- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

Blame it on Tennessee Williams.The Mississippi-born playwright and author revolutionized the expression of lust and prurience on stage and screen. (Born Thomas Lanier Williams in 1914, he adopted the moniker “Tennessee” in tribute to his mother, a southern belle who made her “debut” in Memmphis.) In a succession of classic plays, several of which are to receive fresh productions as part of the Kennedy Center’s summer-long festival, “Tennessee Williams Explored” (see sidebar), Mr. Williams brought sexuality out of the shadows and silences it had long inhabited and into the spotlight.

For good and for ill, American life and art have never been the same since.

If not for Mr. Williams, things would be less explicit and more coded. A lesbian relationship might be termed a “Boston marriage.” Homosexuality might still be referred to as “the love that dare not speak its name.”

The ‘60s generation may have thought they invented free love, but flower power was a wilted force compared to the hothouse flowers — Blanche DuBois, Stanley Kowalski, Maggie, Baby Doll, and Maxine, to name a few — that Mr. Williams unleashed upon a sheltered and innocent postwar American public.

“What Williams did was write so obsessively and conspicuously about sex that he became associated with it,” says Michael Kinghorn, chief dramaturge at Arena Stage. “Whether it is the forbidden desire of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and ‘Orpheus Descending’ or the suppressed homosexuality in ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,’ sex is a theme throbbing under all his plays.”

Mr. Williams is recognized as an innovator of the new American drama that flourished after World War II. He opened a Pandora’s box filled with taboo themes that would become fodder, in lesser hands, for decades’ worth of dysfunction-of-the week television movies. He confronted rape and nymphomania in “A Streetcar Named Desire”; impotence, homosexuality and alcoholism in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”; drug addiction and castration in “Sweet Bird of Youth”; cannibalism and homosexuality in “Suddenly Last Summer” and the strange allure of the nymphet in “Baby Doll.”

Before Mr. Williams’ emergence, the noted American playwrights of the day were Arthur Miller and Thornton Wilder. Sublimation and indirection governed the treatment of sexuality on the stage — when it wasn’t ignored altogether. That all changed in 1947, when “A Streetcar Named Desire” hit the stage, starring a young actor named Marlon Brando, who, in the part of Stanley Kowalski, oozed raw, macho carnality.

“When Tennessee produced ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ he inadvertently smashed one of our society’s most powerful taboos: He showed the male not only as sexually attractive in the flesh but as an object of something never before entirely acknowledged by the good team, the lust of women,” writes Gore Vidal in his essay, “Tennessee Williams: Someone to Laugh at the Squares With.”

“In 1947, when Marlon Brando appeared on stage in a torn, sweaty T-shirt, there was an earthquake; and the male as sex object is still at our culture’s center stage,” Mr. Vidal wrote in his 1985 essay. “It must be hard for those under 40 to realize that there was ever a time when a man was nothing but a suit of clothes, a shirt and tie, shined leather shoes, and a gray, felt hat. If he was thought attractive, it was because he had a nice smile and a twinkle in his eye.”

Mr. Brando had more than a twinkle in his eye — and that translated into box office clout. “[‘Streetcar’s’] frank treatment of sophisticated sexual themes marked it as a part of a powerful new current in American society and cultural life,” writes David Halberstam in his book, “The Fifties.”

“Every night on Broadway, the audience would leave the theater visibly shaken — not only in response to Blanche’s tragic breakdown but also in some small way, perhaps, because they had gotten a glimpse of the violent changes just beginning to transform their own culture and lives.”

Tennessee Williams scholar S. Alan Chesler compares the playwright to another sexual pathfinder, D.H. Lawrence, author of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and “Sons and Lovers.” “As a psychological or sexual figure, Stanley Kowalski is akin to those silent, sullen gamekeepers and grooms of D.H. Lawrence, whose sexuality, though violent, is unmental, unspiritual, and therefore, in some way free from taint,” he says. “The conflict between Blanche and Stanley allegorizes the struggle between effeminate culture and masculine libido.”

“Streetcar” was a theatrical triumph, spurred by the collective efforts of Mr. Williams (an openly homosexual writer), Mr. Brando (a trailblazer for the Method school of acting) and director Elia Kazan (a Greek immigrant whose plays and movies confronted conventional morality), each of whom, in individual ways, disturbed the bloodless decorum of American life.

The three had even more of a cultural impact with the movie version of “Streetcar,” which premiered in 1951 with Mr. Brando reprising his role as Stanley and Vivien Leigh playing the fragile, twisted Blanche DuBois. There is a vast difference between what is permissible on stage and what passes in Hollywood, as Mr. Williams and Mr. Kazan were to learn in adapting the play for the screen.

They “had to contend with the Breen office, the guardians of public morals, whose standards had been set in another time,” writes Mr. Halberstam. “Kazan had to negotiate each cut reluctantly and painfully with Joseph Breen. All references to homosexuality would have to be cut; Blanche was no longer to be interested in young boys.”

Mr. Kazan hit the roof when Mr. Breen demanded the deletion of the rape scene. In the end, Mr. Kazan won out, but the play had to be rewritten so that Stanley is punished for his act by losing his wife’s love. And it was not over. After “Streetcar” was in the can, Mr. Kazan learned that Warner Bros. had seized the film and had it secretly re-edited to comply with the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency.

The movie was a smash and instant classic, winning five Oscars, including best actress for Miss Leigh. Yet Mr. Kazan remained bitter about the cuts, as did Mr. Williams, who said in his memoirs that while he liked the Academy Awards, he hated the movie.

Among the fans of “Streetcar,” both in its stage and screen incarnations, was the controversial sex guru Alfred Kinsey, who saw it on Broadway in 1950. He wrote the playwright an impassioned letter, and the two formed a lasting friendship.

Mr. Williams continued to keep the censors busy throughout his career, notably in the 1956 movie “Baby Doll,” which starred thumb-sucking Carroll Baker as the underage and overripe bride of Karl Malden. Miss Baker, clad in baby doll pajamas and sleeping in an adult-sized crib, was provocative enough to provoke the ire of New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman, who condemned the film from his pulpit.

“Baby Doll” was banned in several U.S. cities for its “carnal suggestiveness.” The 1958 film “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” was also prohibited in London for its depiction of repressed homosexuality and suggestions of incest.

“He could be raunchy,” says Mr. Kinghorn, “but the difference between Tennessee Williams and other less gifted writers is his openness coupled with an amazing sense of humor. He seemed to feel that sex was a primary part of American life that could not be denied. He didn’t write for shock value — Williams thought he was writing for the mainstream.”

Despite the sex and violence and fetishism, Mr. Williams’ work was never lewd for lewdness’ sake. “I’m not a sex maniac,” Mr. Williams protested in his memoirs. “I like romanticism in sex. I insist on it.”

“In Williams, sexual passions always conceal and at the same time give body to themes of besieged spirit, loss, anguish, and the demands of moral integrity,” says Richard Gilman in his book, “The Making of Modern Drama.” “The erotic is the scene of defeat and despair but also at times of affirmation, generosity.”

So, the next time you see a Calvin Klein model in tightie-whities looming on a Times Square billboard, or tune in “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” or watch Britney Spears flail around in kinder-strumpet splendor, you have Tennessee Williams to thank. Or curse.

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