Tennessee Williams once wrote "if the writing is honest it cannot be separated from the man who wrote it." This great American playwright proved his statement, writing twenty-five full length plays, dozens of short plays and screenplays, two novels, a novella, sixty short stories, over one hundred poems, and an autobiography. It was his anachronistic themes, mastery of creative writing dialog, and complex characters that first confounded, and later amazed his audiences, imprinting a great image of himself in the minds of many, even today.
Thomas Lanier Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi on March 26, 1911. Though it was previously believed that he was born in 1914 due to the fact that he lied about his age to enter a contest. In 1939, in order to enter a playwriting contest that the Group Theatre was running for writers under 25, Williams knocked three years off his age and never bothered to put the years back.
His mother, Edwina Dakin Williams, was the daughter of a minister and of genteel upbringing. His father, Cornelius Coffin Williams, was a traveling shoe salesman who spent very little time with the family and made no permanent home for them. For the first seven years of his life Williams and his mother and sister Rose lived with Mrs. Williams' father, either in Nasville or in the various Mississippi towns -- Columbus, Canton, Clarksdale -- where he held parishes. While living in Clarksdale, Thom had an almost fatal attack of diphtheria. For two whole years this left him practically helpless. But, during this time, he was able to expand his imagination by creating stories, which he told to his grandmother, mother and black nursemaid Ozzie.
In 1918 Thom's father moved the family to St. Louis, where, later, in 1919 his brother Dakin was born. In Mrs. Williams' account, the St. Louis years are conveyed with a sense of family life marked with anger, tension, and separateness, which might help explain the recurrent themes of Williams' plays. As Williams once said, home was "not a pleasant refuge." In an interview, his brother Dakin states that their "father called him Miss Nancy because my father thought he was a sissy."
It was also here in St. Louis that at age 16 he encountered his first brush with the publishing world when he won third prize and received $5 for an essay, "Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?" in Smart Set. And later in 1928, "The Vengeance of Nitocris" became his first professionally published story, and appeared in the August issue of Weird Tales.
He graduated from high school in January 1929 and went to the University of Missouri that fall. It was here that he earned the name Tennessee, due to his southern accent and poverty that also made him a target of his schoolmates. However, the family's lack of funds forced him to leave and take a job at the International Shoe Company, where his father was employed. Other odd jobs he supported himself with included waiter, elevator operator, and theater usher. For Williams, the three years in the shoe company were "a living death", from which he finally found his escape by breaking down. His collapse was contributed variously to exhaustion, heart palpitations, and the recurrence of a childhood paralysis.
He was then sent to live with his grandparents until he recuperated and enrolled at Washington University, from which he was dropped in 1937. At the age of 27 he received his B.A. degree from the University of Iowa, where his Spring Storm was presented despite unfavorable reaction of Professor E.C. Mabie. It was from here that he graduated in 1938.
Williams moved to New Orleans after graduating in 1938. He supported himself by waiting tables at a local restaurant. He then decided to adopt his old college nickname "Tennessee". His first story was published under his new name was The Field of Blue Children, which was published in Story magazine.
Through all this schooling and employment, Williams was becoming a writer. And in 1939, ceased to be simply a local playwright. It was that year that he bundled together most of his collected works, including a group of one-acts called American Blues, and shipped them off to the Group Theatre contest. He won the Group Theater prize of $100 for American Blues. Yet, the most important result of the Group Theater prize was that Williams got himself an agent, Audrey Wood. She got him the Rockefeller Fellowship for $1000, which was enough money for him to work comfortably, and rewrite Battle of Angels, which was to be his first play to receive a major theatrical production. It opened in Boston on December 30, 1940, but due to mechanical and spiritual crisis it never made it to New York. It was a complete failure. Tennessee feared this was the end of his professional career, however he decided he would revise Battle of Angels and try it again. Although Theatre Guild turned down a second revision of the play, he was, luckily, able to support himself for a few years on grants. But when the grant money eventually dried up, he was forced to get a job as a night-shift elevator operator at the San Jacinto Hotel in New York.
Williams' career as a playwright took off in the early 1940's. Tennessee spent six months in Hollywood during 1943 as a contract writer for MGM Film Company. It was during this period that he wrote The Gentleman Caller, an original screenplay that he later turned into The Glass Menagerie, which ran on Broadway for 561 performances over a period of more than a year. In New York, the play won the New York Drama Critics' Circle award for best play of the season, the Sidney Howard Award of $1,500 presented by the Playwright's Company, the Donaldson Award sponsored by Billboard, and the Sign Award from National Catholic Magazine. Tennessee Williams had arrived! And over the next eight years he found homes for A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer Smoke, A Rose Tattoo, and Camino Real on Broadway.
Camino Real is an extended treatment of Ten Blocks on the Camino Real. When it was first produced, it was scarcely a success, but later productions in Los Angeles indicated that the public had caught up with his work. It was the dreamlike fantasy that contained characters from history, literature, and contemporary folklore, placed in a Mexican setting. No other writer would have dared to pull off such a play, and probably no one else could. Clive Barns, of the New York Times called it "a play out of human soul", and that's exactly what Tennessee's plays are. In the foreword of Camino Real, Tennessee writes:
"It is amazing and frightening how completely one's whole being becomes absorbed in the making of a play. It is almost as if you were frantically constructing another world while the world you live in dissolves beneath your feet, and that your survival depends on completing this construction at least one second before the old habitation collapses."
Williams' reputation continued to grow as many more of his works were made into films. Such works include: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Orpheus Descending, and Night of the Iguana. He also received a Pulitzer Prize for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Night of the Iguana. The most important of Williams' own screenplays was Baby Doll. The film was railed against by The Legion of Decency, mainly for it's portrayal of unconsummated marriage.
While living in New Orleans, Tennessee met and fell in love with Frank Merlo in 1947. Williams drew his inspiration from the passion he felt while the two vacationed in Italy. And in 1948, Williams wrote the passionate comedy The Rose Tattoo. Standing out as the only of his major plays to have a happy ending, it's storyline follows Williams' own life experiences in meeting Merlo. A steadying influence on the chaotic life of Williams, Merlo was a confidant and artistic advisor, as well as a devoted partner. Sadly, tragedy struck after only 14 years as a couple, and in 1961 Frank Merlo died of lung cancer. This inscription was found on the back of a photo of Merlo:
"When your candle burns low, you've got to believe that the last light shows you something besides that progression of darkness."
Williams went into a deep depression
that landed him in a detoxification
program, designed to free him of his prolonged chemical dependencies
. Williams described this as his "stoned age." Williams had long battled with addictions and depression, but he was also tortured
by the thoughts that he had abandoned Merlo at the time of his declining health. Williams once wrote: "Whether or not we admit it to ourselves, we are all haunted by a truly awful sense of impermanence." From this period arose In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel
, which dealt with the difficulty of creating a work of art
On January 6, 1969, Tennessee was baptized into the Roman Catholic faith at the church of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West, Florida. He also received the Gold Medal for drama from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. But, just as he seemed to be recovering from Frank's death, he went into another deep depression, which lead to a period of convulsions, delirium, and a "silent coronary." He was confined in the Barnacle Hospital in St. Louis, until he was finally released three months later.
In the early 1970's Williams had regained some measure of control on his life. As an artist he used his personal past, his alcoholism and homosexuality, and his family and friends to provide subjects and characters for his plays, stories and novels. Out Cry, portraying the author's self-doubt and alcoholism, was a quick failure on Broadway in 1973. In a New York Times article he stated: " I am widely regarded as the ghost of a writer... a writer remembered mostly for works which were staged between 1944 and 1961." Despite this, Tennessee still wrote some of his most innovative works, including The Red Devil Battery Sign (1976), Vieux Carre (1977), A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur (1978), and Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980). And in the 1980's regained huge fame for his classics, including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Rose Tattoo. His final play, A House Not Meant to Stand, had it's premiere at the Goodman Theater of Chicago in 1982.
It was February 24, 1983 when, after a night of heavy drinking, Williams returned to his New York City residence at the Hotel Elysee, where he died. It is said that he choked on a bottle cap; however, in an interview, his brother Dakin claims that
"Tennessee wasn't killed by mistaking a pill top for a pill. He was smothered with a pillow. They used the pill top as an excuse. He was killed because he was going to change his will."
Regardless to the cause of his death, Tennessee Williams left behind a great legacy
of his life. Even today his work is highly regarded among the best. Though he received much criticism
from literary critics, his work brought him international success
and he will long be remembered as one of America's great playwrights
, and certainly the greatest ever from the South.
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