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Review: The shame and glory of Tennessee Williams in John Lahr’s new book

One day a comprehensive literary biography of Tennessee Williams will be written that won’t resemble a psychiatric case study. Until then let’s savor John Lahr’s “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh,” a work that is scintillating on the backstage and bedroom dramas and almost intrusively perceptive on the autobiographical nature of Williams’ art.

If the work doesn’t quite give Williams his literary due, it is at least perfectly at home with him in the theater.

Lahr, the former drama critic for the New Yorker, occasional playwright and biographer of Joe Orton and other “theatricals,” knows his way around the rialto. He doesn’t skimp on the sex, drugs and nervous breakdowns, but he has written a book that only a theatrical insider could have written.

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This high-toned showbiz biography teems with larger-than-life Broadway personalities and their raffish kind. Lahr has a positive genius for quotations, and with access to Williams’ own letters and journals, long since freed from the heavy hand of the late Lady Maria St. Just, Williams’ “Five O’clock Angel” and formidable literary gatekeeper, he lavishes us with Williams’ phrase-making color.

Lahr initially intended to write a second volume to Lyle Leverich’s “Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams” but decided with his publisher to opt for a stand-alone work, beginning pretty much where Leverich left off, at the dawn of Williams’ Broadway career. The 34-year-old playwright would never know obscurity again after the 1945 opening of “The Glass Menagerie,” a true watershed moment in the American theater.

Lahr retraces Williams’ background but gives short shrift to something vital — Williams’ development as a writer. Harold Bloom has called Williams “the most literary of our major dramatists,” a direct descendant of Hart Crane in both poetic intensity and self-destructive fervor. Lahr shows little interest in this dimension of Williams’ artistic identity (despite mentioning Williams’ explicit request to be buried at sea so that his bones can rest beside Crane’s). He even reduces Carson McCullers to an occasional walk-on role, while hangers-on are inventoried with tedious rigor.

To judge by Williams’ prose style, his addiction to books must at some point have matched his later dependence on less salubrious substances. Even at his dissolute worst, his writing is so much more vivid than Lahr’s, which is exceptionally fluent when not on an alliterative tear. Yet no one quoted in the book can compete with Williams’ astonishing gift for silky phrases and extravagant metaphor.

The triumph of Lahr’s biography is the analysis of Williams’ extraordinarily fruitful yet troubled relationship with Elia Kazan, who directed many of Williams’ biggest Broadway hits, including “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Sweet Bird of Youth,” as well as the immortal (if bastardized) screen version of “Streetcar.” Williams grew both psychologically and financially dependent on Kazan to turn his plays into blockbusters, yet he became increasingly resentful of his director’s play-doctoring.

Too insecure to refuse the requests for script changes, Williams would oblige but then confide to the press that his poetic vision had been compromised. With “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” he published two versions of the third act with an explanatory note about his partnership with Kazan: “I was fearful that I would lose his interest if I didn’t re-examine the script from his point of view.” This naturally didn’t go over well with Kazan, who eventually wrote to Williams, “I’ve come to the conclusion that somehow you were willing to have me blamed for the faults in your plays, while you were praised for their virtues.”

Although “Cat” won the Pulitzer, Williams was left feeling as soulless as Faust.

“Williams felt shamed by both his calculated betrayal of [‘Cat’] and by his pleasure at its success,” Lahr astutely observes. “That shame had enormous reverberations; it consigned him, at the peak of his acclaim and his wealth, to the psychological penance of a half-life, ‘a sort of a lunar personality without the shine,’ as he described himself at the time.”

Lahr’s trenchant handling of Williams’ struggle, the cautionary tale of a dramatist chasing an elusive vision in an art form with relentless commercial pressures, should be required reading for fledgling playwrights.

Betrayal in all its forms, including self-betrayal, was a central theme for Williams. According to Lahr, he was not only “perpetually grieving for the genuine self who had been sacrificed to his fame,” but he also couldn’t forgive himself for the quasi “banishment” of the love of his life, Frank Merlo, who died tragically of cancer, or for his “silent complicity” in the lobotomy performed on his mentally ill sister, Rose, the heartbreaking model for Laura in “The Glass Menagerie.”

Lahr’s sharp psychological analysis occasionally overreaches, as when he claims that “Rose had been driven mad by the taboo around sex and by its disruptive power,” an assertion that doesn’t become any less facile for having begun with Williams. What keeps this indispensable biography from being definitive, however, is Lahr’s practice of interpreting the plays as though Williams were a patient on his couch.

Lahr reads both the major and minor works “as a road map and as an allegory” of Williams’ overwrought and oversexed mental state: With “Streetcar” and “Summer and Smoke,” “Williams brought his own promiscuity and the forces that drove it into the center of the drama.” “The Rose Tattoo” exposed “the shadow of autoeroticism in his romantic desire.”

Williams was the first to admit that he wrote in an autobiographical vein. Much of what Lahr has to say is illuminating, though the cogency of his interpretations is marred by overconfidence. (The unconscious is slipperier than Lahr credits.) But the more significant problem is that in devoting so much space to the biographical connections, Lahr has little room to account for the miraculous alchemizing of this material into situations of harrowing psychological intensity, with characters of mythic stature and language of gossamer sublimity giving groundbreaking theatrical form for wounded inwardness.

Despite being the greatest dramatic poet this country has ever produced, Williams has posthumously upstaged his characters. That he was a self-dramatizing, sexually compulsive, alcoholic and pill-popping gay man who turned to his work to ease his psychological maladies is certainly part of the reason his sordid off-stage dramas are being revived for the umpteenth time. His flamboyant debauchery and late-career flameout make for vivid copy.

But take a moment to consider the difference in biographical treatment between the largely heterosexual Gustave Flaubert (who famously asserted, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi”) and the homosexual Williams, whose most famous character, Blanche DuBois, is said by Lahr to supply through her tumult “a veiled admission of Williams’s own delirium.” Two flawed men, both sexual adventurers, but only one is routinely stripped of his literary dignity.

Natural as it may be for a biographer to sift through a writer’s output for insights into the consciousness, the best biographies of playwrights — Michael Meyer on Henrik Ibsen, Michael Holroyd on George Bernard Shaw, James Knowlson on Samuel Beckett — ultimately leave us with a more complex appreciation of the work. Lahr is better at contextualizing the later plays, in which Williams’ craft became more influenced by Beckett, Pinter and Albee, and he’s unbeatable on the process of creation, the compulsive writing and rewriting of the plays. But a nuanced case for the lasting value of the masterworks — the political resonance of his American outcast dreamers, the stinging black comedy and, of course, the aching lyricism — gets lost in the swamp of personal disorder.

Arthur Miller identified Williams’ legacy with succinct and exact love: “In him the American theater found, perhaps for the first time, an eloquence and an amplitude of feeling.” His life may have devolved into a floating Key West-Rome-New York installment of “Hollywood Babylon,” but the piercing language and devastating emotional honesty of his best writing will forever be uncorrupted.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

Tennessee Williams
Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh

John Lahr
W.W. Norton: 765 pp., $37.95


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