One of the most important new dramatists in the period after World War II, he may be considered a ragionalist since his plays are almost all set in the South. He is also often defined as a naturalist writer because of his frequently sorbid settings and of his characters, almost all neurotics and usually suffering from sexual frustrations. Through the use of experimental devices borrowed from the expressionists he explored the isolation of the individual in a hypocritical society without values or tradition.
Thomas Lanier Williams (he chose the nickname Tennessee later, as a homage to his native South) was born in Columbus, Mississippi. Family difficulties meant that, together with his sister Rose, he had to live with his grandfather, an Episcopal clergyman, in various different towns in the South. Finally they joined their father in St Louis in 1918. This period of William's life was remarked by family complications. His sister was suffering from acute mental problems and gradually withdrew into her own inner world, refusing all contact with other people.
Williams entered the University of Missouri, but left after three years without taking a degree. Financial difficulties led him to take a job in a shoe factory, a period he referred to as a "living death". At the same time he began writing plays and had his first efforts produced by little theater groups. He finally managed to take his B.A. degree at the University of Lowa in 1938 and then worked at a variety of jobs, ending up as a Hollywood scriptwriter.
His first real success came with The Glass Menagerie (1945). From this time on, Williams was prominent in the American theater, writing plays in quick succession and reaching a remarkable wide public.
Many of his plays were box-office successes and he also worked on the film-scripts of a number of them. As films, his plays were immediately successful: A Streetcar Named Desire (starring Marlon Brando) , Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ( with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor), The Rose Tattoo (with Anna Magnani and Burt Lancaster) have been seen by millions of people, giving him an audience that no other contemporary dramatist could rival.
By the early 1960s, Williams had written all his most important work, and was struggling with various personal problems - including his atheism and his homosexuality, which made him an outcast - aggravated by addiction to sleeping pills and alcohol. He remained a prolific writer, but his critics and public showed little interest in his later work.
He died in 1983, of accidental suffocation.