The Life of Tennessee Williams

Born Thomas Lanier Williams III on March 26, 1911 to Corneilious and Edwina Williams, Tennessee was the second child of three. His father, a severe alcoholic who was more concerned with his work than parenting, was often gone on business. Because of this Williams developed a very close relationship to his older sister, Rose, his mother, and especially his grandfather. The Williams family resided in Columbus, Mississippi until Tennessee turned seven. At that time his father had landed a job as a manager at the International Shoe Company and the family moved to St. Louis, Missouri.

In the summer of 1928 Williams took a European tour with his grandfather which propelled his intellectual aspirations. A year later, Williams attended the University of Missouri where he majored in Journalism. He remained there until 1931, at which point his father (who did not accept that his son would become a writer) forced him to with drawl. Williams worked alongside his father at the shoe store as a clerk until 1936 when he decided he wanted to go back to school and continue with his original aspirations. He reenrolled at the University of Missouri but only attended for a year before he transferred to the University of Iowa. Williams received a Bachelor of Art in English from the University of Iowa in 1938. One year later he met Audrey Wood (who would become his longtime friend and manager) and Kip Kiernan (who would become his first lover). It was also this year that Williams began to come to terms with his homosexuality.

It wasn’t until 1945 that Williams began to rise to fame after writing The Gentleman Caller, a play which would later be called The Glass Menagerie. One year later this became Williams’ first smash hit on Broadway. Following this immensely successful play, Williams’ professional career sky rocketed. He proceeded to write plays which to this day are regarded as revolutionary, his most popular titles including: A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), both of which would go on to earn the Pulitzer Prize, and The Night of the Iguana (1961).

In the same year that he wrote Streetcar Williams also met his lifetime lover, Frank Merlo. When Merlo passed away in 1963 of lung cancer Williams became highly dependent on alcohol and medication. Eventually, Williams declined into severe depression for an entire decade. Despite his success, Williams’ life was plagued with this depression along with the challenges of living as a homosexual in a time when it was not considered socially or morally acceptable.  At age 71, Williams died of natural causes in New York City at the Hotel Elysee.

Even with his struggles, many of Williams’ works had a profound effect on the theatre (and eventually the American canon). Williams used a unique approach to his plays which had never been seen before by creating characters with depth, more similar to a real person than the romanticized characters often seen in the 50s. Williams used his plays to make radical statements which went against the conventional norms, examining the American desire to be in love, get married, and have children. He also used them to explore topics such as female sexuality (the question of the woman’s “role” in the bedroom), homosexuality (a facet of life which was unaccepted and even taboo at this point in time), and sexual politics; all of which are very prevalent in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In this play, like in many others, there is more to Williams’s characters than meets the eye. He encourages his audience to look past the written word and find the true underlying meaning, not just in who the character is and how they feel, but often times in what they are saying as well. For example, with close analysis, it is easy to see that Williams has put a lot of himself into Brick, his unconventional hero. Using Brick’s relationships (along with several others), Williams has created a play that serves as a clear critique of the societal norms of love and marriage.

Overall Williams’ critically acclaimed works had a major impact on postwar theatre, encouraging future playwrights to develop a new level of honesty in their story and depth in their characters. Using a combination of realism, naturalism, and expressionism, Williams wrote more than 24 full length plays. Most of these writings were strongly influenced by the people in his life and many of his characters were based on his own feelings and those of the people he was surrounded by. In the end, Williams created a new type of theatre which had never been seen before, where the characters themselves were more important than the story line.

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