Tennessee Williams: Writing Life into Legacy

This year’s centennial celebration of Tennessee Williams marks the anniversary of a playwright known for capturing the human spirit. His works convey an often-overlooked truth: simpler times are not any simpler, just clearer in hindsight. He produced some of the most compelling characters in the theater canon, a legacy made more poignant by the fact that many of his characters had real roots. Williams used his own life and experiences as the basis for his plays, especially for The Glass Menagerie. The honesty in his characters and plays is not a dramatic ploy, but a reflection on his own life viewed through the clarity of hindsight and the poetic shade of nostalgia.

The man who would become Tennessee was born Thomas Lanier Williams III on March 26, 1911, in Columbus, Mississippi, to Cornelius and Edwina Williams. Tom was the second of three children, two years younger than Rose and eight years older than Dakin. The closeness in age between Tom and Rose led to a tight bond between the two. When Williams was seven years old, his father – who had been a traveling shoe salesman – was promoted to an office job at the International Shoe Company and the family relocated to St. Louis, Missouri. Around the same time, Tom suffered a debilitating illness and he began writing to divert his mind during the long, isolated recovery period. This hobby disappointed his father but delighted his Southern belle mother, who gave him his first typewriter. He entered his first writing contest at age 16, winning third place and a five-dollar prize.

In 1929, Tom enrolled in the University of Missouri-Columbia’s School of Journalism. He thrived creatively but not academically and, in 1931, his father pulled him out of school for poor grades. For the next five years, Tom worked in the shoe factory warehouse. Meanwhile, his parents’ marriage faltered due to his father’s alcoholism, gambling and abuse. Their separation left Edwina to look after Dakin and Rose.

Rose’s mental stability started to deteriorate. Depression, paranoia and hypochondria overtook her mind before she was formally diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed to a state hospital in 1936, where she remained for seven years. In 1943, his mother arranged to have Rose lobotomized in an attempt to stabilize her behavior. The loss of his sister devastated Tom, who felt heartbroken over the forfeit of their special bond and guilty for not doing more to help her.

The same year that Rose was committed, Tom re-enrolled in school, first in St. Louis and then at the University of Iowa. He completed his degree in English literature in 1938 and moved to New Orleans to pursue writing professionally. At the time, Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration program gave funding to artists as one of many ways to bolster the domestic economy. Tom received a $1,000 grant to develop his play Battle of Angels, which later became Orpheus Descending.

It was in New Orleans that Tom adopted the nickname Tennessee, bestowed upon him by his fraternity brothers as a nod to his father’s roots. With a new name, new town and new chapter in his life, the 1940s and 1950s saw the emergence of Tennessee Williams as a playwright. His plays The Glass Menagerie (1944), Orpheus Descending (1945), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Summer and Smoke (1948), The Rose Tattoo (1951), Camino Real (1953) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) all arose during this tumultuous period of self-discovery for the young writer. Streetcar and Cat each earned Williams a Pulitzer Prize, Rose Tattoo a Tony Award for Best Play and Menagerie, Cat and Streetcar each a New York Drama Critics’ Circle award. Several plays hit Broadway and became Hollywood films, all to much acclaim.

As his playwriting life flourished, Tennessee still grappled with the guilt that he felt from Rose’s incapacitation, the newfound pressure to produce hits and his sexual orientation. It was during this time he met Frank Merlo, with whom he had his first long-term romantic relationship. Frank was Tennessee’s advocate and anchor, helping him deal with the pressure of being in the spotlight. Frank’s death in 1961 set off a depression that lasted two decades, which Williams combated with alcohol, drugs and travel. He continued writing short stories, plays, screenplays and poetry, but did not produce any commercial hits after 1961’s Drama Desk Award-winning Night of the Iguana. In 1983, Tennessee Williams choked on a pill-bottle cap and died at age 71.

Williams used writing as an escape from reality, yet in doing so, he vividly recreated a version of reality that often revealed the situation he had been trying to escape. All his characters arose from a place of honesty; there are no great heroes, no saints or villains, just flawed people trying to secure their place in the world or merely in the eyes of another person.

Writing for self-reflection and release rather than spectacle allowed Williams to portray the humor and gravity of ordinary people dealing with everyday, impossible circumstances. His characters range from prostitutes to plantation owners to poets working in a shoe factory, yet all face a dilemma still wrestled with today: what to do when desires and responsibilities conflict. There are times in life when wants and obligations co-exist, but at some point, even temporarily, one will rise above the other.

These moments of decision are where Tennessee Williams set his plays, and it is the desperate hope in each character to make the right decision that continues to make them relevant. While his characters do not always triumph in the traditional sense, they all try. What Williams captured – and why his plays endure – is the remarkable human spirit that lives in each person. As Williams’s most autobiographical character Tom Wingfield says, we all dream about the “long-delayed but always expected something that we live for.”