Tennessee Anomaly

/ Literature /

I’ve “known” Tennessee Williams since the early 1950s, since before the radio told us every other minute that “Davy, Davy Crockett” was “born on a mountain top in Tennessee / The greatest state in the land of the free” … I read a bunch of plays in the eighth grade: Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams.
Shakespeare we all had shoved at us: and that, in those days, seemed justified to me: Shakespeare was something you could shout, something you could sing. The school said he was good, they said he was great. Macbeth rang in my ears. Macbeth rang from my tongue. The schools can’t have been entirely wrong: at least not on that specific point.


But who am I to be objective?
George Bernard Shaw

Last night I was planning to watch Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev with Jan. The DVD is sitting here, ready. But she wasn’t feeling well. So, solo, I watched This Property is Condemned: Natalie Wood, Robert Redford …

Natalie Wood
thanx allposters

(And don’t overlook Mary Badham!).

This Property is Condemned was based on a one act play by Tennessee Williams.

Tennessee Williams
Thomas Lanier Williams III
thanx tumblr

Even in the eighth grade, reading The Glass Managerie, I understood that there was something weird about Tennessee Williams. First, consider the name: the IIIrd I’m a “junior” — August Paul Knatz, Junior; but the IIIrd has “Junior” way-beat for the kind of pretension that can humiliate a boy not yet entirely comfortable with himself or his fit in his culture. We’ve all had a bellyful of Henrys and Edwards (and Elizabeths), James and Charles. Louis too: II, III … the VIIIth! But they’re kings! (and queens!) When a king is pretentious, it’s not weird, it’s standard. Jeez, these days we even have a football player, a black! football player who’s got initials like royalty, and a the IIIrd at the end of it!

Shakespeare’s been called a drunk, he’s been called an illiterate, and a fag! Some people treat that misreading as though it were fact! But none of that sticks to Shakespeare: no: Shakespeare rolls from the tongue. But Tennessee Williams, even an eighth grader, even an eighth grader in 1952, could see that he was queer: and a queen.

No. I’m joking, I’m just being rude. I didn’t know any allegations about Tennessee Williams’ personal conduct in 1952. But we all understood that he was odd. We all further understood that he was an artist: artists were queer, we all understood that. Even Eisenhower’s Americans made special allowance for playwrights.
I don’t mean what I say; I mean how my writing adds up! (Like Tennessee Williams’ Hart Crane: “see” what effect the gibberish has.)

Opinion. We all love to think that other people have opinions; we “know” things.

We start off going way out of our way to identify ourselves with Davy Crockett, in the land of the free, killed in a bar when he was only three. We go out of our way to believe what we’re told about ourselves, regardless of how contrary to fact: we drop bombs: for freedom, while we’re compelled to attend school, the school prescribing the costumes we wear, the myths we rehearse.

Seriously, I enjoyed the hell out of watching This Property is Condemned. Natalie Wood was so damn pretty, so funny having a Ruskie playing Miss Louisiana. A couple of other stars were cast before they too were icons: Robert Blake, Charles Bronson.

We see Natalie Wood’s face, bosom, belly, bearing: Mary Badham’s tush was fully qualified to understudy Wood’s.

But back to Williams and 1952. I read The Glass Menagerie, and other Williams plays. He found himself making money from that play by the mid-1940s: Chicago, NY, multiple performances, getting rich. First he was mocked by his father for being a pussy, first he was broke, ignored … then he had a nervous breakdown. Then he gave up on his heterosexual affairs, acknowledged his attraction to men … had multiple performances, then he was understood to be “great” …

But did everyone understand that? that he was “great”? I remember my sister reading his short story, Desire and the Black Masseur. White masochist gets his bones broken by a black sadist, climaxes with the corpse cannibalized! Prose poetry, my own writing very much influenced by it: by her description of it, that is: I never glimpsed the text. She was knocked out by that stoory, by the poetic prose, she was raving. Some opinions of my sister’s I accepted: that one I swallowed half-way.

Teaching at Colby in 1967 I gave my freshman rhetoric students a chance to rate known figures. One of my students put Tennessee Williams at the tippy top of her pantheon: I ground my teeth. When the students said “Shakespeare” it didn’t cause a ripple. If they said Chekov of course they were right, so too if they said Brecht! Why was I still resisting Williams? Why am I still today? Early on it could have been pk homophobia, everyone I knew was homophobic: I’m still growing out of that one.

In 1945 the opinion passed: the opinion that Tennessee Williams was “great”. In 2014, the eve of 2015, it doesn’t: not automtically.

The other month I quoted Lord Byron to my beloved Jan: Byron said that (his contemporary and acquaintance) Robert Southey (Poet Laureate of Britain starting in 1813) would be remembered “after Homer and Shakespeare were forgotten”

But not until then!

People believe that Lincoln’s reputation is safe, or Jesus.

Buddy, nothing is safe.

But PS, let me add: One thing I enjoyed about the movie last night was pondering how many icons of masculinity Tennessee Williams was responsible for launching. Stanley Kowalski was just one, and Hollywood rode his back: Marlon Brando! (in a snakeskin jacket!) Paul Newman! (Here in This Property is Condemned muscles are coming out of the cracks!)

Now look’a the pic of Natalie Wood above. Jeez, look’a the pair of balls on that girl!
Yeah, but girls commonly look female, mammalian … attractive. Williams didn’t invent that, didn’t take it to a new level. Males have always been male on stage. Yeah, but Stanley Kowalski, especially as fleshed by Marlon Brando, is another realm.

Brando snake skin
from Fugitive Kind
thanx talk-pix

Killed in a Bar

Shakespeare made jokes he can’t possibly have expected anyone to get. So do I. In my case sometimes a possibility is there however unlikely. Re: the Davy Crockett song, I remember some kid misheard it, thought the lyrics proclaimed not that Davy killed a bear but was killed in a bar, the supposed Tennessee pronunciation /bar/ for “bear” confusing everything.

I’ll be back to add praises to Williams’ gender-role honesty. How’d he manage that is this culture? The world is full of oddities.


About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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