Tennessee Williams photo

Tennessee Williams

Birth name:
Thomas Lanier Williams
Date of Birth:
25 February 1911 Columbus, Mississippi, USA
Tennesse Williams ranks after Eugene O'Neill as the greatest playwright in the history of American letters, a little higher than such contemporary masters as Edward Albee and August Wilson. Though he never won a Nobel Prize, as did O'Neil, Williams won two Pulitzer Prizes, for "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1947) and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1955), and should have won for "The Glass Menagerie" (1944) had the Pulitzer Prize for Drama been awarded in 1944. His other major plays include "Summer and Smoke" (1948), "The Rose Tattoo" (1951), "Camino Real" (1953), "Sweet Bird of Youth" (1959), and "The Night of the Iguana" (1961). In addition to his two Pulitzers, Williams was nominated four times for the Tony Award for Best Play, wining once, for "The Rose Tattoo." (His last Best Play Tony Award nomination came 16 years after his death, for "Not About Nightingales.")He was born Thomas Lanier Williams, III in Columbus, Mississippi on March 26, 1911, to Cornelius Williams, a traveling salesman who denigrated his sensitive son, who was homosexual, as "Miss Nancy," and the former Edwina Dakin, who like many of her son's heroines thought of herself as a Southern belle. He first began to write while afflicted with paralysis as a child, which affected him between the ages of five and seven, turning him into an invalid for two years. At the age of 13, his mother -- who encouraged his writing -- gave him a typewriter.The young Tom Williams wrote his first play "Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay! When he was a teenager, in 1935. He became a published writer at the age of 16, winning third prize (and $5) for his essay "Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?" in a contest run by the magazine "Smart Set." The magazine "Weird Tales" published his short story "The Vengeance of Nitocris" in 1928.When young Tom Williams was 17, the family moved to St. Louis, where it existed in reduced circumstances during the Great Depression. It was a "setting" that would influence his first masterpiece, "The Glass Menagerie." He went to the University of Missouri-Columbia for his higher education, where his fraternity brothers gave Ham the nickname "Tennessee" due to his deep southern accent. Later, he transferred to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri but did not take his degree until he was 28 years old, from the University of Iowa, where he matriculated in the school's writing program. Before attending Iowa, Williams led an itinerant life, including some time as a hobo wandering California and Mexico.He moved to New Orleans in 1939, he renamed himself "Tennessee," ostensibly in homage to the state of his father's birth. In New Orleans, Williams lived in the French Quarter, where he labored for the Works Progress Administration's writers program. His first play, "A Battle of Angels," failed in Boston during tryouts in 1940. (He later reworked it as "Orpheus Descending" which debuted on Broadway in 1957.) Though the play failed, it made Williams known, and he worked as a contract writer, briefly, for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where he sketched out the play that would become "Menagerie," his first great success.The tragic poet Hart Crane was one of his early influences, but as a playwright, it was Henrik Ibsen who had the greatest impact on him. Williams learned the Scandinavian literary dialect used by Ibsen to better understand his plays.Tennessee was close to his sister Rose, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia after accusing her father of making sexual advances towards her. Rose was institutionalized, eventually spending most of her life in mental institutions. Cornelius and Edwina Williams permitted Rose to received a prefrontal lobotomy, which was performed in 1937 and which incapacitated her. Tennessee Williams was haunted by his sister's tragedy for the rest of his life, and never forgave his parents for authorizing the operation.Tennessee Williams suffered from depression, and feared going mad. He was briefly institutionalized in 1969 after a severe nervous breakdown, and never forgave his younger brother Dakin for allowing him to be put into a madhouse, which was a nightmare, according to his 1975 memoir. Part of Williams' problem, aside from his alcoholism, was that in the 1960s, he had become addicted to prescription drugs.The longest lasting and most stable relationship that Williams ever realized was with the former sailor Frank Merlo, whom he hooked up with in 1947. The relationship lasted, off and on, until Merlo's death from cancer in 1963.Between his times living with the stable and steady Merlo, Williams engaged in masochistic relationships with other men, who were predatory and sometimes violent. Like many gay men in the intensely homophobic, pre-Stonewall United States, Williams had a high degree of self-loathing. He was in a analysis for years, with a strict Freudian who wanted him to eschew homosexuality for a "normal" life. Williams eventually ditched his psychiatrist and accepted himself as a gay man.The death of Frank Merlo removed the anchor from Williams life, and he became increasingly unstable emotionally. After Merlo's death, Tennesee Williams never was able again to achieve the high level of creativity that had characterized the period of the early 1940s through the early 1960s.The failure of "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Any More" signaled the end of Williams greatness as a dramatist and his dominance of Broadway theater. The original January 1963 Broadway production of "Milk Train," starring Hermione Baddeley, closed after 16 performances. Almost exactly a year later, a production directed by Tony Richardson, red hot after directing the movie Tom Jones (1963), and featuring Tallulah Bankhead and Tab Hunter, closed after five performances.Williams never recovered. His next original Broadway production, "Slapstick Tragedy" (an omnibus of two short plays) closed after seven performances in 1966. "The Seven Descents of Myrtle," another original, lasted but 29 performances in 1968. "Outcry" lasted but 12 performances in 1973, while the dual bill of "A Memory of Two Mondays" and "27 Wagons Full of Cotton" (the movie Baby Doll (1956) is based on the latter play) lasted 63 performances in 1976, but "The Eccentricities of a Nightingale" closed after 24 performances, and "Vieux Carré" didn't last a week, closing after six performances in 1977. The last Broadway original produced during Williams' lifetime, "Clothes for a Summer Hotel," lasted just 14 performances in 1980.Two Broadway originals have been produced posthumously, "Garden District" that consisted of "Something Unspoken" and "Suddenly, Last Summer" which ran for 31 performances in 1995, and the early play "Not About Nightingales," which ran for 125 performances in 1999 and was nominated for a Best Play Tony.Unlike his contemporary Arthur Miller, who wrote "The Great American Play" with "Death of a Salesman" who was politically progressive and a determined social critic, Williams did not settle well into the role of a senior statesman of the theater. Williams critique of society was more intimate, and with the explosion of civil rights in the 1960s, he seemed out of place. His lack of success in navigating the downside of his career also might be to to his eccentricities. He was succeeded as the lion of the Broadway theater by Edward Albee, who was also gay but came of age, artistically, in the more tolerant 1960s.Tennessee Williams died on February 25, 1983, after choking on the cap of a bottle of eye drops that became lodged in his throat. (Williams was plagued by eye problems much of his adult life.) He was 71 years old. That his plays continue to be revived successfully on Broadway and on stages all over the world more than a half-century after their debuts is testament to his greatness as a dramatist.
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