TENNESSEE WILLIAMS Biography - Writers


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Born to Cornelius and Edwina Dakin Williams on March 26, 1911, in Columbus,             
Mississippi, Thomas Lanier "Tennessee" Williams was amply prepared for writing         
about societyıs outcasts. His mother was an aggressive woman, obsessed by her           
fantasies of genteel Southern living. His father, a traveling salesman for a           
large shoe manufacturer, was at turns distant and abusive. His older sister,           
Rose, was emotionally disturbed and destined to spend most of her life in mental       
institutions. He remained aloof from his younger brother, Dakin, whom his father       
repeatedly favored over both of the older children. Who could have fortold that         
this shy, sickly, confused young man would become one of America's most famous         
More than a half century has passed since critics and theater-goers recognized         
Williams as an important American playwright, whose plays fellow dramaturge             
David Mamet calls "the greatest dramatic poetry in the American language" (qtd.         
in Griffin 13). Williams's repertoire includes some 30 full-length plays,               
numerous short plays, two volumes of poetry, and five volumes of essays and             
short stories. He won two Pulitzer Prizes (for A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947         
and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955), and was the first playwright to receive, in         
1947, the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the Donaldson Award, and the New York Drama         
Critics Circle Award in the same year. (For a complete listing of Williams's           
published work, go to the "Tennessee Williams Links" page on this web site and,         
from there, to the Ole Miss web site.)                                                 
Although Williams's first professionally produced play, Battle of Angels, closed       
in 1940 because of poor reviews and a censorship controversy (Roudané xvii), his       
early amateur productions of Candles to the Sun and Fugitive Kind were well-received   
by audiences in St. Louis. By 1945 he had completed and opened on Broadway The         
Glass Menagerie, perhaps his best-known play, which won that year's New York           
Critics Circle, Donaldson, and Sidney Howard Memorial awards. In the course of         
his career, Williams accumulated four New York Drama Critics Awards; three             
Donaldson Awards; a Tony Award for his 1951 screenplay, The Rose Tattoo; a New         
York Film Critics Award for the 1953 film screenplay, A Streetcar Named Desire;         
the Brandeis University Creative Arts Award (1965); a Medal of Honor from the           
National Arts Club (1975); the $11,000 Commonwealth Award (1981); and an               
honorary doctorate from Harvard University (1982). He was honored by President         
Carter at Kennedy Center in 1979, and named Distinguished Writer in Residence at       
the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in 1981.                                 
In addition to kudos from critics, Williams held for many years the attention of       
audiences in America and abroad. By 1955 his reputation was firmly established;         
that year's Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ran for 694                   
performances (Roudane xx). Some years after their first Broadway runs, four of         
his plays were revived successfully there: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1974), Summer         
and Smoke (September, 1975), Sweet Bird of Youth (October, 1975), and The Glass         
Menagerie (December, 1975). On the day of Williams's death, the New York evening       
papers issued an impressive list of famous actors who have performed in his             
plays; these include Jessica Tandy, Marlon Brando, Geraldine Page, Paul Newman,         
Maureen Stapleton, Eli Wallach, Tallulah Bankhead, Burl Ives, Katherine Hepburn,       
Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, and Bette Davis (Leverich 5-6). Whether one         
argues that these actors were made famous by Williams's work, or that the               
quality of his work attracted the most popular film and stage performers, the           
connection between Williams and these near-legends of film and stage establishes       
the playwright as one of the most important figures in twentieth-century drama.         
R. Barton Palmer notes that Williams had more influence on the development of           
American cinema than any other twentieth century playwright.                           
The conflicts between sexuality, society, and Christianity, so much a part of           
Williams's drama, played themselves out in his life as well. Having spent almost       
all of his life as a wanderer--a sexual and religious outcast--Williams died on         
February 23, 1983. It is a curious coincidence that Williamsıs life ended in a         
place that shared the name of the apartment building in which one of his best-known     
characters, Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, met her figurative end.         
He died in the Elysee Hotel in New York; the name of the apartment building in         
Streetcar is Elysian Fields. It is perhaps appropriate that Williams died in a         
hotel--the traditional bivouac of wanderers and outcasts--rather than in his           
home at Key West or in New Orleans. He was buried in St. Louis, in a Catholic           
ceremony, at the request of his brother.                                               
His Plays:                                                                             
Tennessee Williams claimed that all of his major plays fit into the "memory play"       
format he described in his production notes for The Glass Menagerie. The memory         
play is a three-part structure: (1) a character experiences something profound;         
(2) that experience causes what Williams terms an "arrest of time," a situation         
in which time literally loops upon itself; and (3) the character must re-live           
that profound experience (caught in a sort of mobius loop of time) until she or         
he makes sense of it. The overarching theme for his plays, he claimed, is the           
negative impact that conventional society has upon the "sensitive nonconformist         
With their emphasis on the irrational, the desperation of humanity in a universe       
in which cosmic laws do not work, and their tragi-comic examination of the             
conflicts between the gentility of old Southern values and the brute force of           
new, Northern values, Williams's plays fit nicely into a genre critics call "Southern   
Gothic." He shares this field with such literary lights as Flannery O'Connor and       
William Faulkner, who, like Williams, struggled with the macabre and eccentric         
natures of individuals in America's South. Although, like Faulkner, Williams           
spent much of his adult life in New York, his work focuses on the Southern