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Review: John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh

John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh. (W.W. Norton, 2015). 

Prior to his death in 1983, Tennessee Williams had twice designated Lyle Leverich, a San Francisco-based theater producer who had never written a book, as his authorized biographer, but those individuals controlling the Williams Estate were less enthusiastic. Thus, impressed with the success of his biography of Joe Orton, the Williams Estate attempted to enlist John Lahr to write the authorized biography of Tennessee Williams. Lahr declined and Leverich devoted the better part of a decade to writing the book that would become Tom, a thorough account of the playwright’s early years and the intended first installment of a multi-volume biography of Williams.

The publication of Tom was stalled for five years by Maria St. Just, Williams’s longtime friend and literary executor, who, according to Lahr’s own account of the situation in The New Yorker, had determined that “[t]he only authorized voice about Williams was to be [hers].” Finally, after enduring a five-year delay, Leverich published Tom in 1995 to critical and popular acclaim. Aging and fearing that he would be unable to complete the second volume in the series before his death, Leverich asked Lahr to complete the project for him. This time, Lahr agreed and Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, the result of an additional decade’s worth of research into the playwright’s life, stands as the definitive biography of the man many consider to be the greatest American playwright since Eugene O’Neill.

The turbulent circumstances surrounding the writing and publication of Leverich’s and Lahr’s biographies of Williams, in many ways, echo the tumultuous life Lahr documents in Mad Pilgrimage. While the figure of the playwright dominates the stage in this distinctly American drama, much of the story’s action is driven by the supporting cast. In Lahr’s account, the perpetually connection-starved Williams was as likely to draw delusional, abusive, and parasitic hangers-on into his sphere as he was to inspire a near-religious devotion in his closest friends and the most ardent champions of his work. Recognizing that “the drama in his connections to these people” is very much at the heart of Williams’s story, Lahr “intentionally let their voices butt up against one another on the page” (xiv). When combined with the many revelatory passages from Williams’s voluminous epistolary legacy (much of which had never been previously published), the words of those men and women closest to the playwright help form a sort of oral history of the man.

As an astute critic of the theater, however, Lahr does not allow the consistently tempestuous, often salacious character of Williams’s personal life to overshadow the man’s literary legacy. Rather, he manages to balance the narrative of the playwright’s life with a comprehensive interpretation of his work. Fortunately for Lahr, Williams “was the most autobiographical of American playwrights” and the theater provided him with “a kind of cleansing” by enabling him to make sense of the turmoil “of his dimly understood but persecuting internal world” by placing it on the stage (33-34). Thus, no matter how far Mad Pilgrimage follows Tom Williams—the deeply neurotic man—down the murky avenues of his psycho-social landscape, Tennessee Williams—the titan of Broadway—is always clearly in view.

Born on March 26, 1911, Thomas Lanier Williams III, the man who would reinvent himself as Tennessee Williams “grew up in . . . haunted households where secrets and the unsayable suffused daily life with a sense of masquerade, creating an emptiness as palpable, elusive, and corrosive” as anything the playwright would ever bring to life on the stage (42). Between CC, an emotionally abusive and parsimonious father who “drew an iron curtain around his own feelings, refusing to discuss” his own demons on the comparatively rare occasions he was not on the road as a traveling salesman; Edwina, a “prim and protective” mother who “described her love to her children rather than demonstrating it;”

Rose a “disoriented and delusional”—and very possibly schizophrenic—sister; Dakin, a brother jealous of his mother’s preference of Tom over himself, and the Reverend Dakin, a grandfather whose “interest in the ‘Grecian vice’ belied his position as a pious Episcopal Minister, Tom Williams’s childhood was defined by unspoken conflict, roiling resentments, and repressed tensions (41, 35, 58, 53, 41). As a writer forged out of the oppressive milieu of closeted desires, abandoned dreams, stifled passions, and unacknowledged trauma, Williams’s “family was never far from his mind” and “[i]n a sort of séance with the ghosts of his past, their narratives and their voices were perpetually reworked into his cast of characters,” forming what Gore Vidal aptly called Williams’s “basic repertory company” (35).

Indeed, in Lahr’s capable hands, Williams’s family life emerges as the thematic ligament that unites much of his work, from 1941’s Battle of Angels, “a personal, opaque, overwrought…parable about…a penny-pinching husband” and “a dutiful desolate wife…trapped by economic circumstance into a humiliating, loveless marriage” to 1982’s A House Not Meant to Stand, in which “comic images of Williams’s humiliated past” including his “ornery, bombastic father” are skewered in a theatrical “funhouse of mirrors” (17, 573). Perhaps not surprisingly, the legacy of the playwright’s traumatic upbringing often finds its most poignant expression in Tennessee Williams’s enduring classics. In The Glass Menagerie, for instance, Lahr examines how “the omnipresent weight of CC’s abandonment: the grief that punished and unhinged the Williams family” hovers over the Wingfield’s unhappy home (59).

Similarly, in A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley’s “unruly, self-centered testosterone” owes as much to the legacy of his “blinkered and belligerent” father as to the violent “sexual menace” of Williams’s then-partner Amando “Pancho” Rodriguez y Gonzalez (123, 143). And while “Williams’s compassionate interpolation of [Maria St. Just, née] Britneva’s character into” Maggie’s unswerving tenacity in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof may be a more crucial instance of the playwright’s life inspiring his art, his father’s abandonment and grandfather’s closeted inclinations likely found expression in Brick, who is both “a monument to absence” as well as a “homosexual with a heterosexual adjustment” (301, 287, 304). Lahr takes pains, however, to avoid falling into the trap of simple biographical criticism, expanding his analysis to consider the many ways in which the broader psychological tensions of Williams’s frenetic inner life found expression on the page and on the stage.

The playwright, in Lahr’s unsparing words, was “a borderline personality with tenacious addictive and depressive tendencies,” a genius plagued by hypochondria, who lived much of his adult life in a “drugged-out paranoid blur” because confronting naked, unfiltered reality was often too much for him to bear (348, 490). At once profoundly needy and frustratingly aloof, deeply compassionate and punishingly withering, Williams formed a series of codependent romantic and platonic relationships that almost invariably incubated the tensions, resentment, and hostility out of which so much of his work for the theater gained their immediacy. Following his brief but intense relationship with Kip Kiernan, the man on whom “many of the subsequent steamy male heroes” (Val in Battle of Angels, John Buchanan in Summer and Smoke, Alvaro in The Rose Tattoo, as well as Brick and Stanley in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire, among others) Williams conjured, the playwright spent his remaining decades seeking relationships that would replicate the youthful fervency of that ill-fated connection (94). Similarly, Williams’s terror of death and obscurity fueled a unquenchable thirst for approbation. Between his unceasing pursuit of romantic fulfillment and his unslakeable desire for critical and public approval, Williams had a tragic habit of burning out the relationships most dear to him. Alienating in his behavior and alienated by those he drove away, Williams found inspiration for much of his writing in the emotional wreckage of his relationships.

Perhaps the most notable instance of Williams’s wresting beauty out of personal pain occurred during the mid-1950s, as Williams’s relationship with longtime partner Frank Merlo deteriorated, leaving “”[b]oth men [feeling] aggravated, sad, confused, unheard, unable to separate but unsure of how to continue.” (328) According to Lahr, “Williams’s struggle to keep his relationship intact was played out, unconsciously, in his drama” of the period where “the idea of the couple was continuously subverted, dramatized as a travesty (Baby Doll), a tragedy (Orpheus Descending), or an impossibility (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)” (328-29). The “violence” of the playwright’s mid-fifties work, Lahr contends, “was an expression of Williams’s elemental rage, which the process of playwriting tapped into and released” in such a way that, on the stage, “[n]o connection was allowed to exist without being spoiled, falsified, mocked, obliterated, robbed of its goodness, or lost forever” (329).

Towards the end of Williams’s life, as his relationships with the likes of Audrey Wood, Elia Kazan, Maria St. Just, and his own brother Dakin, grew strained and dissolved into acrimony, his late work represents “a complete stylistic departure” in which “dereliction, delirium, and denial” take center stage (573). Estranged from many of his closest friends, Williams surrounded himself with the ghosts of his past, penning a series of self-consciously autobiographical “memory plays” such as 1981’s Something Cloudy, Something Clear and A House Not Meant to Stand that “were written in [a] wistful vein. . .blending elegance and anxiety” to produce the “psychic atmosphere” of “non-communication” and “emotional absenteeism” that Williams had first experienced with his mother and re-experienced during his final years (572).

In Lahr’s hands, the story of Tom Williams does not end happily or on a triumphant note. While not friendless, Williams did die a lonely man, full of self-doubt, and without much drive to enjoy life. A dispute over the dispersal of his physical remains precipitated the fight over his literary remains that prevented Leverich from publishing Tom for several years. Still, for a man who struggled mightily with a “sad little wish to be loved,” Lahr reminds us, Tom Williams did bring Tennessee Williams into the world, and Tennessee Williams was able to create “characters so large that they became part of American folklore” (601). So, while Tom Williams may have lived a tumultuous and lonely life, as Tennessee Williams he used that unenviable position to pull back the curtain and shine a spotlight on the psychological and emotional currents of 20th Century American life as no one else has done. Lahr’s great gift to Williams’s legacy is reminding us of the human reality that pulses through the greatest of our literature.

 

Works Cited

Lahr, John. Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2015

—. “The Lady and Tennessee.” The New Yorker. 19 December 1994. Accessed April 5, 2017. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1994/12/19/the-lady-and-tennessee

 

Erik Grayson is an associate professor of English at Northampton Community College, where he teaches American literature, writing, and philosophy. He’s also an avid cyclist whose most recent adventure took him past the Tennessee Williams Theater in Key West.”