camino Real, gets sick, and meets various historical and literary characters, most of whom try to seduce him, before he dies (but not to worry, his spirit goes off with Don Quixote as his new squire).

5. Skipper (off camera) in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), who had an affair with Brick (left: played by Paul Newman in the 1958 movie).  When Brick's wife Maggie found out, she confronted Skipper, who rushed out and killed himself  (in the movie, she just calls him "weak.").

6.Sebastian (off camera) in  Suddenly, Last Summer (1959): the emotionally-fragile Catherine acted as a procurer for his affairs.  But then the young men he had sex with turned on him, and ate him. (In the 1959 movie, no face is shown.)

7. Christopher in The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (1963).  Gay wannabe actor is taken by an emotionally-fragile elderly woman. This time she's the one who dies. (Shown: Darren Pettie on Broadway.)

8. Mark in In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (1969).  A gay, depressed artist, he rolls around naked on his canvas and has a nervous breakdown, while his emotionally-fragile wife hangs out at a Tokyo hotel, trying to pick him men.  Finally he dies.

Why fill his stages with dead and dying gay guys?  Though gay himself, Williams was a product of his era, and thought of same-sex desire as dark, disturbing, and dangerous.  Something to be repressed or hidden away.  Something that would lead inevitably to death.