Tennessee Williams 1911–1983
(Born Thomas Lanier Williams) American playwright, novelist, essayist, short story writer, screenwriter, and poet.
The following entry presents an overview of Williams's career through 1995. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 5, 7, 8, 11, 15, 19, 30, 39, 45, and 71.
Tennessee Williams is distinguished for his psychologically complex dramas that explore isolation and miscommunication within families and small groups of misfits and loners. Breaking from the realistic tradition in American drama, Williams introduced his concept of the "plastic" theater by incorporating expressionistic elements of dialogue, action, sound, setting, and lighting in his works. Williams's reputation rests on his three award-winning dramas—The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). Each of these is set in the American South, employing lyrical dialogue and inventive stage techniques, and represents a powerful study of family dynamics and the solitary search for meaning in the modern world, particularly through the depiction of emotional abuse, sexual relations, and violence. For his remarkable ability to evoke universal experience in multi-dimensional characters and provocative plots that transcend geography and social milieu, Williams is recognized as a major influence in the development of postwar American theater.
Born Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Mississippi, Williams was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents at an Episcopal rectory in Clarksdale, Mississippi; his father, a travelling salesman, was frequently absent. As a young child, Williams survived a near-fatal bout with diphtheria that left him physically weakened and in the constant care of his overprotective mother. Williams also developed a close attachment to his older sister, Rose, whose schizophrenia and later mental deterioration after an unsuccessful lobotomy had a profound effect upon him. At age twelve Williams moved with his family to St. Louis, Missouri, where his father was transferred for a managerial position. Away from the security and familiarity of his rural upbringing, Williams became the subject of ridicule among his new urban peers and unsympathetic father, who nicknamed his shy and sickly son "Miss Nancy." Williams began to write poetry and short fiction to relieve the strain of such derision and alienation. At age sixteen he won an essay contest sponsored by Smart Set magazine with "Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?," which became his first published work. In 1929 Williams entered the University of Missouri, though he was forced by his father to return home after failing ROTC in his third year. He worked in a shoe warehouse and continued to write until suffering a nervous breakdown in 1935. During the same year, while recovering at his grand-parents' home in Memphis, Tennessee, Williams was introduced to the theater and produced the comedy Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay!, his first play. Deciding on a career as a writer, Williams returned to St. Louis to attend classes at Washington University, then transferred to the University of Iowa where he studied playwriting and earned a degree in English in 1938. The next year he published "The Field of Blue Children" in Story magazine, his first work to appear under the name Tennessee. After winning an award from the Group Theater in 1939 for a series of one-act plays, Williams received a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship which he used to compose Battle of Angels (1940), a short-lived critical failure that opened in Boston. In the early 1940s, Williams worked odd jobs and eventually secured a salaried position with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Hollywood, for which he produced several unaccepted screenplays and was released at the end of his contract. During this time he wrote The Glass Menagerie, the first of his major accomplishments, which received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1945. Though struggling with fame and pressure to duplicate this success, Williams followed with A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947 and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955, both of which won New York Drama Critics Circle Awards and Pulitzer Prizes. During the 1950s, Williams produced the dramas The Rose Tattoo (1951) and Camino Real (1953) along with the novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1950), and adapted the script of A Streetcar Named Desire into a popular Hollywood film that appeared in 1951. In the second half of the decade, Williams underwent intensive psychoanalysis to treat his depression, providing material for Suddenly Last Summer (1958), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), and Period of Adjustment (1959). Williams was again plunged into despair in 1963 when Frank Merlo, his long-time partner, died of lung cancer. After The 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, Williams converted to Roman Catholicism and was briefly hospitalized following another mental breakdown. Eight years after the publication of his Memoirs (1975), Williams accidently choked to death on the cap of a medicine bottle.
Williams's mature dramatic style is best represented in his three greatest critical and commercial successes—The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The most lyrical and tender of the three, The Glass Menagerie is a semi-autobiographic play drawn directly from Williams's childhood experiences with his mother and mentally ill sister. Set in a St. Louis tenement during the Depression, the drama involves the Wingfield family, whose three adult members include Amanda, a domineering mother who bitterly resents her absent husband; her son, Tom, a writer who works in a shoe factory; and his sister, Laura, whose extreme timidity and crippled leg confine her to the house. Tom, as Williams's dramatis personae, narrates the story through retrospective commentary and monologues that underscore the tension between reality and illusion, especially as Amanda romanticizes her past life as a beautiful Southern debutante and Laura tends to her collection of glass figurines, to which the title of the play refers, a symbol of fantasy and her physical and emotional fragility. The dramatic climax occurs when Amanda persuades Tom to find a suitor for Laura. Tom invites a co-worker, Jim O'Connor, to dinner to meet his sister. Though Laura and Jim enjoy each other's company, Jim abruptly leaves after informing Laura that he is already engaged to be married. The audience learns in a final monologue that Tom, like his father, has also abandoned his mother and sister to pursue his own destiny and to escape his guilt for shattering their hopes and expectations. Despite the simple plot, Williams blends elements of expressionism and realism in poetic dialogue, pervasive symbolism, and music and lighting effects that evoke the sensations of memory. A Streetcar Named Desire similarly examines family tensions and the theme of illusion versus reality, but is far more violent and grim than The Glass Menagerie. Set in the vibrant French Quarter of New Orleans, the play follows the demise of Blanche Dubois as she is drawn into a dangerous, antagonistic relationship with her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski. As the title suggests, the play revolves around the idea of desire as an unyielding and destructive force. Blanche arrives at the home of Stanley and her sister, Stella, after witnessing the dissipation of her family estate and the suicide of her husband, whom she berates after discovering that he is gay. Conflict between Blanche and Stanley soon escalates as a result of Blanche's flirtations and condescending treatment of Stanley, an unrefined man who is threatened by her genteel pretensions. As a social commentary, Blanche represents the effete values of the dying Southern aristocracy while Stanley embodies the energy and earnestness of the working class. The tension between them culminates when Stanley rapes Blanche, after which she is committed to a sanitarium where she retreats further from reality. The hero of the play remains ambiguous as Williams skillfully tempers sympathies for Blanche and Stanley to confront and challenge audience expectations. While Blanche's haughty teasing and hypocritical virginal posturing is balanced by her difficult past, Stanley's coarseness and brutality are mitigated by his appealing sexuality, honesty, and sincere love for Stella. As in The Glass Menagerie, Williams offers sensitive treatment of the female characters and profound insight into their psychological motivations. Blanche, like Laura and Amanda, appears fragile and unable to cope with the harshness of reality, particularly as she constructs a facade of lies about her sordid history. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is set in the Mississippi River delta at the plantation home of Big Daddy, a wealthy cotton farmer whose family has assembled to celebrate his sixty-fifth birthday and false news that his cancer is in remission. The complex plot, fraught with Freudian undertones, centers on the implications of mendacity and self-deception, particularly as Big Daddy's favorite son, Brick Pollitt, wallows in alcohol to avoid facing the actual nature of his affectionate relationship with Skipper, a high school friend who has killed himself through drug and alcohol abuse. Distraught over Brick's drinking and detachment, Brick's wife, Maggie, suspects a homosexual attachment between her husband and Skipper. Maggie has previously seduced Skipper into bed with her to test his sexuality and, after he failed to perform, confronted Skipper with the "truth" about his feelings for Brick. When Big Daddy demands that Brick reveal the source of his compulsion to drink, Brick explains that Skipper telephoned him shortly before his death with a drunken confession, to which Brick responded by hanging up on him. Big Daddy accuses Brick of causing Skipper's death by failing to face up to the truth. In turn, Brick spoils the party by revealing to Big Daddy that his cancer is actually terminal. In the end, Maggie's determination to save her marriage is accomplished by cunning and sheer tenacity, to which the title of the play alludes, as she lies to the family that she is pregnant with Brick's child to regain their favor. Though the published version of the play contains two endings, the Broadway version in which Big Daddy departs with an offstage cry and Brick experiences newfound admiration for Maggie is the preferred variation used in most productions. As in much of his work, Williams juxtaposes conflicting aspects of obligation and selfishness, guilt and desire, self-awareness and denial to construct highly developed characters who struggle to overcome severe loneliness and frustration in their circumscribed lives.
Williams is considered among the most talented and original playwrights of the postwar period. His three major dramas—The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—are undisputed classics of the American theater whose memorable characters have become fixtures in American popular culture. Though his most effective plays reveal little concern with contemporary political or historical events, his willingness to explore sensitive themes surrounding violence and sexuality, both heterosexual and homosexual, was considered controversial in the 1940s and 1950s. Many critics have commented on the distinctive ambiguity of Williams's plays, most notably in the significance of Blanche's rape in A Streetcar Named Desire and Brick's guilt and sexual orientation in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. While some contend that Williams's refusal to present stereotypical dichotomies among his characters or to force judgment is the strength of his work, others suggest such ambivalence represents Williams's failure to resolve his own themes and preoccupations. Despite the success of his major plays during a creative period spanning from 1940 to 1960, Williams's prolific output of critical failures thereafter is a well-noted feature of his literary career. In addition, some critics find Williams's obsession with brutality and sex to be a sensational aspect of his work, particularly in the less successful allegorical or morality plays such as Summer and Smoke, Camino Real, and Suddenly Last Summer. This gothic quality of much of his writing, marked by interest in the aberrant, irrational, and macabre, is often associated with Southern Renaissance writers such as Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor. Though his realistic narratives and credible characters are compared to those of Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen, it is Williams's unique ability to adapt elements of realism and expressionism that distinguishes his work from that of his contemporaries. A dynamic innovator and deeply perceptive artist whose theater evinces poignant compassion for the vulnerable and victimized, Williams achieved both critical and popular acclaim while redefining the standards of American drama.