Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
Article abstract: Williams’ plays, to a large extent drawn from his own experiences, brought new realism and compelling originality to the American theater.
Tennessee Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams on Palm Sunday, 1911, the second child of Cornelius Coffin Williams and Edwina Dakin Williams. Columbus, the eastern Mississippi town in which he was born, was still small and quite rural in the early years of the twentieth century. Social attitudes of the Old South and feelings engendered by the Civil War remained strong, and Williams grew up hearing stories about his father’s volunteer service in the Spanish-American War, as well as stories about his mother’s numerous beaux, the forty-five “gentlemen callers” who had courted her in the years before her marriage.
His parents’ marriage was never a happy one, though social custom precluded divorce. After only two years together and before the birth of their first child, Rose, in November, 1909, Williams’ mother left Gulfport, Mississippi, where the couple had lived since their marriage, and returned to her father’s Columbus rectory. Though the elder Williams visited regularly and though a third child, Walter Dakin Williams, would be born in 1919, Williams came to feel a special affection for his grandparents, the Reverend Mr. Walter Dakin and Rose Otte Dakin. Indeed, Williams came to dread his father’s visits. He seemed overcritical, insensitive, and rough-hewn to the boy, and these tensions would increase as Williams grew older.
When the elder Williams obtained a managerial position with the Friedman-Shelby branch of the International Shoe Company in the summer of 1918, he was able to convince his wife to join him in St. Louis, Missouri. Williams’ mother left her parents’ home—at this time in Clarksdale, Mississippi—with reluctance. She feared a recurrence of her husband’s drinking, gambling, and womanizing, which had separated them nine years earlier, but she was expecting the birth of their child and had hopes for a more normal life.
Her worst fears were justified in every sense. Thomas, though only nine, came to detest St. Louis. His Mississippi accent was ridiculed by boys his own age, and he and his sister often absented themselves from school. He read several of Charles Dickens’ works, the Waverly novels of Sir Walter Scott, and selections from the plays of William Shakespeare until he could return home. Meanwhile, his mother also waited, often for long hours in the dark, for her husband’s vices continued and worsened in the St. Louis years.
Williams found outlets for this family tension in occasional visits to “Grand,” as he called his grandmother, in Clarksdale, and in the writing of poems and short stories. Several of these were published while he was still in junior high school from 1923 to 1926. The 1925 yearbook of Ben Blewett Junior High School contained “Demon Smoke,” his essay on the factories of St. Louis. He continued to write after he transferred to Soldan High School, and his review of the silent film Stella Dallas (1925) was the talk of his English class.
Though he read and wrote insatiably, Williams was never a successful student, and his poor academic performance, right through his college years, was a never-ending cause of friction in relations with his father. His grades at the University of Missouri grew worse each term, and his consistently poor, and ultimately failing, grades in the required Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) courses there particularly mortified his father, for whom military life and masculinity were synonymous. After a devastating spring term in 1932, Williams’ father insisted that his son take some job, but the Depression, then at its worst, precluded this, and it was not until June, 1934, that Williams spent a brief time—until April, 1935—at the International Shoe Company, his father’s employer. Thus, Williams passed at least two years out of school and unemployed, though this frustrating period of his early life would in time be exorcised in The Glass Menagerie (1944), the most autobiographical of all of his plays.
In September, 1935, Williams returned to school as a nonmatriculated student at Washington University, St. Louis. He continued to write, mostly short stories and poetry, but it was not until he was accepted at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, in the fall of 1937—when he met E. C. Mabie and E. P. Conkle, who taught drama there—that Williams realized where his special talents lay. Williams’ first play, Spring Storm (1938), though given a cool reception in Mabie’s drama production class, nevertheless inspired him to write others, and Not About Nightingales (1939), a play about prison life, received Mabie’s praise. It was during his student years at Iowa that Williams would acquire his lifelong habit of reusing titles and revising plays completely, even after performance or publication.
Williams had just arrived for the fall term at Iowa when he learned of his sister’s deteriorating mental state and of his mother’s decision to allow a leucotomy, or prefrontal lobotomy, to be performed on her. This procedure was experimental and at the time was considered the only way of rendering violently schizophrenic patients harmless to themselves. Williams never forgave either his mother for allowing the operation or himself for not having prevented it. Rose imagery would pervade his works—The Rose Tattoo (1951); the “blue roses” of The Glass Menagerie; Aunt Rose of The Unsatisfactory Supper (1948); roses “of yesterday, of death, and of time” in The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore (1963), Camino Real (1953), The Last of My Solid Gold Watches (1943), and Something Unspoken (1958); wild roses in The Case of the Crushed Petunias (1948); roses of Picardy in Moony’s Kid Don’t Cry (1941); the mystic rose of Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws (1981); the smell of roses in The Mutilated (1966); wild roses in Will Mr. Merriwhether Return from Memphis? (wr. 1969, pr. 1979); crushed roses in Suddenly Last Summer (1958), the play which deals most explicitly with Rose’s operation—and Williams...
(The entire section is 2610 words.)
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Several other plays that are important to the Williams canon include Camino Real (1953), The Rose Tattoo (1951), Orpheus Descending (1957), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), and The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore (1963). Williams’s stylistic distinction consists of his theatrically poetic language. His main thematic concerns are his sympathetic portraits of women (sometimes his alter egos), his creation of what Ruby Cohn calls “garrulous grotesques,” who have left indelible impressions on the American consciousness, his rebellion against the repressiveness of puritanical attitudes, and his use of Darwinism’s “nature red in tooth and claw” as a metaphor for the cruelty of...
(The entire section is 103 words.)
Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Descended on his mother’s side from a southern minister and on his father’s from Tennessee politicians, Thomas Lanier (Tennessee) Williams moved with his family from Mississippi to St. Louis shortly after World War I. He attended the University of Missouri and Washington University, finally graduating from the University of Iowa. After odd jobs in the warehouse of a shoe factory, ushering at a movie house, and even a stint screenwriting in Hollywood, he turned full-time writer in the early 1940’s, encouraged by grants from the Group Theatre and Rockefeller Foundation. Despite purchasing a home in Key West, Florida, in 1950, Williams spent most of the remainder of his life living for short periods in a variety of locales in...
(The entire section is 178 words.)
Biography (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Tennessee Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams in 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi, the son of Cornelius Coffin Williams and Edwina Dakin Williams. He lived his early years in the home of his grandparents, for whom he felt great affection. His grandfather was a minister, and Williams’s father was a traveling salesperson, apparently at home infrequently. In about 1919, his father accepted a nontraveling position at his firm’s headquarters in St. Louis. The move from a more or less traditional southern environment to a very different metropolitan world was extremely painful both for Williams and for his older sister, neither of whom ever really recovered from it.
The Glass Menagerie is clearly a play about...
(The entire section is 410 words.)
Born in the Deep South, Tennessee Williams and his sister Rose suffered the first of many psychological traumas when their father took a job in St. Louis and moved them and their mother from a small Southern town to the city. Williams wrote his first work as a teenager, publishing a story in Weird Magazine while still in high school. After college, he returned to the South and spent much of the rest of his life in New Orleans and Key West. He always wrote five to eight hours a day, seven days a week, and produced more than seventy plays, two novels, three collections of short stories, two books of poetry, and numerous essays.
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Biography (Censorship (Ready Reference series))
Although Williams has been widely acknowledged as one of the leading modern American playwrights, his work has often been criticized for its violence and an obsession with sexuality. A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), for example, was a Broadway hit. It helped launch Williams’ creative writing career when it won the Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. However, it was criticized for being uncouth and overly violent. Williams publicly responded to such criticism by arguing that it was all right for a play to be violent and full of motion, so long as it has the “special kind of repose” that allows contemplation and produces a climate “in which tragic importance is a...
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Tennessee Williams is considered one of the greatest American playwrights, ranking alongside Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller. He was born Thomas Lanier Williams, the son of Cornelius Coffin Williams, a traveling salesman, and Edwina Dakin Williams, a minister’s daughter. Williams, his mother, and his older sister, Rose, lived with Williams’s maternal grandparents until his father was transferred to his firm’s main office in St. Louis in 1918. The move was shattering to both Williams and his sister, and it was almost certainly at least partially responsible for Williams’s emotional instability and for his sister’s retreat from reality—which resulted in a prefrontal lobotomy and institutionalization. The Glass...
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Tennessee Williams (born Thomas Lanier Williams on March 26, 1911) was the second child of a genteel southern belle and a traveling salesman who came from a long line of frontiersmen and glib politicians. Sickly and weakened by a life-threatening bout with diphtheria, the quiet child preferred books to sports, earning him the scornful nickname "Miss Nancy" from his robust father. Williams spent his early childhood in Tennessee in the rectory of his maternal grandfather, an Episcopal minister, mostly in the company of his older sister Rose and his domineering mother, Edwina. The conflict between his puritan maternal family and the cavalier sensuality of his father's side of the family warred within him for the rest of his life. This duality fueled his art with tension and plagued his life with bouts of mental breakdowns, addictions, and depression.
Williams's art reflected the emotional currents of his life: guilt over the deterioration of his schizophrenic sister Rose (who underwent one of the first prefrontal lobotomies to be performed in the United States), the masking of his own homosexuality (which he did not reveal publicly until 1970), and his addictions to alcohol and sleeping pills. In his plays, themes of cannibalism, rape, mutilation, sexual frustration, and twisted love disrupt the complacent southern decorum his troubled characters struggle to maintain.
Williams published his first short story at age seventeen and established himself as a cornerstone of Southern Gothic drama in his early thirties with The Glass Menagerie (1944), a nearly autobiographical version of Rose's stunted social comiing out. For the next forty years he would produce a new play every two years, with his most acclaimed works appearing in the early half of this period. A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) both won Pulitzer Prizes. In his heyday. Williams was the enfant terrible of contemporary theater; a gifted provocateur who delighted in shocking and titillating his audiences. Ill-health compounded by his addictions led to a complete mental and physical collapse in 1969, and his work, ever more lascivious, never recovered the vitality of his early plays. He died in 1983, eight years after the publication of his Memoirs, in which he revealed the intimate and sometimes sordid details of his tortured personal life.
Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Thomas Lanier Williams, known as Tom during his boyhood and later as Tennessee, was born in his maternal grandparents’ home, an Episcopalian rectory in Columbus, Mississippi, on March 26, 1911, to Edwina Dakin and Cornelius Coffin Williams. His mother came from a prominent old Mississippi family and his father from an equally prominent old Tennessee family with a proud military and patriotic background. Williams was immediately thrust into a conflict between the genteel Puritanism of his mother and the cavalier lifestyle of his father.
From his father’s origins, he was given his nickname, and he chose to use...
(The entire section is 1129 words.)
IntroductionThe South looms large in the work of Tennessee Williams. Soaked in heat, sexuality, and liquor, his plays are populated by desperate, fragile belles (A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie) and brooding, conflicted, often alcoholic men (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Night of the Iguana). Like many playwrights, his later work was largely rebuffed, but many of his plays from the 1940s and 1950s are considered seminal. Streetcar remains of particular importance because of the intersection of Williams, actor Marlon Brando (whose performance in it was iconic and launched his career), and director Elia Kazan, who brought some of Williams’ best works to both stage and screen.
- Williams’ mentally ill sister, Rose, was lobotomized and provided the inspiration for tragic characters in Suddenly, Last Summer and The Glass Menagerie. His domineering, unstable mother was the basis for Amanda Wingfield in Menagerie and Blanche DuBois in Streetcar.
- His real name is Thomas Lanier Williams. His friends gave him the nickname “Tennessee” because of his thick Southern drawl.
- Williams caused controversy with his screenplay for Baby Doll, a Lolita-esque drama about a middle-aged man’s obsession with a teenage girl.
- One of his most famous plays, A Streetcar Named Desire was originally titled The Poker Night.
- Williams succumbed to the addictions he so often portrayed in his plays. Alcohol and prescription drugs contributed to his death by choking in 1983.