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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
The Glass Menagerie was Tennessee Williams' first successful play. It won the New York Critics' Circle Award as the best play of the 1944-45 Broadway season. Less than three years later, A Streetcar Named Desire opened. It, too, captured the Critics' Circle Award and also won the Pulitzer Prize.
With these achievements Tennessee Williams earned fame and lots of money. He was declared one of the best modern playwrights. Had he never written another word, his place on the roster of great artists would still be secure. Usually, he's named with Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller as one of the three leading American dramatists of the 20th century.
That's not a bad record for a man of thirty-six. At the time, however, Williams would gladly have given away his success. He liked his plays, but he hated being a celebrity. Success depressed him. As a young man who achieved great success, he suddenly missed the challenges of life. Perhaps you can understand his reaction. Many people who reach glory at an early age realize the emptiness of fame. Autograph seekers depressed him. Strangers who told him "I loved your play" annoyed him. Praise bothered him. He even suspected his friends of false affection. And he felt constant pressure for the rest of his life to write plays as good as Menagerie and Streetcar.
Williams found relief from the public in a hospital, of all places. He needed an eye operation. When the gauze mask was removed from his face, he viewed his life more clearly, both literally and figuratively. He checked out of his posh New York hotel and escaped to Mexico, where, as a stranger, he could be his former self again.
His former self was Thomas Lanier Williams of Columbus, Mississippi, where he was born in 1911. His maternal grandfather was Columbus' Episcopalian rector. His mother, Edwina, valued refinement and the good manners of Southern gentry. She made sure that Tom and his sister Rose grew up having both. His father, on the other hand, paid little attention to good breeding and culture. He was more fond of a game of poker and a tall glass of whiskey. A traveling salesman, he lived out of suitcases and had little time for his children. Returning from road trips, however, he often criticized his wife for turning young Tom into a sissy.
When Mr. Williams, known as C.C., got an office job with the International Shoe Company, the family settled in St. Louis. Rose and Tom became city children. They played in littered alleys where dogs and cats roamed at night. Or they holed up in a small dark bedroom to play with Rose's prized collection of small glass animals.
Having C.C. around the house strained everyone in the family. C.C. fought with Edwina, disparaged Rose, and sometimes beat Tom. Eventually, he deserted the family altogether, but not until Rose, Tom, and a younger brother, Dakin, had reached adulthood.
Of the three Williams children, Rose had the hardest time growing up. During the early years she and Tom were as close as a sister and brother can be, but in her teens she developed symptoms of insanity. She withdrew into a private mental world. Mrs. Williams could not accept her daughter's illness and tried repeatedly to force friends on her. She enrolled Rose in a secretarial course, but that didn't help Rose's condition either. Diagnosed as a schizophrenic, Rose was put in a mental institution. In 1937 brain surgery turned her into a harmless, childlike woman for the rest of her life.
Tom, who loved Rose dearly, heaped blame for Rose's madness on himself. Not even he understood why. But as he saw it, Rose's terrors started at about the time when he began to feel the irresistible urges of homosexuality. At the time-long before the advent of gay rights-to be a homosexual meant being an outcast. You were scorned and abused, and you were made to feel excruciating guilt. Rose's condition had no bearing on Tom's self-realization, nor did his sexual preferences trigger Rose's breakdown. Yet, the two events became strangely interlocked in Tom's thinking.
In the agonies of his family Williams found the stuff of his plays. He hardly disguised his parents, his sister and himself when he cast them as characters on the stage. Places where he lived became settings, and he adapted plots from life's experiences. He relived the past as he wrote. ("The play is memory," says Tom, the character in The Glass Menagerie.) He wrote about what he knew best-himself. Perhaps that's why the plays, although considered dream-like and unreal, can nevertheless, like magic, give you illusion that has the appearance of truth. They often contain an intense passion that could come from only one source, the heart and soul of the playwright.
After high school, Williams went to the University of Missouri to study journalism. His father pulled him out after two years for making low grades and sent him to work at the shoe company. It was a dead-end job, but it gave Tom a chance to do what he loved best-to write. He pushed himself hard to master the art of writing. When the words came slowly, he grew tense. He ate little, smoked constantly and drank only black coffee. After two years his health broke. The doctor ordered him to quit the shoe company.
He enrolled in a play writing course at Washington University in St. Louis. He also started to read widely in world literature. From the Russian Chekhov, he discovered how to make dialogue reveal character. From plays by Ibsen, the Norwegian dramatist, Williams learned the art of creating truth on the stage. Williams owed his fascination with uninhibited sexuality partly to the English writer D. H. Lawrence. He also studied the works of the master Swedish playwright August Strindberg for insights into dramatizing inner psychological strife. Through a friend Williams discovered the American poet Hart Crane, whose lyrical lines and brief tragic life struck a responsive chord in Williams. In all, Williams' prolific reading gave his own writing a boost.
Tom finished his formal schooling at the University of Iowa. When he left there in 1938 he adopted the name "Tennessee." Over the years he offered varying explanations for the new name. It was distinctive. It was a college nickname. It expressed his desire to break away from the crowd, just as his father's pioneering ancestors had done when they helped to settle the state of Tennessee.
With his pen and pad he roamed the United States. Says Tom in The Glass Menagerie, "The cities swept about me like dead leaves"- New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Key West, Florida. Also New Orleans, the city of streetcars, including one named "Desire." He wrote stories, poems, even a first play that flopped in Boston. Eventually, he landed a job in California writing screenplays for MGM. But he despised taking others' stories and turning them into movies. He wanted to do originals. While in Hollywood, he wrote a movie script entitled The Gentleman Caller. When MGM rejected it, Williams quit his job, transformed the script into a play, and called it The Glass Menagerie. The play opened on Broadway in March, 1945, and altered Williams' life. The years of personal struggle to make it big were over.
After moving to Mexico, he turned out a second masterpiece-A Streetcar Named Desire-which reached Broadway in December, 1947. In Streetcar, as in The Glass Menagerie, he shaped the story from his own experience. If you combine Williams' mother, the genteel and prudish Southern lady, with Rose, the fragile sister, you get Blanche. Williams knew firsthand what happens when a brute like Stanley clashes with a refined lady like Blanche. He saw it almost daily in his parents' stormy marriage.
After Streetcar Williams turned out plays almost every other season for thirty-five years. According to critics, though, after the 1940's Williams never again reached the heights of Menagerie and Streetcar. He reused material and seemed continually preoccupied with the same themes and with characters trapped in their own private versions of hell. Although many later plays lacked freshness, others were smash hits and have since joined the ranks of the finest American plays. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof won drama prizes in 1955, and Night of the Iguana earned honors in 1961.
Because of movies, however, the titles of some of his plays, such as Suddenly Last Summer and The Fugitive Kind have become familiar, even to people who have never seen a Williams stage play. Some Williams plays (and movies) caused a sensation because they deal with homosexuality and incest, topics that had been more or less off limits on the stage and screen until Williams came along. People flocked to Williams movies to see stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Paul Newman. In the film of A Streetcar Named Desire, Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh gave magnificent performances as Stanley and Blanche.
All of Williams' plays illustrate a dark vision of life, a vision that grew dimmer as the years went by. During his last years Williams kept writing, but one play after the other failed. To ease his pain, Williams turned to drink and drugs. His eyes needed several operations for cataracts. The new plays received terrible notices, driving him deeper into addiction. He died in a New York hotel room in 1983. Police reports say that pills were found under his body.
Williams left behind an impressive collection of work. His plays continue to move people by their richness, intensity of feeling, and timelessness. He often transformed private experience into public drama. In doing so, he gave us glimpses into a world most of us have never seen before. Yet, the plays make Williams' fears, passions, and joys ours as well. Few artists will ever leave behind a more personal and intense legacy.