It is one of the incomparable blessings of the modern gay liberation movement, leading up to and following the Stonewall riots moment in 1969, that it both enabled and compelled two of the greatest literary geniuses of our or any age, the close friends Tennessee Williams and Christopher Isherwood, to reveal to the whole world the fundamental role of their homosexuality in the inspiration and content of their work.
Both had become great heroes by virtue of their efforts – Isherwood with his compelling chronicles of the rise of Hitler and fascism in Germany in the early 1930s and Williams with his incomparably sensitive and bravely frank windows into the brutality of our culture – without explicit references to their same-sex erotic attractions.
Going into the 1970s, no one not privy to their intimate circles knew. But with Williams’ “Memoirs” (1972) and Isherwood’s “Christopher and His Kind” (1975), this changed. By infusing their work with the rich details of their gay lives through these and other works, these two literary giants made a compelling case, strongly implied, that they didn’t achieve their provocative triumphs in spite of being gay, but due to it.
While some romanticize being gay prior to Stonewall, apart from very privileged and rarefied circumstances, it was not a pretty existence, at all. Two of the only films made on the subject, the German-made “Different From the Others” (1920), remade in 1927 as “Laws of Love,” and the British-made “Victim” (1960), both centered on the themes of homophobic violence, legal repression (Germany’s infamous Paragraph 175), blackmail, self-loathing and suicide.
Even as late as 1968, the Broadway play and film, “Boys in the Band,” while having its tender moments, underscored the self-hatred internalized by so many gays up to that point, even those able to live out their lives in large urban centers where they could be at least partially open and enjoy the company of others like themselves.
Tennessee Williams was limited in his plays to discrete references of off-stage gay tragedies, such as in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947) where his character Blanche tells of having married “a boy who wrote poetry” and “thought him almost too fine to be human,” but then found out, “this beautiful and talented young man was a degenerate.” She confronted him cruelly, and he committed suicide.
Then, 25 years later in his “Small Craft Warnings” (1972), Williams again portrayed an off-stage sensitive and talented youth who suffered the same fate, although in this play, there were also explicit homosexual references and characters. It is likely that Williams had in mind in these references the sensitive young gay American poet whose work he so admired who had committed suicide in 1932, Hart Crane.
Williams’ “Small Craft Warnings” was a companion piece to his “Memoirs.” In the latter he makes references to it being written while “Small Craft Warnings” was initially performed in New York. Written amidst the gay liberation explosion going on, the play struck a cautionary tone embedded in its title that I will have more to say about later.
Prior to 1975, while Isherwood alluded to gay figures in his “Goodbye to Berlin” and other works, it was never in connection with either himself as the presumptive narrator, or his main characters.
In “Christopher and His Kind,” he went back to diaries and letters in the late 1920s and 1930s to show how he had cloaked his gay relationships in his works from that period. Isherwood was, among other things, able to enlighten us with the amazing continuity that ran from E.M. Forster (1879-1970), author of “Maurice” (written in 1913 but not published until after Stonewall in 1971) and his friend, a pioneering theorist of the unique role of gay sensibility in culture, Edward Carpenter (1844-1929), through him, his associations and to the present, his still-active long-time companion, Don Bachardy.
In it, Isherwood wrote of his efforts to compose a novel about Berlin in 1932 he called “The Lost,” the title operating on three levels: the first, he wrote, being “those who have lost their own way, that mass of Germans who were now being herded blindly into the future by their Nazi shepherds.” Second were “the doomed,” those “already marked down as Hitler’s victims,” and, third were “those whom respectable society regards as moral outcasts.”
He cited an entry from his diary then: “The link which binds all the chief characters together is that in some way or other, each one of them is conscious of the mental, economic, and ideological bankruptcy of the world in which they live. And all this must echo and re-echo the refrain: It can’t go on like this. I’m the lost, we’re the Lost.”
It was eventually published as “The Last of Mr. Norris” (1935).
Presented was a perspective that a gay genius could by far embody best.
To be continued.