Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams (1914-1983), dramatist and fiction writer, was one of America's major mid-20th-century playwrights.

Tennessee Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Mississippi, on March 26, 1914. His father was a traveling salesman, and for many years the family lived with his mother's parents. When Williams was about 13, they moved to a crowded tenement in St. Louis, Missouri. At the age of 16 he published his first story. The next year he entered the University of Missouri but left before taking a degree. He worked for two years for a shoe company, spent a year at Washington University (where he had his first plays produced), and earned a bachelor of arts degree from the State University of Iowa in 1938, the year he published his first short story under his literary name.

In 1940 the Theatre Guild produced Williams' Battle of Angels in Boston. The play was a total failure and was withdrawn after Boston's Watch and Ward Society banned it. Between 1940 and 1945 he lived on grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, on income derived from an attempt to write film scripts in Hollywood, and on wages as a waiter-entertainer in Greenwich Village.

With the production of The Glass Menagerie Williams' fortunes changed. The play opened in Chicago in December 1944 and in New York in March; it received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Sidney Howard Memorial Award. You Touched Me!, written in collaboration with Donald Windham, opened on Broadway in 1945. It was followed by publication of 11 one-act plays, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (1946), and two California productions. When A Streetcar Named Desire opened in 1947, New York audiences knew a major playwright had arrived. It won a Pulitzer Prize. The play combines sensuality, melodrama, and lyrical symbolism. A film version was directed by Elia Kazan; their partnership lasted for more than a decade.

Although the plays that followed Streetcar never repeated its phenomenal success, they kept Williams's name on theater marquees and films. His novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1950) and three volumes of short stories brought him an even wider audience. Some writers consider Summer and Smoke (1948) Williams's most sensitive play. The Rose Tattoo (1951) played to appreciative audiences, Camino Real (1953) to confused ones. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize.

Baby Doll (an original Williams-Kazan film script, 1956) was followed by the dramas Orpheus Descending (1957), Garden District (1958; two one-act plays, Something Unspoken and Suddenly Last Summer), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), Period of Adjustment (1960), and The Night of the Iguana (1961). With these plays, critics charged Williams with public exorcism of private neuroses, confused symbolism, sexual obsessions, thin characterizations, and violence and corruption for their own sake. The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (1963), The Seven Descents of Myrtle (1963; also called Kingdom of Earth), and In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (1969) neither exonerated him of these charges nor proved that Williams's remarkable talent had vanished.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, Williams continued to write for the theater, though he was unable to repeat the success of most of his early years. One of his last plays was Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980), based on the American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda.

Two collections of Williams's many one-act plays were published: 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (1946) and American Blues (1948). Williams also wrote fiction, including two novels, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1950) and Moise and the World of Reason (1975). Four volumes of short stories were also published. One Arm and Other Stories (1948), Hard Candy (1954), The Knightly Quest (1969), and Eight Mortal Ladies Possessed (1974). Nine of his plays were made into films, and he wrote one original screenplay, Baby Doll (1956). In his 1975 tell-all novel, Memoirs, Williams described his own problems with alcohol and drugs and his homosexuality.

Williams died in New York City, February 25, 1983. In 1995, the United States Post Office commemorated Williams by issuing a special edition stamp in his name as part of their Literary Arts Series.

For several years, literary aficionados have gathered to celebrate the man and his work at The Tennessee Williams Scholars Conference. The annual event, held in conjunction with the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, features educational, theatrical and literary programs.

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Further Reading on Tennessee Williams

There is no uniform edition or omnibus collection of Williams's plays. His mother's reminiscences, Edwina Dakin Williams, Remember Me to Tom (1963), and the account of a friend, Gilbert Maxwell, Tennessee Williams and Friends (1965), provide biographical data. Taped interviews with various artists who worked with Williams give a multifaceted view in Mike Steen, A Look at Tennessee Williams (1969). Accounts of Williams' words were gathered to put together Memoirs (1975); Tennessee Williams' Letters to Donald Windham 1940-65 (1977); Albert J. Devlin, Conversations with Tennessee Williams (1986); and Five O'Clock Angel: Letters of Tennessee Williams to Maris St. Just 1948-1982 (1990).

The best critical studies are Signi Lenea Falk, Tennessee Williams (1961); Benjamin Nelson, Tennessee Williams: The Man and His Work (1961); Louis Broussard, American Drama: Contemporary Allegory from Eugene O'Neill to Tennessee Williams (1962); Francis Donahue, The Dramatic World of Tennessee Williams (1964); Gerald Weales, Tennessee Williams (1965); and Louis Broussard, American Drama: Contemporary Allegory from Eugene O'Neill to Tennessee Williams.