Esteemed American playwright Tennessee Williams produced some of the classics of 20th century theatre. The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) are considered the most important of his two dozen plays.
Among his many accolades were two Pulitzer Prizes (for Streetcar and Cat), along with four Drama Critics Circle Awards. Leading actors such as Paul Newman, Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor achieved great distinction in Williams' work.
His later life was marked by a career decline and depression, alcohol and drug abuse.
Playwright Tennessee Williams was born on March 26, 1911, in Columbus, Mississippi. After college, he moved to New Orleans, a city that would inspire much of his writing. On March 31, 1945, his play, The Glass Menagerie, opened on Broadway and two years later A Streetcar Named Desire earned Williams his first Pulitzer Prize. Many of Williams’ plays have been adapted to film starring screen greats like Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. Williams died in 1983.
Playwright Tennessee Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams on March 26, 1911, in Columbus, Mississippi, the second of Cornelius and Edwina Williams’ three children. Raised predominantly by his mother, Williams had a complicated relationship with his father, a demanding salesman who preferred work instead of parenting.
Williams described his childhood in Mississippi as pleasant and happy. But life changed for him when his family moved to St. Louis, Missouri. The carefree nature of his boyhood was stripped in his new urban home, and as a result Williams turned inward and started to write.
His parent’s marriage certainly didn’t help. Often strained, the Williams home could be a tense place to live. “It was just a wrong marriage,” Williams later wrote. The family situation, however, did offer fuel for the playwright’s art. His mother became the model for the foolish but strong Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, while his father represented the aggressive, driving Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
In 1929, Williams enrolled at the University of Missouri to study journalism. But he was soon withdrawn from the school by his father, who became incensed when he learned that his son’s girlfriend was also attending the university.
Deeply despondent, Williams retreated home, and at his father’s urging took a job as a sales clerk with a shoe company. The future playwright hated the position, and again he turned to his writing, crafting poems and stories after work. Eventually, however, the depression took its toll and Williams suffered a nervous breakdown.
After recuperating in Memphis, Williams returned to St. Louis and where he connected with several poets studying at Washington University. In 1937 returned to college, enrolling at the University of Iowa. He graduated the following year.
One of Americas greatest playwrights, and certainly the greatest ever from the South, Tennessee Williams wrote fiction and motion picture screenplays, but he is acclaimed primarily for his playsnearly all of which are set in the South, but which at their best rise above regionalism to approach universal themes.
Thomas Lanier Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, on March 26, 1911, the first son and second child of Cornelius Coffin and Edwina Dakin Williams. His mother, the daughter of a minister, was of genteel upbringing, while his father, a shoe salesman, came from a prestigious Tennessee family which included the states first governor and first senator. The family lived for several years in Clarksdale, Mississippi, before moving to St. Louis in 1918. At the age of 16, he encountered his first brush with the publishing world when he won third prize and received $5 for an essay, “Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?,” in Smart Set. A year later, he published “The Vengeance of Nitocris” in Weird Tales. In 1929, he entered the University of Missouri. His success there was dubious, and in 1931 he began work for a St. Louis shoe company. It was six years later when his first play, Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay, was produced in Memphis, in many respects the true beginning of his literary and stage career.
Building upon the experience he gained with his first production, Williams had two of his plays, Candles to the Sun and The Fugitive Kind, produced by Mummers of St. Louis in 1937. After a brief encounter with enrollment at Washington University, St. Louis, he entered the University of Iowa and graduated in 1938. As the second World War loomed over the horizon, Williams found a bit of fame when he won the Group Theater prize of $100 for American Blues and received a $1,000 grant from the Authors League of America in 1939. Battle of Angels was produced in Boston a year later. Near the close of the war in 1944, what many consider to be his finest play, The Glass Menagerie, had a very successful run in Chicago and a year later burst its way onto Broadway. Containing autobiographical elements from both his days in St. Louis as well as from his family’s past in Mississippi, the play won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award as the best play of the season. Williams, at the age of 34, had etched an indelible mark among the public and among his peers.
Following the critical acclaim over The Glass Menagerie, over the next eight years he found homes for A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke, A Rose Tattoo, and Camino Real on Broadway. Although his reputation on Broadway continued to zenith, particularly upon receiving his first Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for Streetcar, Williams reached a larger world-wide public in 1950 when The Glass Menagerie and again in 1951 when A Streetcar Named Desire were made into motion pictures. Williams had now achieved a fame few playwrights of his day could equal.
Over the next thirty years, dividing his time between homes in Key West, New Orleans, and New York, his reputation continued to grow and he saw many more of his works produced on Broadway and made into films, including such works as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (for which he earned a second Pulitzer Prize in 1955), Orpheus Descending, and Night of the Iguana. There is little doubt that as a playwright, fiction writer, poet, and essayist, Williams helped transform the contemporary idea of the Southern literature. However, as a Southerner he not only helped to pave the way for other writers, but also helped the South find a strong voice in those auspices where before it had only been heard as a whisper. Williams died on February 24, 1983, at the Hotel Elysée in New York City.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Atkinson, Brooks, Broadway, revised edition, Mac-millan (New York, NY), 1974.
Bentley, Eric, What Is Theatre?, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1968.
Bernstein, Samuel J., The Strands Entwined: A New Direction in American Drama, Northeastern University Press (Boston, MA), 1980.
Bigsby, C.W. E., Confrontation and Commitment: A Study of Contemporary American Drama 1959–1966, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1968.
Bigsby, C.W. E., A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama, three volumes, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1985.
Cohn, Ruby, Dialogue in American Drama, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1971.
Crandell, George W., Tennessee Williams: A Descriptive Bibliography, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1995.
Devlin, Albert J., editor, Conversations with Tennessee Williams, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1986.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1981.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Volume 4, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1984.
Fleche, Anne, Mimetic Disillusion: Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and U.S. Dramatic Realism, University of Alabama Press (Tuscaloosa, AL), 1997.
Gassner, John, Theatre at the Crossroads: Plays and Playwrights of the Mid-Century American Stage, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1960.
Gassner, John, Directions in Modern Theatre and Drama, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1966.
Gilman, Richard, Common and Uncommon Masks: Writings on Theatre, 1961–1970, Random House (New York, NY), 1971.
Gould, Jean, Modern American Playwrights, Dodd (New York, NY), 1966.
Griffin, Alice, Understanding Tennessee Williams, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 1995.
Kerr, Walter, The Theatre in Spite of Itself, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1963.
Kerr, Walter, Journey to the Center of Theatre, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 1979.
Leverich, Lyle, Tenn: The Timeless World of Tennessee Williams, Crown Publishers (New York, NY), 1997.
Lewis, Allan, American Plays and Playwrights of the Contemporary Theatre, Crown Publishers (New York, NY), 1965.
Martin, Robert A., editor, Critical Essays on Tennessee Williams, Prentice Hall International (Tappan, NJ), 1997.
McCann, John S., The Critical Reputation of Tennessee Williams: A Reference Guide, G.K. Hall (Boston, MA), 1983.
McCarthy, Mary, Theatre Chronicles: 1937–1962, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux (New York, NY), 1963.
Miller, Arthur, The Theatre Essays of Tennessee Williams, edited by Robert A. Martin, Penguin (New York, NY), 1978.
Nathan, George Jean, The Theatre Book of the Year, 1947–1948, 1948, 1948–1949, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 1949.
O'Connor, Jacqueline, Dramatizing Dementia: Madness in the Plays of Tennessee Williams, Bowling Green State University Popular Press (Bowling Green, OH), 1997.
Porter, Thomas E., Myth and Modern American Drama, Wayne State University Press (Detroit, MI), 1969.
Rasky, Harry, Tennessee Williams: A Portrait in Laughter and Lamentation, Dodd (New York, NY), 1986.
Simon, John, Acid Test, Stein & Day (New York, NY), 1963.
Styan, J.L., Modern Drama in Theory and Practice, Volume 1, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1981.
Tynan, Kenneth, Curtains, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1961.
Weales, Gerald, American Drama since World War II, Harcourt, Brace (New York, NY), 1962.
Williams, Edwina Dakin, as told to Lucy Freeman, Remember Me to Tom, Putnam (New York, NY), 1963.
Williams, Tennessee, The Glass Menagerie, Random House (New York, NY), 1945, published as The Glass Menagerie: Play in Two Acts, Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1948.
Williams, Tennessee, Camino Real: A Play, foreword and afterword by Williams, New Directions Publishing (New York, NY), 1953.
Williams, Tennessee, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, preface by Williams, New Directions Publishing (New York, NY), 1955, published as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: A Play in Three Acts, Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1958.
Williams, Tennessee, Orpheus Descending: A Play in Three Acts, New Directions Publishing (New York, NY), 1959.
Williams, Tennessee, The Theatre of Tennessee Williams, New Directions Publishing (New York, NY), Volume 1, 1971, Volume 2, 1971, Volume 3, 1971, Volume 4, 1972, Volume 5, 1976, Volume 6, 1981, Volume 7, 1981.
Williams, Tennessee, Tennessee Williams: Eight Plays, introduction by Harold Clurman, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1979.
Booklist, September 15, 1995, Jack Helbig, review of Something Cloudy, Something Clear, p. 131.
Library Journal, September 1, 1995, Ming-ming Shen Kuo, review of Something Cloudy, Something Clear, p. 178 October 15, 1995, Denise A. Garofalo, review of The Migrants, p. 100.
New Republic, Volume 112, 1945 June 17, 1996, Robert Brustein, review of The Night of the Iguana, p. 26.
New York, March 14, 1983, John Simon, "Poet of the Theater," p. 76 November 28, 1994, John Simon, review of The Glass Menagerie, p. 75 May 15, 1995, John Simon, review of The Rose Tattoo, p. 59 October 23, 1995, John Simon, review of Garden District, p. 60.
New Yorker, July 18, 1994, John Lahr, "Fugitive Mind," p. 68 November 21, 1994, John Lahr, review of The Glass Menagerie, p. 124 December 19, 1994. John Lahr, "The Lady and Tennessee," p. 76 May 15, 1995, Nancy Franklin, review of The Rose Tattoo, p. 100 April 8, 1996, Nancy Franklin, review of Night of the Iguana, p. 103.
New York Post, April 21-May 4, 1958, Robert Rice, interview with Williams.
New York Times Book Review, May 27, 1990, Edmund White, review of Five o'Clock Angel: Letters of Tennessee Williams to Maria St. Just, 1948–1982, p. 1.
Southern Living, March, 1996, Wanda Butler, "A Weekend Named Desire," p. 26.
Time, December 5, 1994, William Tynan, review of The Glass Menagerie, p. 94.
World Literature Today, winter, 1992, Phillip C. Kolin, "Tennessee Williams: Fugitive Kind," p. 133.
Tennessee Williams: A tormented playwright who unzipped his heart
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Tennessee Williams: A tormented playwright who unzipped his heart
1 /4 Tennessee Williams: A tormented playwright who unzipped his heart
Tennessee Williams: A tormented playwright who unzipped his heart
Tennessee Williams: A tormented playwright who unzipped his heart
Tennessee Williams: A tormented playwright who unzipped his heart
Tennessee Williams: A tormented playwright who unzipped his heart
Tennessee Williams – arguably the greatest of American dramatists – would have notched up his 100th birthday on 26 March. He was born Thomas Lanier Williams III in Columbus, Mississippi in 1911. His mother, Edwina, was the daughter of an Episcopalian minister, his father, Cornelius, was a womanising and hard-drinking travelling salesman for a shoe company. History does not record how the birth went, though it is a fair bet that the occasion was more elevated than the master playwright's less than ideally dignified demise some 71 years later.
In February 1983 in a Manhattan hotel room, Williams choked to death from inhaling the plastic cap of a nasal spray dispenser. His gagging reflex had been impaired by drink and drugs. To his righteous detractors – who had long looked askance at this laureate of lost souls and champion of life's undesirables – it must have seemed like roundly retributive poetic justice. The assiduous substance-abuse of the author of such classics as The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire was, by then, the stuff of legend. In his Memoirs (1972), Williams had characterised the 1960s as his "Stoned Age", while Tallulah Bankhead, chum and sometime leading lady, had once quipped, punningly: "Tennessee – you and I are the only constantly High Episcopalians I know."
It is not hard, however, to imagine the playwright's ghost snorting at the grotesque farce of this accidentally emblematic, cautionary ending. Richard Eyre has written of "the drollery [that] runs under all his work like a fast-flowing stream". His sense of humour could be disconcerting. There's the revealing story of the night he went to see Maggie Smith in Ingmar Bergman's 1970 production of Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre. Williams started cackling from the moment she came on and, to the bemusement of cast and audience, kept this up all the way through, climaxing with an enormous roar at the offstage shot in the head. When Smith asked him why, he replied in his Southern drawl, "That poor woman, she's so bored. " But, as Peter Hall has remarked of the event, this was an acutely perceptive laughing fit: "[Tennessee] saw comedy in the blackest things. I think Ibsen would have approved."
Williams had certainly needed this talent for extracting humour from depressing circumstances in the latter phases of his life. By the time of his death in 1983, the man who had bagged a couple of Pulitzer Prizes – for Streetcar in 1947 and for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955 – had not had a major Broadway hit since Night of the Iguana in 1961. That play – set on the veranda of a bohemian hilltop hotel in Mexico – stages a kind of spiritual one-night stand between one of Williams's archetypal apostates (an end-of-the-tether ex-minister, defrocked for blasphemy and a taste for underage girls) and a New England spinster and itinerant artist who is the ethereal embodiment of "how to live beyond despair and still live".
The piece has the air of valedictory stock-taking and, as Nicholas Wright has written, in the hero's choosing to stay and share his life with the blowsy, wisecracking bacchante who runs the hotel, Williams was predicting his own last two decades of "hedonistic riot fringed with sexy boys". But though they were dogged by depression, drink, drugs and vindictive critics (a review in Time magazine was helpfully headlined "Mistah Williams – he dead), these were also years of unflagging productivity.
On the occasion of the playwright's centenary, it's worth pausing to reflect on a number of interrelated questions. How have attitudes towards his work changed during the years since his death? Has our sense of his artistic range expanded, given the discoveries that have been made at both ends of his career? And if the Bible is right to propose that "by their fruits ye shall know them", what do we learn about Williams from his spiritual legatees?
Reviewing Peter Hall's production of Orpheus Descending in 1988, Frank Rich, then theatre critic of the New York Times, wrote that: "In death, Tennessee Williams is more often regarded by the American theatre as a tragic icon than as a playwright worthy of further artistic investigation. The reverse is true in London when the Williams canon, neglected by the major companies during the writer's lifetime, is suddenly being rediscovered."
This was to be even truer in the years immediately following, as Richard Eyre masterminded three revelatory revivals at the National, including his own excellent productions of Night of the Iguana and Sweet Bird of Youth. Later, under Trevor Nunn and thanks to the intervention of Vanessa Redgrave, who had retrieved and pressed the claims of this unperformed 1938 script, the NT's premiere production of Not About Nightingales in 1998 showed us Williams, the youthful social protest writer. Sticking up for the solitary, sensitive outcast in a world full of redneck philistines had seemed to be the author's forte, not defending the rights of the abused mass of men, but this powerful drama – based on the real-life case of hunger-striking prisoners during the Depression who were cooked to death in a room full of steaming radiators – brought home how the poet and the protester in him were not at odds.
As Eyre's productions had already underlined and as director Harold Clurman, the most perceptive critic of Williams's work) had long forcefully argued, his Southern Gothic environments steam with social commentary as well as with sex, being distorted places where "lack of cultural nourishment produces bigotry, brutality, madness, and a persistent depression of the human personality".
Now, as the festivities for Williams's 100th birthday get underway, there's a dramatic new twist to the proposition that London takes the lead in the posthumous re-evaluation. At her stylish new venue, the Print Room in Bayswater, Lucy Bailey, who scored a huge hit with a sizzling stage adaptation of Baby Doll (the Williams-scripted movie denounced by Time as "just about the dirtiest American-made motion-picture that has ever been legally exhibited") is gearing up for a fresh assault on Kingdom of Earth, a play that bloodily bombed on Broadway in 1967 and hasn't been seen here in England since the mid-Eighties. Meanwhile, Kilburn's Cock Tavern Theatre, under the enterprising artistic directorship of Adam Spreadbury-Maher, has weighed in with a couple of coups. Tom Erhardt, the agent who is the playwright's literary executor in Europe, was so impressed by the recent Edward Bond play at this address that he has given them the right to present the world premiere of two late Williams plays, one of them such a rarity that it won't be published until the birthday.
I Never Get Dressed Till After Dark on Sundays, a Pirandello-esque play-within-a-play about the dramatist's rocky relationship with the American theatre industry, opened last week. At the end of the month, it will be followed by Gene David Kirk's production of A Cavalier for Milady, the most graphic and gob-smacking of all his snapshots of Rose, the schizophrenic sister whom their mother had lobotomised (behind his back) when she began to make sexual abuse charges against the father, Cornelius.
In various guises that betoken his feelings of guilt (and his fear of going mad himself), Rose haunts his oeuvre from the breakthrough play and his first Broadway hit, Glass Menagerie (1945), where she is incarnated as the crippled, painfully shy Laura Wingfield, who has withdrawn from her mother's heavy-handed match-making into the cocoon of tending her collection of fragile figurines.
There are other recurring personnel in the Williams world. To pick out just three: there is the sacrificial stud, such as Val Xavier, that guitar-playing cross between Christ and Elvis who threatens the rigid patriarchy of a Southern town in Orpheus Descending (1957) there's the woman liberated through the libido, aroused by a sexy hunk – comically so in the The Rose Tatoo (1950) where the explosive widow, Rosa delle Serafina drops her mourning weeds for an unconventionally attractive truck driver who is a Sicilian immigrant like the main love of Williams's life, Frank Merlo and there is the devouring mother, quintessentially embodied in Violet Venable, the wealthy bird-of-prey dowager in Suddenly, Last Summer (1958) who, having used her social pulling power to procure sex for her son on their glamorous trips to Europe, wants to have her niece lobotomised when threatened with exposure.
In his autobiography, Palimpsest, Gore Vidal, who writes about close friends with what can only be described as Olympian attachment, is amusing about the frightful fates that tend to befall Williams's protagonists. Williams had complained that the fight at the end of The City and the Pillar, Vidal's groundbreaking gay novel, was too melodramatic: "That from Tennessee," Vidal writes, with poisoned-tipped poise, "whose heroes, when not castrated, are eaten alive by small boys in Amalfi, just below where I live. I should note that whenever Suddenly Last Summer appears on Italian television, the local boys find it irresistibly funny."
But, if a Puritan streak can be molten (as opposed to icy) this is what the hedonistic Williams had. The grandson of an Episcopalian minister, he saw himself, as his defrocked priest Shannon does, as "a man of God, on vacation". The tension between his characters enacts his own interior struggles it's his ambivalence towards them that gives them the plays life – along (crucially) with the luxuriance of their leisurely, undulating Southern speech, which was once beautifully described on these pages by Rhoda Koenig. Reviewing the early rarity Spring Storm (1937/8), brilliantly directed by Laurie Sansom at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in 2009 and rightly imported by Nick Hytner's National Theatre the following year, she characterised Williams's dialogue as being full of "drawling music that slaps its penultimate syllable against your ear like lazy river water against a boat".
It's true that A Streetcar Named Desire climaxes in a monstrous act of rape and Harold Clurman – who felt that Marlon Brando, in the greatest soiled-vest part of all time, unbalanced the play and film by being too diabolically desirable – was, on one level, extremely shrewd in identifying what kind of social threat Stanley Kowalski represents. He is, Clurman wrote, the "unwitting anti-Christ of our time, the little man who will break the back of any attempt to create a more comprehensive world in which thought and conscience are expected to evolve from the old Adam. His mentality provides the soil for fascism, viewed not as a political movement but as a state of being."
But it's clear that Williams views him and Blanche Dubois, the faded Southern belle who clings to illusions of refinement and is the moth to brother-in-law Stanley's flame, with nearly the same mix of attraction and repulsion as they view one another. A production that gave no validity whatsoever to Stanley's avowal, on the brink of violating her, that: "We've had this date with each other from the beginning!", or denied the audience an unholy sense of corrupt catharsis when the storm breaks, would be untrue to the play.
The two most gifted current beneficiaries of the Williams spirit are, to my mind, Tony Kushner (in whose plays, such as Angels in America, Williams and Brecht seem to mate to rampant and rigorous effect) and the songwriter Rufus Wainwright. The latter seems to me to have the same knack of being simultaneously self-dramatising and drolly self-mocking in his recklessly cruising, crystal-meth-addict days, he had a comparable urge to render himself not only open to experience but dangerously vulnerable to it. And he remains magnanimously arch and witty about the horror he has been through. Take his allusion to the frightening temporary blindness he suffered as a result of crystal meth in the song "Sanssouci": "Who will be at Sanssouci tonight?/The boys that made me lose the blues and then my eyesight". The humorous non-recriminatory balance of that (and stunning use of zeugma) sound like a miraculous out-of-time collaboration between Tennessee Williams and Alexander Pope.
There is, though, something odd and a little dispiriting in the way Time Out chose to honour the Williams centenary principally in its "Gay and Lesbian" section. He is, honourably and admirably, a gay icon but that is not the only thing he is. His work speaks to the outcast and the drag queen in all of us, not least black writers – from Lorraine Hansberry to August Wilson – who have found inspiration in the way his work champions the underdog, sometime with explicit reference to racial bigotry. This point is taken up by Lucy Bailey who describes Kingdom of Earth, which is set in a farmhouse in the Mississippi Delta during the flooding season, as a "poem on loneliness", bringing together a trio of mismatched misfits – the effete, dying Lot who likes dressing up as his mother (without shades of Psycho) his nominal wife, Myrtle, who once had career in showbiz and is one of Williams's sexed-up life-givers and Lot's mixed-race malcontent brother, Chicken, who is out to usurp him. The relationship between the two brothers carries echoes of that between Blanche and Stanley with the crucial, complicating difference that Chicken is partly the production of racial prejudice as he recounts in eloquent reminiscences.
Besides, there was always one implication that Williams hated: "People who say I create transvestite women are full of shit. Frankly. Just full of shit. Personally I like women more than men."
This remark gives you some measure of the outrageously funny revenge he took on his mother, Edwina, in A Cavalier for Milady. Directed by Gene David Kirk, it will be the second of the late, as-yet-unperformed rarities at the Cock Theatre. Williams never forgave his mother for lobotomising Rose, which he regarded as an extreme act of censorship on his sister's wayward sexual nature. He gets his own back on both the repressed Edwina and his critics in Cavalier by turning her into a Park Lane society lady who has, essentially, the appetites and habits of a Seventies gay New Yorker. She isn't, but she might as well be a drag act. At the start, we see her leaving the infantilised Rose-figure with a babysitter while she and her cronies go out cruising in Central Park with studs hired from the eponymous escort agency. Left alone, the masturbating Rose-figure conjures up an apparition of the great ballet dancer Nijinsky who dances for her but, with problems of his own, frustrates her desire for touch in their conversational pas de deux. The ending is breathtaking in its audacious self-reference to the earlier oeuvre. Surreptitiously, the daughter phones the agency and is left holding a candle on the threshold, like a mutinous Laura Wingfield in Glass Menagerie who may get a gentleman caller.
There will be splashy events later in the year (Nicole Kidman and James Franco will appear in Suddenly Next Summer on Broadway in the autumn). But in keeping with London's traditional role of setting the pace in the re-evaluation of Williams, it would be good if the centenary established that the routinely derided later work is sometimes in genuinely imaginative cross-fertilisation with the earlier classics (sending up back to them freshly sensitised) rather than merely parasitic upon them and that his scrutiny of abiding preoccupations through the Absurdist lens of Ionesco and Beckett could bring hidden things to light. It's an encouraging sign that the Cock Tavern Theatre is well into negotiations for bringing the two unperformed rarities into a West End house in the summer.
A review of Memoirs notoriously claimed that the author may not have opened his heart, but he had certainly opened his fly. Williams knew better than most dramatists the hotline between the groin and the higher seat of the emotions. His productivity right to the end of his life, exemplified in the celebrations here, offers the heartening spectacle of a man who, even when hardly able to stand upright through excess, could still, in Gene David Kirk's lovely description, "sit at the typewriter each morning and unzip his heart".
Tennessee Williams: The Man, The Playwright
As one of the most notable figures in American literature and playwrighting, there is so much information out there about Tennesee Williams. On the flip side, although many of us are familiar with his work, most don’t know about his personal background and from where he drew his inspiration.
As Lyric presents Williams’ classic tale THE GLASS MENAGERIE, opening March 27 at the Plaza Theatre, we took some time to do a little research on this literary genius..
Born Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Mississippi on March 26, 1911 (you’re right–the show opens the day after his birthday), he changed his first name to Tennessee shortlly after graduating from the University of Iowa. Like many artists, his early years were filled with struggles to “make it.” It wasn’t until THE GLASS MENAGERIE was produced in 1944 that his work saw critical acclaim. The play won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play of the Season that very year.
The huge success of his next play, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, in 1947 secured his name among the great playwrights of his time. Between 1948 and 1959, seven more of his plays appeared on Broadway including SUMMER AND SMOKE, THE ROSE TATTOO, CAMINO REAL, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, ORPHEUS, DESCENDING, GARDEN DISTRICT and SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH. By 1959 he had won two Pulitzer Prizes, three New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards, three Donaldson Awards and a Tony Award.
As far as his personal life was concerned, Williams remained close to his sister Rose, whose life inspired the character “Laura” in THE GLASS MENAGERIE. She was diagnosed as schizophrenic as a young adult. During his rise to fame, Williams ran in a gay, New York City social circle that included fellow writer and close friend Donald Windham. The most notable relationship of his life was that with Frank Merlo, an occasional actor, which lasted 14 years.
At the time of his death on February 25, 1983, Williams’ works were not seeing the success of his previous plays. Despite this, the power of his ideas and words continue to inspire, uplift and entertain audiences around the world.
Don’t miss Williams’ autobiographical play, THE GLASS MENAGERIE, at the Plaza Theatre, March 27 through April 13.
Tennessee Williams Biography
Tennessee Williams at age 54 in 1965. Photo by Orland Fernandez.
He was brilliant and prolific, breathing life and passion into such memorable characters as Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski in his critically acclaimed A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. And like them, he was troubled and self-destructive, an abuser of alcohol and drugs. He was awarded four Drama Critic Circle Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was derided by critics and blacklisted by Roman Catholic Cardinal Spellman, who condemned one of his scripts as “revolting, deplorable, morally repellent, offensive to Christian standards of decency.” He was Tennessee Williams, one of the greatest playwrights in American history.
Born Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Mississippi in 1911, Tennessee was the son of a shoe company executive and a Southern belle. Williams described his childhood in Mississippi as happy and carefree. This sense of belonging and comfort were lost, however, when his family moved to the urban environment of St. Louis, Missouri. It was there he began to look inward, and to write— “because I found life unsatisfactory.” Williams’ early adult years were occupied with attending college at three different universities, a brief stint working at his father’s shoe company, and a move to New Orleans, which began a lifelong love of the city and set the locale for A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE.
Williams spent a number of years traveling throughout the country and trying to write. His first critical acclaim came in 1944 when THE GLASS MENAGERIE opened in Chicago and went to Broadway. It won a the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and, as a film, the New York Film Critics’ Circle Award. At the height of his career in the late 1940s and 1950s, Williams worked with the premier artists of the time, most notably Elia Kazan, the director for stage and screen productions of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, and the stage productions of CAMINO REAL, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, and SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH. Kazan also directed Williams’ film BABY DOLL. Like many of his works, BABY DOLL was simultaneously praised and denounced for addressing raw subject matter in a straightforward realistic way.
The 1960s were perhaps the most difficult years for Williams, as he experienced some of his harshest treatment from the press. In 1961 he wrote THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, and in 1963, THE MILK TRAIN DOESN’T STOP HERE ANY MORE. His plays, which had long received criticism for openly addressing taboo topics, were finding more and more detractors. Around this time, Williams’ longtime companion, Frank Merlo, died of cancer. Williams began to depend more and more on alcohol and drugs and though he continued to write, completing a book of short stories and another play, he was in a downward spiral. In 1969 he was hospitalized by his brother.
After his release from the hospital in the 1970s, Williams wrote plays, a memoir, poems, short stories and a novel. In 1975 he published MEMOIRS, which detailed his life and discussed his addiction to drugs and alcohol, as well as his homosexuality. In 1980 Williams wrote CLOTHES FOR A SUMMER HOTEL, based on the lives of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Only three years later, Tennessee Williams died in a New York City hotel filled with half-finished bottles of wine and pills. It was in this desperation, which Williams had so closely known and so honestly written about, that we can find a great man and an important body of work. His genius was in his honesty and in the perseverance to tell his stories.
It has been an arduous task collating a list of best playwrights. However, after careful deliberation, we believe that these playwrights deserve to be regarded as the best playwrights of all time. This list took into account craftsmanship, aesthetic value, originality, contribution to theatre and, of course, subjective favouritism by the StageMilk team (yes this is just our opinion).
We include playwrights from several countries and every period in history from Ancient Greece to modern marvels like Lucy Prebble. Each playwright has written a number great plays and has offered something truly original to the theatre. We are sure there will be plenty of contention about this list, but we would love to hear your thoughts.
At the end of the day this list has one purpose, to encourage actors to read more plays. You will be a better actor for reading the work of any of these great playwrights. If you are interested in reading plays by any of these playwrights click the link underneath each picture to see a more specific list of each playwrights strongest plays. Enjoy!
Through the 1970s and 1980s, Williams continued to write for the theater, though he was unable to repeat the success of most of his early years. One of his last plays was Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980), based on passionate love affair between the American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896) and his wife, Zelda.
Two collections of Williams's many oneact plays were published: 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (1946) and American Blues (1948). Williams also wrote fiction, including two novels, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1950) and Moise and the World of Reason (1975). Four volumes of short stories were also published. One Arm and Other Stories (1948), Hard Candy (1954), The Knightly Quest (1969), and Eight Mortal Ladies Possessed (1974). Nine of his plays were made into films, and he wrote one original screenplay, Baby Doll (1956). In his 1975 tell-all novel, Memoirs, Williams described his own problems with alcohol and drugs and his homosexuality (the attraction to members of the same sex).
Williams died in New York City on February 25, 1983. In 1995, the United States Post Office commemorated Williams by issuing a special edition stamp in his name as part of their Literary Arts Series. For several years, literary enthusiasts have gathered to celebrate the man and his work at the Tennessee Williams Scholars Conference. The annual event, held along with the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, features educational, theatrical and literary programs.
National Review, March 18, 1983, "Tennessee Williams, R.I.P."
New York Times, February 26, 1983, p. 1.
New York Times Book Review, March 4, 2007, "Playwright's Diary."
Time, March 7, 1983, T.E. Kalem, "The Laureate of the Outcast," p. 88.
Washington Post, February 26, 1983, p. B6.
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