Tennessee Williams is considered one of the most successful American playwrights of the mid-1900s. Ben Brantley’s summary on ‘A Century of American Theatre’ states that “by the mid- 1950s, “the burden of American drama rested mostly on the shoulders of two men, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.” In the remaining years of the century, many of the successful plays have been derivative of Williams’ work.” (Tischler).
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Tennessee Williams’ life and works have remained the topic of a series of discussions after his accidental death in 1983. Some of his plays are regarded as the greatest in American theatre. “If Williams is not the most important American playwright, he certainly is one of the most celebrated, rivaled only by Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller.” (Kolin). His career, spanning over fifty years, has enriched the American theatre and classic literature with over seventy plays, four collections of stories, two collections of poems, two novels, five volumes of essays, innumerable one-act plays, and memoirs. He had received numerous accolades for his outstanding work in poetry and plays, including Pulitzer prizes on two occasions. “More than a half-century has passed since critics and theatre-goers recognized Williams as an important American playwright, whose plays fellow dramaturge David Mamet calls “the greatest dramatic poetry in the American language” (Haley, para 2).
This paper investigates the life of Tennessee Williams and the influence of his life on his works. The paper also examines the people in Tennessee’s life and how they became a part of his literary works.
Born as Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbia, Mississippi on March 26, 1911, Tennessee Williams was the first son of Edwina Williams and Cornelius Williams. He had an elder sister, Rose, who was known to have psychological problems due to emotional disturbances and he had a younger brother, Dakin. His father was a salesman of international shoe manufacturers and was reported to be very abusive. William was brought up in his maternal grandfather’s house, who was an Episcopal priest of Welsh origin. Since his father’s abuse became worse as the children grew up, Williams was more attached to his grandfather, Walter Dakin, than his father.
The Williams family moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi when Thomas was three. It was from there at the age of five that Thomas caught diphtheria which caused the paralysis of his legs for almost two years. Though his father disliked this weak child, Thomas’s mother, Edwina, encouraged her son to read and write stories. She was also said to suffer from emotional disorders which often led to violent conflict between his parents. It is said that much of the inspiration for Tennessee’s works came from the emotionally disturbing background of his family.
At the age of seven, the family moved to St. Louis, University City in Mississippi where Thomas attended his schools. It is from there he learned the inequalities between the rich and the poor. The family, in general, belonged to the poor and unprivileged class and all these have affected Thomas’s life to a great extent.
William attended the first school at the age of seven at the Soldan High School. He later moved to the University City High School. He joined the University of Missouri in the early 1930s and was a member of the Alpha Tao Omega Fraternity. By the late 1930s, he moved to Washington University in St. Louis. “Williams’ Deep South accent and poverty made him a target of his schoolmates and earned him later from his university classmates the nickname “Tennessee”.” (Liukkonen, para 3).
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Since his family did not have enough funds to support Tennessee in college, he was forced to take up a job to provide for his family. He worked in his father’s shoe company for two years and then continued his studies at the University of Iowa. Thomas obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1938 from the University of Iowa. “During this period he became aware that he had a homosexual tendency. In an interview Williams confessed, that he had his first consummated homosexual love affair at the age of 28.” (Liukkonen, para 4).
Tennessee Williams as a writer
Williams’ skills for observation and writing were first encouraged by his mother. It was she who took care of him during the years when he was paralyzed. His mother bought him his first typewriter at the age of thirteen. William continued his writing throughout his school and college years and when he was working in the shoe factory. While attending school at the age of sixteen, William won his first recognition for writing by winning five dollars for his essay ‘Can a Good Wife be a Good Sport’ that was published in Smart Set titles. In 1928, he published his next work in Weird Tales, ‘The Vengeance of Nitocris’. He decided to become a play writer after seeing Ghosts, a Henrik Ibsen production, in 1929.
Two of his plays, Candles to the sun and The fugitive kind were produced by Mummers, St. Louis in 1937. His work, Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay! , was produced by 1780 Glenview in 1935. The Battle of Angels played first in 1940, produced by the Theatre Guild, had starred Miriam Hopkins. This was the first professionally produced play by Williams but was closed due to controversies regarding censorship and was not welcomed by the audience. “I’m glad now that the play was not a success,” Williams said later. “If it had been, it would have gone to my head and I would have thought I knew all there was to know about playwriting.”” (Liukkonen, para 5).
The first big success of Tennessee Williams was The Glass Menagerie and is still considered his masterpiece. The play ran for over one full year on Broadway and won the New York Critics Circle award in 1945. “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).” (Haley, para 3).
The streetcar named desire and the Cat on a Hot Tin roof fetched him the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 and 1955 respectively. “Tennessee Williams received the Pulitzer Prizes, the Donaldson Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1947, the first playwright to receive all the three in the same year.” (Haley). He had become an established playwright by 1955 with many successful Broadway runs to his credit.
The influence of his life on his works
The places and people in Williams’ life had influenced his works to a great extent. The Two Rivers County created by Williams is inspired by the Delta Country in Clarksdale where Williams grew up as a child. “Many of the people in that town were to provide the names and details of the characters he later used in his plays and stories: families like the Cutreres, Bobos, Wingfields, and first names like Brick, Blanche, and Baby Doll.” (Tischler).
However, it was his family members who influenced Williams the most. His mother Edwina has inspired the overprotective mother in many of his plays. His rough, violent father was also portrayed as the bullying Big Daddy. His famous character, Stanley Kowalski, was actually his colleague while he worked at the shoe factory and also reflected his rough gambling father.
Many of his plays had the theme of a mad heroine, which is believed to be influenced by his mentally unstable sister, Rose. After moving to St. Louis, Thomas was more disturbed with the large crowded city and became closer to his sister. The fragile female character of Laura Winfield, in The Glass Menagerie, was actually a representation of his beloved sister, whose lobotomy had disturbed him very much and later led to his alcoholism. He also portrayed his loving grandfather, who acted as the father figure of the Williams family, as Nonno in The Night of the Iguana. “In 1928 Williams traveled with his grandfather to Europe and inspired by its atmosphere and culture he wrote much poetry.” (Liukkonen, para 3).
The Glass Menagerie is believed to be a biography of his own life with Tom protecting his mother and sister. With the character of Tom Winfield, he actually portrayed himself, expressing the struggles of a budding writer. Tom’s miserable life as a worker at a shoe factory, his homosexual characteristics, the guilt in leaving his beloved sister and mother, etc parallel Williams’ own life. The character of Amanda as Tom’s mother bears similarities to his own mother Edwina.
Tennessee Williams met Frank Merlo in 1947 and their relationship lasted till 1963 when Merlo died of cancer. Frank Merlo, a Sicilian American, was Williams’ solace during his years of depression. Merlo Helped Williams to maintain his mental balance with the support he needed. Most of his successful works were created after Merlo entered Williams’ life as a partner.
“The conflicts between sexuality, society, and Christianity, so much a part of Williams’ drama, played themselves out in his life as well.” (Haley, para 5). By 1961, Tennessee Williams became the greatest living playwright of America. However, his later works were not as successful as his early plays. Even though William himself appeared as his characters in his plays, they did not make big successes. Critics commented his works as inferior to his earlier works.
In 1983, Tennessee Williams died in a hotel room in New York. As Elia Kazan quotes in her autobiography on Tennessee Williams’, the Life, “There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people. Some are a little better or a little worse but all are activated more by misunderstanding than malice. Blindness to what is going on in each other’s hearts. Stanley sees Blanche not as a desperate, driven creature backed into the last corner to make a last desperate stand – but as a calculating bitch with ’round heels’… Nobody sees anybody truly but all through the flaws of their own egos. That is the way we all see each other in life.” (Liukkonen, para 1).
Haley, Darryl Erwin. “Certain Moral Values”: A Rhetoric of Outcasts in the Plays of Tennessee Williams: Preface. 1999. Web.
Haley, Darryl E. Thomas Lanier Williams March26, 1911 to February 23, 1983: His Life. 8 Nov. 2009. Web.
Kolin, Philip C. Tennessee Williams A Guide to Research and Performance. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. Questia. 1998. Web.
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Liukkonen, Petri. Tennessee Williams (1911-198) – Original Name Thomas Lanier Williams. Books and Writers. 2008. Web.
Tischler, Nancy M. Student Companion to Tennessee Williams. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. Questia. 2000. Web.