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Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams

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Also Known As: Thomas Lanier Williams Died: February 25, 1983
Born: March 26, 1911 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Columbus, Mississippi, USA Profession: playwright, screenwriter, actor, cinema usher, factory worker

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Playwright Tennessee Williams explored the conflict between the past and present culture of the South, as well as the psychological turmoil of his upbringing, in such legendary stage plays as "The Glass Menagerie," "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Born Thomas Lanier Williams III on March 26, 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi, he was the second of three children by shoe salesman Cornelius Coffin Williams and Edwina Dakin. By all accounts, Williams' childhood was fraught with emotional turmoil: his father was prone to alcoholism and anger, and regarded his son's frail condition - caused by a yearlong bout of diptheria - with disappointment. His mother, who was the daughter of an Episcopal priest, did not approve of her husband's proclivities, and focused her attention on her son, often to an overbearing degree. School was also a source of anxiety for Williams, who was bullied for his small frame and perceived weakness; when his father took a job with the International Shoe Company in St. Louis, Missouri, Williams attended Soldan High School and later, University City High School, where his initial experiments with writing began to draw notice. By his mid-teens, he had published...

Playwright Tennessee Williams explored the conflict between the past and present culture of the South, as well as the psychological turmoil of his upbringing, in such legendary stage plays as "The Glass Menagerie," "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Born Thomas Lanier Williams III on March 26, 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi, he was the second of three children by shoe salesman Cornelius Coffin Williams and Edwina Dakin. By all accounts, Williams' childhood was fraught with emotional turmoil: his father was prone to alcoholism and anger, and regarded his son's frail condition - caused by a yearlong bout of diptheria - with disappointment. His mother, who was the daughter of an Episcopal priest, did not approve of her husband's proclivities, and focused her attention on her son, often to an overbearing degree. School was also a source of anxiety for Williams, who was bullied for his small frame and perceived weakness; when his father took a job with the International Shoe Company in St. Louis, Missouri, Williams attended Soldan High School and later, University City High School, where his initial experiments with writing began to draw notice. By his mid-teens, he had published stories in national magazines, and his first known play, "Beauty is the Word," won honorable mention in a drama contest at the University of Missouri at Columbia. But Williams' tenure there as a journalism major was short-lived; his father forced him to quit school and take a job at his company's shoe factory, which Williams loathed. As a result, he pored his energies into his writing, which left him exhausted and eventually resulted in a nervous breakdown. After recuperating, Williams left home - which had grown more tumultuous due to his parents' separation and the fragile mental condition of his sister, Rose, with whom Williams was close - and enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri and later, the University of Iowa, from which he graduated with a degree in English in 1938. Though a handful of plays had been penned and produced by amateur groups in St. Louis and Memphis, Tennessee - including "The Fugitive Kind" - Williams found this post-collegiate period a financial and creative challenge until his agent, Audrey Wood, secured a $1,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to help him complete his latest work, "Battle of Angels." The funds allowed him to move to New Orleans, Louisiana in 1939; there, he adopted the moniker "Tennessee" - a nod to his father's home - and write for the Works Progress Administration while absorbing the culture of the city's French Quarter, which would serve as the setting for several of his plays, including "Streetcar." "Angels" made its professional debut in 1940, but was a critical failure, prompting Williams to look for odd jobs - including a brief stint as a writer for MGM - until 1945, when his play "The Glass Menagerie" was produced in Chicago. A "memory play" that drew on the fragility of his sister, Rose, and his mother's overbearing nature for its characters, "Menagerie" was a huge success in both Chicago and New York, where it captured the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. The next decade saw Williams ascend as one of American theater's most dazzling playwrights, with a string of successes that included "Streetcar" in 1947, which earned the Pulitzer Prize for Drama; "Summer and Smoke" (1948); "The Rose Tattoo" (1951) which won the Tony for Best Play; the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Tony-nominated "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1955) and "Sweet Bird of Youth" (1959), each exploring the slow passage of perceived Southern gentility, as filtered through complex family relationships that echoed his own. He also penned or collaborated on the screenplays for "Streetcar" (1951), which helped to mint Marlon Brando as a star, and "The Rose Tattoo" (1955), and caused a scandal with his Oscar-nominated screenplay for "Baby Doll" (1956), about the lascivious pursuit of a nubile teenager. But after his final Tony nomination for "Night of the Iguana" in 1961, Williams' extraordinary run of stage successes petered out; critics excoriated his later works, including "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore" (1962), which had suffered due to his growing alcoholism. His personal life was also in a shambles: Williams, who had been involved in several gay affairs since the late '30s, had enjoyed a 14-year relationship with actor Frank Merlo until their breakup in 1963 and his death the same year from lung cancer. With his passing, Williams fell into a deep depression that required multiple hospitalizations, where he was treated with amphetamines and prescription drugs that resulted in addiction. He resumed his writing career, but found it difficult to adapt to changing tastes and styles of theater and complained to friends and biographers that the critics had turned against him. His final years were marked by a combative relationship with aspiring writer Robert Carroll, which ended in 1979; four years later, on February 25, 1983, Williams was found dead at the age of 71 in his room at the Hotel Elysee in New York, having suffocated after accidentally swallowing the cap from a bottle of eye solution. He was buried -against the wishes of his will - near his mother in St. Louis, and his literary rights were left to the University of the South in Tennessee. In the decades following his death, Williams' body of work was feted by numerous festivals, a postage stamp in 1994 and induction into the Poets' Corner at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, as well as countless productions of his plays by professional and amateur theater groups around the world each year.

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Filmographyclose complete filmography

CAST: (feature film)

1.
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Milestones close milestones

1928:
At 16, won third prize and received $5 for an essay, "Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?", in <i>Smart Set</i>
1951:
Earned Tony Award for "The Rose Tattoo", which made an overnight star of Maureen Stapleton and was later adapted to the screen by Williams in 1955, starring his original choice for the lead role, Anna Magnani
1945:
First Broadway production, "The Glass Menagerie" (starring Laurette Taylor as Amanda in a fabled comeback from alcoholic oblivion), vaulted him to the front ranks of American playwrights; also had a second play on Broadway that year, the rather tepidly-received "You Touched Me", co-written with Donald Windham (based on a D.H. Lawrence story) and starring an inaudible Montgomery Clift
1940:
First New York production, a student presentation of "The Long Goodbye" at the New Theatre School
1956:
Garnered a second Oscar nod for the screenplay of "Baby Doll", called by <i>Time</i> magazine "just possibly the dirtiest American picture ever legally exhibited"; the Catholic Legion of Decency condemned the film stating that it "dwells upon carnal suggestiveness"; adapted from Williams' one-act "27 Wagons Full of Cotton"
1937:
His one-act plays "Candles to the Sun" and "The Fugitive Kind" produced by Mummers of St Louis
1952:
Revival of "Summer and Smoke" by director Jose Quintero and starring Geraldine Page put Off-Broadway on the map
1917:
Suffered from diphtheria and a kidney infection at the age of six (date approximate)
1940:
"Battle of Angels" produced in Boston; closed after a two-week tryout and excited more interest among the city's censors than in audiences; later revised as "Orpheus Descending", a 1957 Broadway failure; also revived as "Battle of Angels" Off-Broadway during 1974-1975 season
1969:
Converted to Roman Catholicism
1998:
First performance of "Not About Nightingales" (directed by Trevor Nunn), a play written in 1938 and thus predating "The Glass Menagerie", at London's National Theatre; actress Vanessa Redgrave had discovered the manuscript; subsequently produced at Houston's Alley Theater and on Broadway; nominated for Best Play Tony Award
1929:
Published "The Vengeance of Nitocris" in <i>Weird Tales</i>
1931:
Quit college at behest of father to begin work in the warehouse at the International Shoe Company in St Louis
1948:
Returned to Broadway with "Summer and Smoke"; show flopped but was a hit Off-Broadway four years later; revised as "Eccentricities of a Nightingale" in 1965
1950:
Screenwriting debut with "The Glass Menagerie"
1947:
Second Broadway success, "A Streetcar Named Desire", directed by Elia Kazan; earned first Pulitzer Prize in 1948; coaxed Kazan into accepting Marlon Brando for the role of Stanley after the young actor read for him at his Provincetown home in August (and repaired the plumbing as well)
:
Secured a screenwriting job at MGM through Wood; assigned to a Lana Turner project, "Marriage Is a Private Affair"; instead spent time developing what would become "The Glass Menagerie"; MGM rejected the script (called "The Gentleman Caller") based on his short story "Portrait of a Girl in Glass", freeing Williams to pursue a theatrical production
1960:
Wrote the screenplay for "The Fugitive Kind", based on his play "Orpheus Descending"; also credited for the lyrics of the song "Blanket Roll Blues"
1953:
"Camino Real" closed after less than two months on Broadway, despite gathering an ardent core of admirers; Walter Kerr called it "the worst play yet by the best playwright of his generation"; containing arguably Williams' most gorgeous poetry for the American stage, original director Kazan called it "a love letter to the people Williams loved most, the romantics, those innocents who become victims in our business civilization"; revived Off-Broadway by Quintero in 1960, it failed again
1955:
"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (directed by Kazan) opened on Broadway; would earn him a 1956 Tony nomination and a second Pulitzer
1944:
"The Glass Menagerie" enjoyed a successful run in Chicago; with no advance sale, the show had nearly closed, but agent Wood convinced the producers to remain open, citing good reviews
1950:
First published work of fiction, the novel "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone", adapted for the screen by Gavin Lambert in 1961
1980:
Last Broadway production, "Clothes for a Summer Hotel", about F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald
1981:
Last NYC production, Off-Broadway's "Something Cloudy, Something Clear"
1918:
Moved with family to St Louis, Missouri
1962:
Received Tony nomination for "The Night of the Iguana", which debuted on Broadway in 1961
1943:
Spent some months working as a cinema usher, during which he saw "Casablanca" over and over
:
Family lived for several years in Clarksdale, Mississippi
1935:
First play, "Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay", produced in Memphis
1972:
Last stage success, the Off-Broadway premiere of "Small Craft Warnings", called by <i>Variety</i>: "Easily the best drama Off-Broadway this season"; made his stage acting debut when he took over one of the roles after the production had opened
1975:
Published autobiography, "Memoirs"; though frank in discussing his homosexuality, book was disappointing in its lack of comment on his dramaturgy
1956:
Published first collection of poetry, "In the Winter of Cities"
1951:
Received Oscar nomination for screenplay of "A Streetcar Named Desire", helmed by Kazan
1939:
Won a special award and $100 from the Group Theater (failed to win first prize) for "American Blues" (four one-act plays published in 1948); entry brought him to the attention of legendary literary agent Audrey Wood who would represent him until 1971; also received a $1000 Rockefeller grant
1983:
Produced final play, "In Masks Outrageous and Austere"
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Education

University of Missouri at St Louis: St Louis, Missouri - 1929
Washington University: St Louis, Missouri - 1936
University of Iowa: Iowa City, Iowa - 1938

Notes

"[I hope] that you will not let the entire season pass without seeing something besides 'Death of a Salesman'. Do you know I got five complete sets of notices of that play, sent me by various well-meaning friends in New York? More than I ever got for any play of my own, including the 'Menagerie' in London ..." --Williams to his friend Maria St. Just, March 5, 1949, in "Five O'Clock Angel", St. Just's collection of letters from Williams.

"I don't feel inclined to write any more about the so-called (s)outhern belle," --Williams to a reporter in London interview, August 1, 1962.

"I have never found the subject of homosexuality a satisfactory theme for a full-length play, despite the fact that it appears as frequently as it does in my short fiction." --Williams in The New York Times, March 4, 1973.

"If I had it all to do over again I'd only write for the movies." --Williams to a reporter at a film festival in August 1982, recalled in Gene Brown's "Show Time".

Companions close complete companion listing

companion:
Frank Merlo. Died in 1963.

Family close complete family listing

grandfather:
Walter Edwin Dakin. Episcopal priest. Williams was extremely close to his grandfather, whom he tried to nurse through a series of ever-worsening illnesses; Dakin's passing in 1955 left the playwright despondent and, in the opinion of many critics, led to a darkening of his work.
mother:
Edwina Dakin Williams. Daughter of a minister; model for character of Amanda Wingfield in "The Glass Menagerie".
father:
Cornelius Coffin Williams. Shoe salesman. Came from a prestigious Tennessee family which included the state's first governor and first senator.
sister:
Rose Isabel Williams. Born in 1919; diagnosed as schizophrenic; institutionalized in 1943 following a prefrontal lobotomy; died on September 6, 1996 in Tarrytown, New York; model for Laura in "The Glass Menagerie".
brother:
Dakin Williams. Younger.
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Bibliography close complete biography

"The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone" J. Lechmann
"In the Winter of Cities" New Directions
"Hard Candy" New Directions
"Three Players of a Summer Game" Secker & Warburg
"The Knightly Quest" New Directions
"One Arm and Other Stories" New Directions
"Eight Moral Ladies Possessed" New Directions
"Moise and the World of Reason" Simon & Schuster
"Memoirs" Doubleday
"Tennessee Williams' Letters to Donald Windham: 1940-1965" Holt, Rinehart and Winston
"Androgyne, Mon Amour" New Directions
"It Happened the Day the Sun Rose" Sylvester and Orphanos
"Tennessee, Cry of the Heart" Doubleday
"The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams" Little, Brown
"Short Stories" Ballantine
"Five O'Clock Angel: Letters of Tennessee Williams to Maria St. Just, 1948-1982" Alfred A. Knopf
"Costly Performances: Tennessee Williams: The Last Stage" Paragon House
"Tom: The Unknown Tenessee Williams" Crown
"The Notebooks of Trigorin: A Free Adaptation of Anton Chekhov's The Sea Gull" New Directions
"Tennessee Williams: Everyone Else Is an Audience" Yale University Press
"The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams: Volume I: 1920-1945" Oberon Books
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