This week in history: Tennessee Williams was born in 1911

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS

Portrait of Williams. AP Photo

Tennessee Williams, who was born on March 26, 1911, was one of America’s most famous, most honored, and most controversial playwrights. Williams won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1947 for A Streetcar Named Desire and in 1955 for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Williams’s explosive, frequently violent dramas broke with the dramatic conventions of his day, transforming the American stage. The playwright brought a new level of sexual frankness and violence to American drama. He was sometimes accused of sensationalism in his depiction of psychological and physical violence, but his best dramas remain works of originality and power.

Williams was an emotional writer who filled his works with vivid, often painful autobiographical references to his early life, including his poor health as a child, his mentally ill sister, his neurotic mother, and the overbearing father who finally abandoned his family. Although most of his settings are realistic, Williams’s writing is poetic, and his plays often deal in symbols, sometimes taken from Greek mythology. He often portrayed eccentric outsiders and conflicts between illusion and reality. Some of his best plays portray characters, especially women, suffering from fear and loneliness. He also wrote about the greed and deception that can infect relationships, especially within a family.

Williams completed his first play in 1937 and wrote for the theater until his death in 1983, but his most successful plays appeared from 1944 to 1961. Other than his Pulitzer prizewinners, Williams’s major plays include The Glass Menagerie (1944); Summer and Smoke (1947); The Rose Tattoo (1951); Camino Real (1953); Orpheus Descending (1957); Suddenly Last Summer and Period of Adjustment, Williams’s only light comedy (both 1958); Sweet Bird of Youth (1959); and The Night of the Iguana (1961).

In addition to his plays, Williams wrote two novels, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1950) and Moise and the World of Reason (1975). His Memoirs was published in 1975. The autobiography provides an unsparing and revealing record of his love affairs with both men and women. Memoirs also describes Williams’s wanderings through the cities of America and Europe and his addiction to drugs and alcohol, which ultimately contributed to his death.

Williams’s short fiction appeared in five collections during his lifetime, notably Hard Candy (1954) and One Arm and Other Stories (1967). His poetry was published in In the Winter of Cities (1956) and Androgyne Mon Amour (1977). A collection of personal essays titled Where I Live appeared in 1978.

Williams’s plays inspired some of the most famous productions and performances in American stage and motion picture history. Several of his major plays were directed by the great American stage and film director Elia Kazan. Filmed adaptations of his plays featured such stars as Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Paul Newman, and Elizabeth Taylor. Brando became an international star for his brilliant performance as the brutal and cynical Stanley Kowalski in the stage and movie versions of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Thomas Lanier Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, and grew up in St Louis. In the late 1930’s, he adopted the nickname “Tennessee.” Williams died on Feb. 23, 1983.

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