Who is Tennessee Williams?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

Tennessee Williams is one of the most prominent and celebrated American playwrights of the 20th century. His work is characterized by tragic heroines and the exploration of the darker elements of the American South. He also wrote in other genres, including the short story, the novel, and poetry. His autobiography, Memoirs, was published in 1975.

New Orleans became Tennessee Williams' home after college graduation.
New Orleans became Tennessee Williams' home after college graduation.

Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams III on 26 March 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi, the son of a traveling shoe salesman and a former southern belle. His family life as a child was very difficult. The family moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1914 and to St. Louis, Missouri in 1918. Tennessee was incapacitated by diphtheria for two years beginning at the age of seven. He was the middle child of three, and his older sister, Rose, suffered from schizophrenia. Williams' parents often fought violently, and his abusive father favored his younger brother, Dakin.

Williams began writing at a young age and published his first story, “The Vengeance of Nitocris,” at the age of 17. He began attending the University of Missouri in 1929, but quit school to work at a shoe company two years later. He suffered a mental breakdown shortly thereafter and spent time recovering at his grandparents' house. He continued writing throughout this period, and his first play, Cairo! Shanghai! Bombay!, was produced in Memphis in 1937. After regaining his health, Williams returned to school, first attending the University of Washington and finally earning his Bachelor degree in 1938 from the University of Iowa.

After graduating, Williams moved to New Orleans, where he continued writing and became openly gay. He won an award for his collection of one-act plays, American Blues, and received a Rockefeller grant of $1,000 US dollars (USD) in 1939. His first professionally produced play, Battle of Angels, opened in 1940 but was not a success.

In 1943, Williams' sister Rose underwent a lobotomy, an event that undoubtedly contributed to his later depression. The author's first successful play, The Glass Menagerie, with a heroine inspired by Rose, appeared two years later. It became a hit on Broadway, was deemed the best play of the season by the New York Drama Critics' Circle, and began a new era in his literary career.

In 1947, Williams met Frank Merlo, who remained his partner until Merlo's death from lung cancer in 1961. During their relationship, Merlo had a very positive effect on Williams, and their years together were also the authors' most potent years as a writer. He followed The Glass Menagerie with a number of successful plays, many of which were adapted into films that are now considered cinema classics. Two of these plays, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), won Pulitzer Prizes.

After Merlo's death, Williams sunk into a profound depression for a decade, self medicating with drugs and alcohol. He continued writing plays and short stories during this period, but he was not as prolific or as successful as he had been before. Williams entered a detoxification program in 1969, but he continued to struggle with alcoholism and depression for the remainder of his life.

Williams continued to write throughout the 1970s, and his last play, A House Not Meant to Stand, premiered in 1982. He died a year later after a night of heavy drinking in a New York city hotel. Though he was plagued by personal demons throughout his life, Williams made a priceless contribution to American literature and cinema. His plays continue to be popular and are often performed. Many great American actors made names for themselves performing roles he created.

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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Discussion Comments


I have seen many different accounts of which years Tennessee Williams and his family first moved to Clarksdale (1915, 1916, 1917; you say 1914), and which year he contracted diphtheria. Can you tell me where you got your information?


@Illych - That's a reference to the play Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. The character Brick says (paraphrasing) that he drinks until he feels a click, and then he feels content.


In the song "City Middle", the vocalist from the band The National sings "I think I'm like Tennessee Williams, I wait for the click/I wait but it doesn't click in". What is this a reference to?

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