Tennessee Williams

PLAYWRIGHT, AUTHOR

“Stella! Stella!”
—A Streetcar Named Desire

Tennessee Williams is one of the most successful playwrights of the twentieth century, with a body of work that includes The Glass Menagerie, The Night of the Iguana, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. He won major awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. His writings often had an underlying conflict with sex and violence, possibly because of the frustration he faced as a homosexual living in a time when his lifestyle was not accepted, and possibly because of the violence he witnessed as a child. He is an American literary legend, and a Missourian through and through.

THE EARLY YEARS

Location of Saint Louis in MissouriThomas Lanier Williams was born on March 26, 1911, into a troubled family in Columbus, Mississippi. His father was a traveling salesman who moved the family to St. Louis when he was eight years old.

The young man had an amazing ability to write compelling stories when he was still just a child. His paper, Can a Wife Be a Good Sport?, even won an essay contest sponsored by The Smart Set magazine when he was a teenager. He attended Soldan and University City High Schools in the St. Louis area before setting off for the University of Missouri–Columbia to further his education. He spent a short time in Columbia where the university setting expanded his interest in writing, but his college years coincided with the Depression, which meant that money was tight.  He returned to St. Louis to find a job until he could save enough money to pursue writing.

RISE TO FAME

Williams took a job at the International Shoe Company after leaving college but continued writing in the evenings. The difficult times he endured not only helped build his character but also provided plenty of material for his future manuscripts.  He took classes at Washington University near his home where theatre groups produced some of his works. This small amount of success encouraged him to study dramatic writing at the University of Iowa where he earned his degree in 1938.

Tennessee received his first real recognition as a writer the very next year when he won a Group Theatre Award for his one-act play titled American Blues. The short stories provided some notoriety but certainly not the money he needed to make a living. So Williams continued working side jobs over the next five years while perfecting his craft until his “glass” ceiling finally broke.

SHOW ME SUCCESS

The Glass Menagerie was completed in 1944 and became his first real hit. In the play, Williams portrayed a Southern family living in a tenement in St. Louis.  The play was a work of fiction that included some very real themes from his life. The central character, Laura, was likely patterned after his sister, while the domineering mother was a reflection of his real mother.

His next major play won him a Pulitzer Prize and a place in American theatrical history. A Streetcar Named Desire was the story of the mental and moral ruin of Blanche Du Bois, who was once again based on his sister. More hits followed, including Camino Real (1953) and Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (1955).  The latter play was a huge hit and once again won him a Pulitzer Prize and monetary success.

Williams’ writing always had a conflicting underlying theme, but a pair of life events in the mid-1940s contributed to his dark style even more. His sister had often suffered from mental problems, but intensive therapy did little to help her
condition. Her parents decided on a frontal lobotomy for her in 1944, which didn’t go as planned and left her incapacitated for the rest of her life. She was one of Tennessee’s primary influences, and he never forgave his parents for the procedure. His other main struggle was a homosexual relationship with his secretary, Frank Merlo. Same-sex couples in the 1940s were taboo, but the committed relationship allowed him to produce some of his best writings.

He had more success with The Night of the Iguana, Suddenly, Last Summer, and Sweet Bird of Youth. But his health was getting worse in the 1960s, and he struggled with depression following Merlo’s death. He developed addictions to alcohol and sleeping pills, then had a severe mental and physical breakdown and never regained the popularity he previously attained. His next few works provided him little success and even poorer reviews, which was something quite new to him.

Tennessee’s life came to an unceremonious end when he died from choking on a bottle cap at the age of seventy-one at his home in New York City.  Some people believe he was murdered, but a police report indicates pills were found under his body, likely indicating that they believe drugs were involved in his death. He was buried in St. Louis, despite the fact that he asked to be buried at sea near where poet Hart Crane’s body was placed.

EXTRA, EXTRA!

*His abusive father is given credit for being the motivation for many of Tennessee’s dark stories.

*He adopted the pen name “Tennessee” from his father’s upbringing in the Southern state.

 

 

 

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