Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Williams, Tennessee (Thomas Lanier) from Philip's Encyclopedia

US playwright. His first Broadway play, The Glass Menagerie (1945), received the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. He received Pulitzer Prizes for A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). His other plays include Suddenly Last Summer (1958), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959) and The Night of the Iguana (1961). Many of his plays were set in the South, in a cloying and repressive environment that reflected the plight of the characters.

Summary Article: WILLIAMS, TENNESSEE (THOMAS LANIER) (1911–1983)
From Routledge Revivals: Encyclopedia of Homosexuality

Major American playwright and a significant fiction writer and poet. Born in Mississippi—the setting, along with New Orleans and St. Louis, of many of his most important plays—Williams has been considered to be a Southern writer, but his influence, as the leading proponent of post-World War II psychological realism, has been international.

A prolific writer, Williams produced about seventy plays, including some one-acts, revisions, and works apparently lost and not yet published, as well as three novels, six volumes of short stories, two of poetry, and one of memoirs. Awarded both a Group Theatre and a Rockefeller grant in 1939, he had his first major professional production in 1944, The Glass Menagerie, which was followed by a string of critical and popular successes for the next two decades: A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), The Rose Tattoo (1951), Summer and Smoke (1952), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), Orpheus Descending (1957), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), and Night of the Iguana (1961). From the mid-1960s until his death, Williams’ plays met with less success and many critics found his later works derivative, repetitious, and often self-indulgent. But if his last, more experimental and autobiographical phase was less successful than his early canon, the plays are not dramatic failures: Confessional and Out Cry (1971), Small Craft Warnings (1972), Eccentricities of a Nightingale (1976), Vieux Carré (1977), Crève Coeur (1978), and Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980).

Williams stated that he “slept through the sixties” and that both his personal and his professional life shifted in 1963 with the death of his lover of fourteen years, Frank Merlo; in 1969, he was briefly committed to a mental institution, and he later admitted a serious alcohol and chemical dependency during this period. With the publication of his sexually explicit Memoirs in 1975, the homosexual themes only implicit in his early drama became central to his work, and his biography began to eclipse his art as he gained an increasing celebrity status as an artistic renegade. Early accused of employing the “Albertine Stratagem” by disguising gay males as women in such works as Summer and Smoke and being excessively coy about homosexuality in such plays as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, he was, in many of his last works, direct in presenting openly gay characters and themes.

This autobiographical tendency was always most explicit in his fiction. A story such as “One Arm” (1948) is much more direct in its treatment of homosexuality than the plays of the period, and his handling of sexuality became increasingly explicit as he moved from The Knightly Quest (1966) to Moise and the World of Reason (1975). His two collections of poetry, In the Winter of Cities (1956) and Androgyne, Mon Amour (1977), are lyrical explorations of homoeroticism, echoing many of the themes of his plays.

Whether women or gay men, Williams’ protagonists are always sensitive people, artists of life on the perimeter of contemporary society, battling against brutal forces which seek to crush and destroy them. Isolated and damaged by the larger world, his characters inhabit poetic and subjective worlds, yearning for a more delicate and civilized past but maintaining a noble stance in the face of seemingly inevitable annihilation. His canon is a testament to the strength and dignity of the isolated individual in a mechanistic world.

  • Amott, Catherine M. , ed., Tennessee Williams on File, Methuen New York, 1985;.
  • Felicia Hardison Londre; Tennessee Williams, Ungar New York, 1979;.
  • Spoto, Donald , The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams, Little Brown Boston, 1985;.
  • Tharpe, Jac , ed., Tennessee Williams: A Tribute, University of Mississippi Press Jackson, 1977.
  • Rodney Simard
    © 2016, 1999 Wayne R. Dynes

    Related Articles

    Full text Article Williams, Tennessee [Thomas Lanier] (1911 - 1983)
    The Cambridge Guide to Theatre

    From 1945, with his first success, The Glass Menagerie , Tennessee Williams has had a deep impact on the American theatre,...

    Full text Article Tennessee Williams (1911 - 1983)
    The Columbia Companion to the Twentieth-Century American Short Story

    Overshadowed by his celebrated work as a playwright, Tennessee Williams’s warmly evocative short stories have been unjustly...

    Full text Article Williams, Tennessee (Thomas Lanier) (1911 - 1983)
    The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English

    Born in Columbus, Mississippi, he graduated from the University of lowa in 1938. His first plays were one-act pieces given in...

    See more from Credo