Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams

Thomas Lanier ("Tennessee") Williams, b. Columbus, Miss., Mar. 26, 1911, d. Feb. 25, 1983, was an outstanding American playwright and the author of film scripts, short stories, novels, and verse. He was known for his innovations in theatrical technique, as well as for his Southern idioms, compelling dialogue, and themes that--for their time--often seemed strange or shocking. Williams vividly conveyed the sexual tensions and suppressed violence of his tormented characters, usually with compassion as well as irony.

He won Pulitzer Prizes for A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Many believed that The Glass Menagerie deserved one as well.

During the Depression Williams worked as a factory hand and, after attending the University of Missouri and Washington University, graduated from the University of Iowa in 1938. Writing under his nickname, Tennessee, he began his career auspiciously with a Group Theater award (1939) for four one-act plays later published (1948) under the collective title American Blues. After a disappointment in his first professional production, Battle of Angels (1940), Williams combined semiautobiographical material with innovative technique in The Glass Menagerie (1945; film, 1950), and with this secured both that year's New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and lasting fame in the American theater.

Themes of Sexual Frustration

The unsuccessful dramatization of a D. H. Lawrence story, You Touched Me! (1945), on which Williams collaborated with Donald Windham, was followed by the first of a series of plays dealing with sexual frustration, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947; film, 1951), the most effective of all Williams's works. A compelling portrait of personal disintegration, this drama, like The Glass Menagerie and most of Williams's subsequent plays, has a cast of naturalistic characters whose personalities are illuminated by imaginative staging. Williams studied the problems of solitary women in two more plays: Summer and Smoke (1948; revised as The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, 1965), a melodrama in which a Southern spinster attempts to ignore the sensual side of her nature, and The Rose Tattoo (1951; film, 1955), a lusty comedy in which a mature widow, after a long inner struggle, rediscovers love.

Pursuing the experimental aspect of his work, Williams, in Camino Real (1953), peopled a Latin American town with historical and literary characters, lost souls, and sadists. This play, which is still controversial, was eclipsed in public attention by Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955; film, 1958), which returns to Williams's theme of frustrated female passion, this time with the added dimension of male homosexuality.

For his next three plays, Orpheus Descending (1957, a revised version of Battle of Angels; filmed as The Fugitive Kind, 1960), Suddenly, Last Summer (1958; film, 1960), and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959; film, 1961), Williams borrowed elements of the ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to create violent modern plots involving murder, cannibalism, and emasculation. With Period of Adjustment (1959) he pursued a lighter, comic vein in a play about two couples, one just married, and their minor emotional difficulties. The Night of the Iguana (1961; film, 1964), which won both a Drama Critics' Circle Award and a Tony Award, is set in an out-of-the-way Mexican hotel and portrays the interactions of three oddly assorted characters--the widow who runs the hotel, a defrocked minister, and a spinsterish woman who travels with her ancient grandfather.

Later Works

Although Williams continued to offer new plays--such as I Can't Imagine Tomorrow (1970, for television), Demolition Downtown (1976), This Is an Entertainment (1976), and Vieux Carre (1979)--the quality of his plays declined after The Night of the Iguana and The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (1962). An exception was Small Craft Warnings (1972), set in a seacoast bar peopled by a typical Williams cast of wounded characters. Of his nondramatic works, the novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1950; film, 1961) is the best known. Later collections of short stories include The Knightly Quest (1967) and Eight Mortal Ladies Possessed (1974); collections of his verse include In the Winter of Cities (1956) and Androgyne, Mon Amour (1977). Although Williams's Memoirs (1975) reveal a great deal about his personal life, they are disappointing in their lack of comment on his dramaturgy.
Bibliography: Falk, Signi L., Tennessee Williams, rev. ed. (1978); Hirsch, Foster, A Portrait of the Artist: The Plays of Tennessee Williams (1979); Jackson, Esther M., The Broken World of Tennessee Williams (1965); Leavitt, Richard E., The World of Tennessee Williams (1978); Londre, Felicia H., Tennessee Williams (1980); Stanton, Stephen, ed., Tennessee Williams: A Collection of Critical Essays (1977); Tharpe, Jac L., ed., Tennessee Williams: Thirteen Essays (1980); Weales, Gerald, Tennessee Williams (1965); Windham, Donald, ed., Tennessee Williams' Letters to Donald Windham: 1940-65 (1976); The Theatre of Tennessee Williams, 7 vols. (1972-81)