Tennessee Williams: Writing

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Williams won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for A Streetcar Named Desire in 1948 and for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955. In addition, The Glass Menagerie (1945) and The Night of the Iguana (1961) received New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards. His 1952 play The Rose Tattoo (dedicated to his lover, Frank Merlo), received the Tony Award for best play.

In 1927, at the age of 16, Williams won third prize (five dollars) for an essay published in Smart Set entitled, “Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?” A year later, he published “The Vengeance of Nitocris” in Weird Tales. It was six years later when his first play, Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay!, was produced in Memphis, in many respects the true beginning of his literary and stage career.

Building upon the experience he gained with his first production, Williams had two of his plays, Candles to the Sun and The Fugitive Kind, produced by Mummers of St. Louis in 1937 played to enthusiastic audiences. As the Second World War loomed over the horizon, Williams found a bit of fame when he won the Group Theater prize of $100 for American Blues and received a $1,000 grant from the Authors’ League of America in 1939.

Battle of Angels was produced in Boston a year later. Battle of Angels his first Broadway production closed after 2 weeks in New York. Tennessee says he felt gullible at the time as he let in a lot of changes of which he did not approve; though the failure could be due to the poor reception of sex and religion in Boston. When the play opened in Boston it was torn apart. Tennessee says the Theatre Guild messed up his Battle of Angels – “which is the best play I’ve written yet; it may not be quite so polished as the one that is now on but it has an epic quality, it has sweep, and I think that is more desirable than finish.” He also said, “I’m glad now that the play was not a success,” Williams says. “If it had been it would have gone to my head and I would have thought I knew all there was to know about playwriting. As it was, I was forced to realize I had much to learn so I set out to learn it.” After Battle of Angels closed he felt ridiculously oversold and started publishing poetry and short stories. His work appeared in Story and Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, Five Young Poets. On his notoriety after Battle “I was in the peculiar position of being fairly well known in the theater, but having no productions.” Battle was Williams’ favorite play and attempted at the story again with an 85% rewrite of Battle of Angels appearing under the title Orpheus Descending. Upon opening it still received bad reviews and closed after a short run. He went into psychoanalysis shortly thereafter.

Near the close of the war in 1944, what many consider to be his finest play, The Glass Menagerie, had a very successful run in Chicago and a year later burst its way onto Broadway. Containing autobiographical elements from both his days in St. Louis as well as from his family’s past in Mississippi, the play won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award as the best play of the season.

Following the critical acclaim over The Glass Menagerie, over the next eight years he found homes for A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke, A Rose Tattoo, and Camino Real on Broadway. Although his reputation on Broadway continued to zenith, particularly upon receiving his first Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for Streetcar, Williams reached a larger world-wide public in 1950 when The Glass Menagerie and again in 1951 when A Streetcar Named Desire were made into motion pictures. Williams had now achieved a fame few playwrights of his day could equal.

Williams, at the age of 34, had etched an indelible mark among the public and among his peers.

Williams wrote The Parade, or Approaching the End of a Summer when he was 29 worked on it through his life. It seemed an autobiographical depiction of an early romance in Provincetown, Massachusetts. This play was produced for the first time on 1 October 2006 in Provincetown by the Shakespeare on the Cape production company, as part of the First Annual Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival. The Parade, or Approaching the End of a Summer will be published by New Directions in the spring of 2008, in a collection of previously unpublished plays titled The Traveling Companion and Other Plays, edited by Williams scholar Annette J. Saddik.

Tennessee was always content with the meager payments for his writings. “My salaries have ranged from $50 a month to $250 a week, but I preferred to $50 jobs because it enabled me to live in New Orleans. My largest salary was earned in Hollywood where I worked on the writing staff at MGM. I didn’t like it, but it enabled me to save something for a change.”

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