By Jack Lawler
Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams (March 26, 1911- February 25, 1983) was one of the most influential playwrights in American theatre history, producing classics such as Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. He was always a controversial figure and while he reached remarkable heights during his career, receiving four Drama Critic Circle Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he received relentless negative press by literary critics and was criticized by religious officials for the moral debauchery in his writing. He was never able to match the success of his early work, and his issues with mental health and drug abuse at the end of his life hurt his reputation and public image, taking the focus away from his earlier works of genius. Throughout all the chaos and turmoil in his life, however, New Orleans remained a constant in the author’s life, and served as, in his own words, his “spiritual home” (Warren 2).
Born the second child of Edwina and Cornelius Williams, in Columbus, Mississippi, Williams’ painful early childhood experiences and dysfunctional family not only shaped him as a person but also served as material for much of his writing. His father was a travelling shoes salesman who was rarely home. When he was, however, he made his presence felt with his hard drinking and his propensity to direct his violent temper on both Williams and his mother, a stereotypical Southern belle whose snobbery and obsession with social status rivaled Blanch Dubois for its neurotic and hysterical nature (Biography Channel 1). Williams found comfort in his close relationship with his older sister Rose, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young adult. She was later lobotomized and committed to a mental institution, where she spent the rest of her life (Biography Channel 1). She is generally considered to be the inspiration for the character of Laura Wingfield, the shy, lame young woman in ”The Glass Menagerie.” This is one of the countless examples of Williams modeling literary characters after real life people.
Williams’ literary career began in 1939, after winning a $1,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in recognition of his play Battle of Angels. His first major success was The Glass Menagerie, which was produced in Chicago and ran from 1944-45. His next play, A Streetcar Named Desire, written and produced in 1947, was a huge success and established him as a great playwright and cultural influence. He moved constantly throughout his career, living in places such as New York, New Orleans, Key West, Rome, Barcelona, and London. This nomadic lifestyle was essential to Williams, who wrote, “only some radical change can divert the downward course of my spirit, some startling new place or people to arrest the drift, the drag” (Williams 1).
His successes in the 1940s and 50s were followed by epic box office failures in the 1960s and 70s, which marked the beginning of his serious personal struggles and downward spiral into depression. His work received relentless criticism, as literary critics viciously attacked Williams and claimed that his best days were behind him (Leverich 352). Beaten down by the negative press, Williams’ problems were compounded by the declining health of his mother, Rose, and his longtime partner Frank Merlo. Merlo’s death in 1963 sent Williams into a deep depression, which he attempted to cope with through drugs and alcohol. He never fully recovered from his depression and substance abuse issues, and his death in 1983 is largely attributed to a drug overdose.
Though Williams spent most of his career travelling, no place played a bigger role in both his personal life and his writing than New Orleans. Williams always considered New Orleans his “spiritual home”, and spent some of the most successful years of his life in the city, once saying “my happiest years were there” (Leverich 278). New Orleans was where he began his career as a writer in 1939, living in a rented attic room in the Vieux Carre on 722 Toulouse St., where he wrote on the weekends after working shifts at a local restaurant during the week. When he first arrived in the city, he wrote letters to his mother describing his fascination with New Orleans, telling her “I’m crazy about the city. I walk continually, there is so much to see” (Williams 1). He was captivated by all aspects of the city, everywhere from the French Quarter to the less affluent parts, where he befriended the “batture-dwellers (squatters) along the river” to the “fine residential district and the two universities, Loyola and Tulane” (Williams 1).
His time in New Orleans was where he experienced his most personal growth. According the W. Kenneth Holditch, “Williams contended that living in New Orleans during several periods of his life turned him from a ‘proper young man’ into a ‘Bohemian,’ and facilitated his creativity” (1). He was awakened not only creatively, but sexually as well, as his time in New Orleans marked the beginning of his exploration of his sexual identity. He had his first homosexual encounter when he first arrived in the city in 1939, and repeatedly engaged in sexual relations with other men during his time in New Orleans (Spoto 69). His ability to express his true sexual desires illustrated the impact that New Orleans had on the young writer, who up to this point in his life had had an old-fashioned view of sex, saying in later interviews that “I was a terrible Puritan and remained a Puritan until my late 20s.. . . I was a virgin with either sex until the age of 26” (Spoto 59). Though his original stay in New Orleans was short, spanning from January 1939 to late September of the same year, it greatly shaped his thinking and allowed him the freedom to explore his true nature. He returned to the city throughout his life, and eventually bought a home that he “wanted to die in” (Warren 1) on 1014 Dumaine St. In a life of chaos and rocky relationships, New Orleans was the home he never had.
As much as the city influenced his personal life, the effect on his writing was even more profound. New Orleans is the setting of many of his works, including his most famous, A Streetcar Named Desire. As Thomas Bonner notes, in the opening scene, Williams “goes beyond a simple description of the city, making the setting itself almost a character in the play” (2). Williams describes its “raffish charm”, and portrays the Kowalsky’s house as having a “peculiarly tender blue, almost a turquoise, which invests the scene with a kind of lyricism and gracefully attenuates the atmosphere of decay” (Williams 1). Even beyond the visual element, he incorporates a sense of smell with the “bananas and coffee” and of sound, with the blue piano. He later parlays his experiences in the Quarter into another play, Vieux Carré. Here he places more of an autobiographical touch on his work, as the attic room he lived in during his first years in New Orleans serves as the setting of the play (Bonner 2). Williams had always been captivated by the French Quarter and his fascination with the area began upon his arrival in New Orleans, when he would write letters to his mother describing how the Quarter was “quainter than anything I’ve seen abroad”(Williams 3). He eventually moved away from the French Quarter as a topic of his writing, but still wrote many other short stories, short plays, and poems that were set in New Orleans and produced another of his most successful plays, Suddenly Last Summer, in the city that served as his muse.
The New Orleans locals returned Williams’ love for their city, so much so that every year since his death, the city has held a literary festival that bears his name. The festival features events dedicated to the author, such as writing workshops, panel discussions, literary readings, and other events that honor his life and his work, including the “Stella and Stanley Shouting Contest” to close the festival. Originally drawing only 500 attendees in 1986, it now attracts over 10,000 attendees each year, and in March 2006, it was the first major festival to be held in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina (Tennessee Williams Literary Festival 1).
A volatile, complicated man whose profound works of genius were accompanied by his inner turmoil and problems with substance abuse, Williams found a home in New Orleans, a city whose diversity and complexity mirrored the author’s own life experiences and served as a steadying influence in an otherwise chaotic life.
1. Tennessee Williams c. 1965. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/78/Tennessee_Williams_NYWTS.jpg
2. Tennessee Williams’ First Home, 722 Toulouse St. This is the attic apartment where he spent his first year in New Orleans and served as the setting of Vieux Carré. Image courtesy of wallyg/Flickr.com.
3. Tennessee Williams’ House c. 2009. 1014 Dumaine Street. This house was where he “wanted to die in”. Image Courtesy of “Gallery Administrator”. http://dougandneely.com/gallery3/linola/Tennessee-Williams-house
4. Tennessee Williams Literary Festival Flyer, c. 2011. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
5. Custom Google Map, April 2013.
Bonner Jr., Thomas. “New Orleans And Its Writers: Burdens Of Place.” Mississippi Quarterly 63.1/2, 2010: 195. Print
Holditch, W. “The Last Frontier of Bohemia: Tennessee Williams in New Orleans, 1938-1983.” Southern Quarterly, 23 (1985): 1-37. Print.
Leverich, Lyle. Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1995.
Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1985.
“Tennessee Lanier Williams,” The Biography Channel website, http://www.biography.com/people/tennessee-williams-9532952
“Tennessee Williams Literary Festival” TWFEST: Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival website, http://www.tennesseewilliams.net
Warren, Bonnie. “A Home She Desired”. New Orleans Home, Feb. 2011: 1-4. Print
Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2004. Print.
Williams, Tennessee. Notebooks. Ed. Margaret Bradham Thornton. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2006.