Albert and Shirley Small Speial Collections Library
actors graphicCreating America's Theatre
actors graphic
Introduction to the Exhibit
Early American Theatre
A Novel Idea
Setting the Modern Stage
A Voice of Their Own
Picks and Pans
Playbills and Programs
Regional Theatre in Virginia

Setting the Modern Stage

Tennessee Williams

Playwright, novelist, short-story writer, and poet, Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams was born on March 26, 1911. Having lived his early years in small towns in Mississippi, Williams moved with his family to St. Louis at the age of seven. This difficult adjustment proved just one in an unhappy upbringing which profoundly affected the creative individual that Williams became. His unstable home environment consisted of a hard-drinking, violent father, a traveling salesman who berated his child for being a “sissy;” a domineering mother who never stopped being the puritanical daughter of an Episcopal rector; and his older sister who was mentally unstable and eventually institutionalized. Tennessee Williams’s adulthood and his writing never escaped the ghosts of his childhood.

The passion to write burned in Williams from an early age. He had a short story published at the age of sixteen and, during the mid-to-late 1930s, began writing plays that were staged by regional theatre groups. Following his graduation from the University of Iowa in 1938, Williams wrote a group of one-act plays which he entitled American Blues and submitted to a play-writing contest with the Group Theatre in 1939. He was awarded a special hundred-dollar prize that ultimately landed him with a noted literary agent, Audrey Wood, who was instrumental in Williams’s later successes.

Moving to New York City, having taken the professional name of Tennessee Williams, the playwright worked on another play, Battle of Angels, which the Theatre Guild agreed to produce in 1940. The play opened in Boston and failed after its two-week run. It took another five years of drifting and working diverse jobs before Williams finally achieved critical and box-office success. His memory-play The Glass Menagerie initially appeared in Chicago in 1944, but the following year saw the play produced at the Playhouse on Broadway. That year, it received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, The Donaldson Award, and the Sidney Howard Memorial Award. It was just the beginning of Williams’s illustrious playwriting career. A Streetcar Named Desire opened in New York in 1947 and ran for two years, garnering Williams a Pulitzer Prize and another New York Drama Critics Circle Award. More plays followed in succession, many of them critical and commercial successes—Summer and Smoke (1948), The Rose Tatoo (1951), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), Suddenly Last Summer (1958), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), and The Night of the Iguana (1961). Many of these plays translated into memorable films.

Over the years, there were failures as well, and although Williams continued to write and have plays produced, success after The Night of the Iguana became ever more elusive. The stress surrounding the production of a Broadway show drew Williams more and more to Off-Broadway theatre, where he felt that he could experiment more freely. Williams’s later years were plagued by ill health and drug and alcohol abuse. However, by the time of his death in 1983, Tennessee Williams had left an indelible mark on twentieth-century American theatre. His remarkable characters—Amanda, Laura, Blanche, Stanley, Maggie, Brick, Big Daddy—continue to walk among us.


Dust-jacket photograph of Tennessee Williams. No date.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

The Glass Menagerie


Typed manuscript, signed, with autograph corrections, of “The Glass Menagerie,” by Tennessee Williams. [1944].
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.


Williams, Tennessee. Suddenly Last Summer. New York: New Directions, 1958.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.



A Streetcar Named Desire

Irene M. Selznick Presents Elia Kazan’s Production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Playbill for the New York City Center of Music and Drama. [New York]: Playbill, [1950].
Gift of Doris Farr.


Sweet Bird of Youth


Publicity photograph for the film version of Sweet Bird of Youth. 1962.

From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.



Albert H. and Shirley Small Special Collections Library
University of Virginia
PO Box 400110
Charlottesville, VA 22903-4110
ph: 434.924.3025  |  fax: 434.924.3143
Credits | Comments |  Special Collections
Library Home | Search the Library Web
Maintained by: mssbks@virginia. edu
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 27, 2010
© The Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia