I’VE JUST finished reading New Yorker drama critic John Lahr’s Tennessee Williams, Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh. Nominated for the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award it’s a superbly written, painstakingly researched account of a great playwright and deeply troubled human being, whose unequivocal genius walked in a faltering lock-step with his serious emotional immaturity.
Lahr draws parallels between the themes and characters of Williams’ plays and poetry and the chaotic events and relationships of his life. I was puzzled by one recent review (New York Times, I think) that wished the book had stuck to the acknowledged Broadway and Hollywood successes and given less analytical attention to Williams’ unsuccessful works. But this is no editorial puff piece, no neat summary of highlights. It’s precisely in the way the book deals with scripts you’ve probably never heard of (The Gnädiges Fräulein, The Eccentricities of a Nightingale) that you understand the struggles and contradictions of a great artist’s disintegrating personality and eclipse, from the ‘60s to his death, as a recognized and marketable playwright.
For most of his life Williams was dependent on the kindness not of strangers but of patient and gifted professionals like Elia Kazan, who applied his theatrical genius to essential textual changes when Williams’ poetic sensibility was getting in the way of a script’s power and playability. Kazan’s intense twelve-year personal and professional partnership with Williams came to an uneasy and equivocal halt when he didn’t warm to directing a production of Night of the Iguana. Williams’ agent Audrey Wood, who loyally steered her volatile client through the depths and shoals of Broadway success from Menagerie to Iguana, was summarily, hysterically and publicly sacked at a 1971 drinks party for not showing enough enthusiasm about a Williams play called Out Cry which went on to failure.
In 1969, Williams was committed by his politician brother Dakin to a St Louis hospital for treatment of a near fatal addiction to alcohol and drugs. Williams never reconciled with Dakin and for the rest of his life cast himself in the role of a helpless victim of sibling rivalry hurled heartlessly into a psychiatric snake pit. This pitiable picture never acknowledged that the three months of enforced rehab, in Lahr’s words “gave him back his life and another decade of writing.”
Starting way back in the glory days of The Glass Menagerie, Williams took on a succession of live-in lovers, each more psychotically abusive than his predecessor, and died alone in a New York hotel room packed with a massive stash of drink and drug containers, empty or in process of use.
Lahr’s portrait is uncompromising but it’s just as intense in its recognition of the more widely documented brilliance of his subject’s achievements as a dramatist. He writes, “In his single-minded pursuit of greatness, Williams exhausted himself and lost his way. [But] in the game of hide-and-seek that he and his theater played with the world, Williams left a trail of beauty so that we could try to find him.”