Silent Partners:

Lost Lovers in American Drama


by Nancy Plooster
University of California Santa Barbara

copyright: © all rights reserved 1995
I am in the habit of writing the paper and then checking to see if it matches the proposal that I submitted months earlier. Normally, I am not terrifically consistent. But in this case I was surprised how well the topic "Queer Frontiers" lends itself to the subject of my paper, which is the mourning process as it applies to homosexual relationships in Tennessee Williams. In the two plays I will discuss here, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams presents relationships between homosexual men as relationships among the dead and dying, effectively moving homosexuality from the closet and into the coffin. Men who love on the margins, in silenced or closeted spaces, occupy a dangerous frontier made fatal by internalized homophobia. This frontier is a marginal space, but for my purposes it is also a transitional space. This is a paper about the frontier between having and loosing, between gain and loss. Mourning occupies just such a transitional place, the last outpost before heading into territory that is "without".

Mourning is a process that demands conflicting responses of the mourner. We look for sorrow in the individual experiencing loss, but at the same time we are disdainful of a sorrow that exceeds the boundaries which contain it. The "work of mourning" then, as Freud describes it, is much more complicated than disentangling the self from desires, memories or expectations involving the lost person. Rather, it is also a public demonstration of particular mourning behaviors that serve to re stabilize the community after loss has taken place. Drama lends itself particularly well to a discussion of mourning because it locates on the literal stage precisely what troubles us in the emotional and social forums. In Williams, the mourning process assumes a far more complicated purpose. These two plays assume that homosexual desire must be sanitized for presentation to an audience. To accomplish this, one partner is inevitably killed off so that the relationship will remain unconsummated. As a result, mourning functions as the only expression remaining for homosexual desire.

Williams' 1947 play (and surely the title is ironic) A Streetcar Named Desire demonstrates this sanitization or erasure of homosexual relationships. Well before the play begins, Blanche DuBois' young husband, Allan Gray, kills himself after he is discovered with an old friend in an undisclosed, (we must assume) compromising position. Blanche stresses that she discovers her husband's sexual identity, "In the worst of all possible ways. By coming suddenly into a room I thought was empty-- which wasn't empty, but had two people in it... the boy I had married and the older man who had been his friend for years..." (95). Suddenly, her speech is cut short by the sound of a conspicuously Freudian locomotive.

Several things become clear in Blanche's description. First, Blanche emphasizes the trauma of this discovery. Visual confirmation of homosexuality is constructed as not just harmful to her marriage but as the worst of all possible knowledges. Second, she infantalizes her husband, referring to him as "the boy" as she does consistently throughout the play. It appears that she is unable to conceive of consentual intercourse among homosexual adults. Furthermore, Blanche never refers to her husband by his name, as though she is attempting to erase his identity except as it existed in relation to their marriage. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, she assumes the room she enters is empty. She assumes not simply that her husband is not in the closet, but that no one is.

Blanche's response to her husband's unceremonious coming out is conflicted. Initially, she chooses to "pretend that nothing had been discovered" (96). Denial is easier than confrontation, and more comfortable for her because her own status wife remains unthreatened. When she finally decides to respond, she is hostile and disapproving. She announces to her husband on the dance floor, "I saw. I know. You disgust me..."(96). Immediately, Allan leaves the room and shoots himself. Guilt becomes a factor in Blanche's response to death.

In particular, however, it is Blanche's complete denial of homosexual desire that impedes her response to the work of mourning. She can not face the sexual identity of her husband, much less his death, and the two have become inextricably linked. Although Blanche identifies with the role of mourner, she tells us that she has not been well-trained in the traditions of mourning. In fact, it is not an accident that Blanche equates death with denial. She explains that she and her mother shared a relationship based on a stringent denial of death: "I used to sit here and she used to sit there and death was as close as you are... We didn't dare admit we had ever heard of it" (120). Furthermore, Blanche is in the habit of describing rituals of death as rituals that glamorize an ugly reality. She observes, "Funerals are pretty compared with deaths" (27) and "...funerals are quiet, with pretty flowers... Unless you were there at the bed when they cried out, 'Hold me!' you'd never suspect there was the struggle for breath and bleeding" (27). While she argues elsewhere that death is "the opposite is desire" (119), the breathlessness and blood in the bedroom is a sexualized representation of death. Blanche equates death with sexual activity and mourning with sexual identity.

Accordingly, in this text, mourning is closeted along with the sexual identity of Allan Gray. Just as she resents her husband for closeting his identity, Blanche resents ritual surrounding mourning because in her opinion it makes events appear other than they are. The text fails to remove mourning for the gay husband from the closet. The very fact of his death incapacitates Blanche who complains, "The boy-- the boy died. I'm afraid I'm going to be sick" (31). As always, it is his absence and his death that define Allan. He is relegated to the ghost status that Ellis Hanson observes in his comment that "notions of death have been at the heart of nearly every historical construction of same-sex desire" (Hanson 324). When the vendor offers Blanche "Flores! Flores. Flores para los muertos" (119) she is afraid, afraid to recognize death and afraid to mourn it properly. As a result, she performs mourning as silence.

Williams' 1955 play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which celebrated the fortieth anniversary of its premiere this year, is less thoroughly "oblique," as Williams liked to put it, in its discussion of homosexual desire. In fact, this play provides a heritage of gay men who have lived on the estate Big Daddy is about to leave behind. The original owners of this enormous piece of land were a gay couple, Jack Straw and Peter Ochello, who lived in the very room now occupied by Brick and Maggie. Williams insists in the his notes to the set designer that "the room must evoke some ghosts; it is gently and poetically haunted by a relationship that must have involved some tenderness which was uncommon" (15). The text limits this positive characterization of the couple to these stage directions, which remain unheard by the audience, and to Big Daddy's defense of the couple, which remains unheard by his son Brick. This silence and this silenced discourse about the now dead gay couple provide the model for the rest of the play.

The benevolent haunting of this home by Straw and Ochello provides a neat contrast to the haunting presence of Skipper, who, not unlike Allan Gray kills himself after coming out and being rejected. Skipper's feelings for Brick and Brick's refusal to acknowledge them comprise the foundation for this play. And just as Blanche's failure to mourn properly the death of her husband impedes on her life and her ability to face a material reality, so too does Brick's failure to mourn Skipper properly contribute to his gradual decline. Brick's crisis reaches turning point when Big Daddy demands to know why his son has become an alcoholic. Gradually, Big Daddy encourages Brick to confesses that he "left out a long distance call which I had From Skipper...In which he had a drunken confession to me and on which I hung up!... Last time we spoke to each other in our lives" (126). Brick's parting with Skipper is marked by silence and eventually death. Big Daddy astutely diagnoses Brick's obsession with dishonesty as a variety of self-hatred. He remarks, "This disgust with mendacity is disgust with yourself. You!-- dug the grave of your friend and kicked him in it!-- before you'd face the truth with him!" (127). Skipper's death is portrayed as a conscious decision on the part of both Skipper and Brick. Rather than "face the truth", they loose each other.

Brick, angry at being forced to face Skipper's death and his contribution to that loss, strikes out by revealing to Big Daddy that he too must face loss and mortality. He tells Big Daddy that the rest of his family plans to deceive him about the test results which reveal that he has terminal, intestinal cancer. In the context of Big Daddy's revelation that he "knocked around in [his] time" (117), his illness may be read as yet another case of William's killing-off a gay or potentially gay character as retribution for a sexual identity constructed as a contagion by the dominant narrative producing this text. As David Saran notes, "structurally Big Daddy functions as the carrier of homosexuality..." (Saran 64). His death indicates the play's rejection of his affiliation with homosexuality, targeting him as a site of contagion and illness. Most importantly, however, it will silence him in a most permanent way, and it is the frankness and the open-mindedness of Big Daddy that frightens Brick the most. As he puts it, "Big Daddy, you shock me, Big Daddy, you, you-- shock me Talkin' so-- casually!-- about a thing like that..." (121).

Despite Maggie's remorseful contention that, "It was a love that could never be carried through to anything satisfying or even talked about plainly" (58), this is a play with no qualms about facing and naming homosexual desire. (Unfortunately the names it chooses to use are not always civil: "dirty old men", "A couple of... Fuckin' sissies", "Queers" (120).) In the most telling scene in this play Big Daddy confronts Brick about this very issue. Brick asks, "You think me an' Skipper did, did, did!-- sodomy!-- together?" (119). Brick's concern with Big Daddy, and the rest of his family, is that his relationship with Skipper will be inaccurately characterized. He warns against "naming it dirty" (59). His fear of the physical act of love is compounded by his pride in the deep affection he and Skipper shared. It is his main concern that the loss he has sustained be preserved as an honorable pure relationship. Maggie asserts that it was this very purity that helped kill Skipper: "you two had something that had to be kept on ice, yes, incorruptible-- yes! and death was the only icebox where you could keep it!" (59). Ultimately, the two men who dare to name this love, Big Daddy and Skipper, and the two men who dared to live it, Straw and Ochello, and removed from the play entirely.

Brick has no idea how best to mourn his loss, and it is easy to see where that might come from an inability to adequately name or characterize the relationship. Like Blanche's, his experience of death is fraught with denial and guilt. And also like Blanche he fears the mourning process will force him to confront the relationship he has denied. He warns Maggie as she tries to encourage his mourning response, "What you're doing is a dangerous thing to do. You're -- you're-- you're foolin' with something that nobody ought to fool with" (56). Although the play weakly gestures toward recuperation, as when Maggie suggests that "life has got to be allowed to continue even after the dream of life is-- all-- over" (58), it does not provide a viable model for mourning.

Both Streetcar and Cat focus on the gradual self-destruction of characters failing to mourn their losses rather than the mourning process intended to ease the transition into the frontier beyond loss. The characters demonstrate fear at the prospect of beginning the work of mourning. As a result, the plays provide no guidance for the mourner; rather, they tell us what not to do. Denial does not become a viable option for mourning the loss of the dead, but no other option is provided. By default then, denial and a closeting of the mourning process itself constitutes these plays' understanding of loss.

I want to conclude with a brief speculation about how this tradition of denial in the mourning of gay characters on stage impacts on the AIDS dramas of the 1980s and 1990s. (I hope that you will forgive this leap across the time-space continuum.) AIDS drama requires of mourning multiple functions: while it functions to relieve the bereaved of sorrow and anxiety, often it also serves the dual pedagogical function of conquering the prejudices produced by the plague and confirming the more reasonable fears of loss and mortality. Mourning for gay men who die of the disease is, of course, complicated by the pervasive homophobia which always/already targets the gay community as a site of danger and disorder. As Jeff Nunokawa observes:

The variegated regime of heterosexism not only inhibits the work of acknowledging the loss of a gay man, it also enacts the incessant reproduction of this labor by casting his death as his definition (Nunokawa 312).
Nunokawa studies the tendency for American culture to regard homosexuality as a state of doom and he urges us to confront and discredit representation of Persons With AIDS as victims of their sexual orientation as well as the disease. Drama addressing the AIDS crisis challenges this notion of the gay man as a toxic body, a contagion, or the vehicle of death itself while at the same time dealing with the death or the immanent death of the character.

For example, Larry Kramer's Normal Heart (1985) actually paints names, facts and figures on the set walls in an effort to acknowledge losses and encourage political action. William Hoffman's As Is (1985) makes an effort to teach its audience what will or will not transmit HIV. We are told by a hot line worker "Our motto is on me not in me" (42). Hoffman's play also presents models of caretaking that promote healthy approaches to loss and grief through his character Saul. Terrence McNally's Andre's Mother (1988) contrasts a mother who refuses to accept the loss of her son or his homosexual identity with more productive approaches to loss. And the list goes on...

These are plays among a large body of work that encourage mourning behaviors that educate and draw attention to the treatment of the Person With AIDS by the community and the government. Mourning is an activity fraught with etiquette and subtle social demands. AIDS drama encourages people not just to remain contributing members of the community during their time of loss, but also to be critical members of the community who perform the work to mourn publicly for the benefit of a public hesitant to remove loss and mourning form the closet.

Bibliography

Copyright (c) 1995 by Nancy Plooster. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.


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