Tennessee Williams is known as one of America’s greatest playwrights, and some people think the greatest ever from the South. In October, the 31st Annual Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival will be held in Clarksdale.
In 1974, while serving in the Army Security Agency in Augsburg, Germany, I learned about a newly formed small theater company near the army base. Several people who had worked with the New York City Broadway plays wanted to give back to the military by offering shows.
Someone encouraged me to audition for the production of The Star Spangled Girl, a 1971 Neil Simon three-act play. Only three actors, two men and one woman, were needed. The female character needed to be someone who could portray a southern young lady with a thick accent. I attended the tryouts with no prior acting experience other than grade school Christmas plays. And being from Illinois, this gal did not have a Southern accent. To my surprise, I landed the leading role of Amy Cooper. I was an actress!
After all these years, the only line I can remember is this: “I like the way you smell.” Make sure you drag the word “smell” out with an extra-long drawl. The audience would roar with laughter.
My short-lived acting career and the memorization of lines pales in comparison to the person who is a playwright or a screenwriter. Have you ever created a play? Think about all the components: the characters, the dialogue, the scenes, the plot, and the ending. Ask anyone who writes, and they will tell you it is some of the most challenging work they have ever done.
Life’s Experiences for Writing Endeavors
If we could interview Thomas Lanier Williams when he was in his mid-twenties, perhaps he would tell us about his experiences regarding the hard work of writing all night, the notices of rejection, and the proud moments when he won a contest and later in life, the Pulitzer Prize.
Many writers pull from personal experiences. How did Williams’ life experiences play a part in his writing? A quick dig into his background will surely lead to the answer.
Thomas was born in Columbus, Mississippi, on March 26, 1911, the second child of Edwina Dakin Williams and Cornelius Coffin “C.C.” Williams. He had an older sister, Rose, and a younger brother, Dakin. Cornelius, a traveling salesman, apparently had a reputation for being a loud, obnoxious, hard-drinking individual who was rarely at home. Edwina, opposite in personality, is described as quiet and possessive. While Cornelius was traveling, the family lived with their maternal grandparents. The grandfather, an Episcopal rector, was known for being liberal and progressive in his thoughts and ways.
The family dynamics were already complex. Add the serious childhood diseases Thomas encountered, and things became more complicated. Schooling became an issue, forcing Thomas to be home. He spent hours reading books from his grandfather’s library. Around the age of seven, Thomas’ father moved his family to St. Louis when he took employment in a shoe factory. The family lived in an overcrowded apartment. Sadly, his sister withdrew and stopped maturing mentally into adulthood.
Education for Thomas brought more challenges. At school, his classmates made fun of his southern accent, and finding acceptance was difficult. Writing became his outlet. He did have some articles published in student magazines, and his “The Vengeance of Nitocris” was published in Weird Tales. He earned $35.00.
After graduating from high school, Thomas attended the University of Missouri. He attended for three years, involved with the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). However, his grades were poor, and he failed ROTC.
His father refused to pay for another year of college, so he got Thomas a job at the shoe factory. Thomas describes the next two years as the most miserable time of his life. He worked during the day and wrote all night, eventually succumbing to a nervous breakdown.
During this timeframe, Thomas’ grandfather had retired and moved to Memphis. Thomas went to his grandparents’ home to recuperate and continue his writing. He won a few prizes for his short pieces and poetry. Thomas recovered and went back to Washington University in St. Louis. This time, he joined a writers’ group, and some of his writings were published.
From Missouri, he attended the University of Iowa, and for a creative writing seminar, he wrote and submitted two long plays. In 1940, he received a Rockefeller Fellowship that provided money to pay for expenses while he wrote. When the funds were no longer available, he took on odd jobs.
The Glass Menagerie was his first successful publication (1944-1945). The play depicts his experiences in his factory job through the character Tom Wingfield, (notice the first name). Laura Wingfield’s character was about his sister, Rose. And for the character Stanley Kowalski, we find qualities his father possessed.
Perhaps this is the reason Williams was able to write so many plays. He based his characters on his family members and settings on real-life experiences. He uses Rose to portray the main character in five of his plays. She appears in other works.
Why the Pen Name?
In an article written by Margaret Bradham Thornton and published in the Huffington Post on August 15, 2014, we gain insight into the story behind Lanier Williams’ pen name.
Like many writers, Williams started keeping a journal, but not until age 25. Within the pages of the journal are the names of Pulitzer Prize winners Williams enjoyed reading and writing contests he entered. It gave him “reassurances that shock, defeats, disappointments are all snowed under by the pages and pages of new experience.”
He wrote about the Group Theatre offering a contest for writers under 25. The year was 1939. Williams wanted to enter the contest, but he was 28. He created a plan. He changed his date of birth to show he was three years younger and his name to Tennessee Williams. His grandparents’ home in Memphis became his return address. When the contest was over, he didn’t win, but the name Tennessee stuck.
The Clarksdale Connection
Around the age of six, Tennessee, his siblings, and his mother moved to Clarksdale because Walter E. Dakin, his grandfather, became the rector of Clarksdale’s St. George’s Episcopal Church. After the family moved to St. Louis in 1918, they regularly visited Clarksdale.
When you read some of Tennessee’s most well-known plays, such as A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or Summer and Smoke, you will find references to places, stories, and people from the Mississippi Delta. The 2,300 acre Moon Lake, located approximately four miles north of Coahoma, is featured in many of his plays.
The Rectory where Walter Dakin served is now the Tennessee Williams Rectory Museum. Karen Kohlhaas is the founder and curator of the museum. It’s located at 106 Sharkey Avenue, Clarksdale, and is open by appointment, call 646-465-1578.
Next month, October 12-14, the 31st Annual Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival will be held in Clarksdale. The festival began in 1992 with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The feature for the festival will be the Williams’ Delta Movie, Baby Doll, starring Carroll Baker, Eli Wallach, and Karl Malden.
Tennessee Williams & New Orleans Literary Festival
In 1939, Tennessee Williams moved to the French Quarter. He lived in a one-residence house at 722 Toulouse Street in the historic French Quarter. This location inspired his play Vieux Carré and A Streetcar Named Desire.
Today, the historic French Quarter is the setting for The Tennessee Williams & New Orleans Literary Festival. It is held on the weekend nearest his birthday, March 26th, next year’s dates are March 20 – 24, 2024.
Literary Works & Pulitzer Prize
Tennessee Williams is known as one of America’s greatest playwrights, and some people think the greatest ever from the South. He wrote over 25 full-length plays, short plays, and screenplays, a novella, two novels, at least 60 short stories, more than 100 poems, and an autobiography.
He won many awards, including four New York Drama Critics Circle Awards. The Pulitzer Prize for Drama was given for A Streetcar Named Desire in 1948 and the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955.
The following list of movies gives you an idea of some of actors and actresses who portrayed the characters in his plays:
The Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 1958 production starred Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Burl Ives, Jack Carson, and Judith Anderson. It was produced again in 1984.
A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951, had Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden, produced two more times in 1984 and 1995.
The Glass Menagerie, a 1950 production starred Jane Wyman, Kirk Douglas, Gertrude Lawrence, and Arthur Kennedy. This film was produced in 1966, 1973, and 1987, making it the top movie by Tennessee Williams.
If you would like to learn more about the life of Tennessee Williams, the following books are available: Tennessee Williams, Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr, Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams by Lyle Leverich, and Memoirs by Tennessee Williams.
Tennessee Williams died on February 25, 1983, at 71 in New York.