Williams of Cornelius Coffin and Edwina (Dakin)

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Tennessee Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams March 26,
1911, in Columbus, Mississippi. He was the son of Cornelius Coffin and
Edwina (Dakin) Williams. His father, Cornelius, was a traveling salesman
who traveled constantly, and moved his family several times during the first
decade of Williams life. For the first seven years of Williams life, he, his
mother, and his sister Rose lived with Mrs. Williams father, the
Episcopalian clergyman. Cornelius often abused Williams, by calling him
Miss Nancy, because he preferred books to sports. Williams mother,
Edwina Williams, was a southern belle, and the daughter of a clergyman.
She is frequently cited as the inspiration for the domineering and possessive
mother figures in Williams plays. Williams was quite close to his older
sister, Rose, who was institutionalized for schizophrenia for much of her
life. The character Laura in the Glass Menagerie is thought to be based
upon Rose. Williams was a sick and lonely child who endangered his frail
health by forgoing sleep to write. The book Mrs. Williams wrote conveys a
sense of family marked with anger, tension, and separateness, which might
help explain some of the recurrent themes of Williams plays.

If home was not a pleasant refuge, as Williams once said, The
outside world was no better. Williams remembered getting teased by
gangs of boys at school, but he still went. He graduated from high school in
January 1929. He then went on to the University of Missouri that fall. He
was forced to drop out after his third year and go to work for his father in
the shoe business. He worked at the shoe company for three years, and
finally escaped by breaking down. A collapse that is attributed variously to
exhaustion, heart palpitations, and the recurrence of childhood paralysis.
He spent a recuperative summer with his grandparents in Memphis,
Tennessee and enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
He dropped out in 1937. He finally graduated from the University of Iowa
in 1938. He spent the rest of his life writing. He choked to death February
24, 1983 in his suite at Hotel Elysee, in New York, New York. He was
buried in St. Louis, Missouri.

He began his life of writing and wondering, which went on ever
since. Williams was becoming a writer. He began as a child, unlike most
writers, in Remember Me Tom. Williams once said, I write from my own
tensions, for me, this is a form of therapy. In a 1960 interview with Arthur
Gelb in the New York Times, Williams spoke of his, Desire for success :
I want to reach a mass audience. Williams was not only a poet, sending
messages of his own isolation out to the world, but the professional writer in
search of an audience, and success. In 1927, pretending to be an unhappily
married traveling salesman, the sixteen year old Williams won third place in
a smart set contest, Can A Good Wife Be A Good Sport?; his entry, which
answers no to the question, is reprinted in Remember Me To Tom.

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In 1928, his first professionally published story appeared in the
August issue of Weird Tales. In 1929, as a freshman in college, already
thinking of himself as a playwright, Williams announced his ambition to go
to the school of journalism.

Tennessee Williams career as a playwright got under way in 1935,
during the summer he spent in Memphis. The production of Cairo!
Shanghai! Bombay! gave Williams the motivation to turn out more plays.
The play, co-authored by Dorothy Shapiro, a Memphis friend, was never
printed. In 1936, Williams became associated with The Mummers, a lively
St. Louis theater group under the direction of Willard Holland, whom
Williams praised in his introduction to 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. For them
he wrote a one-actor headline to serve as a curtain-raiser for an Armistice
Day production of Irwin Shaws Bury The Dead. Within the next two years,
The Mummers produced two full-length Williams plays, Candles In The
Sun, and The Pugitive Kind. A third play, Not About Nightingales, was
about to be done in 1938 when the group died of economic failure. In 1939,
Williams, who by that time had dropped the Thomas Lanier, bundled up
most of his collected works, including a group of one-actors called
American Blues, and shipped them off to the group theater contest. The
judges- Harold Clurman, Irwin Shaw, and Molly Day Thacher- gave him a
special award for A group of three sketches which constitute a full-length
play. The most important part of the theater prize was that Williams got
himself an agent, Audrey Wood, who had faith in him, and worked hard for

The Glass Menagerie opened in Chicago on December 26, 1944, and
in New York on March 31, 1945. The play ran for more than a year.
Williams career was a matter of public record, he has averaged at least one
play every two years: You Touched Me! (1945); A Streetcar Named Desire
(1947); Summer And Smoke (1948); The Rose Tattoo (1951); Camino Real
(1953); Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1955); Orpheus Descending (1957);
Suddenly Last Summer (1958); Sweet Bird Of Youth (1959); Period Of
Adjustment (1960); The Night Of The Iguana (1961); The Milk Train
Doesnt Stop Here Anymore (1963- revised 1964); Slapstick Tragedy, a
double bill of the Emulated and the Gnadiges Fraulein (1966); The
Two-Character Play (1967); Kingdom of Earth, called The Seven Descents
of Myrtle on Broadway (1968); In The Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (1969); Small
Craft Warnings (1972). The dates are those of the Broadway and
off-Broadway openings, except for Nightingale, which had only a Summer
production in Nyack, New York, and Two-Character, which played in

Williams had many types of characters in his plays. His top ones
were the artist, the insane, the cripple, the sexual specialist, and the
foreigner. Williams artist never needed to paint, write, or draw. They
were known for their temperment. Some artists, were Val in Battle of
Angels, Sebastian in Suddenly Last Summer, and Tom in The Glass

Insane is a dangerous category to try and define in Williams plays,
because as soon as the label insanity is put on a character, the audience
will think something is wrong with it, and keeps them preoccupied with the
stage. Some of his most insane characters were Blanche in A Streetcar
Named Desire, Catherine in Suddenly Last Summer, and Shannon in Iguana.
The cripple is another category that characters fall into when in
Williams plays. Some may fit in with the insane characters, because
finding the line between mental and physical disturbances in a Williams
character. Is Laura in The Glass Menagerie crippled by her limp, or her
shyness? Is Georges tremor in Period of Adjustment in his head, or in his
hands? It hardly matters since the diseases are as much metaphorical as
they are real. Lots tuberculosis in Kingdom of Earth, Mrs. Venables
stroke in Suddenly Last Summer, and the fatal cancer or Jabe in Orpheus are
all devices that help indicate that they are all special characters.
The next character category is the sexual specialist. This category
is hard to label because it has to take in such disparate characters. It
includes the virgins waiting to be initiated (Matilda in You Touched Me!,
Alma in Summer and Smoke, Rose and Jack in The Rose Tattoo, George
and Isabel in Period of Adjustment), and those who have chosen chastity to
escape corruption (Val in Orpheus, Brick in Cat); the professionals and
those amateurs so talented they could go professional (Val and Stanley in A
Streetcar Named Desire, Chance Wayne in Sweet Bird, and Camille and
Casanova in Camino Real); the homosexuals, explicit (Charles in Camino
Real, Sebastian in Suddenly Last Summer, Miss Fellowes in Iguana) and
implicit (Brick in Cat); those with a desperate need for sex as a stimulant or
a punishment (Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, Maggie in Cat, Miriam
in Tokyo Hotel). The thing that they all have in common is an extreme

The foreigner. Two thins are at work here, a fact and a myth. It is
a fact of American society–at least of the small-town southern society into
which Williams was born–that the foreigner, even when he ceases to be
foreign, is an outsider. It is a myth, one from Northern Europe that was
passed on the the United States, that the Mediterranean peoples live richer,
wilder, more open lives than the cold, closed northerners. Thus we have
Rosa Gonzales and her father, the fiery Mexicans of Summer and Smoke;
The wild Sicilians of The Rose Tattoo; the corruption of Camino Real
which, according to a Williams stage director, recalls Tangiers, Havana,
Vera Cruz, Casablanca, Shanghai, and New Orleans; the Italian lady of
Orpheus; the Sicilian with the riding crop of 27 Wagons Full of Cotton,
softened a little for Baby Doll; the Lorca-like setting for the offstage
wrecking of Suddenly Last Summer; and the hot-blooded Mexican boys of
Iguana. There are no Jews, and very few Negroes. Because these are
favorite outsiders of African writers, this sentence is a bit odd. Tennessee
Williams wrote many plays in which each could have contained some
characters I may have mentioned earlier.

Williams career ended when he died. He choked to death February
24, 1983 in his suite at Hotel Elysee, New York, New York. He is buried in
St. Louis, Missouri.
Many people continue to read and act out his plays today. I believe
people will be doing the same in a hundred years.

1.Williams, Tennessee. Britanica Online. Encyclopedia Britanica. 4
Mar. 1999

Categories: Artists


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