Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams (1911-1983), was born as Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Mississippi. He attended the University of Iowa from October 1, 1937 until August 5, 1938, and studied with Edward Charles Mabie, head of the Theater Department at the time. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. Before coming to Iowa, Williams had completed most of his coursework toward the degree at the University of Missouri and some at Washington University.

Williams’s Iowa City Period

Williams’s time in Iowa City is narrated with thorough detail in Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams by Lyle Leverich[fn]Leverich, Lyle. Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams. Crown Publishers, New York, 1995, 231-265.[/fn]. The following excerpts give an idea of the themes surrounding Williams’s life in this quite vulnerable period of his life. To read the entire two Iowa chapters, please click here.

"The question of Tom’s continued education, and especially the furtherance of his writing career, had been a matter of discussion for several week [in early 1937], both between Edwina [Tom’s mother] and her parents and among Tom’s friends. Although he had benefited from some of the courses he had taken at Washington University—a “lost year,” as he would come to regard it—his only valid credits were those he had earned at the University of Missouri. Willard Holland [organizer and director of a first-rate nonprofessional acting company called the Mummers], who had returned from his screen test on the West Coast, felt that Tom would benefit most from going to the University of Iowa...

Tom’s first lodgings were at 225 North Linn, and on his first day in Iowa City, he wrote home: “I am very well satisfied with this place. I get both board and room here.” He said that the “excellent” meals cost twenty-one dollars a month and the room ten dollars in advance. He was also delighted with the city—“very much like Columbia,” an opinion he would shortly reverse...

At [some] time [soon] he got off a letter to Holland, giving a new address at 3255 South Dubuque regarding it as a better location at the same price...

It can be said that E. C. Mabie’s impression of Thomas Lanier Williams was, in fact, less than favorable. A classmate and later a producer, Norman Felton, remembered that Tom was once assigned a “living newspaper” play on the topic of “socialized medicine.” When Tom turned in his play, Felton said, “it was as if a volcano had erupted. You see, ‘the Boss’ [Mabie’s nickname] had


many friends among doctors of medicine at the University. The next day I heard that he had torn up Tom’s script...”

[Tom spoke] of his friendship with Thomas Pawley, his one black classmate, in whose play Ku Klux Tom was enacting, because of his southern accent, the role of a Negro chairman of a church convention. He told Willard Holland that Pawley exhibited real talent. Pawley recalled Tom Williams as shy, reticent, taciturn, and unkempt; because he didn’t attend classes frequently enough, he got poor grades. “Once I arrived in Iowa City,” Pawley said, “I quickly discovered there was absolutely no social contact between blacks and whites. The town and the University were segregated: I could not eat in the restaurants of the Student Union, and I was told I could not stay in the dormitory.” But Tom, he said, “was always cordial to me. I was genuinely surprised at his apparent sympathy for Negroes.” Pawley, who went on to become a distinguished professor at Lincoln University, added however that, had he known Tom was a native Mississippian and not simply form St. Louis, he would not have been so friendly, as Mississippi had “an unsavory reputation.”

[Tom] was doing poorly in school and he knew it. Mindful of the sacrifice his grandparents had made, he painted as reassuring a picture for his grandfather as possible:


Last night I heard the famous English novelist, J.B. Priestly [sic] give a lecture. Two weeks ago we had Stephen Vincent Benet, a famous poet. The cultural opportunities here are remarkable for a mid-western school. They even have a fine free symphony orchestra. Also a radio broadcasting station—even television! Almost every evening there is an interesting public lecture, debate or round-table discussion in the Student Memorial Union—which is a beautiful recreation hall containing a library, magazine room, cafeteria, dance hall, lounge and auditorium—furnished like an expensive hotel! From my two windows I now have a beautiful view of snow-covered hills and woods and a frozen river and am receiving over my roommate’s radio a broadcast of classical music from the University studio...

“I get a bed in the frat. dormitory, and breakfast and lunch in the fraternity house at reduced rates by coaching the Freshmen in their English and make a small commission selling tickets to the University theater—but have gone to bad numerous nights without supper.”



A vicious […] circle, as he would subsequently come to recognize, was his deeper preoccupation with self: self-fascination and self-torment, the self-imprisonment that his work demanded. In time, that circle turned into a vortex, drawing him into its center and, along with him, those closest to him, those whom he loved and who would love him. Many, though, like [his then girlfriend] Bette Reitz, understood what the personal cost to them would be and shunned his importuning. They simply realized that he would never be free from the bondage of his work.

Bette was a girl somewhat ahead of her time. As her roommate, Jean Fitzpatrick, and others remembered her, she knew her way around. If she didn’t recognize Tom as gay, she knew that he was sexually inadequate to meet her desires and that she had to lead him into the act itself. In Memoirs, he threw the weight of his inadequacy against what he saw then as her promiscuity, but which by present-day standards of free love would be largely overlooked. In the months to come at Iowa, Tom would continue to pursue Bette for the illusion she was.

One of E. C. Mabie’s requirements was that all students in his department act in his various productions. The professor leaned toward more epic plays, like Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I, in which Tom Williams was cast as a member of Falstaff’s “Charge of Foot,” which prompted him to tell his mother, “I am enlisted as a soldier in King Henry IV’ army—next major play—fortunately they did not know about my record on the R.O.T.C.” It had been a year since he made his acting debut as an old man in Molière's Scapin, stomping about in a yellow fright wig and ad-libbing in French. However, French with a southern accent was one thing. Shakespeare another. Mabie wisely saw to it that he had only one line to deliver…

A postcard he sent to his mother announced the fact that he had moved again to a rooming house at 126 North Clinton Street and had started a board job: "I am a waiter in the state hospital doctors' cafeteria—feel very professional in a white uniform—I get meals for three hours service—hope I can keep it."

Earlier he had told his mother that he had received letters from both Clark Mills and Willard Holland. "Holland is leaving for another vacation in California and wants me to let him take one of my plays out there. Clark is having a hard time in Paris, living on about fifty cents a day, and waiting for money to get home on. He said they feel war is inevitable over there and expect to be defeated. Are very incensed against England for being so irresolute." In March, Hitler had swept over Austria without resistance, and Tom commented to his mother, "It seems the whole world is in a state of economic and political chaos for which there isn't any immediate solution. Very hard on these young people on campuses who are going to have to deal with it in the future." Clark Mills would be one among them. In an unmailed note to Mills, Tom wrote, "Everybody is talking about the literary 'renaissance' at Iowa—there are five or six prominent writers here, all of which are now working on novels— "He was alluding to the origin of the University of Iowa's famed Writers' Workshop, although it would not be named as such until the following year."

By mid-June Tom had registered for two classes in the summer session: Mabie's seminar on playwriting and Conkle's course on problems in dramatic art. Tom's hope was that Mabie might take more notice of him. He told his mother that Mabie was about to lose his best playwright, Marcus Bach, and that "he has begun to take a special interest in me, possibly in hopes that I will come back. Of course I probably would if he could get me one of the Rockefeller scholarships."

Later, he reported, "Mabie won't get me a scholarship." Worse than that, Tom had once again read Spring Storm aloud, this time to Mabie and his seminar, and wrote that "it was quite finally rejected by the class."

By the end of July, Tom was again writing to his mother, saying how glad he was that she and Dakin were intending to come to Iowa for his graduation. He also mentioned that after graduation, Marian Gallaway was planning to drive up to Chicago for a few days and to return home via St. Louis, and that Milton Lomask was also going to Chicago to look for work."

Tennessee Williams’s Plaque

Tennessee Williams’s plaque on the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk has the following quote from Orpheus Descending,TW

"We're all of us sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life!"

Loneliness was Williams’s main perception of life. In 1979, four years before his death, he wrote: “My greatest affliction … is perhaps the major theme of my writings, the affliction of loneliness that follows me like a shadow, a very ponderous shadow too heavy to drag after me all of my days and nights.”

Watershed Events in Tennessee Williams’s Life



March 26, 1911: Thomas Lanier Williams is born in Columbus, Mississippi.

1929: Williams is admitted to the University of Missouri, where he sees a production of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts and decides to become a playwright.

1931: His father forces him to withdraw from school and work in a St. Louis shoe factory where he meets a young man named Stanley Kowalski, who will later resurface as a character in A Streetcar Named Desire.

1937: Two of his plays, Candles to the Sun and The Fugitive Kind, are produced by Mummers of St. Louis.

August 5, 1938: Williams graduates from the University of Iowa with a bachelor of arts degree.

1939: He moves to New Orleans and changes his name from Tom to Tennessee.

1943: A pre-frontal lobotomy is performed on Williams’ sister, Rose, who had long suffered from mental illness. However, the operation is a failure and leaves Rose incapacitated for the remainder of her life. Tennessee never forgives his parents for allowing the operation.

December 26, 1944: The Glass Menagerie premieres at the Lyric Theatre in Chicago and enjoys a successful run. In early 1945, it moves to the Playhouse Theatre on Broadway, earning Williams the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best play of the season.

1947: Williams meets and falls in love with Frank Merlo.

October 6, 1948: Summer and Smoke opens at the Music Box Theatre on Broadway.

February 3, 1951: The Rose Tattoo opens at the Martin Beck Theatre on Broadway, earning Williams a Tony Award for Best Play.

March 17, 1953: Camino Real opens at the National Theatre on Broadway.

March 24, 1955: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opens at the Morosco Theatre on Broadway, earning Williams his second Pulitzer Prize as well as another Tony Award for Best Play.

December 28, 1961: The Night of the Iguana opens at the Royal Theatre on Broadway, earning Williams another Tony Award for Best Play.

January 16, 1963: The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore opens at the Morosco Theatre on Broadway. Frank Merlo dies of lung cancer and Williams falls into a deep depression that will last for a decade.

November 23, 1976: The Eccentricities of a Nightingale opens at the Morosco Theatre on Broadway.

February 24, 1983: Tennessee Williams dies in his New York City residence at the Hotel Elysee. According to official reports, he choked to death on a bottle cap. He is buried in St. Louis, Missouri.

Selected List of Plays and Other Works by Tennessee Williams


Photo by Yousuf Karsh on the website of the National Gallery of Australia

Early plays:

Candles to the Sun (1936)
Spring Storm (1937)[fn]In the fall season of 2009, the Royal & Derngate theatre in Northampton, England paired two little-known early plays by Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams in a project called “Young America.” O’Neill’s first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon (1920), ran on Broadway and earned its author, then 32, a Pulitzer Prize. It was now performed along with Spring Storm, written in 1937, while Williams was a 26-year-old student at the University of Iowa. Only now is Williams’ piece of late ‘juvenilia’ getting its European premiere and the Royal & Derngate production makes the case for it to be regarded as no less enduring than the O’Neill’s in terms of its themes but also richly distinctive in its own turbulent atmosphere.[/fn]
Fugitive Kind (1937)
Not About Nightingales (1938)

Major plays:

The Glass Menagerie (1944)
A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)
Summer and Smoke (1948)
The Rose Tattoo (1951)
Camino Real (1953)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955)
Baby Doll (1956)
Sweet Bird of Youth (1959)
The Night of the Iguana (1961)
The Eccentricities of a Nightingale (1962, rewriting of Summer and Smoke)
The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (1963)
Vieux Carré (1977)
A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur (1979)
Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980)
A House Not Meant to Stand (1982)
In Masks Outrageous and Austere (1983)


The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1950, filmed 1961)
Moise and the World of Reason (1975)


The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond (1957, filmed 2009)

Short stories:

The Field of Blue Children (1939)
The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin (1951)
Hard Candy: A Book of Stories (1954)
Three Players of a Summer Game and Other Stories (1960)
The Knightly Quest: a Novella and Four Short Stories (1966)
One Arm and Other Stories (1967)
It Happened the day the Sun Rose, and Other Stories (1981)


Text by: Zlatko Anguelov

United States
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