Biography of Tennessee Williams (1911-1983)
Tennessee Williams was a master playwright of the twentieth century, and his plays A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie, and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof are considered among the finest of the American stage. At their best, his twenty-five full-length plays combined lyrical intensity, haunting loneliness, and hypnotic violence. He is widely considered the greatest Southern playwright and one of the greatest playwrights in the history of American drama.
Born Thomas Lanier Williams on March 26, 1911, he suffered through a difficult and troubling childhood. His father, Cornelius Williams, was a shoe salesman and an emotionally absent parent. He became increasingly abusive as the Williams children grew older. His mother, Edwina, was the daughter of a Southern Episcopal minister and had lived the adolescence and young womanhood of a spoiled Southern belle. Williams was sickly as a child, and his mother was a loving but smothering woman. In 1918 the family moved from Mississippi to St. Louis, and the change from a small provincial town to a big city was very difficult for Williams' mother. The young Williams was also influenced by his older sister Rose's emotional and mental imbalance during their childhood.
In 1929, Williams enrolled in the University of Missouri. After two years his father withdrew him for flunking ROTC, and he took a job at his father's shoe company. He despised the job but worked at the warehouse by day and wrote late into the night. The strain was too much, and in 1935 Williams had a nervous breakdown. He recovered at his grandparents' home in Memphis, and during these years he continued to write. Amateur productions of his early plays were produced in Memphis and St. Louis.
Rose's mental health continued to deteriorate as well. During a fight between Cornelius and Edwina in 1936, Cornelius made a move towards Rose that he claimed was meant to calm her. Rose thought his overtures were sexual and suffered a terrible breakdown. Her parents had her lobotomized shortly afterward.
Williams went back to school and graduated from the University of Iowa in 1938. He then moved to New Orleans, where he began going by the name Tennessee, a nickname he'd been given in college thanks to his southern drawl. After struggling with his sexuality through his youth, he finally entered a new life as a gay man, with a new name, a new home, and a promising new career.
In the early 40s, Williams moved between several cities for different jobs and playwriting classes, also working at MGM as a scriptwriter. In 1944 came the great turning point in his career: The Glass Menagerie. First produced in Chicago to great success, the play transferred to Broadway in 1945 and won the NY Critics Circle Award.
While success freed Williams financially, it also made it difficult for him to write. He went to Mexico to work on a play originally titled The Poker Night. This play eventually became one of his masterpieces, A Streetcar Named Desire. It won Williams a second NY Critics' Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize in 1947, enabling him to travel and buy a home in Key West as an escape for both relaxation and writing. The year 1951 brought The Rose Tattoo and Williams' first Tony award, as well as the successful film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Vivian Leigh.
Around this time, Williams met Frank Merlo. The two fell in love, and the young man became Williams' romantic partner until Merlo's untimely death in 1961. He was a steadying influence on Williams, who suffered from depression and lived in fear that he, like his sister Rose, would go insane.
The following years were some of Williams' most productive. His plays were a great success in the United States and abroad, and he was able to write works that were well-received by critics and popular with audiences, including The Rose Tattoo (1950), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), Night of the Iguana (1961), and many others. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof won Williams his second Pulitzer Prize, and was his last truly great artistic and commercial success.
He gave American theatergoers unforgettable characters, an incredible vision of life in the South, and a series of powerful portraits of the human condition. He was deeply interested in something he called "poetic realism," namely the use of everyday objects which, seen repeatedly and in the right contexts, become imbued with symbolic meaning. His plays also seemed preoccupied with the extremes of human brutality and sexual behavior: madness, rape, incest, nymphomania, as well as violent and fantastic deaths. Williams himself often commented on the violence in his own work, which to him seemed part of the human condition; he was conscious, also, of the violence in his plays being expressed in a particularly American setting. As with the work of Edward Albee, critics who attacked the "excesses" of Williams' work often were making thinly veiled attacked on his sexuality. Homosexuality was not discussed openly at that time, but in Williams' plays the themes of desire and isolation reveal, among other things, the influence of having grown up gay in a homophobic world.
The sixties brought hard times for Tennessee Williams. He had become dependent on drugs, and the problem only grew worse after the death of Frank Merlo in 1961. Merlo's death from lung cancer sent Williams into a deep depression that lasted ten years. Williams was also insecure about his work, which was sometimes of inconsistent quality, and he was violently jealous of younger playwrights.
His sister Rose was in his thoughts during his later work. The later plays are not considered Williams' best, including the failed Clothes for a Summer Hotel. Overwork and drug use continued to take their toll on him, and on February 23, 1983, Williams choked to death on the lid of one of his pill bottles.
He left behind an impressive body of work, including plays that continue to be performed the world over. In his worst work, his writing is melodramatic and overwrought, but at his best Tennessee Williams is a haunting, lyrical, and powerful voice, and one of the most important forces in twentieth-century American drama.