The following abbreviated biography of
Tennessee Williams is provided so that you might
become more familiar with his life and the historical times that possibly
influenced his writing. Read this Life and Background of the Playwright section
and recall it when reading Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, thinking
of any thematic relationship between Williams’
play and his life.
than with most authors, Tennessee Williams’ personal life and experiences have
been the direct subject matter for his dramas. He uses his experiences so as to universalize them through the means of the stage.
Thus, his life is utilized over and over again in the
creation of his dramas.
Tennessee Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams
in Columbus, Mississippi. Because his father was a
traveling salesman and was often away from home, he lived the first ten years
of his life in his maternal grandparents’ home. His father was a loud,
outgoing, hard-drinking, boisterous man who bordered on the vulgar, at least as
far as the young, sensitive Tennessee Williams was concerned. In contrast to
his father, his mother seemed to be rather quiet and possessive, demonstrating
a tremendous attachment to her children. Tennessee
was himself a rather delicate child who was plagued with several serious
childhood diseases which kept him from attending regular school. Instead, he
read profusely in his grandfather’s library.
His maternal grandfather was an Episcopal
rector, apparently a rather liberal and progressive individual. Even though
there are several portraits of the clergy in Williams’
later works, none seemed to be built on the
personality of his real grandfather.
Perhaps because his early life was spent in an atmosphere of genteel culture, the greatest
shock to Williams was the move his family made when
he was about twelve. The father accepted a position in a shoe factory in St. Louis and moved the family from the expansive
Episcopal home in the South to an ugly tenement building in St. Louis. Their cramped apartment and the
ugliness of the city life seemed to make a lasting impression on the boy. Here
in school he was often ridiculed for his southern
accent, and he was never able to find acceptance. Likewise, his father, who had
been a traveling salesman, was suddenly at home most of the time.
It was here in St. Louis that Williams’
slightly older sister, Rose, began to
cease to develop as a person and failed to cross over the barrier from
childhood to adulthood. She, like Laura
in The Glass Menagerie, began to live in her own world of glass
ornaments. Eventually, she had to be placed in an
institution. She became the model for Laura Wingfield.
The description of Laura’s room, just
across the alley from the Paradise Dance Club, is also a description of his
sister’s room. Laura’s desire to lose
herself from the world was a characteristic of his own
sister. And both were seen by Williams
as being shy, quiet, but lovely girls who were not able to cope with the modern
finished high school, he went to the University
of Missouri for three
years until he failed ROTC. At the university he began
to write more and discovered alcohol as a cure for his over-sensitive shyness.
After his third year, his father got him a position in the shoe factory. He
worked there for two years; he later classified this time as the most miserable
two years of his life. He spent dreary days at the warehouse and then devoted
his nights to writing poetry, plays, and short stories. After two years of
working all day and writing all night, he had a nervous breakdown and went to Memphis, Tennessee,
to recuperate with his grandfather, who had moved there after retirement. His years of frustration and his dislike of the warehouse job are
reflected directly in the character of Tom Wingfield,
who followed essentially the same pattern that Williams
himself followed. In fact, Tennessee
gave this character his own first name, Tom.
all of this time, Tennessee
had been winning small prizes for various types of writing, but nothing
significant had yet been written. After his rest in Memphis, he returned to the university (Washington University
in St. Louis),
where he became associated with a writers’ group. Here he wrote and had some of
his earlier works produced. He later attended the State University of Iowa and
wrote two long plays for a creative writing seminar. After leaving Iowa, he drifted around
the country, picking up odd jobs and collecting experiences until he received a
Rockefeller Fellowship in 1940. He spent his time writing until the money was
exhausted and then he worked again at odd jobs until his first great success
with The Glass Menagerie in 1944-45.
Williams has used his early
life in most of his plays. His favorite setting is southern, with southern
characters. In Stanley Kowalski, we see many of the rough, poker-playing, manly
qualities that his own father possessed. In Laura and Amanda,
we find very close echoes to his own mother and
sister. In Tom
we find again the struggles and aspirations of the writer himself re-echoed in
literary form. Thus he has objectified his own
subjective experiences in his literary works.
Tennessee Williams’ plays are still
controversial. There are many critics who call his
works sensational and shocking, but his plays have attracted the widest
audience of any living American dramatist, and he is established as America’s most