Tennessee Williams Biography
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.
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...
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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 inThe 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 would regularly visit his sister to the last months of his life. She would survive her younger brother by two years.
It was after his graduation from Iowa in August, 1938, that Williams changed his first name to “Tennessee.” He considered his given name more appropriate for a poet (he was indeed distantly related to the poet Sidney Lanier), and he followed the lead of classmates who for some time had called him Tennessee as a nickname. Tennessee was also, however, the state in which his grandparents resided by this time, and Memphis held pleasant associations for him. In interviews, Williams sometimes quipped that his ancestors had fought Indians in Tennessee and he often found himself in a stockade fighting off his attackers.
In the autumn of 1938, Williams found his way to New Orleans, hoping to find support for his writing through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) project there; he came to love the bohemian atmosphere of the city’s French quarter. He had his first homosexual experience in New Orleans and gave free rein to the insatiable passions which increasingly governed his life. In later years, he would say that he felt as though two elements, intellectual and sensual, were constantly at war within him, and this dichotomy appears in many of his tragic protagonists. When it became clear early in 1939 that no WPA aid would be forthcoming, Williams submitted four of his one-act plays as well as his full-length works Not About Nightingales and The Fugitive Kind (1939) to the Group Theatre in New York, which was sponsoring a competition. In order to satisfy the age requirement, he gave his date of birth as March 26, 1914, thus starting a fiction concerning his age that would continue well into the 1950’s.
While awaiting a decision from the Group Theatre, Williams and a companion left New Orleans for Los Angeles with the vague idea of writing screenplays, but Molly Day Thacher of the Group Theatre soon wrote to praise the one-act works he had sent under the collective title American Blues (1948). She also enclosed a check for one hundred dollars and sent the plays to Audrey Wood, the famed theatrical agent who would work tirelessly in Williams’ behalf.
It was Wood who would bring Williams to New York, advance him money with no sure hope of repayment, oversee his personal affairs, continue to champion his works, and, in late December, 1940, bring his play Battle of Angels to its Boston premiere. Though Battle of Angels was hardly a resounding success, it brought Williams’ work to the attention of important critics who recognized the young playwright’s promise. In late March, 1957, its revision, called Orpheus Descending, would be given a Broadway production.
Williams first took the theatrical world by storm with the premiere in Chicago of his compelling “memory play” The Glass Menagerie on December 26, 1944. Though not written as autobiography, it nevertheless reflects the strains of Williams’ life in St. Louis during the Depression. Tom, the play’s narrator, is Williams’ persona; Tom presents a subjective remembrance of Amanda Wingfield (an incisively accurate portrait of Williams’ mother) and his shy, fragile sister Laura (identifiable with Williams’ sister Rose). This was a painful and difficult play for Williams to write, but it was immediately heralded as a landmark of the American theater and was quickly brought to Broadway, where it enjoyed immense success.
Other triumphs followed, each more astounding than the last for its innovative realism: A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Summer and Smoke (1947), The Rose Tattoo, Camino Real, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), Suddenly Last Summer, Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), The Night of the Iguana (1961), and The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. Not all were given enthusiastic critical reaction, and Camino Real, Williams’ foray into political drama, has never been a popular favorite; nevertheless, each reveals some distinctive aspect of Williams’ genius.
Williams was fortunate to have, from the beginning of his career, the support of both good friends and professional associates. Harold Clurman of New York’s Group Theatre; Elia Kazan, famed for his direction of A Streetcar Named Desire and other Williams plays; outstanding actors such as Marlon Brando, Laurette Taylor, and Maureen Stapleton; and selfless friends, such as his agent Audrey Wood and longtime companion Frank Merlo, helped to foster Williams’ fragile genius, bolster his always shaky self-confidence, and control his self-destructive indulgence in drugs and in promiscuous sex.
It is a tragic but undeniable fact that Williams found his work increasingly difficult and ultimately impossible as these individuals were taken from him, either by death, by other commitments, or by petty disagreements. Though Williams was fabulously wealthy at the time of his death, he died a lonely man. Found at his bedside on February 25, 1983, the morning his body was discovered, was an assortment of capsules, tablets, eye and nose drops, and the half-empty bottle of wine he had brought to his room upon retiring the evening before. The New York City medical examiner reported that a barbiturate safety cap had somehow lodged in Williams’ throat. Williams had either been unable or unwilling to call for aid.
At the peak of his career in the 1940’s and 1950’s, Williams was the image of the successful playwright: sensitive features, neat mustache, immaculately groomed in well-cut English-tailored suits and bow ties, often sporting a cigarette in an onyx holder. Significantly, later pictures often show him in white or light-tan suiting, Panama hat, and a full beard or goatee added to a fuller mustache. He appears heavier in the latest of these, and in retrospect, considering what is now known about the unhappiness of his final years, his lighteartedness seems forced. It is the paradox of Williams’ art that he drew his greatest triumphs from his deepest pain.
Williams, a true poet of the American theater, was noted for the tension of his brilliant dialogue. His characters, like their creator, have strong passions and overwhelming frustrations. Mythic interplay of Apollonian intellect and Dionysian passion often shares the stage with Southern settings and characterizations; Williams looks beyond genteel stereotypes, however, to reveal disturbed and frequently brutal people.
Apparent outward control but inner turmoil characterized Williams’ life and was the basis for the most striking characterizations of his plays. He aspired to the ascetic while being simultaneously drawn to the sensual. For him, it was a mystical coupling, one which he often explored in his works. Alma Weinmiller and John Buchanan in Summer and Smoke, Sebastian Venable in Suddenly Last Summer, Val Xavier in Orpheus Descending all illustrate Williams’ own duality, and each is a projection of the playwright’s complex personality. Certainly, it is true that no playwright ever searched more deeply than Williams into family history and personal background. In one sense, this explains the increasingly abstract nature of his plays, for symbol eventually came to overwhelm plot. His constant revisions of already published material, including works which enjoyed popular success, represented an attempt to reclaim elements of his life from the public domain, to reconstitute them in abstractions only he could completely fathom. Williams saw his life in terms of a daily battle between these ascetic and sensual impulses. He often hurt those who deeply loved him, and the loneliness felt by many homosexuals was for him exacerbated by his inclination toward self-destruction.
Though honored by the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the National Arts Club, though twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize and given numerous other recognitions, Williams remained an insecure genius throughout his career, almost as fragile as the sister he so dearly loved.
Donahue, Francis. The Dramatic World of Tennessee Williams. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1964. Contains biographical information and reliable analyses of the most important plays. Good introduction to Williams, written just after his greatest period of productivity.
Hirshhorn, Clive. “When I’m Alone It’s Just Hell.” London Sunday Express, March 28, 1965. A frank interview conducted during the period of Williams’ psychoanalysis. Williams candidly reveals his fears and loneliness.
Leavitt, Richard, ed. The World of Tennessee Williams. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1978. Contains biographical information based on the recollections of those who knew Williams best. These are neatly drawn together with a minimum of critical speculation.
Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1985. A well-reviewed biography, documented but designed for the general reader. Spoto’s major theme is how Williams’ warring passions and intellect paradoxically allowed creation of his greatest works and equally hastened his death.
Vidal, Gore. “Selected Memories of the Glorious Bird and an Earlier Self.” In Matters of Fact and Fiction: Essays 1973-1976. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. Vidal here sees similarities in the experience of all artists and makes comparisons between himself and Williams. Vidal was one of Williams’ friends and was responsible for the screenplay of Suddenly Last Summer.
Williams, Dakin, and Shepherd Mead. Tennessee Williams: An Intimate Biography. New York: Arbor House, 1983. Interesting because of its coauthor, Williams’ younger brother, rather than because it supplies new insights into the playwright’s life. The brothers’ contrasting views of their father and their different personalities emerge clearly.
Williams, Ewina Dakin, as told to Lucy Freeman. Remember Me to Tom. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1963. The classic but quite idealized and often inaccurate memoir by Williams’ mother, the original Amanda of The Glass Menagerie. It is best to read this volume after Donahue, Leavitt, or Spoto.
Wood, Audrey, with Max Wilk. Represented by Audrey Wood. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1981. Reflections on Wood’s famous clients, who included William Inge, Carson McCullers, Maurice Valency, and Williams. Wood often involved herself personally with those whom she represented, encouraging them when necessary to help them create their greatest works.