This essay examines Williams’s life, and discusses whether or not his works are autobiographical; it also discusses his homosexuality briefly.
Tennessee Williams is one of America’s greatest playwrights. His works and the characters that inhabit them are some of the most robust and vital creations ever to appear on the stage. His people burn with passion and life, and are deeply complex, rarely superficial.
This paper looks at some of Williams’s plays and considers the following issues: how much of his art reflects his own family, and in what ways? How did his homosexuality impact his work? Did he struggle with his identity as a gay man? Did society condemn him for his orientation?
The paper also provides a brief biography chronicling how “Tennessee” got his name, his record of success, and his family life.
It seems reasonable to start with a look at the man himself before turning to his work. He was born Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Mississippi, on March 26, 1911. He was the second child of Edwina Dakin Williams and Cornelius Coffin Williams; his elder sibling was a sister, Rose. His father apparently swept his mother “off her feet,” but subsequently proved to be poor husband material. He was a salesman, often on the road, with the result that the boy was raised by his mother and her parents in an Episcopal rectory in Clarksdale, Mississippi. (The absentee father and helpless mother, dependent on the good will of the men in her life, are recurring themes in Williams’s works.)
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As a child, Williams was frequently ill, and after a near-fatal bout with diphtheria, he became convinced that he had suffered heart damage. Convinced of his own physical weakness and sheltered by his over-protective mother, Williams was ridiculed both by other children and by his “boisterous, highly masculine” father, who gave him the nickname “Miss Nancy.” (MacNicholas, PG).
Williams was particularly close to his sister Rose, but the girl was schizophrenic, and eventually underwent an unsuccessful lobotomy. Williams was devastated.
When he was twelve, the family moved to St. Louis, a city Williams heartily despised. It was here, apparently, that he found himself the object of ridicule and earned his father’s contemptuous nickname. But he found refuge from a world that was cruel and puzzling in his work, and it was here that he began to write, and at age sixteen he won an essay contest. It was his first published work.
He entered the University of Missouri in 1929, but his father forced him to return home when he failed ROTC in his third year. He went to work in a shoe warehouse and continued to write in his spare time until he suffered a breakdown in 1935. He went to his grandparents’ home in Memphis to recover, and there first discovered the theater. He produced his first play here: “Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay!”
He decided on a career as a writer and returned to St. Louis to attend Washington University; from there he went to the University of Iowa to study playwriting and earned a degree in English in 1938. In 1939, “Story” magazine published “The Field of Blue Children,” which was the first time he used the name Tennessee. From then until about 1945, he worked at various jobs, received a fellowship to help with his writing, wrote several unsuccessful screenplays in Hollywood, and wrote a series of one-act plays. Finally in 1945 “The Glass Menagerie” opened; it won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. In 1947 “A Streetcar Named Desire” went to Broadway, and in 1955, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” opened. Both of these plays won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and more importantly, Pulitzer Prizes.
In the late 1950’s, Williams underwent extensive psychoanalysis to treat depression, which gave him ideas for such plays as “Suddenly Last Summer” and “Sweet Bird of Youth.” His long time partner Frank Merlo died in 1963, again plunging Williams into depression.
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His last significant work, “The Night of the Iguana” opened in 1960; after that, he continued to write his own works, which were generally poorly received; he also continued to produce. Critics in general, though, felt that his best days were long over, and their harsh reviews reflected their impatience with what they saw as the offerings of an artist long past his prime.
Williams converted to Roman Catholicism in 1969; at about that time he suffered another mental breakdown. He choked to death in his hotel suite in New York in 1983. (“Tennessee Williams,” Contemporary Literary Criticism, PG).
IIIHis Family in His Art
“Williams once told an interviewer, ‘My work is emotionally autobiographical. It has no relationship to the actual events of my life, but it reflects the emotional currents of my life.’” (“Tennessee Williams,” Contemporary Literary Criticism, PG).
I believe Williams is correct in his assessment, but it seems to me that much of his work does relate to the events in his life, certainly to the people in his life and particularly his family. His mother is the model for the domineering mother yearning for the days when she was the center of attention; his sister is the very prototype of all his fragile and damaged heroines; and he himself could play many of his male characters.
Tennessee Williams is always identified as a Southern writer, along with people such as Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner and Carson McCullers. He is more often thought of as a Southern writer than a playwright; the geographical label seems to come first. It’s important to understand this phenomenon, because there is a certain sensibility to Southern writing that immediately distinguishes it from other types of writing.
There is in the American South a longing for the world that was swept away by the Civil War. This mythical land of gorgeous women, courtly gentlemen, moonlight and magnolias never really existed, but it still exerts a powerful hold on the imagination of most Americans, Southern or not. In particular, it gives the work of Southern writers a very distinct voice. “They are concerned with time and place and how it affects men and women.” (“Tennessee Williams,” Contemporary Authors Online, PG).
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This sort of dreamlike quality is apparent in many of his plays.
His most popular drama is probably “The Glass Menagerie,” though “A Streetcar Named Desire” is a classic as well. But the “Menagerie” is a much gentler work, and seems the one that is closest to being autobiographical. We can easily see Williams himself in Tom; his sister Rose in Laura; and his mother Edwina in Amanda.
Tom narrates the piece, and he frankly admits it is a “memory play.” That should be enough to remind the audience that what they are about to see is not necessarily what really happened, but what Tom remembers. We should therefore be aware immediately that he is going to perhaps make himself look better than he was, and in fact he ends up deserting both his mother and sister. We understand, though, why he leaves; he is suffocating because his mother is overbearing; and he cannot bear to watch his sister disintegrate. He is the healthiest of the three personalities and to save his sanity he has to get out. Tom’s redeeming characteristic is that he feels a great deal of guilt for having done so.
Tom can be seen as a sort of amalgam of Williams himself, and his father. It was Cornelius Williams who was the active man, always on the go, moving his family from place to place, decisive and “masculine” as one source called him. Certainly Tennessee was very unlike his father in almost every respect. But in some sense, I believe the character of Tom is both Williams’s father, and Williams’s own wish to be more masculine and assertive.
Amanda, Tom’s mother, is living almost entirely in the past. She remembers when she was beautiful and admired, and talks constantly about the “gentleman callers” who came to pay court to her. She is bitterly disappointed in her daughter Laura, whose crippled leg has insured that she will never win the admiration that was so dear to her mother. Amanda is one of the overprotective, domineering women that Williams put in so many of his plays. She is driven almost exclusively by her need to be the center of attention, to bring back the days when she was the Southern belle. But for all her bossiness, she is essentially helpless without a man; indeed, she rates herself and all women by their attractiveness to the opposite sex. Any woman who is not attractive is unimportant as far as she’s concerned.
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This type of woman is a sort of staple of the South: the “Southern belle” who exists only to be admired, courted, wed and taken care of. She has no sense of self; she exists only as an adjunct to the men in her life. That’s why, when her husband leaves, Amanda is so broken, and why she desperately clings to Tom, stifling him until she drives him away. Her prototype in life is undoubtedly Edwina Williams, who is described as being so overprotective of the young Tennessee that others ridiculed him.
Laura, the crippled girl, is surely based on Rose, Williams’s sister. Rose had no physical impairment that I’m aware of; her illness was of the mind. In the play, Williams has made Laura so fragile emotionally that she cannot cope with the simplest things in life. She is so shaken by a simple typing test that she vomits on the floor of the classroom. In a brilliant theatrical coup, Williams illustrates Laura’s crippled emotions by giving her a crippled leg as well—the outward sign of her inward fragility. She lives in a dream world, listening to music and playing with her glass animals. Here too we see the fragility of the girl displayed through a symbol: the animals are as fragile as she. When her “gentleman caller” breaks one by accident, it is symbolic of the fact that he is breaking her, by telling her that he’s already engaged and cannot see her again. When he leaves, she retreats even further into fantasy where even Tom can’t reach her.
Laura’s fragile world is analogous to Rose’s schizophrenia. Like the fictional character, Rose Williams lives in a dream world where she can’t be hurt. I don’t know the nature of her mania, but schizophrenia (now called bipolar disorder) indicates that Rose would be depressed one moment and joyous the next. This wild type of mood swing can be found in Laura in the play, as she veers between panic at the idea of meeting a young man, and wild anticipation about her possible future.
Certainly “The Glass Menagerie” places Williams and his family directly on stage, even though he does it symbolically.
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We can find his distraught sister, living out a fantasy, in the character of Blanche Dubois in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” She turns up again as Miss Alma in “Summer and Smoke,” later reworked as “Eccentricities of a Nightingale.” And both his mother and sister are in “The Rose Tattoo,” as Serafina and her daughter Rosa. I suppose we can forgive him for using them as his characters, since he does it so well.
The sources mention Williams’s sexual orientation in passing but devote little space to any exploration of it, or how it impacted his life. He apparently came “out” officially somewhere in the 1950’s, but it doesn’t seem to have created much of a stir. I would imagine that people who knew him personally were aware of his orientation (most people know when their friends are gay); and perhaps some of the more sophisticated theatergoers knew it as well. But there doesn’t seem to have been any sort of outcry or persecution of him by the general public. He was lucky enough to find someone he really loved—Frank Merlo—and they established a stable relationship that lasted until Merlo’s death. However, he suffered from depression and had two breakdowns, and it’s possible that some of his anxiety came from his orientation.
I think we could argue that some of his confusion over his homosexuality surfaced in the character of Stanley Kowalski, the anti-hero of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Williams’s describes Stanley as the “gaudy seed-bearer,” a swaggering macho type who is direct, brutal, and overwhelmingly male. He’s a working-class man, an ex-Army NCO, not an officer, and he revels in sensuality and his sexual relationship with his wife. He’s a very conflicted character, because set against his honesty and directness, which are in opposition to Blanche’s duplicity and deceit, are his coarseness and bestiality; his violent rape of Blanche is a terrifying moment of theater. In Stanley, then, Williams put the best and worst of men; perhaps it indicates his own dichotomy with respect to his sexuality.
Tennessee Williams is a brilliant dramatist, and today critics have come to appreciate even his later works. It’s obvious that he uses himself, his mother and his sister over and over as characters in his plays, but he does it so well that it doesn’t seem to be of great importance.
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His homosexuality may have manifested itself in his repeated bouts of depression, but other than giving him insight into how to write great characters (Brick in “Cat” for instance), I haven’t found anything to suggest that his orientation caused him any significant problems.
He should be remembered as one of America’s greatest playwrights; anything else is unimportant.
MacNicholas, John, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 1981: 320-350. Retrieved from The Literature Resource Center, The Gale Group, San Diego Public Library, San Diego, CA at: http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/LitRC?c=3&ai=130610&ste=6&docNum=H1200002279&bConts=16303&tab=1&vrsn=3&ca=1&tbst=arp&ST=Tennessee+Williams&srchtp=athr&n=10&locID=san67255&OP=contains
“Tennessee Williams.” Contemporary Authors Online. 2002. Accessed: 2 Mar 2003. Retrieved from The Literature Resource Center, The Gale Group, San Diego Public Library, San Diego, CA at: http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/LitRC?c=1&ai=130610&ste=6&docNum=H1000106683&bConts=16303&tab=1&vrsn=3&ca=1&tbst=arp&ST=Tennessee+Williams&srchtp=athr&n=10&locID=san67255&OP=contains
“Tennessee Williams.” Contemporary Literary Criticism. 2002. Accessed: 2 Mar 2003. Retrieved from The Literature Resource Center, The Gale Group, San Diego Public Library, San Diego, CA at: http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/LitRC;$sessionid$XEV42BIAAFM4XJOBNJSQAAA?c=2&ai=130610&ste=6&docNum=H1101760000&bConts=16303&tab=1&vrsn=3&ca=1&tbst=arp&ST=Tennessee+Williams&srchtp=athr&n=10&locID=san67255&OP=contains