The cover image of Jacqueline O’Connor’s latest book, Law and Sexuality in Tennessee Williams’s America (2016), comes from Sidney Lumet’s 1960 film The Fugitive Kind (itself based off of Williams’s own 1957 play, Orpheus Descending). One member of the photo is Marlon Brando as Valentine ‘Snakeskin’ Xavier cooly wearing his signature snakeskin leather jacket, one hand partially in his pocket, the other resting on his thigh. This latter fist is not quite clenched, displaying both anger and calmness, evoking a strange tension between poise and frustration. His usual suave attitude is tempered by this suggestion of unease–of insecurity–as he seems to be grappling with whether to perform as the angry outsider or the calm, respectable everyman. To be *a part of society* or not to be.
I recently learned that this character served as the inspiration for Sailor Ripley (played by Nicolas Cage) in one of my favorite films (a film that gets its title from a line in another of Williams’s plays): David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990). It makes sense since Sailor and Lula (Laura Dern) follow in a line of classic “fugitives” from such films as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Badlands (1973). These are characters–all repressed in some way–who attempt to carve out a space for themselves in a society that prefers to place them in neat boxes of identity, simultaneously freezing them in economic depressions, resulting in criminal activity and escalating violence (the most horrific example of this being Mickey and Mallory Knox’s murderous rampage in Oliver Stone’s 1994 film Natural Born Killers). Sailor Ripley expresses this resistance, this attempt to maintain a sense of self unburdened by society’s demands, when he defends his “look” to a punk in a nightclub: “This is a snakeskin jacket! And for me it’s a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom!” (Directly after this, he breaks out singing Elvis Presley’s “Love Me,” stealing the show from the thrash-metal band in a weird temporal mesh of varying rebels and subcultures.)
Val Xavier predates these characters as the drifter desperately seeking a home–a normal, financially stable life off the streets–while also resisting conformist culture. He decides he wants to give up his bohemian lifestyle shared by Carol Cutrere (Joanne Woodward), who admiringly describes him as a “wild” man. Xavier begins to crave stability–belonging–and seeks that through a relationship with yet another “outsider” to the community, an already-married Italian woman named Lady Torrance (Anna Magnani). She is able to offer him some semblance of normalcy and financial gain with a regular job at her general store. Xavier describes his predicament of desperately wanting to belong yet also aching to maintain a sense of individuality as follows:
“There’s only two kinds of people in the world: the buyers and the ones that get bought. No. There’s another kind. It’s a kind that don’t belong no place at all. There’s a kind of bird that don’t have any legs so it can’t land on nothin’, so it’s gotta spend its whole life in the air. I saw one once. It died and fell to earth. And it’s body was a light blue color. And it was just as tiny as your little finger…and that’s why the hawks don’t eat them. Because they don’t see them. They don’t see them way up in the high blue sky, in the sun.”
This thought leads to a rather tragic predicament. The options: to remain invisible like these birds, hiding on the fringes of society, constantly moving so as not to be revealed or, alternatively, to become trapped in one community, endlessly scrutinized and judged, forced to be one thing or the other, the freedom to be oneself devoured by convention.
Law and Sexuality in Tennessee Williams’s America delves into these issues through a legal lens. It examines the laws (including major Supreme Court rulings) related to and restricting certain sexual behaviors and identities at the time in which Williams was writing. Using his own letters, memoirs, and notebooks, O’Connor uncovers what Williams personally knew about the law—specifically as it relates to matters of sexuality throughout the twentieth century–to analyze his literature. She selects specific plays and short stories, demonstrating how they can be read as subversive commentary on the inequalities and prejudices that existed in the United States. Though a meticulously researched, scholarly book where one can gain a solid understanding of the law and its impact on people living under (and around) its authority, O’Connor always circles back to the most human of issues: the difficulty to be oneself, to express oneself, and to love (both oneself and others) when that very self is considered “illegal.”
The book has been highly impactful to me as some of its most powerful arguments continue to linger in my mind. For instance, months after reading the book I listened to the song “Streetcars” by Sinead O’Connor (who shares the surname of my interviewee, weirdly enough) and found myself weaving the lyrics back to specific sections in Jacqueline O’Connor’s analysis and a variety of other fictional texts. In it she sings, “When I was married, I asked my husband to lay his body over me. And to tell me just how safe he’d keep me. And I will, I must and so I will, dwell beneath the desert still. For there’s no safety to be acquired, riding streetcars named desire.” Not only does this reference the title of one of Tennessee Williams’s most famous plays, but the song resounds with the kind of naked vulnerability that comes with love: the longing for intimacy and human connection mixed with the fear of exposing the deepest parts of yourself to someone that can hurt you. Love is all about giving up power, allowing oneself to take a risk. Williams’s plays often investigate the beautifully twisted world of the lover.
I had the rewarding opportunity to interview Jacqueline O’Connor about her book. (Spoiler: we learn that before entering academia, she was a bit of a drifter herself as both a taxi driver and truck driver!) We discussed many of the aforementioned topics, along with her writing/research process, the city of New Orleans, and a pinch of Shirley Jackson for good measure…
Melissa Webb: I want to start at the very beginning of your thought process for this book, looking at what first inspired you to investigate Williams’s work through the lens of legal history in the United States throughout the better part of the twentieth century. You start the book with an Acknowledgements section in which you note that your participation in a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute back in 2009 was of great import to your consideration of Tennessee Williams and the law. Talk a little about your experience here and what the topic of the institute was. How did you come to be a participant at the event? Does your academic background include legal studies, along with the literary, or was this relatively new terrain?
Jacqueline O’Connor: A five-week residency as a member of the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on “The Rule of Law: Legal Studies and Liberal Arts” provided me an immersive study experience of legal scholarship and its interdisciplinary connections to literature, history, philosophy, and other disciplines. I was working on a book, Documentary Trial Plays in Contemporary American Theater, which was published by Southern Illinois University Press is 2013. The documentary performance texts I chose to analyze all present theatrical versions of real-life trials, with scripts that include courtroom transcripts, interviews, and other documents. This “verbatim theater” is often staged so as to draw attention to the construction of documents as a process of selection, thereby emphasizing the idea that conflicting narratives about actual events, when put in dialogue with each other, can reproduce the real while challenging our capacity to access or determine truth. My research on documentary theater had settled on a subset of plays composed and produced on U.S. stages in the last thirty years of the twentieth century. Because these texts all featured high-profile trials or legislative hearings, the development of my argument necessitated expertise in legal studies, and I had begun reading scholarship that specifically put legal texts in conversation with humanities concepts and methods. The call for applications to the NEH Summer Institute coincided with my need for in-depth and directed study with a group of peers, some of them already working in legal studies and some of them, like me, seeking out this field to enhance our research and teaching. These institutes are designed to offer just this kind and variety of scholarly support.
Our group’s members represented a diversity of academic fields, from political science to religious studies. We took over a dorm on the campus of the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine. We ate meals together in the dining hall, walked the beach late at night, and read for the next day’s class in the common room. Discussing law with the other participants and in the company of esteemed visiting faculty who generously shared their time and expertise with us was a career-altering experience for me. I arrived as a literary scholar with a specific need to explore the links between law and theater, and returned home with a capacity for interdisciplinary scholarship and pedagogy that has since informed my career, from course plans to administrative work: I was awarded an Enduring Questions grant from the NEH to teach a general education course on “What is Justice?,” and I serve currently as the co-director of the Boise State Arts and Humanities Institute.
MW: I’m quite interested in the process you used when researching and writing the book. You must have had to comb through hundreds of documents (in addition to the plays and short stories, you examine Williams’s memoirs and letters along with Supreme Court decisions, various laws during specific years in specific states, history regarding the political and social climate throughout Williams’s life, news reports of specific instances of violence and confrontations with the police, etc.). I’d imagine this was a daunting task! How did you begin to sort through all this and to come up with a succinct overall thesis (and main points for each chapter)? Why did you decide to organize the book as you did? Did the book undergo multiple revisions in terms of organization or did the information logically lead you to this order of the four chapters?
JOC: Your questions about my research of pertinent materials and the writing process are excellent. To answer simply, the decisions about and the revisions of the book’s organization were both daunting and very exciting, and the materials were, as your question indicates, an embarrassment of riches. I began with several open-ended research questions: what did Williams know about the law? How did this knowledge influence his work, and how did his incorporation of legal themes and situations affect cultural attitudes about diverse sexualities? Although I did not begin to work on the book until two years after the NEH institute, a movie screening of A Streetcar Named Desire for our group that summer prompted the question. I volunteered to introduce the film that evening, and I pointed the group to Stanley Kowalski’s invocation of the the Napoleonic code as he understands it. Stanley seeks to assert his dominance over first his wife and then his educated sister-in-law in this scene, although his miscalculations about the value of the contents in Blanche’s trunk make him look foolish. But the reference to the Napoleonic code indicates Williams’s awareness that Louisiana has a unique legal structure, based on French law rather than English. It occurred to me that I might find other such evidence of his knowledge of the law, and I could begin by examining his frequent use of the criminal charge he called “lewd vagrancy.” As I reread his texts looking for legal language, the possibility of a book project quickly emerged. Frequent references to specific laws, the criminal histories of many of his characters, and the threats of arrests as dramatic plot points filled his imaginative texts, and the “illegal bodies” he created in his drama and prose were almost always accused or guilty of sexual transgressions.
I had been writing about Williams and teaching his texts for more than twenty years, so familiarity with his canon helped me to select representative primary texts for this study. Indeed, as I began the work I was once more grateful to Professor Ruby Cohn, at the University of California at Davis, for agreeing to direct my dissertation only if I chose a single author on which to focus. Williams was the perfect choice for a graduate school culminating activity, considering my interests in dramatic representations of madness on the American stage. That project, Madness in the Plays of Tennessee Williams, became my first book, and the research included my first of several visits to the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, which houses the largest collection of Williams’s manuscripts and other materials. When I returned to Williams for this new project on law, I was familiar with the bulk of his published and unpublished texts.
My decision to focus on the laws pertaining to sexuality and to privacy during Williams’s life, 1911-1983, helped me to limit the types of laws governing sexuality and the most pertinent court cases of the twentieth century. It was my great fortune to discover legal scholar William N. Eskridge Jr.’s 2008 book, Dishonorable Passions: Sodomy Laws in America, 1861-2003. This thorough history documented and analyzed by an expert in statutory interpretation guided me in the identification of laws and cases within a context of significant social, cultural, and political movements and influences. As the best comprehensive studies do, it also pointed me to other relevant scholarship.
Your questions about organization and my process of revision are linked in significant ways to your next question about William’s personal writings, so I will say more about both below.
MW: A lot of your arguments are heavily informed by Williams’s personal writings (his memoirs, letters, notebooks). It is these types of works that provide direct evidence of his knowledge of the law, his tangible experiences with it. Would this study be possible without these first-person accounts? How might it change? Do you think it would be a considerably different book if you were only able to do close-readings of the plays and short stories alongside the historical and legal research?
JOC: By pointing to the evidence my book uses to establish Williams’s knowledge of law, you have honed in on one of the most significant and challenging periods of my revision process. As I prepared the final version of the manuscript, with the contract signed and a delivery date set, a new series editor joined the press. This editor read only my book proposal before posing the question: would the book provide evidence that Williams did have personal knowledge and experience with the law? The manuscript used his letters and journals to provide evidence of his knowledge, and so the short answer to the question was yes. However, as I looked back at my chapter order, I realized that not until chapter two, which was a biography chapter, did I delve into his first-person writings, but even there I dealt rather obliquely with his personal knowledge and experience of the law. I remembered that one of the readers had suggested but not insisted that I switch the first two chapters to begin with the biography chapter and gear it more directly to Williams’s knowledge of the law. These recommendations, considered together, convinced me to make a late stage structural revision, which in turn prompted panic about the effect on my revision schedule.
So yes, the personal documents were necessary to write this particular book about Williams and the law, for after completing this final revision the connection between his life and the law was more explicit. To some extent I had been relying on a more common analytic strategy of contextualizing the stories and plays with the personal documents, and then using the stories and plays to argue for the law’s influence on them and to hypothesize their influence on the law. What I hope the final version demonstrates is that his identity and his life contributed very specifically to his imaginative texts when it came to representations of diverse sexuality. This approach to Williams is not a new one, but it had not been previously examined at length as a legal matter.
Moreover, the letters and journal entries he wrote each evening after working all day are themselves a regular part of his revision process, and my argument underscores that part of his craft. Finally, you see in them his ongoing negotiation of self, particularly his sexual self, and he uses his personal documents to explore and refine his attitudes about privacy, which leads to your next question.
MW: A couple of years ago I wrote a paper for an Anglo-Saxon literature class. One of my central claims was that the poet Cynewulf granted his female protagonist, the saint Juliana, power in her role as “confessor.” By making a demon confess his sins to her she, in effect, tortures him. Elaine Scarry actually argues that there is a “connection between two dreaded forms of exposure, open wounds and confession.” In addition, Juliana’s quest to uncover the demon’s secrets links it directly to practices of torture described by Jody Enders in her book, The Medieval Theater of Cruelty: Rhetoric, Memory, Violence. Enders’ study points out that the ancient Greek term for torture, basanos, describes a physical test whereby one rubs coins against a stone to see “the truth about its metallic content.” This idea can be applied to the way Juliana metaphorically scrapes the demon’s exterior to violently examine his insides.
This was a long introduction to get to my question, but I wanted to explain my specific interest in the ideas you bring up in the book related to interrogation, exposure, and vulnerability. Chapter One of your book, “Privacy and Identity,” zeroes in on A Streetcar Named Desire to explore these issues. You cite the example of how Stanley interrogates Blanche throughout her visit, even questioning her very identity when she first arrives in New Orleans. Talk a little about Williams’s exploration of the potential violence of interrogation and the potential threats or danger that may arise from such exposure. How, at the same time, does he express a desire for intimacy and closeness? You argue that romantic and sexual relationships force us to open up to one another in a way that necessitates vulnerability. How can exposure–or open wounds–be a source of both pleasure and pain? How are these conflicting attitudes balanced in Williams’s fictional works and his personal life?
JOC: If I had to select one scene from a Tennessee Williams play that best conveys the complicated nature of intimate human relationships, it would be Scene Two from Streetcar, the trunk scene I examine in the book, which, as far as legal themes go, contains two interrogations, multiple charges, a search without warrant, an examination of evidence, and several confessions. As Stanley questions wife Stella and then sister-in-law Blanche about the ownership status of the DuBois plantation, he uses the contents of the latter’s trunk to raise suspicions about her choices. Blanche’s persona in this scene shifts from playful and then fierce to vulnerable and then business-like; as the play progresses, her fear of exposure becomes more pronounced, and she disappears into lies and fantasies as Stanley’s investigation closes in. But in this early scene she is in full possession of herself as a woman who has suffered betrayal and survived, albeit with painful memories and wounds. We see her willingness to expose herself when Stanley pulls the packet of letters from the bottom of the trunk that contains everything she owns, as she puts it. At first she is horrified that he has grabbed the one material thing that most define her, the packet of poems her dead husband wrote. But in a rare open moment she acknowledges their significance to her. After apologizing for the vehemence of her reaction, she explains that the letters are the physical remnant of a defining relationship, the “open wound” of her brief marriage, whose end was as if “a searchlight which had been turned on the world was turned off again and never for one moment since has there been any light that’s stronger than this—kitchen—candle.”
Williams’s use of searchlight and candle here, with its striking opposition of light sources, points to both the interrogation and the brilliance of personal exposure to another person and then to the soft invisibility of candlelight, when hiding becomes both necessity and loss. In the book I explore the duality of privacy as a personal and as a legal term within the context of Williams’s life and work, for the law’s definition of privacy developed throughout the history of American life to include the “right to be left alone.” This definition supports individual freedom even as it underscores that the right may leave us longing for human connection. This ongoing tension, that few of us ever resolve completely, drove Williams to and from relationships and residences, as he strove to balance a need for companionship with the desire to attain and maintain an authentic and private self.
MW: This question is directly related to the above (still thinking about Juliana and her demon), specifically looking at the ways in which the role of confessor grants power. Clare A. Lees argues that “reading” another’s thoughts–which one can do audibly by listening or literally through reading private documents–is empowering because it is a masculine act. Men (i.e. straight, white men of a certain socioeconomic class) are almost always in the role of the reader: “studying women has seemed like a ‘normal’ act of penetration; the reverse is not normal,” Lees writes. The part in your book related to this notion of “reading” another human being that struck me the most is when Stanley is going through Blanche’s letters in A Streetcar Named Desire and she wants to burn them once he touches them. She exclaims, “Everyone has something too intimate to be touched!” These letters are confessions, of sorts, of her inner life and of her past. You talk a lot about Williams’s letters, as well, and how they are a constant negotiation of what to reveal and what to keep hidden. What is the significance of the written word in expressing the self to others? In writing, is there always a careful construction of the self or, though one chooses what to include, can it contain unfiltered secrets about our natures? How do Williams’s letters, throughout the course of his life, change in terms of how much they reveal about his identity? How do his fictional works mirror this?
JOC: You mention the trunk scene in your question here, and so my discussion about that scene above seems to lead right into the matter of Williams’s letters. Great follow-up, thank you! I’ll begin with a few remarks about the author’s archives, which, as I indicated above, were a key part of my research process. Williams provided scholars, theatre practitioners, and the general public a treasure trove of documents from his life and work, not only because he kept everything while he was alive, but because he granted access to these materials before and after his death. The University of Texas archive has been very proactive about seeking out and procuring letters that Williams sent to his many friends and collaborators. New Directions Publishing and the University of the South hold copyrights on the majority of Williams’s texts, and over the years since he died in 1983, these entities have worked with archives and with scholars in the editing and publication of previously unpublished materials. Since 2000, his journals and two volumes of selected letters have appeared in print.
I begin with that information because I think it frames the issue of Williams’s attitudes about privacy: he composed many personal documents, some of them very confessional. He saved them, including letters he wrote but never posted, and he arranged for them to be preserved. Those facts alone put him into a category of public figures willing to expose private concerns, moments of insecurity, evening ruminations. He made, in my opinion, an important and admirable choice to share himself this way with subsequent generations.
However, while he was alive his attitudes about the privacy of and in his personal documents were complicated. He was very aware of the presence of audience, and letters and journal entries all written about a single day, when compared, may feature additions or omissions that convey a variety of personas and different degrees of discretion about details. When writing to his closest friends, he often resorted to hilarious double entendre narratives that convey his awareness of the open closet he occupied when it came to his sexuality. However, he sought specifically to hide his homosexual identity from his family and specifically his mother, at least in print. In a letter to his companion Pancho Rodriguez y Gonzalez in 1946, while staying at his parents’ home, Williams reminds Pancho that Mrs. Williams listens on the extension telephone line and he instructs Pancho on what details to include in a letter and what to omit. In the early 1960s, he expresses alarm about biographers who want to quote intimate details from his letters and journals, although he acknowledges that after his death such documents should be made public because of their value as an emotional record. So in terms of your question of the “unfiltered secrets of our natures” and whether Williams’s approach to that question changed over time, my perspective would be that on the one hand he recognized the long-term value of his revelations, but his personal documents reveal an ongoing and sometimes daily negotiation of his identity within and across his various communities.
MW: Next, I wanted to talk about the idea of the house, because the structure itself plays such an important part in the American Gothic literary tradition. I’m thinking specifically here of Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962). These are both works from the post-WWII era that demonstrate that certain type of paranoia, distrust, and heightened need for conformity that you discuss in your book. In Jackson’s novel, we see a family ostracized by the community, specifically because the villagers see the Blackwood estate as somewhat inconveniently occupied by women-who-don’t-quite-fit, one of whom they suspect is a murderess. The climax of the book happens when the villagers actually destroy the house, leaving Constance and Merricat vulnerable and forced to flee to the woods before returning to live in a house literally open and unprotected (the windows are broken, the roof is gone). In Other Voices, Other Rooms, cousin Randolph–a queer figure, living a type of double-life as both man and woman–is isolated in a decaying mansion, surveying the land from a window in the safety of a second-story room. Randolph is unable to be a true part of conventional society, banished to a ghostlike existence. Talk about the ways in which Williams utilizes this motif of the house (especially in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and how it speaks to ideas of security/privacy offered by a certain socioeconomic status, safety–and danger–and how this is all related to specific attitudes of the Cold War era. In other words, what makes the house so central to this period of American literary history?
JOC: Another terrific question that I have been thinking about for a long time in my approach to Williams, but also, more recently, believe it or not, in the very texts you mention by Capote and Jackson. Last year I taught a graduate course on “Tennessee Williams and his Contemporaries,” and I included Capote and Other Voice, Other Rooms. It was the first time I had ever put Williams and Capote in conversation with each other, and I learned a lot about both writers. As it happened, one of the students in that class asked me to serve as a member of her thesis committee; she wrote about haunted houses, women, and plants, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle was one of her primary texts. These teaching experiences enabled me to think more about the Gothic literary tradition but also about the role that the house, and particularly the ways that mid-century family homes dominate cultural representations of modern life.
Modern American drama is, arguably, family drama, and so my interest in the house emerges from theatrical representations of the family’s physical center. That said, my study of mid-century drama has included essays about alternate residences that imitate or deviate from traditional family structures, such as mental asylums and boarding houses. The latter are quite significant in Williams’s work, for they were common during his young adulthood and he lived in a number of them during the 1930s and the early 1940s, notably in New Orleans. Those decades were marked by waves of economic displacement during the Great Depression and then troop mobility during the war years, and so it is not surprising that postwar realities and representations of family life sought to reestablish the home place as central to stability and success. Millions of young adult Americans took up residency in newly built homes designed for the nuclear family. But in the older Southern Gothic tradition which remains a powerful influence in literature and, as you suggest, often resists and embraces attitudes about conformity, the home has a multi-generational component. The Southern Gothic home, specifically, also often evokes the antebellum period and, often obliquely, the horrors of slavery.
In Williams’s texts, homes often evoke history, economics, and patterns of social change, and his characters reflect a range of relationships to their spaces. The plantation in Cat is a valuable asset and a point of contention among his potential heirs, for Big Daddy is the Mississippi Delta’s biggest cotton planter, and his home sits on “twenty-eight thousand acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile.” I’d venture rare the existence in representation of a thriving plantation in 1955, let alone one inherited from two men who slept together in the bed that sits onstage throughout the play. The DuBois family house Belle Reve is a more typical example of the plantation home, haunted by the ghosts of the relatives who Blanche cared for when the “Grim Reaper had put up his tent” on the doorstep, and shrunk in acreage, Blanche reports, as, “piece by piece, our improvident grandfathers and father and uncles and brothers exchanged the land for their epic fornications.” On the other hand, other kinds of “epic fornications” are expanding the Kowalski family, placing Stanley and Stella at the forefront of the postwar baby boom. In The Two-Character Play, a late work that I think of as a kind of sequel to The Glass Menagerie, brother Felice and sister Clare are locked in an empty theatre waiting for a crew and an audience who never arrive: the duo stave off cold and madness by performing a play within an autobiographical play (featuring another Felice and Clare) set in the family home haunted by the murder-suicide of their parents. The last play produced during his lifetime was The House Not Meant to Stand, a dark, expressionistic comedy that Williams called “a Southern gothic spook sonata.”
Just these few examples indicate both a range of family home representations and the inclusion of the themes you mention in your question. Privacy is a major theme in Cat, for the extended family has gathered for Big Daddy’s birthday and eavesdropping prevails. The “beautiful dream” of Belle Reve is a nightmare of death and debt, one among many neglected and dilapidated homesteads strewed across Williams’s canon. His memory plays question the home’s physical existence, and the various residential apartments and hotels that he imagines for characters over many decades signal spaces of transience that may indicate upward mobility or a downward spiral. Williams’s own life was spent largely on the run, for although success allowed him to purchase homes in New Orleans and Key West, he never stayed put for long in any one space. A single manuscript draft of The Two-Character Play was typed on stationery from hotels in New York, San Francisco, and Tokyo.
MW: Now I’d like to move from the idea of the house to a bigger location: the city of New Orleans. It’s a popular setting for fictional works of all types. I remember going on a Literary Tour in New Orleans in the summer of 2016, in which the tour guide pointed out that New Orleans is unique in the South for its embrace of unconventional forms of behavior, its advocation for the sensuality of the body in life and art. This because the settlers of New Orleans were not the English Puritans of the Northeast. Instead, New Orleans contains strong French and Haitian influences. I’d never thought about this before, as in my mind New Orleans was just a mystically strange jewel despite being situated so close to the Bible-Belt depicted so horrifyingly in the works of Flannery O’Connor (her characters torn and tortured by their faith in a judgmental Christian God–or lack thereof–and the need to conform). What is the appeal or intrigue of New Orleans for writers? How does it contribute to conveying certain themes or atmosphere? Also, talk about Williams’s transient lifestyle–his movement to different parts of the United States–and how these locations impacted his work and his acceptance of his own sexuality. I think it’s fascinating that Flannery O’Connor argues that conformist culture breeds monsters while Williams, brought up in this culture, is able to free himself and write works where characters express genuine sympathy and understanding through powerful lines like this: “Nothing human disgusts me unless it is unkind or violent.”
JOC: This question is a great follow-up to the previous one about home in American life and in Williams’s life. He traveled to New Orleans for the first time in December of 1938, and he wrote the following in his journal on his arrival day: “I’ve been here about 3 hours but have already wandered about the Vieux Carré and noted many exciting possibilities. Here surely is the place that I was made for if any place on this funny old world.” Certainly the city’s diversity of lifestyle and its capacity for supporting creative possibilities have attracted many writers, drawn as they were to the unique colonial origins alongside but apparently free from Puritan influence. Williams was certainly attracted to the bohemian elements he identified in the same journal entry, and he quickly found an amenable environment for exploring his sexuality. Yet his attraction to the freedom of choice that thrilled him also presented a compelling tension with his Episcopalian heritage, which Williams called ‘Southern Puritanism” and which scholar Nancy Tischler referenced in her title of her first book about his work, Tennessee Williams: Rebellious Puritan. He made much of that dichotomy.
Perhaps the geographic proximity that links the Bible Belt to the French Quarter is as much a mapping of Williams’s heart as it is a mapping of the American South. Speaking of mapping, I taught a project course in the spring semester of 2015 called “Mapping the Writer’s Life: Tennessee Williams.” It was the product of my ongoing obsession with his transience, which I have always considered one of his most significant life patterns: always on the run. I relate to the impulse a great deal, and I spent the bulk of my working life prior to academia as a truck driver and a taxicab driver. In this course, my students and I spent the semester creating an interactive Google Earth map that displayed, visually, Williams’s movement back and forth the United States during a ten-year span, from 1938-1948. I chose these years because they bookmark the period from when he left home for that first fateful visit to New Orleans to the first production of A Streetcar Named Desire, when his career as a major playwright was solidified. An alternate name for this project could have been “Becoming Tennessee Williams,” for the places and the people he encountered during this decade determined the rest of his life in significant ways.
Why did Williams run, and continue running for the rest of his life, albeit with more money and other means? If I am to provide one answer, it’s that he seemed to fear confinement above all else, and he associated that fear with the mental illness from which his sister Rose suffered. Involuntary confinement is a theme throughout his work, and his “prayer for the wild at heart kept in cages,” a line from his early play Stairs to the Roof, epitomizes and expands upon his notion of the world’s capacity for sealing up the human psyche. From a much more positive perspective, his travels, as you suggest, allowed him a great capacity for the exercise of personal freedom, and significantly, his extended periods spent in New Orleans, Key West, and Provincetown, Massachusetts indicate that he sought out environments and communities that tolerated and even celebrated open expression of diverse sexualities.
MW: To close the discussion: tell us about your current research, any upcoming projects, etc. Do you foresee writing another book (or maybe some articles) on the ways in which the law informs the fictional worlds of other authors? It certainly seems like a rich topic for continued exploration.
JOC: I mentioned above that my dissertation director insisted that my culminating activity for graduate study should be an in-depth study of a single author, and it was good advice. But the project as I had originally conceived it was much broader, for I wanted to examine American plays about mental illness throughout the twentieth century. I did the right thing then, taking Ruby’s advice, but I’ve never forgotten that other project. I have now turned my attention to a book project tentatively titled “Mental Illness Made Visible.” It seeks to answer the questions, what is the relationship between the stigma and shame of mental illness and the persistent representations of mental illness in film, theater, and photography? Why is mental illness a secret in real life and so very visible in image-based portrayals?
Law may not be a central focus, but the topic of mental illness and treatment covers legal grounds that are both personal and social: privacy and security, and their absence in the face of socioeconomic hardship or discrimination; the rights that individuals have to resist confinement; the freedom or lack thereof for the pursuit of non-normative lives.
The topic of mental illness and its representations is one that I have been grappling with my entire life, for my mother and my older sister spent time in state mental institutions, and the trauma of the family history has informed my personal and professional paths.On the one hand my life as an academic has helped me to intellectualize some of the experiences I faced as a child; on the other hand, I have reached a point in my life when I am no longer ashamed of the past.
I hope that this next project helps me to share some of my story as well as the insights I have gained, in a career focused on representation, about the paradox of invisibility and visibility that limits our progress as a society in understanding and caring for the mentally ill.