Biography of Tennessee Williams, American Playwright

Portrait of Tennessee Williams

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Tennessee Williams (March 26, 1911—February 25, 1983) was an American playwright, essayist, and memoirist best known for his plays set in the South. Much of Williams’ oeuvre was adapted for the cinema. 

Fast Facts: Tennessee Williams

  • Full Name: Thomas Lanier Williams III
  • Known For: Pulitzer-Prize-winning American playwright whose plays explored the charming façade and the actual decay of the South, difficult women, and queerness
  • Born: March 26, 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi
  • Parents: Edwina Dakin and Cornelius Coffin “C.C.” Williams
  • Died: February 24th, 1983, in New York City, New York
  • Education: University of Missouri, Washington University, University of Iowa, and The New School
  • Notable Works: The Glass Menagerie (1944); A Streetcar Named Desire (1947); The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (novel, 1950); The Rose Tattoo (1950); Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955)
  • Awards and Honors: Rockefeller Grant (1939); Donaldson Award and New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, for The Glass Menagerie (1945); New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, Donaldson Award, Pulitzer Prize, for A Streetcar Named Desire (1948); Tony Award, for The Rose Tattoo (1952); Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award, for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955); New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, Tony Award, for The Night of the Iguana (1961); Presidential Medal of Freedom (1980)

Early Life 

Tennessee Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams on March 26, 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi. His parents were Edwina Dakin and Cornelius Coffin “C.C.” Williams. He was close to his maternal grandparents, Rose and Reverend Walter Dakin, and his family lived in the reverend’s parsonage for much of his early childhood. In 1918, C.C. secured a managerial position at the International Shoe Company and the family moved to St. Louis, Missouri. Williams began writing stories and poems in 1924 using a second-hand typewriter given to him by his mother. She was known to dote on her son, while his father frowned upon Tennessee’s alleged effeminacy.

His short stories were published in his middle school newspaper and yearbook. In 1928, his short story “The Vengeance of Nitocris” was published in Weird Tales, a work that he claimed set the keynote for most of his opus. The same year, he accompanied his grandfather, Rev. Dakin, on a church tour of Europe. On their way there, they stopped in New York, where he saw Show Boat on Broadway. Upon his return, his travel diaries became the base of a series of articles for his high school newspaper.

Tennessee Williams Portrait Session
Playright Tennessee Williams and his grandparents Walter Dakin and Rose O. Dakin pose for a portrait circa 1945 in New York City, New York. Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

In 1929, Williams enrolled at the University of Missouri at Columbia, where he wrote his first submitted play, Beauty Is The Word (1930). The play, which deals with rebellion against religious upbringing, earned him an honorable mention in a writing competition. In 1932 he was pulled out of school by his father, ostensibly for failing ROTC, and he began clerking at the International Shoe Company. He disliked the routine, but it made him determined to write at least one story per week. In 1935, he suffered a collapse from exhaustion, and in 1936, he mentioned the “blue devil,” a stand-in for depression, in his diary for the first time. However, his experience at the factory proved to be useful, as a coworker served as the basis for Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Path to Writing

In 1936, he matriculated at Washington University and began writing plays that would be produced by local theater groups. That year, he also saw a production of Ibsen’s Ghosts, which he couldn’t sit through due to too much excitement. In 1937, his sister Rose was diagnosed with dementia praecox (schizophrenia) and underwent electroconvulsive therapy. Perhaps because of this influence, Williams’ plays are rife with mentally unstable female protagonists, such as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire and Cathy in Suddenly, Last Summer. The same year, Williams transferred to the University of Iowa to study playwriting. He graduated in 1938. Upon graduation, he falsified his year of birth and started adopting the name Tennessee. He was still struggling to gain traction as a playwright and worked menial jobs, including as caretaker on a chicken ranch in Laguna Beach.

In 1939, the agent Audrey Wood approached him for representation—and he retained her for the following 32 years. He spent that year working on Battle of Angels and published the story “The Field of Blue Children,” his first work under the name Tennessee. Upon being awarded $1,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation thanks to Audrey Wood's help, he planned his move to New York.

 In 1940, he studied playwriting at the New School under John Gassner. His play Battle of Angels opened in Boston in late December, but the plan to transfer it to Broadway after its initial two-week run did not pan out. Between 1941 and 1942, he also traveled through the United States and Mexico quite frequently. In 1942, he met New Directions founder James Laughlin, who would become the publisher of most of Williams’ books. In 1943, thanks to the Rockefeller grant, he worked as a contract screenwriter at MGM. The studio rejected his play The Gentleman Caller, which was the first version of what would become The Glass Menagerie. That year, his sister Rose was also subjected to a prefrontal lobotomy, which Williams only learned about days after the fact. 

Strings of Success (1944-1955) 

  • The Glass Menagerie (1944)
  • A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)
  • Summer and Smoke (1948)
  • One Arm and Other Stories (1949)
  • The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1950)
  • The Rose Tattoo (1950)
  • Ten Blocks on the Camino Real (1953)
  • Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955)

The Glass Menagerie opened in Chicago on December 26, 1944, subsequently receiving the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. It was the expansion of his short story “Portrait of a Girl in Glass.” In March, the play was transferred to Broadway, which was then awarded the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Donaldson Award. It was then published in book format by Random House that summer. Williams was inundated by a “catastrophe of success,” and traveled to Mexico and worked on versions of what would become A Streetcar Named Desire and Summer and Smoke.

Margo Jones and Tennessee Williams Discussing Play
Margo Jones and Tennessee Williams at rehearsal of "Summer and Smoke". Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

He moved to New Orleans in 1946, living with his lover Pancho Rodriguez. The two frequently traveled to New York and Provincetown. In the summer of 1947, in Provincetown, he met Frank Merlo, who became his partner until his death in 1963. 

Directed by Elia Kazan, Streetcar opened in New Haven on October 30, 1947, with a run in Boston and Philadelphia before opening on Broadway on December 3rd. It ran until December 1949 and won the Pulitzer Prize, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, and the Donaldson Award. Summer and Smoke opened on Broadway on October 6, 1948.

Spending the spring and summer of 1948 in Rome, Williams became involved with an Italian teenager, only known as “Rafaello,” whom he financially supported for several years afterwards. This Roman period was the inspiration for his novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone.

 In 1949, Williams started developing an addiction to the sedative Seconal and alcohol. The year 1950 saw the release of the film adaptation of The Glass Menagerie and the premiere of The Rose Tattoo, on December 30, in Chicago. In 1951, The Rose Tattoo, after opening on Broadway, won the Tony Award for Best Play. In September, the film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire was released. In 1952, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His new play, Ten Blocks on the Camino Real, which opened in 1953, was not as well received as his previous work. In 1955, his play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which was previewed in Philadelphia ahead of its opening on Broadway, won the Pulitzer Prize, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, and the Donaldson Award, and ran until November 1956. 

Tennessee's Prize
American playwright Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) left, receives the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best New American Play from drama critic Walter Kerr, at the Actors Fund Benefit Performance at the Morosco Theatre, New York City. Williams won for his play 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'. New York Times Co. / Getty Images

Hardship and Newly Found Success (1957—1961)

  • Orpheus Descending (1957)
  • The Garden District: Suddenly Last Summer and Something Unspoken (1958)
  • Sweet Bird of Youth (1959)
  • Period of Adjustment (1960)
  • The Night of the Iguana (1961)

In 1957, Williams started working on Orpheus Descending, a reworking of his first commercially produced play Battle of Angels. It opened on Broadway in March and closed in May, to lukewarm reception. That same year, he started psychoanalysis with Dr. Lawrence S. Kubie, who encouraged him to take a break from writing, separate from his longtime lover Frank Merlo, and live a heterosexual life. The Garden District, which consists of the short plays Suddenly, Last Summer and Something Unspoken, opened in the off-Broadway circuit to critical acclaim.

His 1959 play Sweet Bird of Youth, his last collaboration with Elia Kazan, was poorly received. Period of Adjustment, in 1960, suffered a similar fate, and Williams saw himself as “so far out of fashion” that he was almost back in. His assessment was right. In fact, his 1961 play Night of the Iguana, received positive reviews and was awarded the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. In 1962, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine as “America’s Greatest Living Playwright.” 

Later Works and Personal Tragedies (1962—1983)

  • The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here (1962)
  • Slapstick Tragedy: The Gnadige Fraulein and The Mutilated(1966)
  • Kingdom of Earth (1967)
  • The Seven Descents of Myrtle (1968)
  • In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (1969)
  • Small Craft Warnings (1972)
  • The Two-Character Play (1973)
  • Out Cry (1973, rewriting of The Two-Character Play)
  • The Red Devil Battery Sign (1975)
  • Moise and the World of Reason (1975, novel)
  • Memoirs (1975, memoir)
  • This Is (An Entertainment) (1976)
  • Vieux Carré (1977)
  • Androgyne Mon Amour (1977, poems)
  • Where I Live (1978, essay collection)
  • A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur (1979)
  • Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980)
  • The Notebook of Trigorin (1980)
  • Something Cloudy, Something Clear (1981)
  • A House Not Meant to Stand (1982)
  • In Masks Outrageous and Austere (1983)

In 1963, The Milk Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore opened on Broadway, but its run was short-lived. The same year, Frank Merlo got diagnosed with lung cancer and died in September. This precipitated Williams’ descent into drugs and alcohol. In 1964, he became a patient of Dr. Max Jacobson, known as Dr. Feelgood, who prescribed him injectable amphetamines, which he added to his regime of barbiturates and alcohol. Williams would later refer to the 60s as his “stoned age.” The same year, he hired a paid companion, William Galvin.

In 1966, his Slapstick Tragedy, consisting of the two short plays The Gnadiges Fraulein and The Mutilated, opened and closed almost immediately. Williams condemned America’s involvement in Vietnam. In 1969, he converted to Roman Catholicism, received an honorary doctorate from the University of Missouri at Columbia, and was awarded the American Academy of Arts and Letters gold medal for drama. He also committed himself into the psychiatric ward of Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, where he suffered seizures and two heart attacks related to substance withdrawal. The following year he opened up about his sexuality to David Frost on television. “I don’t want to be involved in some sort of a scandal,” he said, “but I’ve covered the waterfront.” 

Playwright Tennessee Williams and His Dog
Holding his dog on a leash, Tennessee Williams walks briskly upon his arrival in Rome (1/21). The world famous playwright had become a Roman Catholic recently. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

In 1971, after a work relationship of 39 years, he dismissed Audrey Wood, following a perceived slight. In 1975, he was awarded the National Arts Club’s Medal of Honor and was presented with the key to the City of New York. His second novel, Moise and the World of Reason, was published in May. In November, he published Memoirs, which contained a candid discussion of sexuality and drug use that shocked readers. In 1979, he was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors medal. The year 1980 saw the opening of the last play produced in his lifetime: Clothes for a Summer Hotel, which opened on his 69th birthday and closed after 15 performances. He spent the last years of his life working on plays and his last public appearance took place at the 92nd Street Y.

Literary Style and Themes

Tennessee Williams’ plays are character driven and are often stand-ins for his family members. Having been deeply impacted by his sister’s illness and lobotomy, he based several female characters on her, such as Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. In contrast to his mentally unstable, hot-blooded women are the imposing matronly figures, such as Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie and Violet Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer, who are said to be molded on Williams’ mother Edwina, with whom he had a loving, yet conflicted relationship. Homosexual characters such as Sebastian in Suddenly, Last Summer are a representation of himself.

He reworked his writing incessantly, returning to the same themes, characters, and loose plotlines over the years and decades. The premises of The Glass Menagerie, for example, were in a short story titled “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” a rejected film script of the same name, and drafts with different working titles. A Streetcar Named Desire was developed out of four earlier one-act plays, and Lauras, Roses, and Blanches periodically reemerge in stories, poems, and working plays. 

Death

Tennessee Williams died on February 24, 1983, in his suite at the Hotel Elysee, which he dubbed the “Easy Lay” for its cruising opportunities. He either overdosed on Seconals or choked on the plastic cap he used to ingest his pills. His wish was to be buried at sea, “sewn up in a clean white sack and dropped overboard, twelve hours north of Havana, so that my bones may rest not too far from those of Hart Crane,” but eventually, he was buried by his mother in St. Louis.

Legacy 

The Night Of The Iguana
A Saul Bass designed poster for John Huston's 1964 drama 'The Night of the Iguana' starring Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, and Sue Lyon. Movie Poster Image Art / Getty Images

Williams’ plays are known to large audiences because of their successful movie adaptations, which Williams himself adapted from his plays. These include The Glass Menagerie (1950); A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), starring Vivien Leigh as the aging southern belle Blanche DuBois; The Rose Tattoo (1955), starring Anna Magnani as the female lead Serafina; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), both starring Elizabeth Taylor; Sweet Birth of Youth (1962), starring Paul Newman; Night of The Iguana (1964), with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

In late 2009, Williams was inducted into the Poets' Corner at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York. 

The Tennessee Williams archive is homed at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. In early 2018, the Morgan Library in New York hosted a retrospective on his painterly efforts and on the tangible items related to his writing practice, such as annotated drafts and pages of his diary and memorabilia. 

At the time of his death, Tennessee Williams was working on a play titled In Masks Outrageous and Austere, an attempt to come to terms with some facts of his personal life. Gore Vidal completed the play in 2007, and, while Peter Bogdanovic was the director originally appointed to direct the stage debut, when it premiered on Broadway in April 2012 it was directed by David Schweizer, and starred Shirley Knight as the female lead.

In 2014, he was among the inaugural honorees of the Rainbow Color Walk in the San Francisco Castro District, as an LGBTQ personality who made significant contribution in their field. 

Sources

  • Bloom, Harold. Tennessee Williams. Blooms Literary Criticism, 2007.
  • Gross, Robert F., ed. Tennessee Williams: A Casebook. Routledge, 2002.
  • Lahr, John, et al. Tennessee Williams: No Refuge but Writing. The Morgan Library & Museum, 2018.