Tennessee Williams (age 54) photographed by Orland Fernandez in 1965 for the twentieth anniversary of The Glass Menagerie.
|Born||Thomas Lanier Williams
March 26, 1911
Columbus, Mississippi, United States
|Died||February 25, 1983
New York City, New York, United States
|Resting place||Bellefontaine and Calvary Cemeteries|
Pancho Rodríguez y González
|Parents||Edwina and Cornelius Coffin|
Thomas Lanier "Tennessee" Williams III (March 26, 1911 – February 25, 1983) was an American writer who worked principally as a playwright in the American theater. He also wrote short stories, novels, poetry, essays, screenplays and a volume of memoirs. His professional career lasted from the mid-1930s until his death in 1983, and saw the creation of many plays that are regarded as classics of the American stage. Williams adapted much of his best known work for the cinema.
Thomas Lanier Williams III was born of English, Welsh, and Huguenot descent, in Columbus, Mississippi, the second child of Edwina (née Dakin) and Cornelius Coffin (C.C.) Williams.:11 His maternal grandfather, the Reverend Walter Dakin, was the local Episcopal priest, and his grandmother, Rose O. Dakin, was a music teacher. His father was a hard-drinking traveling shoe salesman who spent most of his time away from home. His mother, Edwina, was an archetype of the 'Southern belle', whose social aspirations tilted toward snobbery and whose behavior could be neurotic and hysterical. Shortly after Williams' birth, his grandfather Dakin was assigned to a parish in Clarksdale, Mississippi and Williams' early childhood was spent in the parsonage there.
As a small child Williams suffered from a case of diphtheria which nearly ended his life and left him weak and virtually confined to his house during a period of recuperation that lasted a year. At least in part as a result of his illness, he was less robust as a child than his father would have wished. Cornelius Williams, a descendant of hardy east Tennessee pioneer stock (hence Williams' professional name), had a violent temper and was a man prone to use his fists. He disdained his son's effeminacy and his mother Edwina, locked in an unhappy marriage, focused her overbearing attention almost entirely on her frail young son. Many critics and historians note that Williams found inspiration for much of his writing in his own dysfunctional family. His biographer Donald Spoto adds "[Williams] work is a series of variations on the great emotional cycles of his own tortured life" (xviii).
When Williams was eight years old his father was promoted to a job at the home office of the International Shoe Company in St. Louis, Missouri. His mother's continual search for what she considered to be an appropriate address, as well as his father's heavy drinking and loudly turbulent behavior, caused them to move numerous times around the city. He attended Soldan High School, a setting he referred to in his play The Glass Menagerie. Later he studied at University City High School. At age 16, Williams won third prize (five dollars) for an essay published in Smart Set entitled, "Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?" A year later, his short story "The Vengeance of Nitocris" was published in the August 1928 issue of the magazine Weird Tales. That same year he first visited Europe with his grandfather.
From 1929 to 1931, he attended the University of Missouri, in Columbia, where he enrolled in journalism classes. Williams found his classes boring, however, and was distracted by his unrequited love for a girl. He was soon entering his poetry, essays, stories, and plays in writing contests, hoping to earn extra income. His first submitted play was Beauty Is the Word (1930), followed by Hot Milk at Three in the Morning (1932). As recognition for Beauty, a play about rebellion against religious upbringing, he became the first freshman to receive honorable mention in a writing competition.:15
At University of Missouri, Williams joined the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, but he did not fit in well with his fraternity brothers. According to Hale, the "brothers found him shy and socially backward, a loner who spent most of his time at the typewriter." After he failed a military training course in his junior year, his father pulled him out of school and put him to work at the International Shoe Company factory. Although Williams, then 21, hated the monotony, the job "forced him out of the pretentious gentility" of his upbringing, which had, according to Hale, "tinged him with [his mother's] snobbery and detachment from reality.":15 His dislike of his new nine-to-five routine drove him to write even more than before, and he set himself a goal of writing one story a week, working on Saturday and Sunday, often late into the night. His mother recalled his intensity:
Overworked, unhappy and lacking any further success with his writing, by his twenty-fourth birthday he had suffered a nervous breakdown and left his job. Memories of this period, and a particular factory co-worker, became part of the character Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.:15 By the mid-1930s his father's increasing alcoholism and abusive temper (he had part of his ear bitten off in a poker game fight) finally led Edwina to separate from him, although they never divorced.
In 1936 Williams enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis where he wrote the play Me, Vashya (1937). By 1938 he had moved on to University of Iowa graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. He later studied at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York City. Speaking of his early days as a playwright and referring to an early collaborative play called Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay!, produced while he was a part of an amateur summer theater group in Memphis, Tennessee, Williams wrote, "The laughter ... enchanted me. Then and there the theatre and I found each other for better and for worse. I know it's the only thing that saved my life." Around 1939, he adopted "Tennessee Williams" as his professional name. Whether it was from, as he once wrote, "a desire to climb the family tree," or that his fraternity brothers nicknamed him for his thick southern drawl, no one seems to know.
Williams' writings include mention of some of the poets and writers he most admired in his early years: Hart Crane, Anton Chekhov (from the age of ten), William Shakespeare, D. H. Lawrence, August Strindberg, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Emily Dickinson. In later years the list grew to include William Inge, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway; of the latter, he said "[his] great quality, aside from his prose style, is this fearless expression of brute nature.":xi
In the late 1930s, as the young playwright struggled to have his work accepted, Williams supported himself with a string of menial jobs (including a notably disastrous stint as caretaker on a chicken ranch outside Los Angeles). In 1939, with the help of his agent, Audrey Wood, he was awarded a $1,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in recognition of his play Battle of Angels which was produced in Boston in 1940, but poorly received.
Using the remainder of the Rockefeller funds, Williams moved to New Orleans in 1939 to write for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federally funded program begun by President Franklin D. Roosevelt which was created to put people back to work and helped many artists, musicians and writers survive during the Great Depression. He lived for a time in the French Quarter; first at 722 Toulouse Street, the setting of his 1977 play Vieux Carré. (The building is now part of The Historic New Orleans Collection). The Rockefeller grant gained him attention and Williams received a six-month contract from the Metro Goldwyn Mayer film studio in Hollywood, earning $250 weekly.
During the winter of 1944–45, his "memory play" The Glass Menagerie was successfully produced in Chicago garnering good reviews. It moved to New York where it became an instant and enormous hit during its long Broadway run. The play tells the story of a young man, Tom, his disabled sister, Laura, and their controlling mother Amanda, who tries to make a match between Laura and a gentleman caller. Williams' use of his own familial relationships as inspiration for the play is impossible to miss. Elia Kazan (who directed many of Williams' greatest successes) said of Williams: "Everything in his life is in his plays, and everything in his plays is in his life." The Glass Menagerie won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best play of the season.
The huge success of his next play, A Streetcar Named Desire, in 1947 secured his reputation as a great playwright. Although widely celebrated and increasingly wealthy, he was still restless and insecure in the grip of fears that he would not be able to duplicate his success. During the late 1940s and 1950s Williams began to travel widely with his partner Frank Merlo, often spending summers in Europe. To stimulate his writing he moved often, to various cities including New York, New Orleans, Key West, Rome, Barcelona, and London. Williams wrote, "Only some radical change can divert the downward course of my spirit, some startling new place or people to arrest the drift, the drag.":xv
Between 1948 and 1959 seven of his plays were performed on Broadway: Summer and Smoke (1948), The Rose Tattoo (1951), Camino Real (1953), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), Orpheus Descending (1957), Garden District (1958), and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959). By 1959 he had earned two Pulitzer Prizes, three New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards, three Donaldson Awards, and a Tony Award.
His work reached world-wide audiences in the early 1950s when The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire were made into motion pictures. Later plays also adapted for the screen included Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Rose Tattoo, Orpheus Descending, The Night of the Iguana, Sweet Bird of Youth, and Summer and Smoke.
After the extraordinary successes of the 1940s and 1950s, the 1960s and 1970s brought personal turmoil and theatrical failures. Although he continued to write every day, the quality of his work suffered from his increasing alcohol and drug consumption as well as occasional poor choices of collaborators. Consumed by depression over the death of his partner Merlo, and in and out of treatment facilities under the control of his mother and younger brother Dakin, Williams spiraled downward. Kingdom of Earth (1967), In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (1969), Small Craft Warnings (1973), The Two Character Play (also called Out Cry, 1973), The Red Devil Battery Sign (1976), Vieux Carré (1978), Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980) and others were all box office failures, and the relentlessly negative press notices wore down his spirit. His last play, A House Not Meant To Stand was produced in Chicago in 1982 and, despite largely positive reviews, ran for only 40 performances.
Critics and audiences alike failed to appreciate Williams' new style and the approach to theater he developed during 1960s. Williams said, “I’ve been working very hard since 1969 to make an artistic comeback…there is no release short of death”(Spoto 335), and “I want to warn you, Elliot, the critics are out to get me. You’ll see how vicious they are. They make comparisons with my earlier work, but I’m writing differently now” (Spoto 331). Leverich explains that Williams to the end was concerned with "the depths and origin of human feelings and motivations, the difference being that he had gone into a deeper, more obscure realm, which, of course, put the poet in him to the fore, and not the playwright who would bring much concern for audience and critical reaction” (xxiii).
Throughout his life Williams remained close to his sister Rose who was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young woman. In 1943, as her behavior became increasingly disturbing, she was submitted to a lobotomy, unfortunately with disastrous results, and subsequently institutionalized for the rest of her life. As soon he was financially able to, Williams had her moved to a private institution just north of New York City where he often visited her. He gave her a percentage interest in several of his most successful plays, the royalties from which paid for her care. The devastating effects of Rose's illness may have contributed to Williams' alcoholism and his dependence on various combinations of amphetamines and barbiturates.
After some early attempts at heterosexual relationships, by the late 1930s Williams had accepted his homosexuality. In New York he joined a gay social circle which included fellow writer and close friend Donald Windham (1920–2010) and his then partner Fred Melton. In the summer of 1940 Williams initiated an affair with Kip Kiernan (1918–1944), a young Canadian dancer he met in Provincetown, Massachusetts. When Kiernan left him to marry a woman he was distraught, and Kiernan's death four years later at 26 delivered another heavy blow.
On a 1945 visit to Taos, New Mexico, Williams met Pancho Rodríguez y González, a hotel clerk of Mexican heritage. Rodríguez was, by all accounts, a loving and loyal companion. However, he was also prone to jealous rages and excessive drinking, and so the relationship was a tempestuous one. Nevertheless, in February 1946 Rodríguez left New Mexico to join Williams in his New Orleans apartment. They lived and traveled together until late 1947 when Williams ended the affair. Rodríguez and Williams remained friends, however, and were in contact as late as the 1970s.
Williams spent the spring and summer of 1948 in Rome in the company of a teen-aged Italian boy, called "Rafaello" in Williams' Memoirs, to whom he provided financial assistance for several years afterwards, a situation which planted the seed of Williams' first novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. When he returned to New York that spring, he met and fell in love with Frank Merlo (1922–1963), an occasional actor of Sicilian heritage who had served in the U.S. Navy in World War II.
This one enduring romantic relationship of Williams' life lasted 14 years until infidelities and drug abuse on both sides ended it. Merlo, who became Williams' personal secretary, taking on most of the details of their domestic life, provided a period of happiness and stability as well as a balance to the playwright's frequent bouts with depression and the fear that, like his sister Rose, he would fall into insanity. Their years together, in an apartment in Manhattan and a modest house in Key West, Florida, were Williams' happiest and most productive. Shortly after their breakup, Merlo was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and Williams returned to take care of him until his death on September 21, 1963.
As he had feared, in the years following Merlo's death Williams was plunged into a period of nearly catatonic depression and increasing drug use resulting in several hospitalizations and commitments to mental health facilities. He submitted to injections by Dr. Max Jacobson – known popularly as Dr. Feelgood – who used increasing amounts of amphetamines to overcome his depression and combined these with prescriptions for the sedative Seconal to relieve his insomnia. Williams appeared several times in interviews in a nearly incoherent state, and his reputation both as a playwright and as a public personality suffered. He was never truly able to recoup his earlier success, or to entirely overcome his dependence on prescription drugs.
On February 25, 1983, Williams was found dead in his suite at the Elysee Hotel in New York at age 71. The medical examiner's report indicated that he choked to death on the cap from a bottle of eye drops he frequently used, further indicating that his use of drugs and alcohol may have contributed to his death by suppressing his gag reflex. Prescription drugs, including barbiturates, were found in the room. Some people have questioned the official account of Williams's death. Forensic detective and expert Michael Baden reviewed the medical files in regard to Williams's death, and stated that the results showed that Williams died of a drug and alcohol overdose, not from choking. Williams's friend, playwright Larry Myers, said that the autopsy report was later modified to state that Williams actually died of acute seconal intolerance, and his friend Scott Kenan said that someone in the coroner's office invented the bottle cap scenario in the first place.
Contrary to his expressed wishes but at his brother Dakin Williams' insistence, Williams was interred in the Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, Missouri. Williams had long told his friends he wanted to be buried at sea at approximately the same place as Hart Crane, a poet he considered to be one of his most significant influences.
Williams left his literary rights to The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee in honor of his grandfather, Walter Dakin, an alumnus of the university. The funds support a creative writing program. When his sister Rose died in 1996 after many years in a mental institution, she bequeathed $7 million from her part of the Williams estate to The University of the South as well.
From February 1 to July 21, 2011, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, the home of Williams' archive, exhibited 250 of his personal items. The exhibit, entitled "Becoming Tennessee Williams," included a collection of Williams manuscripts, correspondence, photographs and artwork.
In late 2009, Williams was inducted into the Poets' Corner at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine. Performers who took part in his induction included Vanessa Redgrave, John Guare, Eli Wallach, Sylvia Miles, Gregory Mosher, and Ben Griessmeyer.
The Tennessee Williams Theater in Key West, Florida, is named for him.
At the time of his death, Williams had been working on a final play, In Masks Outrageous and Austere, which attempted to reconcile certain forces and facts of his own life, a theme which ran throughout his work, as Elia Kazan had said. As of September 2007, author Gore Vidal was in the process of completing the play, and Peter Bogdanovich was slated to direct its Broadway debut. The play finally received its world premiere in New York City in April 2012, directed by David Schweizer and starring Shirley Knight as Babe.
The Williams family home in Columbus, Mississippi, was recently renovated and reopened.
Williams's literary legacy is represented by the literary agency headed by Georges Borchardt.
Williams was honored by the U.S. Postal Service on a stamp in 1994 as part of their literary arts series.
Characters in his plays are often seen as representations of his family members. Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie was understood to be modeled on Rose. Some biographers believed that the character of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire is also based on her.
Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie was generally seen to represent Williams' mother, Edwina. Characters such as Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie and Sebastian in Suddenly, Last Summer were understood to represent Williams himself. In addition, he used a lobotomy operation as a motif in Suddenly, Last Summer.
The Pulitzer Prize for Drama was awarded to A Streetcar Named Desire in 1948 and to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955. These two plays were later filmed, with great success, by noted directors Elia Kazan (Streetcar) with whom Williams developed a very close artistic relationship, and Richard Brooks (Cat). Both plays included references to elements of Williams' life such as homosexuality, mental instability, and alcoholism. Although The Flowering Peach by Clifford Odets was the preferred choice of the Pulitzer Prize jury in 1955 and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was at first considered the weakest of the five shortlisted nominees, Joseph Pulitzer Jr., chairman of the Board, had seen Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and thought it worthy of the drama prize. The Board went along with him after considerable discussion.
Williams wrote The Parade, or Approaching the End of a Summer when he was 29 and worked on it sporadically throughout his life. A semi-autobiographical depiction of his 1940 romance with Kip Kiernan in Provincetown, Massachusetts, it was produced for the first time on October 1, 2006 in Provincetown by the Shakespeare on the Cape production company, as part of the First Annual Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival.
Williams wrote over 70 one-act plays during his lifetime. The one-acts explored many of the same themes that dominated his longer works. Williams' major collections are published by New Directions in New York City.
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