Why Tennessee Williams’ life and work were so entwined

Thomas Lanier Williams III, better known under his professional name Tennessee Williams, is one of the most important and influential playwrights in the history of American literature. Apart from his plays, for which he is probably best known for, he also wrote novels, poems, short stories and his own memoirs. His most popular pieces have been adapted into films as well, starring famous actors of the 50s and 60s Hollywood. Not only the contents of his work but also his own life has attracted a lot of attention, for Williams was an open homosexual (something which was almost unheard of at that time) and had to deal with an alcohol and substance abuse addiction.
Thomas Lanier Williams III, better known under his professional name Tennessee Williams, is one of the most important and influential playwrights in the history of American literature. Apart from his plays, for which he is probably best known for, he also wrote novels, poems, short stories and his own memoirs. Not only the contents of his work but also his own life has attracted a lot of attention, for Williams was an open homosexual (something which was almost unheard of at that time) and had to deal with an alcohol and substance abuse addiction.

 

“People have said and said and said that my work is too personal: and I have just as persistently countered this charge with my assertion that all true work of an artist must be personal, whether directly or obliquely, it must and it does reflect the emotional climates of its creator.”

Those words written by Williams, taken out of his memoirs, prove that the author did fill his plays with personal experiences, a fact not uninteresting considering that the main themes in Williams’ dramas were alcoholism, mental instability, homosexuality and difficult family relationships.

My reason for writing about this is simply that Tennessee Williams is my all-time favourite playwright. I actually discovered him through the old film adaptions of his plays, Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Richard Brooks’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Quickly I started reading his work and became completely entranced by his way of depicting the society he lived in, concentrating especially on dysfunctional families. To pick a favourite would be difficult as they have continually changed. At first I preferred The Glass Menagerie as it was probably the one I could best relate to and therefore understand. My sympathy went out to Laura and her situation and although I was by no means a recluse like her, I somehow identified with her. Now I guess it is a close tie between Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire. I have also written my final paper in English on Tennessee Williams with the main focus on how his life is comparable to his work.

Williams has started writing at the age of fourteen as compensation for being lonely. In later years he brought aspects of his own life into his plays and sometimes modelled entire characters after members of his family. Here a brief biography:

Williams was born on the 26 of March 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi to parents Edwina and Cornelius Coffin Williams. He has a younger brother Dakin and an older sister Rose, with whom he had a very strong relationship and who was probably his only friend as a child. Growing up Williams had a difficult childhood with a heavy drinking father often away from home and if present very violent and his neurotic and hysterical mother who tried to rule over her children’s lives. In his memoirs, Williams has frequently stated that his maternal grandparents were often the only ones who provided a normal home for him and that he tributes all the good things that have happened to him entirely to them such as paying for his school fees. His beloved sister, after having had several mental breakdowns and showing other signs of psychic instability, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and underwent lobotomy after having been pressured by their mother Edwina to do so. This resulted in Rose being incapacitated and spending the rest of her adult life in a facility. Williams has never quite gotten over these incidents which might have been an adding factor to his alcohol problems in later life and he visited her regularly at the asylum as well as paying for her care. Tennessee Williams himself suffered from illnesses as a child which lead to him being more frail and weak than most of his age group. When aged 8, his family moved to St Louis, Missouri, where he went to school and also attended university taking journalism classes and started to write plays and essays. Not approving of his choice to become an artist his father takes him out of school and gets him a job at a shoe factory which Williams quit shortly after a nervous breakdown. He took up his education again and after having graduated with a “Bachelor of Arts” degree from University of Iowa, he worked on his first successful play “The Glass Menagerie” which was shown on Broadway. His next big hit in line was “A Streetcar named Desire” which would truly manifest the significant role he played in the theater world and from then on, he was generally accepted as the greatest playwright of his generation winning many awards such as the Pulitzer Price, the New York Drama Critics Award and a Tony. “A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” would turn out another hit for Williams, however, from then on his career slowly started to suffer. In addition to his dramas not receiving the same acclaim as they used to and getting negative critique, Tennessee Williams personal life was full of turmoil. In the late 1930s Williams has come to accept his homosexuality and wound up in numerous sexual encounters and relationships, his longest with Frank Merlo lasting 14 years. After their breakup Williams increased his already heavy alcohol and prescription drugs consumption and fell into depression after his former partner died of lung cancer whom he had looked after even though they were not a couple anymore. This concluded in Williams’s frequent hospitalizations and several stays at a mental health facility. Tennessee Williams’ life came to a tragic end when he died on February 25, 1983 in a New York hotel room, suffocating on the lid of one of his medication bottles.

 

Young Tennessee
Young Tennessee

His often tumultuous life and harmful lifestyle (in terms of health) inspired him to write some of the greatest plays of the 20th century and one among the reasons why I think they are so special is that he managed to silently point out the flaws in the society he portrayed without openly criticizing them which would have been achieved by having a character who is aware of what is wrong in society or having characters change their ways. This is almost never the case in Williams’ dramas, characters remain the way they are and it is up to the reader/ audience to reflect upon the plot and figure out what he wanted to convey. As mentioned earlier, Tennessee Williams’ main themes featured in his plays are dysfunctional families which often include domineering characters and sometimes domestic violence, homosexuality, alcoholism and very prominently mental instability.

Homosexuality

At a time when homosexual people were not as respected as nowadays and sometimes had to deal with degradation and isolation, Tennessee Williams never hid himself and was very open about his sexuality. The media was very interested and often questioned him about this part of his private life. Williams frequently put in aspects of the hardships homosexuals had to face for the price of living out their sexual preferences in his plays. For instance, in “A Streetcar Named Desire” Blanche’s ex-husband, a young man not quite aware of his feelings, is incapable of admitting the evident and sees no other way but to kill himself, especially after Blanche lets her opinion on this be known. Needing time himself to realize that he was attracted to men, Williams found it difficult at first to adjust and tried to conceal it. A similar storyline can be found in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in which Brick’s best friend commits suicide, having come out to Brick but having been rejected. Brick’s angry reaction to the indication that there might have been something between them and his accusation that their friendship was named “dirty” just shows how society at that time judged people who declared themselves homosexual. More notable plays containing this subject would be “Suddenly, Last Summer” and “Something Unspoken”. The first features main character Sebastian who is homosexual and is searching for possible hook-ups, whereas the latter is about two women too embarrassed to talk about what has once happened between them.

Tennessee with partner Frank Merlo at his house in Key West
Tennessee with partner Frank Merlo at his house in Key West

Alcoholism

Tennessee Williams’ probably biggest and most fatal vice were alcohol and prescription drugs. He has been addicted to them most of his adult life and mostly worked entirely under their influence. Like some of his characters he drank to shut out his conscience for he felt very responsible for not having stopped his sister from undergoing lobotomy. This is comparable to Brick’s and Blanche’s drinking out of guilt for not having prevented important people in their lives from taking the ultimate step. Another reason for the playwright’s heavy drinking was that it was the only way to cope with his struggles and keep his anxiety and nervousness in check, same as with Blanche for whom liquor has a soothing effect on her inner turmoil. Tom Wingfield is worth mentioning as he probably is the most accurate representative of Williams persona in any of his earlier plays. He already shows signs of heavy consumption which he has taken up to get away from his problems. Tennessee Williams father, just like the absent Mr Wingfield, was a drunkard too which has left a negative impact on young Williams.

Mental Instability

Nervous breakdowns and mental instability have been occurring in Tennessee Williams family for generations, he himself suffered from depressions and anxiety attacks. His sister Rose, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, was very similar to Laura in the “Glass Menagerie”. Both lived in their own worlds, were rather disconnected and detached from reality and tended to not be very sociable which resulted in them staying mostly at home. Same goes with Blanche who is described as very nervous, anxious, overwrought and at times hysterical and shows signs of irrational behaviour and mood swings. Whereas some characteristics of hers such as her illusions can be attributed to Rose, others however remind of Tennessee for example anxiety, nervousness and hysteria about which he wrote: “I am as much of an hysteric as Blanche”. Blanche’s distance to reality becomes obvious when she dresses up and acts as if she were a queen, an act which Williams has drawn from his sister Rose, trapped in her dream world, certain that she was the Queen of England. Another connection between Rose and Blanche would be that both end up being treated at an asylum. Although this happened after the publication of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, an interesting parallel between Williams and Brick took place when following the death of his former partner of 14 years, the stage in his life which Williams refers to as his “seven year depression” commenced. During this phase his abuse of alcohol, tranquilizers and sleeping pills increased, greatly resembling Brick’s descent to addiction. Nervous collapse playing a significant role in another of Williams’ work “Suddenly, Last Summer”, Catherine is forced to stay at a sanatorium for not succeeding in disguising her disturbance concerning the circumstances of her cousin’s death.

Williams's sister Rose Isabel Williams
Williams’s sister Rose Isabel Williams

Family

As already mentioned, many members of his family have been turned into roles for Williams’ plays, exceptionally so in “The Glass Menagerie”. Starting with Tom having the same first name and a similar sounding surname as the author, they also both work at a shoe factory in St Louis but rather spend their time writing and have the habit to stay out late hitting the bottle. While in the play the father has absented himself years ago, William’s father Cornelius was still part of the family but often away travelling for his job. Laura, whose nickname given to her by Jim is Blue Roses, is the counterpart of older sister Rose who also struck up a romance with a young man working at the same branch as Tennessee and was comparably disappointed when it terminated. Mother Amanda, apart from the custom of being overbearing and overdramatic, takes after Edwina Williams, daughter of a clergyman, in respect to her Christian values and beliefs. Williams credits his mother’s “monolithic Puritanism” to be the origin of Rose’s mental tumult. An incident taken place on Rose’s first day as a receptionist during which she fled weeping to the lavatories, locked herself in and never returned to work after is fairly similar to Laura’s experience at typing class where she threw up on her first day and refused to go back again as well. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” provides for more comparisons such as the loud, robust, harsh, bossy character of Big Daddy who was modelled after Williams own father Cornelius whom he sarcastically calls Big Daddy in his memoirs. Both are in an unhappy marriage and let out their anger at their wives who nonetheless tolerate their behaviour which Williams has shown in Big Mama’s line: “You never believed that I loved you? I even loved your hate”. Cornelius also saw himself, just like Big Daddy, as the king of his home, a notion they share with Stanley Kowalski, whose aggressive and violent attitude and preference for booze and poker are based on Cornelius as well. Furthermore, the DuBois family history is identical to the one of the Lanier Williams, both descendants of French Huguenots having settled in Mississippi. To conclude, in “Suddenly, Last Summer” Catherine is forced by her Aunt to undergo lobotomy, which was the same destiny impending Rose.

 

I do agree with Williams that true work of an artist is always personal whether they want to admit or not, whether it is apparent or not. Knowing more about an author and having familiarized oneself with their life, makes reading their work even more interesting and it will definitely make you appreciate it more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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