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Research and Analysis of Tennessee Williams

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    Research and Analysis of Tennessee Williams

    Winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, four New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and President Award for Freedom, Tennessee Williams holds a central position in the twentieth century American theatre. He has written twenty-five full length plays, a score of short plays, sixty short stories, two novels, more than hundred poems and autobiography. He is a versatile and prolific playwright who had a flair for writing since his childhood. He has crafted masterpieces by drawing inspirations from people around him. His poetic language redefined the American theatre and provided a breakthrough from the influence of Ibsen. This essay delves into the life and works of Tennessee Williams and the honesty and perseverance with which he produced his work of art.

    Born as the second of the three children, Tennessee Williams was christened as Thomas Lanier Williams. He was born on 26, March, 1911 in Colombus, Mississippi and experienced a troubled childhood because of the incompatibility that existed between his parents and his schizophrenic sister Rose. But he had latent skills for writing since his childhood and at the age of sixteen, in 1927, he won the third place in the national essay contest sponsored by The Smart Set magazine. He was inspired to become a playwright when he watched the staging of Ibsen’s Ghosts. He pursued his education at the University of Missouri which was once interrupted by his father who forced Williams to work for the shoe company. During the day he worked in the warehouse and in the night he passionately indulged in writing. Due to the excess strain, he suffered from nervous breakdown and was nursed at his grandparents’ home in Memphis. His amateur plays were produced at Memphis. However he resumed his collegiate education later and completed his course at the University of Iowa. He moved to New Orleans and went by the new name Tennessee Williams which was the nickname used during his college days. He went on job-hunting to several cities and tried his luck in various jobs. He also involved himself as a script-writer for MGM for a brief period.

    Tennessee Williams was quite close to his sister Rose who was suffering from schizophrenia. She was often sent to lunatic asylums and mental hospitals and the doctors suggested prefrontal lomotomy as it was becoming extremely difficult to cure with other forms of treatment. The parents agreed and Rose was left crippled for her entire life. Williams was affected by this surgery that he went to alcoholism and bouts of depression and in order to relieve his depression he started abusing drugs such as amphetamines and barbiturates. In 1937, he wrote two plays titled, Candles to the Sun and The Fugitive Kind under the production of Mummers of St. Louis. In the following year he graduated from the university and changed his name from “Tom” to “Tennessee” in memory of father whose state of birth is Tennessee. Williams received a whooping $1000 Rockefeller Grant for his contribution to the world of drama at such a young age and in the next year, another play titled Battle of Angels was produced at Boston. The Glass Menagerie was exceptionally successful when it was staged in 1944, and in the following year it reached Broadway. This play also backed the NewYork Critics’ Award for the best play of the season during the same year.

    Williams worked on a play which was originally titled The Poker Night and it turned out to be one of his masterpieces titled A Streetcar Named Desire. This play was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the year 1947 and it also won his second New York Critics’ Award. During the 1950s Williams was at the peak of his career. His play The Rose Tattoo won him the first Tony Award in 1951 and almost during the same period his plays The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire were adapted to be made into motion pictures. During the same phase he met Frank Merlo and they fell in love. Williams lived with the fear throughout his life that he might go insane like his sister Rose. Merlyn was a constant support to him and helped out to maintain his balance until her untimely death in 1963 due to lung cancer. Her passing away was a great shock for Williams and he remained in depression for nearly ten years. His literary hits include Summer and Smoke and Camino Real. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof won him the second Pulitzer Award and it was also made into a motion picture. During the later part of his life he suffered from bouts of depression and completely relied on drugs. His plays during this phase did not match with the qualities of the previous works and he choked to death on 23 February 1983. He left his literary rights to The University of the South and in 1989, University City Loop inducted him into its St Louis Walk of Fame.

    Tennessee Williams reinvented the American stage with his unforgettable characters and the portrayal of human conditions in the most authentic manner. He was adept in ‘poetic realism’ through which he used everyday mundane objects with symbolic significance. His plays often dealt with human extremities and brutalities which included violence, insanity, rape and strange deaths with a psychological insight into the characters. He was profusely gifted with the technique of using expressions that fit both into the text as well as the stage. In the Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams, it is stated that,

    A connoisseur of the visual and a celebrant of the magical textures of the human body live on a stage, Williams nonetheless was foremost attracted to the word itself. Indeed, of all the creative forms which Williams indulged in – poetry, memoirs, letters, his production notes, and stage directions – it is his use of language that most animates his stage. (Roudane, 2003, p.2)

    The Glass Menagerie is the first successful play of Williams which bears a lot of autobiographical reference. This memory play is set in St.Louis where Williams and his family lived; the absent father is like Williams father; Tom Wingfield, the character in the play and Williams share a common first name; the frail Laura Wingfield closely resembles his sister Rose and the mother Amanda Wingfield is modeled after Williams’ mother. The play is set in the background of Great Depression which reflect the failures of capitalism and family bondage apart from un-kept promises and individual defeats in life. Williams exceptional stage directions keep the play animated and the lights serve as the symbol of hope. A Streetcar Named Desire is the most popular play of Tennessee Williams dealing with the culture clash between the two characters. “… Williams tended to dramatise the plight of the individual denied avenues in which to express that individuality. The self was seen as under attack from without and within” (Bigsby, 1990, p.6) Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of the most influential plays of Williams which deals with hope and despair. The protagonist Brick is caught in a whirlwind of issues which include the alcohol abuse, death of a friend, the loss of youth and confused sexual identity. Finally he gains the requisite knowledge about acceptance and forgiveness. The Rose Tattoo is a full length comic play which deals with a passionate love affair of a Sicilian widow after a long term loneliness and this play was a huge Broadway hit.

    To conclude Tennessee Williams is on of the most outstanding playwrights of the twentieth century who was constantly haunted to produce masterpieces. His plays are so powerful because he has never looked at writing as a formal process but instead he has stated that couldn’t stop writing as he has got no other means to express himself and hence his plays will definitely stand the test of time.


    Bigsby, C.W.E. (Ed.). (1990). A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-century American Drama: Beyond Broadway. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Roudane, Mathew, Charles. (Ed). (2003). Introduction. The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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