Tennessee Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams March 26,1911, in Columbus, Mississippi. He was the son of Cornelius Coffin andEdwina (Dakin) Williams. His father, Cornelius, was a traveling salesmanwho traveled constantly, and moved his family several times during the firstdecade of Williams? life. For the first seven years of Williams? life, he, hismother, and his sister Rose lived with Mrs. Williams father, theEpiscopalian clergyman. Cornelius often abused Williams, by calling him?Miss Nancy?, because he preferred books to sports. Williams? mother,Edwina Williams, was a southern belle, and the daughter of a clergyman.She is frequently cited as the inspiration for the domineering and possessivemother figures in Williams? plays. Williams was quite close to his oldersister, Rose, who was institutionalized for schizophrenia for much of herlife. The character Laura in the Glass Menagerie is thought to be basedupon Rose. Williams was a sick and lonely child who endangered his frailhealth by forgoing sleep to write. The book Mrs. Williams wrote conveys asense of family marked with anger, tension, and separateness, which mighthelp explain some of the recurrent themes of Williams? plays.
If home was ?not a pleasant refuge?, as Williams once said, ?Theoutside world was no better.? Williams remembered getting teased bygangs of boys at school, but he still went. He graduated from high school inJanuary 1929. He then went on to the University of Missouri that fall. Hewas forced to drop out after his third year and go to work for his father inthe shoe business. He worked at the shoe company for three years, andfinally escaped by breaking down. A collapse that is attributed variously toexhaustion, heart palpitations, and the recurrence of childhood paralysis.He spent a recuperative summer with his grandparents in Memphis,Tennessee and enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.He dropped out in 1937. He finally graduated from the University of Iowain 1938. He spent the rest of his life writing. He choked to death February24, 1983 in his suite at Hotel Elysee, in New York, New York. He wasburied in St. Louis, Missouri.
He began his life of writing and wondering, which went on eversince. Williams was becoming a writer. He began as a child, unlike mostwriters, in Remember Me Tom. Williams once said, ?I write from my owntensions, for me, this is a form of therapy.? In a 1960 interview with ArthurGelb in the New York Times, Williams spoke of his, ?Desire for success? I want to reach a mass audience.? Williams was not only a ?poet?, sendingmessages of his own isolation out to the world, but the professional writer insearch of an audience, and success. In 1927, pretending to be an unhappilymarried traveling salesman, the sixteen year old Williams won third place ina smart set contest, ?Can A Good Wife Be A Good Sport??; his entry, whichanswers no to the question, is reprinted in Remember Me To Tom.
In 1928, his first professionally published story appeared in theAugust issue of Weird Tales. In 1929, as a freshman in college, alreadythinking of himself as a playwright, Williams announced his ambition to goto the school of journalism.
Tennessee Williams? career as a playwright got under way in 1935,during the summer he spent in Memphis. The production of Cairo!Shanghai! Bombay! gave Williams the motivation to turn out more plays.The play, co-authored by Dorothy Shapiro, a Memphis friend, was neverprinted. In 1936, Williams became associated with The Mummers, a livelySt. Louis theater group under the direction of Willard Holland, whomWilliams praised in his introduction to 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. For themhe wrote a one-actor headline to serve as a curtain-raiser for an ArmisticeDay production of Irwin Shaw?s Bury The Dead. Within the next two years,The Mummers produced two full-length Williams plays, Candles In TheSun, and The Pugitive Kind. A third play, Not About Nightingales, wasabout to be done in 1938 when the group died of economic failure. In 1939,Williams, who by that time had dropped the Thomas Lanier, bundled upmost of his collected works, including a group of one-actors calledAmerican Blues, and shipped them off to the group theater contest. Thejudges- Harold Clurman, Irwin Shaw, and Molly Day Thacher- gave him aspecial award for ?A group of three sketches which constitute a full-lengthplay.? The most important part of the theater prize was that Williams gothimself an agent, Audrey Wood, who had faith in him, and worked hard forhim.
The Glass Menagerie opened in Chicago on December 26, 1944, andin New York on March 31, 1945. The play ran for more than a year.Williams? career was a matter of public record, he has averaged at least oneplay every two years: You Touched Me! (1945); A Streetcar Named Desire(1947); Summer And Smoke (1948); The Rose Tattoo (1951); Camino Real(1953); Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1955); Orpheus Descending (1957);Suddenly Last Summer (1958); Sweet Bird Of Youth (1959); Period OfAdjustment (1960); The Night Of The Iguana (1961); The Milk TrainDoesn?t Stop Here Anymore (1963- revised 1964); Slapstick Tragedy, adouble bill of the Emulated and the Gnadiges Fraulein (1966); TheTwo-Character Play (1967); Kingdom of Earth, called The Seven Descentsof Myrtle on Broadway (1968); In The Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (1969); SmallCraft Warnings (1972). The dates are those of the Broadway andoff-Broadway openings, except for Nightingale, which had only a Summerproduction in Nyack, New York, and Two-Character, which played inLondon.
Williams had many types of characters in his plays. His top oneswere the artist, the insane, the cripple, the sexual specialist, and theforeigner. Williams? ?artist? never needed to paint, write, or draw. Theywere known for their temperment. Some ?artists?, were Val in Battle ofAngels, Sebastian in Suddenly Last Summer, and Tom in The GlassMenagerie.
?Insane? is a dangerous category to try and define in Williams? plays,because as soon as the label ?insanity? is put on a character, the audiencewill think something is wrong with it, and keeps them preoccupied with thestage. Some of his most insane characters were Blanche in A StreetcarNamed Desire, Catherine in Suddenly Last Summer, and Shannon in Iguana.
The ?cripple? is another category that characters fall into when inWilliams? plays. Some may fit in with the ?insane? characters, becausefinding the line between mental and physical disturbances in a William?scharacter. Is Laura in The Glass Menagerie crippled by her limp, or hershyness? Is George?s tremor in Period of Adjustment in his head, or in hishands? It hardly matters since the diseases are as much metaphorical asthey are real. Lot?s tuberculosis in Kingdom of Earth, Mrs. Venable?sstroke in Suddenly Last Summer, and the fatal cancer or Jabe in Orpheus areall devices that help indicate that they are all special characters.
The next ?character category? is the ?sexual specialist?. This categoryis hard to label because it has to take in such disparate characters. Itincludes the virgins waiting to be initiated (Matilda in You Touched Me!,Alma in Summer and Smoke, Rose and Jack in The Rose Tattoo, Georgeand Isabel in Period of Adjustment), and those who have chosen chastity toescape corruption (Val in Orpheus, Brick in Cat); the professionals andthose amateurs so talented they could go professional (Val and Stanley in AStreetcar Named Desire, Chance Wayne in Sweet Bird, and Camille andCasanova in Camino Real); the homosexuals, explicit (Charles in CaminoReal, Sebastian in Suddenly Last Summer, Miss Fellowes in Iguana) andimplicit (Brick in Cat); those with a desperate need for sex as a stimulant ora punishment (Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, Maggie in Cat, Miriamin Tokyo Hotel). The thing that they all have in common is an extremesensitivity.
The ?foreigner?. Two thins are at work here, a fact and a myth. It isa fact of American society–at least of the small-town southern society intowhich Williams was born–that the foreigner, even when he ceases to beforeign, is an outsider. It is a myth, one from Northern Europe that waspassed on the the United States, that the Mediterranean peoples live richer,wilder, more open lives than the cold, closed northerners. Thus we haveRosa Gonzales and her father, the fiery Mexicans of Summer and Smoke;The wild Sicilians of The Rose Tattoo; the corruption of Camino Realwhich, according to a Williams stage director, recalls Tangiers, Havana,Vera Cruz, Casablanca, Shanghai, and New Orleans; the Italian lady ofOrpheus; the Sicilian with the riding crop of 27 Wagons Full of Cotton,softened a little for Baby Doll; the Lorca-like setting for the offstagewrecking of Suddenly Last Summer; and the hot-blooded Mexican boys ofIguana. There are no Jews, and very few Negroes. Because these arefavorite outsiders of African writers, this sentence is a bit odd. TennesseeWilliams wrote many plays in which each could have contained somecharacters I may have mentioned earlier.
Williams? career ended when he died. He choked to death February24, 1983 in his suite at Hotel Elysee, New York, New York. He is buried inSt. Louis, Missouri.
1. ?Williams, Tennessee. ?Britanica Online. Encyclopedia Britanica?. 4Mar. 1999