Thomas Lanier Williams III (March 26, 1911–February 25, 1983), better known by the pen name Tennessee Williams, was a major American playwright and one of the prominent playwrights of the twentieth century. The name "Tennessee" was a name given to him by college friends because of his southern accent and his father's background in Tennessee. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for A Streetcar Named Desire in 1948 and for Cat On a Hot Tin Roof in 1955. In addition to those two plays, The Glass Menagerie in 1945 and The Night of the Iguana in 1961 received the New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards. His 1952 play The Rose Tattoo (dedicated to his partner, Frank Merlo), received the Tony Award for best play. Genre critics maintain that Williams writes in the Southern Gothic style.
Tennessee Williams's family was a troubled one that provided inspiration for much of his writings. He was born in Columbus, Mississippi, in the home of his paternal grandfather, the local Episcopal rector. (The home is now the Mississippi Welcome Center and tourist office for the city.) His family moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi by the time he was three. At seven, Tennessee was diagnosed with diphtheria. For two years he could do almost nothing. His mother wasn't going to allow him to waste his time, so she encouraged him to use his imagination a lot. When he was thirteen, his mother gave him a typewriter.
In 1918, the family moved again to St. Louis, Missouri. His father, Cornelius Williams, was a travelling shoe salesman who became increasingly abusive as his children grew older. His mother, Edwina Williams, was a descendant of genteel southern life, and was somewhat smothering. Dakin Williams, his brother, was often favored over him by their father. In the early 1930s Williams attended the University of Missouri-Columbia where he was a member of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity. It was there that his fraternity brothers dubbed him Tennessee for his rich southern drawl. By 1935, Williams wrote his first publicly performed play, "Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay!" at 1917 Snowden in Memphis, Tennessee. It was first performed in 1935 at 1780 Glenview, also in Memphis.
Williams lived in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana. He first moved there in 1939 to write for the WPA and lived first at 722 Toulouse Street (now a bed and breakfast). He wrote A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) while living at 632 St. Peter Street.
Tennessee was close to his sister, Rose, who had perhaps the greatest influence on him. She was a slim beauty who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and spent most of her adult life in mental hospitals. After various unsuccessful attempts at therapy, she became paranoid. Her parents eventually allowed a prefrontal lobotomy in an effort to treat her. The operation, performed in 1943, in Washington, D.C., went badly, and Rose remained incapacitated for the rest of her life.
Rose's failed lobotomy was a hard blow to Williams, who never forgave her parents for allowing the operation. It may have been one of the factors that drove him to alcoholism. The common "mad heroine" theme that appears in many of his plays may have been influenced by his sister.
Characters in his plays are often seen to be direct representations of his family members. Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie is understood to be modelled on Rose. Some biographers say that the character of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire is based on her as well. The motif of lobotomy also arises in Suddenly, Last Summer. Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie can easily be seen to represent Williams's mother. Many of his characters are considered autobiographical, including Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie and Sebastian in Suddenly, Last Summer. Actress Anne Meacham was a close personal friend of Tennessee Williams and played the lead in many of his plays including Suddenly, Last Summer.
In his memoirs, he claims he became sexually active as a teenager. His biographer, Lyle Leverich, maintained this actually occurred later, in his late 20s. His relationship with his secretary, Frank Merlo, lasted from 1947 until Merlo's death from cancer in 1963, and provided stability when Williams produced his most enduring works. Merlo provided balance to many of Williams's frequent bouts with depression, especially the fear that like his sister, Rose, he would go insane. The death of his lover drove Williams into a deep, decade-long episode of depression.
Williams was the victim of a gay-bashing in January 1979 in Key West. He was beaten by five teenage boys, but was not seriously injured. The episode was part of a spate of anti-gay violence that had occurred after a local Baptist minister ran an anti-homosexuality newspaper ad. Some of his literary critics spoke ill of the "excesses" present in his work, but some believe that these were attacks on Williams's sexuality.
Tennessee Williams died at the age of 71 after he choked on a bottle cap. However, some (among them his brother, Dakin) believe he was murdered. Alternately, the police report from his death seems to indicate that drugs were involved, as it states that pills were found under his body.
Williams was interred in the Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, Missouri, despite his stated desire to be buried at sea at approximately the same place as the poet Hart Crane, whom he considered one of his most significant influences. He left his literary rights to Sewanee, The University of the South in honor of his grandfather, Walter Dakin, an alumnus of the university located in Sewanee, Tennessee. The funds today support a creative writing program.
In 1989 Williams was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
Plays (chronological order)
Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: