Tennessee Williams was born as Thomas Lanier Williams on March 26, 1911, in Columbus, Mississippi. His parents were Cornelius Coffin, a shoe salesman, and Edwina Dakin Williams, the daughter of a minister. The playwright’s home life was never peaceful. His parents’ turbulent fights frightened him and his two siblings. After some years in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the young Tennessee’s parents moved to St. Louis in 1918. It was here that he encountered his first publishing success in the form of a $5 prize for an essay entitled “Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?” (Cash 2003). His “Vengeance of Nitocris” was published a year later in Weird Tales. Williams was profoundly influenced by an Ibsen play, “Ghosts,” that he saw during 1929 after entering the University of Missouri. This was his influence to be a playwright. His father however forced him away from college to enter the shoe selling business. His dream was however not defeated, and Williams’ literary and stage career is launched with his first play, “Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay” (produced in Memphis). After producing more plays, Williams graduated from the University of Iowa in 1938.
After more success with his plays, Williams produces “The Glass Menagerie” in 1944, close to the end of the war. Many consider this play with its autobiographical elements the best that Williams created in his lifetime. The play in fact won an award from the New York Drama Critics’ Circle for the best of the season. (Cash 2003). After following this crowning success with more plays, including “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Williams won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1948 (for “Streetcar”). His second Pulitzer Prize was awarded for “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” The conversion of several of his plays to motion pictures ensured even further success for Williams. After a prolific if somewhat traumatic life (including the death of his lover and the lobotomization of his sister) Williams died on February 24, 1983.
The Glass Menagerie
There is a distinct parallelism between the playwright’s life and the play. Williams’ mother was a controlling woman, like Amanda in the play. Laura, the protagonist’s disabled sister, is often compared to Williams’ own sister, Rose, for whom he cared for much of her life as an adult. His mother in fact approved a frontal lobotomy on his sister, which was greatly disturbing to the playwright. Despite the wide acclaim of this play, some critics have been negative. One reviewer for example mentions a deficiency in humor (Evans in Devlin 14). However, despite the grimness of the plot, Williams insists that there is a subtle humor that runs along with the plot. The strength of his characters for example precludes humor of the frivolous, slap-stick kind.
Streetcar Named Desire
This play concerns Blanche, a lonely, unhappy and weak woman. Sometimes during the play it becomes possible to think of her as slightly unstable. “Desire” appears to be the operative word in the title. There is much that Blanche desires, but that she just didn’t get. This is then all she has left as a buffer between her and total despair. Reviewers are favorably inclined towards the play. Clive Barnes for example mentions the humor of the contrast in pretension between the refined Blanche and the oafish Stan (Falk 61).
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Williams here attempts to universalize his themes. He attempts to write into his characters recognizable human qualities that all of his audience can identify with (Waters in Devlin 37). A particular issue addressed by reviewers is Brick and homosexuality (Falk 87). Williams’ work is of course influenced by the fact of his own homosexuality.
Cash, E.W. “Tennessee Williams.” 16 May, 2003. http://www.olemiss.edu/depts/english/ms-writers/dir/williams_tennessee/
Evans, J. “The Life and Ideas of Tennessee Williams.”
In Conversations with Tennessee Williams edited by Albert J. Devlin, London: University Press of Mississippi, 1985.
Falk, S.L. Tennessee Williams. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985.
Waters, A.B. “Tennessee Williams: Ten Years Later.” In Conversations with Tennessee Williams edited by Albert J. Devlin, London: University Press of Mississippi, 1985.
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