Who Was Tennessee Williams?
After college, Tennessee Williams 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 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 But he was soon withdrawn from the school by his father, who became incensed when he learned that his son's girlfriend was also attending the university.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.
When he was 28, Williams moved to New Orleans, where he changed his name (he landed on Tennessee because his father hailed from there) and revamped his lifestyle, soaking up the city life that would inspire his work, most notably the later play, A Streetcar Named Desire.
He proved to be a prolific writer and one of his plays earned him $100 from the Group Theater writing contest. More importantly, it landed him an agent, Audrey Wood, who would become his friend and adviser.
In 1940 Williams' play, Battle of Angels, debuted in Boston. It quickly flopped, but the hardworking Williams revised it and brought it back as Orpheus Descending, which later was made into the movie, The Fugitive Kind, starring Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani.
Other work followed, including a gig writing scripts for MGM. But Williams' mind was never far from the stage. On March 31, 1945, a play he'd been working for some years, The Glass Menagerie, opened on Broadway.
Critics and audiences alike lauded the play, about a declassed Southern family living in a tenement, forever changing Williams' life and fortunes. Two years later, A Streetcar Named Desire opened, surpassing his previous success and cementing his status as one of the country's best playwrights. The play also earned Williams a Drama Critics' Award and his first Pulitzer Prize.
His subsequent work brought more praise. The hits from this period included Camino Real, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth.
The 1960s were a difficult time for Williams. His work received poor reviews and increasingly the playwright turned to alcohol and drugs as coping mechanisms. In 1969 his brother hospitalized him.
Upon his release, Williams got right back to work. He churned out several new plays as well as Memoirs in 1975, which told the story of his life and his afflictions.
But he never fully escaped his demons. Surrounded by bottles of wine and pills, Williams died in a New York City hotel room on February 25, 1983.
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