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  • Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr
  • Joseph H. O’Mealy (bio)
John Lahr. Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh. New York: Norton, 2014. 784 pp. ISBN 978-0393021240, $39.95.

John Lahr occupies an unusual insider/outsider position in the American theatre. As drama critic of the New Yorker for two decades, he has been one of its most reliable and astute observers; as a working playwright, he has won a Tony award collaborating with Elaine Stritch on her one-woman show. Like Kenneth Tynan, another expert mover between these two worlds, whose diaries he edited, Lahr has also had particular success with what have come to be known as New Yorker profiles of contemporary celebrities. One particular profile from April 2000, of the film and stage director Mike Nichols, gives an insight into why Lahr was the appropriate choice, a few years later, to write this biography of Tennessee Williams. The profile ends with Nichols congratulating Lahr on how smoothly their time together has gone, to which Lahr replies “I do well with the fundamentally inconsolable.” His barbed, but confident and apparently accurate, summary of Nichols’s psyche prepared him well for the task of taking on Williams, perhaps America’s greatest playwright, and certainly its most publicly, dramatically, and fundamentally inconsolable one.

Unlike the dozens of biographies and critical studies of Williams published during his lifetime and since his death, Lahr’s 700 page biography lays claim to a special provenance: it can trace its lineage back to Williams’s anointing of Lyle Leverich as his authorized biographer in 1979. Leverich, who finished only the first volume (Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams, 1995) of a projected two-volume biography, might have finished the second (he died in 1999) if it were not for the interference put in his path by Lady Maria St Just (whom Lahr characterizes as neither a lady nor a saint nor just), the self-appointed guardian of all of Williams’s copyrights, who during her lifetime blocked access to Williams’s journals, letters, and papers, and stopped the publication of Leverich’s first volume for five years. He appealed [End Page 1163] to Lahr for help, and the resulting profile in the New Yorker about “the estate’s shenanigans” helped free Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams for publication. Upon Leverich’s death Lahr inherited all his research materials, and he spent twelve years preparing this continuation, which is not really a continuation at all.

Leverich ends his first volume with a climactic triumph—the Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie in 1945. Lahr, rather than in effect write volume two of Leverich’s biography, begins in a more cautionary manner by interweaving the Glass Menagerie story with a recounting of the disastrous 1940 Boston production of Battle of Angels, Williams’s first attempt at breaking into what was then known as the legitimate theatre, where a successful Boston or Philadelphia tryout could lead to a Broadway production. As Lahr recounts it, the opening night in Boston was a fiasco so complete that the audience, shocked by what they judged to be its blasphemous and obscene content, did not simply walk to the exits satisfied with their gesture of moral disapproval, they had to run for their lives as well when uncontrolled special effects set the stage on fire.

When Lahr resumes his discussion of The Glass Menagerie, with the familiar story of Laurette Taylor’s struggles with alcoholism and her incandescent performance as Amanda Wingfield, the reader has a deeper sense of how near, and familiar, were the potential and real disasters that shadowed Tennessee Williams. Many critical and box office triumphs would of course follow—A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Night of the Iguana—but there would also be many equivocally received efforts—Summer and Smoke, The Rose Tattoo, Sweet Bird of Youth—and then of course a string of outright flops that began with The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore in 1963 and continued for the next twenty years of his life. During those fallow years Williams never gave up his daily habit of work, writing at least...


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