Book Review: ‘Tennessee Williams’ by John Lahr
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. But “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh” is not exactly what its title page claims it is—a biography.
The extensive chronology at the back of the book is more or less an admission of this fact. It is only here, for instance, on page 606, that we discover that Thomas Williams (born 1911) attended the Stix School in St. Louis and later the University City High School. In the body of the book, we hear about the psychological effect of the parents on the child but really nothing about his education, his reading, his friends. And when the book comes to focus on key figures in Williams’s career, like his agent Audrey Wood, the director Elia Kazan or his dubious friend Maria St. Just, Mr. Lahr wanders freely among the dates of their exchanges with the playwright. The book is more a study of Williams’s imagination and career than any plodding account of his “life.” Mr. Lahr has decided not to track his subject in sequential detail but to dive into the tumultuous depths of the author’s psyche and the glamorous chaos of his stage productions. He brings us as close to Williams as we are ever likely to get.
Certainly Williams had a traumatic upbringing. His mother, “Miss Edwina,” was a monster: a spoiled, joyless, puritanical, manipulative, frigid dragon who breathed fire on her family, scorching ambitions and circumstances, bitter at the lackluster life that her feckless husband provided her. His father, Cornelius (known as “CC”), took refuge in drink and rage. Young Tom adored his maternal grandfather, a remote parson and, in Williams’s own words, “not the most masculine of men.” He was also devoted to his older sister, Rose, a schizophrenic, who in 1943, at her mother’s insistence, became one of the first patients in America to be given a prefrontal lobotomy, rendering her permanently damaged (though she lived until 1996, 13 years longer than Williams himself). Their younger brother, Dakin, was a hamstrung cipher, unable to make his way with or without his brother. His birth in 1919 led their mother to banish her husband from her bedroom.
In 1939, at the start of his career, Williams changed his name from Thomas to Tennessee and vowed to write plays that were “a picture of my own heart.” Mr. Lahr paints the portrait of that bloody, tortured, triumphant heart, which was, from earliest days, a pawn in the battle between his parents—each instilling in him traits that would often render him helpless, like his neediness and alcoholism. Edwina’s terror of the physical took its toll on her son, who had to overcome a nearly terminal fear of his body and its desires. Williams didn’t masturbate until he was 26. After both his first fumbled heterosexual encounter and a year later his first homosexual one, he vomited.
Mr. Lahr demonstrates how this home life shaped the young author’s psyche. Against the stifling and repressive forces of convention, he posed a romanticized version of himself—especially in his letters, which detail his early erotic longings with a glistening poetic edge—as a free spirit at once volatile and tender, possessed of and by an assertive and redemptive sexuality. And this became the essential pattern of all his work, each play a version of his childhood and adolescent struggle. As compelling an argument as this is, it can seem—and perhaps this is appropriate for a study of the postwar era—too often to look at things with Freudian blinders on.
For instance, when in 1940 Williams was madly in love with his first boyfriend, Kip Kiernan, he wrote from Provincetown to a friend about Kip’s appeal:
The wind blows the door wide open, the gulls are crying. Oh, Christ. I call him baby . . . though when I lie on top of him I feel like I was polishing the Statue of Liberty or something. He is so enormous. A great bronze statue of antique Greece come to life.
Mr. Lahr concludes that “Kip’s large size is associated with the female (the Statue of Liberty); Williams’s smallness places him in the position of an infant with his gargantuan mother.” Admittedly, if Williams had invoked the Chrysler Building, there would have been a different spin, but even so such passages strike me as reductive.
Mr. Lahr makes extensive use of Williams’s letters and journals—all of them well written. Like D.H. Lawrence or F. Scott Fitzgerald, Williams was an instinctively good writer. He was frank, precise and often hysterical in his journal. Here he is in 1949, in Rome, worrying about his literary output even as he is speeding through the cobbled back streets in a red Buick nicknamed “Desiderio”:
There is no point in hiding from the stark fact that the fire is missing in almost everything I try to do right now. Is it Italy? Is it age? Who knows. Perhaps it is just the lack of any more deep need of expression, but I have no satisfactory existence without it. Without it, I have nothing but the animal life that is so routine and weary.
But I wonder how literally he should be taken. People noticed that when he was typing up his plays, he would become the characters, acting out a part as he wrote it. My guess is that he was often trying out emotions and situations as he wrote up his journals and that their tone is sometimes more hyperbolic or martyred than he may actually have felt. But God knows, it was a carnival ride of a life, and at its center was a shrewd, heart-baring artist who stood the theater world on its head. Continue reading…