Williams's Modest Craft

Tennessee Williams's best plays are known for their brutal emotional honesty. This was gleaned from his confrontations with his family, his society, and, always, with Thomas Lanier Williams, the complex flesh-blood-and-mind person who sometimes was able to escape into the role of the great American playwright. Then, sometime after the critical failure of his play Orpheus Descending Williams started taking talk therapy from the wrong kind of psychologist -- virtually the only kind licensed to practice in those days. Dr. Lawrence Kubie convinced Williams that his homosexuality was a disease that needed curing, and tried to "cure" it. Williams had the sense to quit seeing Kubie, but homophobic self-hated would haunt his characters for decades. Williams spiralled further downward after the catastrophically young death, from cancer, of his longtime lover Frank Merlo. Williams "seethes with something like self-hatred," a Time magazine reported in 1962.

The plays that followed these events are disappointing, somewhat disingenuous, and increasingly unbelievable, from Suddenly Last Summer, in which the homosexual tourist gets his alleged just deserts by becoming dessert for a crowd of malnourished third-world street children, to the 1972 comparative critical triumph Small Craft Warnings, which is now being revived at the WorkShop Theater by White Horse Theatre Company. Billed as the best of Williams's "later" plays, is it actually a good play?

That depends on what you mean by "good." Psychologically realistic it is not. The most obvious autobiographical figure, jaded, lonely, and intellectually overqualified gay screenplay-doctor Quentin personifies every stereotypical defect that the psychologists of Williams's day ascribed to aging gay men. He even compares gay sex to an addictive intravenous drug, and claims to seek sex only with straight hookers. When his latest underage (of course) pickup not only confesses to reciprocating his desire but also refuses payment, Quentin flees.

Then there are the women. Williams's women come in three varieties, which sometimes overlap: the hysterical, domineering, and ultimately powerless wingnut, based on his mother; the helpless, hapless, witless basket case, based on his mentally unsound and ultimately lobotomized sister Rose; and the various unbelievable women who stand in for gay men, including, sometimes, as autobiographical figures. The two women in Small Craft Warnings fit the pattern. Obese, overbearing beautician Leona is a mean drunk who keeps a cynical, crude gigolo in her trailer home and mourns morbidly and with entirely too much erotic interest for her "faggot" (Williams's word) brother, who died of what she claims was "pernicious anemia," which, in her delusional protestations, made him gay by decreasing his virility with his red blood cells. (Remember the obnoxious sister-in-law of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof who is always bragging about her "red-blooded" Neanderthal sons?)

Far more monstrous in her pit-bullishness and hypocrisy than Lucrezia Borgia and Sarah Palin combined, Leona is not a real woman: she isn't human enough. Leona's sometime surrogate daughter-figure, sometime sexual rival Violet is the Rose Williams type, a skinny, filthy, battered and homeless prostitute who spends most of the play crying in the toilet. The most interesting character of the bunch, de-licensed, negligently murderous obstetrician and abortionist Doc, is merely a one-dimensional shadow of a character from Williams's lost better phase: the destructive yet insightful defrocked priest T. Lawrence Shannon in The Night of the Iguana.

These people are an unconvincing cross-section of human society, but they're a pretty good weather map of the storms that, by 1972, were raging at gale force in Williams's mind, and, to some extent, in his often hateful society. If we see this distorted cast of characters as as a Cubist portrayal of Williams at his nadir, writing from the wrongnesses he imbibed from the lips of docs who should never have been licensed in the first place, they reveal something truthful, and horrific. The play is over two hours long, however, and the point is made by the end of Act One.

The characters, damned to their drinking and other destructive behaviours, cannot, for the most part, change, grow, or learn. Occasionally, a moment of sublimity happens when Leona plays a recording of Tschaikovsky's "Souvenir Melancolique" on the juke box: it was her brother's song, she recalls. Leona talks over the recording, and Williams's language dances with the music. The cast try to animate these thinly sketched people, but except for Linda S. Nelson, whose Leona is a masterpiece of stormy charisma, it's a Sisyphean task.

The title refers to a weather report: the storm-stirred seas off the California coast will be dangerous for small boats. Each of the people propping up the play's bar is a small craft, defined by their lonesomeness and vulnerability, but also their beauty. Every person, Williams was able to recognize, even through the haze of fear, bereavement, homophobic brainwashing, professional disappointment, and alcohol, is a "craft," invested with the beauty of Tschaikovsky's wordless "souvenir" ("memory.") Unfortunately, all these people are also clearly "crafted" in the obviousness -- unintentional on the author's part, apparently -- of their artificiality.

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