I grew up enthralled by Tennessee Williams. My sister and I used to torment our Southern-belle mother by mocking her with lines from The Glass Menagerie; she was as imperious and ill-adapted to modern life as Amanda Wingfield, the mother in the play. Then, as a young gay man coming of age in the repressed 1950s, I picked up all the exciting signals Williams was sending: that men could be sex symbols and sex objects (Chance Wayne, the hustler in Sweet Bird of Youth); that the only sin was deliberate cruelty (Night of the Iguana); and that the only thing an old maid needs in order to find happiness is to get laid (Summer and Smoke). These were messages I took to my impressionable heart during the Eisenhower era.
So last spring, when I took part in the 13th-annual Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, it was a kind of homecoming. The festival means, as things always do in New Orleans, lots of parties, many well-turned phrases and spicy, sumptuous food. Food? Yes, because many of the leading restaurants in the French Quarter and the Garden District cook up special menus inspired by dialogue and scenes from Tennessee Williams's plays and even by his life.
The festival, held at the end of March, is a friendly gathering that attracts more and more people every year, from academics who teach the history of American theater to young and old fans of the plays and stories. Participants have included Rex Reed (who knew Williams) and Kim Hunter (who originated the role of Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire). Tennessee's brother Dakin, the only surviving member of his immediate family, is a constant presence, genial in a raspberry-colored designer jacket. If you let him collar you, he'll tell you his hair-raising theory that Tennessee's death was caused not by a swallowed bottle cap but by a dark plot. The festival's events run from seminars on obscure aspects of the playwright's genius to fully staged productions of his plays.