Tennessee Williams: Depression & Death
The good times, unfortunately, did not last. In 1957, Williams's play Orpheus Descending opened on Broadway. It was a critical and commercial flop, closing after only sixty-eight performances. Williams became deeply depressed and underwent psychoanalysis. Two more of his plays soon flopped as well. In 1961, The Night of the Iguana premiered and won Williams his third and final Tony Award. The play was his last critical success for a decade.
Substance abuse contributed to Williams's creative collapse. In the mid-1950s, Williams started using drugs and alcohol to deal with his constant anxiety. By the early 1960s, his daily intake of substances had grown to staggering proportions: two packs of cigarettes, as much as a fifth of liquor, plus a handful of pills.12 Williams was also receiving care from Max Jacobsen—a.k.a. "Dr. Feel Good"—a New York City doctor known for providing his well-to-do patients with prescriptions for vast quantities of mood-altering drugs (his license was revoked after patients died). Williams spoke openly about his dependency on barbiturates, saying that they unblocked his creativity. In retrospect, biographers believe it was the substances that blunted his creative spark.
In 1963, his partner Frank Merlo died of lung cancer. Grief-stricken, Williams fell into a depression that lasted for ten years. In 1969, he had a nervous breakdown and his brother Dakin had him committed to a mental hospital in St. Louis, where Williams stayed for three months. In 1972, the play Small Craft Warnings opened off-Broadway and ran for a respectable two hundred performances. It was the last of Williams's professional successes. He wrote a string of critical stinkers, some of which closed after fewer than a dozen performances. Though he was hurt by the reviews at times, Williams refused to give up his craft. "I'm very conscious of my decline in popularity, but I don't permit it to stop me because I have the example of so many playwrights before me. I know the dreadful notices Ibsen got," he told an interviewer. "So I keep writing. I am sometimes pleased with what I do - for me, that's enough."13
And then, finally, it came to an end. On 24 February 1983, while administering his daily medications, Williams choked to death on a medicine bottle cap in his room at the Hotel Elysée in New York City. The 71-year-old was buried in St. Louis. "I always felt like Tennessee and I were compatriots," Marlon Brando said after the playwright's death. "He 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."14 Williams wrote perhaps the best epitaph for himself in his 1975 Memoirs, a book that—like its author—shocked the public for his unsparing discussions of his substance abuse and love life. "I've had a wonderful and terrible life and I wouldn't cry for myself," Williams wrote, "would you?"15