Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh Hardcover – September 22, 2014
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- Jennifer Schuessler, New York Times
“Scintillating on the backstage and bedroom dramas and almost intrusively perceptive on the autobiographical nature of Williams’ art.”
- Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times
“Intricately detailed… gripping.”
- Janet Maslin, New York Times
- Hilton Als, New Yorker
“A crucial contribution to the arguments that should always rage around a man who was one of the greatest American playwrights of his tempestuous century.”
- Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune
“Raises the curtain on Tennessee Williams.”
- Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair
“This is 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… He brings us as close to Williams as we are ever likely to get.”
- J.D. McClatchy, Wall Street Journal
“There is only one word for this biography: superb.”
- Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review
“Brilliant… [Lahr’s] achievement is not likely to be surpassed.”
- Publishers Weekly
“Could this be the best theater book I've ever read? It just might be. Tennessee Williams had two great pieces of luck: Elia Kazan to direct his work and now John Lahr to make thrilling sense of his life.”
- John Guare, author of Six Degrees of Separation
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Seldom has there been a tome as well-researched and insightful as Lahr’s book. Nonetheless, its unfailing faithfulness to the description of the intimate aspects of Williams’ life, both physical and psychic, is its one flaw. Halfway through the book Lahr becomes repetitive and tedious, primarily because Williams’ life past his last years with, and the subsequent death of Frank Merlo is, indeed, repetitive and tedious, making a nuisance and a fool of himself, attempting to reach for the woefully unreachable without considering the changes in American audience tastes, the dry well of his exteriorized, existentially murky waters on stage and instead blaming others for his failure. Anecdotes that are gripping and startling in the first 40% of the book become yawn-inducing when only the setting changes, not the nature of the astonishingly shameful incidents.
What exactly does the reader learn from all the details? Yes, a bad family life is a lasting, traumatizing experience; yes, addiction is a terrible thing; yes, it’s terrible to live a life of betrayal to friends, contempt and derision for those who love us even as we treat them like scum; yes, it’s awful to belittle and whine constantly like a pampered baby who believes the world owes it constant attention and nurturing while it throws back fecal matter at those who change its diapers. Perhaps we learn that the insecure and paranoid god had clay feet? I do not think so. Lahr’s account shows that the god was mostly clay and, when rain fell on him, it melted into a heap of dirt.
However, Williams' characterization, his attitude toward his craft, the fervor with which he vowed to tell his story make up the heart of this book. We learn what it means to live for your art and that also in the world of producers, directors, actors, you're only as good as your last play. Williams' life was just as wild as his plays, and even though many of his works won great acclaim (The Glass Menagerie, Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), he suffered often from a lack of confidence. He also had trouble with relationships, though as a gay man, he had partners for fairly long periods but not particularly happy ones.
Lahr also takes us through the process of getting a play to Broadway, a much more grueling ordeal than one can imagine, but fascinating. The director, the actors, the producer, the rewrites, the haggling, especially of Williams refusing to revise. Then the play becomes a movie, which comes with a new set of problems.
For certain, some of this biography was hard to read, not because of the prose style or book length (766 pp.) but because of Williams' dreadful life (his father called him Miss Nancy, and his mother had Williams' beloved sister lobotomized). Often he went into hysterics, ran off to Europe, threw money around, tried to kill himself, and was stuck with unsavory characters because of his generosity. One of them, Maria St. Just, nearly ruined his legacy after his death. St. Just was appointed as the overseer of his literary collection and refused almost everyone the right to quote any work or perform it. Williams had known she was an opportunist but hadn't gotten around to changing his will.
There was no hope by the end of this biography, yet the book was satisfying to read because of John Lahr's talent for characterization by gathering and synthesizing Williams' thoughts and actions through hundreds of letters, sometimes so well that I felt I knew this man with the emotions of a child as well as the will and talent to define the human condition as few ever could. It will stay with me for a long time.
Top international reviews
and all. A troubled genius who put his life and soul into his work. A brilliant book.
All the major and minor plays are here, how, when, and where they were written and produced. All the madness in his family feeds Lahr's theory of how that went into the making of those revolutionary works such as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or Sweet Bird of Youth, and extended into his decline with the drama critics. Sometimes the reader gets tired of of yet more psychoanalysis, but that point is that Williams wrote to stay alive, to work out the chaos in his head. Least to say, he was impossible to live or deal with on a professional basis.
Although the last decades of Williams life were not his best, and after his death (and he was tragically not buried where he stipulated) his canon was systematically ruined for years by his trustee Maria St Just, his plays are now performed more than ever, and making the estate greater sums of money than in his own lifetime. His characters, many drawn from his family and circle, are unforgettable, as are their names (think Big Daddy). His best lines have entered the English language: "There ain't nothin' more powerful than the odour of mendacity". But none of this would have happened without Elia Kazan, his director who know how to stage the plays for an audience, and it is to Lahr's credit that he writes extensively about their relationship.
This he has done most effectively. It is wonderful to have an account of not only the life since 1961, but also, more importantly, of the very many plays and poems that were produced in that period. For those of us in the United Kingdom who tried to follow his career after "The Night of the Iguana" it was virtually impossible to do so as publishers were obviously only prepared to publish plays that were successful on Broadway and elsewhere. It is well known that Tennessee Williams suffered greatly all of his life from the after effects of a traumatic childhood and from a myriad of emotional problems, hindered by his reliance on alcohol, tobacco and a cocktail of uppers and downers and sideways swingers! Nevertheless, he soldiered on and produced many further plays of a very variable quality, some of them more than acceptable, such as "Vieux Carre", "Outcry", "The Red Devil Battery Sign", "Small Craft Warnings" and "Something Cloudy, Something Clear". It is therefore, for this reader, a great boon to have at last a coherent account of those final painful twenty two years, rendered in as objective a manner as possible, for in his latter years Mr Williams was often unaware of where his loyalties should lie as he was so often overwhelmed by severe bouts of paranoia. Mr Lahr wonderfully balances all of the many contradictions that permeated Mr Williams's life and never loses sight of the fact that this was a very great playwright and often a noble spirit.
A fine biography that has filled a void.