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Tennessee Williams Profile

One of America's preeminent playwrights, Tennessee Williams restored poetry to the stage in the midst of a post-World War II surge of realism, sensitively peopling his plays with outsiders at odds with the mob rule that passes for civilization. Wrenched from the maternal grandfather he idolized to live in close St. Louis quarters with his strong-willed mother and hard-drinking travelling salesman father, he began writing as an escape, eventually turning his feelings of alienation into his first hit play, "The Glass Menagerie" (1945). His experience working at the hated shoe factory found its way into the play as did portraits of his mother and fragile sister Rose, while his absentee father became a mere photo on the wall of the Wingfield's home. After having his first plays produced in St. Louis and Memphis, Williams impressed the Group Theater sufficiently with a collection of one-acts, "American Blues", to earn runner-up honors and $100. He also picked up a Rockefeller playwriting grant worth an additional $1000.

Following the failure of "Battle of Angels" (1940) in Boston, Williams' agent Audrey Wood secured him a screenwriting assignment at MGM, working on a Lana Turner picture, "Marriage Is a Private Affair" (1944). Developing his own project instead, "The Gentleman Caller", which the studio rejected, he transformed it into his intensely autobiographical "dream play", a heartbreaking look at two women, one lost in a past of "gentleman callers" and the other in a world of glass figurines, and got it produced in Chicago. Though the producers had already drawn up the closing notices, Wood convinced them to keep the play open, citing the positive reviews, and the rest is history as "Menagerie" enjoyed a successful Chicago run, buoyed by Laurette Taylor's fabled comeback from alcoholism, before moving to Broadway and earning the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award as the best play of the season. Still considered by many his finest work, it possesses a magnificent structure, alternating Tom's (the Williams character) lyrical monologues that break the "fourth wall" with episodes of a more conventionally theatrical nature.

Williams' next success, "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1947), proved he was no flash in the pan, winning the 1948 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. In it and his other Pulitzer-winner, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1955), the specter of homosexuality looms prominently, though offstage. In "Streetcar", a down-on-her-luck Blanche DuBois comes to stay with her sister Stella in a New Orleans tenement dominated by Stella's Neanderthal husband Stanley, played onstage and in the 1951 movie by Marlon Brando. Blanche's emotional instability becomes more apparent as the play progresses, and she reveals how her role in pushing her sensitive young husband to suicide still haunts her. When Stanley brutally rapes her while Stella is at the hospital, having given birth, Blanche's destruction is complete. Broken beyond repair as they come to take her to the asylum, she must again depend on "the kindness of strangers". "Cat" also shows the aftermath of suicide. Brick has rejected his best friend Skipper, partly due to his wife Maggie's urging, as gay. Trying to prove his masculinity to Maggie, Skipper fails and, believing what she and others have said of him, kills himself. Brick has not forgiven Maggie at play's end but, recognizing the murderer in himself for knuckling under to the collective "morality", gives in to her strong will, sleeping with her and perhaps fathering the child that will return them to the good graces of the dying family patriarch Big Daddy (Burl Ives in both the play and 1958 movie).

Though "Summer and Smoke" flopped on Broadway in 1948, the 1952 revival by director Jose Quintero would put Off-Broadway on the map, and the movie versions of "The Glass Menagerie" (1950) and "Streetcar", coupled with his Tony win for "The Rose Tattoo" (1951), which made an overnight star of Maureen Stapleton, elevated Williams' status further. "Menagerie" was a disappointment on screen, losing the impressionistic staging that had made it so groundbreaking, but "Streetcar" packed as much power as it had onstage, winning four Oscars, including Supporting Actor and Actress awards for Karl Malden and Kim Hunter (who had both appeared in it onstage) and a Best Actress Oscar for Vivien Leigh as the neurotic Blanche. Ironically, Brando, who left the biggest impression on audiences, lost out to Humphrey Bogart ("The African Queen") in the Oscars sweepstakes. Unfortunately, "Camino Real" (1953), called by its director Elia Kazan "a love letter to the people Williams loved most, the romantics, those innocents who become victims of our business civilization", closed after less than two months on Broadway. The playwright himself fell victim to the tyranny of public opinion, removing some of the more direct anti-fascist sentiments after the Philadelphia tryout when Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan attacked the play as anti-American.

The golden boy's popular image began to tarnish as his work grew darker. Suddenly, he was like a character in one of his plays, an outsider, alone, reviled by an almost univocal press as "unhealthy", "negative" and "un-American". The 1956 film succes de scandale, "Baby Doll", triggered censorship battles around the world but brought Williams a second Oscar nomination for its screenplay, his first having come for the script of "Streetcar". Holding his mirror up to reflect the world's cruelty in "Orpheus Descending" (1957), Williams created a Southern states' atmosphere of racial hatred and lynch law, in which the only wholly sympathetic characters are two half-mad women with no real ability to live in the world and the person who is different, the stranger, a singer who must die at the hands of the intolerant crowd. "Suddenly Last Summer" (also 1957), arguably his most sinister play, continued the bleak imagery, presenting an offstage murder of a poet by a flock of half-grown boys and depicting its one good character on the edge of madness, as did "Night of the Iguana" (1961) in its portrait of "the others", the Nazi guests who drink champagne because London is burning or the two Mexican hotel boys who will have their sport with the two captive lizards of the title before they are eaten. "Iguana", his last Broadway success, earned him a fourth New York Drama Critics Circle Award and another Tony nomination.

The bottom fell out of the Williams career, but the indefatigable craftsman kept writing almost daily, despite an increasing dependence on alcohol and prescription medications. In the midst of his failures, he experienced one last stage success, the Off-Broadway production of "Small Craft Warnings" (1972), which also featured his acting debut. His fiction and poetry had never particularly caught the public's fancy, but he published more and more of it as his fortunes waned in the theater. His "Memoirs" (1975) also struck a discordant note for its formlessness and lack of commentary on his dramaturgy. Though not nearly as fragile as his sister Rose, Williams in his own way lived apart from the world and died in his New York hotel suite feeling deserted by friends, the critics and the public. Even at the time of his death, he remained one of America's most revered playwrights, and the revivals in recent years of "Orpheus Descending", "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "Camino Real", among others, have sparked a critical re-evaluation of this highly emotional writer, whose ability to feel the pain of others and convey it to an audience may be unrivaled.

Biographical data supplied by TCMdb

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