Tennessee Williams Biography
Tennessee Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, in 1911. The name given to him at birth was Thomas Lanier Williams III. He did not acquire the nickname Tennessee until college, when classmates began calling him that in honor of his Southern accent and his father’s home state. The Williams family had produced several illustrious politicians in the state of Tennessee, but Williams’s grandfather had squandered the family fortune. Williams’s father, C.C. Williams, was a traveling salesman and a heavy drinker. Williams’s mother, Edwina, was a Mississippi clergyman’s daughter with a history of mental illness. Until Williams was seven, he, his parents, his older sister, Rose, and his younger brother, Dakin, lived with Edwina’s parents in Mississippi. After that, the family moved to St. Louis. There, the situation deteriorated. C.C.’s drinking increased, the family moved sixteen times in ten years, and the young Williams, always shy and fragile, was ostracized and taunted at school. During these years, he and Rose became extremely close. Rose, the model for the character Laura in The Glass Menagerie, suffered from mental illness later in life.
Tennessee Williams’ works
- The Glass Menagerie (1944)
- A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)
- Camino Real (1953)
- Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955)
- Orpheus Descending (1957)
- Suddenly Last Summer (1958)
- Vieux Carré (1977)
- Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980)
- A House Not Meant to Stand (1982)
- The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1950)
- Moise and the World of Reason (1975)
Collections of short stories
- Hard Candy: A Book of Short Stories (1954)
- The Knightly Quest (1969)
- Eight Mortal Ladies Possessed (1974)
- In the Winter of Cities (1956)
- Androgynous, Mon Amour (1977)
Tennessee Williams’ plays: influences and themes
Tennessee Williams wrote many productions and drew influences from other Modernists. Here are introductions to several of his productions
that summarise them and touch on some contextual influences of reoccurring themes.
The Glass Menagerie (1944)
The Glass Menagerie follows the narrated memories of Tom Wingfield. He tells a tale of the complicated relationship between himself, his dominating mother, Amanda, and his disabled sister, Laura. The play is an example of expressionist theatre that gives insight into Williams’ internalised and subjective thoughts on the world.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)
A Streetcar Named Desire begins when the Southern Belle, Blanche, meets with her sister, Stella, and her sister’s husband, Stanley. It follows the dynamics of the three living together as Blanche’s past resurfaces to haunt her. In light of the decaying Old South and the fragility of the Southern characters in the face of the New South, A Streetcar Named Desire is a part of Southern Gothic literature.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955)
A married couple returns to their family plantation for the birthday of Big Daddy Pollitt, who is dying, along with the rest of the family. But the moment they all unite together, the family begins to compete with one another in the hope of gaining the inheritance.
This is another Southern Gothic production that looks at the decay of the Old South due to the American Civil War. Williams wrote two endings for this production: the original and one better suited for the director and friend, Elia Kazan.
Tennessee Williams and the Southern Gothic
Many of Tennessee Williams’ writings place themselves as a part of the Southern Gothic genre. He idolises the decay of the Old South within his plays as charming and mourns for it as a place with less materialisation and commercialisation than the New South. This is particularly evident through his characters (particularly Blanche DuBois, who symbolises the Old South in A Streetcar Named Desire).
The genre of Southern Gothic was further explored by later writers and their classic novels, such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Donna Tart’s The Little Friend (2002), and Toni Morrison‘s Beloved (1987). Tennessee Williams was a key player within the Southern Gothic genre and American modernist drama during the 20th century.
Tennessee Williams’ influence on tackling the taboos on sexuality is also an important influence on other literary figures. For example, Tony Kushner, the writer of Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1991), commends the courage with which Williams brought the discussion of homosexuality to the theatre (even if he disagrees with Williams’ depictions of these characters).
To truly highlight how influential Tennessee Williams was to drama in the 20th century, it is helpful to look at the recognition he received in both his lifetime and afterwards. Here is a shortlist of the prestigious awards he was given for his efforts in drama.
|Date||Title of Award||Production Awarded|
|1945||New York Drama Critics’ Award for Best American Play||The Glass Menagerie|
|1948||New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play||A Streetcar Named Desire|
|1951||Tony Award for Best Play||The Rose Tattoo|
|1955||New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play||Cat on a Hot Tin Roof|
|1979||Inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame Kennedy Centre Honours||n/a|
|1980||Presidential Medal of Freedom||n/a|
|2014 (posthumous)||Drama League Award for Outstanding Revival of a Play||The Glass Menagerie|