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Book Review, Current Issue, Vol. 32 No. 1

Law and Sexuality in Tennessee Williams’s America

Law and Sexuality in Tennessee Williams’s America. Jacqueline O’Connor. Lanham, MD: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2016; Pp. 215 xii.

Taking a new historicist approach, Jacqueline O’Connor’s Law and Sexuality examines Tennessee Williams’s representations of sexual transgression in his drama and fiction as connected to issues of legality and social responses toward what was considered deviant. For Williams, sex constitutes the core of a person’s identity, and he clearly wrestled with what could be allowed in public versus what should be kept in private. O’Connor writes well, and her discussion of how this plays out in A Streetcar Named Desire is particularly compelling; it makes one wish she had covered more of his works. Williams, she asserts, does not simply focus on the socially marginalized, but on the legally so, and he refuses to view his characters as sordid, but compassionately recognizes them as troubled. As O’Connor suggests, tongue-in-cheek, Williams was not just interested in “the kindness of strangers” but also “kindness toward the strange” (27), as he wished to “distinguish the morally acceptable from the legally actionable” (30).

When Williams began writing, post-war society had brought new sexual freedoms but any non-normative behavior was deemed disgusting and often subject to legal action. O’Connor posits that Williams’s “first-hand observations about the private and public lives of Americans whose sexual identities and practices situated them outside the law, whether male or female, gay or straight, rich or poor” inform all of his writing (2). That Williams was gay is clear, but O’Connor rightly insists that it is important to understand when he was gay. Her concerns are less with Williams’ literary life than his sexual one, which was in conflict with the laws and culture of his time, and how he personally and artistically navigated “tensions between the deviant and the orthodox” (5). This may make the book of greater interest to those engaged in cultural or American studies rather than literary.

To establish her thesis regarding the bifurcation of Williams’s response to his own sexuality, O’Connor’s introduction depicts his development within a “complex and contradictory cultural reality” during which gay culture had become highly developed and accessible, and yet deeply transgressive and legally restricted (8). During Williams’s formative period, laws legislating sexual behavior of any kind multiplied, and in these pre-AIDS years “gay culture” was more concerned with the legal ramifications of “pick-ups,” rather than medical ones. In terms of biographical detail, she offers no more than one could glean from John Lahr’s Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, but she gives a clear picture of what it was like to be gay in mid-century America.

Focusing on Williams’s awareness of the “vulnerability of his own illegal body” (2) and the dual stream of attraction and revulsion that his writing–both personal and public–illustrates toward lives perceived by mainstream society as aberrant, she asks that we read his texts, not as narratives of Williams as a self-hating homosexual, but as coded challenges to the draconian sexual rules of law when he wrote. It is here she suggests something new. Using material from personal notebooks and letters, alongside published and draft versions of some of his key dramas and fiction, O’Connor illustrates Williams’s attitude towards social and legal perceptions of “sexual deviance” and the ways his language and situations echo these to expose the inadequacy of these perceptions. O’Connor weaves in legal debates and rulings of the time to make her argument. The study is comprised of an introduction and conclusion, plus four chapters; the first three chapters focus on Williams’ mid-century work (ordered thematically rather than chronologically) and the fourth considers later works’ reception from the 1970s.

O’Connor has spent significant time in the archives, and all the expected critics are given voice, including David Savran, John Bak, and John Clum. A non-Williams scholar will find this a useful compendium, however, much of it recycles their views rather than extending them. Her few disagreements arise less from analyzing what William wrote than why he wrote as he did. She argues that we cannot grasp Williams’s work and politics without specific understanding that he was writing in an era when active laws suppressed even the mention of anti-normative sexuality, let alone explicit focus on the acts themselves.

The first chapter references Night of the Iguana, but chiefly focuses on Streetcar, while the second chapter on fiction has an even narrower scope, beginning with brief analysis of “Hard Candy,” followed by “One Arm;” the pairing of these last two short works suggests compelling and ultimately sympathetic complexities in the characters of Krupper and Oliver, but what of the trickier Anthony Burns in “Desire and the Black Masseur.” The exclusion of so many relevant plays, such as Summer and Smoke, Camino Real, Suddenly Last Summer, or Sweet Bird of Youth limits the book’s persuasiveness, though the coverage of Streetcar and “One Arm” is enhanced by O’Connor’s discussion of alternate drafts of each text that effectively illustrate key decisions Williams made in their creation and revision. However, both chapters begin to feel repetitive. Judicious editing would have allowed for discussion of more plays and stories to strengthen the book’s thesis regarding the prevalence and impact of these tropes in Williams’s work.

The third chapter proceeds similarly. After offering selective insights on how to view the sexuality of Big Daddy and Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, this chapter centers on Battle of Angels and its revision, Orpheus Descending, as complex studies of “law, morality and justice” in Williams’s America (125). Although the chapter is titled “The Fugitive Kind,” and a still from the movie graces the book’s cover, it is not discussed. The final chapter develops O’Connor’s argument that Williams’s 1975 Memoirs and its reception poisoned critics against his later work. This chapter moves into an insightful analysis of Small Craft Warnings, The Mutilation, and The Gnädiges Fräulein as works in which Williams renegotiated his attitudes for a post-Stonewall era. Again, analysis of more works would better bolster her argument that the “neglect of legal and political investigations of the diverse sexualities featured regularly in his drama and fiction” (18).

Williams was politically aware has long been established. That he was also committed “to exposing the cultural suspicion and condemnation of sexual desire” (19) sounds valid, but O’Connor’s insistence on the “political urgency” (172) of his texts, and that “his work challenged not just attitudes, but policies” (48), reads a tad overblown. Ultimately, this book provides a valuable history of twentieth-century developments and changes in laws governing sexuality that contributes to American Studies scholarship, and O’Connor illustrates how the language of these laws permeates some of Williams’s writing for stage and fiction. To prove this negotiation was a conscious political act, or that his writing had legal ramifications is harder. However, if we view the fate of Williams’s sexualized characters from the contextualized perspective O’Connor demands, in which a violent outcome does not constitute the judgmental retribution some believe, but rather an outcome undercut by an underlying and often transformative compassion, then the book also offers Williams scholars a lens through which to reconsider his controversial characters.

Susan C. W. Abbotson
Rhode Island College

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 32, Number 1 (Fall 2019)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2019 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

 

 

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