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University of Iowa News Release


March 24, 2011

March 26 is the birth centennial of UI alumnus Tennessee Williams

March 26 is the birth centennial of Thomas Lanier "Tennessee" Williams (1911-83), the University of Iowa theater alumnus who is now regarded by many as the major American playwright of the 20th century.

His works, including "The Glass Menagerie," "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "Night of the Iguana" are enduring classics of the American stage and remain among the most produced American theatrical works in the world. His history at the UI is one of the many elements that contributed to the recognition of Iowa City as the first U.S. City of Literature.

He came to the UI in 1937 as Tom Williams, a shy 26-year-old aspiring writer who was grappling with his sexual identity and -- as legend has it -- whose Southern accent led some of his classmates to dub him "Tennessee." "'It's better then being called 'Mississippi,'" he joked.

It was also at the UI, he reported in his autobiography, that he came to terms with his homosexuality. And around the time he got his bachelors degree from UI, a frontal lobotomy was inflicted on his beloved sister Rose, an event that affected Williams for the rest of his life and became the inspiration for his theatrical breakthrough, "The Glass Menagerie."

Williams was attracted to the UI by its growing reputation in the creative arts -- what became known as the Iowa Writers' Workshop had recently been founded -- and in particular the legendary "Boss" of the theater department E.C. Mabie. He saved money in order to pay his tuition, and arrived at the UI with high hopes that his writing would be appreciated, advanced and encouraged.

But although his time at the UI was a significant and formative period in his life -- even providing the distinctive nickname by which he became known, if the legend is to be believed -- Williams did not find the encouragement for which he was hoping, from either the faculty or his fellow students.

But the scripts he wrote here -- "Spring Storm" and "Not About Nightingales" -- illustrate the settings, themes and characters that fascinated Williams throughout his career and they foreshadow his later theatrical triumphs. Both have been produced in recent years, including a "Spring Storm" run at the UI.

Iowa Summer Rep, the department's professional company, devoted its 1984 season to a festival of Williams' plays. The 1997-98 season was the 50th anniversary of the Broadway premiere of his "Summer and Smoke," and to mark the anniversary University Theatres produced the play's revision that Williams preferred, "The Eccentricities of a Nightingale."

Williams struggled during his time at the UI, but depression, alienation and loneliness were defining elements of his entire life, and that gave him empathy for the characters in his plays. In 1979, only four years before his death, he wrote: "My greatest affliction … is perhaps the major theme of my writings, the affliction of loneliness that follows me like a shadow, a very ponderous shadow too heavy to drag after me all of my days and nights." The Tennessee Williams' plaque on the Literary Walk near the UI campus has the following quote from his play "Orpheus Descending," "We're all of us sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life!"

Williams's Iowa City period is narrated with thorough detail in "Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams" by Lyle Leverich. To read the entire two Iowa chapters, visit

The Department of Theatre Arts is a unit of the Division of Performing Arts in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

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STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACT: Winston Barclay, University News Services, 319-430-1013,