As we celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the birth of American writer Tennessee Williams it is an excellent time to reflect on the incredible influence that he has had on contemporary theatre. Williams is arguably the most significant playwright of the American theatre, as well as one of the most important twentieth century writers in the world.
Like many creative geniuses, Williams died alone and depressed, never guessing at the popularity his work would enjoy after his death. For those who have studied Williams it is hard to reconcile his extraordinary popularity with the harshness of his critics. He was considered by some to be a genius and master of the canon, but others dismissed him as a neurotic substance abuser who wrote offensive material. It is not difficult to understand why Williams himself struggled to understand these contradictory responses from the public and the theatre critics.
Born in Mississippi in 1911 as Thomas Lanier Williams, he christened himself Tennessee after his father’s birthplace when he moved to New Orleans in 1939. Williams had an amazing output of work during his life. He is best known for his plays and film adaptations, but he also wrote poems, short stories, and novels.
His first big hit came in 1945 in Chicago with the opening of The Glass Menagerie. This success was followed by the even greater success of A Streetcar Named Desire, which launched the stage career of Marlon Brandon and began a series of successful collaborations between Williams and popular stage and film director Elia Kazan.
Williams quickly became a rich and famous writer. He won several awards including two Pulitzer Prizes for drama, four New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards, and one Tony Award for best play. President Jimmy Carter presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980. Williams had fifteen plays produced on Broadway between 1945 and 1961.
Throughout his career, he was simultaneously praised and denounced for addressing taboo subjects in an open and realistic way. In 1956, Roman Catholic Cardinal Spellman blacklisted him for writing the screenplay Baby Doll. A central topic in all of Williams’s plays is the “undressing of male and female sexual desire” (Robert F. Gross, editor, Tennessee Williams: A Casebook [New York: Routledge, 2002], 35). In A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams showed violence never before seen onstage, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof dealt with many sexual questions never before discussed onstage. His plays often show women as creatures who actively experience desire instead of just being objects of desire. After viewing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Brooks Atkinson, Broadway’s leading critic said that Williams is a “master dramatist with a terrifying knowledge of the secrets of the mind.”
Williams was a perfectionist who constantly revised his work. Scholars believe that he used his writing to explore issues and situations from his own life. A perfect example is seen with The Glass Menagerie, which is considered an autobiographical play. However, some feel that Williams is represented in the play not by Tom, but by Laura. Williams was an effeminate boy who was called “Miss Nancy” by his father. He was a shy and socially awkward child who was teased by his classmates (Gross, 45). He was also handicapped for a time during his childhood due to illness.
He was very close to his sister who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent most of her adult life in mental hospitals. In an effort to treat her, Williams's parents authorized a prefrontal lobotomy in 1937 at the Missouri State Sanitarium, and the operation incapacitated Rose for the rest of her life. It is thought that this horrifying experience prompted the writing of his most disturbing play Suddenly Last Summer, and might have contributed to his alcoholism and his dependence on various combinations of amphetamines and barbiturates (Gross, 45).
Although his work in the theatre made him famous in the States, his films made him an internationally known figure. Seven of his plays as well as his novella The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone were adapted for the screen during his lifetime. Williams’s work was well suited to film because he addressed subjects that were appealing to the film industry, including “the irregular passages of romantic life, the moral and psychological contradictions of sexual desire, the unavoidable discontents of family relations, and the exotic and perverse nature of Southern culture” (R. Barton Palmer, Hollywood’s Tennessee : the Williams films and postwar America, 1st ed [Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009], IX).
In the mid ’60s, the critics seemed to turn on him and began writing vindictive reviews that said Williams had lost his edge (Gross, 35). He also began to lose his popularity with audiences, and his plays started closing after disappointingly short runs. What caused this shift after such a period of rampant popularity? Some believe it was a response to his increasingly open homosexuality. Williams himself alluded to this belief in interviews. However, the shift in popularity also seems to coincide with his shift in writing style. Williams began writing in a new style that did not sit well with audiences and critics. His plays became increasingly less realistic and more idea driven rather than plot driven.
This shift in popular opinion caused Williams to experience a frustration commonly felt by artists: the style in which he wanted to write and the topics that he wanted to address did not necessarily coincide with the tastes of his public. He openly expressed a need to do the work that he felt was important, yet he still seemed to crave public approval. This created the impossible, and common, situation of an artist wishing to push audience members farther than audiences want to be pushed.
When Williams spoke to Yale drama students in 1973 he confessed, “The truth is that I don’t know whether or not I can ever again receive a persuasively favorable critical response to work in this country.” His feelings about this rejection may have contributed to his continued decline.
In the ’70s, Williams began work on his Memoirs, which was published in 1975. This autobiographical book is written in the style of free-association that he learned in psychoanalysis. The book gives an open account of his homosexuality as well as his work in and out of the theatre.
In the introduction to Memoirs Williams says that today’s audience members seem to be “obdurately resistant to my kind of theatre.” He reasoned that that they “seem to be conditioned to a kind of theatre which is quite different from the kind I wish to practice.” He went on to say “I am quite through with the kind of plays that established my early and popular reputation.”
Some believe that the open accounts of his sexual past detailed in Memoirs may have further contributed to his continued loss of popularity. Regardless of the reason, it is true that the works created at the end of his life were basically ignored. Williams died on February 25, 1983, alone in a hotel room as a depressed alcoholic with writer’s block (Gross, 35). His later works were re-examined after his death, and many scholars believe that they were not given fair treatment during his lifetime. Both popular and scholarly writing about Williams and his work exploded after his death. It is almost certain that Williams died having no idea of the popularity that his life’s work would enjoy almost thirty years later.