Tennessee Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams III on March 26, 1911, in Columbus, Mississippi. Williams was raised primarily by his mother, and had a complex relationship with his father, a salesman who was more invested in his work than in parenting.
According to Williams, he had a happy childhood in Mississippi. Later in his childhood, Williams and his family moved to St. Louis, Missouri. Once his family moved, Williams began to feel that he had lost touch with his carefree boyhood. His parents’ rocky marriage also contributed to a tense household environment that made this transition even harder for Williams. Williams had no choice but to turn inward and write. Despite his struggles, Williams’ family life would offer inspiration for some of his most famous plays, The Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
In 1929, Williams began college at the University of Missouri, where he studied journalism. Once his father found out that his girlfriend was attending the same school, however, Williams’ father made him drop out. Williams descended into a deep depression after leaving college. He began to work as a sale’s clerk for his father’s company. Seeking refuge from this new lifestyle that he loathed, Williams began to write again. Despite his attempts at escaping his depression, however, it took hold of him and he suffered a nervous breakdown. Williams went to Memphis to recover from his breakdown and later returned to St. Louis. He eventually completed his college degree at the University of Iowa.
At the age of 28, Williams moved to New Orleans, and made the decision to change his first name to ‘Tennessee,” the place where his father was born. The city of New Orleans had a profound influence on Williams’ writings. The setting of New Orleans, for example, was particularly integral to Williams’ most notable play, A Streetcar Named Desire.
Williams’ first major play Battle of Angels debuted in Boston in the 1940s and was unsuccessful. Williams worked hard to revise this play, however, and it ended up being made into a film. He also wrote film scripts for MGM Entertainment, but was most drawn to theater. A play that he had worked on for several years The Glass Menagerie, opened on Broadway in 1945, and was acclaimed by both critics and audiences alike. The success of The Glass Menagerie propelled Williams from obscurity to fame.
Two years after the release of The Glass Menagerie, Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire was released on Broadway. This production established Williams’ role as one of the most prominent playwrights of his time, and it earned him his first Pulitzer Prize.
Later in Williams’ life, however, the quality of his work began to decline and it was no longer as respected as it once had been. Williams used alcohol and drugs in order to cope with his lack of success during this period of his life. Williams’ alcohol and drug abuse became so severe, that, in 1969, his brother hospitalized him. After his release from the hospital, Williams returned to writing and wrote several new plays and his own memoirs. In his memoirs, Williams discussed his life as a write as well as his struggles with addiction. Though Williams was able to acknowledge his affliction, he continued on a downward spiral. He was found dead in his hotel room in 1983, surrounded by alcohol and prescription drugs.
Though much of Williams’ work emerged from a different time period and cultural climate in the post World War II United States, much of his work is still thematically relevant to this day. A Streetcar Named Desire, his crowning achievement as a writer, for example, captures fundamental messages about the nature of power, love, desire, and fate that remain relevant to this day.