Biography of Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams is considered one of the greatest American playwrights of the 20th century. A master tragedian with a strong sense of the poeticism of the Southern Gothic, Williams' work has been widely performed on stage for decades and many of his plays were turned into critically acclaimed films. His plays include A Streetcar Named Desire (for which he received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama), The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, and The Night of the Iguana.

Williams was born in 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi. His birth name was Thomas Lanier Williams, and he described his childhood as happy until the family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, at which point his parents' marriage began to fall apart. It was at this time that he began writing, a hobby that would turn into a vocation, stalled at various points by Williams' disapproving father. When his father brought Tennessee home to work as a sales clerk, pulling him out of journalism school, the young writer suffered a nervous breakdown.

After recovery, Williams eventually returned to college at the University of Iowa, before moving to New Orleans, where he was inspired to begin writing plays. He wrote for the Works Progress Administration, a federally funded New Deal agency established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His first play, Battle of Angels, was a flop, but he followed up with Orpheus Descending, which was turned into a film starring Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani. In 1945, his play The Glass Menagerie premiered on Broadway and catapulted Williams to fame. In 1947, A Streetcar Named Desire premiered, and it earned Williams a Pulitzer Prize and was turned into a successful film.

Once he had established himself as a notable dramatic talent, Williams wrote more hit plays, including Camino Real, Sweet Bird of Youth, Orpheus Descending, The Rose Tattoo, Garden District, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In the 1960s, Williams faced some professional and artistic failures, and he descended into dependency on drugs and alcohol. When his partner, Frank Merlo, died in 1963, his depression and substance abuse became worse. His plays throughout the 1960s and 70s include Kingdom of Earth, In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, Small Craft Warnings, The Two Character Play, The Red Devil Battery Sign, Vieux Carré, Clothes for a Summer Hotel, and A House Not Meant to Stand.

Williams died in 1983 at the age of 71 at the Hotel Elysée in New York, after choking to death on a bottle cap he was using to ingest barbiturates. In his will, he wrote, "I wish to be buried at sea at as close a possible point as the American poet Hart Crane died by choice in the sea; this would be ascrnatible [sic], this geographic point, by the various books (biographical) upon his life and death. I wish to be sewn up in a canvas sack and dropped overboard, as stated above, as close as possible to where Hart Crane was given by himself to the great mother of life which is the sea: the Caribbean, specifically, if that fits the geography of his death. Otherwise—whereever fits it [sic]."

Study Guides on Works by Tennessee Williams

Suddenly, Last Summer is a one-act play by Tennessee Williams structured in four scenes. The short drama tends to run around an hour in production and is thematically representative of the bulk of work which makes up this section of Williams’...

In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education declared racial segregation in American schools to be unlawful. Five years later, Tennessee Williams published Sweet Bird of Youth against a backdrop of political change; segregationist Jim Crow laws were...