Thomas Lanier "Tennessee" Williams III (1911-1983) was an American writer who worked principally as a playwright in the American theater. He also wrote short stories, novels, poetry, essays, screenplays and a volume of memoirs. His professional career lasted from the mid-1930s until his death in 1983, and saw the creation of many plays that are regarded as classics of the American stage. Williams adapted much of his best known work for the cinema.
Williams received virtually all of the top theatrical awards for his works of drama, including several New York Drama Critics' Circle awards, a Tony Award for best play for The Rose Tattoo (1951) and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for A Streetcar Named Desire (1948) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). In 1980, he was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter and is today acknowledged as one of the most accomplished playwrights in the history of English speaking theater.
Thomas Lanier Williams III was the second child of Edwina and Cornelius Coffin (C.C.) Williams. His family included an older sister Rose (1909–1996), and a younger brother, Dakin (1919–2008). When Williams was seven years old, his father was promoted to a job at the home office of the International Shoe Company in St. Louis. His mother's continual search for what she considered to be an appropriate address, as well as his father's heavy drinking and loudly violent behavior, caused them to move numerous times around the city. He attended Soldan High School, a setting referred to in his work The Glass Menagerie. Later he studied at University City High School.
From 1929 to 1931, he attended the University of Missouri, in Columbia, where he enrolled in journalism classes. After he failed military training in his junior year, his father pulled him out of school and put him to work at the International Shoe factory. His dislike of the 9-5 work routine drove him to write even more than before, and he gave himself a goal of writing one story a week, working on Saturday and Sunday, into the night. Overworked, unhappy and lacking any further success with his writing, by his 24th birthday he had suffered a nervous breakdown and left his job.
In 1936, Williams enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis where he wrote the play Me, Vashya (1937). In 1938, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Iowa, where he wrote Spring Storm. He later studied at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York City. Around 1939, he adopted "Tennessee Williams" as his professional name.
In 1939, with the help of his agent, Audrey Wood, he was awarded a $1,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in recognition of his play Battle of Angels which was produced in Boston in 1940, but poorly received. Using the remainder of the Rockefeller funds, Williams moved to New Orleans in 1939 to write for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). He lived for a time in the French Quarter; first at 722 Toulouse Street, the setting of his 1977 play Vieux Carré.
During the winter of 1944–45, The Glass Menagerie was successfully produced in Chicago garnering good reviews. The huge success of his next play, A Streetcar Named Desire, in 1947 secured his reputation as a great playwright. Between 1948 and 1959, seven of his plays were performed on Broadway: Summer and Smoke (1948), The Rose Tattoo (1951), Camino Real (1953), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), Orpheus Descending (1957), Garden District (1958), and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959). By 1959, he had earned two Pulitzer Prizes, three New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards, three Donaldson Awards, and a Tony Award.
His work reached world-wide audiences in the early 1950s when The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire were made into motion pictures. Later plays also adapted for the screen included Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Rose Tattoo, Orpheus Descending, The Night of the Iguana and Summer and Smoke.
After the extraordinary successes of the 1940s and 50s, the 1960s and 70s brought personal turmoil and theatrical failures. Although he continued to write every day, the quality of his work suffered from his increasing alcohol and drug consumption as well as often poor choices of collaborators. Kingdom of Earth (1967), In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (1969),Small Craft Warnings (1973), The Two Character Play (also called Out Cry, 1973), The Red Devil Battery Sign (1976), Vieux Carré (1978),Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980) and others were all box office failures, and the relentlessly negative press notices wore down his spirit. His last play, A House Not Meant to Stand was produced in Chicago in 1982 and, despite largely positive reviews, ran for only 40 performances.
On February 25, 1983, Williams was found dead in his suite at the Elysee Hotel in New York at age 71. The medical examiner's report indicated that he choked to death on the cap from a bottle of eye drops he frequently used. Contrary to his expressed wishes but at his brother Dakin's insistence, Williams was interred in the Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, Missouri. Williams had long told his friends he wanted to be buried at sea at approximately the same place as Hart Crane, a poet he considered to be one of his most significant influences.
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