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 does justice to a titan...
by Don Stradley
In the 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.
had 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.
Even as 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.
This is 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 Roof Etc. – 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.
Lahr, 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.
He was 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 her powerlessness.”
Rather 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.
The 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.
The 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 horse, 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 “greatness” again.
Temperamental 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.”
The 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.
Not 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.
Some 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.
Lahr 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.
Suspicious 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.
Some 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.
Lahr 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 Glass Menagerie, 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.
In the 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 Williams shot to stardom, Lahr shines a strong light on that trail, even as it goes into some extremely unpleasant territory.