As one of America's premier 20th century 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, while also delving into the darker realms of human nature that reflected his own instability. After kicking around the South and putting on local productions, Williams made a major splash in the Big Apple with "The Glass Menagerie" (1945), which announced his arrival as promising Broadway talent. He cemented his place as a giant among men with "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1947), which earned him the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Both plays were made into Hollywood movies, though "Streetcar" was better remembered for Marlon Brando's exquisite performance as the brutish Stanley Kowalski. Williams earned a Tony Award for "The Rose Tattoo" (1951) and won his second Pulitzer for "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1955), which was turned into an acclaimed 1958 movie starring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. From there, his career hit a long downward skid, brought about by years of battling depression with alcohol and prescription drugs. Williams had a minor success with "The Night of the Iguana" (1961), which became a Richard Burton-Ava Gardner film in 1964, but by and large he slipped further into critical decline by this time. Regardless of his personal struggles, Williams remained one of America's most revered playwrights whose reputation only magnified in the years following his death.
Born on May 26, 1911 in Columbus, MS, Williams was raised by his father, a hard-drinking shoe salesman who hailed from a prestigious Tennessee family, which included the state's first governor and first senator, and his mother, Edwina, the daughter of an Episcopal priest whose behavior was often erratic and neurotic. When he was six years old, Williams suffered from diphtheria and a kidney infection that almost ended his life and left him bedridden for nearly a year. During that time, his family's dysfunction came into full bloom when his father expressed open disdain toward his weakened and somewhat effeminate son, and his overbearing mother turned her attention toward his brother, Tom. Through it all, however, Williams maintained a close bond with his sister, Rose, who was later diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young adult. Meanwhile, the family moved to St. Louis, away from his maternal grandfather, Walter, whom Williams adored and idolized. To escape the gloom and dysfunction of his home life, Williams began to write and found early success at 16 years old when he won third prize and five dollars for his essay, "Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?", which was published in the literary magazine, Smart Set.
A year later, Williams published his first short story, "The Vengeance of Nitocris," in a 1928 issue of Weird Tales, and moved on to study journalism at the University of Missouri at St. Louis from 1929-1931. But Williams soon grew bored with the idea of becoming a journalist and began entering his work - which by this time included plays - into contests in hopes of earning some money. Naturally, his schoolwork began to suffer and his father eventually pulled him from the university, forcing the young Williams to work a 9-to-5 job at the shoe factory. Williams grew to despise the average working routine and worked himself nearly to death in the wee hours, eventually suffering a nervous breakdown that forced him to leave his job. His experiences during this time later helped shape the character Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire." Eventually, Williams recovered and began putting on his plays, starting with "Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay" (1935), which was first staged in Memphis. He went on to produce a pair of one-acts, "Candles to the Sun" (1937) and "The Fugitive Kind" (1937), with the Mummers of St. Louis, before impressing the Group Theater with a collection of one-acts called "American Blues" (1939), which won him a special award and $100. Also that year, Williams picked up a Rockefeller playwriting grant worth an additional $1,000.
In 1940, Williams staged his first New York production, "The Long Goodbye," a student presentation that was performed at the New Theatre School. Following the failure of "Battle of Angels" (1940) in Boston, which attracted more attention from city censors than audiences, Williams' agent Audrey Wood secured him a screenwriting assignment at MGM, working on the Lana Turner picture, "Marriage Is a Private Affair" (1944). But he instead began work on his own film project, "The Gentleman Caller," an adaptation of his short story, "Portrait of a Girl in Glass," that the studio rejected. Freed from contractual obligation, Williams transformed the script into an intensely autobiographical dream play called "The Glass Menagerie," a heartbreaking look at two women - drawn from his neurotic mother and mentally ill sister - who are each trapped in worlds of their own creation. The play was first staged in Chicago, where it enjoyed a successful run after nearly being shut down due to a lack of advanced sales; luckily strong critical reviews managed to keep the show open. In 1945, "The Glass Menagerie" was staged on Broadway, where it served as a comeback vehicle for actress Laurette Taylor and vaulted Williams to the front ranks of American playwrights. It went on to earn the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play and secured its status for many critics as being his finest work.
If "The Glass Menagerie" launched Williams' success, his next play cemented his place in history as one of the great playwrights of the 20th century. After making its debut at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, CT, "A Streetcar Named Desire" had its original Broadway run at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, and starred then unknowns Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski and Jessica Tandy as Blanche Du Bois; rounding out the cast was Kim Hunter as Stella and Karl Malden as Mitch. Set in the steamy French Quarter of New Orleans, the story focused on Du Bois, a desperate and neurotic woman who clashes with Stella's brutish husband, Stanley. Proving that his work was no flash in the pan, Williams' acclaimed play earned the 1948 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. After publishing his first novel, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1950), Williams adapted "The Glass Menagerie" (1950) for the big screen, with Jane Wyman and Kirk Douglas tackling the lead roles. The following year, Williams adapted "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951) to the big screen, which starred Marlon Brando reprising his stage role as Stanley Kowalski and Vivian Leigh as Blanche Du Bois. Directed by Elia Kazan, the film's scene with Stanley calling down for "Stella!" on the streets below became one of classic cinema's most iconic moments.
Meanwhile, "Summer and Smoke" flopped on Broadway in 1948, though the 1952 revival by director Jose Quintero would put off-Broadway on the map. Meanwhile, Williams found more success with "The Rose Tattoo" (1951), which earned him his only Tony Award. Unfortunately, his next play, "Camino Real" (1953), closed in 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. But he returned to Pulitzer Prize-winning glory with "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1955), one of his best known and the playwright's personal favorite. Set in the Deep South, "Cat" focused on a washed-up football player who has taken to drinking after the suicide of his so-called best friend, whom his undyingly devoted wife believes he had a homosexual affair with. His play was turned into a 1958 movie starring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, though Williams was disappointed with the studio removing most of the homosexual themes while forcing a reconciliation between Brick (Newman) and Big Daddy (Burl Ives). It did, however, earn Academy Award nominations for Newman, Taylor and Best Picture.
Following the major success of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," Williams' work began to take on a darker tone, largely due to a number of personal travails that included recurrent bouts with depression. The 1956 film succes de scandale, "Baby Doll," triggered censorship battles around the world, but brought Williams a second Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay - his first having come for the "Streetcar" script. 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 real world. With "Suddenly Last Summer" (1957), arguably his most sinister play, he continued to employ 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. Following the Tony-nominated "Sweet Bird of Youth" (1959) and the drug-induced "Period of Adjustment" (1960), Williams wrote his final major success "The Night of the Iguana" (1961), which depicted an ex-minister with a fractured mind who becomes a tour guide in Mexico, where he meets and falls for a beautiful artist. The play was adapted for the screen in 1964 by director John Huston, with Richard Burton and Ava Gardner in the leads.
In 1963, Williams - who had long been accepting of his own homosexuality - was dealt a devastating blow when his longtime companion, Frank Merlo, died from inoperable lung cancer. Already an alcoholic and drug abuser, which was brought on by his bouts with depression, Williams sank further into his hole and watches the bottom fall out of his career. Nonetheless, the indefatigable craftsman wrote almost daily despite his increased dependence on alcohol and prescription medications. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Williams saw many failures, including "The Mutilated" (1965), "In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel" (1969) and "Will Mr. Merriweather Return from Memphis?" (1969). He did, however, experience one last stage success with the off-Broadway production of "Small Craft Warnings" (1972), which also featured his acting debut, only to see further diminishing of his talents with "Out Cry" (1973) and "This Is (An Experiment)" (1976). Though his fiction and poetry never particularly caught the public's fancy, he published 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. After the failure of "Clothes for a Summer Hotel" (1980), his last play to debut on Broadway in his lifetime, Williams showed glimmers of his former self with "A House Not Meant to Stand" (1982), his last written play. Though not nearly as fragile as his sister Rose, Williams lived apart from the world and died in his New York hotel suite on Feb. 25, 1983 after choking on a bottle cap from his eye drops, indicating that drugs and alcohol contributed by suppressing his gag reflex. He was 71. Even at the time of his death, he was one of America's most revered playwrights, regardless of his feelings of isolation, whose reputation only grew in subsequent years.
By Shawn Dwyer