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.
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
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.
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'
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.
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
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.
*all are plays unless otherwise noted
of Angels. New York: New
Glass Menagerie. New York: Random
Wagons Full of Cotton, and Other One-Act Plays.
New York: New Directions, 1947.
Touched Me! (with Donald
Windham). New York: Samuel French, 1947.
Streetcar Named Desire. New York:
New Directions, 1947.
and Smoke. New York: New
Arm, and Other Stories. New York:
New Directions, 1948.
Blues: Five Short Plays. New
York: Dramatists Play Service, 1948.
Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone
(novel). New York: New Directions, 1950.
Rose Tattoo. New York: New
Rise in Flame, Cried the Phoenix.
New York: New Directions, 1951.
Real. New York: New Directions,
Candy: A Book of Stories. New
York: New Directions, 1954.
on a Hot Tin Roof. New York: New
Doll: The Script for the Film.
New York: New American Library, 1956.
the Winter of Cities: Poems. New
York: New Directions, 1956.
Descending, with Battle of Angels.
New York: New Directions, 1958.
Last Summer. New Directions,
District: Two Plays (Something
Unspoken and Suddenly Last Summer). London: Secker and Warburg, 1959.
Players of a Summer Game. London:
Secker and Warburg, 1960.
Bird of Youth. New York: New
of Adjustment. New York: New
Night of the Iguana. New York:
New Directions, 1961.
Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore.
New York: New Directions, 1964.
Knightly Quest: A Novella and Four Short Stories.
New York: New Directions, 1967.
of Earth: The Seven Descents of Myrtle.
New York: New Directions, 1968.
Two-Character Play. New York: New
Directions, 1969. Later revised as Out Cry.
the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel. New
York: Dramatists Play Service, 1969.
Country: A Book of Plays. New
York: New Directions, 1970.
Tragedy: The Mutilated and The
Gnädiges Fräulein. New York: New Directions, 1970.
Theater of Tennessee Williams.
Eight volumes. New York: New Directions, 1971-1981.
Craft Warnings. New York: New
Mortal Ladies Possessed: A Book of Stories. New York: New Directions, 1974.
and the World of Reason (novel).
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975.
(autobiography). New York: Doubleday, 1975.
Mon Amour: Poems. New York: New
I Live: Selected Essays. New
York: New Directions, 1978.
Carré. New York: New Directions,
Lovely Sunday for Creve Couer.
New York: New Directions, 1980.
for a Summer Hotel. New York:
Dramatists Play Service, 1981.