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Tennessee Williams: A Restless Fugitive

Born Thomas Lanier Williams, III, on March 26th, 1911, playwright Tennessee Williams was as much a New Yorker as anyone, really. While his place of birth was really Columbus, Mississippi, he was an itinerant traveler of the world, but spent much of his professional career in New York City, primarily in Greenwich Village. Much like his fellow artists in the Village, Williams took inspiration from his surroundings, which colored and informed his writing.  A Streetcar Named Desire, for example, is set in the French Quarter of his adopted home of New Orleans, a historic neighborhood and cultural haven much like the Village.

Tennessee Williams self-portrait from the collection at The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.  Painting was a favorite hobby of Williams.

At 28, Williams moved to New Orleans, where he changed his name to Tennessee and revamped his lifestyle, soaking up the city life that would inform most of his writing.

On March 20th of 1939, he received a notice that the Group Theatre had awarded his play American Blues a $100 prize. In the same week, he received a letter from the prestigious literary agent, Audrey Wood, offering to represent him. At the time, Williams was only dimly aware of the importance of the Group Theatre, which was headed by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg. The acting company included John Garfield, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, and Elia Kazan, and Williams’ admired playwrights Clifford Odets, Paul Green, and Irwin Shaw. A less naïve person would have headed for New York immediately.  However, Williams chose to spend the $100 on a trip to California to spend a lazy summer at Laguna Beach reading D.H. Lawrence by the water.

Later self portrait from the collection at The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin

In December of that year, he received notice that he had won a prestigious $1,000 Rockefeller scholarship.  Audrey Wood immediately enrolled him in the playwriting seminar of John Gassner at The New School for Social Research, which landed Williams in the heart of Greenwich Village. Gassner was a theatrical scholar who was head of Playwriting and Theater History at Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop from 1940 until 1950. Williams’ time in the Village with Gassner proved to be a critical point in his writing process. Gassner was instrumental in helping Williams to focus his poetic skills and hone his ability to turn dialogue into full theatrical works.

While he stayed at The New School only from January until April of 1940, the contacts he made there put him on a course toward a successful playwriting career. In February, his one-act play, The Long Goodbye, was produced by student actors at The New School. While in the Village, he was introduced to other struggling artists, several of whom, including Donald Windham, Fred Melton, and Gilbert Maxwell, would join forces with him later in his career.

Williams was never long in New York, however. The city was a distraction to him, and he was never able to fully concentrate on his writing while in residence. “My residence there had become a sort of endurance contest in which I felt myself to be rapidly losing out.  I seem to be constitutionally unable to stay in one place more than three months and I had been in Manhattan nearly four and had an excruciating nostalgia for the beach again.” In fact, Williams was never in one place at all for any length of time. He was a self-described restless fugitive.  I am the “fugitive kind who seeks a necessary escape from the oppressive norms and institutions of society…” he once wrote.

These themes and ideas would preoccupy him for the rest of his life: the plight of the social outcast, particularly the bohemian artist struggling to create art in a hostile environment, the destructive impact of society on the sensitive, non-conformist individual,  and the individual’s struggle with sexuality and sexual identity.

During the period from 1939 to 1957, Williams composed such masterpieces as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, cementing his reputation as America’s most celebrated playwright. By 1955 he had earned two Pulitzer Prizes, three New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards, and a Tony.

The Morgan Library currently has a wonderful exhibition: Tennessee Williams: No Refuge but Writing which highlights the playwright’s creative process and his close involvement with the theatrical production of his works, as well as their reception and lasting impact. Uniting his original drafts, private diaries, and personal letters with paintings, photographs, production stills, and other objects, the exhibition tells the story of one man’s ongoing struggle for self-expression and how it forever changed the landscape of American drama.  It is on exhibit until May 13, 2018.

You can read more about the roots of Modern American Drama in Greenwich Village here here and here

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