Tennessee Williams Biography

Tennessee Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, in 1911. The name given to him at birth was Thomas Lanier Williams III. He did not acquire the nickname Tennessee until college, when classmates began calling him that in honor of his Southern accent and his father’s home state. The Williams family had produced several illustrious politicians in the state of Tennessee, but Williams’s grandfather had squandered the family fortune. Williams’s father, C.C. Williams, was a traveling salesman and a heavy drinker. Williams’s mother, Edwina, was a Mississippi clergyman’s daughter and prone to uncontolled emotional attacks.

Until Williams was seven, he, his parents, his older sister, Rose, and his younger brother, Dakin, lived with Edwina’s parents in Mississippi. After that, the family moved to St. Louis. Once there, the family’s situation deteriorated. C.C.’s drinking increased, the family moved sixteen times in ten years, and the young Williams, always shy and fragile, was ostracized and taunted at school. During these years, he and Rose became extremely close. Rose, the model for Laura in The Glass Menagerie, suffered from mental disorders later in life and eventually underwent a prefrontal lobotomy (an intensive brain surgery), an event that was extremely upsetting for Williams.

An average student and social outcast in high school, Williams turned to the movies and writing for solace. At sixteen, Williams won five dollars in a national competition for his answer to the question “Can a good wife be a good sport?”; his answer was published in Smart Set magazine. The next year, he published a horror story in a magazine called Weird Tales, and the year after that he entered the University of Missouri as a journalism major. While there, he wrote his first plays. Before Williams could receive his degree, however, his father, outraged because Williams had failed a required ROTC program course, forced him to withdraw from school and go to work at the same shoe company where he himself worked.Williams worked at the shoe factory for three years, a job that culminated in a minor nervous breakdown. After that, he returned to college, this time at Washington University in St. Louis.

While Williams was studying at Washington University, a St. Louis theater group produced his plays The Fugitive Kind and Candles to the Sun. Personal problems led Williams to drop out of Washington University and enroll in the University of Iowa. While he was in Iowa, his sister Rose’s obotomy was performed, which left her institutionalized for the rest of her life. Despite this trauma, Williams finally graduated in 1938. In the years that followed, he lived a bohemian life, working menial jobs and wandering from city to city. He continued to work on drama, however, receiving a Rockefeller grant and studying playwriting at the New School in New York. During the early years of World War II, Williams worked in Hollywood as a scriptwriter.

Around 1941, Williams began the work that would become The Glass Menagerie. The play evolved from a short story entitled “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” which focused more completely on Laura than the play does. In December of 1944, The Glass Menagerie was staged in Chicago, with the collaboration of a number of well-known theatrical figures. When the play first opened, the audience was sparse, but the Chicago critics raved about it, and eventually it was playing to full houses. In March of 1945, the play moved to Broadway, where it won the prestigious New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. This highly personal, explicitly autobiographical play earned Williams fame, fortune, and critical respect, and it marked the beginning of a successful run that would last for another ten years. Two years after The Glass Menagerie, Williams won another Drama Critics’ Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize for A Streetcar Named Desire. Williams won the same two prizes again in 1955, for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Read more about another well-known work by Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire.

The impact of success on Williams’s life was colossal and, in his estimation, far from positive. In an essay entitled “The Catastrophe of Success,” he outlines, with both light humor and a heavy sense of loss, the dangers that fame poses for an artist. For years after he became a household name, Williams continued to mine his own experiences to create pathos-laden works. Alcoholism, depression, thwarted desire, loneliness in search of purpose, and insanity were all part of Williams’s world. Since the early 1940s, the fact that he was gay was widely known, and his experiences in an era and culture unfriendly to homosexuality certainly affected his work. After 1955, Williams began using drugs, and he would later refer to the 1960s as his “stoned age.” He suffered a period of intense depression after the death of his longtime partner in 1961 and, six years later, entered a psychiatric hospital in St. Louis. He continued to write nonetheless, though most critics agree that the quality of his work diminished in his later life. His life’s work adds up to twenty-five full-length plays, five screenplays, over seventy one-act plays, hundreds of short stories, two novels, poetry, and a memoir; five of his plays were also made into movies. Williams died in 1983 at the age of 71.

Background on The Glass Menagerie

When The Glass Menagerie was first produced in Chicago in 1944, Tennessee Williams was an obscure, struggling playwright. He had recently quit a job in Los Angeles writing screenplays for MGM, an experience he had not considered positive. Thanks to the efforts of Williams’s faithful agent, Audrey Wood, The Glass Menagerie was picked up by Eddie Dowling, an actor, director, and producer. Dowling grabbed the role of Tom for himself and persuaded Laurette Taylor to take on the role of Amanda. Taylor, who had become a darling of the American stage for her performance as the title character in Peg o’ My Heart in 1912, had been living in semi-reclusion since the death of her husband in 1928. Bringing her into The Glass Menagerie was both a great coup and a substantial gamble. A shadowy Chicago entrepreneur whose main business was running seedy hotels financed the production. Legend has it that the rehearsals for the play did not inspire optimism; for one thing, Taylor seemed in constant danger of forgetting her lines.

Opening night was December 26, 1944. Not long before the curtain rose, the cast and crew panicked when they could not find Ms. Taylor. She was quickly discovered, however, in the bathroom, attempting to put on a bathrobe that she was to wear later in the play. Taylor, along with the other cast members, went on to give a magnificent performance. The next day, newspaper critics raved about the play and its cast. Oddly, though, attendance was sparse for the remainder of the first week. The financial backer was on the verge of closing the play, but Chicago’s theater critics mounted an all-out campaign to save it, begging readers of their daily columns not to miss the play. Within another couple of weeks, The Glass Menagerie was playing to full houses.

In March of 1945, the play opened at the Playhouse Theatre in New York. The cast was the same one that had played in Chicago, with Julie Haydon as Laura and Anthony Ross as Jim. The play’s reception in New York was every bit as strong as in Chicago. It ran for 561 performances and was named best American play of the year by the New York Drama Critics’ Circle.

Laurette Taylor’s performance as Amanda went on to become the stuff of myth. When The Glass Menagerie was revived on Broadway in 1956, Helen Hayes’s interpretation of the role was judged as acceptable but lacking Taylor’s magic. Maureen Stapleton met the same fate playing Amanda on Broadway in 1965. In 1973, the American Broadcasting Corporation staged The Glass Menagerie for television, with Katherine Hepburn as Amanda. Hepburn’s performance was praised to the skies, as was the production as a whole, with Sam Waterston as Tom, Joanna Miles as Laura, and Michael Moriarty as Jim (Moriarty’s performance was said to mark a watershed in the interpretation of Jim’s character).

The success of the ABC production points to an important aspect of the play: the cinematic quality of its staging. Its use of music to enhance atmosphere and drama is reminiscent of film technique, and its use of lighting to emphasize a character’s reaction or to show his or her face in a new light resembles the way in which movies use close-up shots to create the same effects. Even the words that appear on the screen have something in common with the titles of silent films. Nonetheless, the two film versions of the play were relatively lackluster. A 1950 film version, directed by Irving Rapper and starring Gertrude Lawrence as Amanda, manufactured a happier ending for the story; critics and Williams himself hated it. In 1987, Paul Newman directed a talented cast (John Malkovich as Tom, Joanne Woodward as Amanda, Karen Allen as Laura) in another film version, which met with reviews that ranged from lukewarm to hostile.

Almost all performances of The Glass Menagerie have followed the Acting Edition of the play, created to reflect the dialogue and staging of the first production. The Acting Edition varies a fair bit from the Reading Edition, which is the version that is anthologized in collections of Williams’s works and the version he preferred to hand down to posterity. The Acting Edition calls for more realistic lighting and over 1,000 minor changes in the dialogue. Its most significant difference from the Reading Edition, however, is its elimination of the screen on which words and images are periodically projected. Eddie Dowling, the director of the first production, found the screen device awkward, and subsequent directors have largely concurred, calling it pretentious and condescending, choosing to stage the play without it. In general, staged productions of the play tend to downplay its expressionist, symbolic, and blatantly nonrealistic elements, opting instead for a more realistic, natural interpretation of Williams’s dialogue. One of the few productions to follow the Reading Edition, leaving the screen intact, was directed by the theater critic Geoffrey Borny in Australia.