Last reviewed: June 2017
American Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright.
March 26, 1911
February 25, 1983
New York, New York
Tennessee Williams is considered one of the greatest American playwrights, ranking alongside Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller. He was born Thomas Lanier Williams, the son of Cornelius Coffin Williams, a traveling salesman, and Edwina Dakin Williams, a minister’s daughter. Williams, his mother, and his older sister, Rose, lived with Williams’s maternal grandparents until his father was transferred to his firm’s main office in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1918. The move was shattering to both Williams and his sister, and it was almost certainly at least partially responsible for Williams’s emotional instability and for his sister’s retreat from reality—which resulted in a prefrontal lobotomy and institutionalization. The Glass Menagerie is an autobiographical representation of two days in the St. Louis years after the children were grown, but it omits the children’s father and their younger brother.
Unable to bear life at home, Williams began his lifelong wanderings, though he also attended college at the University of Missouri and Washington University and finally completed a degree at the University of Iowa. He presently attracted the attention of an important literary agent, Audrey Wood, received grants, and, after having written one-act plays, poetry, and short stories, had his first full-length play, Battle of Angels, produced in Boston in 1940, where it failed. His first successful play was The Glass Menagerie, first produced in Chicago in 1944, where it attracted attention and praise from the critics; after several months it was moved to New York, where it had great success. Tennessee Williams
Williams’s 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire is still considered his greatest, and it won for him his first Pulitzer Prize. Its central character, Blanche Dubois, is one of the best remembered and most vividly characterized in modern drama. The daughter of an aristocratic southern family which has gone downhill for generations and finally lost all of its wealth and its estate, she has become a prostitute, and, after losing her job as a teacher, spends months with her sister and brother-in-law in a New Orleans slum, finally being taken to an insane asylum.
Williams’s other most important plays include Summer and Smoke, Camino Real (though a failure on Broadway), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (for which he won his second Pulitzer), and The Night of the Iguana. He continued to write plays after The Night of the Iguana, but none had the quality of his earlier plays. Many were experimental in style, and were initially poorly received.
As Williams’s Memoirs makes clear, he was quite openly gay, and over the years he had several long-term companions. Several of his plays (including, in the play’s background, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) contain homosexual characters. He continued traveling widely all of his life, his most frequent stopping places being New Orleans, New York, Rome, and Key West, where he owned a home. He struggled with alcohol and drug abuse, and was committed to a hospital by his brother in 1969. He died in 1983 in a New York hotel from choking on a medicine bottle cap.
Williams’s more important plays are usually set in the South, either in Mississippi or in New Orleans, the only notable exceptions being The Glass Menagerie (St. Louis), Camino Real (a mythical Central America), and The Night of the Iguana (Mexico). His plays frequently center on three character types: the "gentleman caller" (actually called that in The Glass Menagerie), usually a young man, whether "gentleman" or not, who "calls upon" a young woman; a frequently but not invariably innocent and vulnerable young woman; and a usually tougher and more experienced older woman. The pattern is obvious in both The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, though in the latter play the tougher woman, Stella, is younger than her vulnerable sister, Blanche, and the gentleman caller, Mitch, is not the most important male character in the play. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, there is only the tough young woman, whose husband is ironically the opposite of a gentleman caller in that his fear of being gay has led him to ignore his wife sexually and has led his wife desperately (and perhaps successfully at play’s end) to lure, or force, him back.
Williams’s best plays are also notable for their use of impressionistic sound and lighting effects: the music from a nearby tavern in The Glass Menagerie; the roar of trains passing in A Streetcar Named Desire; the spotlight in The Glass Menagerie, centering on the seriously upset Laura while her mother and brother quarrel; and Blanche’s covering of the naked ceiling light bulb with a shade in her sister’s apartment in A Streetcar Named Desire. The earlier playwright who was the principal influence on Williams is Anton Chekhov, who is also noted for his impressionism and for presenting characters who, similar to Blanche (and perhaps Amanda in The Glass Menagerie), have fallen from the level of significant aristocracy. Yet Williams is also noted for his use of extreme violence, which relates him to the American, and more particularly southern gothic style, exemplified in the violence in some of the novels of William Faulkner. Examples of such violence in Williams’s work include cannibalism in the background of Suddenly Last Summer and imminent castration in Sweet Bird of Youth.
All Williams’s major plays fit the impressionistic, and in general realistic, pattern, except Camino Real, which is expressionistic, dealing with both real and fictional characters in a mythical Central America. In that play, people struggle with their inability to give life meaning and their inability to love; a few characters who succeed in overcoming their problems manage to escape. Only two of the plays in Williams’s major period are comedies: The Rose Tattoo, a successful play about a Sicilian woman on the Mississippi coast who is seriously disturbed by the loss of her husband in an accident and who finally finds a man to take his place, and the lightweight and insignificant Period of Adjustment.