Birthday: March 26, 1911
Died At Age: 71
Sun Sign: Aries
Also Known As: Tennessee Williams, Tennessee Williams, Thomas Lanier Williams III
Born Country: United States
Born in: Columbus, Mississippi, United States
Famous as: American playwright
Quotes By Tennessee Williams
father: Cornelius Coffin Williams
mother: Edwina Williams
siblings: Dakin Williams, Rose Williams
Died on: February 25, 1983
place of death: New York, New York, United States
Diseases & Disabilities: Depression
U.S. State: Mississippi
education: Soldan High School, University City High School, University of Missouri, Washington University in St. Louis, University of Iowa, Dramatic Workshop of The New School
awards: 1959 - New York Drama Critics' Circle Award
- New York Drama Critics' Circle Award
1959 - Donaldson Award
1959 - Tony Award
Who was Tennessee Williams?
Tennessee Williams, one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century, was the man behind unforgettable characters like Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski. He gave the audience characters that they were going to remember for the rest of their life. His plays were a crystal clear vision of the life down South and the different forms and strata of the human society. He has been rightly called the Master playwright, the greatest Southern playwright in the history of American Drama. Just like his characters, he too was troubled and self-destructive. He was addicted to drugs and was a hardcore alcoholic. His plays are autobiographical in nature and we can see glimpses of his own life in his plays. He was a fan of the concept called ‘poetic realism’—when one watches the same thing over and over again, the act seems to take on a symbolic meaning after some time. His plays were filled with extremities which were justified because he believed they were a part of the human condition. What Williams wrote was very honest and came from a heart that had endured everything that he wrote about. His vulnerability was what that made his work so much more important. His genius lay in his heartfelt struggle to tell the world his innermost stories.
Childhood & Early Life
He was born Thomas Lanier Williams in Mississippi to Edwina and Cornelius Coffin Williams. He was the second of three children. He was of English, Welsh and Huguenot descent. His father was a shoe salesman who was always travelling.
When he was young he suffered from diphtheria which nearly killed him and left him weak, fragile and confined indoors. He gained inspiration from his rough childhood and dysfunctional family.
While attending high school he started writing a number of essays which were published in school magazines and newspapers.
He attended the University of Missouri from 1929 to 1931 to study Journalism. In order to earn some extra money, he entered into writing contests. His first submitted play was ‘Beauty Is the Word’ (1930) followed by ‘Hot Milk at Three in the Morning’ (1932).
At the university he joined the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity but it did not work out. After failing a military training course, he was pulled out and made to work at the International Shoe Company by his father. The hatred he felt towards his work made him write even more vigorously.
By the age of 24, he had suffered enough and in 1936 he enrolled at the Washington University. Later he joined the University of Iowa and got a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. He also studied at the Dramatic Workshop in New York.
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After graduation he moved to New Orleans to start a new life. He started going about with a new name- Tennessee.
All through 1940’s he traveled around new places with different jobs.
In 1944, his play ‘The Glass Menagerie’ won the New York Critics Circle Awards. It became an instant success and had a long Broadway run as well.
His next play was an even greater success. This play marked his arrival; ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ in 1947 secured his reputation as a great playwright.
From 1948 to 1959, Williams was an unstoppable force. Seven of his plays were performed in Broadway including ‘Summer and Smoke’ (1948), ‘The Rose Tattoo’ (1951), and ‘Orpheus Descending’ (1957).
He enjoyed a lot of success from the 1940’s up to the 1960’s, but the 1970’s was a difficult time for Williams. His misuse of alcohol and drug lowered the quality of his plays. The death of his partner Merlo and the continuous trips to and from the treatment facilities took a toll on his work.
His last play “A House Not Meant to Stand’ (1982) was a huge hit and received very good reviews; however it could run for only 40 performances.
His first critical and commercial success was ‘The Glass Menagerie’ in 1944. This play is said to be autobiographical with characters and instances from his personal life. This play set the tone for Williams and marked the arrival of the great playwright.
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The 1947 play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ was a reminder of the time when he was taken out of school and forced by his father to slog at the shoe company. The protagonist Stanley Kowalski is in a similar situation and most of the plots are taken from his own personal life.
‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ was a story of a Southern family in crisis. It sheds light on superficiality, sexual desire, repression and death. The dialogue has been written in such a way that phonetically it represents the Southern United states.
Awards & Achievements
‘The Glass Menagerie’ won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1945. It is said to be the strongest play ever produced by Tennessee.
In 1948, the play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and also the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Best Play.
One of his best works and personal favourite, ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1955. The play was later adapted into a motion picture starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman.
Personal Life & Legacy
He was very close to his sister Rose who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Williams moved her to a private institution and visited her often.
A homosexual, Williams had accepted his sexual orientation by 1930 and joined a gay circle. From 1940–47, he was in a few relationships but they didn’t work out.
He met Frank Merlo, with whom he had a long and loving relationship for 14 years until his disloyalty and drug problems started. Williams was most happy when he was with Merlo.
After their breakup, Merlo was diagnosed with lung cancer and he died on 21 September 1963. His death plunged Williams into a deep depression from which he could never recover.
He was found dead in his suite at the Elysee Hotel in New York at the age of 71 in February 1983. He is said to have choked to death on the cap from a bottle of eye-drops.
The Tennessee Williams Theater in Key West, Florida is named after him.
He was also honored by the U.S Postal Service by issuing a stamp in his honour in 1994 as part of their literary arts series.
He has been honored with a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
The 100th anniversary of his birth was celebrated from February 1 to July 21, 2011 by the Harry Ransom Center which exhibited 250 of his personal items.