Transcript of Tennessee Williams
Tennessee Williams: Playwright A Streetcar Named Desire, like most of Tennessee Williams’s work, contains bits and pieces of the writer, references to his past and character traits drawn from family members. As much as any playwright of the twentieth century, Williams mined his tumultuous youth and dysfunctional family for inspiration, even as he recreated a world that was both gentler and more vicious than his own. He was born Thomas Lanier Williams on March 26, 1911, in Columbus, Mississippi, to Cornelius Coffin Williams, a traveling shoe salesman, and Edwina Estelle Dakin, a true Southern belle by all accounts. With his father on the road most of his early life, the young Tom—the second of three children—lived with his mother and siblings at the home of his grandfather, an Episcopal minister. This life of refinement in the Deep South came to an unhappy end when Cornelius Williams stopped traveling, went to work in a shoe factory, and moved the family to St. Louis, Missouri. Biographers generally characterize the years following the move as poor and unhappy. Williams’s father was overbearing, his mother pretentious and controlling. His beloved older sister, Rose, was lovely and intelligent but mentally fragile. Dakin, whom Tennessee Williams called “my improbable little brother,” would ultimately be the steady one and remain actively involved in his brother’s tumultuous life and career until his own death at age 89 in 2008. In St. Louis, Williams’s father forced the young Tom to work in the shoe factory, a job he loathed and one that drove him almost to a nervous collapse. At the shoe factory, Williams worked with a young, apparently heterosexual man named Stanley Kowalski. Donald Spoto, one of Williams’s biographers, theorizes that Williams was attracted to Kowalski but maintains that he found no evidence the two were lovers. After a checkered academic career, Williams graduated from the University of Iowa in 1938 (at the age of 27). About the time of his college graduation, Williams changed his name to Tennessee. Some critics have speculated that he wanted to distance himself from his earlier works, which he considered inferior, while other biographers have surmised that he chose the name because Tennessee was the home of his father’s family. Throughout his early years, Williams wrote poetry and plays and won small awards. His breakthrough came with the 1944 Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie, his most autobiographical work. (Acknowledging that the controlling mother Amanda Wingfield was so thoroughly based upon his own mother, Williams gave half of the profits from The Glass Menagerie to “Miss Edwina,” as Dakin told The Mississippi Quarterly in a 1995 interview.) The Glass Menagerie earned Williams the Drama Critics’ Circle Prize and the Sidney Howard Memorial from the Playwrights Company and brought him overnight fame and wealth. Four days before A Streetcar Named Desire debuted on Broadway, The New York Times published an essay by Williams in which he mused about his sudden stardom and all the changes that had come with it, some not for the better. In the essay, Williams wrote of his emotional rise and fall, describing what modern psychiatrists would label a classic depression in which he lost interest in almost everything and “felt too lifeless inside” to ever create another masterwork. “Security is a kind of death, I think, and it can come to you in a storm of royalty checks beside a kidney-shaped pool in Beverly Hills or anywhere at all that is removed from the conditions that made you an artist, if that’s what you are or were or intended to be,” Williams wrote. Williams would wrestle with his dark side and the trappings of fame for the rest of his life. Likemany of his characters, he drank and used drugs to excess and teetered precariously at times on the edge of mental collapse. (Dakin drew the everlasting wrath of his older brother when in 1969 he committed Tennessee to a mental hospital in St. Louis, most likely saving his life.)Full transcript
Williams was openly homosexual at a time when most gay men and women lived closeted lives to avoid public censure. Several of his plays include both oblique and overt references to homosexuality. In Streetcar, Blanche’s young husband kills himself after she catches him in a tryst with an older man and tells him, “I saw! I know! You disgust me…” In Blanche’s pretentious Southern belle, critics and biographers see suggestions of Williams’s own mother. However, in the 2002 NPR interview with Debbie Elliott, Dakin insisted, “Blanche is Tennessee.” Comparing his brother to his infamous protagonist, Dakin said, “If Tennessee would tell you something, it wouldn’t be necessarily true… And so, everything in Blanche was really like Tennessee.”
Williams was one of the most prolific playwrights of the twentieth century, publishing more than three dozen plays, movie scripts, and books, including short fiction and a memoir. His work won numerous awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes for A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). Fifteen of his plays were made into movies. Among the most successful and enduring of his dramas, in addition to the aforementioned, were The Rose Tattoo, Camino Real, Summer Smoke, Orpheus Descending, Sweet Bird of Youth, and Night of the Iguana.
He choked to death on a medicine bottle cap, alone in a hotel room, after a night of drinkingand drugs, in February 1983, at the age of 71.