Life and Literary Career of Tennessee Williams


Twofold winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award, Tennessee Williams is considered to be a writer of a “new generation”, i.e. postmodern generation, whose books concerned vital problems of the time, such as the difficulty of accepting reality, cruelty and violence, abandonment and impossibility of true escape, family pain, mental instability, emotional obsessions, the conflict between love and solitude and the desire for human comfort (O’Connor, 1997, p. 5). According to Tennessee Williams, the major theme that runs through all his plays is “the destructive impact of society on the sensitive, non-conformist individual” (O’Connor, 1997, p. 5).

Biography of Tennessee Williams

The research on the biography of Tennessee Williams is significant; the playwright himself contributed to the study greatly by publishing his own biography. Modern playwright was born in 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi as Thomas Lanier Williams and later took a new name Tennessee after the state where his father was born. Tennessee’s family was not a large one: his father, Cornelius Williams, a shoe salesman, his mother, Edwina Williams, a daughter of a minister, his brother Dakin and his sister Rose.

The relations in the family was not ideal, and as many critics point out his parent’s bitter and violent arguments could serve a source of inspiration for future writer’s plays (Kolin, 1998, p. 202). Since his childhood, Tennessee displayed his love to literature. In 1927, a 16 year-old boy, Tennessee won his first prize for his essay in The Smart Set magazine. Having decided to become a playwright, Tennessee enrolls in the University of Missouri but is not able to finish his degree as his father forces him to follow his footsteps and work at the shoe company. It should be stressed that playwright’s father has never approved of Tennessee’s profession believing it’s futile, frivolous and insignificant.

However, since Tennessee drew his inspiration from the real life, a lot of people he met appeared in his later works. Thus, Williams’ fellow worker Stanley Kowalski resurfaces as a character in one of Tennessee’s plays, namely A Streetcar Named Desire. Eventually, Tennessee manages to get a degree in the University of Iowa at age 27. During his academic life Tennessee never gave up writing and by the time he graduated, a young playwright had produced a number of plays, namely Candles to the Sun, The Fugitive Kind, and Spring Storm (Pagan, 1993, p. 21).

Tennessee started his career in New Orleans where he wrote his famous The Glass Menagerie, a very successful and highly acclaimed play that was immediately staged on Broadway and later received the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. Revealing the story of Tom and Laura, two siblings, and their mother who tries to establish relationships between her disabled daughter Laura and the gentleman caller, the play is regarded by many critics to be partially based on the real life of the playwright whose younger sister Rose suffered from incurable psychic disease and after unsuccessful operation remained disabled for the rest of her life (Kolin, 1998, p. 48).

Very sensitive and sympathetic, Tennessee was closely attached to his sister; “Everything in his life is in his plays, and everything in his plays is in his life” one of the critics once said about Williams’ literary work (Ehrenhaft and Williams, 1985, p. 28). A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke, A Rose Tattoo, and Camino Real followed the success of previous works and evoked world-wide attention to Tennessee’s plays. In 1948, the playwright wins the Pulitzer Prize for A Streetcar Named Desire and continues working on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof awarded with his second Pulitzer Prize in 1955. A number of screen versions were made based on Williams’ plays.

It should be noted that Williams’ life was not easy. The playwright was abusing with alcohol and drugs and after the death of his beloved Frank Merlo in 1947, Williams fell into depression and “demonstrated a weakened mental condition that alarmed those closest to him” (O’Connor, 1997, p. 4). After receiving treatment in the psychiatric clinic, the playwright manages to gain control over his bad habits. Williams led his life afraid to become a subject to nervous disorders like his sister (). Constantly struggling with his addictions to narcotics and alcohol, the playwright dies on February 24, 1983 leaving after his death dozens of plays, short plays, screenplays, novels and short stories (Williams, 1995, p. 13).

The theme of difficulty of accepting reality in A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire is a profound and influential play by Tennessee Williams reflects “Tennessee’s obvious urge to publicize his personal dilemmas” (Kolin, 1998, p. 220). The play is considered to be “the most perfectly crafted work” By Tennessee Williams that explores the themes of the difficulty of accepting reality, a strong relationship tp memory and the past, woman’s dependence on man, cruelty and violence (Roudane, 1997, p.47).

The story is set in New Orleans where Blanche DuBois, a school teacher from the south suffering from upset nerves, arrives in to her sister Stella Kowalski, a representative of a working class, to stay for some time having nowhere to live since she had lost her position and school and her home. Blanche tries to show her superiority though her pretentions to virtue cannot hide her megalomania and alcoholism (Kolin, 2000, p. 67).

Having lost her husband, home and job, a woman finds an outlet in drinking and indiscriminate sexual behavior. Blanche explains that he suffered greatly when she lost the plantation of her parents due to “epic fornications” that triggered her nervous breakdown, which made her take some rest. However, in fact, the plantation was taken by officials as Blanche’s relatives had experienced drastic financial loses and she was discharged from school for having an affair with a student (Williams, 1995, p. 43). On top of that, Blanche’s husband’s suicide was the last straw that marked Blanche’s withdrawal into her imaginary world and her rejection of reality.

Thus, in the Kowalski household, Blanche pretends to be a woman of high society and of high moral principles that verges on snobbery and disdain towards her sister’s family. Moreover, Blanche not only deceives everybody around her, she deceives herself refusing to face her problems. By playing the characters and wearing masks, Blanche tries to keep her illusionary ideal world. Trying to escape from her bad reputation, Blanche has marriage in mind.

However, she’s dependent on man’s admiration for her self-esteem and gets disappointed when discovers that the times of chivalry is long gone and her only chance is Mitch, a friend of Stella’s husband, though his behavior is far from chivalrous (Kolin, 2000, p. 46). Stella’s husband Stanley is the only one who confronts Blanche and is aware of her attempts to hide the real reasons of her current situation. “Stanley’s animosity toward Blanche manifests itself in all of his actions toward her—his investigations of her past, his birthday gift to her, his sabotage of her relationship with Mitch” (Ehrenhaft and Williams, 1985, p. 156).

The relations between Blanche and Stanley represent the opposition between reality and fabricated imaginary world. Eventually, Blanche is raped and confined to the institution of mentally ill against her will where she’s able to fully plunge into her fantasies that shield her from the violent reality (O’Connor, 1997, p. 42).


Concluding it should be pointed out that Tennessee Williams’ plays reflect the life of the playwright whose life was marked by addiction to narcotics and alcohol, his constant fright of dementia and insanity, dwelling on the themes of brutal nature of society that offers little opportunity for peaceful existence leaving those who “lack the necessary survival techniques destroyed or ostracized” (O’Connor, 1997, p. 28).

Reference List

Ehrenhaft, G. and Williams, T. (1985). Tennessee Williams’s The glass menagerie & A streetcar named Desire. Woodbury, N.Y.: Barron’s Educational Series.

Kolin, P. C. (1998). Tennessee Williams: a guide to research and performance. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Kolin, P. C. (2000). Williams: A streetcar named desire. New York: Cambridge University Press.

O’Connor, J. (1997). Dramatizing dementia: madness in the plays of Tennessee Williams. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

Pagan, N. (1993). Rethinking literary biography: a postmodern approach to Tennessee Williams. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press.

Roudané, M. C. (1997).The Cambridge companion to Tennessee Williams. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Williams, T. (1995). A streetcar named desire. Oxford: Heinemann.