By Chris Baker
(A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theater Training '90), Production Dramaturg for The Night of the Iguana, and Assistant Professor of Dramaturgy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Thomas Lanier Williams—“Tennessee”—was born in Columbus, Mississippi in 1911. His father was a traveling shoe salesman, his mother the daughter of an Episcopal clergyman. The young Tom lived his first years in the rectory of his grandfather’s parish. His family moved to St. Louis when he was twelve, and though Williams attended the University of Missouri, money was short and he had to drop out. After working in a shoe warehouse for two years until falling ill, he moved in with his grandparents in Memphis, where he wrote his first play, Cairo! Shanghai! Bombay! Short stories began to earn Williams money, and he eventually went back to study at Washington University and then the University of Iowa, earning a degree in 1938. A playwriting contest sponsored by the Group Theatre brought Williams one hundred dollars and the attention of legendary agent Audrey Wood. Williams moved to New Orleans and began writing as “Tennessee.”
In the summer of 1940, Williams’ affair with dancer Kip Kiernan ended, and an anticipated production of his play The Battle of Angels stalled. “I am running away,” the discouraged Williams wrote to producer Lawrence Langer, “to Mexico.” It was there, short on cash at the Costa Verde Hotel, that Williams began the story “The Night of the Iguana.” In December, the Theatre Guild staged The Battle of Angels in Boston. Though a spectacular failure, it was the promise of important works yet to come. While on contract to MGM, Tennessee fulfilled that promise by writing The Glass Menagerie, for which he won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award in 1945. In 1948 he won the Pulitzer Prize for A Streetcar Named Desire. The success of Streetcar was followed by Summer and Smoke (1948), the novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1950), and the Tony Award-winning The Rose Tattoo (1951). In 1952 he expanded a short play into the full-length fantasy Camino Real. His second Pulitzer Prize came in 1955 for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Williams became known for the creation of sensitive or artistic outcasts, the “fugitive kind”—characters to be found at the centers of Orpheus Descending (his 1957 reworking of Battle of Angels), Suddenly Last Summer (1958), and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959).
In 1959, Williams returned to the story he began in Mexico. While the short story was eventually published in 1948, Williams continued to develop it dramatically, first as the short play Quebrada (the site of the famous cliff divers in Acapulco), then as a ninety-minute one-act for the Two Worlds Festival in Spoleto. The next year, a full-length The Night of the Iguana (subtitled Southern Cross) was performed in a three-act version at Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami. After an eight week out-of-town tour—Rochester, Detroit, and Chicago—it opened on Broadway on December 28, 1961 with Margaret Leighton, Patrick O’Neal, Alan Webb, Patricia Roe and, as the Costa Verde’s patrona, Bette Davis.
The Night of the Iguana won the New York Critics' Circle Award, but afterwards Williams’ critical reception—especially on Broadway—began to cool, as his works over the next two decades became more experimental in form. Elected to the Academy of Arts and Letters and honored by President Carter at the Kennedy Center, Williams took on the role of theatrical elder statesmen. He oversaw successful revivals of his works (including the famed 1974 Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring Elizabeth Ashley) and broke sales records with his autobiographical Memoirs, while premiering new plays such as The Red Devil Battery Sign, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, and Clothes for a Summer Hotel. In April 1982, A House Not Meant to Stand, based in part on his own family, premiered in Chicago. The following February, Tennessee Williams died, leaving behind more than seventy plays, three novels, eight collections of short stories and poetry, and a legacy that remains unique in the American theater.