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Happy Birthday Tennessee Williams

Today, March 26th, is Tennessee Williams’s birthday.  I wanted to learn more about this American legend so I turned to the American National Biography Online where I found this fantastic biography written by John M. Clum. The ANB offers portraits of more than 17,400 men and women – from all eras and walks of life – whose lives have shaped the nation.  Learn more about Williams below.

Williams, Tennessee (26 Mar. 1911-24 Feb. 1983), playwright, poet, and writer of fiction, was born Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Mississippi, the son of Cornelius Coffin Williams and Edwina Dakin. The circumstances of Tom Williams’s birth speak volumes about his parents’ relationship. In 1909 Edwina Williams had returned to Columbus to live with her parents, an Episcopal rector and his wife, rather than live with her temperamental, hard-drinking husband. (C. C. Williams, a traveling salesman, usually stayed with them on weekends.) The model for many of her son’s characters, Edwina Williams played the role of southern belle more than was necessary…

…Tom entered the University of Missouri in 1929, hoping to major in journalism…After a third year of undistinguished grades, C. C. pulled his son out of university and put him to work in a menial position at the International Shoe Company…

The years between the University of Missouri and Williams’s move to Iowa City (1932-1937) were crucial, if in a negative way, for the creation of the man and the writer. Tom was miserable at his agonizingly dull job and stayed up most of the night writing, which was both a passion and an escape. His extreme anxiety attacks, which had begun on a trip to Europe with his grandfather in 1928, became more frequent. One cannot precisely ascertain the extent to which these attacks were a result of his repression of his homosexual desire. Later Williams claimed, probably accurately, to have remained a virgin until he was twenty-seven. Whatever their cause, the panics remained with him throughout his life and sustained his extreme hypochondria. They also motivated the behavior of many of his characters, particularly the terrified women he created, from Laura Wingfield to Blanche Dubois to Alexandra del Lago. Surviving one’s terrors in “monster country” is one of the central subjects of Williams’s work…

…In 1937 Williams entered the University of Iowa, a center for the training of writers, and studied with two of the most important teachers of playwriting of the time, E. C. Mabie and Elsworth P. Conkle…

After receiving his degree in 1938, Williams began the itinerant life he was to continue to his death and that he would project onto many of his characters…

While Tom was traveling, the Group Theatre’s literary manager, Molly Day Thatcher (wife of director Elia Kazan, who would later direct Williams’s most successful plays and films), announced in 1939 that Williams had won a “special award” for his one-act plays, collectively titled American Blues. Thatcher placed Williams’s work in the hands of agent Audrey Wood, who would lovingly guide the major years of his career…

…Williams’s career as a Broadway playwright was temporarily launched by a $1,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and an option on his play Battle of Angels by the most-prestigious producing organization, the Theatre Guild…The production was a fiasco and closed during its Boston tryout (Dec. 1940)…Typically, Williams later rewrote this work. Renamed Orpheus Descending, it had a short Broadway run in 1957 but was turned into a hit film, The Fugitive Kind (1959), starring Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani…

…Williams achieved artistic and commercial success with his dramatization of his St. Louis years, The Glass Menagerie (1945). This often-revived play is typical of Williams’s best work in the way it shapes personal experience into circumstances having universal resonance and combines muted comedy with convincing pathos…

…the next decade and a half were the peak years of his career. Not all of his plays during that period were successful, but he nonetheless established himself as one of America’s major dramatists with A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Summer and Smoke (1948), The Rose Tattoo (1953), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), Suddenly Last Summer (1958), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), and The Night of the Iguana (1961). Moreover, Williams’s name–and fortune–were made by hit film versions of these plays and other works, such as Baby Doll (adapted from the short play “Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton”), The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (from his 1950 novel), and The Fugitive Kind

Williams’s best works are brilliant poetic projections of his own obsessions. His greatest characters are eccentric outcasts usually because their sexual desires put them at odds with conventional society. “Desire” is the central word in Williams’s work, but desire is not simply lust; it is a yearning to attain, through sex, some psychological and spiritual state that is always unattainable. “The opposite of death is desire,” Blanche Dubois cries in A Streetcar Named Desire. When Williams’s heroines and heroes yearn for “life,” they mean a union of physical and spiritual fulfillment. It is apt that the object of desire of one of his heroes is named Heavenly (Sweet Bird of Youth). What leads to the often violent destruction of Williams’s central characters is not merely the agents of social and sexual order, but a violent cosmology, most cogently defined in the imagery of Suddenly Last Summer, in which the vision of birds of prey rapaciously feeding on baby turtles in the Galapagos Islands becomes the face of God. Williams’s plays are filled with violence–castration, cannibalism, various forms of physical and psychological mutilation–and in his best work it gives form to his lurid, highly personal vision of experience.

During the period from 1948 until the late 1950s Williams was sustained personally and professionally by his relationship with Frank Merlo…They separated years before Merlo died of lung cancer in 1963, but the guilt and grief elicited by Merlo’s death signaled the end of what was left of Williams’s personal and artistic control. His dogged persistence at writing despite the commercial failures and critical brickbats was a heroic counterpart to the personal behavior, which reached its nadir when his brother had him institutionalized in 1969…Williams wrote his brother out of his will as soon as he was let out of the hospital.

Williams never stopped writing during the last two decades of his life, but the output was erratic and often incoherent…

Yet there are moments of greatness in his uneven later work…It may be too facile to see the later works as the outpourings of a drug-addled mind and not consider that Williams was always a theatrical experimentalist at odds with the dominant mode of theatrical realism and that his later work moved beyond what conservative Broadway audiences and critics understood…The later works deserve revival and study, but they simply are not the masterpieces Williams wrote before 1961.

Williams died in a New York City hotel room from choking on the plastic cap of a pill bottle. As the culmination of years of personal and artistic deterioration, his death was grotesquely apt. Yet he remains justly celebrated as a daring, poetic playwright who, at his best, could capture on stage a haunting personal vision. The power of his most-realized works has made them part of the standard repertory throughout the world. Williams is also one of twentieth-century America’s most important sexual revolutionaries whose highly popular works stretched the boundaries of what could be shown and discussed on the stage and screen.

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One Response to “Happy Birthday Tennessee Williams”
  1. fern says:

    what would we watch without him? the world would be a different–and more boring–place.

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