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

John Lahr
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (78 customer reviews)

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Book Description

National Book Award Finalist

A Chicago Tribune 'Best Books of 2014'

A 2014 Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year

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 Splendid beyond words. It would be hard to imagine a more satisfying biography Bill Bryson 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 The account of the playwright's angry, agonised relationship with Merlo which ends in Williams's cruel desertion and his lover's death becomes in Lahr's telling as dramatic as anything Williams wrote . It is in bringing Williams's personal life into close, often horrifying focus that the biography casts its spell Nicholas de Jongh, Independent Dazzling, insightful ... It is a masterpiece on several levels: of synthesis and analysis Paul Taylor, Independent Lahr's book would be worth reading just for the anecdotes and the famous names of stage and screen that flit through its pages. But in essence it is a study - compelling, incisive and often painful - of how art feeds on life. Lahr tells us that assimilating the shelf of books already written on Williams, searching out new sources, and sifting out the truth from lies and legends took him twelve years. They were years well spent John Carey, Sunday Times 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: #15,746 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
45 of 46 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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38 of 45 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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28 of 33 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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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Biography of a Divided Self October 16, 2014
In 1939, a struggling playwright, Tennessee Williams, confided in his diary following a New Year's Eve spree in New Orleans' French Quarter: "Am I all animal, all willful, blind stupid beast? How much better is man with all his advantages than the beast? What does he do to cultivate the spiritual, to feed the spiritual? Is there another part that is not an accomplice in this mad pilgrimage of the flesh?"

The questions posed by young Williams (1911 -- 1983) form the basis for this deeply moving and absorbing new biography, "Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh" by John Lahr, the renowned senior drama critic of the New Yorker for over 20 years and the author of many books on the American theater. Lahr shows a deeply divided Williams torn between his own sensuality on the one hand and his search for meaning and beauty through art on the other. Lahr's portrays a Williams also divided by his desire for love and peace and the competing pressures of demanding work as a writer. Williams is also conflicted by his desire to maintain his artistic integrity as a writer and his quest for public fame and success.

Throughout his biography, Lahr explores Williams' many internal conflicts and ambiguities as he guides the reader through Williams' life, his writing, and his friends. The biography originally was to be a successor to Lyle Leverich's biography of Williams' early years. Thus it begins in 1945 with the production of Williams' first success, "The Glass Menagerie".
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
The most fascinating character study I have ever read. Every emotion takes you through this book.
Published 1 day ago by Sylvia Quittman
2.0 out of 5 stars Two Stars
Admire his work, naturally but
his sex life was described too much and in too much detail
Published 1 day ago by joyce h murphy
3.0 out of 5 stars A life that could be better told
My guess is that 2 1/2 stars really should do it. Lahr definitely has done his homework here but the book often sinks under the weight of its own detail and despite the volume of... Read more
Published 2 days ago by Richard A. Jenkins
4.0 out of 5 stars Playwriters must read
This book is very well written. John Lahr has captured the tortured personality of this 20th Century genius as well as anyone could. Read more
Published 3 days ago by Glae R. Egoville
4.0 out of 5 stars Family Secrets
There is an unforgettable moment in John Lahr's lengthy book "Tennessee Williams--Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh. Read more
Published 3 days ago by James Norwood
5.0 out of 5 stars Incredible And Revealing Biography That Is Well Written
I found it impossible to put this book down. Despite an already heavy holiday season with many packages to wrap, I took the path of least resistance and kept reading. Read more
Published 4 days ago by G.I Gurdjieff
5.0 out of 5 stars A True but Depressing Portrait of an American Artist
Author John Lahr had a mountain to climb when he took on the burden of writing Tennessee Williams' bio. Read more
Published 6 days ago by Margot McDonnell
4.0 out of 5 stars A little long - but worth it to me!
Wow - where to start! It's pretty long, and if you want to love the playwright as a person, you might not want to read this book! Read more
Published 6 days ago by FunnySmartHappy
4.0 out of 5 stars Good book if you skip over the minutia ...
This would have been a 5 star if John Lahr had not gone into detail about every single play and production Williams wrote and produced. Read more
Published 8 days ago by PTS95
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful!!
Can't put it down. Wonderful!!
Published 10 days ago by Amanda B. Lerner
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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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