Law and Sexuality in Tennessee Williamss America

By (author) Jacqueline OConnor

Publication date:

31 May 2016

Length of book:

228 pages


Fairleigh Dickinson University Press

ISBN-13: 9781611478938

Gender and cultural studies readings of Tennessee Williams’s work have provided diverse perspectives on his complex representations of sexuality, whether of himself as an openly gay man, or of his characters, many of whom narrate or dramatize sexual attitudes or behavior that cross heteronormative boundaries of the mid-century period. Several of these studies have positioned Williams and his work amid the public tensions in American life over roughly four decades, from 19401980, as notions of equality and freedom of choice challenged prejudice and repression in law and in society. To date, however, neither Williams’s homosexuality nor his persistent representations of sexual transgressions have been examined as legal matters that challenged the rule of law.

Directed by legal history and informed by multiple strands of Williams’s studies criticism, textual, and cultural, this book explores the interplay of select topics defined and debated in law’s texts with those same topics in Williams’s personal and imaginative texts. By tracing the obscure and the transparent representations of homosexuality, specifically, and diverse sexualities more generally, through selected stories and plays, the book charts the intersections between Williams’s literature and the laws that governed the period. His imaginative works, backlit by his personal documents and historical and legal records from the period, underscore his preoccupation with depictions of diverse sexualities throughout his career. His use of legal language and its varied effects on his texts demonstrate his work’s multiple and complex intersection with major twentieth-century concerns, including significant legal and cultural dialogues about identity formation, intimacy, privacy, and difference.
In her introduction to this volume, O’Connor cites Williams’s diary and letters to indicate his 'knowledge of the legal ramifications and the specific laws that restricted homosexual activity' during and after WW II. In chapter 1 O'Connor discusses 'compassionate views of difference' in the transgressive characters of Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Night of the Iguana (1961). In the chapters that follow she examines Williams’s short story 'One Arm,' which 'challenged the public discourse of disgust that supported the criminalization of diverse sexual activity'; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) and Orpheus Descending (1957) as demonstrating Williams’s sympathy for the 'fugitive kind' during the period of McCarthyism; and Williams’s controversial Memoirs (1975) as 'an act of witness to an age of transition.' O’Connor describes dramas from Williams’s last two decades in terms of postmodernism and doom, but she also suggests that the late works 'become more open in their diverse representations of sexuality.' Strengths of this study include the critical context O'Connor offers and her comments on multiple versions of Williams’s plays in light of major Supreme Court rulings. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty.