Tennessee Williams

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At a Glance

In Tennessee Williams's work, the South looms large. 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 performances in the play and the film were iconic and launched his career), and director Elia Kazan, who brought some of Williams’s best works to both stage and screen.

Facts and Trivia

  • Williams’s 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.

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Biography

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Williams’ plays, to a large extent drawn from his own experiences, brought new realism and compelling originality to the American theater.

Early Life

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,...

(The entire section is 5,553 words.)