Tennessee Williams (Tennessee Thomas Lanier Williams) Biography
(1911–83), (Tennessee Thomas Lanier Williams), Battle of Angels, Orpheus Descending, The Glass Menagerie
American playwright, novelist, and short-story writer, born in Mississippi, where his grandfather was an Episcopal clergyman; the family moved, when Williams was still a boy, to St Louis. After college education and a series of unsatisfactory jobs, he entered the University of Iowa and embarked on his writing career. His first full-length play, Battle of Angels (1940; published 1945; later revised as Orpheus Descending, 1957), exhibits his characteristic lyricism and understanding of sexual passion, as well as his mastery of stage technique. He first achieved success with The Glass Menagerie (1944), which makes use of expressionist techniques and draws movingly on his own and his sister's early life in St Louis in its account of the tensions between Tom Wingfield (based on Williams himself), his domineering mother, Amanda, and his invalid sister, Laura (based on Williams's sister, Rose). After publishing a collection of eleven one-act plays, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (1946), he adapted the D. H. Lawrence story You Touched Me! (1947), collaborating with his friend (and later rival) Donald Windham. He then began work on one of his most popular and successful plays, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), which describes the downfall of the neurotic beauty Blanche Dubois. Through the character of Blanche, who is at once over-refined and whorish, Williams explores ideas and prejudices about the South and its culture. Other plays followed, including Summer and Smoke (1948); The Rose Tattoo (1953), a comedy about a Sicilian woman's quest for love; Camino Real (1953); and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955; Pulitzer Prize), an extremely powerful study of tensions in a Mississippi Delta family, whose patriarch, ‘Big Daddy’, is dying of cancer. The play's treatment of certain themes, especially that of homosexuality, gave it a widespread notoriety and it was banned in Britain for many years. In subsequent works, the gothic element in Williams's imagination prevailed. These include Suddenly Last Summer (1958), which describes the devouring by cannibals on a remote island of the maladjusted and homosexual son of a doting mother; Sweet Bird of Youth (1957), in which a handsome gigolo, Chance Wayne, is castrated by the irate father of the girl he has deserted; and The Night of the Iguana (1962), in which the iguana chained outside a shabby Mexican hotel symbolizes the chained passions of the characters residing there. Later plays include Kingdom of Earth (1968), about a dying transvestite; In the Bar of the Tokyo Hotel (1969), a study of a painter; and Small Craft Warnings (1972), about ‘cast-offs’ in a Californian coast bar. Williams's main contribution to the theatre is perhaps his expansion of its conventional emotional range; his characters' stories are compelling dramas, offering theatrical correlatives for deeply felt human desires and needs. His non-dramatic works include short stories (see The Collected Short Stories of Tennessee Williams, 1986), two novels, The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1950), about an ageing actress's relationship with a gigolo, and Moise and the World of Reason (1975), about a homosexual writer, as well as a volume of Memoirs (1975).
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