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The hidden desire of Tennessee Williams He told me about his addiction to rough trade

A Streetcar Named Desire is gay drama in straight drag. Credit: IMDB

A Streetcar Named Desire is gay drama in straight drag. Credit: IMDB


December 2, 2022   5 mins

Loss, a part of life, is certainly a part of literature, but it is seldom its motive force. Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is not a drama of loss, but of wistfulness. Madame Ranevsky seems to mourn the imminent loss of the orchard. She could preserve it by marrying off Varya; but she does not do so. Why? We may call her indecisive, but this reveals the original proposition as false. As she does not act to save the orchard, we must conclude that was never her objective.

What was her objective? We actually don’t know. She seems to be enjoying toying with the notion of loss. And we may enjoy her antics, as they are part of a series of serio-comic sketches. The Cherry Orchard does not have a plot.

Death of a Salesman is a series of sketches on a theme equating regret with loss. What is Willie Loman’s problem? He is not a very good salesman. Arthur Miller wrote of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves that it was as if someone had photographed the human soul. But, for all its worth, one cannot say the same of Death of a Salesman. We come away having seen a play about The Other (with the exception of the scenes with Biff). This Other’s problem is that he’s a bad salesman, and we may, if we like, feel sorry for his state. But which of us actually has sympathy for another’s problems? (Part of the attraction of the Problem, Illness, or Diversity play is its invitation to convince ourselves that we do.)

The southern writer can present his regional emotionality as a party turn (Thomas Wolfe), or it may be the genius outpourings of an actual tortured soul, like William Faulkner or Tennessee Williams. Mark Twain wrote that Ivanhoe was the book which ruined the South. This most famous of knightly tales grew out of the romances of the Jongleurs, Lancelot, Roland, and their mélange by Walter Scott into his creation of The Lost Cause. His was the eradication of Scottish Culture in the defeat of the Stuarts. The Southerners (Scots-Irish in the main) grafted that tragedy onto their own.

When Tennessee Williams was born in 1911 in Mississippi, many veterans of the civil war were still alive. His parents’ generation all suffered under Reconstruction. They, additionally, were descended from Huguenots, French Protestants exiled in the 17th century; and, to conclude the entertainment, he was — for that time necessarily — a closeted gay man. And a poet.

In A Streetcar Named Desire, which debuted on Broadway 75 years ago this week, what does Blanche long for? An imaginary past. What is her particular problem? She longs for an imaginary past. And she’s a whore.

Do the events in the play amount to, or are they structured around, a plot? Not particularly. But the poet is pregnant of his cause, and we are the beneficiaries, moved, if I might, not by the tragedy of Blanche, but by that of Tennessee.

Freud wrote that music is polymorphous perversity, which I understand to mean it moves us through the progression of notions which have no referent in logic: although the feeling they engender is exactly like that created by an enlightening syllogism.

The highest paid production staff in vaudeville were the Routiners, who would structure the evening’s seven acts into a whole emotionally similar to that of an actual drama: The opening production number, the duet, the rope-twirler, the slapstick clown, and so on, culminating in the headliner and the serio-comic act to send us on our way. That’s what Chekhov does in The Cherry Orchard.

Streetcar is less abstract. It is a melodrama. Here the characters are assigned qualities by which we may recognise them (white hat vs black hat; red nose indicating the drunk; ample form and high-flown speech, the Matron, flightiness, the Ingénue, and so on), given the theme of sexuality, and then allowed to play.

I never understood the plays of Eugene O’Neill. It was explained that his father was a drunk and his mother a dope fiend, and I began to understand his concerns; but I didn’t care, as the plays bored me.

He paid his obeisance to that form no doubt taught by Professor Baker in his Harvard Drama course. But what did Professor Baker ever write? Nothing that I know of. But he had read a lot, and, no doubt, imparted his theories to O’Neill, who discharged the debt by the compliment of becoming academic.

Chekhov’s progenitors were the comics of the music hall, and the short stories he read and famously wrote. With the growth of wide-circulation magazines, the late-Victorian era created a grand market for the short-story writer, Chekhov and Tolstoy among them. Chekhov’s plays are, each, more similar to a collection of short stories with the same characters, than they are to conventional drama. He was creating — consciously or not — something which he had enjoyed, and practising it in a different form.

Tennessee’s forebears were The Romantic Poets, and he may be said to be the last of their line. There exist some few works about not the ineffableness, but about the agony of loss. Tragedy cleanses, as it affronts us with the human condition; which, here (as opposed to mere drama) we recognise unavoidably as our own. But no one feels sorry for either Othello or Desdemona. They are mechanical parts of a tragic progression. One would, as soon, be reduced to tears by Beethoven, and then feel sorry for the violin.

But we feel the loss of Thackeray’s Henry Esmond, and that of Frederic Henry at the death of Catherine in A Farewell to Arms. Does one feel sorry for Blanche? We may go as far as “too bad”, but that’s as far as we’ll go. Does one feel sorry for the author, a creature of Loss? I don’t think so, as he got to write a magnificent play, and to reap all the benefits on offer thereby.

Streetcar, like The Sorrows of Young Werther, concerns a hero who is (one or both) just of too fine sensibilities to live in the world, or has a screw loose. But romanticism seems to be compounded of Love, Longing and Death, written by the non-artist we’re left with a love story, about a Jock who Cried.

Tennessee, by his own admission (to me) was addicted to rough trade — as if it required a ghost from the grave to tell us that. The addiction is an unquenchable longing for that imagined-as-male. Whether this is the male one feels he can never become, or him he can never have, is moot — one is not going to find this love in the arms of a whore, and, so, one is doomed to perpetual repetition, failure and loss.

Tennessee-as-Blanche imagines males with their clumsy, rough fingers, as raping, beer-swilling, poker-playing bowlers. She is, at once, the longing vessel and the professional — the rough-trade.

Gay drama in straight drag was taken up by Truman Capote 14 years later as the romantic comedy Breakfast at Tiffany’s; and two years earlier than Streetcar, in Noel Coward’s drama Brief Encounter. The first ends in a marriage possible as the couple is presented as heterosexual; the second, in a heart-rending abandonment of the affair as the couple (in underlying truth) are not.

At the end of Streetcar, Blanche goes nuts, which is neither a victory over her situation, or fate, nor an acceptance of her failure — it is a convenience allowing the play to end. The end of the play is the continuation of the Poker Game, or “men go on, amusing themselves with a male game not only in spite, but in ignorance, of the depth of women’s anguish”.

I beg pardon for the psycho-sexual dismemberment of a great play. Streetcar is dated, but at some point it will cease being dated.


David Mamet is an American playwright, film director, screenwriter and author. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Glengarry Glen Ross.


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Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago

I don’t think there’s was anything secret or hidden about William’s desires. Such a tabloid headline.

Charlie Brown
Charlie Brown
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

Yes that made me smile too. I am already looking forward to the next article concerning the “Hidden drink problem of Ernest Hemmingway….”

Charlie Brown
Charlie Brown
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

Yes that made me smile too. I am already looking forward to the next article concerning the “Hidden drink problem of Ernest Hemmingway….”

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago

I don’t think there’s was anything secret or hidden about William’s desires. Such a tabloid headline.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago

I’ve read and seen most of the plays mentioned. The only ones I cared enough for to read more than once are Chekhov’s. I went through a period of trying to track down and read everything of his translated into English, which at the time was about 450 stories out of more than 600. I have a huge collection most of which came from used bookstores around Philadelphia. A Russian friend told me they are much better in Russian, which alas I cannot read. The Duel is one of my favorites.

Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
1 year ago

‘The Glass Menagerie’ is one which has always stayed with me for some reason. And yes, I feel the sorrow for the pain of the character.

David Ryan
David Ryan
1 year ago

What about Mamet’s own work? Glengarry Glen Ross is a masterpiece

David Ryan
David Ryan
1 year ago

By the way I think the Ridley Scott film The Duellists may be based on The Duel. Not sure but it may be.

David Ryan
David Ryan
1 year ago
Reply to  David Ryan

Sorry I’m wrong. It’s based on The Duel by Joseph Conrad

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago
Reply to  David Ryan

That was a good movie. And – again – it didn’t quite capture the Conrad IMO.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago
Reply to  David Ryan

That was a good movie. And – again – it didn’t quite capture the Conrad IMO.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago
Reply to  David Ryan

It isn’t, but there was a movie made from this story. I can’t remember it’s title. But it really didn’t capture the elements and the mood that reading the Chekhov evoked – in me, at least.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jeff Cunningham
David Ryan
David Ryan
1 year ago
Reply to  David Ryan

Sorry I’m wrong. It’s based on The Duel by Joseph Conrad

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago
Reply to  David Ryan

It isn’t, but there was a movie made from this story. I can’t remember it’s title. But it really didn’t capture the elements and the mood that reading the Chekhov evoked – in me, at least.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jeff Cunningham
Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
1 year ago

‘The Glass Menagerie’ is one which has always stayed with me for some reason. And yes, I feel the sorrow for the pain of the character.

David Ryan
David Ryan
1 year ago

What about Mamet’s own work? Glengarry Glen Ross is a masterpiece

David Ryan
David Ryan
1 year ago

By the way I think the Ridley Scott film The Duellists may be based on The Duel. Not sure but it may be.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago

I’ve read and seen most of the plays mentioned. The only ones I cared enough for to read more than once are Chekhov’s. I went through a period of trying to track down and read everything of his translated into English, which at the time was about 450 stories out of more than 600. I have a huge collection most of which came from used bookstores around Philadelphia. A Russian friend told me they are much better in Russian, which alas I cannot read. The Duel is one of my favorites.

Vincent Morgan
Vincent Morgan
1 year ago

Remind me not to ever confide in Mamet 


polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago
Reply to  Vincent Morgan

Do you have something to hide?
Fortunately, I am an uncomplicated guy.

David Ryan
David Ryan
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

We all have something to hide polidori

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago
Reply to  David Ryan

I wear my mistresses with pride, sir,

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago
Reply to  David Ryan

I wear my mistresses with pride, sir,

Paula G
Paula G
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

How many people have you Blanche DuBoised with your attitude?

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago
Reply to  Paula G

None.
I am taking the piss
And you?

Last edited 1 year ago by polidori redux
polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago
Reply to  Paula G

None.
I am taking the piss
And you?

Last edited 1 year ago by polidori redux
David Ryan
David Ryan
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

We all have something to hide polidori

Paula G
Paula G
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

How many people have you Blanche DuBoised with your attitude?

Phillip Freeman
Phillip Freeman
1 year ago
Reply to  Vincent Morgan

Hardly a secret.
On another note, there is something mesmerizing about Mamet’s dark confidence. A case in point: “But which of us actually has sympathy for another’s problems?”

Paula G
Paula G
1 year ago

That is giving in to the dark side, or enjoying one’s pose of giving other people the finger, to do otherwise! Grow up, grow charitable! Read A Christmas Carol this Christmas!

Paula G
Paula G
1 year ago

That is giving in to the dark side, or enjoying one’s pose of giving other people the finger, to do otherwise! Grow up, grow charitable! Read A Christmas Carol this Christmas!

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago
Reply to  Vincent Morgan

Do you have something to hide?
Fortunately, I am an uncomplicated guy.

Phillip Freeman
Phillip Freeman
1 year ago
Reply to  Vincent Morgan

Hardly a secret.
On another note, there is something mesmerizing about Mamet’s dark confidence. A case in point: “But which of us actually has sympathy for another’s problems?”

Vincent Morgan
Vincent Morgan
1 year ago

Remind me not to ever confide in Mamet 


Michael Walsh
Michael Walsh
1 year ago

“Gay drama in straight drag” could describe most Hollywood rom-coms of the 1950s.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Michael Walsh

And most soap operas form inception and all UK TV output since about 2005

Charlie Brown
Charlie Brown
1 year ago

As was noted at the time, Sex and The City was always really a story about 4 gay men. Basically Queer as Folk in drag….

Charlie Brown
Charlie Brown
1 year ago

As was noted at the time, Sex and The City was always really a story about 4 gay men. Basically Queer as Folk in drag….

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Michael Walsh

And most soap operas form inception and all UK TV output since about 2005

Michael Walsh
Michael Walsh
1 year ago

“Gay drama in straight drag” could describe most Hollywood rom-coms of the 1950s.

Paula G
Paula G
1 year ago

Of course I felt sorry for Blanche Du Bois. She is put into an asylum, because her concerns are not investigated and healed by people who should care about her. We emotionally, financially and sometimes literally rape those around us, because we have learned to be narcissists.

The Apple guy doesn’t need to respond to questions about China; Biden can walk from the podium without answering questions; we can decide other people are “toxic,” or whatever other label we need to shove others in who won’t promote our z”brands.” Yes, Streetcar is not at all an old story.

Last edited 1 year ago by Paula G
Paula G
Paula G
1 year ago

Of course I felt sorry for Blanche Du Bois. She is put into an asylum, because her concerns are not investigated and healed by people who should care about her. We emotionally, financially and sometimes literally rape those around us, because we have learned to be narcissists.

The Apple guy doesn’t need to respond to questions about China; Biden can walk from the podium without answering questions; we can decide other people are “toxic,” or whatever other label we need to shove others in who won’t promote our z”brands.” Yes, Streetcar is not at all an old story.

Last edited 1 year ago by Paula G
Madli Kleingeld
Madli Kleingeld
1 year ago

Love,longing and death..
Yes ,that’s me…