Tennessee Williams

Writers, and artists of all kinds, are not generally known for their simple and consistent characters, but in a field of endeavor heavily populated with complex personalities, Tennessee Williams was more complicated than most. Born in a small Southern town in the early years of the twentieth century, the grandson of a minister, Williams was by birth and upbringing a moral, conservative, even puritanical person. As a writer, he repeatedly attacked deliberate cruelty as the greatest human fault. Hannah in The Night of the Iguana, echoing the famous line of Plautus, speaks for Williams when she says, "Nothing human disgusts me unless it's unkind, violent." Yet he was himself capable of acts of startling insensitivity. Although he was a hypochondriac who went through prolonged periods of emotional instability and heavy dependence on alcohol and prescription drugs, he held fast for more than forty years to a vision of artistic integrity and maintained a scrupulous self-discipline that enabled him to produce two novels, several volumes of short stories, and above all a number of full-length plays. This sustained body of work has earned him a place second only to Eugene O'Neill among the handful of genuine artists and innovators of the American theater.

Early Years

The playwright that the world would know as Tennessee was born in Columbus, Mississippi, with the name Thomas Lanier Williams, on March 26, 1911. As a young man, Williams shaved three years from his age in order to enter a contest for writers twenty-five and under, and thus some older reference works give the year of his birth as 1914. His father, Cornelius, was originally from Tennessee, and was a traveling representative--not a lineman, as has frequently been assumed--for the telephone company. His mother, Edwina (Dakin) Williams, was the daughter of the Reverend Walter Edwin Dakin, an Episcopal minister.

With Cornelius away on business much of the time, Edwina lived in her parents' home with Tom and his adored older sister, Rose. He idolized his grandparents, especially his grandfather, and the forcible separation from them was not the least of the shocks that he suffered in 1918, when his father moved the family to St. Louis, where he had taken a position with the International Shoe Company. The children, who were both physically and emotionally frail, were deeply upset by the abrupt transition from a stable, secure existence in a quiet Southern town to life in a large, industrial, fast-paced city. Here may lie the origin of one of Williams' most common themes, the clash of innocence and nostalgic gentility with crassness and ruthless power.

Williams was not especially close to his younger brother, Walter Dakin, born in St. Louis in 1919, and he was quite distant from his father, a gambler, drinker, and womanizer who was openly hostile toward his "sissy" older son. Williams had an intense and complex relationship with his strong-willed, neurotic mother, and was throughout his life devoted to his sister, whose delicate emotional state led to her being institutionalized for the greater portion of her adult life. These levels of relationship are clearly reflected in The Glass Menagerie, Williams' most overtly autobiographical play, not only by the dominant presence of the mother, but also by the absence of the father and the nonexistence of the brother.

After graduating from high school in 1929, Williams undertook a cycle of work, both clerical and manual, and study at several universities, before finally attaining a bachelor of arts degree, with a major in English, from the State University of Iowa in 1938. It was during these college years that, in addition to constant writing of his own--stories, poems, and plays--he discovered the writers who would mean the most to him, including the American poet Hart Crane and the Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov, whose depiction of the complexities and ambiguities of human nature and whose luminous compassion for his characters would strongly influence Williams' cultivation of the same traits.

Literary Career

In 1938, Williams submitted Not About Nightingales, a full-length play about a prison uprising, to New York's Group Theater, but without success. In the following year, he moved to New Orleans, the city in which he felt most at home, insofar as he could feel at home anywhere, and which was to be the setting of some of his most personal later plays. Battle of Angels, his first full-length play to achieve production, failed in Boston in 1940. Several years later, he rewrote this play as Orpheus Descending, which would in turn be filmed in the 1950s as The Fugitive Kind. Williams often revised and adapted his own material: a number of his short stories, for example, were subsequently turned into plays. Success finally arrived with The Glass Menagerie, produced in Chicago in December 1944 and on Broadway the following March. Its tender lyricism and the high quotient of human decency among its characters make it to some degree unlike much of what would come later, and, perhaps partly for these reasons, it has remained one of the most popular, if not the most popular, of Williams' works.

The decade and a half that followed Menagerie would prove to be the zenith of Williams' life and career. In that period, he produced, amid much other estimable work in several genres, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955: the dates are those of Broadway production, not first publication). These two plays are generally considered to be his most powerful, and are the ones that defined in the public awareness the qualities most associated with Williams' name--strong but driven and sometimes brutal men who dominate their families; sensitive yet ambitious women; a kind of folk poetry (hinted at in the evocative titles of the plays), grounded in vigorous speech rhythms, that is somehow both highly stylized and natural-sounding; Southern settings in which contemporary decay embodies a nostalgia for a more refined past. The quality of Williams' life was also significantly enhanced by the films made from these and many others of his plays, films that brought him both wealth and fame.

With the act of cannibalism recollected in Suddenly Last Summer (1958) and the castration at the end of Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), some felt that Williams had begun to falter, trafficking in crude sensationalism in a desperate attempt to recapture the power of his earlier works. These plays were followed by The Night of the Iguana (1960), one of his most fully articulated statements of the combination of sensitivity, resilience, and cunning necessary for survival in a world that seems dedicated to the destruction of the human spirit. Although some found it talky and sentimental, its generally positive notices made it a success, the last theatrical success that Williams would enjoy.

Williams' personal life suffered a catastrophic blow in 1963 with the death, from lung cancer, of Frank Merlo, who for the previous fifteen years had devoted himself totally to Williams' well-being, providing him with love, support, and stability through all the chaotic seasons and changes of his life, even though Williams did not always provide these things in return. Merlo's death, which Williams had tried to cushion in advance by distancing himself from his lover, sent him into an emotional collapse whose effects would dominate the rest of his life. Thereafter, Williams' existence was to be marked by restlessness, rootlessness, and often self-destructive behavior, and by hostile rejections of his work by the same Broadway that had once exalted and lionized him.

Last Years & Legacy

Over his last two decades, Williams played out a painful spectacle of personal and professional floundering. Some of his later plays, such as Out Cry (1971) and A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur (1978), are now undergoing a revaluation that is elevating their status in his canon. But upon their first appearances, the plays of his last two decades were greeted with increasingly harsh notices, some of them couched almost in tones of personal betrayal, and with brief runs, to the point where, near the end of his life, Williams publicly vowed that he would never again allow a new play of his to be staged in New York. The end, when it came, was as bizarre as anything in his plays. On February 24, 1983, at the Hotel Elysée in New York, Williams, while in a drugged state, accidentally ingested the cap to a bottle of barbiturates and choked to death. He was one month short of his seventy-second birthday.

As with any artist, his death provoked a reassessment of his career and significance, and even some of his strongest detractors, most notably John Simon, were forced to conclude that they had undervalued him. Big Daddy, Amanda Wingfield and the "gentleman caller," Stanley Kowalski and his tortured cry of "Stella!"--these and many more characters, phrases, images, and confrontations that permanently transformed the American theater are indelibly imprinted in our collective consciousness. As much as his characters may beg for understanding and compassion in place of judgment, their creator need not fear the judgment that posterity will pronounce upon him.

Principal Works

*all are plays unless otherwise noted

Battle of Angels. New York: New Directions, 1945.

The Glass Menagerie. New York: Random House, 1945.

27 Wagons Full of Cotton, and Other One-Act Plays. New York: New Directions, 1947.

You Touched Me! (with Donald Windham). New York: Samuel French, 1947.

A Streetcar Named Desire. New York: New Directions, 1947.

Summer and Smoke. New York: New Directions, 1948.

One Arm, and Other Stories. New York: New Directions, 1948.

American Blues: Five Short Plays. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1948.

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (novel). New York: New Directions, 1950.

The Rose Tattoo. New York: New Directions, 1951.

I Rise in Flame, Cried the Phoenix. New York: New Directions, 1951.

Camino Real. New York: New Directions, 1953.

Hard Candy: A Book of Stories. New York: New Directions, 1954.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. New York: New Directions, 1955.

Baby Doll: The Script for the Film. New York: New American Library, 1956.

In the Winter of Cities: Poems. New York: New Directions, 1956.

Orpheus Descending, with Battle of Angels. New York: New Directions, 1958.

Suddenly Last Summer. New Directions, 1958.

Garden District: Two Plays (Something Unspoken and Suddenly Last Summer). London: Secker and Warburg, 1959.

Three Players of a Summer Game. London: Secker and Warburg, 1960.

Sweet Bird of Youth. New York: New Directions, 1959.

Period of Adjustment. New York: New Directions, 1960.

The Night of the Iguana. New York: New Directions, 1961.

The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore. New York: New Directions, 1964.

The Knightly Quest: A Novella and Four Short Stories. New York: New Directions, 1967.

Kingdom of Earth: The Seven Descents of Myrtle. New York: New Directions, 1968.

The Two-Character Play. New York: New Directions, 1969. Later revised as Out Cry.

In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1969.

Dragon Country: A Book of Plays. New York: New Directions, 1970.

Slapstick Tragedy: The Mutilated and The Gnädiges Fräulein. New York: New Directions, 1970.

The Theater of Tennessee Williams. Eight volumes. New York: New Directions, 1971-1981.

Small Craft Warnings. New York: New Directions, 1972.

Eight Mortal Ladies Possessed: A Book of Stories. New York: New Directions, 1974.

Moise and the World of Reason (novel). New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975.

Memoirs (autobiography). New York: Doubleday, 1975.

Androgyne, Mon Amour: Poems. New York: New Directions, 1977.

Where I Live: Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1978.

Vieux Carré. New York: New Directions, 1979.

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Couer. New York: New Directions, 1980.

Clothes for a Summer Hotel. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1981.

The Red Devil Battery Sign. New York: New Directions, 1980.