Tennessee Williams - Biography


Born to Cornelius and Edwina Dakin Williams on March 26, 1911, in Columbus, Mississippi, Thomas Lanier "Tennessee" Williams was amply prepared for writing about society¹s outcasts. His mother was an aggressive woman, obsessed by her fantasies of genteel Southern living while his father, a traveling salesman for a large shoe manufacturer, was at turns distant and abusive.


Williams was brought up in his grandfather's home where his parents lived. The family moved to St. Louis in 1918, where Williams realized the difference between rich people and the poor - and they were poor. Williams' Deep South accent and poverty made him a target of his schoolmates and would eventually earn him the university nickname "Tennessee".


Williams was close to his sister Rose who had perhaps the greatest influence on him. She was a slim beauty who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent most of her adult life in mental hospitals. After various unsuccessful attempts at therapy, she became paranoid. Her parents eventually allowed a prefrontal lobotomy in an effort to treat her. The operation - performed in 1943 in - went badly and Rose remained incapacitated for the rest of her life.


Rose's failed lobotomy was a hard blow to Williams, who never forgave his parents (and partly himself) for allowing the operation, and this may have been one of the factors that drove him to alcohol and drug addiction. The common "mad heroine" theme that appears in many of his plays may have been influenced by his sister.


However Williams’ work is also heavily influenced by his own experience as a brave outcast shunned by many because of his homosexuality (he was the subject of a gay-bashing in 1979) and his alcoholism. Indeed, certain elements of Blanche’s behaviour, specifically her desire to create a more genteel, more perfect fantasy world, seem to reflect almost directly Williams’ own motivation for writing. In the foreword to Camino Real (1953) he wrote "It is almost as if you were frantically constructing another world while the world you live in dissolves beneath your feet, and that your survival depends on completing this construction at least one second before the old habitation collapses."


As a further elucidation of how Williams himself viewed Blanche’s character Elia Kazan (the director of the film version of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire) quoted him in his 1988 autobiography as saying "There are no 'good' or 'bad' people. Some are a little better or a little worse but all are activated more by misunderstanding than malice. A blindness to what is going on in each other's hearts. Stanley sees Blanche not as a desperate, driven creature backed into a last corner to make a last desperate stand - but as a calculating bitch with 'round heels'.... Nobody sees anybody truly but all through the flaws of their own egos. That is the way we all see each other in life."


The overarching theme for many of his plays, he claimed, is the negative impact that conventional society has upon the "sensitive nonconformist individual."  Frequently a sense of doom hangs over his characters and, with his emphasis on the irrational, the desperation of humanity in a universe divested of purpose and meaning and his tragi-comic examination of the conflicts between the gentility of old Southern values and the brute force of new, Northern values, Williams's plays fit nicely into a genre critics call "Southern Gothic."


It is a curious coincidence that Williams¹s life ended in a place that shared the name of the apartment building in which one of his best-known characters, Blanche DuBois, met her figurative end. He died in the Elysee Hotel in New York. It is perhaps appropriate that Williams died in a hotel, the traditional bivouac of wanderers and outcasts, rather than in his home at Key West or in New Orleans.