This month marks 35 years since the death of Tennessee Williams, one of America’s greatest playwrights and a titan of queer culture. Born Thomas Williams, Tennessee transformed American theater, film, and art; and he created a template for a life of sophistication, intelligence, and personal pain still followed by many gay men to this day.
His childhood was not particularly happy. He was small and unhealthy, suffering from diptheria which nearly killed him. His father was violent and his mother overbearing, and the family frequently moved. He began to write seriously in high school, winning some small contests before going on to study journalism at the University of Mississippi. There, he was quickly recognized for his skill as a playwright, winning a prize for his play Beauty.
Even then, he was a constant writer. When his father pulled him out of school to work in a shoe factory, Williams spent every evening writing, often falling asleep in his clothes because he was exhausted by composing. His menial jobs, assigned by his father, depressed him intensely. Eventually, he and his mother left his father, who was becoming increasingly abusive.
Williams re-enrolled in school in his mid-20s, studying at the University of Iowa and moving on to New York City. A grant from the Rockefeller Foundation helped him move to New Orleans to write for the Works Progress Administration. He soon came to the attention of Hollywood producers — and soon he was hired by MGM. Then came his big breaks: a series of successful plays and films that cemented him as an icon.
During this time, Williams struggled with his sexuality. In New York, he finally found a group of gay men who would accept him, and he began to date. There were a string of unfortunate relationships: one man left him to marry a woman, and soon died; another was violent and unpredictable. His happy partnership with another man lasted for years, but following the man’s death, Williams was plunged into depression.
Williams began abusing amphetamines and sedatives, and struggled to maintain his creative output. As substances chipped away at his health, he faded into lesser-known quiet. But his works remain vital to this day: The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Night of the Iguana transformed theater.
A founding member of the “New Drama” movement, Williams imbued his plays with an emotional depth and honesty that had been lacking in previous styles. He brought to his work a gentle defense of what he saw as Old South values — that is a romanticism and elegance. His legacy is a transformed theater scene, in which playwrights were freer than ever to explore naturalistic details in American life, and a pattern of speech that was previously thought insufficiently refined for the stage.
And of course, his magical dialogue remains among the most quotable in modern theater. “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” is iconic — but perhaps even more meaningful is something Williams once said of himself. “If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels.”
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