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Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams

Thomas Lanier Williams (March 26, 1911 - February 25, 1983), better known by the pen name Tennessee Williams, was a noted playwright. The nickname Tennessee was given to him by schoolmates in St. Louis for his southern accent. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for A Streetcar Named Desire in 1948 and for Cat On a Hot Tin Roof in 1955. Genre critics maintain that Williams writes in the Southern Gothic style. For many years Williams lived in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana.

Tennessee Williams's family was a troubled one, and provided inspiration for much of his writings. He was born in Columbus, Mississippi; the family moved to St. Louis, Missouri in 1918. His father, Cornelius Williams, was a travelling shoe salesman who grew increasingly abusive as his children grew older. Edwina Williams, Tennessee's mother, was a descendant of genteel southern life, and was somewhat smothering. Dakin Williams, Tennessee's brother, was often favored over Tennessee by their father.

Tennessee was close to his sister, Rose Williams, who was perhaps the greatest influence on him. She was an elegant, slim beauty who was subject to severe nervous attacks and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Mentally ill and emotionally disturbed, she spent most of her adult life in mental hospitals. After various unsuccessful attempts at therapy, her parents eventually allowed a prefrontal lobotomy in an effort to treat her. The operation, performed in 1943, in Washington, D.C. went badly, and Rose remained incapacitated for the rest of her life.

Rose's failed lobotomy was a hard blow to Tennessee, who never forgave his parents for allowing the operation. It may have been one of the factors that drove him to alcoholism.

Characters in his plays are often seen to be direct representations of his family members. Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie is understood to be modeled on Rose. Some biographers say that the character of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire is based on her as well. The motif of lobotomy also arises in Suddenly Last Summer. Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie can easily be seen to represent his mother. Many of his characters are autobiographical, including Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie and Sebastian in Suddenly Last Summer.

In his memoirs, the playwright claims he became sexually active as a teenager; his biographer Lyle Leverich maintained this actually occurred later, in his late 20s. His physical and emotional relationship with his secretary, Frank Merlo, lasted from 1947 until Merlo's death from cancer in 1961, and provided the stability during which Williams produced his most enduring works. Merlo was a balance to many of Williams's depressions, especially the fear that like his sister, Rose, he would become insane. The death of his lover drove Williams into a deep decade-long depression.

Tennessee Williams was the victim of a gay-bashing in January 1979 in Key West, being beaten by five teenaged boys, but was not seriously injured. The episode was part of a spate of anti-gay violence that had occurred after a local Baptist minister ran an anti-gay newspaper ad. Some of his literary critics spoke ill of the excesses present in his work, but these were, for the most part, merely attacks on Williams' sexuality.

Tennessee Williams died after he choked on a bottle cap at the age of 71. However, some (among them is Dakin Williams, his brother) believe he was murdered. Alternately, the police report from his death seems to indicate that drugs were involved, as it states that pills were found under his body.

He was interred in the Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, Missouri, despite his stated desire to be buried at sea at approximately the same place as the poet Hart Crane, whom he considered one of his most significant influences. He left his literary rights to Sewanee, The University of the South via a foundation named after his brother.

Note: This profile was written in or before 2004.

Tennessee Williams Facts

Birth NameThomas Lanier Williams
BirthdayMarch 26, 1911
BirthplaceColumbus, Mississippi, USA
Date of deathFebruary 25, 1983 (age 71)

Selected Filmography

The Sons of Tennessee Williams
TCM Greatest Classic Films: Tennessee Williams
Tennessee Williams Film Collection
Tennessee Williams' The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone
Tennessee Williams' South
Tennessee Williams' Dragon Country
Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie
Great Writers: Tennessee Williams
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