Everything in his life is in his plays, and everything in his plays is in his life, Elia Kazan said of Tennessee Williams. Williams, who is considered to be the greatest Southern playwright, inserted many of his own personal experiences into his writing, because he found no other means of expressing things that seemed to demand expression (Magill 1087). He stated that his primary sources of inspiration for his works were his family, the South, and the multiple writers he encountered in his life. Therefore, he presented American theatergoers with unforgettable characters, an incredible vision of life in the South, and a deeper meaning of the concept he called poetic realism (Classic Notes 1).
Poetic Realism exists as the repeated use of everyday objects, so that they would produce a symbolic meaning. Often, Tennessee Williams writing was considered to be melodramatic and hysterical; however, it is the haunting and powerful life experiences included in Williams writing that makes him one of the greatest playwrights in the history of the American drama. Thomas Lanier Williams began his life March 26, 1911 as the second child of Cornelius and Edwina Williams. His father, Cornelius, managed a shoe warehouse and was a stern businessman. Cornelius bouts with drinking and gambling (habits that Tennessee later inherited) made him increasingly abusive as Tennessee grew older. Tennessee, his mother, his older sister, Rose, and his younger brother, Walter, lived with Tennessee s maternal grandparents until 1918, when his father was transferred to his firm s main office in St.
Louis. Although, he began living with his father at age seven, his father remained emotionally absent throughout his life. His mother, however, smothered Tennessee with her aggressive showings of affection The move to St. Louis was shattering to Tennessee, Rose, and Edwina. The change from a small, provincial town to a big city was very difficult for the lower class family. Because of the ridicule from other children, her father s abuse, and her mother s unhappiness, Rose was destined to spend most of her life in mental institutions and she quickly became emotionally and mentally unstable.
Edwina allowed Rose s doctor to perform a frontal lobotomy on Rose; this event greatly disturbed Williams who cared for Rose throughout most of her adult life. Tennessee remained aloof from his younger brother, because his father repeatedly favored Walter over both of the older children. His parents often engaged in violent arguments and Tennessee, Rose, and Walter repeatedly encouraged their mother to leave their abusive father. Williams family life was full of tension and despair; however, he said he found therapy in writing. Unable to bear his life at home, Tennessee began his lifelong wanderings. In 1931, he enrolled in the University of Missouri where he saw a production of Ibsen s Ghosts and he decided to become a playwright.
His journalism program was interrupted; however, when his father forced him to withdraw from college to work with him at the International Shoe Company. His family no longer could afford to send him to college and his help was needed to pay bills. He was an employee for his father for two years; he despised the job and considered it to be indescribable torment. However, he considered the job very valuable, because it gave him first-knowledge of what it means to be a small wage-earner in a hopelessly routine job (Magill 1087).
Since he was working by day and writing by night, Williams health gradually decreased and he had a nervous breakdown. He recovered at the home of his grandparents and continued to write. Once recovered, he went back to school and graduated from the University of Iowa in 1938. At the University of Iowa, Williams earned his bachelor s degree and his nickname, Tennessee.
A college roommate jokingly compared Williams heritage to a Tennessee pioneer and Williams found his own significant meaning behind it. He said the Williams es had fought the Indians for Tennessee and I had already discovered the life of a younger writer was going to be something similar to the defense of a stockade against a band of savages (Magill 1088). During this time, Tennessee produced a few of his own plays locally. His work attracted the interest of important literary agent, Audrey Wood, and helped him to receive grants.
Therefore, In 1940, Tennessee produced his first full-length, professional play, Battle of Angels, and failed miserably. After his defeat in Chicago, Tennessee moved to New Orleans where he launched his career as a writer. His move to New Orleans presented a tremendous turning point in his life; he had a new name, a new home, and a promising talent. By 1944, he was a smash hit on Broadway with The Glass Menagerie and he had won that year s New York Critics Circle, Donaldson, and Sidney Howard Memorial Awards. In 1947, he was the first playwright to receive the Pulitzer Prize, the New York Critics Circle Award, and the Donaldson Award in the same year for A Streetcar Named Desire. In the course of his career, Williams accumulated four New York Drama Critics Awards; three Donaldson Awards; a Tony Award for his 1951 screenplay, The Rose Tattoo; the Brandeis University Creative Arts Award (1965); a Medal of Honor from the National Arts Club (1975); the $11, 000 Commonwealth Award (1981); and an honorary doctorate from Harvard University (1982).
He was honored by President Carter at Kennedy Center in 1979, and named Distinguished Writer in Residence at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in 1981. He also wrote over 30 full-length plays, numerous short plays, two volumes of poetry, and five volumes of poetry and short stories. Success enabled Tennessee to travel and buy a home in Key West, a new place to which Williams could escape for both relaxation and writing. Around this time, Williams met Frank Merlo. They fell in love and Merlo existed as Williams romantic partner until Merlo s untimely death. When Merlo died of lung cancer in 1961, Tennessee went into a deep depression that lasted ten years.
Merlo had served as a steadying influence on Williams, who already suffered mildly from depression, because he lived in fear that he, like his sister, would go insane. The sixties brought hard times for Tennessee Williams. He had become dependent on drugs, and the problem only grew worse after the death of his partner. Williams was also insecure about his work, which was sometimes of inconsistent quality, and he was violently jealous of younger playwrights. Williams later plays were not considered his best, because overwork and drug use had taken his toll on him. On February 23, 1983 Tennessee died tragically; he choked to death on the plastic top to his eye medication which he possibly mistook for a sleeping pill.
It is a curious coincidence that his life ended in a place that shared the name of the apartment building in which one of his best known characters, Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, met her figurative end (Classic Notes 1). He died in the Elysee Hotel in New York; the name of her apartment was Elysian Fields. It is appropriate that Tennessee died in a hotel, as this serves as the traditional haven of wanderers, outcasts, and loners, rather than in his home at Key West or in New Orleans. He was buried in St.
Louis, in a Catholic Ceremony at the request of his brother. Although Tennessee Williams denied that his writing was autobiographical, elements from his life appear frequently in his work. Because Tennessee had experienced many conflicts with sexuality, society, and Christianity, he also displayed these conflicts in his work. For example, The Glass Menagerie is an autobiographical representation of two days in St.
Louis. The play tells the story of Tom, his disabled sister, and his controlling mother. This family situation is very similar to his own; however, he omits his father and younger brother from the story. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams shows the reality of people s lives.
He wrote this play believing that he was about to die; therefore, he wrote what he felt needed to be said. When this play was first presented, it was considered shocking because of its presentation of sexual issues. Moreover, several of Tennessee s plays contained homosexual characters. Since the themes of desperation, loneliness, violence, irrational actions are found in his pieces and the majority of his pieces are set in the South, Tennessee s works are often considered to be part of the Southern Gothic Genre. Williams had a unique style of writing and an innovative technique of presenting his plays. Williams best plays are notable for their use of impressionistic sound and lighting effects.
The earlier playwright who was the principal influence on Williams is Anton Chekhov, who is also noted for his impressionism. Tennessee claims the work that had the most influence on him was that by Fredric o Garcia Lorca, Arthur Rimbaud, Rainer Maria Rilke, Hart Crane, and D. H. Lawrence. Williams is also noted for his extreme use of violence and he is often compared to William Faulkner. Williams plays frequently center on three character types: the gentleman caller, usually a young man, whether gentleman or not, who calls upon a young woman; an innocent and vulnerable young woman; and a usually tougher and more experienced older woman.
This pattern is obvious in both The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire (Kunitz 2165). Tennessee Williams claimed that all of his major plays fit into the memory play format he described in his production notes for The Glass Menagerie. The memory play has a three part structure: (1) a character experiences something profound; (2) that experience causes what Williams terms an "arrest of time," a situation in which time literally loops upon itself; and (3) the character must re-live that profound experience (while caught in the arrest of time) until she or he makes sense of it. The main theme for his plays, he claimed, is the negative impact that conventional society has upon the "sensitive nonconformist individual" (Classic Notes 1). Playwright, poet, and fiction writer, Tennessee Williams left a powerful mark on American Theatre. Not only did he receive multiple awards and impressive reviews, Williams kept the attention of audiences in American and abroad for many years after his death.
On the day of his death, the New York evening papers issued an impressive list of famous actors who have performed in his plays; these include Jessica Tandy, Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine Hepburn, M orlon Brando, and Bette Davis (2). Whether one argues that these actors were made famous by Williams work, or that the quality of his work attracted the most popular film and stage performers, the connection between Williams and these stage legends established Williams as one of the most important playwrights in twentieth-century drama. The majority of his success is due to the fact that he gave audiences a slice of his own life and a piece of Southern Culture. Williams stated, Every artist has a basic premise pervading his whole life, and that premise can provide the impulse in everything he creates. For me the dominating premise has been the need for understanding, tenderness, and fortitude among individuals trapped by circumstance (Magill 1089). Works Cited Clarksdale, Edward.
Tennessee Williams. [ web February 1, 2001. Kunitz. Tennessee Williams.
Twentieth Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary. 1955. Magill, Frank. Tennessee Williams. Encyclopedia of World Authors.
1997. Nelson, Benjamin. Tennessee Williams: The Man and His Work. New York: Obolensky, 1961. Spo to, Donald. The Kindness Of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams.
New York: Ballantine Books, 1985. Tennessee Williams. [http: // www. classic notes / tenn will /bio].
February 15, 2001.