Tennessee Williams
Tennessee Williams
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Tennessee Williams

What Tennessee Williams did... and why you should care

Playwright Tennessee Williams was a titan of American theater. From A Streetcar Named Desire to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the dramas he wrote during his long and prolific career are among the classics of modern American theater. He was a sort of poet laureate for the South, the region where he was born, raised, and formed, and whose particular quirks and characters populated his plays. Williams's plays combined his gift for beautiful language with his willingness to explore themes no one else wanted to talk about—addiction, madness, sexuality. "Though his images were often violent," The New York Times wrote after his 1983 death, "he was a poet of the human heart."1

Williams understood that the first obligation of the artist was to be honest with himself. He once said that he could "only write about what I experience—intuitively or existentially."2 The issues confronted in his work are also the ones he wrestled with in life. The archetypes of his plays—domineering Southern matriarchs, emotionally absent fathers, child-like women lost in madness—are modeled after his own family members. He lived openly as a gay person when few people did. He spoke frankly about his mental fragility and substance abuse (a disease that destroyed his creativity in later years and contributed to his freak-accident death). He said once that each of us is a prisoner confined within our skins, and that art was his way of calling out to the inmate in the next cell. And what cries they were.

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