What's New on the Rialto
Gentleman Callers: Tennessee Williams, Homosexuality, and Mid-Twentieth Century Drama
Book Review by George Reddick
Michael Paller's new book, Gentleman Callers: Tennessee Williams, Homosexuality, and Mid-Twentieth Century Drama (Palgrave Macmillan, list price $26.95) is readable and informative, and though fairly academic in nature, happily steers clear of the more turgid and incomprehensible language and analyses that plague many serious studies of dramatic literature and theatre history. If the book's combination of biography, history, and literary analysis doesn't always add up to a convincing argument, it still makes many interesting points.
The central project of Gentlemen Callers is to rescue Williams from criticism related to his sexuality, which Paller perceives on two sides of a spectrum: mainstream critics who dismissed or attacked Williams for being too gay and left-wing gay activists (especially those writing by the 1980s) who attacked or dismissed him for not being gay enough. Paller is frustrated by both positions and attempts to refute them. However, he creates a conflicted argument by attempting to combine an objective social and historical contextualization of homosexuality for Williams' plays and a polemic reading of Williams' use of gay characters as not only valid but actually revolutionary. Paller is dismissive of critics who "don't have eyes to see," as he puts it, that Williams was using gay characters in a closeted world, which was in and of itself a bold move, while he is himself sometimes critical of Williams' inability to create works relevant to the changing times. In some places, as here, Paller's arguments can feel underformed.
Paller's best contribution is as an historian of the progression of male homosexual identity throughout Williams' lifetime. Military policy, medical prognoses, and psychoanalysis regarding homosexuality both in general and with specific regard to the biographic details of Williams' own life are all used to paint the backdrop against which Williams cast his plays. Paller has a point in claiming that Williams' gayness may have caught him between a rock and a hard place in his later career. As one of the progenitors of The Great American Play during Broadway's Golden Age, Williams had been generally alone in putting anything gay on stage, but as the Golden Age came to a close somewhere in the 1960s, he lost his edge, not to mention his audience. Paller's assumption that the reason for Williams' failure was that he refused to work in noncommercial theatre is, therefore, wrongheaded; he is more on the money in pointing to the playwright's continuing depression and dependence on drugs and alcohol.
For the details of Williams' biography, Paller makes good use of two valuable sources, Williams' own Memoirs, a gossipy and not necessarily reliable autobiography, and Lyle Leverich's fine Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams, which covers Williams' early life. Plenty of scrupulous research and study of personal documents and letters illuminate Paller's treatment of Williams, though you may get the feeling that he's reading between the lines a bit too much when, for instance, he claims that Williams traveled extensively after the close of Camino Real because he was upset about new anti-gay legislation in Miami which happened to crop up about the same time.
Overall, though Gentleman Callers may tend toward over analysis and some of its attempts to validate Williams' latter life failures may not be totally convincing, it is nevertheless valuable for its contextualization of Williams' works in a time of limited tolerance and acceptance for homosexuals.
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