Sweet words of truth

As Glasgow celebrates the work of Tennessee Williams, Tara Hepburn joins in on the admiration

This year marks a huge list of anniversaries if you’re inclined to look for them. It is, as it happens, 75 years since Monopoly was invented, 50 years since Elvis was drafted into the US Army, and 25 years since playwright Tennessee Williams died under dubious circumstances at the Hotel Elysee in New York.

Glasgow has chosen to celebrate only one of the three anniversaries listed above, perhaps deeming a celebration of all things Monopoly a little inappropriate given our current financial climate. And, although he was marvellous, the work that Mr Presley did for hearts and minds will always be secondary to the more noble work he did for rock and roll. Perhaps as a result of that exact process of elimination (or some utterly separate process of admiration) Glasgay! have decided to dedicate a chunk of this year’s festival to all things Tennessee Williams.

Gay issues were prevalent in Williams work at a time when homosexuality was still very much illegal. His most famous creation, Blanche DuBois, of “A Streetcar Named Desire” fame, lamented: “What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh no, it’s curved like a road through mountains.” The festival allows anyone and everyone to revel in the beautiful language of a master, and he is – amongst a vast list of things – gay and brilliant. And that’s probably the general vibe that Glasgay! were going for anyway.

Born in 1911 to an abusive father, and an aggressive, delusional mother, Tennessee (then Thomas) Williams forged a close bond with his sister Rose, who suffered from schizophrenia and spent much of her life in and out of mental hospitals. After Tennessee left home, his parents had his sister lobotomised, a decision for which Williams never forgave them. He became estranged from his family and retreated to his writing, creating work which – not entirely surprisingly – was steeped in turmoil, guilt and mental instability.

Although his work went on to win innumerable awards, Williams’ life was blighted by alcoholism, depression and fear that he would ultimately fall victim to the sort of insanity which had ravaged his beloved sister. He died aged 72, having choked on a bottle cap whilst putting in eyedrops. His younger brother, from whom Williams was distant for a great part of his life, maintains that he was suffocated by those who attended to Williams’ health in his final years, murderously disgruntled by planned changes to their patient’s will.

Like any situation involving wills and vast inheritance, trust is slippery concept. I never much cared for how capable Mr Williams was at applying eyedrops, I was always rather more interested in his capability for writing amazing plays.

Some of Williams’ plays are being rehashed for the festival season, with Tron theatre putting on a loyal and passionate rendering of the Williams hit “Suddenly Last Summer”, as well as giving UK stage premieres to a few lesser-known one-act plays such as “Hello from Bertha” – a harrowingly dramatic piece which details the dying moments of a prostitute in a low-class bordello. The Arches are fielding a more experimental take on the Williams’ season, with “Elysian Fields”, a newly-penned play about Williams’ final months as a drunken and slowly maddening genius which has opened to rave reviews.

The GFT have an equally-exciting programme on offer, reeling up for a month of Tennessee Williams film adaptations from the golden age of cinema. A timely opportunity to catch “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” starring the recently-late and interminably-great Paul Newman in a performance of complexity and depth, trying as he was to shake the weighty burden of incorrigible beauty that he so reluctantly hauled from role to role.

His portrayal of Brick, the sexually-conflicted yet powerfully masculine leading man, is compounded by his character’s extraordinary ability to spurn the advances of his own wife, Maggie, who is played by such an exquisitely-beautiful Elizabeth Taylor. Sexual orientation aside, you’d have to be crazy not to want to look at her face all day long. Other highlights include Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh’s superbly-acted turn in Williams’ most celebrated creation “A Streetcar Named Desire”, as well as hidden gem “This Property is Condemned”, a one-act play spun seamlessly into a full-length feature starring Robert Redford and Natalie Wood.

The experience proves that, for all the developments in cinematography, budget and special effects, there really is no competition for good acting and even better dialogue. Not only do they no longer make them like they used to, they don’t write them like they used to either.

Although Williams’ work is often upsettingly personal, it has an enduring, accessible quality. A testament, perhaps, to the quality of his imagination and turn of phrase, but an indication also that the high-ideals and dark-sadness of which he writes are perhaps not as melodramatic after all.

Tennessee Williams succeeds in convincing us that not only does the course of love tail a windy road, the course of life does much the same.


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