Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams was born on March 26th, 1911 to Cornelius and Edwina Williams. His childhood will ring familiar to those who know his work; abusive, unstable and steeped in Southern tradition. Though his relationship with his parents was strained, Tennessee was always very close with his older sister Rose. The two shared an inseparable bond, despite Rose’s diagnosis of schizophrenia and troubling behaviors.
Tennessee’s career began at the tender age of twelve when he received a typewriter for his birthday. He published his first story at thirteen, a piece entitled Isolated that appeared in The Junior Life magazine.
Though he started college intending to major in journalism, he found his true calling after entering a playwriting competition purely for the cash prize. He was the first freshman to receive an honorable mention in that competition. Unfortunately, while at college, Williams’ parents had his beloved sister Rose lobotomized to treat her schizophrenia. The treatment did not work and she lived in a mental institution for the rest of her life. This traumatic experience deeply affected Williams and profoundly influenced the characters in his career-making play, The Glass Menagerie.
Throughout the course of his teenage and college years, Williams won various contests for his poetry, short stories and plays, though he did not see any major success until he was in his mid- 30’s. After fudging his age on yet another playwriting competition, Williams won $100 for his piece American Blues. This also landed him his literary agent, Audrey Wood, who would go on to help Williams obtain a Rockefeller grant for his play Battle of Angels. The funds from this grant allowed Williams to focus on adapting his short story Portrait of a Girl in Glass into the critical success The Glass Menagerie.
The Glass Menagerie opened on Broadway in March of 1945 to wild acclaim. This success was followed by A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955. Williams wrote 10 award winning and critically acclaimed plays between 1944 and 1960.
He enjoyed immense success, mining his difficult past and deep insight into human nature for his work. The early 1960’s, however, saw an evolution in Williams’ writing style that was unappreciated by and unpopular with both critics and the public at large. After The Night of the Iguana in 1961, he would not have another major theatrical success in his lifetime.
It is difficult to overstate how low Tennessee Williams’ reputation had fallen by the time of his death in 1983. The slide began in 1963, when the Broadway production of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore ended the assumption that a new Williams play meant an automatic hit. His subsequent works were also poorly received. This, combined with the death of his longtime love Frank Merlo, led to a period of heavy drinking and drug use. Although Arthur Miller and Edward Albee experienced similar downturns in popularity, neither of them encountered the contempt that Williams did. On the contrary, they both lived long enough to be viewed as elder statesmen of the American theatre.
A woman reading Garden District by Tennessee Williams. Central Library’s Literature Department, circa 1958. Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.