- Sexual Politics in the Work of Tennessee Williams: Desire Over Protest by Michael S. D. Hooper
Michael Hooper presents his analysis of Tennessee Williams’s career as a corrective to what he sees as a growing revisionist tendency in Williams criticism since the 1990s to view the playwright as “a social writer who, no matter how obliquely, commentates on his times” (9). He contends that “it is maintained” by most contemporary critics that Williams’s texts “reveal a deep distrust of authoritarian government, represent a backlash against the ultra-conservative, family-centered values of the Cold War years and champion the claims of disenchanted minorities, notably African Americans” (9–10). The basic premise of Hooper’s study is that “the thrust of Tennessee Williams’s work is towards the private rather than the public, towards the individual rather than the community” (18).
Among the critics that Hooper alludes to as “political commentators” (23) on Williams are Allean Hale, Philip Kolin, Colby Kullman, and Thomas Adler, but the major touchstone for his argument is David Savran’s 1992 study Communists, Cowboys, and Queers. In fact, although as Hooper says his study has no “single critical framework” (19), he tends to engage in a kind of dialogue with Savran’s book throughout. For the most part, he expresses agreement with its analysis, but offers correctives on particular points. [End Page 153]
Hooper’s book includes an introduction, which clearly lays out these basic principles, and four chapters. The first chapter analyzes those of Williams’s works that are generally recognized as political, such as his 1930s social dramas, his political fantasies from Stairs to the Roof to The Red Devil Battery Sign, and what Hooper refers to as his “Postscript Apocalypse” (64), Demolition Downtown and The Chalky White Substance. A particular strength of the argument is that Hooper integrates analyses of important fiction, such as the short story “Desire and the Black Masseur” and novella The Knightly Quest, into his discussion of the plays, providing a thicker context for his representation of Williams’s political thought. Viewing these avowedly political texts in the context of the whole career, Hooper maintains that Williams’s work shows his concern for humanity, particularly the disadvantaged, but that “the malaise of modern life [is] vaguely defined and unclearly resolved” (24).
The second chapter focuses on Williams’s treatment of homosexuality. It aims to demonstrate that “Williams’s writing about gay life does not have an obvious political dimension” (73) and to defend him from charges of internalized homophobia. Besides analyzing the expected texts—A Streetcar Named Desire, Suddenly Last Summer, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—Hooper also takes on less-often discussed plays like Small Craft Warnings and Something Cloudy, Something Clear, and offers readings of the recently published plays And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens and The Parade. The integration of these recent additions to the published canon and important short stories like “Hard Candy” and “One Arm” makes for one of the most comprehensive treatments of this topic available.
The third chapter examines the ways in which race and race relations are inflected by sexuality in Williams’s work. Hooper contends that Williams’s writing “politically deconstructs racial binaries,” but “never quite dispels the doubts that cloud sexual encounters” (126). He concludes that while Williams “redraws sexual boundaries pertaining to race and nationality,” “no invariable pattern of power emerges in private situations to redress the disparities between whites and non-whites” (171–72). Again, Hooper mixes the expected texts for the topic, such as Kingdom of Earth and “Desire and the Black Masseur,” with texts that extend and complicate the concept of race, such as Orpheus Descending, The Rose Tattoo, Twenty-Seven Wagons Full of Cotton, and the film Baby Doll. Even in Kingdom of Earth, however, Hooper mounts a tenable argument that considerations of race are secondary to the sexual dynamic.
The final chapter focuses on Williams’s treatment of women. Hooper makes it clear that, in contrast to earlier taxonomic...