Born Thomas Lanier Williams III in Mississippi, Tennessee Williams likely drew from his own upbringing in his depictions of dysfunctional families. Like his contemporaries, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neil, familial drama is at the heart of his most well-known plays. His father was an alcoholic and in many of his plays liquor further exacerbates the on-stage action. Williams grew up primarily in St. Louis, Missouri, though many of his plays are set or feature Southern characters. In fact, he supposedly detested the city but was buried there in 1983. St. Louis hosts an annual Tennessee Williams Festival.
Williams wrote for the WPA Project starting in 1939. The Glass Menagerie was his first major play and was based on a short story he wrote in 1943. This play is considered a ‘memory play’ in that the play is narrated by the character of Tom who is consciously reflecting on his memories of his overly dramatic Southern mother and his sister Laura. This is one of the likely autobiographical plays.
He was one of the most well-known playwrights of the late 40s and 50s, with seven Broadway plays (including Streetcar, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Rose Tattoo, and Sweet Bird of Youth.) In this period films were made of both The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. The latter also brought fame to young Marlon Brando whose appeal also encouraged American trends toward method acting.
Williams and Arthur Miller both experimented within a framework of domestic realism. Both questioned the draw of post-War Capitalism and American identity. They explored social problems.
The female characters in Williams’ early plays represent a way of life that has disappeared, due in part to the rise of greater industrialization between the two wars. Amanda (The Glass Menagerie) and Blanche (A Streetcar…) are adrift and lost in a changing world. At the same time, Williams is questioning the same superficiality of the culture that has developed in its place.
Williams and Miller, and playwrights such as Lorraine Hansbury were beginning to poke at the idea of “The American Dream.” Asking questions about its value, who it applied to (as in Hansbury’s A Raisin in the Sun), and what one has to vie up in order to achieve it.
Method acting is a technique that asks the actor to not only identify and understand a role but to experience it. It builds on the techniques of Konstantin Stanislavski, but as developed within U.S.-based acting schools who were working with only his early writing. Among those students who taught their versions of Stanislavski’s method were Lee Strasbourg, Sanford Meisner, and especially Stella Adler (the daughter of the great Yiddish actor, Jacob Adler), one of Brando’s teachers. Often misunderstood, the goal is to deeply connect with the emotion of the character being played.
Williams explored the hypocracies of involved in the promise of individual freedom and the celebration of difference, as the American culture of ‘success’ simultaneously insisted upon allegiance and conformity.Annette Saddik, Martin Halliwell, and Andy Mousley Contemporary American Drama, pg. 60.
In the 60s and 70s, Williams experimented more with his writing, moving toward fragmentation and postmodernism. During this period he produced many one-act plays. He never achieved the same level of commercial success his earlier more realistic plays did. Critics and audiences did not respond well. However, his work was some of the first produced in a developing Off-Broadway environment, with one-acts premiering at Ellen Stewart’s LaMama and at Cafe Cino.
His late plays revolve around issues of identity and fragmentation. Williams suffered from severe bouts of depression and substance abuse. His sister was schizophrenic.
Changing times and social mores also allowed Williams to finally live openly as a gay man. Williams’ work has frequently been looked at in terms of underlying themes regarding homosexuality, particularly in how his work questions the need to suppress aspects of the self. Williams wrote one overtly queer play, “And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens”, which was not produced until twenty years after his death in 2004. Here, a video from actor Evan Spigelman and director Ricky Graham discuss the play in 2018.
For Further Reading:
The Tennessee Williams Annual Review. Murfreesboro, Middle Tennessee State University, 1998-.
Roudane, Matthew C. The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams. Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Saddik, Annette J. Tennessee Williams and the Theatre of Excess : the Strange, the Crazed, the Queer Cambridge ;: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Saddik, Annette J. Contemporary American Drama. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.