Tennessee Williams Biography

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 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.

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.


(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, 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.

Life’s Work

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...

(The entire section is 2602 words.)