By Kelli Frost
“If I did not write, I’d go mad.”
Born on March 26, 1911 in Columbus, Missouri, Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams is considered one of the foremost American playwrights of the twentieth century. He is best known for The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He was the son of pioneer Tennesseeans, mostly military men and politicians. Most of the biographical information available on Tennessee Williams came from Williams himself. He wrote his own history in the form of essays and introductions to his plays, and helped others write it through numerous interviews which he gave. Some sources list Williams’s birth date as 1914, but Williams purposely confused the year–not out of vanity, but out of necessity: early in his life he entered a play-writing contest in which he had to knock three years off his age to qualify. He won the contest, but never corrected the erroneous date of birth.
Williams wrote about loneliness, frustration, and the desperate need for communication by people who are society’s misfits. At least parts of this had to reflect his own life. Sometimes a misfit himself, Williams left home for good at an early age. His mother was overprotective, and he did not like his father. During his childhood, his sister, Rose, was his only friend. Later she was confined to an institution after an emotional breakdown from which she never recovered. His father was a traveling salesman who spent very little time with his family and made no permanent home for them as they moved among various Mississippi towns. When his father took a job managing sales for a shoe company, the family moved to St. Louis in 1918. A year later a younger brother, Dakin, was born. The family struggled to survive life with a father who was stingy, crude, and often drunk. The family was marked with anger, tensions, and separateness.
Williams recalled being teased by gangs of boys when he began to go to school. Nevertheless, he graduated from high school in January 1929, and went on to the University of Missouri that fall. In 1932, during the Great Depression, he dropped out of college in order to take a full-time job in a shoe company. His three years there were, he said, “a living death.” After suffering a physical breakdown, Williams went to live with grandparents in Memphis, where he enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis. There his interest in writers such as D. H. Lawrence, Hart Crane, and Herman Melville intensified. In 1938, he graduated from the University of Iowa and began writing and wandering, both of which continued throughout his life, in spite of his later affluence.
Williams’s career as a playwright began in earnest in 1935, when his first play was produced. (This play has never been printed.) The next year, he became associated with the Mummers, a lively St. Louis theatre group. By 1939, he had dropped the Thomas Lanier and ceased to be simply a local playwright. This was the year he lied about his age and submitted a series of plays to the Group Theater. The most important result of the Group Theatre prize was that Williams got himself an agent, Audrey Wood, who had faith in him and worked hard for him. She immediately procured Williams a Rockefeller Fellowship, which gave him money enough to work comfortably. His first published plays appeared in The Best Plays in 1940, 1941, 1942, 1944, and 1945.
He achieved his greatest acclaim as a playwright during the 1940s and ‘50s. Though he spent six months writing screenplays in Hollywood, The Glass Menagerie opened in Chicago on December 26, 1944, and in New York on March 31, 1945. The play ran for more than a year, and Williams had arrived. From that time on, his career is a matter of public record. For the rest of his life, he averaged more than a play every two years.
If we take 100 performances as a respectable run for a play in New York, Williams had only two failures before 1963. His greatest commercial and critical successes were The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Night of the Iguana. These plays not only had the longest runs, but all received the Drama Critics Circle Award, and both A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof were given the Pulitzer Prize. Williams took comfort in the knowledge that he had gained a reputation as one of the handful of American playwrights who could be considered serious dramatists.
During the 1970s, Williams became depressed and went into a decline. He spent two months in a psychiatric hospital in St. Louis, dealing with personal and professional pressures. He later told interviewers that he would stick with off-Broadway, where tensions were less stressful for him. He published three collections of short plays, and Hollywood has made over fourteen films from his plays and short stories.
Williams’s plays contain themes aplenty, though he said of them: “I have never been able to say what was the theme of my play, and I don’t think I have ever been conscious of writing with a theme in mind. . . . Usually when asked about a theme, I look vague and say, ‘It’s a play about life’” (American Writers [St. Paul: University of Minnesota, 1974], 384).
Williams wrote about both victims and victimizers, such as Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski, but some of his best-written characters are his versions of society’s misfits: artists, madmen, cripples, foreigners, and perverts. Williams invariably explores the relationships his characters have with God and the universe, yet his themes imply that there is no God and that most of society fits into one or more of the above categories of misfits. His characters try to escape this godless universe by running away from it (like Tom in The Glass Menagerie) or by retreating into themselves (like Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire).
From the beginning of his career, Williams tried to tell the real truth about human beings, but he never wanted to do that as a realist. He made constant use of both literary and theatrical devices of nonrealistic sort, ranging from the subtle to the shockingly obvious, from organic machine to pure gimmick, from the mythic to the popular. Mythic and significant names were Williams’s way of stressing the nonrealistic elements in characters. As though pushing his characters toward caricature and his plots toward myth and decorating both with symbols were not enough, Williams made use of every possible tool of the theatre—sets, props, lights, sound—to emphasize that his plays were not realistic. Clearly Williams was a playwright with a sharp eye for nuances of speech and gesture which have always been of great importance to the realistic dramatist; yet, he consistently chose to work in the nonrealistic tradition.
Williams died in 1983, at the age of 72. He will always be revered as a troubled soul who was able to describe that torment better than any American dramatist before or since.
(The introductory quotation is from Harold Clurman, Tennessee Williams: Eight Plays [New York: Doubleday, 1979], ix.)