Famous Bis: Tennessee Williams

By Jennie Roberson

July 31, 2023



In addition to writing, I have been a professional actor for the better part of two decades, having started back in high school and college. In talking with other actors with similar histories, a few common threads come up.

  1. 1. Directors often have favorites who in turn struggle to cut it in “the real world” because they hadn’t faced the sting of rejection enough to know it’s part of the gig.
  2. 2. If a man and woman are paired together in a scene and the characters are in their 20s or 30s, the scene will most likely be about lovers having a screaming match culminating in someone flipping a table/chair or slamming their fist into the wall to “show frustration”.
  3. 3. At some point, you will play a character who is much older than you and will have to stumble your way through a Southern dialect in an excerpt from a Tennessee Williams play.

This mismatch, of course, is not the fault of Williams, one of the most prominent American playwrights of the 20th century. Rather, it is a nod to the genius he often infused into some of the most delicate and complex characters to tread the boards of Broadway. I recognized his creative prowess as a student, but I was well beyond my years of training in college before I learned that Tennessee Williams was also bi.


Born Thomas Lanier Williams in 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi as the middle child of three, Tennessee’s relationship with his parents was fraught, to put it mildly. His parents’ marriage was an unhappy one, between a mother who did most of his rearing and an alcoholic, abusive traveling shoe salesman of a father. As such, they figured prominently as troubled sources of inspiration in his later works. He was close to his sister, Rose, who developed schizophrenia and was lobotomized to curb her misbehaviors. They remained close throughout the course of Williams’s life (and he later used his royalties to pay for her care). Despite everything going on around him, however, Williams had a happy early childhood. When the family relocated to St. Louis, Missouri, he became more withdrawn, and this was when he began writing.

For a time, Williams attended the University of Missouri but was removed by his father — whether for failing a military training course or because he was going to school with his girlfriend isn’t quite clear. He picked up a job as a sales clerk at a shoe company and devoted his evenings to writing. But the job put him into a depressive spiral that eventually ended in a nervous breakdown. After his recovery, he re-enrolled at the University of Iowa and finished his education.

The age of 28 was a revelatory time for Williams, as the writer moved to New Orleans and found great inspiration in his new surroundings. He changed his name to Tennessee, began winning writing contests, and landed a life-changing agent. The 1940s and 1950s saw Williams produce some of his finest and most well-known works, including: The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) (which won him a Pulitzer), Summer and Smoke (1948), Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1955), Suddenly Last Summer (1958), and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959). These plays often dealt with recurring themes of mental health, unspoken secrets, strong queer undertones, drug problems, and layered characters. Streetcar ended up being the launching pad for Marlon Brando, both on Broadway as well as in the film adaptation.

Williams’s bisexuality, as with so many bi figures both today and throughout history, often gets retroactively gay-washed. Much of his life was sprinkled with flings as well as tempestuous relationships with men, but Williams himself wrote explicitly about his romantic affections for women in his earlier life. To wit, during his college years, he was so driven to the point of distraction by the unrequited love of a woman that he was having trouble attending his classes and maintaining his grades. Williams had relationships with both men and women and no matter the sex of his love interest, he often fell into deep depression after breakups.

Depression was not his only trouble. Williams had difficulties later in life matching his earlier successes. He also struggled with alcohol and substance abuse, particularly with uppers and downers, which were often prescribed to him by a physician now known in popular culture as “Dr. Feelgood”. This resulted in another nervous breakdown in 1969, where Williams’s brother had him hospitalized. Similar to his first episode, upon his release he got back to work, writing novels, more plays, and his memoirs. Unfortunately, his addictions continued and resulted in his unfortunate death from a sleeping pill overdose in a New York hotel room in 1983.

While Williams’s life was full of troubles and downward spirals, they diminish neither the worth nor the impact of his art. Many of his greatest works are regularly featured in theaters across the world, and often see major revivals on Broadway. (And, of course, the occasional scene work in nearly every college theater program.) His adopted hometown of New Orleans also has a major annual festival in honor of the writer who helped immortalize the Big Easy. Even The Simpsons has taken a playful but loving jab at Streetcar (which is, coincidentally, may be my favorite episode).

Tennessee Williams was a towering figure among 20th-century American playwrights. His works still stand the test of time and continue to challenge audiences to think more deeply about their relationship and family dynamics. And he was bi.

Of course, there is so much more to explore in Williams’s life than is possible to cover in one article. If you’d like to learn more stuff about him (like the fact that he also did some screenwriting, or that he once went skeet-shooting with JFK), you can find more information about him on reputable sources online, or by picking up his memoirs from your local library.


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