| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
(1911 - 1983)
Although invariably ranked second (just behind Eugene
O’Neill) among American dramatists, Tennessee Williams is indisputably the most
important southern playwright yet to emerge. Born Thomas Lanier Williams, in
Columbus, Mississippi, where his much loved maternal grandfather was an
Episcopalian minister, by 1919 he had been transplanted with his family to St.
Louis, Missouri. The contrast between these two cultures—an agrarian South that
looked back nostalgically to a partly mythical past of refinement and
gentility, and a forward-looking urban North that valued pragmatism and
practicality over civility and beauty—would haunt Williams throughout his life,
providing one of the enduring tensions in his plays.
attending the University of Missouri and Washington University in St. Louis,
Williams followed his graduation from the University of Iowa in 1938 with a
period of wandering around the country and a succession of odd jobs, including
an unsuccessful stint as a scriptwriter in Hollywood. One of his filmscripts,
however, became the genesis for his first great theatrical success during the
1944–45 season, The Glass Menagerie. In that “memory play,” the
autobiographical narrator, Tom Wingfield, hopes that by reliving his desertion
of his domineering mother and physically and psychically fragile sister, Laura,
he will find release from the guilt of the past, thereby allowing his full
maturation as a poet. Williams’s biographers Donald Spoto and Lyle Leverich
remark (as have others before them) on the playwright’s lasting and decisive
love for his schizophrenic sister Rose, clearly the model for Laura, and at
least partially for Blanche in the classic A Streetcar Named Desire (1947),
Catherine in Suddenly Last Summer (1958), the sister Clare in Out Cry (1973),
and even for the largely factual Zelda Fitzgerald in Williams’s final Broadway
play, Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980). No other American dramatist has
created women characters of such complexity, portrayed with deep understanding
his opening narration in Menagerie, Tom speaks of “an emissary from a world of
reality that we were somehow set apart from” who threatens to upset the fragile
escape into illusion that serves repeatedly in Williams’s dramas as a refuge
for those who are physically, emotionally, or spiritually misbegotten and vulnerable,
and yet because of this somehow special. One of Williams’s chief
characteristics as a dramatist is his compassion for misfits and outsiders,
perhaps fed early on by his own sexual orientation (he frankly discusses his
homosexuality in the confessional Memoirs) and later, in the two decades before
his death, by the increasingly negative critical reception of works that become
excessively private. If there is a central ethical norm by which his characters
must live, it is surely that espoused by the nonjudgmental artist Hannah in
Night of the Iguana (1961): “Nothing human disgusts me unless it’s unkind,
was a prolific author, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (for
Streetcar and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ) and a four-time recipient of the
New York Drama Critics Circle Award (for the above two plays as well as for
Menagerie and Iguana). Along with two dozen full-length plays and two
collections of one-acts, he wrote two novels, four collections of short
fiction—among his finest stories, influenced by Hawthorne and Poe, are “Desire
and the Black Masseur” and “One Arm”—two volumes of poetry, and several
screenplays. Most are charged with a highly expressive symbolism and imbued
with his recurrent attitudes and motifs: a somewhat sentimental valuation of
the lost and lonely; a worship of sexuality as a means of transcending
aloneness; a castigation of repression and excessive guilt; an abhorrence of
the underdeveloped heart that refuses to reach out to others; a fear of time,
the enemy that robs one of physical beauty and artistic vitality; and an
insistence on the need for the courage to endure, to always continue onward—as
Williams himself did as a writer.
Thomas P. Adler|
In the Heath Anthology
Portrait of a Madonna
The Theatre of Tennessee Williams (7 volumes)
Where I Live: Selected Essays
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Love and Death in Tennessee Williams
The complete text of John J. Fritscher's book on Williams.
Offers a biography and links related to his works.
The Mississippi Writers Page
Provides a biography, list of works and adaptations and a bibliography of secondary sources.
The Tennessee Williams Annual Review
Information about the journal, including tables of contents for all issues.
Philip C. Kolin, ed., Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance, 1998, pp 2-3, 7-10
Lyle Leverich, Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams, 1995
Nicholas Pagan, Rethinking Literary Biography: A Postmodern Approach to Tennessee Williams, 1993
Jo Beth Taylor, "A Streetcar Named Desire: Evolution of Blanche and Stanley," Publications of the Mississippi Philological Association, 1986, pp. 63-64