Thirty-one years after his death and 70 years after his first Broadway hit, "The Glass Menagerie," Tennessee Williams remains something of a mystery. Although his major plays — "Menagerie," "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "The Night of the Iguana," "Sweet Bird of Youth" — are as popular as ever, their thematic connections to Williams' troubled youth and early adult life are poorly understood. The later plays, written in a fog of drugs and alcohol that enveloped his last decades, were dismissed by most critics in their original productions, a state of neglect that largely persists to this day.
Now comes John Lahr — the former senior drama critic and current contributor to The New Yorker whose books include acclaimed biographies of his father, the actor Bert Lahr, and the British playwright Joe Orton — to remedy this sad state of affairs. In his new biography, "Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh," Lahr offers fresh insights into the playwright's life and work and how they relate to each other. He also retraces Williams' deep (if often barely acknowledged) collaborations with various creative partners, including his longtime agent, Audrey Wood, and the director Elia Kazan, whose input was crucial in establishing the final form of several of the plays. Most valuable of all, perhaps, is the light "Mad Pilgrimage" sheds on Williams' sad personal decline and how it's reflected in the later plays, several of which Lahr sees as unfairly maligned.
Printers Row Journal caught up with Lahr, 73, for a phone interview from his home in London a few days before he embarked on a book tour that will include an Oct. 13 appearance at Steppenwolf Theatre Co. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: It took you 12 years to write the book, which, as you say in the preface, is pushing the envelope.
A: Yes. For one thing, I had a day job during that time. For another, I had to research each chapter as I went along, because if I had sat and read the mound of all of what Williams wrote, I'd still be reading. It just never ends. There are so many drafts of plays, so many letters, poems, stories, diary entries. So my writing the book had to be sequential.
Q: I gather you undertook this daunting task to some extent as the fulfillment of a promise.
A: Well, that's too romantic. I was asked by the Williams estate, after his death, to write his authorized biography, because of the success and cult following of (the Orton biography) "Prick Up Your Ears." But because I had a young son and lived in England, it wasn't going to be possible for me to do. I didn't know, then, that the reason I had been approached by the Williams estate was that Williams, on his own, had given two letters of authorization to Lyle Leverich, a producer. He had no experience in theater history, and had never written a book. But he was a generous and warm guy who was a real advocate of Williams, and Williams liked him.
The thinking was that if I announced that I was writing a Williams biography, then the theatricals who a biographer would need to see would speak to me and not to Lyle. Later, when I landed at The New Yorker, lo and behold, Lyle came calling with Andreas Brown, who owned the Gotham Book Mart and also was the bibliographer of Williams' material for (the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at) Austin. They explained that Lyle had finished his book five years before but was being blocked by the estate. They asked whether I would write an article about all the shenanigans, and I did, in 1994. I was outraged, as a biographer myself, that this guy's labor had been denied publication at the caprice of a woman who was not the literary executor of the estate, as she claimed.
Q: You're referring to Lady Maria St. Just.
A: And as I said in the profile, she was neither a lady nor a saint nor just. She was grandiose, as Williams said in his own memoir, and she used her association with Williams to feather her own nest, both socially and financially. She was the intermediary with the lawyers who ran the estate, and she was hard to control, very high-handed. The reason she didn't want Lyle's book published was that she wanted to control Williams' story. She wanted her role in Williams' life to be part of his legend. Finally, when I started researching the New Yorker piece, the lawyers allowed Lyle's book — which covers Williams' youth and his education as a writer — to be published, quite successfully, as the first of two planned volumes. Lyle and I became friends, and one day he said, "If anything happens to me, would you finish this?" And I said sure. A few years later, I was in San Francisco reviewing a play, and somebody came up and said, "Lyle died." But my writing this book was not the fulfillment of a pledge, really, because I never anticipated having an opportunity to write it. And as it happens, I disagreed with Lyle's interpretation of Williams' family, so what I've done is a stand-alone book.
Q: What was your disagreement with his interpretation?
A: Lyle didn't really take on the crazy-making quality of both of Williams' parents. The father was always seen as the heavy, largely because of "The Glass Menagerie" and some of Williams' other early writing. But that interpretation, after Williams was analyzed, changed. He came to see his father in a different light. And where I greatly disagreed with Lyle was in his interpretation of the mother, which was derived from "Glass Menagerie" — which is what a musical is to reality; Amanda Wingfield is the musical version of Williams' mother, Edwina. She was every bit, in her quiet way, as unseeing of Tennessee, as violent in her intrusiveness, as her husband. The family was at war, and the children were in the middle of this skirmishing.
Q: One of the most striking aspects of your portrayal of Edwina is that while she was fixated on Tom, as he was called as a child — she was seductive, in a creepy way — she didn't like to touch anyone, including Tom, or be touched herself.
A: You have put your finger on the essence of the psychological configuration that Williams carried through life. His mother was seductive but unattainable, unknowable; she never told her kids the truth about herself, never expressed her real feelings, despite her constant drizzle of words. That's always there in the books about Williams, but it's never interpreted. What does that mean when a mother talks all the time and you can't get into her conversation unless you accept everything she says? I think there are far richer ... psychological issues at play there, and that I wanted to bring out in the book.
Q: The touching business seems relevant to Williams' romantic and sexual life as a gay man, which you describe in detail.
A: The fact that his mother was seductive but absent or disappearing — he couldn't reach her — meant that absence in any form was eroticized for him. So when he's cruising, the absence itself, the expectation, is itself erotic. Likewise, the people he fell for tended to be people who were present but absent — people who would go away and leave him for days, and then come back. It was tantalizing for Williams, because that was the configuration which always, from infancy, aroused him, for lack of a better word. And symbolically and psychologically, the embrace of an audience is also related to this. When he's putting on a play and watching an audience watch it, he's seeing people take him in as he is. That's who he is — the feelings expressed in the play, that's who Tennessee Williams is. And people understand it, take it in, think about it. But that never happened in his real life, in his home.
Q: A big part of the book is the way you reconstruct the original theater productions as they were created. That must have been the most fun for you, digging up and stitching together those stories.
A: Yes, although it's all like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. And you're wearing various different hats. You're telling a story, and you're interpreting the plays. In a lot of books about Williams, people describe the plays, but they don't interpret what the plays mean, especially in terms of their relation to Williams' life. They also don't give you the historical context for the plays. The thing I suppose gave me the most pleasure was delineating and parsing the collaboration that took place in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof": the argument between (director) Elia Kazan and Williams, and how Williams really could not accept the degree to which Kazan influenced his final product.
Q: You describe it as Williams' "artistic vanity."
A: That's right. It's hard for anybody — especially a great writer like Williams — to accept that part of his success was that he had a great editor. Kazan not only put the plays up, he edited the plays, and goaded Williams into going much further than he ever intended to go. I think it's safe to say that without Kazan, Williams would have written maybe three or four good plays, if that. Kazan is the reason "The Rose Tattoo" coheres, if you think it coheres. He worked on "Camino Real," which was a failure commercially, but it was all Kazan's structure in that play, which is considered part of the Williams canon. Kazan was also responsible for a lot of "Sweet Bird of Youth."
Q: The story of "The Glass Menagerie" premiere is great in part because we learn so much about the original Amanda, Laurette Taylor, who was drunk on opening night but somehow managed to give a great performance.
A: It was satisfying for me to tell that story, in part because most people today don't know who Laurette Taylor was. You know, when I was at The New Yorker, a young fact-checker came to me and asked who James Dean was.
A: I mean, if they don't know James Dean, who possibly would know who Laurette Taylor was? But that's part of my job description, I think — to keep the context alive, to keep theater culture alive.
Q: It's part of the Williams lore, of course, that his last few decades as a playwright were not successful. Alcohol and drugs were increasingly a problem. The critics turned against him. The plays didn't seem to be up to the standard of the earlier work. But you find more to celebrate in Williams' work from this period than others have.
A: The plays do show you the geography of his imagination and how it changed and mutated. Williams was aware, even before he started his heavily drugged existence, that he was losing his connection to his unconscious. He would say, as he moved into his older age, that he was not writing with the same firepower that he'd had in his heyday. This is not unusual for writers, but it was a complete tragedy for Williams, because he had nothing in his life but his writing. So a lot of the late plays, while they lacked the lyrical shellac of his earlier work, document the tragedy of his losing the connection to his unconscious.
That said, the critics were awful to him, well beyond the call of legitimate critical discourse. It was complete piling on. Nonetheless, within those miserable years, he wrote, in my view, at least three or four plays which, while they may not be great plays, are by no means embarrassments. I'm thinking of "The Gnadiges Fraulein," "Vieux Carré" — which was very successful in Europe, although not in New York — and his last play, "A House Not Meant to Stand" (produced at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago). So the statement that his last years were a terrible decline is not wrong, but it's not entirely right, either. In any case, it was terrible for Williams because he had nothing but his literary gift. He had no gift for living.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Twitter: @KevinNance1.
By John Lahr, W.W. Norton, 765 pages, $39.95
Lahr will appear at 7 p.m. Oct. 13, at Steppenwolf Theatre. For details, call 312-335-1650 or visit steppenwolf.org.