Tennessee Williams Williams, Tennessee (Vol. 111)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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...

(The entire section is 47,275 words.)