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The Glass Menagerie | Study Guide

Tennessee Williams

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Tennessee Williams | Biography


Tennessee Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams on March 26, 1911, in Columbus, Mississippi. Williams's mother was doting and overbearing; his father was an alcoholic, often violent and often absent. Williams was devoted throughout his life to his older sister, Rose, who suffered from severe mental illness and was institutionalized and eventually underwent a lobotomy. Williams never forgave his mother for allowing it even though she was told it was in Rose's best interests; his father, he says, ignored it all. In 1939—despite the author's strained relationship with his father—Williams changed his first name to Tennessee after his father's home state.

Like his character Tom in The Glass Menagerie, based on himself, Williams worked in a shoe warehouse when his father forced him to leave college. Williams integrates this event when he has Laura drop out of Rubicam's Business College, although unlike him, she wants to quit. Amanda Wingfield shows similarities to the playwright's own domineering mother, and the father who is never heard from reflects the elder Williams's frequent absences.

Williams first produced The Glass Menagerie in Chicago in 1944. In March 1945 it opened on Broadway in New York City's Playhouse Theater. The first night it received an unprecedented 25 curtain calls and went on to play there for 563 performances.

Most of Tennessee Williams's work is based on his own experiences: dysfunctional families with weak mothers, autocratic fathers, and siblings with mental illnesses. Characters struggle with depression and abuse, dissatisfaction with life, and destructive choices. Williams's work shocked audiences and critics even in the 1960s, when the arts were more open to once-taboo subjects such as substance abuse, promiscuity, and homosexuality. He brought such topics to life on stage and screen in an ingenious body of work that also included A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Night of the Iguana (1964), and Memoirs (1975), a nonfiction chronicle. His play Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1982), panned by critics, was about F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and is his only work without autobiographical content.

As he grew older, Williams was burdened by substance abuse for many years and eventually sent to rehab by his brother in 1969. Although the treatment helped for a short time, this prolific writer, who earned seven major awards and is considered one of America's most important playwrights, died alone from the effects of drugs and alcohol after swallowing a bottle cap in a New York City hotel on February 25, 1983.

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