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Tennessee Williams


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Tennessee Williams Is Dead at 71
NY Times

Tennessee Williams, whose innovative drama and sense of lyricism were a major force in the postwar American theater, died yesterday at the age of 71. He was found dead about 10:45 A.M. in his suite in the Hotel Elysee on East 54th Street.

Officials said that death was due to natural causes, and that he had been under treatment for heart disease. An autopsy is scheduled for today.

Author of more than 24 full-length plays, including ''The Glass Menagerie,'' ''A Streetcar Named Desire,'' ''Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'' - Tennessee Williams was the most important American playwright after Eugene O'Neill. The latter two won Pulitzer Prizes - and ''The Night of the Iguana,'' he had a profound effect on the American theater and on American playwrights and actors. He wrote with deep sympathy and expansive humor about outcasts in our society. Though his images were often violent, he was a poet of the human heart.

Plays Intensely Personal

His works, which are among the most popular plays of our time, continue to provide a rich reservoir of acting challenges. Among the actors celebrated in Williams roles were Laurette Taylor in ''The Glass Menagerie''; Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy in ''A Streetcar Named Desire'' (and Vivien Leigh in the movie version), and Burl Ives in ''Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.''

''The Glass Menagerie,'' his first success, was his ''memory play.'' Many of his other plays were his nightmares. Although seldom intentionally autobiographical, the plays were almost all intensely personal -torn from his own private anguishes and anxieties.

He once described his sister's room in the family home in St. Louis, with her collection of glass figures, as representing ''all the softest emotions that belong to recollection of things past.'' But, he remembered, outside the room was an alley in which, nightly, dogs destroyed cats.

Mr. Williams's work, which was unequaled in passion and imagination by any of his contemporaries' works, was a barrage of conflicts, of the blackest horrors offset by purity. Perhaps his greatest character, Blanche Du Bois, the heroine of ''Streetcar,'' has been described as a tigress and a moth, and, as Mr. Williams created her, there was no contradiction.

His basic premise, he said, was ''the need for understanding and tenderness and fortitude among individuals trapped by circumstance.'' Just as his work reflected his life, his life reflected his work. A monumental hypochondriac, he became obsessed with sickness, failure and death. Several times he thought he was losing his sight, and he had four eye operations for cataracts. Constantly he thought his heart would stop beating. In desperation, he drank and took pills immoderately.

He was a man of great shyness, but with friends he showed great openness, which often worked to his disadvantage. He was extremely vulnerable to demands - from directors, actresses, the public, his critics, admirers and detractors.

He feigned disinterest in reviews, but he was deeply disturbed by them. Unfavorable ones could devastate him. Favorable ones might corrupt him. The most successful serious playwright of his time, he did not write for success but, as one friend said, as a ''biological necessity.''

Frightened by Success

Success struck him suddenly in 1945, with the Broadway premiere of ''The Glass Menagerie,'' and it frightened him much more than his failure.

He was born as Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Miss., on March 26, 1911. His mother, the former Edwina Dakin, was the puritanical daughter of an Episcopal rector. His father, Cornelius Coffin Williams, was a violent and aggressive traveling salesman who later settled down in St. Louis as manager of a show company. There was an older daughter, Rose (memorialized as Laura in ''the Glass Menagerie''), and in 1919 another son was born, Walter Dakin.

''It was just a wrong marriage,'' the playwright wrote. The familial conflict is made clear by instances from the son's art. His mother was the model for the foolish but indomitable Amanda Wingfield in ''The Glass Menagerie,'' his father for the blustering, brutish Big Daddy in ''Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.''

Acted Out Fantasies

While his father traveled, Tom was mostly brought up, and overprotected, by his mother - particularly after he contracted diphtheria at the age of 5. By the time the family moved to St. Louis, the pattern was clear. Young Tom retreated into himself. He made up and told stories, many of them scary.

In the fall of 1929 he went off to the University of Missouri to study journalism. When his childhood girlfriend, Hazel Kramer, also decided to enroll at Missouri, his father said he would withdraw him, and succeeded in breaking up the incipient romance. It was his only known romantic relationship with a woman.

In a state of depression, Tom dropped out of school and, at his father's instigation, took a job as a clerk in a shoe company. It was, he recalled, ''living death.''

To survive, every day after work he retreated to his room and wrote - stories, poems, plays - through the night. The strain finally led to a nervous breakdown. Sent to Memphis to recuperate, the young Mr. Williams joined a local theater group. Back in St. Louis, he became friendly with a group of poets at Washington University, particularly Clark Mills McBurney who, among other things, introduced Mr. Williams to the poems of Hart Crane. Crane became his idol.

In 1937, Mr. Williams re-enrolled as a student, this time at the University of Iowa. There and in St. Louis he wrote an enormous, and uncounted, number of plays, some of which were produced on campus. In 1938, nine years after he had entered college, he graduated.

Success seemed paired with tragedy. His sister lost her mind. The family allowed - with subsequent recriminations - a prefrontal lobotomy to be performed, and she spent much of her life in a sanitarium.

Life in New Orleans

At 28, Thomas Williams left home for New Orleans, where he changed his style of living, as well as his name. He offered several reasons for the name change. It was a reaction against his early inferior work, published under his real name. It was a college nickname. It was because his father was from Tennessee. It was distinctive.

In New Orleans he discovered new netherworlds, soaking up the milieu that would appear in ''A Streetcar Named Desire.'' He wrote stories, some of which later became plays, and entered a Group Theater playwriting contest. He won $100 and was solicited by the agent Audrey Wood, who became his friend and adviser.

''Battle of Angels,'' a play he wrote during a visit of several months to St. Louis, opened in Boston in 1940 and was a disaster. It closed in two weeks and did not come to New York.

Mr. Williams, however, brought it back in a revised version in 1957 as ''Orpheus Descending'' and as the Marlon Brando-Anna Magnani movie, ''The Fugitive Kind,'' and in 1973 it was presented at the Circle Repertory Company.

To his amazement, Audrey Wood got him a job in Hollywood writing scripts for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer at $250 a week for six months. He wrote a Lana Turner picture, worked briefly on a Margaret O'Brien picture and, disdainfully, began writing an original screenplay, which was rejected.

Still under contract, in a house at Malibu, he began turning the screenplay into a play titled ''The Gentleman Caller,'' which slowly evolved into ''The Glass Menagerie.'' On March 31, 1945, five days after its author became 34, it opened on Broadway and changed Mr. Williams's life, and the American theater..

He was inundated with success -the play won the New York Drama Critics' Circle award - and he fought to keep afloat. ''Once you fully apprehend the vacuity of a life without struggle,'' he wrote, ''you are equipped with the basic means of salvation.'' His art was his salvation. Apprehending, he wrote his second masterpiece, ''A Streetcar Named Desire.''

Opening in December, 1947, ''Streetcar'' was an even bigger hit than ''The Glass Menagerie.'' It won Mr. Williams his second Drama Critics' award and his first Pulitzer Prize.

Never Stopped Revising

For many years after ''Streetcar,'' almost every other season there was another Williams play on Broadway (and a one-act play somewhere else). Soon there was a continual flow from the stage to the screen. And he never stopped revising his finished work. For more than 35 years, the stream was unabated. He produced an enormous body of work, including more than two dozen full-length plays, all of them produced - a record unequaled by any of his contemporaries.

There were successes and failures, and often great disagreement over which was which. In 1948 there was ''Summer and Smoke,'' which he wrote on Nantucket while sharing his house with his friend Carson McCullers (at his encouragement she was dramatizing ''The Member of the Wedding''). It failed on Broadway, was a huge success in a revival Off Broadway and made a star of Geraldine Page, one of many magnificent leading ladies in Mr. Williams's works (Laurette Taylor, Jessica Tandy, Vivien Leigh, Maureen Stapleton, Anna Magnani).

There followed ''The Rose Tattoo,'' ''Camino Real'' (a flop in 1953, but revived as a classic at Lincoln Center in 1970), ''Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'' (his third Drama Critics' prize, his second Pulitzer), ''Orpheus Descending,'' ''Garden District,'' ''Sweet Bird of Youth.'' Most of these plays have been seen again in major revivals.

In addition to the plays, he wrote two novels, ''The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone'' and ''Moise and the World of Reason''; short stories, such as ''One Arm'' and ''Hard Candy''; a book of poetry, ''In the Winter of Cities,'' the film ''Baby Doll'' and his ''Memoirs.'' In his ''Memoirs,'' for the first time he wrote in detail about his homosexuality but, as usual, he was restrained in dealing with his creative life, explaining that his art was ''private.''

As he became more and more successful, Mr. Williams lost his look of boyish innocence and became somewhat portly and seedy. Gradually he found it more and more difficult to write. The turning point, as he saw it, was 1955, and after ''Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'' there was a noticeable decline in his work. To keep going, he began relying on a ritualistic combination of ingredients -strong coffee, cigarettes, drugs and alcohol.

In the late 1950's, Mr. Williams undertook psychoanalysis, explaining, ''If I am no longer disturbed myself, I will deal less with violent material.'' His first postanalysis work was the 1960 ''Period of Adjustment,'' a comedy that by common critical agreement was one of the slightest of his works.

He went back to his nightmares and reached further out for subject matter. In terms of subject and theme, he was a pioneer, working with dark, theater of the absurd or the theater of cruelty was fashionable.

''The Night of the Iguana,'' which won a fourth Drama Critics' award for Mr. Williams in 1961, was considered a return to his earlier important work. As it turned out, it was his last major success.

Converted to Catholicism

After ''Iguana,'' Mr. Williams went searching and seemed to fall apart. But at the same time he discovered religion. In 1968 he was converted to Roman Catholicism. And his last plays, though still dealing with grotesques, also dealt with salvation.

''The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore,'' which failed in successive years on Broadway and as an Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton movie entitled ''Boom!'', was an allegory about a Christlike young man and a dying dowager. His next three plays, ''Slapstick Tragedy,'' ''The Seven Descents of Myrtle'' and ''In a Bar in a Tokyo Hotel,'' also had minuscule runs.

Recovering from an illness, he plunged back to work, writing and rewriting. In the 70's he was, characteristically, prolific, but success continued to elude him. ''Small Craft Warning'' had a comfortable run Off Broadway in 1972, and at one point, the author himself made his professional debut as an actor in his own play, assuming a small role.

''Out Cry'' was a quick failure on Broadway in 1973 and ''The Red Devil Battery Sign'' closed in Boston, although it was subsquently presented in London. ''Vieux Carre'' had a brief Broadway run in 1979 (and will be revived next month at the WPA). Of his later plays, his most popular was the poignant ''A Lovely Sunday at Creve Coeur'' in 1979.

His last Broadway play was ''Clothes for a Summer Hotel,'' a drama about Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald that proved to be one of his biggest failures. Though wounded by the critical reception, he continued writing, in his last years working with noncommercial institutional theaters.

''Something Cloudy, Something Clear'' was produced Off Off Broadway at the Jean Cocteau Theater in 1981, and last year his final play, ''A House Not Meant to Stand,'' had its premiere at the Goodman Theater of Chicago. That play, subsequently presented at the New World Festival of the Arts in Miami, deals with the physical and emotional disintegration of an older married couple in Mississippi.

In recent years, Mr. Williams divided his time between his apartment in New York at the Elysee and his house in Key West. He also kept an apartment in the French Quarter of New Orleans, the scene of ''A Streetcar Named Desire.''

Several weeks ago Mr. Williams had come to New York from Key West. According to a close friend, ''He complained constantly of being exhausted and overworked and he said he was suffering with a shoulder condition.''

Mr. Williams's secretary, John Uecker, who shared the playwright's two-room hotel suite, said that at about 11 P.M. Thursday he heard a noise from Mr. Williams's room, but did not investigate. Yesterday morning at approximately 10:45 he entered the room and found him lying next to his bed.

Mr. Williams is survived by his brother, Dakin, a Collinsville, Ill. attorney, and by his sister, Rose, who is in a nursing home in Westchester County.

''I always felt like Tennessee and I were compatriots,'' said Marlon Brando. ''He told the truth as best he perceived it, and never turned away from things that beset or frightened him. We are all diminished by his death.''


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Drama: Tennessee Williams
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in Columbus, Mississippi, but grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. ...

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One year later, Tom's brother, Walter Dakin Williams was born. ...

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