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Thomas Lanier Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi on March 26, 1911 to a family that his biographers are fond of comparing to the dysfunctional ones of his plays. Williams's father, Cornelius, was an inveterate gambler and drunkard whose indulgences kept the family constantly on the move. Williams's sister, Rose, was a schizophrenic ultimately forced to undergo a frontal lobotomy by their mother, Edwina. This event—recounted in Suddenly Last Summer—particularly horrified Williams, who became his sister's caretaker. In 1931 Williams left home to begin studies at the University of Missouri. While at school, he both received the nickname Tennessee from a college roommate and decided to become a playwright upon seeing a production of Ibsen's Ghosts. Williams's plans were abruptly thwarted by his father, who demanded that he leave school to come work at his shoe factory. There, he befriended a man named Stanley Kowalski, who would later appear as the antihero of his perhaps most famous play.

Ultimately Williams resumed his schooling at Washington University, finishing his degree at the University of Iowa where he locally produced some of his plays. He then moved on to New Orleans where he staged his first major success with The Glass Menagerie (1945). Steeped, like many of Williams's works, in what irresistibly appear as biographical references, the play imagines the tumultuous struggles between of a son, his disabled sister, and their controlling mother Amanda. Shortly after Menagerie closed, the playwright went to work on a new piece about a woman stood up by her fiancé, producing his Pulitzer Prize-winning A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). Another Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, followed in 1955. The crux of this latter work concerns the conflicts of a Mississippi family following the diagnosis of its patriarch, Big Daddy's, stomach cancer and the revelation of his darling alcoholic son's homosexuality. Cat premiered in New York under the direction of Elia Kazan, who revised the third act to give the play a more redemptive resolution. In 1958, director Richard Brooks adapted Cat into a hugely popular film starring a stunning Elizabeth Taylor, an improbably handsome Paul Newman, and corpulent Burl Ives. To Williams's dismay, Brooks excised all explicit references to Brick's homosexuality in deference to the studio censors.

In 1979, Williams moved to Gainesville, Florida working with the Hippodrome State Theatre. Williams died in 1983 when he choked on a plastic bottle cap. He is generally recognized as one of the greatest writers to emerge from the American South as well as a chief architect of the new American drama that followed in the wake of World War II. Certainly his plays shocked their contemporary audiences in their unprecedented treatment of the violence, rape, incest, alcoholism, and other secret traumas that haunt the everyday. Ultimately their insight, however, goes far beyond their "shock value"—that is, their capacity to offend conventional morality. If such were the case, Williams's impassioned, seductive, and often nightmarish visions of American life would be far easier to forget.