National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science, No. 82: Tennessee Williams & Christopher Isherwood, Pt. 2

In a century defined by the most savage of brutal wars and genocides, among those things that legendary gay writers Tennessee Williams and Christopher Isherwood held in common were their pacifist political sensibilities and remarkable attention to their creative work, despite innumerable distractions, to express them.

Williams wrote in his “Memoirs” that he voted only once for president, for the perennial socialist/pacifist candidate Norman Thomas in 1932. But through his works he contributed to the rise of the civil rights, anti-war and gay liberation movements of the 1960s, as well as the elections of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and he was fully aware of his role in these effects.

(If 400,000 gays had not died of AIDS after that, how might American electoral history be different?).

The British-born Isherwood (1904-1986) was an eyewitness to Hitler’s thuggish rise to power in Berlin that forced him to leave. But he chronicled it all in “Goodbye to Berlin” (1939), which morphed into the play and film, “I Am a Camera” (1951, 1955) and eventually into the musical and film, “Cabaret” (1966, 1971).

In 1976, he did a rewrite of “Goodbye to Berlin” entitled, “Christopher and His Kind.” It was his “coming out” work, revealing the central role of his pursuit of gay encounters while in Germany, invisible in the earlier work. A dramatized version of “Christopher and His Kind” was released on DVD in 2010.

Isherwood suffered as his first true love, Heinz Neddermeyer, fled, was arrested and forced to join Hitler’s army. Isherwood came to New York in 1939, and when he applied for U.S. citizenship in 1945, he filled out his application saying he would “defend his country” in non-combatant roles, only.

He became a devout follower of the pacifist Vedanta faith, and his diaries show that from the time he met the 18-year-old who was to become his life partner, Don Bachardy, in 1953 until his death in 1986, Isherwood’s spirituality played a big role in his ability to hold his relationship together through stormy times and despite the great difference in their ages, while helping Bachardy develop his own considerable artistic talent. Bachardy, now 78 and a friend, was the subject of countless entries in Isherwood’s diaries, dedicated to him.

Williams’ pacifism was expressed against the brutality of society overall, focusing on the microcosmic male chauvinist violence of which great wars are a predicate.

He characterized prevailing culture as “a society whose elite was so grossly affluent, I mean a society that numbered its billions of dollars as he counted our nickels…a nation ruled by that numerically tiny gang which has fitted itself on the top of the totem pole and is scared of getting dizzy if it glances down…our Babylonian plutocracy.”

The impact of the structural brutality of culture on the weak and sensitive forms the core of most of Williams’ works, including as driven by the horror of experiencing his own sister subjected to the widespread practice in those days, a lobotomy.

Williams worked tirelessly, formulating new experiments to assail the evils and injustices of such brutalities until the day he died accidentally in a New York hotel room in February 1983.

The play that he completed while writing his “Memoirs” in 1972, entitled “Small Craft Warnings,” was dedicated to “a good many other young writers and/or artists” like him, all “disregarding the small craft warnings” while sailing into the teeth of a brutal and indifferent society.

He cited the case of “such a tremendous yet fragile artist as Hart Crane,” one “small craft” that crashed. The only possession Williams carried with him when he plucked chickens in Southern California and went to Mexico in the Depression-ridden late 1930s was a book of poems by the closeted gay American poet Crane (1899-1932).

The subject of a new movie, “The Broken Tower,” Crane, brilliant and an optimist in his poetry, committed suicide after being rebuffed and beaten by a sailor during a cruise in the Gulf of Mexico.

Williams was greatly influenced by Crane in his own poetry, and, as he declared in remarks he’d prepared for delivery the morning after he tragically died, insofar as he thought of all his work as, most fundamentally, poetry.

As Plato wrote, “Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.”

Don Bachardy recounted to me about Williams’ great triumph, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1955). It opened in Philadelphia prior to moving to Broadway.

Williams invited Isherwood and Bachardy to the opening. On the eve of the first performance, he invited them to his hotel suite, and did a one-man reading of the entire play, changing his voice for each of the different characters.

Bachardy said that he’s seen the play performed a half dozen times since, including the 1958 film version, but he’s never seen it done as well as Williams did it that night.

To be continued.