Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams is an American playwright known for his plays Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  (1955), The Glass Menagerie (1944) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). Originally named Thomas Lanier Williams III, the Mississippi-born playwright is considered one of the most famous American dramatists of the 20th century, winning two Pulitzer Prizes and a Tony Award for his work.

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    Tennessee Williams, Portrait, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Tennessee Williams is best known for his plays such as The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire.

    Tennessee Williams: biography

    Tennessee Williams' Biography
    Birth:26th March 1911
    Death:25th February 1983
    Father:Cornelius Coffin Williams
    Mother:Edwina Williams
    Partners:Frank Merlo (died 1963)Robert Carroll
    Famous Plays:
    • A Streetcar Named Desire
    • Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
    • The Glass Menagerie
    Nationality:American
    Literary Period:Modernist (theatre)

    Tennessee Williams was born to Cornelius and Edwina Williams on 26 March 1911. As an infant, his mother mostly looked after him because of his father's career as a shoe salesman. Williams' father was an alcoholic, violent, and frequently absent because he had to travel for work.

    The Willaims lived together in Mississippi alongside his two other siblings: Rose Isabel Williams and Walter Dakin Williams. However, owing to a job promotion in 1919, the Williams family were made to move over 400 miles away to St Louis, Missouri.

    Tennessee Williams' education and work

    While in St Louis, Williams attended Soldan High School before joining the University City High School. In 1929, he decided to enrol at the University of Missouri to study journalism. He found little pleasure in his studies and instead found more interest in writing poetry and plays. One of his plays was even performed by the Dramatic Arts Club while he studied there.

    His father forced him to withdraw his place at University so that he could begin working at the International Shoe Company factory to help support the family. The work was not made for him, however, and he left the job for his own mental wellbeing.

    He rejoined higher education in 1936 in St. Louis before transferring to the University of Iowa in 1937 and graduating with a BA in English the following year.

    In 1939 he received recognition for a production which gave him a $1,000 grant. He used this money to move back to New Orleans. As time passed, he began to achieve more and more success, particularly with his productions A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie. These plays were even adapted into films, further heightening his commercial success.

    Unfortunately, after the 1950s, he received negative criticism due to his new dramatic styles. These reviews impacted him greatly and sparked a mental decline that resulted in an increase in alcohol and drug abuse in an attempt to minimise his depression.

    Tennessee Williams, A black and white image of a streetcar in New Orleans, StudySmarterFig. 2 - A streetcar in New Orleans.

    Tennessee Williams' romantic relationships

    Despite early explorations in relationships with women, Williams then began to explore his sexuality in other ways. His first relationship with a man began and ended in 1940 with Kip Kiernan when Williams was 29. But this brief affair left Williams in significant heartbreak, especially as Kiernan died a few years after their break up.

    Williams began a new relationship during a visit to New Mexico in 1945, where he met Amado 'Pancho' Rodríguez y González, but the relationship was unsteady, leading Williams to end it in 1947. In the biography of Elia Kazan, the director of the first stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire, the pair's relationship was even paralleled to the Kowalski's in her biography.

    After he returned from an Italian holiday in 1948, he fell in love with Frank Merlo, and this love developed into a relationship that would then last over a decade. However, Williams experienced further hardship when Merlo passed away in 1963 from lung cancer soon after their relationship ended.

    In his 60s, Williams' loneliness and fear of romantic isolation as an aging gay man pushed him into a relationship with the 20-year-old Robert Carroll. The relationship was turbulent, and the relationship didn't last; however, the pair remained friends until Williams' death.

    Tennessee Williams' difficulties in life

    Tennessee Williams lived a turbulent life owing to the conflicting relationships with his family members and lovers, drug and alcohol abuse, the losses he experienced, and the critical eye of the media.

    Williams didn't have a particularly positive relationship with his father, who disliked his son and was supposedly abusive to his wife. Nor did he have a good relationship with his mother, who pressured him to convert to Catholicism while he was under the influence of medication. Williams also struggled to come to terms with his mother allowing his sister, Rose Williams, to undergo a frontal lobotomy to cure her schizophrenia. He shared his closest familial bond with Rose, and he continued to pay for her hospitalisation.

    William's critics also caused some strife in Williams' writing career, particularly in his productivity. Many claimed that Williams' success was only from his early works and that his later material was too negatively impacted by his personal and professional failures.

    Williams experienced intense scrutiny to produce 'popular' works in addition to negative responses towards the common themes that served as the subject material of his work: sex, violence and the death of the American Dream. As a result, Williams' depression and insomnia worsened, and he became increasingly dependent on drugs like amphetamines which he used as an attempt to self-medicate.

    Tennessee Williams' death

    How did Tennesee Williams die? Williams died on 25 February 1983 in a hotel room in New York. His death was initially thought to have been caused by choking on a bottle cap, but it was later revealed that he died from the high levels of Seconal (a drug taken for insomnia and anxiety) in his bloodstream.

    He was buried, against his wishes, in a cemetery in Missouri.

    Tennessee Williams' works

    Tennessee Williams wrote a variety of plays, essays, poems and memoirs throughout his life, but he is most celebrated for his plays. His plays are exemplary of the Modernist period of drama, which often featured dramatic genres such as realism and expressionism. Below is a shortened list of examples of what Williams has published throughout his career.

    Plays

    • The Glass Menagerie (1944)
    • A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)
    • Camino Real (1953)
    • Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955)
    • Orpheus Descending (1957)
    • Suddenly Last Summer (1958)
    • Vieux Carré (1977)
    • Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980)
    • A House Not Meant to Stand (1982)

    Novels

    • The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1950)
    • Moise and the World of Reason (1975)

    Collections of short stories

    • Hard Candy: A Book of Short Stories (1954)
    • The Knightly Quest (1969)
    • Eight Mortal Ladies Possessed (1974)

    Poems

    • In the Winter of Cities (1956)
    • Androgynous, Mon Amour (1977)

    Tennessee Williams' plays: influences and themes

    Tennessee Williams wrote many productions and drew influences from other Modernists. Here are introductions to several of his productions that summarise them and touch on some contextual influences of reoccurring themes.

    The Glass Menagerie (1944)

    The Glass Menagerie follows the narrated memories of Tom Wingfield. He tells a tale of the complicated relationship between himself, his dominating mother, Amanda, and his disabled sister, Laura. The play is an example of expressionist theatre that gives insight into Williams' internalised and subjective thoughts on the world.

    Expressionist theatre is a type of drama that started in the early 20th century. It is well-known for having an exaggerated nature (in staging and acting) instead of being realistic. This allows a clear depiction of the interior emotions of the characters.

    She lives in a world of her own — a world of — little glass ornaments.

    (Tom, Scene 5)

    Tom's description of his sister in this scene highlights how she seeks escapism. Despite the fact he is trying to explain how his sister is peculiar, it highlights how Laura can find pleasure in life through her glass ornaments and imagination.

    Tennessee Williams' characters share many similarities with the individuals in his personal life. For example, his parents could be seen to parallel the parents of Tom and Amanda Wingfield, as they share an absent father figure and dominating mother figure. The narrator of the production also shares a similarity to Williams; they both worked in shoe factories and found pleasure in literature rather than their jobs. Williams also based the narrative on a short story he had written in 1943, called Portrait of a Girl in Glass.

    There were also notable historical and societal influences that influenced Williams' writing of The Glass Menagerie. He set the production in a time of heightened civil unrest during the Great Depression, a time that trapped factory workers (like the narrator) in poor working conditions. Similarly, the influences of the American Civil War and the Old South still weave their way into this narrative as Amanda, the mother figure, used to be a Southern Belle: a figure who was admired for upholding stereotypically lady-like characteristics such as chastity, hospitality and grace.

    The Old South refers to the society that surrounded and benefitted economically from slavery in American plantations and colonies. The culture that utilised slavery formed the so-called Planter Class or the Southern aristocracy. Slavery was abolished in the aftermath of the American Civil War (1861-1865), which meant the elitist society couldn't maintain its power and began to decay.

    There are many themes that this play touches on, such as

    • Accepting reality
    • Declining mental and physical health
    • Escapism
    • Memory, regret and nostalgia
    • Family conflict
    • Tragic beauty
    • Loss
    • Family duty and responsibility
    • Abandonment
    • Fragility

    A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)

    A Streetcar Named Desire begins when the Southern Belle, Blanche, meets with her sister, Stella, and her sister's husband, Stanley. It follows the dynamics of the three living together as Blanche's past resurfaces to haunt her. In light of the decaying Old South and the fragility of the Southern characters in the face of the New South, A Streetcar Named Desire is a part of Southern Gothic literature.

    Southern Gothic is a sub-genre of the American gothic that has a particular focus on the decay of the Old South. This concept is often explored in themes of desire, impulsiveness, defiance and ostracisation, and the sense of grotesqueness.

    They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!

    (Blanche, Scene 1)

    This quote is from Blanche as she arrives at the Kowalski household acts, and it is a tragic allegory for her life. Similar to other characters, Blanche's desire is the hamartia that takes her to her death and the afterlife.

    Once again, Williams seems to draw on influences of his own personal life into the narrative. Blanche's mental health and institutionalisation at the end parallels the fate of Rose Williams. Furthermore, Stanley's masculine, aggressive energy could be seen to parallel Williams' lover: Pancho. Through the character of Alan Grey, a youth attempting to conform with heterosexuality while harbouring deeper desires, the play could also reflect Williams' own exploration of his sexuality and his acceptance of it.

    Williams also draws upon the socio-political past and present for A Streetcar Named Desire. The American Dream and its idealisms motivate Stanley Kowalski, who wishes to embody a perfect American household. Once again, the American Civil War and the Old South's decay is another key factor within the play, as it is what pushes all of the characters together.

    The term 'hamartia' was introduced by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his study of tragedy as a dramatic genre and means the fatal or tragic flaw of the hero or heroine that inevitably leads to their downfall.

    A Streetcar Named Desire has many themes, but these are central to the core of the play:

    • Illusions and reality
    • Mental health
    • The unachievable American Dream
    • Loss of the Old South
    • Memory
    • Violence
    • Abandonment
    • Family conflict
    • Sexual desire and sexuality
    • The feminine vs the masculine
    • Social class
    • Alcohol dependency

    Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955)

    A married couple returns to their family plantation for the birthday of Big Daddy Pollitt, who is dying, along with the rest of the family. But the moment they all unite together, the family begins to compete with one another in the hope of gaining the inheritance.

    This is another Southern Gothic production that looks at the decay of the Old South due to the American Civil War. Williams wrote two endings for this production: the original and one better suited for the director and friend, Elia Kazan.

    Oh, you weak, beautiful people who give up with such grace. What you need is someone to take hold of you – gently, with love, and hand your life back to you, like something gold you let go of – and I can! I'm determined to do it – and nothing's more determined than a cat on a tin roof- is there?

    (Margaret, Act 3)

    This quote is from the closing lines of the play. It shows how Maggie's awareness, both of herself and the world around her. Throughout the play, she refers to herself as a cat on a tin roof in her relationship with Brick, and yet she continues to stay on the roof and in the relationship showing her determination.

    Williams draws from his own life for inspiration for some of his plays. It is theorised that the character of Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is actually based on Kip Kiernan, Williams' first male lover, in the way that the two are prematurely decaying, talented individuals.

    The main socio-political influence for the production is the combination of the American Civil war and the Civil Rights movement because it is set in the Old South. There are also questions that Williams raises (and leaves in ambiguity) around Brick's relationship with his friend Skipper. The play was released in the 50s in the wake of the APA (American Psychiatric Association) defining homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder. Thus, by bringing the topic of sexuality to the stage, even as a taboo, he brings the discussion to the public eye.

    There are numerous themes within this play, but these are particularly prominent throughout:

    • Family conflict,
    • Loss of the Old South,
    • Sexuality and sexual desire,
    • Missed opportunities,
    • Greed and societal desires,
    • Decay,
    • Exterior presentation,
    • Memory, nostalgia and regret
    • Alcohol dependency

    Tennessee Williams' significance

    It would be difficult to argue that Williams' influence on American theatre wasn't significant, considering all of the feats he achieved. He introduced a 'darker, more violent side to our stage imaginings, brought the unconscious to prominence'¹ that forced an audience to witness unpleasant yet nonetheless engaging performances.

    His plays largely explore the unpleasantries and fragilities of humanity in order to notify his audiences of the truth, or his own subjective perception of the truth, of human imperfections. These explorations help his productions to stand the test of time as they are eternally prevalent in humanity, allowing them to inspire others to take up similar explorations.

    Tennessee Williams and the Southern Gothic

    Many of Tennessee Williams' writings place themselves as a part of the Southern Gothic genre. He idolises the decay of the Old South within his plays as charming and mourns for it as a place with less materialisation and commercialisation than the New South. This is particularly evident through his characters (particularly Blanche DuBois, who symbolises the Old South in A Streetcar Named Desire).

    The genre of Southern Gothic was further explored by later writers and their classic novels, such as Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Donna Tart's The Little Friend (2002), and Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987). Tennessee Williams was a key player within the Southern Gothic genre and American modernist drama during the 20th century.

    Modernism was a cultural and literary movement that emerged from the early 20th century amid a rapidly changing socio-political environment. Writers of poetry, fiction, or drama focused on purposefully breaking from conventional forms of writing in an effort to 'make it new'. Modernist theatre involves sub-movements such as expressionist, naturalism, the theatre of the absurd, or surrealism.

    Tennessee Williams' influence on tackling the taboos on sexuality is also an important influence on other literary figures. For example, Tony Kushner, the writer of Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1991), commends the courage with which Williams brought the discussion of homosexuality to the theatre (even if he disagrees with Williams' depictions of these characters).2

    Awards received

    To truly highlight how influential Tennessee Williams was to drama in the 20th century, it is helpful to look at the recognition he received in both his lifetime and afterwards. Here is a shortlist of the prestigious awards he was given for his efforts in drama.

    DateTitle of AwardProduction Awarded
    1945New York Drama Critics' Award for Best American PlayThe Glass Menagerie
    1948New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best American PlayA Streetcar Named Desire
    1951Tony Award for Best PlayThe Rose Tattoo
    1955New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best American PlayCat on a Hot Tin Roof
    1979Inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame Kennedy Centre Honoursn/a
    1980Presidential Medal of Freedomn/a
    2014 (posthumous)Drama League Award for Outstanding Revival of a PlayThe Glass Menagerie

    Tennessee Williams - Key takeaways

    • Tennessee Williams was a highly influential playwright who lived from 1911-83.
    • Tennessee Williams often drew from personal experience and societal and historical contexts for inspiration in his works.
    • Tennessee Williams was initially named Thomas Lanier Williams and was born in Mississippi.
    • Tennessee Williams suffered throughout his life from alcohol and drug abuse.

    1 Richard Gilman. 'Theatre; Williams shocked American theatre to maturity.' The New York Times, 1990.

    2 Tony Kushner. 'Q and A: Playwright Tony Kushner speaks about the influence of Tennessee Williams.' Ransom Centre Magazine, The University of Texas at Austin, 2011.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Tennessee Williams

    What is Tennessee Williams known for?

    Tennessee Williams is most famously known for being a playwright- particularly for The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Rose Tattoo.

    Was Tennessee Williams a poet?

    Yes, while Tennessee Williams is most famous for being a playwright, he also wrote several memoirs, short stories, essays and poems.

    What is Tennessee Williams saying in A Streetcar Named Desire?

    Tennessee Williams explores and critiques many things in A Streetcar Named Desire, but it has a recurring focus on the restrictions in women’s lives and their inability to live freely.

    How did Tennessee Williams die?

    Although it was initially thought that Tennessee Williams died from choking on a nasal spray cap, it was later revealed that it was the toxic level of Seconal in his bloodstream that killed him.

    What was Tennessee Williams's sexuality?

    Despite early explorations in relationships with women, Williams then began to explore his homosexuality.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Williams was original born in ___.

    Williams received his BA from ___.

    Williams had a ____ relationship with his father.

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