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Tennessee Williams

(1911—1983) American dramatist

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US playwright. He made a lasting contribution to the theatre, not least in introducing a highly effective kind of theatrical poetry in his fine control of language and sense of atmosphere.

Born in Columbus, Mississippi, where his grandfather was the Episcopal rector, Williams was taken from these relatively idyllic surroundings to St Louis at the age of twelve, a change that first made him aware of being poor. His education was interrupted by the Depression (he later graduated from the University of Iowa in 1938 or 1940) and he was forced to take a routine job. However, he continued to write throughout his youth and in 1940 won a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to work on a play. This, entitled Battle of Angels (1940; later successfully revised as Orpheus Descending, 1958), was a failure, and Williams again supported himself by various menial jobs while he continued to write.

The Glass Menagerie (1945; filmed 1950) won the New York Drama Critics' Award and began Williams's career as one of the most successful modern American dramatists. The play, like many of his best works, portrayed a sensitive vulnerable woman whose poetic fantasy world is essential to her survival but is also tragically fragile. This theme reaches full development in A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), which was to become something of a modern American classic. The neurotic heroine, sympathetically portrayed, is shattered (specifically, raped) by brute (but innocent and healthy) reality in the form of her brother-in-law (a role that made Marlon Brando famous in the 1952 film). In The Rose Tattoo (1951; filmed 1956) the atypically vigorous heroine is a Sicilian widow about to remarry. Camino Real (1953) introduced expressionist techniques but was not successful. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955; filmed 1958), which won a Pulitzer Prize, Williams returned to a distinctly Southern setting and the themes of conflict of his earlier successes. Progressively more sensational elements appear in other plays, for example cannibalism in Suddenly Last Summer (1958; filmed 1959) and castration in Sweet Bird of Youth (1959; filmed 1963). Among his nondramatic works are the novel The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1950; filmed 1961) and the story collections Hard Candy (1954) and The Knightly Quest (1969). A volume of Memoirs was published in 1975.

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