Authors: Tennessee Williams

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright.

March 26, 1911

Columbus, Mississippi

February 25, 1983

New York, New York

Biography

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

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By Orlando Fernandez, World Telegram staff photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tennessee Williams

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(Library of Congress)

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.

Author Works Drama: Fugitive Kind, pr. 1937 Spring Storm, wr. 1937, pr., pb. 1999 Not About Nightingales, wr. 1939, pr., pb. 1998 Battle of Angels, pr. 1940 This Property Is Condemned, pb. 1941 (one act) I Rise in Flame, Cried the Phoenix, wr. 1941, pb. 1951 (one act) The Lady of Larkspur Lotion, pb. 1942 (one act) The Glass Menagerie, pr. 1944 Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton, pb. 1945 (one act) You Touched Me, pr. 1945 (with Donald Windham) Summer and Smoke, pr. 1947 A Streetcar Named Desire, pr., pb. 1947 American Blues, pb. 1948 (collection) Five Short Plays, pb. 1948 The Long Stay Cut Short: Or, The Unsatisfactory Supper, pb. 1948 (one act) The Rose Tattoo, pr. 1950 Camino Real, pr., pb. 1953 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, pr., pb. 1955 Orpheus Descending, pr. 1957 (revision of Battle of Angels) Suddenly Last Summer, pr., pb. 1958 The Enemy: Time, pb. 1959 Sweet Bird of Youth, pr., pb. 1959 (based on The Enemy: Time) Period of Adjustment, pr. 1959 The Night of the Iguana, pr., pb. 1961 The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, pr. 1963, revised pb. 1976 The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, pr., pb. 1964 (revision of Summer and Smoke) Slapstick Tragedy: "The Mutilated" and "The Gnädiges Fräulein," pr. 1966 (one acts) The Two-Character Play, pr. 1967 The Seven Descents of Myrtle, pr., pb. 1968 (as Kingdom of Earth) In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, pr. 1969 Confessional, pb. 1970 Dragon Country, pb. 1970 (collection) The Theatre of Tennessee Williams, pb. 1971-1981 (7 volumes) Out Cry, pr. 1971 (revision of The Two-Character Play) Small Craft Warnings, pr., pb. 1972 (revision of Confessional) Vieux Carré, pr. 1977 A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, pr. 1979 Clothes for a Summer Hotel, pr. 1980 A House Not Meant to Stand, pr. 1981 Something Cloudy, Something Clear, pr. 1981 In Masks Outrageous and Austere, pr. 2012 Long Fiction: The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, 1950 Moise and the World of Reason, 1975 Short Fiction: One Arm, and Other Stories, 1948 Hard Candy: A Book of Stories, 1954 Three Players of a Summer Game, and Other Stories, 1960 Grand, 1964 The Knightly Quest: A Novella and Four Short Stories, 1967 Eight Mortal Ladies Possessed: A Book of Stories, 1974 Collected Stories, 1985 Screenplays: Senso, Luchino Visconti, 1949 (with Gore Vidal) The Glass Menagerie, 1950 (with Peter Berneis) A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951 (with Oscar Saul) The Rose Tattoo, 1955 (with Hal Kanter) Baby Doll, 1956 The Fugitive Kind, 1960 (with Meade Roberts; based on Orpheus Descending) Suddenly Last Summer, 1960 (with Gore Vidal) Stopped Rocking, and Other Screenplays, 1984 Poetry: In the Winter of Cities, 1956 Androgyne, Mon Amour, 1977 The Collected Poems of Tennessee Williams, 2002 Nonfiction: Memoirs, 1975 Where I Love: Selected Essays, 1978 Five O’Clock Angel: Letters of Tennessee Williams to Maria St. Just, 1948–1982, 1990 The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams, 1920-1945, 2000 Bibliography Bloom, Harold, ed. Tennessee Williams. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. This collection of critical essays carries an introduction by Bloom that places Williams in the dramatic canon of American drama and within the psychological company of Hart Crane and Arthur Rimbaud. Authors in this collection take traditional thematic and historical approaches, noting Williams’s "grotesques," his morality, his irony, his work in the "middle years," and the mythical qualities in his situations and characters. Crandall, George W. Tennessee Williams: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995. An important bibliographical source. Falk, Signi Lenea. Tennessee Williams. 2d ed. Boston: Twayne, 1978. Though devoting most of her attention to Williams’s plays, Falk addresses many of the short stories. Contains a useful, though dated, bibliography. Hayman, Ronald. Tennessee Williams: Everyone Else Is an Audience. New Haven: Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993. Kolin, Philip C. The Tennessee Williams Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004. A useful guide to Williams and his work. In 160 informative entries, Williams scholars offer the reader a wealth of information. Leverich, Lyle. Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams. New York: Crown Publishers, 1995. This first volume of a two-volume biography traces Williams’s life for the first thirty-three years. Draws on previously unpublished letters, journals, and notebooks. Discusses Williams’s focus on how society has a destructive influence on sensitive people and his efforts to change drama into an unrealistic form. Martin, Robert A., ed. Critical Essays on Tennessee Williams. New York: G. K. Hall, 1997. An accessible collection of criticism of Williams’s works. Pagan, Nicholas. Rethinking Literary Biography: A Postmodern Approach to Tennessee Williams. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1993. Discusses the symbolism of Williams’s characters in relation to his life. Rader, Dotson. Tennessee: Cry of the Heart. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985. A chatty biography that, while it does not have the virtue of notes or a scholarly biography, does have the appeal of a firsthand account, filled with gossip and inside information, to be taken for what it is worth. Roudané, Matthew C., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Contains copious amounts of information on Williams and his works. Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998. Spoto’s lively chronicle details Williams’s encounters with such diverse influences as the Group Theatre, Frieda and D. H. Lawrence, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, Fidel Castro, Hollywood stars, and the homosexual and drug subcultures of Key West. Forty-two pages of notes, bibliography, and index make this study a valuable resource for further scholarship. Tharpe, Jac, ed. Tennessee Williams: A Tribute. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1977. A collection of fifty-three essays on various aspects of Williams’s art. Many note Williams’s short fiction in passing, and four are fully (or in the main) devoted to the short fiction. Contains a bibliography. Thompson, Judith. Tennessee Williams’ Plays: Memory, Myth, and Symbol. New York: P. Lang, 2002. A Jungian analysis of Williams’s plays, focusing on the manifestation of archetypes in his work. Tischler, Nancy Marie Patterson. Student Companion to Tennessee Williams. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. A well-known Williams scholar brings together the playwright’s biography and critical assessments of his works to provide students with a thorough introduction and appreciation of Williams’s achievements. Vannatta, Dennis. Tennessee Williams: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1988. The only book-length study of Williams’s short fiction. Contains a selection of essays concerning Williams’s short fiction by various scholars and a selection of Williams’s own letters, essays, and reviews. Williams, Dakin, and Shepherd Mead. Tennessee Williams: An Intimate Biography. New York: Arbor House, 1983. Tennessee’s brother and childhood friend produce a credible biography in a highly readable, well-indexed work. Their account of the playwright also helps to capture his almost schizophrenic nature. A solid index and extensive research assist the serious scholar and general reader. Windham, Donald. As if. . . Verona, Italy: D. Windham, 1985. This reminiscence of Williams’s one-time friend portrays the writer as a man of bizarre contradictions and reveals in telling vignettes the downward spiral of his self-destructive lifestyle. Woodhouse, Reed. Unlimited Embrace: A Canon of Gay Fiction, 1945–1995. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998. Includes a chapter on Williams’s gay short stories, claiming the most notable thing about the stories is their lack of special pleading. Provides an extended analysis of the story "Hard Candy."

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