Skip to Main Content
Harry Ransom Center homepage

Becoming Tennessee Williams

February 1, 2011 – July 31, 2011

The Harry Ransom Center celebrates the 100th anniversary of American playwright Tennessee Williams' birth with the exhibition "Becoming Tennessee Williams." The exhibition runs from Feb. 1 to July 31 at the Harry Ransom Center, a humanities research library and museum at The University of Texas at Austin.

Featuring more than 250 items, the exhibition draws on the Ransom Center's extensive collection of Williams manuscripts, correspondence, photographs and artwork to explore the idea, act and process of artistic creation, illuminating how Thomas Lanier Williams became Tennessee Williams.

With his plays "The Glass Menagerie" (1945) and "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1947), Williams (1911–1983) reinvented the American theater.

"There is no more influential 20th-century American playwright than Tennessee Williams," said Charlotte Canning, curator of the exhibition and professor in the Department of Theater and Dance at The University of Texas at Austin. "He inspired future generations of writers as diverse as Suzan-Lori Parks, Tony Kushner, David Mamet and John Waters, and his plays remain among the most produced in the world."

Williams peopled his plays with characters grafted from life onto imagination. As he explained to his literary agent, Audrey Wood: "I have only one major theme for my work, which is the destructive impact of society on the non-conformist individual."

His keen insights gave rise to a body of work unequaled by almost any other 20th-century playwright. Although he was also a gifted poet and short story writer, it was the metamorphic possibilities of live performance that most inspired him.

The exhibition is organized into five sections that explore the "Battle of Angels" theme in Williams' works; the creative process behind "The Glass Menagerie," the development of "A Streetcar Named Desire" and the character of Blanche DuBois, themes of masculinity in Williams' work and the adaptation of his plays from stage to screen.

The exhibition is drawn from the Ransom Center's collection of Williams material, which is one of the primary archives of his works. The Center acquired Williams' own papers between 1962 and 1969. That collection documents his career thoroughly, especially his plays "The Glass Menagerie" and "A Streetcar Named Desire," and includes more than 1,000 separately titled plays, short stories and poems, correspondence and newspaper clippings.

The collection expanded in 1964 when the Ransom Center purchased the correspondence between Williams and Wood. In 1965, the Center also acquired the Williams family papers from his mother, Edwina Estelle Dakin Williams, along with other important manuscripts from then-Gotham Book Mart owner Andreas Brown. The Center continues to build the Williams collection and recently purchased an extensively revised first-draft screenplay of "A Streetcar Named Desire."

"These rich holdings at the Ransom Center allow us to better understand how these extraordinary works came into being," said Canning. "'Glass Menagerie,' 'Streetcar' and 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' are just a few of the masterpieces the exhibit follows from early drafts to full-fledged productions. We believe visitors will find themselves as much in awe of Williams as we are."