Tennessee Williams, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, was born as Thomas Lanier Williams on 26th March, 1911, in Columbus, Mississippi. He was the second child of his parents and was raised by his mother as his father worked as a salesman and stayed away from home. His family moved to St. Louis, urban Missouri and Williams’ carefree life changed. He became more of an introvert and started writing. His parents’ broken marriage provided him with a lot of raw material for his writing.
In 1929, he enrolled at the University of Missouri to study journalism but his father compelled him to leave the course and forced him to join as a salesman in a shoe company. This transition became one of the main reasons for Williams’ depression and he turned to writing for solace. After recovering from a nervous breakdown, he came across some poet friends who were students at Washington University. He joined the University of Iowa and graduated in 1938. But his demons never left him; “The panics remained with him throughout his life and sustained his extreme hypochondria. They also motivated the behavior of many of his characters, particularly the terrified women he created, such as Laura Wingfield” (Clum). At the age of 28 he moved to New Orleans and changed his birth name to Tennessee (which was his father’s birthplace) and completely changed his lifestyle; indulging in the city life which became the theme of his most famous plays.
In 1940, his play Battle of Angels was staged but it was a flop. But as a hardworking writer he did not stop there and continued to write small gigs for the screen. In April 1943 Williams landed a six-month contract to be a writer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, through Audrey Wood. His first assignment was ‘Marriage is a Private Affair.’ Tennessee Williams was mentioned among the five writers in the credits- it can be assumed he offered very little there. Later in his life he cheerfully mentioned the small amount of work he used to get at Hollywood. He started working on a script called “The Gentleman Caller,” based on his story (‘Portrait of a Girl in Glass’) for Hollywood which got rejected. What was supposed to be bad news proved to be a good one for American theatre as this script was staged later as The Glass Menagerie.
In 1945, The Glass Menagerie was staged and his journey towards fame started. During the 1944-1945 theatre season a number and variety of well-known plays opened on Broadway. They included Paul Osborn’s A Bell for Adano, John Van Druten’s I Remember Mama, and Mary Chase’s Harvey, that won the 1944 Pulitzer Prize. Yet the real news at that time in American theatre was being made in Chicago. On the day after Christmas 1944, after a predictable number of complications, Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie opened in Chicago. According to Williams, in his Memoirs, audiences did not at first know what to make of it because “it was something of an innovation”; but the enthusiasm of Claudia Cassidy, the critic at the Chicago Tribune, brought them around, and it became a success. It opened in New York on March 31, 1945, and ran for more than a year. Tennessee Williams had arrived.
His next work, A Streetcar Named Desire took him to the peak of appreciation. In 1947, Williams published, in The New York Times (November 30) an essay titled “The Catastrophe of Success,” which he later used later as the Introduction to The Glass Menagerie (New Directions, 1949). He says that, after the success of Menagerie, he found himself suddenly well-off, living in a fashionable hotel, being lionized, and coming to suspect all his old friends and new acquaintances of falseness: “Security is a kind of death, I think . . . What good is it?” An eye operation gave him time to hide behind his bandages, to think, and to come out recognizing the need to struggle to live and work.
His fame doubled, especially because the aforementioned plays were adapted into movies and thus reached a larger audience. Both his plays talk about his love for his elder sister Rose, who was always the focus of his life. Rose suffered from mental health issues and was institutionalized. Throughout his life, Williams supported her with every bit of his emotions. That love transformed into art in The Glass Menagerie. Some other mentionable works by Williams are Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959).
As the Williams plays rolled by, it became obvious that the characters are confronting, not only society, but something in themselves; fear of aging (Alexandra in Sweet Bird of Youth), of life not lived (in Summer and Smoke), of mortality (both Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Flora Goforth in The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore try to ignore death, but he dies screaming, and she sees death as a way of accepting life.) Explaining his inability to define the theme of any of his plays in “Questions Without Answers” (The New York Times,1948), he says that the best he can come up with is “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.”
Williams was openly homo-sexual and had relationships with a number of men over the years. He had the longest one with Frank Merlo (1922-1963), who died of lung cancer a short while after they split. After his partner’s death, his dramatic technique changed, which was not received well by the audience. He started using drugs and alcohol to cope with the loss. Williams died in a hotel room in 1983.