Thomas Lanier Williams III (March 26, 1911 – February 25, 1983), better known as Tennessee Williams, was a major American playwright who received many of the top theatrical awards. He moved to New Orleans in 1939 and changed his name to "Tennessee," the state of his father's birth. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for A Streetcar Named Desire in 1948 and for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955. In addition, The Glass Menagerie (1945) and The Night of the Iguana (1961) received New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards. His 1952 play The Rose Tattoo received the Tony Award for best play.
By the time Thomas was three, the family had moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi. At five, he was diagnosed with a paralytic disease. It caused his legs to be paralyzed for nearly two years but his mother encouraged him to make up stories and read. She gave him a typewriter when he was 13.
His father Cornelius Williams was a traveling salesman who became increasingly abusive as his children grew older. The father often favored Tennessee's brother Dakin, perhaps because of Tennessee's illness and extended weakness and convalescence as a child. Tennessee's mother Edwina Dakin Williams had aspirations as a genteel southern lady and was smothering. She may have had a mood disorder.
In 1918, when Williams was seven, the family moved again, this time to St. Louis, Missouri. In 1927, at 16, Williams won third prize (five dollars) for an essay published in Smart Set entitled, "Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?" A year later, he published "The Vengeance of Nitocris" in Weird Tales.
In the early 1930s Williams attended the University of Missouri, where he joined Alpha Tau Omega fraternity. His fraternity brothers dubbed him "Tennessee" for his rich southern drawl. In the late 1930s, Williams transferred to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri for a year, and finally earned a degree from the University of Iowa in 1938. By then, Williams had written Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay!. This work was first performed in 1935 at 1780 Glenview in Memphis.
Tennessee Williams found inspiration in his problematic family for much of his writing.
Williams lived for a time in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana. He moved there in 1939 to write for the WPA. He first lived at 722 Toulouse Street, the setting of his 1977 play Vieux Carré. The building is part of The Historic New Orleans Collection He began writing A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) while living at 632 St. Peter Street. He finished it later in Key West, Florida, where he moved in the 1940s.
Tennessee was close to his sister Rose, a slim beauty who was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age. As was common then, Rose was institutionalized and spent most of her adult life in mental hospitals. When therapies were unsuccessful, she showed more paranoid tendencies. In an effort to treat her, Rose's parents authorized a prefrontal lobotomy, a drastic treatment that was thought to help some mental patients who suffered extreme agitation. Performed in 1937 in Knoxville, Tennessee, the operation made Rose incapacitated for the rest of her life.
Williams never forgave his parents. Her surgery may have contributed to his alcoholism and his dependence on various combinations of amphetamines and barbiturates often prescribed by Dr. Max (Feelgood) Jacobson. They may have shared a genetic vulnerability, as Williams also suffered from depression.
Williams' relationship with Frank Merlo, a second generation Sicilian American who had served in the U.S. Navy in World War II, lasted from 1947 until Merlo's death from cancer in 1961. With that stability, Williams created his most enduring works. Merlo provided balance to many of Williams' frequent bouts with depression and the fear that, like his sister Rose, he would go insane.
Tennessee Williams died at the age of 72 after he choked on an eyedrop bottle cap in his room at the Hotel Elysee in New York. He would routinely place the cap in his mouth, lean back, and place his eyedrops in each eye. His brother Dakin and some friends believed he was murdered. The police report, however, suggested his use of drugs and alcohol contributed to his death. Many prescription drugs were found in the room. Williams' gag response may have been diminished by the effects of drugs and alcohol.
Williams' funeral took place on Saturday March 3, 1983 at St. Malachy's Roman Catholic Church in New York City. Williams' body was interred in the Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, Missouri. Williams had long told his friends he wanted to be buried at sea at approximately the same place as the poet Hart Crane, as he considered Crane to be one of his most significant influences.
Tennessee Williams left his literary rights to Sewanee, The University of the South in honor of his grandfather, Walter Dakin, an alumnus of the university. It is located in Sewanee, Tennessee. The funds support a creative writing program. When his sister Rose died after many years in a mental institution, she bequeathed over 50 million dollars from her part of the Williams estate to Sewanee, The University of the South as well.
In 1989, the City of St. Louis inducted Tennessee Williams into its St. Louis Walk of Fame.
The "mad heroine" theme that appeared in many of his plays seemed clearly influenced by the life of Williams' sister Rose.
Characters in his plays are often seen as representations of his family members. Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie was understood to be modeled on Rose. Some biographers believed that the character of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire is also based on her, as well as Williams himself. When Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire, he believed he was going to die and that this play would be his swan song.
Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie was generally seen to represent Williams' mother. Characters such as Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie and Sebastian in Suddenly, Last Summer were understood to represent Williams himself. In addition, he used a lobotomy operation as a motif in Suddenly, Last Summer.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar named Desire both included references to elements of Williams' life such as homosexuality, mental instability and alcoholism.
Williams wrote The Parade, or Approaching the End of a Summer when he was 29 and worked on it through his life. It seemed an autobiographical depiction of an early romance in Provincetown, Massachusetts. This play was produced for the first time on October 1, 2006 in Provincetown by the Shakespeare on the Cape production company, as part of the First Annual Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival.
Will Mr. Merriweather Return from Memphis? and The Parade, or Approaching the End of a Summer were among several works published by New Directions in the spring of 2008. The collection of experimental plays was titled The Traveling Companion and Other Plays.
Williams' last play A House Not Meant to Stand is a gothic comedy published in 2008 by New Directions with a foreword by Gregory Mosher and an introduction by Thomas Keith. Williams called his last play a "Southern gothic spook sonata."