Tennessee Williams: Plays & Screenplays
After a stay in New Orleans, Williams spent a year in New York working odd jobs as a bellhop, an elevator operator, and a movie theater usher. (For the rest of his life, Williams divided his time between New Orleans, New York, and his other favorite spot, Key West, Florida.) In 1943, he received some devastating personal news. In an attempt to cure Rose's worsening schizophrenia, Williams's parents consented to have a lobotomy performed on their daughter. The controversial surgery, in which the frontal lobes of the brain are sliced in an effort to relieve the symptoms of mental illness, was relatively new and was often performed crudely and incorrectly. The worst of Rose's symptoms went away after surgery, but so did most of the defining characteristics of her personality. She remained in a dreamy, half-conscious state for the rest of her life. Williams never forgave his parents for allowing Rose to have the operation.
By this time, Williams had found an agent named Audrey Wood, who nurtured him throughout his career. She found Williams a job as a screenwriter for the Metro Goldwyn Mayer movie studios. Williams moved to Los Angeles to start work on a script for the studio about a troubled Southern family. The studio rejected his script but allowed him to keep the rights to the story. He decided to adapt it into a stage play. On 26 December 1944, The Glass Menagerie premiered in Chicago to outstanding reviews. The play is the most autobiographical of all Williams's works. It centers on the Wingfield family, with its overbearing Southern mother Amanda, mentally fragile daughter Laura, and angry, suffocated son Tom. For Williams, being able to write freed him from the dysfunction that plagued his own family. "To me it has been providential to be an artist, a great act of providence that I was able to turn my borderline psychosis into creativity," Williams told an interviewer years later. "My sister Rose did not manage this."6 Three months later the production moved to New York. It was a huge critical hit, nabbing Williams a prestigious New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play. His career started to take off.
Three years later, in 1947, Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway. The play starred Jessica Tandy as fragile Blanche DuBois and an unknown actor named Marlon Brando as her brutish brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski. Williams personally chose Brando for the part after the actor hitchhiked up to the playwright's vacation home in Cape Cod to audition for him. The combination of Williams's gripping dialogue and Brando's raw, overtly sexual performance electrified audiences. So did the play's frank discussion of lust. As Stanley stalked the helpless Blanche, and the angelic Stella caved time and time again to her desire for her husband, it was as though people were watching sexual attraction play out on stage for the very first time. "People have said that Williams absolutely invented the idea of desire for the 20th century," English professor and Streetcar expert Philip Kolin has explained. "It was a play that dealt with for the very first time on the American stage, female sexuality and male sexuality."7
Williams has since said that the character of Blanche, the dramatic, high-maintenance Southern belle who comes to visit the Kowalskis, was based on his aunt Belle. His brother Dakin disagreed. "Blanche is Tennessee," Dakin said during an interview. "If he would tell you something it wouldn't be necessarily true. And Blanche says in Streetcar, 'I don't tell what's true, I tell what ought to be true.' And so everything in Blanche was really like Tennessee."8 The play won a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize. The film version, directed by Elia Kazan and starring all of the original Broadway cast except for Jessica Tandy, premiered in 1951 and won several Academy Awards. Williams was a star.
More professional successes followed. The Rose Tattoo opened in 1951 and won Williams another Tony Award for Best Play. Two years later Camino Real opened, a play that was a critical flop but that Williams called one of his favorites.9 Two years after that came Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, earning Williams yet another Tony and Pulitzer. Williams was a celebrity.
While critics and sophisticated theatergoers celebrated Williams for his groundbreaking work, many in the general public felt that his frank portrayals of things like lust, addiction, and homosexuality were inappropriate. "Many Americans regard Williams as an erotomaniac, for whom the mildest epithets are 'sick' and 'decadent,'"10 wrote Time magazine. It was not acceptable at the time to be gay—in Williams's play Suddenly Last Summer, a young woman loses her mind after witnessing the brutal murder of her cousin when his homosexuality is discovered. Williams was simply telling the truth—both in his plays, and in his life. In 1947, Williams began a romantic relationship with his secretary, Frank Merlo. They remained partners and companions until Merlo's death in 1963. Though newspapers and magazines at the time referred to Merlo only as the playwright's "longtime secretary" in profiles, Williams did not attempt to hide his relationship or his sexual identity—a revolutionary stance at the time. "Sexuality is a basic part of my nature," he told The New York Times. "I never considered my homosexuality as anything to be disguised. Neither did I consider it a matter to be over-emphasized. I consider it an accident of nature."11