His craftsmanship and vision marked Tennessee Williams as one of the
most talented playwrights in contemporary theater. His dramas, including
The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer
and Smoke, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are among the most acclaimed
dramas ever performed on Broadway.
Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Mississippi, on
March 26, 1911, to Cornelius Coffin Williams and Edwina Dakin Williams.
His father was an aggressive traveling salesman, and his mother was the
puritanical daughter of an Episcopal rector. Williams had an older sister,
Rose, and a younger brother, Walter Dakin.
Williams once wrote, concerning his parents' relationship, "It was just
a wrong marriage." He clearly portrayed the familial conflict in his art.
For example, the character, Amanda Wingfield, in The Glass Menagerie,
is modeled after Williams's mother, and Big Daddy, in Cat on a Hot
Tin Roof, represents his father.
Williams was raised almost entirely by his mother while his father traveled.
She was overprotective of her son, especially after he contracted diphtheria
when he was five. The family later moved to St. Louis, Missouri. As a
boy, Williams would make up and tell stories, many of them scary.
In the fall of 1929, Williams enrolled at the University of Missouri
to study journalism. His father, angry that Hazel Kramer, Williams's childhood
sweetheart had also enrolled there, threatened to withdraw him. The romance
soon ended, and Williams, deeply depressed, dropped out of school. He
decided, at his father's request, to take a job as a clerk in a shoe company.
He once recalled this time in his life as "living death."
To vent his frustrations with his unfulfilling work, Williams retreated
to his room after work to write. He survived his depression for awhile
through his poetry, plays, and stories, but the strain soon resulted in
a nervous breakdown. The family sent him to Memphis to recuperate. It
was here that he joined a local theater group.
When he returned to St. Louis, he began socializing with a group of
poets at Washington University. One of these poets, Clark Mills McBurney,
introduced Williams to Hart Crane's poetry. Crane soon became his idol.
Williams decided to return to college in 1937, this time at the University
of Iowa. He continued to write an enormous number of plays, some of which
were performed on campus. In 1938, he graduated from college, but undermining
his success was the tragedy of his sister's insanity. The family allowed
a pre frontal lobotomy to be performed, and, as a result, she spent most
of her life in a sanitarium.
Williams left home when he was 28, to live in New Orleans, where he
changed his lifestyle and his name. He gave several reasons for adopting
a new name: It was a reaction against his early inferior work, published
under his real name; his new name had been a college nickname; he chose
the name because his father was from Tennessee; the name was unique. In
New Orleans, Williams wrote stories, some of which would become plays,
and entered a Group Theater playwriting contest. His entry won him $100
and an agent, Audrey Wood, who became a friend and adviser.
During a visit to St. Louis, Williams wrote Battle of Angels,
a play that opened in Boston in 1940, but was a disaster and closed after
two weeks. He revised it, however, and brought it back as Orpheus Descending.
A movie version, The Fugitive Kind, starred Marlon Brando and Anna
Magnani. His success continued when Audrey Wood got him a screenwriting
job for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Hollywood. Williams made $250 a week for
six months writing scripts for Lana Turner and Margaret O'Brien.
Williams also began working on an original screenplay, but it was rejected.
Disappointed, he continued to work on it, turning it into a play called,
The Gentleman Caller, which evolved into The Glass Menagerie.
It opened on Broadway on March 31, 1945, revolutionizing American theater
and changing Williams's life forever.
In 1947, his second masterpiece, A Streetcar Named Desire, opened,
becoming even more successful than The Glass Menagerie. The play
won him his second Drama Critics' Award and his first Pulitzer Prize.
During the years following Streetcar, a Williams play opened on
Broadway almost every other season. His work also continued to flow from
stage to screen.
Along with success, however, comes failure. In 1948, Summer and Smoke
failed on Broadway, but became hugely successful in an Off-Broadway revival
and made Geraldine Page a star. The Rose Tattoo followed, along
with Camino Real, a failure in 1953, but revived as a classic at
Lincoln Center in 1970, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, winning him his
third Drama Critics' Award and his second Pulitzer, Orpheus Descending,
Garden District, and Sweet Bird of Youth.
Williams also continued to experiment with writing other genres. He
wrote two novels, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and Moise and
the World of Reason, short stories, including "One Arm" and "Hard
Candy," a book of poetry called In the Winter of Cities, the film,
Baby Doll, and his autobiography, Memoirs.
In the last years of his life, Williams divided his time between his
residences in New York and Key West. He also kept an apartment in New
Orleans's French Quarter. In 1981, his Something Cloudy, Something
Clear was produced Off Off Broadway at the Jean Cocteau Theater, and
the following year, his final play, A House Not Meant to Stand
premiered at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. Williams died at his New
York apartment in 1983, at the age of 71.