Tennessee Williams is usually considered to be the greatest American playwright, with nine major plays to his credit. He was born Thomas Lanier Williams on March 26, 1911, in Columbus, Mississippi, the second of three children born to Cornelius Coffin (a traveling salesman) and Edwina (Dakin) Williams.
Williams attended the University of Missouri from 1931 to 1933. After seeing a production of Ghosts, a play by Heinrik Ibsen, he decided to become a playwright. But his education was interrupted by his father's insistence that he work for a shoe company. Williams managed to resume his education at Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, from 1936 to 1937, and he finally graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Iowa in 1938. He then worked in various jobs in New Orleans, Jacksonville, Florida, and New York City. These included clerk, waiter, hotel elevator operator, teletype operator, and theatre usher.
In 1940, Williams's first major production, Battle of Angels, was staged in Boston, but critical reception was harsh and the play was quickly withdrawn. But success was not long in coming. In 1944, The Glass Menagerie was staged in Chicago and then ran for over five hundred performances in New York City. The play won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and established his reputation as a playwright of considerable promise.
Williams's new reputation was further enhanced by A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. In 1951, the play was made into a highly successful film starring Vivien Leigh as Blanche and Marlon Brando as Stanley. By that time, Williams had entered his most prolific writing period, producing a new play about every two years. His major plays during the 1950s began with The Rose Tattoo (1950), Camino Real (1953), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), which won the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. The play ran for 694 performances. It was adapted for film in 1958, starring Paul Newman as Brick, Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie, and BurlIves as Big Daddy.
Orpheus Descending (1957, a revised version of Battle of Angels), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), and The Night of the Iguana (1961) made up the remainder of Williams's most renowned plays.
In 1961, Williams's long-time companion Frank Merlo died. This plunged the playwright into a depression that lasted many years. He also became dependent on prescription drugs and alcohol, and for a while he was committed to an institution in St. Louis. However, Williams recovered and during his last decade he continued to produce plays. These include Small Craft Warnings (1972), The Two-Character Play, and Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980). During this period his reputation, which had slumped during the 1960s, revived, and he was universally acknowledged as a master dramatist. His plays were translated into many languages and many of them were made into films. Williams also wrote two novels, a novella, three volumes of short stories, poems, and an autobiography.
On February 24, 1983, Tennessee Williams choked to death on the lid of a medicine bottle at the New York City hotel where he lived.