A complete guide to the life and works of Tennessee Williams
Tennessee Williams is often regarded as one of the great twentieth-century American dramatists, with his works seeing him win a Tony Award and two Pulitzer Prizes, as well as a Tennessee Williams festival held in his honour annually in New Orleans. We delve deeper into the life of the American laureate to find out why Tennessee Williams plays have been so successful.
All about Tennessee Williams
What was his life like?
Born in Columbus, Mississippi, Tennessee Williams was always interested in writing plays. Studying dramatic writing at the University of Iowa, his works were performed by local theatre groups. He found success straight out of university, winning a Group Theatre Award in 1939 for his collection of plays called “American Blues”.
Exploring themes of depression and relationships in his plays, his stories were influenced by childhood memories. For example, The Glass Menagerie explores the impact of an absent father, similar to Tennessee William’s father missing out on his childhood due to his career as a travelling salesman.
His career high came in the 1950s, with many of his texts being performed on Broadway. As he got older, he developed an alcohol and drug addiction. With his success dwindling and his addictions spiralling out of his control, his ability to write compelling plays was affected.
Williams later died in New York City in 1983 after inhaling the plastic cap of a medicated bottle, thought to be from a bottle of nasal spray or an eye solution.
What are his best-known texts?
Penning over 70 texts during his career, there are plenty of great Tennessee Williams works. However, there are a few that have garnered a great legacy, becoming some of the greatest works of the twentieth century.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955): Combining wishful thinking with devastation, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof tells the story of Cat, a female protagonist who tries to get out of her poverty-stricken lifestyle. At the same time, audiences meet Brick, as he comes to terms with his inner demons, including his alcohol dependency. In a story exploring sexuality and poverty, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof looks at the meaning of life when there doesn’t seem to be much worth living for.
The Glass Menagerie (1944): Serving a dramatised insight into his family, The Glass Menagerie was his first play. The story is a memory play oriented around Tom Wingfield as he narrates his family, telling stories about his absent father and sister. With characters based on his family members, The Glass Menagerie is a haunting insight into Tennessee Williams’ life, revealing his creative influences. The story was later adapted for the silver screen in 1950 and again in 1987.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1947): Arguably his most known story, A Streetcar Named Desire earned Williams a Pulitzer Prize in 1947. The story concerns Blanche Du Bois, a woman who moves to New Orleans to live with her sister, Stella after being made homeless and penniless. As she navigates her new life, she also faces Stanley, Stella’s abusive partner who also lives in the apartment. A Streetcar Named Desire was first performed on Broadway in 1947, later adapted for film in 1951.
Summer and Smoke (1948): One of Tennessee William’s lesser-known works, Summer and Smoke tackles religion and sexuality as a minister’s young daughter grows closer to a young doctor in the area. Set in the Deep South, Alma and John become dependent on each other, as they suss out each other while delving deeper into their own struggles. Summer and Smoke was adapted into a film in 1961, with a later television adaptation in 1972.
What is Tennessee William’s legacy?
Since his death, the playwright has been memorialised in theatres and literary festivals across the United States. In 2009, he was inducted into the Poets’ Corner at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York, where a congregation of playwrights and actors came together to celebrate his work.
With his plays enjoying revivals time and time again in the West End and on Broadway, the writings of Tennessee Williams will be immortalised in productions around the world forevermore.
Recent Tennessee Williams plays performed in the West End
Plays written by Tennessee Williams regularly grace stages in the West End and around London.
In 2009, A Streetcar Named Desire played at the Donmar Warehouse. The production starred Rachel Weisz as Blanche, alongside Ruth Wilson and Elliot Cowan.
James Earl Jones and Adrian Lester performed in an all-black casting of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Novello Theatre. James Earl Jones played Big Daddy, with Adrian Lester playing Brick.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof came back to London in 2017, with Sienna Miller taking on the lead role of Margaret at the Young Vic Theatre.
The Glass Menagerie was last performed at the Duke of York’s Theatre for a limited season. Cherry Jones reprised her Tony Award-winning performance as Amanda Wingfield, alongside a cast including Michael Esper, Kate O’Flynn and Brian J. Smith.
To find out about another great writer, Agatha Christie, read all about her with us.