Tennessee Williams 1911-1983
(Born Thomas Lanier Williams) American playwright, novelist, essayist, short story writer, screenwriter, and memoirist. See also Tennessee Williams Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 5, 7, 8, 19, 30, 111.
While Williams is best known as one of the greatest American dramatists of the post-World War II era, he also wrote short stories that explore isolation and miscommunication within families and small groups of misfits and loners. These stories have often been viewed as simply apprentice works for his dramas, developing themes and characters that he later incorporated into his plays, but a number of critics have argued that they deserve to be considered on their own merits and have drawn comparisons between them and the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas Mann.
Born in Columbus, Mississippi, Williams was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents at an Episcopal rectory in Clarksdale, Mississippi; his father, a traveling salesman, was frequently absent. After a near-fatal bout of diphtheria, Williams remained a sickly child in the constant care of his overprotective mother. He also developed a close attachment to his older sister, Rose, who suffered from schizophrenia and, later, mental deterioration after an unsuccessful lobotomy. In 1923 his family moved to St. Louis, where his father was transferred to assume a managerial position. To relieve his sense of isolation in his new environment, Williams began to write poetry and short fiction. At the age of sixteen, he won an essay contest sponsored by Smart Set magazine; the essay, entitled “Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?,” became his first published work. In 1929 he entered the University of Missouri, though he was forced by his father to return home after failing ROTC in his third year. He took a menial job in a shoe warehouse and wrote short fiction and essays until suffering a nervous breakdown in 1935. During his convalescence, he collaborated on the comedy Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay! (1935). After that experience, he decided to devote himself to writing. He began taking classes at Washington University in St. Louis, but subsequently transferred to the University of Iowa. In 1938 he received his bachelor's degree in English. The next year he published “The Field of Blue Children” in Story magazine, his first work to appear under the name Tennessee. That same year, he received a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, which allowed him to write his play Battle of Angels (1940).
In the early 1940s Williams was offered a salaried position with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Hollywood; he produced several unaccepted screenplays, and was released at the end of his contract. His first major dramatic success, The Glass Menagerie, was staged in 1944 and won a New York Drama Critics Circle Award the next year. He followed this with several triumphs, including A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), both of which won New York Drama Critics Circle Awards and Pulitzer Prizes. In the late 1950s Williams underwent intensive psychoanalysis to treat his depression, providing material for Suddenly Last Summer (1958), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), and Period of Adjustment (1958). After Night of the Iguana (1960), his last notable success, Williams continued to produce numerous dramatic works of diminishing critical importance until the end of his life. His mental instability and increasing dependence upon drugs and alcohol worsened during the next two decades. In 1969 he was briefly hospitalized following another mental breakdown. On February 24, 1983, in New York City, he accidentally choked to death on the cap of a medicine bottle.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Like his drama, Williams's short fiction focuses on marginalized or outcast individuals struggling with their own fears and insecurities and is imbued with an air of melancholy and corruption. Critics identify the key thematic concerns in his fiction as decay, disease, dysfunction, abnormality, and the destructiveness of desire. Set in New Orleans, his story “One Arm” chronicles the downfall of the handsome Oliver Winemiller. After losing his arm in a car accident, Oliver must give up his career as a champion boxer and degenerates into a male hustler and alcoholic. He eventually murders a man who had paid him to participate in a pornographic movie. Awaiting execution, Oliver experiences an epiphany about his life, as well as regret over his actions, but he is put to death with “all his debts unpaid.” In “Desire and the Black Masseur,” which is considered an early version of Suddenly Last Summer, Anthony Burns visits a massage parlor and receives a rigorous massage from an African American masseur. Attracted to him, Burns returns again and again, forming a sadomasochistic relationship with the man. With his consent, Burns is tortured and eventually killed and eaten by the masseur, who gathers his bones in a sack and throws them into a lake. Critics perceive this story as an allegory for spiritual alienation and isolation. In “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” which Williams eventually adapted as The Glass Menagerie, Tom escapes the claustrophobic intimacy of his relationship with his mentally ill sister, Laura, by joining the Merchant Marines. “Three Players of a Summer Game,” an early version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, concerns the deterioration of Brick Pollitt, a weak, wealthy man who struggles with alcoholism and impotence as well as an emasculating wife. When his one comfort, his relationship with a young widow and her daughter, fails, he is bereft of hope and falls back into his dysfunctional relationship with his wife.
The critical reaction to Williams's short fiction has been mixed. Certainly his contribution as a short story writer has been overshadowed by his fame as a playwright, and scholars have often focused on how Williams developed his plays from ideas he introduced in his short stories. Some have regarded the stories as simplified and sharpened versions of his plays. Many reviewers have found his fiction morbid and grotesque and have compared it to that of Edgar Allan Poe. Detractors of Williams's work contend that he is a sadist who creates characters only to humiliate them, but his supporters assert that in general he treats his characters with sympathy and compassion. Some critics have seen in the stories' concern with the interplay of death and desire a similarity to works by Thomas Mann. Commentators have also examined autobiographical aspects of Williams's short stories, particularly his treatment of homosexuality and family dynamics. Recent studies have elucidated the role of women in his fiction, and have investigated his unconventional themes, experimental narrative technique, and use of symbols, particularly religious ones.