BOOK REVIEW: TENNESSEE WILLIAMS: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh
It's Probably Not the Last Word on America's Greatest Playwright, but John Lahr's biography of Tennessee Williams is Worth a Look...
by Don Stradley
1960s, Tennessee Williams, the playwright whose work in the previous decade had
illuminated the American stage and earned two Pulitzer prizes, grew a
beard to cover a swelling of his lymph nodes. He joked that his
condition was “a psychosomatic reaction to being eclipsed by Albee.” Though
Edward Albee was certainly the playwright of the ‘60s, Albee’s best work
owed much to Williams. Somehow, the older writer’s influence wasn’t
often acknowledged during those years, and Williams, who suffered from a kind
of self-lambasting neurosis that could destroy whole armies, found himself
knocked clear off the theatrical map into a quagmire of depression and fear.
transpired during the years after World War 2, when Williams’ tales
of lust and madness dazzled Broadway audiences, to the early 1960s, when he
began a downward spiral that would last two decades? Morals loosened up, for
one thing, and Williams’ hyperventilating characters suddenly seemed like
caricatures. The American theater no longer craved the supercharged melodramas
that Williams flushed out of his dank psyche, though Albee’s melodramas were no
less overblown. Albee simply seemed more cosmopolitan, while Williams remained
locked in a no longer fashionable South.
he watched critics and ticket buyers turn away from him, Williams continued
doling out deeply Southern characters, usually female, usually disturbed, as if
he refused to give up on what had brought him to the dance. He admitted
that he was jealous of the new writers coming up, but he also knew
he couldn’t change his basic calling: Williams was a poet, a seeker of
nightmares, a delicate soul looking for love, and not sure what to do with it
once he’d found it; he was the chronicler of people too gentle to survive in
this rough world. Unfortunately, one can only ride the razor’s edge for so
long before an audience tires of you.
the story, though not all of it, told in John Lahr’s excellent new biography Tennessee
Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh. Williams, who died in 1983
at age 71 after holing up in New York’s Elysee Hotel for three days and
overdosing on Seconal, is not a significant presence now. His best works – The
Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat On A Hot Tin RoofEtc. – must feel like dusty museum pieces to
new audiences. Yet, no playwright since Williams has given us
characters quite as memorable as Stanley and Blanche, or Brick and Maggie,
characters that America once knew on a first name basis.
who has blessed The New Yorker for many years with his profiles of
various show business figures, doesn’t set out to defend Williams’
position as the top dog of the American stage. Though Lahr
convincingly appraises Williams’ work, he seems more interested in
telling what it might have been like to be in Williams’ presence.
born Thomas Lanier Williams III in Columbus, Mississippi, into a family once
known for Southern political clout. The Williams tribe was also awash in mental
illness and alcoholism. Williams father C.C. was a violent drunk,
frequently away on business. His sister Rose suffered from paralyzing
delusions and endured one of America’s first frontal lobotomy procedures.
Brother Dakin, like Tennessee, was gay. Lahr suggests Williams’ grandfather may
have been gay, too. Overseeing the family as it floundered was Williams’
mother Edwina, a puritanical terror who had once dreamed of being an opera
singer. A mean, often ridiculous woman, Edwina may have passed along to Williams
her facility with language. “Edwina wasn’t just a talker,” Lahr writes.
“She was a narrative event, a torrent of vivid, cadenced, florid, and
confounding speech that could not be denied. Eloquence was a show of power amid
than stay in a family buttressed by secrets and hostility, Williams hit
the road young, attending various colleges and then living in several bohemian
enclaves, most notably in a raucous New Orleans rooming house that helped fuel
much of his work. Though he experimented with short stories and poems, his goal
was to write for the theater. His first major production bombed, but
he persisted under the guidance of superstar agent Audrey Wood. But even
with Wood behind him, Williams had a hard road ahead. The “serious”
theater of the early 1940s was highly political. Williams, who wanted to stage
dreamlike renderings of his inner being, was dismissed as indulgent.
dropping of bombs on Japan seemed to do something to the American audience.
With the war and the Depression out of the way, Williams’ highly
emotional work was suddenly embraced. On the strength of Menagerie
and Streetcar, he went from being a scruffy, unemployed bum to a
titan. Unfortunately, Williams wasn’t entirely comfortable being hailed as
“America’s greatest living playwright”. Fame bludgeoned him.
1950s saw Williams endure a series of embarrassing setbacks and colossal
comebacks. A symbiotic relationship with Elia Kazan, the director who
best served Williams’ work, was the single most important element of Williams’
career during that time. Like a jockey lashing at the legs of his mount,
Kazan always demanded more from Williams, and like a thoroughbred,
Williams responded, revving his plots until they detonated from the stage.
But Williams secretly resented Kazan’s input, and would sometimes publish his
work without Kazan’s additions, as if to say "Here is the play as I meant
it to be.” Kazan, too, drifted away from Williams and began writing his
own material. They stopped working together after 1960; neither found
and insecure, Williams was not an easy collaborator. That he
accomplished anything during these years of success and tumult was a small
miracle. When he and Kazan split, Williams probably should’ve walked away
from theater and written novels, but, as Kazan said, Williams was a playwright
“the way a lion is a lion.”
political climate of the 1960s made Williams seem irrelevant and old
fashioned. He was even shunned by gay audiences, which must have puzzled
him. In the 1970s, as the country sprawled out into ever more diverse segments,
Williams occasionally wrote things worth preserving. Yet, he was so deeply into
his drug addictions and self-loathing that he could hardly convince people that
he still mattered, not even when his bestselling Memoirs made him,
albeit briefly, a cause célèbre.
surprisingly, Williams’ personal life was just as stormy as his professional
life. If it was difficult to work with him, it was doubly tough to be his
friend or romantic partner. Yet, this drug-addled, dangerously paranoid
man was known to visit his asylum bound sister every year on her birthday, and
was also painfully loyal to his always judgmental mama. It was as if he
couldn’t stop eating from the trough that had poisoned him at the start.
Williams biographers have harped almost exclusively on Williams’ homosexual
exploits, while others have focused intensely on how his writing style evolved
over the years. Though Lahr touches on both topics, he’s more concerned
with the belly of Williams’ life, the enormous middle part that found him attaining
success, losing it, and then futilely trying to reclaim it. In fiction,
Williams would’ve had a final moment where he rose to the top again; in real
life, he simply unraveled.
gives us vivid portraits of people from Williams’ circle, especially Diana
Barrymore, Maria Britneva, and the diabolical Maria St. Just, a
trio of colorful women who, to one degree or another, yearned to be “Mrs.
Williams”. We also get possibly the most satisfying portrait ever of
Frank Merlo, Williams’ longtime companion. Merlo died at age 40 just as
Williams’ theater career was beginning to capsize. The one-two
punch of Merlo’s death and a dying livelihood sent Williams into freefall.
There was an increasing dependence on drugs, a half-hearted lurch into
psychotherapy, and even a harrowing moment where Williams attempted
suicide by leaping from a hotel balcony.
of the 1960s ‘counter culture’, and fearing that he simply had nothing left to
say, Williams final years were a sort of prolonged death march. Ironically,
during this period he was feted by one president and then another, earning
various medals for his contributions to the arts. Yet, his newer works
went unappreciated. It’s only in retrospect that a few of his plays from the
late 1970s have been given their just accolades, and Lahr is especially
convincing when praising Clothes for a Summer Hotel and A House Not
Meant to Stand, two of Williams’ final projects.
biographers would hammer at Williams’ debauched side, reporting his pathetic
finish in a hotel room with the sinister glee of an Albert Goldman crucifying
Elvis Presley. Lahr, instead, pulls off a neater trick. He
doesn’t shy away from Williams’ grisly end but somehow, because we’ve seen
Williams heading in this direction, Williams’ demise isn’t as horrifying as it
is sad. Lahr is one of the few writers who can make a reader feel the
full weight of his subjects, and the Williams who emerges here is every bit as
complex as the characters of his plays; death by overdose seems inevitable.
The popular rumor that Williams choked to death on a bottle stopper is whisked
away by Lahr and shouldn’t be mentioned again.
doesn’t hold Williams up as a relic from the past. But he does, understandably,
acknowledge that Williams was certainly a man of his time. Lahr ignores
the young, unformed Williams, and I do wish he’d spent just a few of these
600-plus pages on the Williams who wrote horror stories for Weird Tales
magazine, but I’ll accept that the older Williams was simply a larger, tastier
target. Lahr worked on this biography for 12 years, and it is something
close to a masterpiece. The opening scene, taking place at the 1945 premiere of
The GlassMenagerie, has the intensity and focus of a military
account, with Williams’ first successful play spraying out over an unsuspecting
audience like the opening volley of a new battle.
end, as if worn out by the sheer bulk of Williams’ life, Lahr aims for
simplicity, saying only that Williams "left a trail of beauty so that we
could find him." Seventy years after The Glass Menagerie
shot Williams into stardom, Lahr shines a strong light on that trail, even as
it goes into some extremely unpleasant territory.