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||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. "I hated the job," he said in an interview in the 1940s, "but I stuck with it until I had saved enough money to move on to the University of Iowa." Williams worked as a waiter in Iowa, 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. During this period he 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.
Williams received his B.A. degree from University of Iowa, where his Spring Storm was presented despite unfavorable reaction of Professor E.C. Mabie. In 1936 he wrote: ..."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!'' 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. "I'm glad now that the play was not a success," Williams said later. "If it had been, it would have gone to my head and I would have thought I 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.
Williams's next major play, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), 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". 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?"
In 1963 Williams lost his long-time companion Frank Merlo, who died of cancer. He 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, but these later 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. In the same year he participated in a demonstration against the Vietnam war, but upset by the language of Norman Mailer's anti-war play, Why We Are In Vietnam, he walked out of the church where it was performed.
In the early 1970s Williams had regained some measure of control in his personal life. In an article published in The New York Times (May 8, 1977) 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." 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.
In the 1980s Williams was virtually forsaken by the theatrical
establishment in the U.S., but 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: 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)