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Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh [Kindle Edition]

John Lahr
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (109 customer reviews)

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Book Description

National Book Award Finalist

2015 Winner of the Sheridan Morley Prize for Theatre Biography

American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award

National Book Critics Circle Award Winner: Biography Category

A Chicago Tribune 'Best Books of 2014'

USA Today: 10 Books We Loved Reading

Washington Post, 10 Best Books of 2014

The definitive biography of America's greatest playwright from the celebrated drama critic of The New Yorker.

John Lahr has produced a theater biography like no other. Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh gives intimate access to the mind of one of the most brilliant dramatists of his century, whose plays reshaped the American theater and the nation's sense of itself. This astute, deeply researched biography sheds a light on Tennessee Williams's warring family, his guilt, his creative triumphs and failures, his sexuality and numerous affairs, his misreported death, even the shenanigans surrounding his estate.

With vivid cameos of the formative influences in Williams's life—his fierce, belittling father Cornelius; his puritanical, domineering mother Edwina; his demented sister Rose, who was lobotomized at the age of thirty-three; his beloved grandfather, the Reverend Walter Dakin—Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh is as much a biography of the man who created A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as it is a trenchant exploration of Williams’s plays and the tortured process of bringing them to stage and screen.

The portrait of Williams himself is unforgettable: a virgin until he was twenty-six, he had serial homosexual affairs thereafter as well as long-time, bruising relationships with Pancho Gonzalez and Frank Merlo. With compassion and verve, Lahr explores how Williams's relationships informed his work and how the resulting success brought turmoil to his personal life.

Lahr captures not just Williams’s tempestuous public persona but also his backstage life, where his agent Audrey Wood and the director Elia Kazan play major roles, and Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, Bette Davis, Maureen Stapleton, Diana Barrymore, and Tallulah Bankhead have scintillating walk-on parts. This is a biography of the highest order: a book about the major American playwright of his time written by the major American drama critic of his time.

Editorial Reviews


A masterpiece about a genius Helen Mirren Testimony to the crazy exhilaration of the entire theatrical process, and to the self-destructive solipsism of a great artist Nicholas Hytner, Observer Books of the Year John Lahr's monumental tribute to the play's 34-year-old creator, the son of a frigid, hysterical virago and a combustible father - a travelling shoe-salesman whose ear was bitten off in a poker fight . Lahr's understanding of Williams is stamped on every page. "In playwriting, he found a strategy both to hide himself away and to vent his murderous feelings" Nicholas Shakespeare, Daily Telegraph Biographies of the Year John Lahr's subtitle points to the spicier ingredients the reader can feast on in this very long but never dull book . He is supremely qualified for his task Financial Times A thrilling roller-coaster ride from its opening act to the tragic last scene, with Williams lying dead on the floor of a New York hotel room, his bloated body overwhelmed by drink, drugs, and sadness Marcus Field, Independent Books of the Year Dazzling, insightful ... It is a masterpiece on several levels: of synthesis and analysis Paul Taylor, Independent Riveting accounts of Williams's plays in production, skilfully handled flashbacks to the early life, plenty of gossip, lavish quantities of photographs and yards of quotation. The result: total immersion, and a masterful analysis of a "self-cannibalising" writer "prepared to destroy himself for meaning" Sunday Times Books of the Year Marvellous, huge, almost out-of-control biography The Times Book of the Week By far the best book ever written about America's greatest playwright. John Lahr, the longtime drama critic for the New Yorker, knows his way around Broadway better than anyone. He is a witty and elegant stylist, a scrupulous researcher, a passionate yet canny advocate Wall Street Journal What lifts Lahr's book into the canon of biographical masterpieces (not a word I bandy about daily) is that, in chronicling the prurient excesses of Williams's existence, he also explores, with critical and psychological acuity, the way in which great art emerged from such a profoundly unsettled and disquieting life ... Lahr's biography is awash with wonderfully skewed backstage anecdotes from Williams's career ... The seminal importance of Tennessee Williams shines through the biography - and so does the seminal sadness of his tortured life New Statesman

About the Author

John Lahr, the author of eighteen books, was the senior drama critic of The New Yorker for over two decades. He has twice won the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism and is the first critic ever to win a Tony Award for coauthoring the 2002 Elaine Stritch at Liberty.

Product Details

  • File Size: 6095 KB
  • Print Length: 798 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (September 4, 2014)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Not enabled
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  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #30,595 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
55 of 56 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One hell of a great read October 8, 2014
John Lahr's biography, "Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrim of the Flesh,"is the best theatre book I've read in a lifetime as actor, teacher, director and writer. I was already hooked on theatre when I served aboard the USS Wyoming dry-docked in New York harbor for an overhaul and I picked up a freefer at the Stage Door Canteen forWilliams's play, "The Glass Menagerie."

That single performance is burned into my emotional memory as the most memorable of a lifetime. Taylor's acting and Tennessee's writing have been the most lasting influences of my own study, teaching and work in the theatre.

I've seen most all the original Williams productions in New York; had the opportunity to direct several in both college and AEA professional regional theatres; read everything published (plus a few original drafts) but this biography by John Lahr is the definitive last word. A labor of love some twelve years in the making, it is extensively researched, beautifully written and clearly told. It clarifies and contradicts exaggerations and outright fabrications
already out there. The emphasis here is a detailed study of Tennessee himself via an insightful empathetic analysis of his characters--Amanda, Blanche,Stanley-you name them--in order for you to know, understand and appreciate the playwright himself, his tragedy,courage and determination as an artist. For anyone interested in humanism and understanding you will find no more definitive portrait of our greatest American writer than in the page-turning book by Mr Lahr. For your own sake, hie yourself to the nearest bookstore, or your computer, and order it. You're in for one hell of a great read.
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45 of 53 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Best Biography I Have Ever Read September 19, 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I have always wanted to read a biography of Tennessee Williams after I saw "Summer and Smoke" many years ago in the early morning hours. A few years ago, I made my first try by starting "Tom", which was supposed to be the first of two comprehensive books about Williams' life. Unfortunately, the author died before Book Two could be completed; and, in addition, I found "Tom" to be one of the driest books I had ever read, full of facts but not written in a way that I wanted to turn to the next page. Thus, I gave up after a few pages.

John Lahr was supposed to pick up where the author of "Tom" left off, and thankfully decided to write an entirely new and excellent biography. This book not only covers Williams' life in a readable way that engages the reader; but also analyzes each of Williams' works as they related to events of, and the psychology of, Williams own life and emotions. It also provides, through letters and remembrances of the people involved, the inside dealings of Broadway and Hollywood. The reader feels like she or he is actually present as the plays and films are created.

Although to the dismay of some gay liberation groups, Williams' "coming out" as a statement was far from dramatic, the book shows that Williams was a pioneer of gay liberation long before there WAS a gay liberation movement. Williams never attempted to hide his sexuality, even when he was the object of intense public focus after he became famous. He simply lived his life, which happened to include a gay lifestyle, and those around him accepted him for who he was.
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31 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Book of the year! September 24, 2014
By Joel
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I bought this book not because of any great interest in Tennessee Williams or his work, but because of my huge esteem for John Lahr as a critic. And having now fallen into the world of Tennessee Williams, I find myself, somewhat to my surprise, hugely interested in it. What Lahr has done with this book is to make Williams come fully alive, as if in flesh and blood - I don't know that I've ever read a biography that has accomplished this improbable feat so skillfully. And the complicated and fascinating relationship between the life and the creative impulse and the often anguished realization of that impulse on the page and then on the stage (with the crucial intervention of producers, directors and actors) is clarified in a mesmerizingly absorbing narrative. This is both a biography and a work of interpretative criticism, but it reads like a great, great novel.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The man, the genius October 27, 2014
Format:Kindle Edition
Who better to chronicle the life of one of America's greatest playwrights than John Lahr the Senior Drama critic for The New Yorker for 21 years. He's not only a fine journalist but an astute historian, able to mix fact with variations on themes and come up with a biography of a very controversial subject as Williams that reads like a novel - and just about as lurid in parts as Williams' colorful life.

Time changes perceptions and what was once considered to be material only the crude would applaud has now moved from the legitimate theater to the movie house and to the opera houses. Lahr very expertly takes us through the maze that was Williams' life, and for once he reveals far more that the gossip columnists teased the public's attention. Williams for all the controversy was a gifted writer and his impossibly important works will likely remain active o the stages around the world for many years. This biography is thorough and exceedingly entertaining. Grady Harp, October 14
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Winner of 2014 award for biography
This won the National Book Critics Circle biography award for 2014, and though I have no huge interest in theater I try to read all such winners. Read more
Published 1 day ago by Schmerguls
3.0 out of 5 stars Three Stars
Maddenly detailed
Published 1 day ago by james b meyers
2.0 out of 5 stars Over the top
A very, very long biography, rather over-written and too detailed even for admirers of Williams' work - too many quotations from his own writings; but admirable if you really want... Read more
Published 2 days ago by Wiliam G. Parker
5.0 out of 5 stars I learned a great deal of new information
Though I have read two biographies of Williams, I learned a great deal of new information, especially about the lesser known plays. Read more
Published 5 days ago by Claire S. Warren
TENNESSEE WILLIAMS: MAD PILGRAMMAGE OF THE FLESH is a wonderful biography of America's most influential 20th-Century playwright -- perhaps better said, America's best playwright of... Read more
Published 8 days ago by Allen Smalling
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating
A. Wonderful comprehensive analysis of Williams life in relation to his theatrical endeavors. I especially enjoyed
Reading about the late plays that are so seldom performed.
Published 8 days ago by Bob Erler
3.0 out of 5 stars Maybe I will finish this one day!
I am not a good person to write a review seeing that i read 25% of the book (200 pages) and had to stop because the depiction of Mr Williams as whiny, insecure to the max, and a... Read more
Published 9 days ago by Joe G
5.0 out of 5 stars Breathtaking achivement
Breathtaking in scope and delivery; unique, informative, mesmerizing and the only reasons I put this book down is it's size (over 700 pages and weighs as much as a Volkswagen... Read more
Published 16 days ago by Will73
2.0 out of 5 stars Repetitive and boring in several places
Repetitive and boring in several places. I work in the theater and I was hoping to read more about the plays and their original productions, along with biography. Read more
Published 16 days ago by Lenore Stjerne
5.0 out of 5 stars Lahr is the perfect writer for a Williams biography - full of...
Lahr is the perfect writer for a Williams biography - full of interesting personal information as well as detailed research regarding the full body of work from one of the greatest... Read more
Published 28 days ago by Michael Casey
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More About the Author

John Lahr writes for The New Yorker, where he was for 21 years the Senior drama critic of the magazine. A veteran of all aspects of the theatre, Lahr has contributed behind-the-scenes portraits, reviews, and Profiles, and has expanded the magazine's drama coverage beyond Broadway to include the work of international theatre and regional companies.

A former theatre critic at The Nation, The Village Voice, and British Vogue, among other publications, Lahr has published seventeen books on the theatre and two novels, "The Autograph Hound," and "Hot to Trot." His book "Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilization," won the 1992 Roger Machell Prize for best book on the performing arts. His other works include "Light Fantastic: Adventures in Theatre," (1996) and "Show and Tell: New Yorker Profiles," (2000). In 2001, he edited "The Diaries of Kenneth." His expanded New Yorker article on Frank Sinatra was made into a book with photographs, "Frank Sinatra: The Artist and the Man." Lahr's most recent book is "Honky Tonk Parade: New Yorker Profiles of Show People," published in 2005.

Lahr served as literary adviser to the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis in 1968, and as Literary Manager of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre from 1969 to 1971. He was the co-producer of the 1987 film "Prick Up Your Ears," based on his Joe Orton biography of the same title, and was the editor of "The Orton Diaries." Lahr has also written numerous movie scripts. His short film "Sticky My Fingers. . . Fleet My Feet" (directed by John Hancock) was nominated for an Academy Award in 1971.

Lahr is a two-time winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism. In 1968, he became the prize's youngest recipient; he was honored again in 1993. Lahr has written many stage adaptations, which have been performed in England and the United States, including:"Accidental Death of an Anarchist," "The Manchurian Candidate," "The Bluebird of Unhappiness: A Woody Allen Revue," and "Diary of a Somebody," which began at the Royal National Theatre, played the West End, and later toured England. He co-authored the Tony Award-winning "Elaine Stritch at Liberty," which won the 2002 Drama Desk Award for outstanding book of a musical. Lahr, who was the first drama critic to win a Tony Award, is the son of the comedian Bert Lahr, whom he wrote about in his biography "Notes on a Cowardly Lion." He divides his time between New York and London and maintains a Web site at

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