Tennessee Williams Biography

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A Streetcar Named Desire Author/Context

Born in 1911 as Thomas Lanier Williams, Tennessee Williams was the son of a shoe salesman; his mother was the daughter of a minister. He was the middle child of a very violent and confrontational family in Mississippi. His parents were constantly fighting and this background provided the context for most of Williams' plays. It is said that his younger sister, Rose, went insane most likely due to her family upbringing.

Williams discovered his love for writing when he won a national writing award in 1929. He attended the University of Missouri where he studied writing. After seeing a production of Henrik Ibsen's, Ghosts, he found his calling. He dropped out of college to help support his father by working in a shoe factory, where he met a man named Stanley Kowalski, after whom he modeled his principal role in A Streetcar Named Desire. Finding little good work in Chicago, Williams moved to New Orleans, the setting of most of his plays, and changed his first name to "Tennessee," after the state of his father's birth. Williams fell in love with a man named Frank Merlo after World War II. Merlo's death of lung cancer spurred a deep ten-year depression that is often reflected in his work.

Williams has written twenty-five full length plays, including The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Orpheus Descending, and Night of the Iguana. He is also an accomplished fiction and screenwriter. Most of his plays discuss issues of insanity, depression, abuse, violence, torn families and homophobia. Most take place in the South - namely New Orleans. These issues are all close to Williams' own life, and as his good friend Elia Kazan said, "Everything in his life is in his plays, and everything in his plays is in his life." Common themes throughout Williams' work are the ideas of wanting to escape, running away, and the impossibility of that escape. His work lies in the genre of Realism; a form of playwriting and producing that grew in the mid-twentieth century with playwrights like Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill. Williams has won two Pulitzer Prizes and four New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards, among countless others, and is considered one of the foremost American playwrights of our time.

Opening on Broadway in 1947, A Streetcar Named Desire was an immediate success, catapulting Williams into mainstream idolatry as an American playwright. Marlon Brando brought the character of Stanley Kowalski to life while Jessica Tandy embodied Blanche Dubois. When the play became a film, the entire original cast returned except for Tandy, who was replaced with Gone with the Wind's Vivien Leigh. The film was just as successful as the play and created a star of Brando. Elia Kazan directed both versions and became a close friend and partner with Williams. Together, they created some of the most memorable American theater in history.

Tennessee Williams died in 1983.


Smith, Bruce. Costly Performances: Tennessee Williams, The Last Stage. New York: Paragon House, 1990.

Weals, Gerald. Tennessee Williams. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1965.

Williams, Dakin and Shepherd Mead. Tennessee Williams: An Intimate Biography. New York: Arbor House, 1983.

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