Meet one of the star writers of 20th century American theatre: Tennessee Williams
Thomas Lanier Williams III – better known by his pen name Tennessee Williams – is considered to be one of the greatest American playwrights of the last century.
Born in 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi, the Southern United States would inform his most famous works, including SUP’s upcoming AND TELL SAD STORIES OF THE DEATHS OF QUEENS.
Williams’ father, a travelling shoe salesman, was an alcoholic and generally not around the house.
He grew up with his mother in the parsonage home of his grandfather, an Episcopal priest. An early case of diptheria had left him a weak child, and he was confined to the house for a year.
His father, a violent man, had little time for the delicate son that he considered too effeminate. Trapped in an unhappy marriage, Williams’ mother focused her attentions on her frail son. Williams would draw on his turbulent family experiences in his later writing.
Aged eight, the family moved to St Louis when his father got a new job, and they moved around various homes.
Studying journalism at the University of Missouri, Williams feel in love with a girl and began writing to earn extra cash, but had little success.
He joined a University fraternity but it wasn’t exactly his scene, and he also failed a military training course in his junior year.
His father pulled him out of college and got him a job in the International Shoe Company factory.
Williams hated the nine-to-five monotony and starting writing prolifically in his spare time, often until late into the night. Overworked and unhappy, he suffered a nervous breakdown. He was still only 24.
In 1936, Williams enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis and his writing continued. In 1937 he transferred to the University of Iowa, graduating with a BA in English in 1938. In 1939 he adopted the pen name Tennessee Williams.
After another five years of writing toil and working in menial jobs, he became famous ‘overnight’ with The Glass Menagerie (1944), a play that reflected his unhappy family background.
This was the first in a run of huge hits that included A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) – both of which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama – and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959).
Both Streetcar and Cat were made into highly successful films, which brought his work to a much wider audience. Both stories included references to various aspects of Williams’ life including his depression, alcoholism and homosexuality.
The playwright has began exploring his homosexuality in the late 1930s and had various relationships before settling into a long-term relationship with Frank Merlo in the late 1940s.
By this time, and following his sister’s severe ill health and institutionalisation, Williams was already a seriously heavy drinker, suffering from depression, and a user of amphetamines and barbiturates.
Merlo became his personal secretary and a source of stability for some years until drug use and infidelities on both sides ended the 14-year relationship.
Shortly after, Merlo was diagnosed with lung cancer and Williams cared for him until he died in 1963.
In the years following, the writer descended into depression and increasingly heavy use of prescription drugs. A convert to Roman Catholicism (later said to be against his will) he was committed to mental health facilities a number of times. He never again scaled the heights of his earlier successes.
On 25th February 1983, he was found dead – aged 71 – in his suite at New York’s Hotel Elysée. The Chief Medical Examiner said Williams had choked to death after inhaling the plastic cap of a bottle, although there has been some debate about his actual cause of death. Despite his wishes to be buried at sea, he was buried in St. Louis, Missouri.
On his death, Marlon Brando said of Williams, “He always told the truth as best he perceived it, and never turned away from things that beset or frightened him. We are all diminished by his death.”
During his career, Williams also wrote screenplays, poetry, short stories and one-act plays – including And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens. This was originally written in 1957, with Williams apparently continuing to work on the text as late as 1962. It was first performed in in 2004 in Washington DC, and published in its present form in 2005.
SUP is proud to be presenting this groundbreaking piece of LGBTQ+ writing on a double-bill with GHOST STORY by acclaimed British writer Mark Ravenhill – for one night only.
SUP presents STORIES OF GHOSTS AND QUEENS at Totton Drama Festival in March 2019 – and for one night only at the Rose Theatre, Eastleigh on Sat 6th April – 7.30pm
Tickets from just £9.50 – with no booking fee payable