"The Angels of Fructification": Tennessee Williams, Tony Kushner, and Images of Homosexuality on the American Stage

Article excerpt

Who, if I were to cry out, would hear me among the angelic orders?(1)

--Rainer Maria Rilke

Still obscured by glistening exhaltations, the angels of fructification had now begun to meet the tumescent phallus of the sun. Vastly the wheels of the earth sang Allelulia! And the seven foaming oceans bellowed Oh!(2)

--Tennessee Williams

For centuries, angels have been symbols of spiritual significance. Residing in a realm somewhere between the deity and his creations, they watch over humanity as unspeakably beautiful harbingers of hope and of death. Such rich and profoundly unsettling icons are central to Tennessee Williams's poem "The Angels of Fructification," in which his angels provide a vision of homosexual eroticism comparatively rare in his dramas. Williams was the theatre's angel of sexuality--the dramatist most responsible for forcefully introducing sexual issues, both gay and straight, to the American stage. The fruit of his labor is particularly evident in the subsequent generations of playwrights who present gay characters and situations with increasing frankness, depth, and lyricism. Such works bloom most particularly after the 1960s, and most richly in Tony Kushner's epic Angels in America, which has been described by critics as one of the most important American plays of the past fifty years.(3)

There are significant parallels to be found in Kushner's two Angels in America plays, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, and the dramas of Williams. Both playwrights feature classically inspired epic passions; both depict dark and poetic images of the wondrous and horrifying aspects of existence; both create a kind of stage language that is at once naturalistic and lyrical; both ponder the distance between illusion and reality; both explore the nature of spirituality from a grounding in modern thought; and both deal centrally and compassionately with complex issues of sexuality from a gay sensibility. Although Alfred Kazin has written of homosexuality that "`The love that dare not speak its name' (in the nineteenth century) cannot, in the twentieth, shut up,"(4) the emergence of Williams, and those dramatists like Kushner following in his footsteps, says much on a subject about which the stage has been silent for too long.

In reflecting on the history of homosexuals in American theatre, Kushner believes that "there's a natural proclivity for gay people--who historically have often spent their lives hiding--to feel an affinity for the extended make-believe and donning of roles that is part of theater. It's reverberant with some of the central facts of our lives."(5) It is not surprising that, in a society in which homosexuals were firmly closeted before the 1960s, the illusions of the stage provided a safe haven. Williams could not be as open about his sexuality in his era as Kushner can be now, and thus had to work with overtly heterosexual situations and characters. Williams's creative achievements grow out of a guarded self-awareness and desire for self-preservation, as well as the constraints of the prevailing values of his day.

Donald Windham believes that Williams "loved being homosexual. I think he loved it more than he loved anybody, more than he loved anything except writing,"(6) and Edward A. Sklepowich seems to agree when he writes that "Williams treats homosexuality with a reverence that at times approaches chauvinism."(7) In fact, Williams was often ambivalent about homosexuality--either his own or anyone else's--in his writings. Although his sexuality was well known in the theatrical community, it is unclear when Williams first "came out" publicly. His 1970 appearance on David Frost's television program seems the earliest public declaration. When Frost asked him to comment on his sexuality, Williams replied, "I don't want to be involved in some sort of a scandal, but I've covered the waterfront."(8) He also told Frost that "everybody has some elements of homosexuality in him, even the most heterosexual of us" (p. …