Book review: Tenessee Williams, by John Lahr

JOHN Lahr’s biography of Tennessee Williams draws deep on new sources, says Jennifer Schuesslere

Tennessee Williams with his friend and literary guardian Lady Maria St Just, who sought to block access to the playwrights letters and journals until her death in 1994. Picture: NYT
Tennessee Williams with his friend and literary guardian Lady Maria St Just, who sought to block access to the playwrights letters and journals until her death in 1994. Picture: NYT

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgramage of the Flesh

by John Lahr

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Bloomsbury, 784pp, £30

It’s not as though there is a shortage of books about Tennessee Williams. He got there first with his 1975 Memoirs, and Tom Leverich followed in 20 years later with Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams and now, almost another 20 years later, here comes John Lahr with another. And those are just the main ones: there are at least a dozen others.

Lahr is the first to acknowledge his debt to Leverich, whose biography he freed from the stranglehold of his literary executor Lady Maria St Just (“she was neither a lady nor a saint nor just” he wrote of her in a New Yorker profile) after a four-year tussle. But Leverich’s biography only took the story up until 1945, when the wild success of The Glass Menagerie made Williams famous. After inheriting Leverich’s archives on his death in 1999, Lahr resolved to finish the job, with a free-standing book that begins with that play’s Broadway opening night but circles back to cut a fresh path through his life.

Lahr’s book offers plenty of backstage anecdotes and high private drama, if perhaps less sex than his subtitle, taken from a 1939 letter, might suggest. It has won enthusiastic advance notice, with blurbs from such theatrical luminaries as Dame Helen Mirren and Tony Kushner. Among Williams scholars, it has also stirred hope that the fog of gossip and sensationalism surrounding the playwright’s life, much of it stoked by his own scandalous (and often unreliable) memoir, will finally lift.

Lahr, a son of the actor Bert Lahr (the American vaudevillian most famous for playing the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz), may give the impression of knowing everyone who’s anyone in the theatre world on both sides of the Atlantic. But he crossed paths with Williams only once, in 1970, when the playwright came backstage during a New York production of Camino Real. “Not that he was sober enough to remember,” Lahr recalls. “It was very shocking. He had to be literally lifted.”

When it came to putting legs under his biographical portrait, Lahr wanted to stick as closely as possible to Williams’s own words and the first-person accounts of his closest professional comrades. “Williams was a very cool customer, very detached,” he says. “Where he really came alive was in collaboration with equally brilliant people.”

Since St Just’s death, a flood of Williams’s own words have been pouring out of the archives, with the publication of his private diaries, two volumes of letters, a collection of his poetry and some 50 previously unpublished – and, some have grumbled, often distinctly inferior – plays. “It’s been a little bit like free love after the fall of Communism,” says John Bak, a Williams expert and the author of a yet another previous biography.

Lahr’s book synthesises that material while drawing on a number of sources that he is the first to plumb. Among the 70 cassettes of untranscribed interviews in Leverich’s papers was a long conversation with Pancho Rodriguez, Williams’s lover from 1946 to 1948 and the model for the brutish Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Through an acquaintance, Lahr gained access to previously unknown letters by Frank Merlo, Williams’s lover and frustrated assistant of 14 years – “I sleep with Mr Williams,” he once replied when asked about his occupation. Merlo’s death in 1963 helped set the stage for the playwright’s long years of decline.

Lahr also drew on a wealth of correspondence with Audrey Wood, Williams’s longtime agent and a crucial dispenser of criticism, and secured carte blanche, he says, with the papers of the director Elia Kazan, who significantly shaped some of Williams’s most important plays, including Streetcar and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

The biography certainly has its dishy moments, from Laurette Taylor’s drunkenly throwing up between scenes on the opening night of Menagerie to Bette Davis’s Godzilla-grade offstage scenery chewing during the chaotic gestation of Night of the Iguana (1961), Williams’s last Broadway hit. But Lahr devotes more space to Williams’s creative push and pull with Kazan and Wood, and the fateful breaks with each, which he attributes to Williams’s “artistic vanity” and rising paranoia.

“I wanted to convey the arguments he had with them – not the gossip, but the actual aesthetic arguments, the actual ideas they were trying to pull out of each other,” Lahr says.

Lahr is stern in his depiction of the playwright’s involuntary psychiatric hospitalisation in 1969. Nowhere in any written account of his time in “Spooksville,” as Williams called it, does he mention that “the medical team he vilified gave him back his life and another decade of writing,” he writes.

He is similarly staunch in his defence of Williams’s aborted 1957 psychoanalysis with Dr Lawrence Kubie, pushing back against the “unverifiable notion” put forth by Gore Vidal and others, that Kubie had tried to turn Williams into a heterosexual.

“They made him seem like a kind of quack,” Lahr says. “Quite the contrary. Kubie was a most impressive man who helped Williams see and understand and change the story of his family.”

Lahr sees Williams as a “borderline personality” and a “hysteric” who worked out in his art the conflicts that destroyed his sister, Rose, who was lobotomised in 1943. If the term “hysteric”, invoked repeatedly in the book, has a musty mid-century ring today, Lahr defends it as the playwright’s own.

“Freud said hysterical suffering is a way of remembering the child’s suffering, and that’s what Williams was about,” he says. Williams “would always say about his plays they were too hysterical, that he had to pull back the violence, the screaming.”

By the 1960s, critics were increasingly saying the same thing, dismissing him as a washed-up – and often embarrassingly drugged-out – relic of the past. Two decades of nearly unrelieved critical pummelling followed, reaching a climax with Robert Brustein’s suggestion, in a review of Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980), that Williams book “a flight to Three-Mile Island on a one-way ticket”.

Lahr makes a strong case for some of Williams’s later, more neglected, plays. If he doesn’t anoint any new masterpieces, he sees a mixture of solid works (including Williams’s last play, A House Not Meant to Stand, and interesting failures that deserve to be seen in the context of his earlier dramas, not just his personal dissolution.

“I just hope I’m able to expand people’s appreciation of the plays by making these connections, by giving a detailed sense of his bulldog battle for sanity and for his art,” he says.

“I’m 73 now, and I don’t want to give it up. I admire him for refusing to give up too.”