THEATRE / Tennessee Williams and his women

'THERE IS no actress on earth who will not testify that Williams created the best women characters in the modern theatre,' wrote Gore Vidal after Tennessee Williams' death in 1983. He also said: 'It is widely believed that since Tennessee Williams liked to have sex with men (true), he hated women (untrue); as a result his women characters are thought to be malicious creatures, designed to subvert and destroy godly straightness.' With the opening tomorrow of Sweet Bird of Youth opens at the National, the debate will no doubt reopen.

The critical assault on Williams began in the Sixties. Howard Taubman, drama critic of the New York Times, fired the first cannon, accusing Williams of portraying women as destroyers and sex maniacs. They were, said Taubman, homosexuals in disguise. Six years later the paper's new critic Stanley Kauffman was still castigating Williams' 'viciousness towards women, the lurid violence . . . (and) the transvestite sexual exhibitionism'.

Yet actresses have leapt to play his roles. With their huge emotional range and their emphasis on disguise and exposure, they present unique opportunities. Williams' women, more than those of any other 20th-century dramatist, only truly exist in performance. That they are merely feminised men has been disproved time and again. Unlike critics, actresses are never surprised by his admission that 'I have had many close relationships with men which were without any sexual connotations, God knows. But I have found them less deeply satisfying than those I have had with a few women.' Here, four actresses tell David Benedict the inside story.

LOIS WEAVER

I've always been a little in love with Tennessee Williams. We were both Southern Belles, we both had the same training about what it means to be feminine, and shared a fading, overly romantic view of the South. After he died, I felt I had to keep his memory alive and I drank Jack Daniels every day. This might be prejudice, but I see a passion and heat in him that I don't see in other writers. People like Albee are too Northern and sophisticated. Williams' plays are brutal but there's beauty within them which will make them survive. The plays are smelly and of the South. There's a sense of decay about them, from which this flowery poetry springs forth.

Williams understood women. He empathised. He had a feminine nature. He understood loss and longing and displacement in a society that had no regard for women. He identified as a gay man, it was part of his vision.

The situations of the women were devastating. They were the fighters. It's the men who are static and objectified. His women struggled within themselves and the circumstances around them.

I remember reading Summer and Smoke and recognising the sense of missing out, the longing. Finding out about my own desire. It crops up all the time in his work. The conflict between body and soul. I also like the short plays. The women in them are incredibly idiosyncratic.

Although they are often brutalised by the situation, I think of the women as the cats, the fighters. Stella loves sex and she loves it with Stanley. That means she has to put up with a lot. That doesn't make her a victim, it's something she wanted. It's so rare to see plays where women express their desires. It doesn't matter whether they are fulfilled or frustrated, it's never invisible. Their desire drives them. That was really shocking. Women who wanted sex and had their own desires.

Lois Weaver directed and played Stella in 'Belle Reprieve', a radical re-working of 'A Streetcar Named Desire' which toured Britain and the USA

SHEILA GISH

I played Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire for about seven months. That was quite long enough. When you're not on in that play, you're off singing in the bathroom] His roles are physically and emotionally wrecking.

He changed my acting. It freed me. Before that, I was a very English actor. It has informed everything else I've done. I met him when I did Vieux Carre. He was very ill and I was very young. He said, 'You must play Blanche one day,' adding, 'You must remember, Blanche is a very witty woman.' When we did it, we played the first two acts to more laughs than many a so-called comedy.

The women are survivors. If Blanche weren't a survior she would have been dead before the play began. She has come to Stella's to live, to survive. It may be the last post, but she hasn't slashed her wrists. There's received opinion that she's a nymphomaniac. Not true. That she's a prostitute. Not true. Olivier never really liked the play. He only did it because Vivien Leigh was desperate to do it. It's nonsense to suggest that his women are just gay men. Men and women are far more similar in our sexuality than we are brought up to believe.

The women's parts in his plays are the best parts. That's so unusual. We get used to it being the other way round and having to flesh roles out. Men find it rather difficult to play what are seen as subsidiary roles. John Garfield was the original casting for Stanley, but he turned it down, so then Brando took it.

I think Streetcar is his greatest play and Blanche is the single greatest part ever written for an actress. It's easy to get involved in the liquor, the sex, the lurid quality, but the thing that makes Blanche such a true heroine is her spirituality. It's what makes her tragic. Without it she'd just be tiresome. In the film, they took all of that away. So come the second half of the film, you really like Stanley a lot. You sit there thinking, 'Go on, get her out of there.'

Sheila Gish played Blanche at the Greenwich Theatre and at the Mermaid

CLARE HIGGINS

The character of the Princess in Sweet Bird of Youth is Tennessee Williams in drag. He has made her a woman, but as he said himself, 'I've made every speech that the Princess has made, and then some.' But then, I've met women who are Tennessee Williams in drag. But these characters are women.

He doesn't separate men and women in the way most playwrights do. He affords them the same respect and dignity. Normally when I'm in a play, as a woman I think I'm always in drag, wearing high heels and make-up; it's a given before I've even started. Tennessee is much more honest: there you are, it's drag. It's a survival mechanism.

What's really refreshing about his women is that they may be victims of circumstance, but they make choices. Right or wrong, doesn't matter. At the end, Princess leaves knowing exactly what will happen to Chance. She chooses stardom over humanity. Whether you agree with it or not, that's a pretty profound choice. His homosexuality makes him non-judgemental about his women. Most straight male writers adapt women to a set of circumstances, but he gives them a much broader range. Circumstance is made to bend to the women, who often make the final move.

The Princess is almost two people, the great big movie star and this person who is utterly terrified of life. He doesn't judge either of them. He's not afraid of them. Blanche and Princess are raised to cult status because they come out of a deep reality. People find that very difficult to address. Here's a homosexual man who gets into the mind of both genders so wonderfully and with no fear. He's also not afraid of sex.

With Tennessee Williams you're either on the bus or off the bus. You can't be climbing up the stairs ever so slowly. You can't be twee about acting this stuff because you're nervous about what it says to you. If you try and hide, you'll be found out.

Clare Higgins opens tomorrow in 'Sweet Bird of Youth' at the National Theatre

FRANCES BARBER

I always think this business about him having access to the feminine side of his nature 'cos he was gay is wrong. It's much too simple.

He was asked once what he regarded as the most wicked thing he'd ever done. 'That I forgot to buy my sister a birthday present one year.' I genuinely believe it, his guilt and remorse. That may be an example of his 'feminine side', and if so, maybe that's why women are so attracted to his writing. There's something elliptical and enigmatic about him. But he's much more complicated and more difficult to pin down than just saying it's to do with him being gay.

He also said, 'Nothing human disgusts me unless it's unkind, violent.' The world is unkind but his central characters are not.

Many of his women commit violence to themselves and so many actresses are excited by the possibilities of this. We tend to turn upon ourselves and implode when unhappy. Williams understood that in an uncanny way. They humiliate themselves, like Blanche in front of Stanley (in A Streetcar Named Desire), and when it all goes wrong, they take a lot of pills and sit and drink. There's a terrific sense of inevitability. It's fatalistic, but at the same time self-induced. He charts them moment by moment. You watch them drink and you're thinking, 'Don't] Don't]' They prostrate themselves on the altar of soul- searching, and you know it's all going to go horribly wrong.

A great deal of religion permeates his work. Forcefully so in Summer and Smoke. So many of his characters have such large souls. Without spirit, experience is animalistic. The world is so shitty that if you are not unkind, then inevitably you are going to go mad, like his sister Rose, or else hit the bottle. That's so enticing to act - genuine human emotions. His women continue in the face of hell. The men won't.

Frances Barber played Alma in 'Summer and Smoke' at the Leicester Haymarket and Maxine in 'Night of the Iguana' at the National Theatre

(Photograph omitted)

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