A brief history of Tennessee Williams

  • The Midgie
  • 1 October 2008
Tennessee Williams

The life of Tennessee Williams reads like one of his plays. Born in Columbus, Mississippi, his childhood was marred by an illness that paralysed his legs for two years, a period during which his mother gave him a typewriter and encouraged him to write. His illness also saved him from the abusive attention of his father, Cornelius, who instead beat his able-bodied brother, Dakin.

Williams was very close to his sister, a slim Southern belle who was diagnosed with schizophrenia at an early age, locked up in an asylum for most of her life and eventually subjected to a prefrontal lobotomy, a surgical procedure that removed part of her brain and left her incapacitated for the rest of her life. This fractious family life was to prove a fertile source of inspiration for Williams: a lobotomy operation features in Suddenly, Last Summer (which will be staged at the Tron this year) and the character Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie is reputedly based on his own mother. Despite critical and commercial success, including a spell writing for the movies that spawned A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Williams eventually died alone in a hotel room, drug-addicted and drink-addled. He had choked on the lid of an eyedrop bottle.


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