Study Guide

Tennessee Williams Introduction

Tennessee Williams Introduction

Playwright Tennessee Williams was a titan of American theatre. 

Think you don't know him? Think again. This guy penned A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Glass Menagerie, to name a few. His plays are considered enduring classics of American theatre, and we'd bet dollars to doughnuts you've heard this choice quote before. 

Yup. We had a feeling you knew him. We'll be expecting our doughnuts in the mail. 

Williams's plays effortlessly combined beautiful language with a willingness to explore themes no one else wanted to talk about—addiction, madness, sexuality, streetcars...

Well...maybe not streetcars. But the other ones are valid. 

The New York Times wrote after his 1983 death that, "he was a poet of the human heart,"

Appropriately, the issues found in his works are 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 fun-filled family members. He lived openly as a gay man when few people did. He spoke frankly about his mental fragility and substance abuse. He was candid about how streetcars are the biggest threat facing Americans today...

Okay, fine, he didn't say that. But he did once say 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.

Tennessee Williams Trivia

  • Williams got the name Stanley Kowalski—the anti-hero of A Streetcar Named Desire—from a salesman he worked with at the International Shoe Company in the 1930s. We wonder how the real Stan felt about that dubious honor.
  • Williams's first published work appeared in 1927 in Smart Set magazine, where the 16-year-old won third prize and $5 for an essay entitled "Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?"
  • Williams was famously insecure and was constantly convinced that he was a failure. According to one biographer, at an especially low point in his life Williams forged the inscription "To Tennessee, with love" on a photograph, signed famed playwright Eugene O'Neill's name, and displayed it prominently in his home.
  • While studying at Washington University in St. Louis, Williams submitted a play entitled Me, Vashya to Professor William G.B. Carson's English 16 Playwriting Class. He received only an honorable mention. To honor their departed alumnus, the school's Performing Arts Department finally staged the play in 2004.
  • Williams objected to having The Glass Menagerie performed at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. in 1947, because the theater refused to admit African-Americans.
  • In a letter to The New York Times from his home in Key West, Florida, Williams wrote: "I want to state that I have protested bringing The Glass Menagerie into Washington, but have no legal power to prevent it. I can only express my humiliation that a play of mine should be denied to N****es in the nation's capital. Any future contract I make will contain a clause to keep the show out of Washington while this undemocratic practice continues."
  • Williams struggled as a student, but at least he always had a gift for drama. "Tomorrow Greek final which I will undoubtedly flunk," he wrote in his diary the night before a difficult final. The next morning, he woke up and wrote: "Monday. Never woke in more misery in all my life. Intolerable. The brilliant earth mocks my fear. Children and birds sing. People speak in casual voices. The poplar leaves shine. Yet I up here in this narrow room endure torture. God help me! Please! I've got to have help or I'll go mad. What is this a punishment for? What? Or is it all blind, blind without meaning!" And while he did flunk, you gotta give the guy points for dramatic flair. 
  • By the 1960s, Williams was propping himself up each day with the help of a staggering array of substances. According to a 1962 magazine profile, his daily menu consisted of two packs of cigarettes, as much as a fifth of liquor, half a Dexamyl (a barbiturate), one and a half Seconals (another barbiturate), and two Miltowns (a tranquilizer) chased with Scotch at bedtime.

Tennessee Williams Resources

Books

The Plays of Tennessee Williams
Find yourself an anthology, watch the films, force a budding thespian to reenact them...do whatever you need to do, just experience Williams's plays. Their lyrical quality and arresting portraits of human nature are what made Tennessee Williams one of the titans of American theater. Also, probably don't force budding thespians to do anything. That might be illegal. 

Tennessee Williams, Memoirs (1975)
Williams admitted that he wrote this memoir in his sixties when he was broke and needed the money. He also believed he would be dead before it was published, which lends a delightfully confessional quality to the book. This is Tennessee Williams in his own words, and they sure are fun to read.

Lyle Leverich, Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams (1995)
This biography focuses on the first half of Williams's life, and looks at the influences that shaped him and his work, rather than at the work itself. From the dysfunctional characters of his immediate family to his Southern upbringing, it's easy to see how the life of the young Tom contributed to his later works.

Albert J. Devlin and Nancy M. Tischler eds., The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams Volume II, 1945-1957 (2004)
This book consists of a collection of letters from the most productive period of Williams's life. The mercurial Williams is almost always most compelling in his own words, and his correspondence with friends and colleagues is a window into the playwright's immense creativity, self-doubt, and capacity for self-destruction.

Donald Spoto, The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams (1985)
This unauthorized biography was written just two years after the playwright's sudden death. Celebrity biographer Spoto explores the unsavory characters and unhealthy behavior that marked the final years of Williams's life. His portrayal of the playwright's crushing self-doubt and insecurity is painful to read.

Five O'Clock Angel: Letters of Tennessee Williams to Maria St. Just, 1948-1982 (1990)
Williams met Maria St. Just, an actress and dancer, at a party in London after World War II. Their friendship lasted thirty years, and Williams based the character of Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on St. Just. The letters collected here show a softer, more personal side of the playwright. The preface to the collection is written by Elia Kazan, who directed several film adaptations of Williams's work.

Music

A Streetcar Named Desire—The Soundtrack
This is the original soundtrack to Elia Kazan's classic 1951 version of Williams's play. Composers Alex North and Max Steiner wrote the score, which was nominated for an Academy Award.

A Streetcar Named Desire—The Opera
Andre Previn composed this operatic version of Williams's play. It was Previn's first opera. The original production starred the famed soprano Renee Fleming as poor doomed Blanche DuBois.

The Glass Menagerie—The Soundtrack
Max Steiner also wrote the soundtrack for the 1950 film adaptation of this play. He was nominated and received several Oscars in his movie-score composing career. Just not for this movie.

The Night of the Iguana—The Soundtrack
This is the original soundtrack of the 1964 film of Williams's play. The soundtrack didn't get much attention on its own, but the film is a performance of raw emotion and insight into the human experience.

Nights of the Iguana—Iggy Pop
You know what else is full of raw emotion and insight into the human experience? Iggy Pop's awesome four-disc live album. Why settle for one Night of the Iguana when you can have many?

Images

Tennessee Williams
A smiling portrait of the writer.

Tennessee Williams
A contemplative portrait of the writer.

Williams at Work
A portrait of the writer at his desk.

Andy Warhol and Tennessee Williams
A meeting of the icons.

Birthplace
House where Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi.

Boyhood Home
House where Williams grew up, in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Key West Home
House that Williams owned in Key West, Florida.

Gravesite
Tennessee Williams's grave marker in St. Louis, Missouri.

Stanley Kowalski
Marlon Brando as the lead in Williams's play A Streetcar Named Desire.

A Streetcar Named Desire
Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in a scene from the film.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman in a scene from the film.

Movies & TV

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Usually we don't hype film adaptations of literary works as much as their textual ancestors, but plays are written to be performed. If you can't get out to the theatre, the flick is your next best option. The 1950s film adaptations of his books are some of the greatest American movies, and this one is no exception. We highly recommend you see the performance that made both Marlon Brando and wife-beater shirts stars. 

The Rose Tattoo (1955)
The tagline is "Lusty… Rousing… Startling," and we can't do better than that to describe this film about a failed art smuggling attempt. Fun fact: Williams's actual home in Key West, Florida, appears as part of the scenery during the film.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
1950s hotties Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor star in this film about a Southern family that is falling apart. After injuring his ankle, Brick Pollitt (Newman) decides to spend his father's birthday drinking alone and fending off his randy wife (Taylor). Oh, and the father is dying of cancer and no one wants to tell him. Great movie.

Suddenly Last Summer (1959)
The only son of Violet Venable (the venerable Katherine Hepburn) dies while on vacation with his cousin (Elizabeth Taylor, again) in a manner so horrible Liz that loses her mind as a result. When Liz starts dropping hints about the cause of her cousin's murder—he was gay, and beaten to death for it—Mrs. Venable tries to have her lobotomized.

Summer and Smoke (1961)
This is a great performance of one of Williams's lesser-known plays. A repressed spinster falls in love with the local rebel? Sign us up. Like many of the original film adaptations of plays by Williams, it was nominated for a boatload of Oscars and won several.

The Night of the Iguana (1964)
Hollywood heavies like Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, and Deborah Kerr star in this film about a former preacher who leads a group of women of the Mexican coast. The original poster tagline was, "Man And Woman—Love And Lust—Ruin And Redemption—One Night They All Meet." What more do you need to know?

The Glass Menagerie (1987)
This is the most autobiographical of Williams's plays. The story of a domineering mother, a mentally absent daughter, and a furious son was drawn from his own immediate family. John Malkovich plays Tom and Joanne Woodward is his mother Amanda Wingfield.

Websites

The Mississippi Writers Page
This site from Ole Miss contains Williams's biography plus links to analyses of his work. It's a great introduction to the playwright's life. And it has pictures!

Times Topics—Tennessee Williams
The New York Times archive of all things Williams-related is fascinating. There are personal essays penned by Williams himself, original reviews of the first runs of his plays, and loads of commentary on the playwright.

PBS American Masters
Tennessee Williams's entry in the PBS American Masters series has the playwright's biography and links to other sites about him. It also has a video clip from Baby Doll, a film Williams wrote that critics lambasted as filthy.

Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival
Do you really, really, really love Tennessee Williams? Then this is the site (and festival) for you. The Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival is a five-day celebration of literature, theater, and the arts, and includes a one-act play contest. No word on the cosplaying scene. 

The Tennessee Williams Annual Review
If the paper that you're writing for your class turns out to be utterly amazing, submit it here—the official site of hardcore Williams scholars. You can also search the journal's online archives for back copies of critical articles on the playwright.

Tennessee Williams Timeline
If the timeline we've put together for you here at Shmoop isn't quite good enough for you (gasp!) then check out this one compiled at the Theater Database. It's got a detailed chronology of Williams's life and times, but it probably doesn't have puns about Dakin Williams, so...pretty clear who the real winner here is...

Video & Audio

Tennessee Williams at the 92nd Street Y
An audio recording of Williams's readings in New York the year before he died.

"STELLA!"
The most famous shout in movie history.

Stella, Unedited
Three takes of Marlon Brando practicing the shout for Elia Kazan's film.

A Streetcar Named Desire
The trailer for the 1951 film.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
The trailer for the 1958 film.

The Glass Menagerie
Katharine Hepburn and Sam Waterston as the dysfunctional Wingfields, in a scene from the play.

"Living St. Louis: Tennessee Williams"
St. Louis Public Television looks at the life and work of one of its most famous sons.

"Tennessee Williams Blues"
A video of the late, great singer Teddi King performing a satirical song about the decadent, depressing, distinctly Southern emotions brought on by watching Williams's plays.

The Sons of Tennessee Williams
The trailer for a documentary film about the drag scene in Williams's adopted hometown of New Orleans.

Primary Sources

A Streetcar Named Desire
Google Books text of the play.

A Streetcar Named Desire
Watch the entire film version of Tennessee Williams's famous play on YouTube.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Google Books text of the play.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
The film version of the play.

The Night of the Iguana
Google Books text of the play.

Williams on Williams
1955 first-person essay in The New York Times.

"Questions Without Answers"
An essay by Williams about his work.

John Waters on Tennessee Williams
The famously campy director's thoroughly entertaining essay on the man who saved his life.

Obituary
His 26 February 1983 obituary in The New York Times.

Obituary
Williams 1983 obituary in Time magazine.

"The Angel of the Odd"
A fantastic 1962 profile of Williams from Time magazine.

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