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Tennessee Williams | Biography

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Thomas Lanier Williams, who later took the pseudonym Tennessee Williams, was born in Columbus, Mississippi, on March 26, 1911. His father, Cornelius, was a hard-driving salesman, and his mother, Edwina, was a person with refined sensibilities. Throughout his childhood young Williams endured constant fighting between his parents, who seemed unable to see eye-to-eye about many matters. He had two siblings: an older sister named Rose and a younger brother named Walter.

Edwina sympathized with her son's sensitive nature and also with his desire to write. Cornelius, though, had difficulty understanding his introspective son, viewing him as a "sissy" who needed to be toughened up. Despite the many differences between father and son, Williams inherited his father's intense ambition. However, for him this ambition was focused on becoming a successful writer. At age 17 he moved with his family to St. Louis, where he worked for several years in a shoe factory after his father withdrew him from the University of Missouri because he disapproved of his son's girlfriend.

After suffering a nervous breakdown and recuperating in Memphis, Williams eventually went back to school, graduating from the University of Iowa at age 28. He wandered throughout the United States, working at various odd jobs until finally settling in New Orleans in 1939. He then began to seriously pursue writing as a career. Taking the name "Tennessee," he wrote a collection of four short plays called American Blues in 1938–39. It won a Group Theatre award and secured an agent for Williams. In the early 1940s, he began work on the play The Glass Menagerie. After many rewrites, the play was staged on Broadway in 1945 and received rave reviews. Williams followed this success with another huge hit—A Streetcar Named Desire, which debuted on Broadway in 1947.

In 1948 Williams became involved in a long-term relationship with a man named Frank Merlo, who served as the author's manager. Although Williams fully accepted his own homosexuality, he kept his sexual orientation private for most of his life. During the following several years, Williams traveled in Europe extensively. He loved Rome and spent much of his time there writing plays. His Summer and Smoke was first performed in 1948, The Rose Tattoo in 1951, and Camino Real in 1953. None of these plays garnered the sterling reviews and commercial success of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire.

In 1953 Williams began work on a play based on a short story he had written called "Three Players of a Summer Game." As he developed this work, the play expanded into a three-act piece originally titled A Place of Stone. Eventually, Williams changed the title to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Williams claimed he got the idea for the title from the father of a friend who lived in Macon, Georgia. The friend's father was a domineering patriarchal figure called Big Daddy, who often used the phrase "nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof." This Big Daddy served as a model for the character of Big Daddy in the play. Also in Macon, Williams befriended a woman named Maggie Lewis Powell, who had the nickname of "Maggie the Cat." The author used this nickname for the play's lead female character, Maggie.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is about the dynamics between members of a wealthy southern family whose domineering patriarchal figure, Big Daddy, is dying of cancer. The main relationships concern Big Daddy; his detached, cynical son Brick; and Brick's sexually frustrated but determined wife, Maggie. The play reflects many of the influences on Williams's life. Big Daddy's family is plagued by a lack of effective communication, as were Williams's parents. Also, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof deals with Brick's homophobia, which might be linked to repressed homosexuality. Being gay himself, Williams dealt with homophobia in society throughout his life, including from his father.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof received positive reviews and became another huge commercial success for Williams. The play earned the 1955 Pulitzer Prize in Literature. In the years since its initial publication, critical studies of the play have considered it from various angles. Some critics accuse Williams of dodging the issue of Brick's homosexuality by leaving his sexual orientation somewhat vague. Others, though, claim that Williams exposes how homosexuality was vilified and closeted in the 1950s. The critic David A. Davis sees a close connection between Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Shakespeare's King Lear. Both plays deal with a strong family patriarch facing death who has to decide how to bestow his land upon his children. The critic M. Thomas Inge views Cat as an exploration of southern stereotypes, including the large-than-life father figure; the idealistic, romantic young man; and the ambitious, tenacious shrew.

After Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Williams wrote several other successful plays, including Sweet Bird of Youth (1959) and The Night of the Iguana (1961). However, because of his addiction to drugs and alcohol, the quality of his writing declined in his later years. In 1975 Williams wrote the autobiography Memoirs, in which he publicly revealed his homosexuality. On February 25, 1983, he died from choking on a bottle cap.
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