Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams

Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams III (March 26, 1911 – February 25, 1983) was an American playwright and author of many stage classics. Along with Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller he is considered among the three foremost playwrights in 20th century American drama.

After years of obscurity, he became suddenly famous with The Glass Menagerie (1944), closely reflecting his own unhappy family background. This heralded a string of successes, including A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959). His later work attempted a new style that did not appeal to audiences, and alcohol and drug dependence further inhibited his creative output. His drama A Streetcar Named Desire is often numbered on the short list of the finest American plays of the 20th century alongside Long Day’s Journey into Night and Death of a Salesman.

Much of Williams’ most acclaimed work was adapted for the cinema. He also wrote short stories, poetry, essays and a volume of memoirs. In 1979, four years before his death, Williams was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.

Early Life

Thomas Lanier Williams III was born in Columbus, Mississippi of English, Welsh, and Huguenot ancestry, the second child of Edwina Dakin (1884-1980) and Cornelius Coffin (C. C.) Williams (1879-1957). His father was an alcoholic traveling shoe salesman who spent much of his time away from home. His mother, Edwina, was the daughter of Rose O. Dakin, a music teacher and the Reverend Walter Dakin, an Episcopal priest who was assigned to a parish in Clarksdale, Mississippi shortly after Williams’ birth. Williams’ early childhood was spent in the parsonage there. Williams had two siblings, sister Rose Isabel Williams (1909-1996) and brother Walter Dakin Williams  (1919-2008).

As a small child Williams suffered from a case of diphtheria which nearly ended his life, leaving him weak and virtually confined to his house during a period of recuperation that lasted a year. At least in part as a result of his illness, he was less robust as a child than his father wished. Cornelius Williams, a descendant of hardy east-Tennessee pioneer stock (hence Williams’ professional name), had a violent temper and was a man prone to use his fists. He regarded his son’s effeminacy with disdain, and his mother Edwina, locked in an unhappy marriage, focused her overbearing attention almost entirely on her frail young son. Many critics and historians note that Williams found inspiration for much of his writing in his own dysfunctional family.

When Williams was eight years old his father was promoted to a job at the home office of the International Shoe Company in St. Louis, Missouri. His mother’s continual search for what she considered to be an appropriate address, as well as his father’s heavy drinking and loudly turbulent behaviour, caused them to move numerous times around the city. He attended Soldan High School, a setting he referred to in his play The Glass Menagerie. Later he studied at University City High School. At age 16, Williams won third prize (five dollars) for an essay published in Smart Set entitled, “Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?” A year later, his short story “The Vengeance of Nitocris” was published in the August 1928 issue of the magazine Weird Tales. That same year he first visited Europe with his grandfather.

Literary Influences

Williams’ writings include mention of some of the poets and writers he most admired in his early years: Hart Crane, Anton Chekhov (from the age of ten), William Shakespeare, D. H. Lawrence, August Strindberg, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Emily Dickinson. In later years the list grew to include William Inge, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway; of Hemingway, he said “[his] great quality, aside from his prose style, is this fearless expression of brute nature.

Personal Life

Throughout his life Williams remained close to his sister Rose who was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young woman. In 1943, as her behaviour became increasingly disturbing, she was subjected to a lobotomy with disastrous results and was subsequently institutionalized for the rest of her life. As soon as he was financially able to, Williams had her moved to a private institution just north of New York City where he often visited her. He gave her a percentage interest in several of his most successful plays, the royalties from which were applied toward her care. The devastating effects of Rose’s illness may have contributed to Williams’ alcoholism and his dependence on various combinations of amphetamines and barbiturates.

After some early attempts at relationships with women, by the late 1930s Williams had finally accepted his homosexuality. In New York he joined a gay social circle which included fellow writer and close friend Donald Windham (1920-2010) and his then partner Fred Melton. In the summer of 1940 Williams initiated an affair with Kip Kiernan (1918-1944), a young Canadian dancer he met in Provincetown, Massachusetts. When Kiernan left him to marry a woman he was distraught, and Kiernan’s death four years later at 26 delivered another heavy blow.

On a 1945 visit to Taos, New Mexico, Williams met Pancho Rodr­guez y Gonz¡lez, a hotel clerk of Mexican heritage. Rodríguez was, by all accounts, a loving and loyal companion. However, he was also prone to jealous rages and excessive drinking, and so the relationship was a tempestuous one. Nevertheless, in February 1946 Rodríguez left New Mexico to join Williams in his New Orleans apartment. They lived and travelled together until late 1947 when Williams ended the affair. Rodr­guez and Williams remained friends, however, and were in contact as late as the 1970s. Williams spent the spring and summer of 1948 in Rome in the company of a teenaged Italian boy, called “Rafaello” in Williams’ Memoirs, to whom he provided financial assistance for several years afterwards, a situation which planted the seed of Williams’ first novel, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. When he returned to New York that spring, he met and fell in love with Frank Merlo (1922-1963), an occasional actor of Sicilian heritage who had served in the U.S. Navy in World War II.

Frank Merlo at Theatregold.com

This one enduring romantic relationship of Williams’ life lasted 14 years until infidelities and drug abuse on both sides ended it. Merlo, who became Williams’ personal secretary, taking on most of the details of their domestic life, provided a period of happiness and stability as well as a balance to the playwright’s frequent bouts with depression and the fear that, like his sister Rose, he would fall into insanity. Their years together, in an apartment in Manhattan and a modest house in Key West, Florida, were Williams’ happiest and most productive. Shortly after their breakup, Merlo was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and Williams returned to take care of him until his death on September 20, 1963.

As he had feared, in the years following Merlo’s death Williams was plunged into a period of nearly catatonic depression and increasing drug use resulting in several hospitalizations and commitments to mental health facilities. He submitted to injections by Dr. Max Jacobson known popularly as Dr. Feelgood who used increasing amounts of amphetamines to overcome his depression and combined these with prescriptions for the sedative Seconal to relieve his insomnia. During this time, influenced by his brother Dakin a Roman Catholic convert, Williams joined the Catholic church. He was never truly able to recoup his earlier success, or to entirely overcome his dependence on prescription drugs.

Death

On February 25, 1983, Williams was found dead in his suite at the Elyse Hotel in New York at age 71. The medical examiner’s report indicated that he choked to death on the cap from a bottle of eye drops he frequently used. An amended coroners report indicates that his use of drugs and alcohol may have contributed to his death by suppressing his gag reflex. Prescription drugs, including barbiturates, were found in the room. The cause of death the coroner reported as “Seconal intolerance.” He had used Seconal with alcohol as his drugs of choice for most of his life.

Williams had long told his friends he wanted to be buried at sea at approximately the same place as Hart Crane, a poet he considered to be one of his most significant influences. Contrary to his expressed wishes, but at his brother Dakin Williams’ insistence, Williams was interred in Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri.

Williams left his literary rights to The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, an Episcopal Church in the United States school, in honor of his grandfather, Walter Dakin, an alumnus of the university. The funds support a creative writing program. When his sister Rose died in 1996 after many years in a mental institution, she bequeathed $7 million  from her part of the Williams estate to The University of the South as well.

Posthumous Recognition

From February 1 to July 21, 2011, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, the home of Williams’ archive, exhibited 250 of his personal items. The exhibit, entitled “Becoming Tennessee Williams,” included a collection of Williams manuscripts, correspondence, photographs and artwork. In late 2009, Williams was inducted into the Poets’ Corner at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine. Performers who took part in his induction included Vanessa Redgrave, John Guare, Eli Wallach, Sylvia Miles, Gregory Mosher, and Ben Griessmeyer. The Tennessee Williams Theatre in Key West, Florida, is named for him.

At the time of his death, Williams had been working on a final play, In Masks Outrageous and Austere, which attempted to reconcile certain forces and facts of his own life, a theme which ran throughout his work, as Elia Kazan had said. As of September 2007, author Gore Vidal was in the process of completing the play, and Peter Bogdanovich was slated to direct its Broadway debut.  The play finally received its world premiere in New York City in April 2012, directed by David Schweizer and starring Shirley Knight as Babe.

The rectory of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Columbus, Mississippi, where Williams’s grandfather Dakin was rector at the time of Williams’s birth, was moved to another location in 1993 for preservation, and was newly renovated in 2010 for use by the City of Columbus as the Tennessee Williams Welcome Center. Williams’s literary legacy is represented by the literary agency headed by Georges Borchardt. Williams was honored by the U.S. Postal Service on a stamp in 1994 as part of its literary arts series. Williams is honored with a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame

Since 1986, the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival has been held annually in New Orleans, LA, in commemoration of the playwright. The festival takes place at the end of March to coincide with Williams’ birthday.

Bibliography

Characters in his plays are often seen as representations of his family members. Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie was understood to be modeled on Rose. Some biographers believed that the character of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire is also based on her.

Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie was generally seen to represent Williams’ mother, Edwina. Characters such as Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie and Sebastian in Suddenly, Last Summer were understood to represent Williams himself. In addition, he used a lobotomy operation as a motif in Suddenly, Last Summer.

The Pulitzer Prize for Drama was awarded to A Streetcar Named Desire in 1948 and to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955. These two plays were later filmed, with great success, by noted directors Elia Kazan (Streetcar) with whom Williams developed a very close artistic relationship, and Richard Brooks (Cat). Both plays included references to elements of Williams’ life such as homosexuality, mental instability, and alcoholism. Although The Flowering Peach by Clifford Odets was the preferred choice of the Pulitzer Prize jury in 1955 and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was at first considered the weakest of the five shortlisted nominees, Joseph Pulitzer Jr., chairman of the Board, had seen Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and thought it worthy of the drama prize. The Board went along with him after considerable discussion.

tennessee-williams-theatregold-gay

Williams wrote The Parade, or Approaching the End of a Summer when he was 29 and worked on it sporadically throughout his life. A semi-autobiographical depiction of his 1940 romance with Kip Kiernan in Provincetown, Massachusetts, it was produced for the first time on October 1, 2006 in Provincetown by the Shakespeare on the Cape production company, as part of the First Annual Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival.

His last play went through many drafts as he was trying to reconcile what would be the end of his life. There are many versions of it, but it is referred to as In Masks Outrageous and Austere.

Plays

Apprentice plays

  • Candles to the Sun (1936)
  • Fugitive Kind (1937)
  • Spring Storm (1937)
  • Me Vaysha (1937)
  • Not About Nightingales (1938)
  • Battle of Angels (1940)
  • I Rise in Flame, Cried the Phoenix (1941)
  • You Touched Me (1945)
  • Stairs to the Roof (1947)

Major plays

  • The Glass Menagerie (1944)
  • A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)
  • Summer and Smoke (1948)
  • The Rose Tattoo (1951)
  • Camino Real (1953)
  • Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955)
  • Orpheus Descending (1957)
  • Suddenly, Last Summer (1958)
  • Sweet Bird of Youth (1959)
  • Period of Adjustment (1960)
  • The Night of the Iguana (1961)
  • The Eccentricities of a Nightingale (1962, rewriting of Summer and Smoke)
  • The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore (1963)
  • The Mutilated (1965)
  • The Seven Descents of Myrtle (1968, aka Kingdom of Earth)
  • In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (1969)
  • Will Mr. Merriweather Return from Memphis? (1969)
  • Small Craft Warnings (1972)
  • The Two-Character Play (1973)
  • Out Cry (1973, rewriting of The Two-Character Play)
  • The Red Devil Battery Sign (1975)
  • This Is (An Entertainment) (1976)
  • Vieux Carré (1977)
  • A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur (1979)
  • Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980)
  • The Notebook of Trigorin (1980)
  • Something Cloudy, Something Clear (1981)
  • A House Not Meant to Stand (1982)
  • In Masks Outrageous and Austere (1983)


All associated graphics, logos, trader marks, trade names or copyrights are the property of the original owner and are used here for factual and educational purposes only.

If there are any errors please contact us with corrections mail@theatregold.com

Holding the Man on DVD Here