Thomas Lanier Williams
was also known as Tennessee Williams. Thomas Lanier Williams was born on 26 March 1911 at Columbus, Lowndes County, Mississippi. He was Playwright. He was the son of Cornelius Coffin Williams
and Edwina Dakin
. Thomas Lanier Williams died on 25 February 1983 at Hotel Elysée, New York City, New York County, New York, at age 71; after choking on a bottle cap.
Born to Cornelius and Edwina Dakin Williams on March 26, 1911, in Columbus, Mississippi, Thomas Lanier "Tennessee" Williams was amply prepared for writing about society¹s outcasts. His mother was an aggressive woman, obsessed by her fantasies of genteel Southern living. His father, a traveling salesman for a large shoe manufacturer, was at turns distant and abusive. His older sister, Rose, was emotionally disturbed and destined to spend most of her life in mental institutions. He remained aloof from his younger brother, Dakin, whom his father repeatedly favored over both of the older children. Who could have fortold that this shy, sickly, confused young man would become one of America's most famous playwrights.
More than a half century has passed since critics and theater-goers recognized Williams as an important American playwright, whose plays fellow dramaturge David Mamet calls "the greatest dramatic poetry in the American language" (qtd. in Griffin 13). Williams's repertoire includes some 30 full-length plays, numerous short plays, two volumes of poetry, and five volumes of essays and short stories. He won two Pulitzer Prizes (for A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947 and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955), and was the first playwright to receive, in 1947, the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the Donaldson Award, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in the same year. (For a complete listing of Williams's published work, go to the "Tennessee Williams Links" page on this web site and, from there, to the Ole Miss web site.)
Although Williams's first professionally produced play, Battle of Angels, closed in 1940 because of poor reviews and a censorship controversy (Roudané xvii), his early amateur productions of Candles to the Sun and Fugitive Kind were well-received by audiences in St. Louis. By 1945 he had completed and opened on Broadway The Glass Menagerie, perhaps his best-known play, which won that year's New York Critics Circle, Donaldson, and Sidney Howard Memorial awards. In the course of his career, Williams accumulated four New York Drama Critics Awards; three Donaldson Awards; a Tony Award for his 1951 screenplay, The Rose Tattoo; a New York Film Critics Award for the 1953 film screenplay, A Streetcar Named Desire; the Brandeis University Creative Arts Award (1965); a Medal of Honor from the National Arts Club (1975); the $11,000 Commonwealth Award (1981); and an honorary doctorate from Harvard University (1982). He was honored by President Carter at Kennedy Center in 1979, and named Distinguished Writer in Residence at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in 1981.
In addition to kudos from critics, Williams held for many years the attention of audiences in America and abroad. By 1955 his reputation was firmly established; that year's Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ran for 694 performances (Roudane xx). Some years after their first Broadway runs, four of his plays were revived successfully there: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1974), Summer and Smoke (September, 1975), Sweet Bird of Youth (October, 1975), and The Glass Menagerie (December, 1975). On the day of Williams's death, the New York evening papers issued an impressive list of famous actors who have performed in his plays; these include Jessica Tandy, Marlon Brando, Geraldine Page, Paul Newman, Maureen Stapleton, Eli Wallach, Tallulah Bankhead, Burl Ives, Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, and Bette Davis (Leverich 5-6). Whether one argues that these actors were made famous by Williams's work, or that the quality of his work attracted the most popular film and stage performers, the connection between Williams and these near-legends of film and stage establishes the playwright as one of the most important figures in twentieth-century drama. R. Barton Palmer notes that Williams had more influence on the development of American cinema than any other twentieth century playwright.
The conflicts between sexuality, society, and Christianity, so much a part of Williams's drama, played themselves out in his life as well. Having spent almost all of his life as a wanderer--a sexual and religious outcast--Williams died on February 23, 1983. It is a curious coincidence that Williams¹s life ended in a place that shared the name of the apartment building in which one of his best-known characters, Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, met her figurative end. He died in the Elysee Hotel in New York; the name of the apartment building in Streetcar is Elysian Fields. It is perhaps appropriate that Williams died in a hotel--the traditional bivouac of wanderers and outcasts--rather than in his home at Key West or in New Orleans. He was buried in St. Louis, in a Catholic ceremony, at the request of his brother.
Tennessee Williams claimed that all of his major plays fit into the "memory play" format he described in his production notes for The Glass Menagerie. The memory play is a three-part structure: (1) a character experiences something profound; (2) that experience causes what Williams terms an "arrest of time," a situation in which time literally loops upon itself; and (3) the character must re-live that profound experience (caught in a sort of mobius loop of time) until she or he makes sense of it. The overarching theme for his plays, he claimed, is the negative impact that conventional society has upon the "sensitive nonconformist individual."
With their emphasis on the irrational, the desperation of humanity in a universe in which cosmic laws do not work, and their tragi-comic examination of the conflicts between the gentility of old Southern values and the brute force of new, Northern values, Williams's plays fit nicely into a genre critics call "Southern Gothic." He shares this field with such literary lights as Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner, who, like Williams, struggled with the macabre and eccentric natures of individuals in America's South. Although, like Faulkner, Williams spent much of his adult life in New York, his work focuses on the Southern experience.