Tennessee Williams Essay Research Paper Everything in

Tennessee Williams Essay, Research Paper

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 Williamses 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 Fredrico 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 Hephurn, Morlon 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.


February 1, 2001.

Kunitz. Tennessee Williams. Twentieth Century Authors: A Biographical

Dictionary. 1955.

Magill, Frank. Tennessee Williams. Encyclopedia of World Authors.


Nelson, Benjamin. Tennessee Williams: The Man and His Work. New

York: Obolensky, 1961.

Spoto, Donald. The Kindness Of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee

Williams. New York: Ballantine Books, 1985.

Tennessee Williams. [http:// www. classicnotes/tenn_will/bio]. February

15, 2001.


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