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On Stage

On Stage: Tennessee Williams


The work of American playwright Tennessee Williams is known for its poetry, the thick vein of autobiographical truth that runs through much of it, and its many adaptations to film, including A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Night of the Iguana. Despite the near brutal emotional vulnerability wielded in his most famous works, Williams himself tended to exaggerate and prevaricate when it came to interviews. His autobiography, Memoirs, is riddled with inaccuracies, half-truths, and downright lies. But his work lives on, and the reason people are still producing Williams after all these years is that he wrote with honesty about the complexities of the human heart: relationships between lovers and among family members.

He was born in Mississippi in 1911 as Thomas Williams; it wasn't until he was 28 and had moved to New Orleans that he christened himself Tennessee and began the most creative period of his life. He was a prolific writer who did not limit himself to one area—he wrote poetry, he wrote short stories, he wrote plays, he wrote screenplays. His first Broadway success came in 1945 with the production of The Glass Menagerie. Just two years later, A Streetcar Named Desire opened to even bigger applause and won him not just a New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, but also his first Pulitzer Prize. By 1959, he had two Pulitzers, a Tony, three Circle Awards, and a number of other recognitions.

The 1960s were not as kind. After a series of flops, Williams retreated further into drug and alcohol abuse. He died in a New York City hotel room in 1983.