If suffering inspires art, perhaps it is no wonder that Tennessee Williams was so prolific. His personal drama spilled onto the stage in his poignant plays and their unforgettable, unforgivable characters. Although he was often scorned by critics, Williams pushed the boundaries of theater to become one of the South’s most renowned playwrights.
Born Thomas Lanier Williams the Third in 1911, he was a sickly boy who nearly died of diphtheria, which left him bedridden for a year. His fanciful and, at times, neurotic mother doted on him, but his father, a hard-driving shoe salesman, ridiculed his frailness. Their stormy marriage and his sister’s schizophrenia created a turbulent household, but Williams was a content child until the family moved from rural Mississippi to Saint Louis. There, he began writing to cope with the stress of his new urban home.
After college and a miserable stint as a shoe salesman, Williams found himself in New Orleans, where he renamed himself after his father’s home state. He won a writing contest, which attracted the attention of agent Audrey Wood. With her help, Battle of Angels ran in Boston, but the play was a washout. It did, however, garner the attention he needed to complete The Glass Menagerie, which debuted on Broadway in 1945. Soon, he earned his first Pulitzer Prize for A Streetcar Named Desire, and a second for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He saw many of his plays turned into films starring celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando.
Bathed in the shimmering, melancholic light of memory, Williams’s plays revisit his childhood. Their characters are carved from his family tree and include absent or emotionally distant fathers, as well as disturbed individuals modeled after his sister, whose mental illness haunted Williams. They also feature faded Southern belles like Williams’ mother, who maintain their genteel pretentions despite poverty and urbanization. The places he visited, especially New Orleans, form the backdrop of his stories. Mendacity and loneliness permeate his work, as they did his thoughts.
Williams’s highly emotional style transformed theater. By breaking social and theatrical taboos, he expanded the stage to include marginalized characters and stories. He is known for his vivid characterization and for capturing the Southern dialect, as well as the South’s transition during the early twentieth century. His work is sometimes considered Southern gothic, a genre which transplants the revulsion and ambiguity of gothic literature to the South and features unstable characters fighting internal demons rather than external monsters.
Despite his successes, Williams’s life and work spiraled downward during the 1960’s. He released The Night of the Iguana and The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore but was unable to regain critical approval. When his long-term partner Frank Merlo passed away, Williams increasingly abused drugs and alcohol, leading to his hospitalization. He continued to write profusely, however, and published Memoirs, an autobiography that detailed his life, worldview, and struggles.
Williams never fully shook his addictions and died in 1983 in a New York hotel room littered with wine and pill bottles. In death, he recaptured the recognition he had lost. The plays he wrote to cope with his anguish and alienation are now literary treasures that inspire aspiring writers worldwide. By baring his soul for the stage, Williams forever changed the character of theater.