Williams

A Biography by John Lahr

765 pp. New York: Norton and Company

Reviewed by Patricia Keeney [1] (Canada)

Perhaps best-known internationally as senior theatre critic for The New Yorker for some two decades, John Lahr is the author of 18 books and is a double winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism. He is one of the best at his art. Tennessee Williams, on the other hand, is arguably America’s greatest playwright. To have Lahr writing on Williams is a match made in heaven and a magnificent example of the role a critic can play in articulating and interpreting the creative life of a major artistic figure.

Lahr’s story begins in New York. It is 1945. It is opening night of The Glass Menagerie at the Playhouse Theatre “on the unfashionable side of Broadway.” In the audience sits Williams’s “chic, diminutive agent Audrey Wood,” the agent who believes fiercely, instinctively in his work, the agent who represents the likes of William Inge, Carson McCullers, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman; the agent whom Williams will unceremoniously dump thirty years later in a fit of drug-induced panic over the staging of a late play.

The life roars and ranges where it must, defying limits. The art follows for better and worse, but always true and answerable, to the internal drama within Williams himself. He was the most autobiographical of playwrights, and, as he confessed to drama critic Brooks Atkinson, the thing that drove his writing was a desperation. His plays make “a spectacle of his haunted interior,” one inhabited by his family. Or as Williams’ friend, novelist Gore Vidal, observed, this formed the playwright’s “basic repertory company.”

Williams claimed that fame ultimately brought him “spiritual dislocation.” Its presence was profound, both positively and negatively. Enjoying his celebrity status in New Orleans society, he met his first real love, “the muscular, volatile Pancho Rodriguez y Gonzales. The “combustible” Pancho was the embodiment of Williams’s desire for “some wild thing.” However, as Lahr puts it, Williams had to unlearn repression: this meant doing battle with the congenital shyness that prevented him from showing or knowing his feelings.” Discovering that sex was “a way of discharging aggression,” he went, in a little over a year, “from prude to lewd,” admitting to Playboy, “I’m just terribly over-sexed.” Along with work, pleasures of the flesh became paramount. “I’d like to have a simple life—with epic fornications,” he wrote.

From Provincetown, Williams informed his friends that he enjoyed a life of conga lessons, writing, “swimming every day, drinking every day and fucking every night.” Here he also met Kip Kiernan, a dancer and student of sculpture whom he christened “the young Njinsky.” In a description of his “ravished surrender” to this Adonis, Williams waxes erotically lyrical: “His skin is steaming hot like the hide of a horse that’s been galloping.” Ultimately, Kip left, married and died prematurely at 26 but, as Lahr observes, “through the alchemy of Williams’s stagecraft, in a sense, he also never went away.”

For Vidal, “Tennessee could not possess his own life until he had written about it.” He would begin with unfulfilled desire, turn the resulting reveries into story, then ultimately into drama. This transition can be seen in Summer and Smoke and A Streetcar Named Desire, plays that pick up the story of Williams’s psychic evolution where Glass Menagerie left off.

It should perhaps be noted here that the book is also rich in photos, each one revealing. We see Pancho’s cocky, mischievous smirk as he and Williams sniff trellised flowers in the first flush of their romance; Brando towering nonchalantly over quivering porcelain doll Jessica Tandy in Streetcar, a wisp of her dress held casually in his hand, his face a casual, quizzical study of untold violence; a 1948 snapshot of drinking and writing buddies Gore Vidal (pretty as a homecoming queen), Truman Capote (grinning like a kid who’s just caught a foul ball at a baseball game) and Williams (in his element, beaming).

Unerringly, Lahr structures his wealth of information like a well-made play, each chapter highlighting the pivotal events of a life, each event a catalyst for new work. The Rose Tatoo, as one example, emerges from Williams’ next tempestuous and long lasting relationship, Frank Merlo. At a creative impasse, after the success of Menagerie and Streetcar and the “Broadway disappointment of Summer and Smoke,” wanting “a new song to sing and the power to sing it,” Williams recognized that since his subject was himself, he could not make a change in his art without the transformation of his inner life. His relationship with Merlo accomplished this. Of Italian origin, gregarious and quick witted, Merlo was just what Williams needed and together they roamed Europe.

Eventually, Williams and Merlot moved to “the Bohemian outpost of Key West, ‘where, joined by his spirited grandfather Dakin, they bought a house which would become Williams’s only permanent home and where now, he began happily to complete the script which morphed into The Rose Tatoo.’” In Lahr’s characterization, “Merlo’s tales of his Sicilian community—with its aggressions and repressions, its emotional extravagance—excited Williams’ imagination and suited his rhythm.” It also “strategically allowed Williams to depart from the familiar topography of the [American] South, as from the tropes of Southern character, caste, and speech that threatened to stereotype his work.”

Immediately recognizing the new play needed major restructuring in order to release the power of its poetry, director Elia Kazan was brought in to perform his magic, putting Williams to work for half a year on the re-visioning. The play was such a major departure from Williams’s earlier style that is was said it should not be played but rather painted. As Lahr points out, “the expressive burden was borne … by the visual instead of the lines.”

Finally, Anna Magnani, who for Williams, embodied “the warmth and vigour of a panther,” was (due to her many diva-style demands) unsuccessfully wooed, to play the leading part. With a young Eli Wallach playing the Dionysian Mangiacavello and Kazan’s streamlined final draft that focused on the thawing “of a widow’s frozen heart,” The Rose Tatoo offered storytelling that, as Lahr says, “sparkled with a new impressionism, a theatrical shorthand in which Williams’s familiar lyricism was not purely verbal but lay in his orchestration of the visual with the verbal.”

The 1950s for Williams were turbulent, both personally and politically. America ushered in McCarthyism, reinforcing homophobia and bringing under fire “the psychic romance of Williams’ plays.” In a battle for the dominant “cultural narrative,” epitomized by controversy over the film version of Streetcar, Hollywood, now reflecting society as a squeaky clean “superbia,” wanted the pivotal rape scene excised from the play. Fleeing again to Italy with Merlo (who was kicking against the “golden cage” of his life with the famous author), Williams began work on what would become Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The drinker Brick, “who takes up residence in the bottom of a glass,” says Lahr, “represents Williams’s desire for retreat.” By 1952, the House Committee on Un-American activities went after Kazan for his former affiliation with the Communist Party. Kazan saw no reason not to name names and, as a result, he became a pariah in some quarters of the arts community, though not to Williams.

Williams was now working on Camino Real, a “phantasmagoria of [his] inner life as well as a statement about the … suppression of any dissident voices in American society.” Kazan identified with the play’s theme of fighting back, finding a life beyond life, for “an ecstasy” beyond the flesh. For Lahr this “spiritual grasping … appears … in the topography of the set as a Terra Incognita, a desert that lies between the walled town and the snow-capped mountains in the distance.”

The writing, Williams told Kazan, has a “wild, breathless, stammering quality which reflects my own brink of hysteria.” Kilroy, “a king who has lost his crown” seems to represent Williams’s own conflict between “being great and being good.” He was also the first character in Broadway theatre history “to shuttle between the aisles and the stage.” What Kazan envisioned as a ritualistic dance approximating the “bizarre fantasy of … Mexican primitive art” was in the end sabotaged by a realistic set that Kazan later admitted should never have been allowed. The New York critics were merciless, while prominent artists and writers (John Steinbeck, Edith Sitwell, William Inge and Clifford Odets) hailed the work.

At 42, Williams returned to the pine-filled creative mornings of Key West. When he got there he took up Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It is here that Lahr’s theme of the self-consuming artist takes over. “Brick,” he says is a “monument to absence,” enacting onstage the same tactics that Williams did in life, compelling other people to help him but never actually changing, whereas Maggie, by contrast, is “all combat” and “manic vitality.” Big Daddy, in his bluster and bravado, was based on Williams’s own father who would say to his mother: “You’re making me as nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof.” The play, claimed Williams, is about vitality, therefore survival, therefore the war raging within him.

Following his rapidly deteriorating connection with Merlo, chemicals and alcohol become a mainstay. His work of the mid-50s, says Lahr, “registered an ancient despair about the possibility of love.” His major play of this period, Orpheus Descending, contains the central image of a bird that sleeps on the wind, never touching earth except to die. It mirrors the playwright’s sense of a threatened imagination. With Anna Magnani playing the Lady (a woman whose emotional past keeps her on the verge of hysteria), Williams had the authenticity he needed but also constant complaints about “her English, her schedule, her money, her weight and her co-star,” Marlon Brando (16 years her junior) whom she wanted to eat for breakfast.

“Williams,” as Lahr puts it “was finally ready for the psychiatrist’s couch.” Laurence S. Kubie, a pioneering Freudian psychologist was recommended and his suggestion was to deprive the playwright of “all his addictions: drink, men, travel and writing.” Williams responded by fleeing to Havana where “the swimming and fucking [were] wonderful.” His gay and artistic friends responded that psychiatry was trying to turn the radical Williams into “a good team player.” What Williams did gain was a re-assessment of his father and mother. The new material gave rise to Suddenly Last Summer, a play allowing him to come to terms with his mother’s “punishing passive-aggression.”

Unable to live with or without Merlo, in Europe once again after concluding analysis, Williams now began to see that he had artistic success but no life. “His work,” says Lahr, “was a way of living was also a way of dying.” Out of this sad realization came Sweet Bird of Youth in which the fading star, Princess Kosmonopolis and Chance Wayne, her hapless gigolo, “a would-be star … returns to his home town in a doomed attempt to recover the love of his youth.” These two, strung out along exhausted lines of life and fame, are Williams in his spiritual dilemma. In Lahr’s words, “by cultivating his literary persona, he had starved his private one.”

By the 1960s, the winds of change were blowing and Williams was very aware that he might be superseded by the straight-talking, spare styles of such “savagely truthful” absurdist playwrights as Albee, Pinter and Beckett. “If Williams couldn’t die,” says Lahr, “he could imagine his death” and does so in The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More. “A poem of death” about “the last two days of an imperious wealthy woman’s existence on her mountaintop estate where she has gone to finish writing her memoirs,” this play sounded “the unmistakable note of Beckett’s ennui.” With that “pill-popping Georgia swamp-bitch,” Mrs. Goforth (a name encoding the playwright’s insistence on continuing) and the mysterious boy poet and mobile-maker Chris, an emissary of the intuitive realm that Williams felt he was losing, Lahr describes Milk Train as a “murky play” that accurately describes the creative and emotional knife-edge on which Williams was then perched.

Even the most underrated of the 1960s plays, The Gnadges Fraulein, “a surrealistic romp,” called forth a combination of scorn and recognition. “A brilliant talent is sleeping,” declared Stanley Kauffman in the Times, while Harold Clurman acknowledged the play’s “odd but effective mixture of gallows humour and Rabelaisian zest.” The playwright’s friends worried mightily about him as he took up “desperate residence in his imagination,” writing The Two-Character Play in which, observes Lahr, “the broken world of the theatre and the disorder of Williams’s own hermetic mind” are suggested by the play’s backstage clutter indicating “an incomplete interior.”

Between 1965 and 1970, he lived what has come to be called his Stoned Age, “that twilight zone in which he ‘elected to be a zombie (fueled by drugs and alcohol) except for my mornings at work.’” In an unhealthy relationship with the bisexual Bill Glavin, “a charming New Jersey-born lost soul.” A poem from that time begins: “Old men go mad at night/ but are not Lears.” It ends: “And old men have no Fools except themselves.” Photos of him show a stiff mask of a man in existential paralysis. Committed by his brother to a psychiatric ward for a time, tests revealed that he was suffering from acute drug poisoning.

Yet he continued to write. Small Craft Warnings, as Harold Clurman reviewed it, “portrayed homosexuality for the first time rather than just implying it” and this, despite the natural reticence of a writer “too oblique and allusive for polemical drama.” Yet, the catastrophic social unrest of 1968 and the anti-Vietnam riots told Williams clearly that the future was no longer in his hands.

At 60 he was also being infected by the youthful passion he saw all around him. A friend actually introduced Williams to such key players in the movement as Kate Millett, Betty Friedan, Robert Mapplethorpe, Charles Ludlum, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, easily reinforcing the playwright’s instinctive opposition to authority. Though he was not by nature a public demonstrator or protester, the power of the counterculture to resist “psychic numbing” (both his own and that inflicted by the political world) worked its way into plays like Small Craft Warnings—a metaphoric cry for emotional, vulnerability and risk. While critically acclaimed, Warnings seemed to the homosexual community a betrayal of sorts. In response, Williams declared that homosexuality was never his theme but rather human relationships.

Williams now took up with an acerbic, “handsome, pony-tailed, 25-year old” Robert Carroll, a novelist. Recognizing himself in Carroll’s mercurial character, this prickly pairing created a late life personal drama. From Bangkok to Positano to Key West, they loved and fought until parting became inevitable. Nevertheless, Williams continued to give Carroll editorial help and remembered him generously in his will.

In Lahr’s estimation, Williams continued at this point in his life to write simply to survive. For Lahr, the “thin late” plays combine “‘elegance and anxiety,’ in their dramatization of the retreat of his attenuated self” and the final full-length play, A House Not Meant to Stand turned suffering around. Savage and sensational, this “funhouse of mirrors” laughed at the pain of a humiliating past, reflecting it back as pleasure. Playing at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago to positive notices, House was lauded as “the best thing Williams has written since Small Craft Warnings.”

At the age of 70 (1981) ,Williams found himself the recipient both of the Commonwealth Award for Distinguished Service in Drama (which he shared with Harold Pinter) and an honorary degree from Harvard. Two years later, however, he was found dead in his hotel room, bottles of the drug seconal and red wine (a dangerous combination) on his night table.

Of all the public acclaim at his death, perhaps the simplicity of Kazan stood out: “Williams lived a very good life, full of the most profound pleasures and he lived it precisely as he chose.” Lahr finally reports here that Williams’ reputation suffered in the years after his death in great measure because self-appointed literary executor, Maria St. Just, with no academic training and “no understanding of how a literary reputation is made … managed to freeze almost all critical discourse” about his work for 13 years. Once freed of St. Just, productions of Williams’ works soared again both at home and abroad.

Lahr’s own summation?

“In his struggle to unlearn repression, to claim his freedom, and to forge glory out of grief, Williams turned his own delirium into one of the twentieth century’s great chronicles of the brilliance and the barbarity of individualism…. Out of the sad little wish to be loved, Williams made characters so large that they became part of American folklore … Blanche, Stanley, Big Daddy, Brick, Amanda and Laura … sensational ghosts who haunt us through the ages with their fierce, flawed lives. Williams allowed words to live like anthems in the national imagination: ‘I have always depended on the kindness of strangers;’ ‘Sometimes—there’s God—so quickly.’”

Williams’ was a turbulent life and his towering art is profoundly articulated here by a wide-ranging, arrow-accurate critical mind. Lahr’s book locks two passionate lovers of language and theatre into a single volume, one that bristles throughout with scintillating, profound, painful, comic, but always revealing insights on love, art and twentieth century American society as viewed through the lens of theatre.

It’s a rare and thrilling read. Absolutely first-rate biography.


Author Patricia Keeney Lahr Review

[1] Patricia Keeney is an award-winning Canadian theatre critic as well as the author of nine books of poetry and two novels. She teaches Creative Writing at Toronto’s York University along with courses in fiction, poetry and drama.

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Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh