National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science No. 92: Tennessee Williams Issues ‘Small Craft Warnings’

No one knew better about the worst fate that can beset a homosexual – to become hopelessly jaded, indifferent and cruel – than gay playwright Tennessee Williams. The subject became, simultaneously, his greatest caution to the new post-Stonewall gay liberation movement, and his proposed remedy his greatest gift.

Williams, whose life and work has been so important to this series, made two critical contributions to the post-Stonewall movement. One was his “Memoirs,” his official “coming out” written mostly in 1972, and the other was a stunning soliloquy delivered by the first openly gay character to appear in one of his major plays, “Small Craft Warnings,” that opened on stage in New York as his “Memoirs” were being written.

What Williams came up with was undoubtedly not what sunny Gay Lib proponents wanted to either hear or have said at that time. But it was, like everything he did, ruthlessly authentic and truthful after Williams’ compassionate manner. Many in Gay Lib at the time said he was reflecting the self-loathing of pre-liberation era gays, but subsequent history compels us to take Williams much more seriously than that.

The message is in the title of his play. To Williams, reflecting on his own experience, gays start out tender and sensitive “small crafts,” quickly finding themselves too often in over their heads in choppy waters of a hostile world. In one of his last plays, the autobiographical “Vieux Carre” (1977), Williams recounted his first homosexual encounters while in his mid-20s when he moved to a boarding house in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Quickly he learned, and with much pain, that lusting for homosexual sex and naïve yearning for love had little, if anything, in common.

Williams was fortunate to be in a position to carry on an active if impersonal sex life while still retaining his empathetic sensibilities through creative work. His “love objects” in his plays became the likes of his sad, lobotomized sister, for example.

Williams sharply juxtaposed his creative passion to impersonal sex in his “Memoirs,” and through the soliloquy by the gay character Quentin in “Small Craft Warnings” he attested to the unhappy severance of sex from love but ending with an astonishing remedy. Quentin, an older gay man, arrives at a sleazy seaside bar with a fresh-faced youth he’d picked up shortly before. (The two characters are each Williams, himself, one as he’d grown to become, and other being himself as a youth.)

Quentin speaks,
“There’s a coarseness, a deadening coarseness, in the experience of most homosexuals. The experiences are quick, and hard, and brutal, and the pattern of them is practically unchanging. Their act of love is like the jabbing of a hypodermic needle to which they’re addicted but which is more and more empty of real interest and surprise. This lack of variation and surprise in their ‘love life’ spreads into other areas of sensibility…”

(How’s that as a description for today’s addictive Ginder, Scruffy and other modes for impersonal hook-ups?)

But then Quentin, recalling his own youth, reflects on when things were different for him,
“Yes, once, quite a long while ago, I was often startled by the sense of being alive, of being myself, living! Present on earth, in the flesh, yes, for some completely mysterious reason a single, separate, intensely conscious being, myself: living!…Whenever I would feel this…feeling, this…shock of…what?…self-realization?…I would be stunned, I would be thunderstruck by it. And by the existence of everything that exists, I’d be lightning-struck with astonishment…it would do more than astound me, it would give me a feeling of panic, the sudden sense of…I suppose it was like an epileptic seizure, except that I didn’t fall to the ground in convulsions…”

Then Quentin looks at the adolescent boy with him, and sees in him his own lost innocence and passion for life,
“This boy I picked up tonight, the kid from the tall corn country, still has the capacity for being surprised by what he sees, hears and feels in this kingdom of earth. All the way up the canyon to my place, he kept saying, I can’t believe it, I’m here, I’ve come to the Pacific, the world’s greatest ocean!…as if nobody, Magellan or Balboa over even the Indians had ever seen it before him; yes, like he’d discovered this ocean, the largest on earth, and so now, because it found it himself, it existed, now, for the first time, never before…And this excitement of his reminded me of having lost the ability to say: ‘My God!’ instead of just: ‘Oh, well.'”

Williams called this one of his best soliloquies ever. In this speech, he offered his fellow, freshly-liberated homosexuals an antidote to cynicism and despair. It was as if he was saying, in my words, “There is only one sin in life – cynical, selfish and cruel indifference – and there is only one virtue, a passionate love of life, of yours and everyone else’s.”