Wild At Heart

John Lahr’s Biography Perfectly Captures Tennessee Williams’s Tortured Greatness

The author of ‘The Glass Menagerie’ and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ was first saved and then betrayed by his art in a life every bit as flamboyant and wayward as his plays.

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In his empathetic, probing biography Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, John Lahr elucidates shape and significance in Williams’ disordered life, linking it to the new epoch in the American theater launched with The Glass Menagerie in 1945. This lyrical play, narrated by a man desperate to escape family obligations and fulfill his own dreams, was in the advance guard of a “cultural journey to the interior” that Lahr believes defined the postwar era, as well as Williams’ creative process.

The playwright intimately understood the conflict between self-sacrifice and self-gratification; he had seen it enacted by his parents in a miserable domestic drama whose main message to their children was, “You cannot have the feelings you have.” He always believed that his sister Rose’s lobotomy was prompted primarily by their mother Edwina’s horror at the sexually frank comments her mentally ill daughter made to shock her. In his writings, he rejected Edwina’s puritanism and embraced sexuality as the life-affirming road to knowledge, but he would always long as well for a spiritual transcendence beyond “this mad pilgrimage of the flesh.” Plays like A Streetcar Named Desire and Summer and Smoke dramatized his divided soul.

“To tell the story of the plays is to tell the story of the man,” writes Lahr, and his astute connection of the two matches that of another superb theatrical biography, Louis Sheaffer’s two-volume, Pulitzer Prize-winning portrait of the equally tortured Eugene O’Neill. Yet Sheaffer’s work, fine as it is, doesn’t have the literary panache of Lahr’s, which weaves the kind of unifying, illuminating metaphorical web found in fiction and drama.

His metaphors are solidly grounded in a cogent narrative of Williams’ personal affairs and professional career. Lahr, longtime drama critic for The New Yorker, begins with the premiere of The Glass Menagerie, a triumph that closed Lyle Leverich’s excellent 1995 account of Williams’ childhood and youth, Tom. This book is essentially volume two of that biography; Leverich, who died in 1999, asked Lahr to continue his work.

Lahr does pause in several chapters to look back briefly and consider key early influences on Williams: his toxic family environment, the liberating transition in his late 20s “from timid virgin to florid gay man,” and his first major production, Battle of Angels. The Theater Guild’s mishandling of that play, which closed out of town in 1940, shaped Williams’ “profoundly wary” attitude toward Broadway; as early as 1946, he was declaring, “From now on I shall write for a nonexistent art-theatre.” Instead, he wrote A Streetcar Named Desire, an even bigger hit than The Glass Menagerie and the beginning of what Lahr only slightly overstates as “the most important theatrical collaboration of twentieth-century American theatre,” with Elia Kazan.

Kazan in the ’40s and ’50s was “a seer who worked along an entirely different trajectory from other directors,” said Arthur Miller, who benefited from his magic touch on All My Sons and Death of a Salesman. Kazan’s skill in identifying a script’s essence, then ruthlessly goading the playwright through rewrite after rewrite until that essence was apparent to an audience, was invaluable to Williams, whose initial drafts were often messy and incoherent. The Rose Tattoo, Camino Real, and Sweet Bird of Youth were sharpened and focused by his comments, though Williams would never be happy about the revised ending of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; he felt he’d been pressured by Kazan to tidy up the play for the sake of commercial success.

Williams would have only one more commercial success, Night of the Iguana in 1961, after his partnership with Kazan ended. Though Lahr argues that such later plays as Vieux Carré and Clothes for a Summer Hotel have more merit than was discerned at the time, he also notes that Williams’ baroque, confessional style seemed old-fashioned compared to the minimalism of Edward Albee and Harold Pinter. But he had a deeper problem, alluded to in the title of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore: He feared his creativity was drying up.

Williams lived to write; it had rescued him from his mother’s smothering embrace. His best, most influential plays were all dedicated to “the emancipation of desire and the celebration of the wild at heart” that horrified Edwina and, at Williams’ peak, moved mainstream audiences to recognize themselves in his often extreme characters. “Only my work holds my heart,” he wrote in the throes of his first serious relationship. “I’ve never been able to make a go of [any relationship] for very long. The loneliness is rooted too deep in me.” That loneliness increasingly drove him to alcohol and pills, which began to hamper his ability to do the only thing that really mattered to him. To read the dismissive, sometimes savage reviews of Williams’ later plays is to be mortified by the cruelty of critics toward a vulnerable artist, but it has to be acknowledged that he destroyed himself.

The final chapters of Tennessee Williams are almost unbearably sad as they chronicle the thrashings of a man who “felt as if he were vanishing in plain sight.” When he ended Vieux Carré with the stage direction, “The house is empty now,” Lahr somberly terms it “an augury and an epitaph.” Once he felt empty of inspiration, Williams was basically waiting to die, which he did in February 1983, on the floor of a hotel room filled with bottles of prescription drugs and red wine.

“Williams turned his own delirium into one of the twentieth century’s great chronicles of the romance and barbarity of individualism,” Lahr writes in an elegiac summing-up. It’s a characteristically elliptical yet accurate statement in a book that echoes its subject in poetic intelligence. Williams’ painful sense of isolation grew from his personal history, but he understood loneliness and the longing to connect as central, conjoined elements of the human condition. He gave voice to both through indelible characters—Amanda Wingfield, Blanche Dubois, Maggie the Cat—speaking some of the most beautiful language ever written for the stage. Lahr’s eloquent, insightful tribute to his achievements is essential reading for anyone who cares about the theater.