Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014
John Lahr’s much-anticipated and long-awaited biography of Tennessee Williams is also long overdue. In 1995, Lyle Leverich published a massive and copiously researched work, Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams, covering Williams’s life from birth to the triumph of his first important play, The Glass Menagerie, in 1944. Tom was a labor of love for Leverish, but it could only be published after the 1994 death of Maria St. Just, Williams’s mercurial friend and literary executor, who persistently blocked Leverich and others from access to Williams’s writings. Leverich’s 1999 death sadly prevented a Tom follow-up, thus paving the way for Lahr to reconstruct Williams’s remarkable achievement as a dramatist and the complexities and contradictions of his turbulent life. Lahr wisely makes his book a stand-alone study covering Williams’s entire life, cleverly using The Glass Menagerie’s autobiographical elements to double back and sketch in Williams’s early life. More importantly, this superb book is exceedingly well researched and elegantly written, superior as a result of Lahr’s talents as a drama critic and writer of profiles for The New Yorker. The reader will find Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh a profoundly engaging journey into Williams’s life and a masterful analysis of his dramatic accomplishments.
It hardly need be said that Williams, one of America’s greatest playwrights, drew on his personal life for his dramas, whether fictionalizing essences of his mother and sister (and himself) in The Glass Menagerie or returning to his early days as a budding playwright in Something Cloudy, Something Clear (1981), one of his final plays. Other Williams works feature a range of recurring themes, including: the human desire for transcendence and spiritual fulfillment; the complex nexus of spiritual love and sex; ambivalence regarding homosexuality (his own and that of others); the collision of illusion and reality; and the need for compassion for the sensitive or damaged beings among us struggling to survive the harsh realities of existence.
Lahr does not shy away from Williams’s personal problems, addictions and health issues, promiscuity, and his occasionally troubled relationships with family, lovers, and collaborators. Lahr astutely weaves these into an uncommonly engrossing portrait of a tortured artist sometimes victimized by his own demons and by vicious critical attacks (some that were thinly veiled assaults on his homosexuality and others pointing out the undeniable decline in Williams’s achievements after 1960). However, Lahr also makes a compelling case for the power of Williams’s late plays, offering a fresh look at works retaining Williams’s peerless lyricism and noting his bold experimentation with form, another hallmark of this most searching of dramatists.
Containing over six-hundred pages of text with nearly two-hundred additional pages of notes, bibliography, and chronology, Lahr’s book is also filled with photos, many previously unpublished. Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh sets a high bar for future biographers and critics in its remarkable illumination of a tortured artist’s life and work. For either the previously uninitiated or the sophisticated reader of Williams’s work, this book is essential.
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro