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Williams, Tennessee

Tennessee Williams

Born: March 26, 1914
Columbus, Mississippi
Died: February 25, 1983
New York, New York

American dramatist, playwright, and writer

Tennessee Williams, dramatist and fiction writer, was one of America's major mid-twentieth-century playwrights. He is best known for his powerful plays, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Becoming Tennessee

Tennessee Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Mississippi, on March 26, 1914, the second of three children of Cornelius and Edwina Williams. His father, a traveling salesman, was rarely home and for many years the family lived with his mother's parents. As a result, the young boy developed a close relationship with his grandfather, and also his older sister, Rose. William's family life was never a happy one. His parents were resentful of each other, his mother once describing her husband as "a man's man" who loved to gamble and drink. When his father obtained a position at a shoe factory, the family moved to a crowded, low-rent apartment in St. Louis, Missouri.

About this time, young Thomas adopted the name Tennessee (presumably because many of his descendants hailed from that state). Williams grew to hate St. Louis. He and his sisters were often ridiculed by other students because of their Southern accent. He also skipped school regularly and did poorly in his studies, preferring instead to escape into the world of reading and writing.

At the age of sixteen Williams published his first story. The next year he entered the University of Missouri but left before taking a degree. He worked for two years for a shoe company, spent a year at Washington University (where he had his first plays produced), and earned a bachelor of arts degree from the State University of Iowa in 1938, the year he published his first short story under his literary name, Tennessee Williams.

In 1940 the Theatre Guild produced Williams's Battle of Angels in Boston, Massachusetts. The play was a total failure and was withdrawn after Boston's Watch and Ward Society banned it. Between 1940 and 1945 he lived on grants (donated money) from the Rockefeller Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, on income scraped together from an attempt to write film scripts in Hollywood, and on wages as a waiter-entertainer in Greenwich Village in New York City.

Accomplished playwright

With the production of The Glass Menagerie Williams's fortunes changed. The play opened in Chicago, Illinois, in December 1944 and in New York City in March; it received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Sidney Howard Memorial Award. You Touched Me!, written with Donald Windham, opened on Broadway in 1945. It was followed by publication of eleven one-act plays, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (1946), and two California productions. When A Streetcar Named Desire opened in 1947, New York audiences knew a major playwright had arrived. A Streetcar Named Desire won a Pulitzer Prize. The play combines sensuality, melodrama, and lyrical symbolism (a poetic representation of significant things). A film version was directed by Elia Kazan (1909) and their partnership lasted for more than a decade.

Although the plays that followed Streetcar never repeated its overwhelming success, they kept Williams's name on theater marquees and in films. His novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1950) and three volumes of short stories brought him an even wider audience. Some writers consider Summer and Smoke (1948) Williams's most sensitive play. While The Rose Tattoo (1951) played to appreciative audiences, Camino Real (1953) played to confused ones. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) was a smashing success and won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize.

Baby Doll (an original Williams-Kazan film script, 1956) was followed by the dramas Orpheus Descending (1957), Garden District (1958; two one-act plays, Something Unspoken and Suddenly Last Summer ), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), Period of Adjustment (1960), and The Night of the Iguana (1961). With these plays, critics charged Williams with publicly trying to solve personal problems, while including confused symbolism, sexual obsessions, thin characterizations, and violence and corruption for their own sake. The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (1963), The Seven Descents of Myrtle (1963; also called Kingdom of Earth ), and In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (1969) neither helped Williams's standing with the critics nor proved that Williams's remarkable talent had vanished. Published after his death, Not about Nightingales (1998) had been written in 1938 and was Williams's first full-length play.

Later career

Through the 1970s and 1980s, Williams continued to write for the theater, though he was unable to repeat the success of most of his early years. One of his last plays was Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980), based on passionate love affair between the American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (18961940) and his wife, Zelda.

Two collections of Williams's many oneact plays were published: 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (1946) and American Blues (1948). Williams also wrote fiction, including two novels, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1950) and Moise and the World of Reason (1975). Four volumes of short stories were also published. One Arm and Other Stories (1948), Hard Candy (1954), The Knightly Quest (1969), and Eight Mortal Ladies Possessed (1974). Nine of his plays were made into films, and he wrote one original screenplay, Baby Doll (1956). In his 1975 tell-all novel, Memoirs, Williams described his own problems with alcohol and drugs and his homosexuality (the attraction to members of the same sex).

Williams died in New York City on February 25, 1983. In 1995, the United States Post Office commemorated Williams by issuing a special edition stamp in his name as part of their Literary Arts Series. For several years, literary enthusiasts have gathered to celebrate the man and his work at the Tennessee Williams Scholars Conference. The annual event, held along with the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, features educational, theatrical and literary programs.

For More Information

Hayman, Ronald. Tennessee Williams: Everyone Else Is an Audience. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.

Holditch, W. Kenneth. Tennessee Williams and the South. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002.

Leverich, Lyle. Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams. New York: Crown Publishers, 1995.

Rasky, Harry. Tennessee Williams: A Portrait in Laughter and Lamentation. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1986.

Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985.

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Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams (1914-1983), dramatist and fiction writer, was one of America's major mid-20th-century playwrights.

Tennessee Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Mississippi, on March 26, 1914. His father was a traveling salesman, and for many years the family lived with his mother's parents. When Williams was about 13, they moved to a crowded tenement in St. Louis, Missouri. At the age of 16 he published his first story. The next year he entered the University of Missouri but left before taking a degree. He worked for two years for a shoe company, spent a year at Washington University (where he had his first plays produced), and earned a bachelor of arts degree from the State University of Iowa in 1938, the year he published his first short story under his literary name.

In 1940 the Theatre Guild produced Williams' Battle of Angels in Boston. The play was a total failure and was withdrawn after Boston's Watch and Ward Society banned it. Between 1940 and 1945 he lived on grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, on income derived from an attempt to write film scripts in Hollywood, and on wages as a waiter-entertainer in Greenwich Village.

With the production of The Glass Menagerie Williams' fortunes changed. The play opened in Chicago in December 1944 and in New York in March; it received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Sidney Howard Memorial Award. You Touched Me!, written in collaboration with Donald Windham, opened on Broadway in 1945. It was followed by publication of 11 one-act plays, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (1946), and two California productions. When A Streetcar Named Desire opened in 1947, New York audiences knew a major playwright had arrived. It won a Pulitzer Prize. The play combines sensuality, melodrama, and lyrical symbolism. A film version was directed by Elia Kazan; their partnership lasted for more than a decade.

Although the plays that followed Streetcar never repeated its phenomenal success, they kept Williams's name on theater marquees and films. His novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1950) and three volumes of short stories brought him an even wider audience. Some writers consider Summer and Smoke (1948) Williams's most sensitive play. The Rose Tattoo (1951) played to appreciative audiences, Camino Real (1953) to confused ones. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize.

Baby Doll (an original Williams-Kazan film script, 1956) was followed by the dramas Orpheus Descending (1957), Garden District (1958; two one-act plays, Something Unspoken and Suddenly Last Summer), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), Period of Adjustment (1960), and The Night of the Iguana (1961). With these plays, critics charged Williams with public exorcism of private neuroses, confused symbolism, sexual obsessions, thin characterizations, and violence and corruption for their own sake. The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (1963), The Seven Descents of Myrtle (1963; also called Kingdom of Earth), and In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (1969) neither exonerated him of these charges nor proved that Williams's remarkable talent had vanished.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, Williams continued to write for the theater, though he was unable to repeat the success of most of his early years. One of his last plays was Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980), based on the American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda.

Two collections of Williams's many one-act plays were published: 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (1946) and American Blues (1948). Williams also wrote fiction, including two novels, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1950) and Moise and the World of Reason (1975). Four volumes of short stories were also published. One Arm and Other Stories (1948), Hard Candy (1954), The Knightly Quest (1969), and Eight Mortal Ladies Possessed (1974). Nine of his plays were made into films, and he wrote one original screenplay, Baby Doll (1956). In his 1975 tell-all novel, Memoirs, Williams described his own problems with alcohol and drugs and his homosexuality.

Williams died in New York City, February 25, 1983. In 1995, the United States Post Office commemorated Williams by issuing a special edition stamp in his name as part of their Literary Arts Series.

For several years, literary aficionados have gathered to celebrate the man and his work at The Tennessee Williams Scholars Conference. The annual event, held in conjunction with the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, features educational, theatrical and literary programs.

Further Reading

There is no uniform edition or omnibus collection of Williams's plays. His mother's reminiscences, Edwina Dakin Williams, Remember Me to Tom (1963), and the account of a friend, Gilbert Maxwell, Tennessee Williams and Friends (1965), provide biographical data. Taped interviews with various artists who worked with Williams give a multifaceted view in Mike Steen, A Look at Tennessee Williams (1969). Accounts of Williams' words were gathered to put together Memoirs (1975); Tennessee Williams' Letters to Donald Windham 1940-65 (1977); Albert J. Devlin, Conversations with Tennessee Williams (1986); and Five O'Clock Angel: Letters of Tennessee Williams to Maris St. Just 1948-1982 (1990).

The best critical studies are Signi Lenea Falk, Tennessee Williams (1961); Benjamin Nelson, Tennessee Williams: The Man and His Work (1961); Louis Broussard, American Drama: Contemporary Allegory from Eugene O'Neill to Tennessee Williams (1962); Francis Donahue, The Dramatic World of Tennessee Williams (1964); Gerald Weales, Tennessee Williams (1965); and Louis Broussard, American Drama: Contemporary Allegory from Eugene O'Neill to Tennessee Williams.

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Williams, Tennessee

Tennessee Williams (Thomas Lanier Williams), 1911–83, American dramatist, b. Columbus, Miss., grad. State Univ. of Iowa, 1938. One of America's foremost 20th-century playwrights and the author of more than 70 plays, he achieved his first successes with the productions of The Glass Menagerie (1945) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1947; Pulitzer Prize). In these plays, as in many of his later works, Williams explores the intense passions and frustrations of a disturbed and frequently brutal society. Unable to write openly about his homosexuality in the 1950s and 60s, he displaced the imagined and experienced pleasures and pains of sexual relations from the autobiographical into nominally heterosexual dramas.

An eloquently symbolic poet of the theater, Williams is noted for his scenes of high dramatic tension and for his brilliant, often lyrical dialogue. Williams is perhaps most successful in his portraits of the hypersensitive and lonely Southern woman, such as Blanche in Streetcar, clutching at life, particularly at her memories of a grand past that no longer exists. His later plays, which never quite achieve the poignant immediacy of his first two successes, include Summer and Smoke (1948), The Rose Tattoo (1950), Camino Real (1953), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955; Pulitzer Prize), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), Period of Adjustment (1959), Night of the Iguana (1961), The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Any More (1963), The Seven Descents of Myrtle (1968), In the Bar of the Tokyo Hotel (1969), and Small Craft Warnings (1972).

A number of Williams's one-act plays were collected in 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (1946) and The American Blues (1948). He also wrote four collections of short fiction: One Arm and Other Stories (1948), Hard Candy (1954), The Knightly Quest (1969), and Eight Mortal Ladies Possessed (1974); a novel, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1950); two volumes of verse, In the Winter of Cities (1956) and Androgyne, Mon Amour (1977); and a number of film scripts, including one, Baby Doll (1956), based on two of his short plays.

See his Memoirs (1974, repr. 2006) and Notebooks (2007), ed. by M. B. Thornton; D. Windham, ed., Tennessee Williams's Letters to Donald Windham, 1940–1965 (1976) and A. J. Devlin and N. M. Tischler, ed., The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams (2 vol., 2000–2004); A. J. Devlin, ed., Conversations with Tennessee Williams (1986); D. Spoto, The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams (1985, repr. 1997), D. Windham, As If: A Personal View of Tennessee Williams (1985), R. Boxill, Tennessee Williams (1987), R. Hayman, Tennessee Williams: Everyone Else Is an Audience (1993), L. Leverich, Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams (1995), and J. Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (2014); critical studies by S. L. Falk (1962), F. Donahue (1964), E. M. Jackson (1965), I. Rogers (1976), J. Tharpe, ed. (1977), H. Rasky (1986), G. W. Crandell, ed. (1996), R. A. Martin, ed. (1997), O, C. Kolin, ed. (2002), R. F. Voss, ed. (2002), M. Paller (2005), and H. Bloom, ed. (rev. ed. 2007).

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Williams, Tennessee

Williams, Tennessee ( Thomas Lanier) (1911–83) US playwright. His first Broadway play, The Glass Menagerie (1945), received the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. He received Pulitzer Prizes for A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). His other plays include Suddenly Last Summer (1958), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), and The Night of the Iguana (1961). Many of his plays were set in the South, in a cloying and repressive environment that reflected the plight of the characters.

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