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by Bamber Gascoigne

Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) - original name Thomas Lanier Williams


One of the most prominent playwrights in United States, who examined turbulent emotional and sexual forces, and physical and spiritual needs. After a severe mental and physical breakdown in the 1960s, Williams's plays did not gain the same amount of acclaim as his earlier work. However, at the peak of his career, he created such unforgettable characters as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (195) and Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (1947).

"There are no 'good' or 'bad' people. Some are a little better or a little worse but all are activated more by misunderstanding than malice. A blindness to what is going on in each other's hearts. Stanley sees Blanche not as a desperate, driven creature backed into a last corner to make a last desperate stand – but as a calculating bitch with 'round heels'.... Nobody sees anybody truly but all through the flaws of their own egos. That is the way we all see each other in life." (Tennessee Williams in Elia Kazan's autobiography A Life, 1988)

Thomas Lanier Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi. His mother, the former Edwina Estelle Dakin, was the daughter of an Episcopalian clergyman. She was always proud to say, "The Dakins could trace themselves back to the Normans." Williams's father, Cornelius Coffin Williams, was a travelling salesman for a shoe company. He could trace his ancestry back to the French Huguenots, and to politicians and soldiers in North Carolina and Tennessee. According to William's brother Dakin, their father was very bombastic, he cursed a lot and there was a great deal of coldness between him and his son, who loved books but was not interested in sports.

Williams was brought up in his grandfather's home where his parents lived. The family moved to St. Louis in 1918, where Williams realized the difference between rich people and the poor – and they were poor. Williams's Deep South accent and poverty made him a target of his schoolmates and later earned him the nickname "Tennessee" from his university classmates. In 1928 Williams traveled with his grandfather to Europe and inspired by its atmosphere and culture he wrote much poetry. He entered college during the great American depression. The family's lack of funds forced him to leave after a couple of years and take a job in the same shoe company that employed his father. Williams hated the job but he stuck with it until he had saved enough money to move on to Iowa to study at the university. There, to support himself, he worked as a waiter. On his spare time he roamed down the shores of the Pacific states, and read the writings of D.H. Lawrence, stopping in New Mexico to meet the author's family and friends.

"Time rushes toward us with its hospital tray of infinitely varied narcotics, even while it is preparing us for its inevitably fatal operation." (in The Rose Tattoo, 1950)

Williams had started to write in his childhood and continued to produce short stories while still working at the factory. When his health broke down, he was sent to live with his grandparents in Memphis. As a playwright Williams began his career while studying at the University of Missouri and at Washington University, St. Louis. Following a playwriting contest, in which his "melodramatic fantasy" Me, Vashya received only honorable mention, and failing a course in ancient Greek, he left the university in 1937.

During this period Williams became aware that he had a homosexual tendency. In an interview Williams confessed that he had his first consummated homosexual love affair at the age of 28.

In 1938 Williams received his B.A. degree from University of Iowa, where his Spring Stormwas presented despite unfavorable reaction of Professor E.C. Mabie. A few years earlier he had written: ..."most of the literary experimentation is now being done by incompetent young nobodies like myself who have absolutely nothing to lose, no money, no reputation, no public . . . by writing any way they damned please!'' (The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams: Vol. I, 1920-1945, ed. Albert J. Devlin and Nancy M. Tischler, 2000)

Battle of Angels (1940) was produced by the Theatre Guild, starring Miriam Hopkins. The play was submitted to John Gassner, a drama critic and historian, with whom Williams studied at the New School of Social Research in New York. Later he claimed that he was glad that the play was not a success: if it had been, it would have gone to his head and he would have thought he knew all there was to know about playwriting. In 1939 Williams was awarded a special commendation (and $100) to playwrights under 25 – he was nearly 28 and had just started working as a shoe clerk.

During WW II years Williams worked for a short time in Hollywood writing for the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film company. The first critical triumph came in 1945 with The Glass Menagerie, in which Williams used techniques he had learned from the cinema. The Glass Menagerie ran on Broadway for over a year and received the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. In the "memory play" Tom Wingfield recalls his life in St. Louis with his mother Amanda, a faded Southern belle, and his sister Laura, withdrawn and slightly crippled girl who collects glass animal figures. "Memory takes a lot of poetic license," Williams wrote in the first scene. "It omits some details; others are exaggerated according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart." He reworked on the story many times, even as a film script.

In this as well as in Williams's other major works, a sense of doom hangs over the characters. A brutal environment destroys their dreams and their love. Women, portrayed often with great sympathy, are at the same time fragile and strong, attractive and repulsive. Amanda's husband has long since deserted the family, but she attempts to keep her children up to the social level to which she aspires. The tormented Tom has become a compulsive movie goer. During a quarrel with his mother, Tom smashes Laura's menagerie. From the shoeware house in which Tom works, he brings to dinner his co-worker Jim O'Connor. Laura once knew Jim and admired him in high school, and he is charmed by Laura's sensitivity. Jim confesses that he is already engaged. Amanda is enraged with Tom for what she thinks was a deliberate practical joke. Tom runs out of the house, never to return. In a pantomime scene Amanda confronts Laura and Tom is pursued by the haunting memory of his sister. Laura was modeled after Williams's beloved sister Rose, his muse, who spent most of her life in mental hospitals and was lobotomized.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Williams's next major play, won a Pulitzer Prize, and established him as a major American dramatist. Williams traced the decline and fall a Southern woman, Blance Du Bois. The play was made into a film, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Marlon Brando in his breakthrough role as Stanley Kowalski. Vivien Leigh hated Brando's slobbish behavior on the set which, as a Method actor, mirrored his character. "He's like an animal. He has animal's habits. There's even something subhuman about him. Thousands of years have passed him right by and there he is. Stanley Kowalski, survivor of the stone age, bearing the raw meat home from the kill in the jungle." (in A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951, dir. Elia Kazan) Marlon Brando was also in The Fugitive Kind (1960), dir. Sidney Lumet and based on the play Orpheus Descending (1957). Originally Williams wanted to see Elvis Presley in the leading male role.

Williams also received a Pulitzer Prize for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), about the moral decay of a Southern family. The Night of the Iguana (1961), which was filmed in 1964, was Williams's last great success. Among Williams's own screenplays the most important was Baby Doll (1956), the first film he wrote. It was directed by Elia Kazan, who was a sort of elder brother figure to him. In the story Silva Vacarro seeks revenge and aims to seduce Archie's child bride (Carroll Baker). Cardinal Spellman denounced Baby Doll, and also the Legion of Decency railed against it, in large part for its portrayal of an unconsummated marriage. Time magazine wrote that it was "just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited". (Time, Dec. 24, 1956) Baker's baby-doll pyjamas created a fashion.

"Nothing's more determined than a cat on a tin roof – is there? Is there, baby?" (in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1955)

As an artist Williams used his personal past, his own alcoholism and homosexuality, and his family and friends to provide subjects and characters for his brave outcasts and derelicts. "It is amazing and frightening how completely one's whole being becomes absorbed in the making of a play," Williams wrote in the foreword of Camino Real (1953). "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." Many of Williams's plays reflect the romantic Southern Gothic Tradition as is exemplified in the works Carson McCullers and William Faulkner or sexual freedom as in the novels of D.H. Lawrence. Exceptionally Williams set the story of his novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1950) in Rome. The protagonist, Mrs Stone, is recently widowed and settles in "the eternal" town where she starts an affair with the young and expensive Paolo. "Isn't it odd, said Meg, how women of our age begin all at once look for beauty in our male partners?"

Frank Merlo, Williams's long-time companion, died of cancer in 1963. Williams was tired of Broadway, and he wanted to do something else. His writing took again an experimental turn, and came close to Beckett, Ionesco and Sartre. These new works received little attention from the critics. In 1969 he spent two months on a detoxification program, designed to free him from prolonged dependency on alcohol, amphetamines, and barbiturates. From this period arose In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, which dealt with the difficulty of creating a work of art. Out Cry, portraying the author's self-doubt and alcoholism, was a quick failure on Broadway in 1973. he participated in a demonstration against the Vietnam war, but upset by the language of Norman Mailer's protest play, Why We Are In Vietnam, based on the author's novel, he walked out of the church where it was performed. "Suddenly 'The Movement' was unmasked for me by the Cathedral's desecration and by the display of shallow ehibitionism," he wrote later. "By the drugs, the decadence, the spitefulness and finally by the hideous blasphemies of the play." (Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr, 2014)

It was not until the early 1970s, when Williams had regained some measure of control in his personal life. In an article published in The New York Times he stated bitterly: "I am widely regarded as the ghost of a writer, a ghost still visible, excessively solid of flesh and perhaps too ambulatory, but a writer remembered mostly for works which were staged between 1944 and 1961." ('I Am Widely Regarded as the Ghost of a Writer' by Tennessee Williams, The New York Times, May 8, 1977) However, Williams still wrote some of his most innovative works: The Red Devil Battery Sign (1976), Vieux Carré (1977), A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur (1978), about loneliness and the need for human connection, and Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980), a "ghost play" about Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. It was a critical failure and Williams's last Broadway play during his life time.

At the time in the 1980s, when Williams was virtually forsaken by the theatrical establishment in the U.S., he gained a huge fame in the Soviet Union – he was called ''the biggest success since Chekhov" – with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Rose Tattoo, and other classics.  However, Suddenly Last Summer was never staged. Sweet Bird of Youth was performed at the Moscow Artistic Academic Theatre in 1975, Orpheus Descending at the Moscow Central Theatre of the Soviet Army in 1977, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was produced in Moscow and Leningrad (1982 and 1983) and The Glass Menagerie, which was staged by Geta Yanovdka in the Leningrad Little Drama Theatre in 1982, also won a large audience at the Ermolova Moscow Theatre. Williams's name was mentioned in the Soviet press for the first time at the end of the forties. V. Nedelin's Russian version of A Streetcar Named Desire was published in 1967.

From the late 1940s Key West became one of the author's favorite places. He loved swimming and while he painted – he was a gifted amateur painter – he listened to Billie Holliday's records. On demand, he sold his paintings, for prices ranging from $2,000 to $3,500. Williams' style has been described as "naïf". A House Not Meant to Stand, his final play, had its premiere at the Goodman Theater of Chicago in 1982. Williams died from choking after a heavy night of drinking on February 25, 1983. According to some speculations, he was assassinated.

For further reading: Blue Song: St. Louis in the Life and Work of Tennessee Williams by Henry I. Schvey (2021); Tennessee Williams in Sweden and France, 1945-1965: Cultural Translations, Sexual Anxieties and Racial Fantasies by Dirk Gindt (2019); Tennessee Williams and the Theatre of Excess: the Strange, the Crazed, the Queer by Annette J. Saddik (2015); Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr (2014); Tennessee Williams: A Literary Life by John Bak (2013); The World of Tennessee Williams by Richard Freeman Leavitt and Kenneth Holditch (2011); Tennessee Williams by Philip C. Kolin (1998); The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams by Donald Spoto (1997); Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams by Lyle Leverich (1995); Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan by B. Murphy (1992); The Faces of Eve by G.R. Kataria (1992); A Streetcar Named Desire by T.P. Adler (1990); Tennessee Williams. A Study of the Short Fiction by D.P. Vannatta (1988); Tennessee Williams, ed. by H. Bloom (1987); Tennessee Williams by R. Boxill (1987); Tennessee Williams on the Soviet Stage by Irene Shaland (1987); Tennessee Williams's Plays by J.J. Thompson (1987); Tennessee Williams by H. Rasky (1986); Conversations with Tennessee Williams, ed. by A.J. Devlin (1986); The Kindness of Strangers by D. Spoto (1985); The Glass Menagerie by R.B. Parker (1983); Tennessee Williams by F.H. Londré (1979); Tennessee Williams and Film by M. Yacowar (1977); Tennessee Williams by B. Nelson (1961)

Selected works:

  • The Vengeance of Nitrocis, 1928 (short story, in Weird Tales)
  • Me, Vashya, 1937 (one-act play)
  • American Blues, 1939
  • Moony's Kid Don't Cry, 1941 (in Best One Act Plays of 1940)
    - Moonyn poika ei itke (suom. Auli Tarkka, 1963)
  • The Glass Menagerie , 1945
    - Lasieläintarha (suom. Alpo Routasuo, s.a.) / Lasinen eläintarha (suom. Reijo Lehtonen, 1980; Juha Siltanen, 2009)
    - Films: 1950, dir. Irving Rapper, starring Gertrude Lawrence, Jane Wyman, Kirk Douglas; TV drama 1966, dir. Michael Elliott, cast: Shirley Booth, Pat Hingle, Hal Holbrook, Barbara Loden; TV drama 1973, dir. Anthony Harvey, cast: Katherine Hepburn, Sam Waterston, Joanna Miles, Michael Moriarty; Lasinen eläintarha, TV drama 1973, dir. Mirjam Himberg, starring Mai-Brit Heljo, Soila Komi, Ville-Veikko Salminen and Vesa-Matti Loiri; 1987, dir. Paul Newman, starring Joanne Woodward, John Malkovich, Karen Allen, James Naughton; Akale, 2004, dir. Shyamaprasad, starring Prithviraj, Sheela, Geethu Mohandas, Tom George
  • Hello from Bertha, 1946
    - Tervehdys Berthalta (suom. L. Ahvas, s.a.)
  • A Streetcar Named Desire, 1947
    - Viettelyksen vaunu (suom. Maijaliisa Auterinen, Simo Konsala, 1979; Reita Lounatvuori, 2004)
    - Films: 1951, dir. Elia Kazan, starring Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden; TV drama 1981, Linje lusta, dir. Bo Widerberg, cast: Bibi Andersson, Kjell Bergqvist, Krister Henriksson, Maria Hedborg, Lena Söderblom; TV play 1995, dir. Glenn Jordan, cast: Alec Baldwin, Jessica Lange, John Goodman, Diana Lane
  • One Arm and Other Stories, 1948
  • American Blues: Five Short Plays, 1948 (contains The Dark Room; Ten Blocks on the Camino Real; The Case of the Crushed Petunias; The Unsatisfactory Supper; Moony's Kid Don't Cry)
  • Summer and Smoke, 1948
    - Kivinen enkeli (suom. Eugen Terttula, 1958)
    - Films: 1961, dir. Peter Glenville, starring Geraldine Page, Laurence Harvey; TV play 1972, dir. Alvin Rakoff, cast: Lee Remick, David Hedison, Barry Morse, Betsy Blair
  • The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, 1950
    - Mrs. Stonen Rooman-kevät (suom. Jorma Partanen, 1952)
    - Films: 1961, dir. José Quintero, starring Vivien Leigh, Warren Beatty; TV drama 2003, dir. Robert Allan Ackerman, cast: Helen Mirren, Olivier Martinez, Anne Bancroft, Rodrigo Santoro, Brian Dennehy
  • The Rose Tattoo, 1951
    - Tatuoitu ruusu (suom. Esko Elstelä, 1979)
    - Film 1956, prod. Paramount Pictures, dir. Daniel Mann, adaptation Hal Kanter, starring Anna Magnani, Burt Lancaster, Marisa Pavan
  • Camino Real, 1953
    - TV drama 1966, Ten Blocks on the Camino Real, prod. National Educational Television, dir. Jack Landau, teleplay Tennessee Williams, starring Tom Aldredge, Janet Margolin, Martin Sheen, Lotte Lenya, Carrie Nye, Kazimir Kokich
  • Hard Candy: A Book of Stories, 1954
  • Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1955
    - Kissa kuumalla katolla (suom. Sirpa Mikkola, s.a.; Ari Koskinen, 1985; Juha Siltanen, 2000)
    - Films: 1958, dir. Richard Brooks, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Burl Ives; TV drama 1976, dir. Robert Moore, cast: Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood, Laurence Olivier, Maureen Stapleton, Jack Hedley, Mary Peach; TV drama 1985, dir. Jack Hofsiss, cast: Jessica Lange, Tommy Lee Jones, Rip Torn, Kim Stanley, David Dukes, Penny Fuller
  • In the Winter of Cities, 1956
  • Baby Doll, 1956
    - Film 1956, prod. Newtown Productions, dir. Elia Kazan, screenplay Tennessee Williams, starring Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, Eli Wallach, Mildred Dunnock
  • Orpheus Descending, 1957
    - Käärmeennahkatakki (suom. Kirsti Jaantila, s.a.; Lauri Sipari, 1986) / Orfeus laskeutuu (suom. Lauri Sipari)
    - Films: The Fugitive Kind, 1960, dir. Sidney Lumet, starring Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, Joanne Woodward; TV drama 1990, dir. Peter Hall, cast: Kevin Anderson, Brad Sullivan, Manning Redwood, Vanessa Redgrave, Sloane Shelton
  • The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, 1957
    - Film 2008, dir. by Jodie Markell, prod. Brad Michael Gilbert, starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Chris Evans, Ellen Burstyn, Ann-Margret, Will Patton
  • Suddenly, Last Summer, 1958
    - Äkkiä viime kesänä (suom. Ritva Heikkilä, s.a.)
    - Films: 1959, dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, starring Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift; TV drama 1993, dir. Richard Eyre, cast: Maggie Smith, Rob Lowe, Gillian Raine, Richard E. Grant, Moira Redmond, script Gore Vidal
  • Sweet Bird of Youth, 1959
    - Nuoruuden suloinen lintu (suom. Raoul af Hällström, s.a.; Kersti Juva, 2003)
    - Films: 1962, dir. Richard Brooks, Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, Ed Begley; TV drama 1989, dir. Nicolas Roeg, cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Mark Harmon, Valerie Perrine, Kevin Geer, Seymour Cassel, Rip Torn
  • A Period of Adjustment, 1960
    - Sopeutumisen aika (suom. Seppo Virtanen, 1962)
    - Film 1962, prod. Marten Pictures, dir. George Roy Hill, screenplay Isobel Lennart, starring Tony Franciosa, Jane Fonda, Jim Hutton, Lois Nettleton, John McGiver
  • The Night of the Iguana, 1961
    - Sisiliskojen yö: 2-näytöksinen näytelmä ( suom. Päivi ja Pekka Haukinen, s.a.) / Liskojen yö (suom. Hannele Rubinstein, 2007)
    - Film 1964, dir. John Huston, starring Richard Burton, Deborah Kerr, Ava Gardner, Sue Lyon
  • The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, 1962
  • The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, 1963
    - Film: Boom, prod. John Heyman Productions, 1968, dir. Joseph Losey, screenplay Tennessee Williams, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Noel Coward, Joanna Shimkus
  • In the Winter of Cities: Poems, 1964
  • The Mutilated, 1965
  • Slapstick Tragedy, 1966
  • The Knightly Quest, 1967
  • One Arm and Other Stories, 1967
  • The Seven Descents of Myrtle, 1967
  • In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, 1969
  • The Two-Character Play, 1969
    - Kahden hengen näytelmä (suom. Sisko Hellavainio, s.a.)
  • Dragon Country, 1970
  • The Theatre of Tennessee Williams, 1971-1981 (7 vols.)
  • Small Craft Warnings, 1973
  • Out Cry , 1973
  • Eight Mortal Ladies Possessed, 1974
  • Flee, Flee This Bad Hotel, 1974
  • Moise and the World of Reason, 1975
  • Memoirs, 1975
  • The Red Devil Battery Sign, 1976
  • This Is (An Entertainment), 1976
  • Androgyne, Mon Amour: Poems, 1977
  • Vieux Carré, 1977
  • Tennessee Williams's Letters to Donald Windham, 1977
  • Vieux Carré, 1978
  • Where I Live: Selected Essays, 1978 (ed. Christine R. Day and Bob Woods)
  • A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, 1978
  • Clothes for a Summer Hotel: A Ghost Play, 1980
  • The Notebook of Trigorin, 1980
  • Steps Must Be Gentle, 1980
  • Will Mr. Merriweather Return from Memphis?, 1981
  • Something Cloudy, Something Clear, 1981
  • It Happened the Day the Sun Rose, 1981
  • The Bag People, 1982
  • 27 Wagons Full of Cotton and Other Short Plays, 1982
  • A House Not Meant to Stand, 1982
  • In Masks Outrageous and Austere, 1983
  • Collected Stories, 1985 (introduction by Gore Vidal)
  • Five O'Clock Angel, 1990
  • The Theatre of Tennessee Williams, 1971-1992 (8 vols.)
  • Not About Nightingales, 1998
  • Stairs to the Roof: A Prayer for the Wild of Heart That Are Kept in Cages, 2000
  • The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams: Vol. I, 1920-1945, 2000 (ed. Albert J. Devlin and Nancy M. Tischler)
  • The Collected Poems of Tennessee Williams, 2002 (ed. David Roessel and Nicholas Moschovakis)
  • The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams: Vol. II, 1945-1957, 2004 (ed. Albert J. Devlin and Nancy M. Tischler)
  • Notebooks, 2007 (ed. Margaret Bradham Thornton)
  • The Magic Tower and Other One-Act Plays, 2011 (foreword by Terence McNally, edited by Thomas Keith)
  • Now the Cats with Jeweled Claws and Other One-act Plays, 2016 (edited, with an introduction, by Thomas Keith)
  • The Luck of Friendship: the Letters of Tennessee Williams and James Laughlin, 2018 (edited by Peggy L. Fox and Thomas Keith)
  • The Caterpillar Dogs: And Other Early Stories, 2023 (edited, with an introduction by Tom Mitchell)

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