Born on March 26th, 1911 in Columbus Mississippi to Cornelius Coffin Williams and Edwina Williams, was the internationally acclaimed playwright, Thomas Lanier Williams, otherwise known as Tennessee Williams.
Williams’ father was a traveling shoe salesman and his mother was an ambitious southern home keeper. Cornelius Williams spent a large portion of his time away from the family throughout Williams’ childhood and was rumored to be abusive during his infrequent stays in their Mississippi home.
Williams had an older sister as well as a younger brother. Rose, the oldest Williams child, was plagued with emotional illness at a very young age and spent the majority of her life in and out of mental institutions.
Williams’ younger brother, Dakin, remained distant from Thomas and Rose throughout their childhood due to their father’s obvious favorism for their younger sibling. Due to the tumultuous nature of their home life, each of the children spent a considerable amount of time in the home of their grandfather, a deeply southern-rooted Episcopal minister.
Williams received his first brush with literary acclamation in 1927 when he placed an astonishing third place in a national essay contest sponsored by The Smart Set magazine with an essay entitled “Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport”.
As he grew older, Williams continued to nurture an interest in literature. He even studied for a brief period of time at the University of Missouri, but eventually withdrew before completing his degree and took a job for the same shoe company for which his father worked.
This job and several others, including work as an elevator operator, a waiter, and an usher in a theatre supported Williams as he continued to write and cultivate his unique writing style. Eventually, he chose to return to school and complete his degree at the University of Iowa.
In 1939, Williams decided to move to New Orleans. There, he became known as “Tennessee” (his old college nickname), rather then Thomas. The name was linked to his father’s birth state, Tennessee.
In 1940, Williams was able to develop his first professionally produced play, “Battle of Angels”. The play ended badly and was labeled a theatrical failure due to exceedingly poor reviews and controversy relating to censorship.
Although “Battle of Angels” was somewhat of a disappointment, Williams’ early productions of “Fugitive Kind” and “Candles to the Sun” were locally appreciated and renowned in the city of St. Louis.
Williams’ next production, and quite possibly the most well-known play of his career, “The Glass Menagerie” was completed in 1945 and received high-acclaim from the critic community surrounding Broadway. The production eventually won that year’s Donaldson award, New York Critics Circle Award, and Sidney Howard Memorial Award.
In 1947, “Tennessee Williams” met and fell in love with the person who would eventually become his lifetime partner. In a time during which criticism and social distain for homosexuality was extraordinarily prevalent, Tennessee Williams was able to live out his homosexual preferences publicly while suffering little or no social repercussions.
Williams met his professed ‘love of his life’ in 1947 while living in New Orleans. Frank Merlo, the man who would eventually become Williams’ partner, was a Sicilian American who served in the Navy during World War I. The couple frequently visited Italy where Williams is known to have noted to have drawn inspiration from the lives and the people he observed there.
In 1948, Williams wrote “The Rose Tattoo”, a romantic comedy rumored to have been largely based around Frank Merlo and his immediate family. “The Rose Tattoo” is the only major production of Williams’ which boasts a happy ending.
Merlo continued to be a major influence in many of Williams’ proceeding works. After almost two decades as a happy couple, tragedy struck when Merlo died following a brief struggle with lung cancer.
Williams entered a deep depression following Merlo’s death, which lasted for nearly a decade. He suffered with incredible pains of grief as well as the fear that he had emotionally abandoned Merlo in the final days of his illness. He later described this period of his life as his own personal stoned age.
Although this depression was certainly the most publicized of any of Williams’ previous stages of depression, Williams was plagued with intermittent periods of depression throughout his entire life and lived in constant fear of suffering the same fate as his sister, Rose. At a particularly young age, he suffered a nervous breakdown and he persistently battled addictions throughout his adult life such as alcoholism and the addiction to prescription drugs.
On February 24, 1983, Williams died after having reportedly choked to death on a bottle cap in his New York City home. The room was said to contain ‘numerous opened bottles of medications along with consumed bottles of alcohol’. Despite his well-known abhorrence for organized religion, he was buried in St. Louis, Missouri following a traditional Catholic funeral.
Throughout his career, Williams accrued a diverse range of awards for various productions including three Donaldson Awards, four New York Drama Critics Awards, a Tony, (for his critically acclaimed screenplay, “The Rose Tattoo”), a New York Film Critics Award, as well as numerous other awards including an honorary degree from Harvard University, and the $11,000 Commonwealth Award (presented in 1981).
Williams was known to his admirers not only as a brilliant playwright (having produced 25 full length plays), but also having produced a various array of other literary works including screenplays, dozens of short plays, two novels, over one hundred poems, sixty short stories, and finally- an autobiography.
Williams was not only beloved to the critics, for many years, he was recognized and loved by international audiences as well as those within his own country. In order to accommodate the international demand for his work, his works have been translated a multitude of languages, and countless productions of his work have been staged not only in the US but also around the world.
By the 1950’s his name was renowned to both critics and audiences alike. His 1955 production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” ran for an unprecedented 694 performances. Other notorious Broadway-produced works of Williams’ included Summer and Smoke, and Sweet Bird of Youth.
Williams notated his own self-described style in the production notes for his play “The Glass Menagerie”. In them, he proclaimed that each of his major plays was written based upon a “memory play” format.
The memory play structure is based upon a three-tier format, in it, a character undergoes a profound or life-altering experience which produces what Williams described as an ‘arrest of time’, the character then relives the experience over and over until they are able (and the plot is able) to characterize it and thus make sense of it.
The ultimate theme of his plays he further explained to be the negative, life altering impact which society has upon the “sensitive nonconformist individual”. This description seemed to ultimately agree with Williams’s personal preferences and opinions of his own life.
Many critics agree that is was Williams’ own arduous experiences growing up and living in the South as a self-professed non-conformist, homosexual, eccentric, unconventional, and radical thinker as having prompted many of his revolutionary, quirky but undyingly honest perspectives of life.