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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Tennessee Williams
(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.

After 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 and sensitivity.

In 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, violent.”

Williams was a prolific author, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (for Streetcar and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof [1955]) 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
Purdue University

In the Heath Anthology
Portrait of a Madonna (1945)

Other Works
The Theatre of Tennessee Williams (7 volumes) (1971-1981)
Memoirs (1975)
Where I Live: Selected Essays (1978)
Collected Stories (1986)

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Love and Death in Tennessee Williams
The complete text of John J. Fritscher's book on Williams.

Tennessee 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.

Secondary Sources

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