Tennessee Williams:: Nightingale of the American Theater

By TheatreRat

With 38 full length plays, over 70 one-act plays, as well as scores of short stories, poems, and an autobiography Memoirs, Tennessee Williams stands as one of the great American playwrights of the 20th century. 

Tennessee Williams in Provincetown

Born Thomas Lanier Williams, III on March 26, 1911, Williams lived as an openly gay man throughout his life during a time when doing so was strictly taboo.  Homosexual themes frequently weave through his work, including 1955’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which the mendacity of being closeted is central to the plot (a subject later intentionally cut by producers in the 1958 film version).  Scholars have even pointed to the death of Williams’ great love, Frank Merlo (a gay US Navy veteran), as a significant dividing line in his career. 

Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo

He was as wounded and tragic as any of his protagonists.  Williams’ personal life and experiences were often reflected in his work, which became increasingly shattered as he did.  Additionally, critical and popular success of his plays grew more and more elusive later in his career.

His legacy and cannon of work has been celebrated with numerous awards and recognitions including two Pulitzers, a Tony Award, four New York Critic Circle Awards, Kennedy Center Honoree, and induction into the Theatre Hall of Fame.

Tennessee Williams died February 25, 1983 at the Elysee Hotel in New York City. It is believed he died from choking, but years of drug /alcohol abuse were more certainly the cause.  He was 71 years old.

 “What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it’s curved like a road through mountains.”  — Tennessee Williams

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TheatreRat is a contributor to theOUTfront and can be followed on Show-Score.

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