Lahr, John. “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh”, W.W. Norton, 2014
America’s Greatest Playwright
John Lahr brings us the definitive biography of Tennessee Williams; the man many feel is America’s greatest playwright. My review copy came yesterday and I stayed up all night reading and this is not a short book—it comes in at 765 pages. Some of you know that I know Williams—my senior year at college I worked a bit for him when he was in New Orleans so I am always anxious to read a definitive biography of him. However, he was a man who was so complex that I doubt that there will ever be a “definitive biography”. There always seems to a lost page or some interesting information turning up about Williams. However this is the most complete biography I have yet to read about him and I have read them all.
Lahr takes us into the mind of the playwright. Williams was responsible for so much but I really believe that his greatest accomplishment was the way his dramas reshaped the theater of this country as well as the way Americans felt about themselves.
I have always thought of Williams as something of a contradiction. He had triumphs which were epic and he failures that were also epic, he was a gay man at a time when homosexuality was spoken of in whispers yet he managed to create some of the most wonderful female characters that the theater has ever know. He suffered great guilt and he projected some of his life into his works. He had numerous love affairs but only two real loves. His death reflected the way he lives even though it was misreported and his estate caused problems among his heirs and his non-heirs.
This biography is written through Williams’ plays and we see what he went through with each new offering. Lahr gives us an unforgettable look at the man and we learn some interesting secrets. There have been several other biographies of Williams so some of you may wonder why we need another one—the answer is simple. There is a great deal of new material here—new interpretations, new photographs (there are 80 photos in the book, new information and new ways to look at Williams output.
We have letters and interviews with Pancho Rodriguez, the man who was the model for Stanley Kowalski. There are letters from Frank Merlo, the man who shared Williams’ heart and his bed. Eddie Dowling who was in the original production (as well as produced and co-directed) of “The Glass Menagerie talks about the opening night night. We learn about Laurette Taylor and her legendary performance as Amanda Wingfield. We get to read the letters that Williams wrote while he was committed to a psychiatric ward in 1970. The facts of his death and of the craziness that went on with his estate is here as is the true story of Williams’ break-up with his long time agent, Audrey Wood. There is information on how legendary director Elia Kazan influenced the productions that he helmed. Marlon Brando has something to saw about co-star Anna Magnani. Included are previously unpublished poems and deleted passages from some of the playwright’s writing. Included are never before seen letters between Williams and Kazan, Wood, Magnani, Katherine Hepburn and Brooks Atkinson, drama critic of “The New York Times”. We learn about the autopsy performed on Williams and the medical reports of his sister, Rose, who suffered a lobotomy. There is also new information about Williams’ psychoanalysis and original interviews that John Lahr conducted with Gore Vidal, Dotson Rader, Dakin Williams (the playwrights’ brother) and with several directors including Sidney Lumet and John Hancock.
Here is Williams’ public persona and his backstage life. It reads like one of Williams’ own dramas but above else this is a compelling biography of a compelling man that is written by a compelling author.