Tennessee Williams

His Life and Career

Tennessee Williams was born in 1911 in the US and spent a happy childhood at his grandfather.

In 1918 he had to go to St. Louis with his father. The years the boy spent there must have been hell to the little boy. He and his mother hated his father. She was a little help to him as the lived in the genteel South. So his elder sister Rose became his only refuge but when she reached puberty she fled to her glass menagerie. The only comfort of Williams was an old second-hand typewriter.

In1929 he entered the University of Missouri but he had to take a job at his father's firm because he was no scholar. In the evenings after work he began to write poems and short stories. He enrolled at the University of Iowa and took his B.A. in literature at the age of 27. After that he spent a year in New Orleans with shady characters, whom he felt drawn to. During this time he did not stop writing. He finished his first full length play "Battle of Angels", whose performance in 1940 was a disaster. "The Gentlemen Caller" became his breakthrough play and "The Glass Menagerie" was an great success in Chicago in 1944.

In Mexico he found himself again and also worked on his second great play: "A Streetcar Named Desire" which won him his first Pulitzer Price.

In the fifties Williams turned out play after play and the best one was "A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" with which won the second Pulitzer Price in 1955. He depended more and more on alcohol and drugs and after his last great success for some years "The Night of the Iguana" he underwent psychoanalytical treatment.

In the seventies he regained part of his creative power and wrote quite a few plays but none of them reached the acclaim of the critics of his early plays. "The Red Devil Battery Sign" was a great success in Vienna at Vienna's English Theatre in 1976.

Tennessee Williams died in 1983.

His Personality and Works

He was not really a likeable person nor can his plays be called pleasant. To him writing was a therapy through which he had to stay healthy. Most of his plays are self analyses.

His fiction, mainly short stories, and his poetry are not great but he undoubtedly is a great playwright with a writing language full of symbols. He leads a hopeless war against the powers of fate.

Three leitmotifs can be made out of his plays and they can be found in "The Glass Menagerie":

Sex and Violence: Williams was obsessed with sex and has been regarded as an erotomaniac. He drew on his erotic fantasies and shocked the audience with sex and violence at a time when the topics he discussed were still taboo: rape and nymphomania in "A Streetcar Named Desire"; impotence, homosexuality and alcoholism in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"; drug addiction and castration in "Sweet Bird of Youth"; cannibalism and homosexuality again in "Suddenly Last Summer". He has stayed a puritan in all his plays: sex is good but also sinful it is bound to be punished. Many religious images can be found in his stories, e.g. in "Glass Menagerie". The Southern Renaissance: Tennessee Williams belongs to a group of writers, most prominent among them William Faulkner, who present a nostalgic vision of the Old South. Their characters dream of a perfect social order. This romantic and exotic background can be found in many of Williams plays, e.g. in "The Glass Menagerie".

"The Laureate of Outcast":Williams is not really a social(istic) writer. The best example of that type of play is "The Glass Menagerie". Williams does not want to change anything and he does not aim at rebellion or revolution. The play is the poetic verbalisation of his compassion for little people, all of them are failures, in America's "outcast".The "Glass Menagerie" is an excellent example of William's artistic procedure.

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