Will Davis 

How many literary heroines are gay men in disguise?

In more repressive times, many writers have concealed gay characters by switching genders. But which ones?
  
  

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Bearded lady? Jessica Lange as Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

There has been a spate of Tennessee Williams revivals in London over the last few months: right now The Glass Menagerie is showing at the Apollo as are a trio of early plays including And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens at Trafalgar Studios.

The playwright refused to sanction productions of the latter during his lifetime because - it is widely assumed - of its explicitly gay subject matter. But one wonders whether his engagement with gay themes ended there. I found myself musing over the numerous frantic female characters in his work. Much has been made of how many of these women are representations of family and friends, but I wondered about how they also embody his own situation as a homosexual man in none-too-gay-friendly mid century America. In a sense then, are they literary beards? - homosexual characters incarnated as women because homosexuality was too taboo, or else too personal, for Williams to make it his primary subject matter?

Bar Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Williams' most successful plays revolve around desperate women, either ageing or deranged, or both, facing outsider status in the world. Think of the affected behaviour of Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, or of fading movie star Princess in Sweet Bird of Youth (and also Karen in Williams' novel The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone). These women are losing their youth and facing the possibility of being rendered undesirable.

Think of Alma's hopeless worship of John in Summer and Smoke, or of crippled Laura in The Glass Menagerie, a recluse who dares not speak her love's name. There are outright references to homosexuality in some of these plays, but as though it was a tortured current running beneath surface: for Blanche, and also for Susan in Suddenly Last Summer, it lies at the heart of their respective traumas.

It is interesting to contrast Williams with other successful gay writers of his epoch who were more direct in their approach. Because of The City and the Pillar, which tells the story of a young homosexual discovering the gay underground, Gore Vidal is considered one of the pioneers of gay literature. Christopher Isherwood is another seminal presence in the canon, his books unapologetically inhabited by gay as well as straight characters. The first novel of the ostentatiously gay Truman Capote, Other Voices, Other Rooms, remains his frankest, starkly addressing the tragedy of an aging lovelorn homosexual.

I began to wonder about other well known authors who may have felt unable to write openly on a subject so close to their own experience. Isn't ardent activist Olive's passionate backing of Verena in Henry James' The Bostonians merely a guise for her sexual love? Couldn't there be something in the fact that Adela Quested in EM Forster's A Passage to India finds herself a baffled outsider in both Indian and English culture, much as a homosexual Forster might have felt in stiff heterosexual Britain?

Of course not every great character can be a cipher for a raving homo, but it is fun to conjecture. I remember getting excited once researching an essay when I discovered that The Little Mermaid is thought to be based on Hans Christian Anderson's own unrequited love for Edvard Collin. If you look at the tale in this light - and why not? - numerous details stand out: a tongue cut out so she cannot speak of her love, a gliding gait yet the sensation of walking on blades, and then there is the obvious outsider status of a fishtail disguised as a regular old pair of legs...

We will never know for sure the extent to which characters are symbols of gay suffering: one of the major points of a beard is that it covers the face underneath. And would characters be the same if we did? Still, I'd be very interested to hear other suggestions for literary beards.

 

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