Read Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr Online


John Lahr has produced a theater biography like no other. Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh gives intimate access to the mind of one of the most brilliant dramatists of his century, whose plays reshaped the American theater and the nation's sense of itself. This astute, deeply researched biography sheds a light on Tennessee Williams's warring family, his guilJohn Lahr has produced a theater biography like no other. Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh gives intimate access to the mind of one of the most brilliant dramatists of his century, whose plays reshaped the American theater and the nation's sense of itself. This astute, deeply researched biography sheds a light on Tennessee Williams's warring family, his guilt, his creative triumphs and failures, his sexuality and numerous affairs, his misreported death, even the shenanigans surrounding his estate.With vivid cameos of the formative influences in Williams's life—his fierce, belittling father Cornelius; his puritanical, domineering mother Edwina; his demented sister Rose, who was lobotomized at the age of thirty-three; his beloved grandfather, the Reverend Walter Dakin—Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh is as much a biography of the man who created A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as it is a trenchant exploration of Williams’s plays and the tortured process of bringing them to stage and screen.The portrait of Williams himself is unforgettable: a virgin until he was twenty-six, he had serial homosexual affairs thereafter as well as long-time, bruising relationships with Pancho Gonzalez and Frank Merlo. With compassion and verve, Lahr explores how Williams's relationships informed his work and how the resulting success brought turmoil to his personal life.Lahr captures not just Williams’s tempestuous public persona but also his backstage life, where his agent Audrey Wood and the director Elia Kazan play major roles, and Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, Bette Davis, Maureen Stapleton, Diana Barrymore, and Tallulah Bankhead have scintillating walk-on parts. This is a biography of the highest order: a book about the major American playwright of his time written by the major American drama critic of his time....

Title : Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh
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ISBN : 9780393351651
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 784 Pages
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Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh Reviews

  • Sketchbook
    2019-02-09 13:04

    Tenn Williams (or 10, as he often signed his name) was a Drama Queen offstage, for sure, but as a playwright he is King of the American Theatre. This disturbing, gossipy bio confirms his stature. I've long agreed with Mary McCarthy, who wrote that Eugene O'Neill's "lack of verbal gift was a personal affliction; to be frank, he cannot write." Yes, O'Neill brought the provincial American theatre, in the 20s, into the 20thC, but his plays are rightfully forgotten today, except for the decrepit, maudlin barroom drama "The Iceman Cometh" and his personal epic "Long Day's Journey," if you can sit through it. Tenn, starting in the mid 1940s, brought maturity and poetry to the theatre witheightvital plays that cut to the heart. I cannot think of any other modern playwright who has given any theatre anywhereeightmemorable works. He is an Artist.10 explores loneliness, eroticism, repression and undefined spiritual longings of the psyche. A fragile person, always, he was paranoid, hysterical, neurotic, a hypochondriac, needy, alcoholic, and, at the end, drug addicted. Plus, I believe, there was some craziness in the genes. His father, a mean, abusive drunk, called him a Nancy; his frigid Victorian mum, who screamed during sex, was 10 thought, more psychotic than his sister who underwent a lobotomy when she was 33. (Nice, ehh?) Mum couldnt tolerate her mouth, when sis went "off" : Example, "Mother, we girls used to abuse ourselves with altar candles we stole from the Chapel--" Mum told the doctor: "Do anything to shut her up."A virgin til his late 20s, Tenn, upon discovering sex, turned sexuality into his theology (and a pathology). "Am I looking for God?" he asked. "No -- just for myself." A rather nothing looking fella of short stature and no self-esteem, even after a Bwy hit, Tenn, wrote Gore Vidal, "could not possess his own life until he had written about it." The excitement of male pickups and cruising made him feelreal, wanted, desired -- he had been chosen--- and gave emotional, creative relief. He sought rough trade, usually. On a sexual binge in Mexico, in the early 40s, he was raped, he said, by a Mexican beach boy "and screamed like a banshee." He liked to talk about being pierced by the arrows of love.Sexuality, writes Lahr (who grapples w his own innate schmuckiness), brought the dreamy 10 down to earth and into life. In New Orleans, c 1945, he met a big. handsome trashy bad boy named Pancho Rodriguez, age 25, who dominated him with his presumed charm and other assets. Visiting the stuffy, old WASP island of Nantucket, Pancho, says 10, looked around at proper ladies in porch chairs and shouted, "What are you looking at? You're nothing but a bunch of old cock-suckers!" When told of the incident another daffy member of the 10 cast, Carson McCullers, chirped, "Tennessee, honey, that boy is wonderful."Sensual, primitive, explosive, Pancho became Stanley in "Streetcar." Elia Kazan, the play's director, said, "I'll put it to you plainly. Tennessee is Blanche. Stanley is common as shit. He'll degrade her utterly." At the New Haven tryout, Thornton Wilder complained that an aristocrat like sister Stella would never have fallen for a vulgarian like Stanley. 10 thought to himself, "Wilder has never had a good lay." But he only said,"People are complex, Thorn." 10 never wanted a smooth, cool personal life. He thrived on fireworks. Soon he and Pancho are into screams, rants, breakage, bashings and so on. This fueled 10s juices. When Pancho is finally sent packing, 10 -- the masochist -- connects with former sailor Frank Merlo, 27, c 1948, who had already been the lover of DC columnist Joseph Alsop. For 15 years Merlo was his factotum -- not easy, and eventually the usual rants began--.A key quarrel w Lahr is that he stupidly seems to approve of the vile-fakir therapist Lawrence Kubie (1896-1973), a fav among theatre nits, because Kubie said he could cure homosexuality. His patients included Moss Hart and Leonard Bernstein. 10, after some visits, dumped him. 10 never had a writer's burn out. His last 12 years were nonstop drugs, which pickled his brain. This bio, which covers the production of every 10 play, should be read by anyone interested in the theatre -- or the tragedies of life. (Keeping in mind, Lahr himself is fucked up).John Garfield was first choice for Stanley in "Stcar." He issued absurd money and creative demands.Role went to Brando, then 23. Kate Hepburn was wanted for Hannah in "Iguana." She fudged. The bo draw was Bette Davis, in another role, who brayed and busted balls of everyone.

  • Christopher Conlon
    2019-02-07 16:10

    “This biography has a strange history,” John Lahr writes in the Preface to his “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.” It might be more accurate to say that this biography has been published in a strange way. For the past decade it has been well known that Lahr was working on the sequel to Lyle Leverich’s 1995 biography “Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams,” the definitive study of Williams’ life up until the 1944 premiere of his breakout hit, “The Glass Menagerie.” With Leverich’s death in 1999, Lahr was importuned to complete the aborted journey Leverich had begun with “Tom.” A more appropriate choice of writer to pick up Leverich’s fallen gauntlet could hardly have been imagined—Lahr, who writes regularly for The New Yorker, is certainly one of the most distinguished theater critics in the country, author of well-received books on Joe Orton, Noel Coward, and his father Bert Lahr, among others—and in many ways he has done a creditable job with his massive (765 pages, including notes and index) study of Williams, perhaps the finest American playwright of the twentieth century. But odd notes appear even before the reader arrives at the beginning of the narrative proper. Continuing in his Preface, Lahr writes that “although the biography started out as the second volume of Lyle’s enterprise…it didn’t end that way. In order to reinterpret the plays and the life, I needed to revisit Williams’s childhood and to take a different tack from Lyle’s encyclopedic approach. For this stylistic reason, W.W. Norton has chosen to publish ‘Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh’ as a stand-alone biography.” Note the agency in that last sentence. It was not Lahr who made this decision, nor was it Lahr and his publisher together; the author quite specifically removes himself completely from the equation, placing all responsibility for his book being taken as a “stand-alone biography” squarely on the shoulders of his publisher. This is, to say the least, interesting.Why does it matter? Because “Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh” is not, simply put, a stand-alone biography. In every way it is completely dependent on the reader’s knowledge of the material in “Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams.” Lahr’s book begins exactly where Leverich’s left off, at the premiere of “Menagerie”; and while the author then does wind back to quickly cover a few aspects of Williams’s earlier life, this material is handled mostly in a quick-sketch, Wikipedia sort of way, and goes by so quickly that it makes little impact. As a result, readers unfamiliar with Leverich’s book will encounter a shadowy Tennessee Williams here, one whose feelings and actions often seem only murkily motivated or comprehensible. Few writers have ever been more dependent than Williams on their personal histories as a wellspring for their work. In play after play figures from his past—especially dotty and demanding Edwina, his mother; cold, violent Cornelius, his father; and his tragic sister Rose, lobotomized and institutionalized for most of her life—appear in different guises, and any understanding of Williams as an artist must begin with a clear understanding of these three people and their roles in his life. “Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh” offers no such understanding.But then, one suspects it was never meant to; Leverich did a superb job covering this material, and his “Tom” is unlikely to ever be equaled. At work on his sequel for the past decade, Lahr doubtless felt no need to rehash all of what Leverich uncovered, since, he might reasonably have assumed, his own book would clearly be labeled “Volume Two.” Without that label, Lahr’s book, for all its fine writing, is hopelessly handicapped. “Stylistic” rationalizations notwithstanding, it seems likely that W.W. Norton’s decision to publish this sequel biography as a stand-alone has far more to do with financial reality than anything else. The definitive stand-alone biography of one of America’s greatest playwrights, written by one of America’s greatest theater critics? That’s saleable. Part Two of a nearly twenty-year-old biography, which was itself the work of a different, now deceased writer? That’s a much tougher sell.Given all this, though, and given that the reader simply must be familiar with Leverich’s book in order to profitably read Lahr’s, how well does “Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh” work?It works pretty well. If there are no huge new revelations here, as there were in Leverich, that’s because the portion of Williams’s life covered in “Mad Pilgrimage” has already been so thoroughly documented by numerous earlier biographers. Anyone familiar with the Williams biographies by Spoto, Hayman, Bak, Williams & Mead, and others—including Williams’s own “Memoirs”—will find little surprising here. We trace the rise of the playwright’s legend from the unquestioned masterpieces and commercial blockbusters—“Menagerie,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Suddenly Last Summer,” “Sweet Bird of Youth,” “Night of the Iguana”—along with the occasional less successful detour such as “Camino Real.” Williams’s relationship with director Elia Kazan gets major coverage, as well it should—it was Kazan who shepherded several of Williams’s biggest hits onto the stage, including “Streetcar” and “Cat”; he directed the classic film version of “Streetcar,” too. The two men had an intense artistic partnership which is well-covered here, Lahr taking good advantage of Kazan’s recently published letters along with Williams’s own notebooks. The controversy over the third act of “Cat”—Kazan disliked Williams’s original version and requested rewrites, which the playwright completed grudgingly and groused about both publicly and privately ever after—is also nicely detailed. Some of Williams’s other relationships are also portrayed in greater detail than in other biographies, but this fact does not always play to this book’s advantage. The reader is subjected to very extensive sections focusing on Pancho Rodriguez, Williams’s hot-tempered, occasionally violent lover of the 1940s; the problem is, these sections reveal nothing about the man’s character that wasn’t already firmly established in earlier volumes, and the long catalog of scenes of screaming, stalking out, throwing things, breaking up and then reconciling grows monotonous—it’s a distinct relief when Rodriguez at last makes his final exit from these pages. Also monotonous is the over-emphasized presence of Williams’s self-serving, gold-digging friend Maria St. Just, who occupies far more pages in this volume than she should, and of whom the reader can only agree with Gore Vidal, who is quoted here as calling her “a crashing bore.”In any event what follows, as anyone interested enough in Williams to read this book likely already knows, is the playwright’s lengthy downward slide into drink, drugs, and artistic irrelevance. One of the biggest challenges for any Williams biographer lies in the twenty or so years after his final Broadway hit, “Night of the Iguana,” opens, for it’s difficult to keep these years from becoming one long, sad drone. The great love of his life, Frank Merlo, dies, and Williams never completely recovers. He never has another commercially successful play; he never even has another well-reviewed one. New York critics turn on him savagely, openly mocking and deriding his new plays; one asks, “Why, rather than being banal and hysterical and absurd, doesn’t he keep quiet? Why doesn’t he simply stop writing?” He remains enormously famous, but alcohol and drugs exacerbate tendencies he’s always had toward irrational and paranoid behavior to the point that he alienates most people who were ever close to him. By 1969, his brother Dakin has him committed to a mental institution, a decision which quite clearly saves the playwright’s life; to show his thanks, Williams writes Dakin out of his will.This dark parade makes for grim reading, and for some, perhaps, the tale is over-familiar, with too little new material to justify yet another retelling of it. And it does go on. Readers may well find themselves exhausted long before the end. As Lahr’s protagonist, Williams is so unappealing, and ultimately so pathetic, that some may find themselves sympathizing with Frank Corsaro, director of the troubled but successful Broadway premiere of “Night of the Iguana”: “He was not a very good person, really. He became very much the monster of the theater…I just didn’t want to go near him.”There are compensations, however. Lahr is predictably incisive in discussing the plays themselves, for the most part avoiding the tendency of many biographers to declare their opinion of a given work as the final, unquestionable truth. The entirely justifiable exception comes with the late plays, which are only now starting to be seen regularly in revivals and which still to some extent carry the stench of their original poor critical receptions. Many of these plays are actually rather good, and Lahr makes excellent cases for two, “In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel” and “Vieux Carré.” His enthusiasm for “Clothes for a Summer Hotel,” a play generally thought to be abysmal, and the strange comic fantasia “A House Not Meant to Stand” may prove enticing enough for readers to give those scripts another look. (Strangely, one of Williams’s best late plays, “A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur,” goes completely unmentioned in Lahr’s otherwise comprehensive treatment of the later works.)It’s unfortunate that Lahr makes the mistake of treating Williams’s short stories as mere rough drafts for the plays, worthy of no further consideration than as they relate to the better-known theater works. Williams was in fact a brilliant short-story writer, and his best tales (“Desire and the Black Masseur,” “One Arm,” half a dozen others) are masterpieces of the genre; Williams’s theatrical fame has obscured this aspect of his career, and Lahr misses an opportunity to rectify the situation. Williams’s poetry too, though hardly so masterful, deserves reconsideration, but Lahr only references it to help make the occasional biographical point. In the end, whatever the publisher’s claims for it, “Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh” cannot stand as the definitive biography of Tennessee Williams. Taken, however, as it should be, as the necessary companion piece to Leverich’s “Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams,” the two together just might be able to support that claim. Lahr’s book is certainly not the place for the casual Tennessee Williams fan to begin, but it does offer pleasures and insights for the seasoned Williams devotee.

  • Bettie☯
    2019-01-23 16:05

    (view spoiler)[Bettie's Books (hide spoiler)]

  • Myles
    2019-02-09 10:09

    (3.6/5.0) Biographies can get a lot worse than this, and Lahr is one of the best writers in The New Yorker's stable. In his introduction, he prides himself on departing from the standard chronology of Williams' life. And to a degree, Lahr does skitter around the timeline, slipping back to Williams' childhood and romantic history as he establishes the impetus for both the great early plays and the strange, desperate later ones. It's impeccably researched and there are a lot of fine excerpts from Williams' diaries, but considering its subject, Mad Pilgrimage could have been a lot more decadent and a lot more agonizing. Also, points deducted (or added??) for having the ugliest cover illustration of 2014.

  • Russ
    2019-01-23 15:42

    John Lahr's Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh is an insightful, ripping read. Tennessee Williams' life is as sad and fascinating as any character he created for the stage. This well-researched, intelligent and concise biography probes the twisted up-bringing and self-doubt that spurred the greatest American playwright to create his host of masterpieces. Lahr, of course, is the senior drama critic for The New Yorker, and as such, he brings a critic's eye to much of the drama surrounding the dramas of Williams long and illustrious career; reminding us along the way why Williams' words are still quoted on playgrounds and sitcoms and drama classes around the world. This biography delves into the writing and the plays, of course, but Williams life away from the theater is the real focus. From his childhood - doted on by a simpering, controlling mother, ridiculed by a distant, disapproving father and guilt-ridden over a fragile, lobotomized sister - to an alcohol and drug-laced death and the fight for control of his work afterwards, Williams is surrounded by a cast of characters every bit as captivating as Stanley, Stella, Big Daddy and Maggie the Cat.For the most part, Lahr's comments are insightful, occasionally he strays too far, for example, stretching for traces of Williams in his minor plays. It's like searching for ghosts in the fog - they're everywhere and nowhere. Still this biography delivers on so many levels I give it five stars.

  • Lenore Riegel
    2019-01-31 13:11

    If you have any interest in theater, please go out and get this book. It is a powerful, emotional, all-encompassing journey through the world and history of theater. I have never read anything like it - it's as if you were inside and beside Tennessee Williams himself. Decorated with a bow, no wrapping needed, it is my new go-to gift for anyone I love who also loves the stage. Thinking of their pleasure helps me relive my own experience as I read. I'm happy just thinking that you may be the next to read it because of my review.

  • Joanne Gass
    2019-02-17 11:51

    What a life! John Lahr's biography of Tennessee Williams is a tour de force. Lahr writes lovingly but not slavishly of Williams' life-long struggle to create art and reconcile his life to his art. This book is essential reading for anyone who studies American theatrical history or teaches contemporary American theater.

  • Nancy
    2019-02-09 16:54

    Tennessee Williams....troubled soul but brilliant writer! Review

  • Ben
    2019-02-01 16:49

    Fantastic biography. The author is clever to frame this book by Tennessee's relationships and artistic output instead of strict chronology. It is more of a literary biography - you can see the influences his family and lovers had on the characters in his plays. The more chaotic his love life, the better for his work. It is interesting that he wound up sympathizing with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald near the end of his life, having shared the knack of putting his loved ones on paper and achieving great critical and commercial success at their expense. It's interesting to watch this habit slowly take its toll on Williams. Although there are moments of sources rewriting history (people saying they knew immediately that he would be a success, etc) and some of the tempestuous relationships are told more from Williams' perspective (he wrote in his diary constantly and was open in his letters and memoirs), I thought the book was even handed and kept the hyperbole in the quoted rave reviews. I was surprised that the most moving part of the story, and probably the most memorable, had to do with Williams' struggle with his sexuality. So shamed and shy throughout his teens and twenties, he longs just to be touched on the arm by anyone. It was heartbreaking and helped me to understand how growing up in a strict and forbidding home would throw a gay person into such turmoil. That upbringing never left him either - despite all the shame he still wants to be religious at the end. So I would recommend this book to anyone enduring the same struggles.Overall a great read and a person well deserving of a great biography.

  • Emily
    2019-01-26 16:43

    I had a hard time staying with this book. First, Lahr bypasses a strict chronology of Williams’s life in favor of a looser structure based on the chronology of his plays. (Example: We are introduced to Williams’s family background through our introduction to “The Glass Menagerie,” his first major play and the one that sets the stage for the haunted family dynamics that inform all the others.) While this structure makes sense for a playwright whom Lahr calls “our most autobiographical,” I missed the kind of context-setting provided by Robert Caro in the first volume of his LBJ biography, in which the subject’s story begins before his birth, with his geography! Second—and I’m embarrassed to admit this—I got bored by the many summaries of Williams’s plays. Once I realized that every plot is based on the same template—the quest of the artist/outsider/romantic to prevail in a brutal world—I realized that the persistence of the template is the story. Some artists buckle under the criticism that comes with changing times and tastes, but Williams never stops defending his vision. Along the way, we witness his coping mechanisms: the hunger for human connection, his relentless test of others’ devotion, and the giant roar of pain and eloquence his characters put forth. A high point of the book is Lahr’s exploration of the relationship between Williams and Elia Kazan, the director who best understands him and who liberates his message through a combination of plot recalibration and pure stagecraft. Part of the magic of this biography is found in the other lives it illuminates.

  • Michael Ritchie
    2019-01-21 10:00

    I can't give half-stars or I would have given this 3 and 1/2. It's a big biography and deeply researched, and it starts off like gangbusters, but once Lahr gets around to the plays, things go wrong. Lahr is a drama critic, and I'm glad to have a bio that treats the plays in detail, but he winds up going into way too much detail about the circumstances of the play's writing and production, to the point where we're buried in pages of lengthy quotes from letters between Williams and his directors (usually Elia Kazan). On occasion, Lahr spends so much time and effort on this that the plot summaries or details about the actors suffer--I'm still vague on what happens in Orpheus Descending and Summer and Smoke. He approaches the plays from a psychological criticism viewpoint and that is helpful--it especially helps illuminate the odd Suddenly Last Summer and the late play Clothes for a Summer Hotel--yet I still came away from this book feeling like I didn't know what made Williams tick. Lahr does bring some of Williams' partners to life, particularly Frank Merlo, and I enjoyed learning that one of Williams' companions later in life was a relative of Jack Nicklaus. I would recommend this, with the caveat that it bogs down in drowning detail in the last half.

  • Jimmy
    2019-02-04 11:59

    This is a fly-on-the-wall book. We hear about the intimate details of Williams's private sexual and personal life. The lobotomy of his sister. More importantly, we learn about the behind-the-scenes details of his plays and movie scripts. We also learn some details about the lives of Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, Bette Davis, Maureen Stapleton, Diana Barrymore, and Tallulah Bankhead. Then there is one of the great collaborations of the twentieth century with Elia Kazan. Elizabeth Ashley reads this compact disc. She has to read the line calling her "the definitive Maggie the Cat." A must read for anyone interested in the history of twentieth century American drama. The author is John Lahr, a senior drama critic for The New Yorker.

  • Gerald Creel
    2019-01-28 13:48

    One of the best biographies of a tortured genius the I have read. I formerly thought I understood Williams' plays in the past, but now realize that I merely saw words on a page. After reading this biography, I now know that Williams' plays were either autobiographical or semi-autobiographical in nature. Well worth the read for anyone interested in theatre, theatre history, or admirers of Williams' works.

  • John
    2019-02-17 12:01

    Clearly a five start biography.After p. 325.The element of Lahr's biography that I find most interesting - and challenging - is his treatment of the relationship between author and work. His answer, in the case of TLW, is that that relationship was anything but straightforward and obvious.After I finished Leverich on Williams and before I started Lahr, I read a brief, somewhat annoying, yet highly suggestive book by Nicholas Pagan, "Rethinking Literary Biography: A Postmodern Approach to Tennessee Williams." My principal take-away from this book is the reminder that a text exists within an "intertextual network," that TLW's plays, in particular, are replete with echoes of the poetry and plays that preceded his own. TLW's expressed his truths, of course, but it is entirely clear that his reading of other texts contributed in no small measure to his recognition - and formulation - of those truths that he expressed in ways that others had applied and that seemed especially effective for his purposes. "If Williams is present in his texts, then, it is not as origin, as author - God, as guarantor of meaning, but as simply one thread in a vast intertextual fabric." (p. 85) Perhaps Pagan puts too fine a point on his conclusion, but it bears considering nonetheless.Then I begin reading Lahr, and Lahr's extensive use of Kazan's notes and correspondence in his account of the genesis and development of TLW's greatest plays. It's clear to me now that we must dismiss altogether the notion that TLW was the "author" of "Streetcar" and "Cat" in any common-sense definition of the term. These plays were very much the product of (1) TLW's participation in an inter-textual network and (2) a collaboration [with Kazan, among others], and the plays we know today would not exist except for this collaboration. Neither Lahr - nor I, for whatever that's worth - would designate Kazan co-author, but he did offer trenchant and correct criticisms of each of many successive drafts of these plays as they developed over months and years from the chaotic jumbles that TLW produced as first drafts to final production scripts. And Kazan simply described the faults he detected in one draft after another - and stated his reasons. He never told TLW what to write - he simply told TLW to "fix it" until there was nothing left to fix - and Kazan agreed that a play was done. After "Cat" TLW found this collaboration intolerable. "This doesn't mean that I doubt his good intentions, or don't like him, now, it's just that I don't want to work with him again on a basis in which he will tell me what to do and I will be so intimidated, and so anxious to please him, that I will be gutlessly willing to go against my own taste and convictions." (p. 313) An astonishingly distorted response to the "facts" as Lahr presents them, but then again, TLK was capable of self-delusion to a degree that's hard for me to fathom. But Lahr continues: "He [TLW] couldn't quite admit his bad faith, or his dependence on Kazan, whose collaboration was essential not only to his success but also to his poetic expression." (pp. 313-4)So what has any of this to do with literary biography? It seems clear to me today - at this moment - that TLW's on-going and continuing development of the intertextual network in which he participated represent biographical events of the first importance. At some point in TLW's life and in the life of any writer, I suppose, he discovers/creates an inviolable private sphere in which his imagination - for whatever reason - begins to develop and express itself. The writer begins to participate in an "intertextual network," which influences his perceptions, formulations, expression of "truths" in his "work." And, of course, the network in which he participates becomes progressively more inclusive and complex over time as do his responses and interactions with the texts in that network. And in certain cases, in most cases, I suppose, a writer exposes his writing to others, editors, for example, who edit, who suggest revisions, and so on, and who enter into a sort of collaboration, the product of which is a published work.So there are at least three sets of events (apart from the events that an external observer could recount) that appear in only a very few of the literary biographies I read: (1) the events of the writer's inner, imaginative life, (2) the writer's participation in networks of other texts that shape a writer's imagination and its expressions in written work, and (3) the effects of a writer's interactions with other persons in bringing a work to completion and final form. Normally one has to read the narratives of numerous biographers even to begin to gain the most tenuous of knowledge and understanding of events of these kinds.Lahr gives us two of the three - and I am most grateful.At EndLahr's book has evoked a rather intense and insistent curiosity in me regarding the question of the relationship between "author" and "work" over a career, how that relationship changes over time and how, exactly, those changes relate to events in the inner life and observable conditions of a writer's existence.While TLW was "writing" "Sweet Bird of Youth," he admitted, as Lahr writes, "Williams had, in fact written 'Sweet Bird' with [Brooks] Atkinson's critical precepts in mind." (p. 392) TLW wrote: ""I think this statement should serve as a warning for our production, since we need a good notice from Brooks. I don't want to suck up to any critic's artistic predilections unless I can sincerely buy them. In this case, I do." (p. 392) But, be that as it may, these precepts and predilections weren't Williams' until they first were Atkinson's. Lahr also presents this highly interesting exchange between Kazan and TLW: "As it turned out, William's passion for success was the tipping point in Kazan's decision to say good-bye to him and to Broadway. 'I [Kazan] thought. why does he want me to direct his plays? The answer: Because of some superstition that I bring commercial success. Which you [TLW] terrifyingly want. .. I also think that you are willing to make some sacrifice in integrity and personal values to get the commercial success which I bring you.'" (p. 409)Further, I find it highly interesting that as TLW lost his audience over the 1960s and 1970s, as he became a laughing-stock and an easy target of gratuitous critical ridicule from all sides, TLW's relationship to his work also changed. As Lahr summarizes and quotes TLW: "Williams was now of an age as an artist where he felt humiliated by 'too much domination, too many decisions for him not made by himself,' and 'where he would rather make wrong decisions that accept right ones from someone else.'" (p. 512)So what is the significance of all this for literary biography?It seems to me that as a biographer plots and traces the trajectories of a writer's inner and outer lives, a particular sort of textual analysis of the 'work' becomes essential. In the case of TLW, at least, one might assume from the outset that any one of TLW's plays, particularly the 'great' plays, is actually a stew - as it were - the product of many voices and many influences. This means that a biographer must examine changes in a script from the very first draft to the final published version, and answer questions of the following type: How did these changes occur - from one version to the next? Who changed them and for what reasons? Under what conditions? In this way, the biographer identifies all the 'cooks,' as it were, who actually contributed ingredients to this particular stew of a play - and how each of them attained sufficient influence to add his bit to the pot. It seems to me that the influence of each cook - whether they were many, few or just one - reveal a set of events of biographical significance. How and under what conditions did TLW become susceptible of that particular influence at that particular time, in that particular circumstance? Then there's the need to establish a kind of trajectory that describes the relationship of "author" to work over time. And then the need to formulate an interpretation of that trajectory that describes the relationship between 'author' and 'work' over a writing career/lifetime.Oh my. Now there's a challenge that I suspect would intimidate even a Joseph Frank. Be that as it may, Lahr's biography suggests to me, for one, that a biographer of a literary figure can't even pretend to completeness of his narrative without an analysis and interpretation of this kind.

  • David
    2019-02-08 17:07

    Several friends had recommended that I read this after I mentioned that I had just read TW's 'Memoirs'. Seeing how large and thorough a book it seemed, I wasn't sure I was up to reading it so soon after TW's own review of his life. But plunge in I did - and am glad I did.It wasn't smooth sailing at first. With the 'Memoirs' so fresh in my mind, I couldn't help but notice how 'generously' John Lahr lifted from them in the opening chapters of the biography. But I soldiered on, discovering that Lahr was not to make that commonplace in his account.In his 'Memoirs', TW comes off rather relaxed and resigned, somewhat lighthearted and humorous. Lahr's biography is more or less the polar opposite of all of that - and, indeed, though both books are 'warts and all' stuff, the warts in the biography are larger. TW does not come off well. He comes off, in life, largely as an hysteric.TW admits time over that he was addicted to the theater and cared little for anything else. He seems to have viewed himself as 'the tortured romantic', failing to realize that he tended to construct each torture himself, when he didn't have to and, thus, could have perhaps had a happier life. But, then, he didn't think that a happy life would mirror well on a dramatic stage that feeds on conflict. It's nearly impossible to gather sufficient thoughts here to sum up what it's *really* like to absorb the mountain of material that is in this bio. It's overwhelming, really - though Lahr (I must say) has done an excellent job in 'capsulizing' it. My own interpretation of at least one major thing that happened to TW is: early in his career, he had the kind of success which was not only volcanic but which changed the landscape of the American theater completely (and would for decades to come). It seems the result was that it was virtually impossible for him to keep that success in perspective, yet he wanted that peak level of acclaim repeated without end for the rest of his life. He wanted the high of writing important plays (he would refer to many of his plays, even some of the very minor ones, as "important") and remaining King of the Broadway Hill. That desire kept him at shaky odds with himself and his work. I plan now to go back for a bit of review of TW's plays, especially the later ones. I've read or seen (or seen the film versions of) so many of the plays so many times but remain less familiar with a number of the plays that came late. Ultimately, I suppose I feel sad for the man. He didn't have a happy life. He didn't invest much in people; he used them in countless ways for the purposes of his work - he enjoyed them hardly at all (it seems). He gave us a lot of powerful theater - and we are indeed grateful for that, to say the least. But reading about his life in this kind of detail is a sad undertaking. I so wish he had genuinely enjoyed life more and spent less of it merely figuring out how he could re-fashion conflict as something stage-worthy.

  • Edward
    2019-01-19 17:00

    What's good in this is very, very good. The theater history, certainly and especially the fully explored artistic and social relationship between Williams and Elia Kazan, is at the center of the book as it was the center of Williams' most productive and successful years. The biography of the man Tennessee Williams, his unhappy upbringing, his late emergence as a sexual being, his circle of friends, can be both entertaining and enlightening. And in the final chapters there is some wonderful stuff about Williams' relationship to Dotson Rader, his attempt to become radicalized, and his hasty withdrawal from politics. Also, Williams lived long enough to have face the first wave of post-Stonewall literary criticism, one that often took his work to task for the closeted meanings. But what's wrong is badly wrong. It's such a shame that people with no knowledge or psychology and addiction are allowed to prattle on at such length. First off, there is the terrible story of Rose Williams, the playwright's sister, lobotomized under the direction of Williams' horrible mother. This would a much more interesting and honest account if Lahr knew anything about schizophrenia. He reports that Rose got most trouble when she was around 21. This is the exact age (late teens to early 20s) for onset of schizophrenia. All the symptoms he reports, e.g. paranoid delusions and hypersexuality, are classic presentations. As for Tennessee, their is too much, much to much, of putting the cart before the horse when discussing his problems with alcohol and drugs. Perhaps it's not as entertaining but this should have been the biography of a talented addict. Lahr doesn't know anything about the drugs that Williams took, their action on the mind and body. Lastly, I found the writing style deeply off-putting. It can be a spiderweb of quotes, analysis, commentary, all congested together. It is sometimes difficult to know who is being quoted (and why). For this reader it was headache-inducing. Literally.

  • Jean Poulos
    2019-02-13 11:58

    I have been on the lookout for a biography of Tennessee Williams for some times. John Lahr is a well known biographer and drama critic so when his biography of Williams came out I bought it. It is a long but well written critical biography of the famous playwright. Williams died in 1983.Williams famously fictionalized and immortalized his dysfunctional family in his drama “The Glass Menagerie” which premiered on Broadway in 1945. Other famous plays are “A Streetcar Named Desire” 1947, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” 1955. These plays were also made into movies.Lahr writes that Williams spent the 1960s drunk, drugged, and in precarious-to-shattered mental health with his hits mostly behind him. William wrote “The Gnadiges Fraulein” 1966 while on amphetamines. Lahr defended Williams’s agent Audrey Wood and director Elia Kazan. Williams blamed them for his difficulties. Lahr said Williams always blamed others for his difficulties and failures. In the saga of Williams rise and fall Lahr provides information about the actors who were in the plays and movies. Lahr did a great deal of research to write this biography, he made extensive use of Williams’s letters and journals. The book is a study of William’s imagination, his career, as well as his life. It is well-written biography of a difficult and mentally-ill man who wrote great plays. I read this as an audio book downloaded from Audible. Elizabeth Ashley narrated the book.

  • Doug
    2019-02-11 12:45

    Although it reads fairly briskly, there were few 'revelations' not already covered in previous biographies, and for having taken twelve years to write (and having been nominated for a National Book Award), I was expecting a whole LOT more. There is some shockingly sloppy writing and structuring (e.g., he covers the film version of 'The Rose Tattoo' and then backtracks and covers the play version), and oftentimes there are strings of quotes without proper elucidation. Often Lahr stops his biographical discussion to launch into a long-winded critique of one of Williams works. And also, rather bizarrely, he buries what would seem interesting or essential information (such as Williams' first meeting with longtime lover Frank Merlo) to the copious notes in the rear of the volume! However, I was gratified that he spent the last chapter vilifying the heinous Lady Maria St Just, as I was one of the unfortunate scholars prevented by her from access to Williams' later writings, on which I had intended to do my doctoral dissertation. Having to switch subjects had a profoundly negative impact on my own career....

  • Sue Scheve Zerjal
    2019-01-28 17:00

    Quite simply, I believe a biography does NOT have to include the volume of details that John Lahr has written in Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh. I found much of the story interesting and quite sad. Lahr captures Tennessee Williams' quest to be loved and to be remembered quite well. On the other hand, he gives the readers a redundant read by including Tennessee's almost bi-polar reactions to each play's ups and downs. There was so much drama in his relationships. The reader is forced to read too much of his constant need for stroking and reassurance, along with his cruel jabs at every suggestion made to improve his chance for success. Second verse, same as the first. At times, I wanted to scream, "Get on with it."I am glad I read this book, but I am even happier that am finished.

  • Uwe Hook
    2019-01-24 11:02

    In this biography, Lahr creates a virtual Mobius Strip of Williams' life and his work. It is of course true that all literature springs from a writer's life and experience; and this has long been an observed truism regarding Tennessee Williams. Lahr, however, with painstaking care, takes the correspondence - both factually and psychologically - to a deeper level. This is compelling biography of a new order. Be prepared to enter into a darker understanding of psychological trauma and self-destruction transmuted into great literature.

  • Rick Rapp
    2019-02-08 11:50

    This is a comprehensive biography, chock full of letters and conversations between key players in Williams' life. It is clear that he was a poetic genius, as well as a desperately unhappy man who sowed seeds of discontent wherever he went. It seems he was most disloyal to those who time and again supported him. Williams is a playwright/poet for the ages, but his legacy as a human being is not as luminous. I would highly recommend this book to any student of or fan of Williams. It is told with a searing white light, not the shaded, dim light which Blanche (and Tennessee) so preferred.

  • Michelle Coovert
    2019-02-06 13:07

    Such a thorough account of T. Williams' life. I think I would have liked it better if I had been familiar with his works before reading it. So much analysis with his life and the subject of his plays made me almost think this biography could be a textbook!

  • Phil Overeem
    2019-02-07 08:41

    As good a combo of critical and intimate bio as you're gonna get. It's inspired me to re-read Tenn's plays.

  • Darren
    2019-02-03 09:52

    One of the best theater books, and one of the best biographies, I've ever read. Loved it from start to finish.

  • Sharon
    2019-02-06 17:11

    couldn't help thinking how much mom would have enjoyed this book... catapulted back to a golden age of 'stage plays' that she loved.

  • Laura
    2019-01-26 08:59

    From BBC Radio 4 - Book of the Week:Biography of America's great playwright by the acclaimed theatre critic John Lahr.

  • Hapzydeco
    2019-01-26 09:46

    John Lahr makes sense out of hysteria. Now Tennessee can RIP.

  • Carol
    2019-02-01 13:02

    One might argue that to understand the works one must first understand the author behind them. Toward that end, John Lahr, Broadway critic, has done an outstandingly balanced job in analyzing not only the prolific output of Tom Williams, the man we know as Tennessee Williams, but in analyzing the man himself, helping us, the reader, to understand better the works of a profusely productive writer. The reader is reminded of how many tortured souls are truly magnificent in their creative prowess. Lahr dissects the man as related to his works and his works as illustrative of the man. This book is the Sparks notes of most of Williams' work, the basis for it, the meaning of it, and the reaction of the public. Williams' life and work were greatly influenced by his relationships with his grandparents (his grandfather in particular), both his mother and his father, and his sister. The dysfunction and turmoil of Williams' family and formative years impacted Williams personally and professionally. This turmoil contributed to Williams' creative process and the creative process contributed to Williams' personal growth in many, but not all, ways. The stunted aspects of Williams' emotional growth pushed him to compensate through his work. Through his work he relied upon the accolades of the critics, actors, agents to sustain himself. However, no matter how recognized he was he never fully accepted, in a paranoid way, how good he was and what milestones he achieved. When the feedback was less than positive his only coping mechanisms were self destructive.Early in his career, Williams tested the limits of the Broadway stage and was able to bring great change to the works that were being presented, leading the way with "The Glass Menagerie" and "Streetcar Named Desire." However, later in his career when he needed to change what he was writing he was unable to do so incurring the wrath of the critics who once loved everything he wrote. By that time the drugs, alcohol and other torments had overcome him and he could not tell what he was writing, or write with the accustomed depth. It truly is amazing he lived as long as he did he had become so self abusive in trying to deal with his devils. It is thanks to his brother, who had Williams committed to an institution for three months, that Williams lived as long as he did. For this act Williams disinherited his brother.Lahr leaves no stone unturned in documenting the good, bad and ugly of Williams' life to include all the individuals who contributed to his success and destructive nature. In learning about all these individuals the reader is reminded that one does not become a success without the help of others. Kuzane (sp?) was, in my opinion, one of the most influential in helping Williams' develop his themes and characters and instrumental in converting his plays to movies. As successful as the partnership was between Kuzane and Williams, even success was not enough to help deal with the high maintenance personality Williams became. Kuzane, as did many others, reached his limits and had to establish a hard boundary separating their professional lives, much, in my opinion, to Williams' loss. I don't think Williams' work was ever as strong after that severing.Lahr and Freud would have had a great discussion about Williams. The one theme I think that was overdone in the book is that sexual repression was the undercurrent of his work. While there is no doubt that Williams had issues with his sexuality and that it did impact him professionally and personally I don't think it was the major explanation for who he was and/or what he produced. It was just one of the many nuances of a troubled soul.Williams shaped the history of the American play producing 30 plays and 70 one acts in his 60 years, in addition to many poems. After his death his estate was mismanaged and his works squashed from public performance and study. Fortunately for us that has been reversed and we now have at our disposal the works of Williams as well as scholarly commentary. This truly autobiographical body of work has enriched American culture and gives the reader something deep to consider.

  • Charles Matthews
    2019-02-06 11:44

    My review originally appeared in the Washington Post. John Lahr begins his fascinating new biography, “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Heart,” in medias res: on March 31, 1945, the opening night of the 34-year-old Williams's first Broadway hit, “The Glass Menagerie.” The play's narrator, Tom (Williams's actual name), is trying to cope with his self-deluding mother and his fragile sister after his father has abandoned them. The mother, Amanda, is a barely disguised version of Williams's own mother, Edwina, who bristled with indignation when Laurette Taylor, the actress playing Amanda, asked after the opening night of the Chicago tryout, “Well, Mrs. Williams, how did you like yourself?” The sister in the play, Laura, has a physical handicap, a limp, which Williams substituted for the mental illness of his real sister, Rose. Even the father's absence reflects the frequent periods when his bluff, bullying salesman father, Cornelius Coffin Williams, known as “CC,” would go on the road, leaving Tom, Edwina, and Rose at one another's mercies. Eventually, Rose's mental instability and Edwina's reaction to it would receive a more explicit treatment in Williams' 1958 play, “Suddenly Last Summer,” which works out what Lahr calls “Williams's grief and guilt over his sister, Rose, as well as his anger at Edwina for deciding to allow a bilateral prefrontal lobotomy to be performed on her without informing him in advance.” And even Williams's father, though absent from “The Glass Menagerie,” had his turn on stage, inspiring Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” whose title was taken from one of CC's colorful expressions. But Williams revealed less of himself in his first Broadway hit than he did in the next one, “A Streetcar Named Desire.” As Elia Kazan, the play's director, put it, “Tennessee Williams … is Blanche. And Blanche is torn between a desire to preserve her tradition, which is her entity, her being, and her attraction to what is going to destroy her traditions.” Sensitive but self-destructive, both Blanche Dubois and Tennessee Williams depended on the kindness of strangers. But Williams also depended on, and received, the patience and understanding of friends and colleagues. Among these was Kazan, whose relationship with Williams was, in Lahr's view, an attraction of opposites: “Williams was shy, standoffish, and fragile; Kazan … was brash, extroverted, and powerful, Williams was discombobulated, Kazan was a fixer.” <129> Under Kazan's direction, “Streetcar” became one of the landmarks of American theater, and he took an even greater role in helping shape Williams's other Pulitzer-winning play, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” guiding the playwright, who was sometimes reluctant to make Kazan's changes, into essential revisions. Their collaboration, Lahr says, “was the most influential in twentieth-century American theater.” Kazan “rallied him out of his writing blocks, challenged his melodramatic excesses, chivied him to work for greater depth, and allowed his imagination to soar.” But Williams might not have had a career in the theater at all if it hadn't been for Audrey Wood, who became his agent in 1939, having discovered something in his early writing that she nurtured into maturity. “No playwright-agent relationship in American theater history had … a longer or more glorious story than Williams's partnership with Wood,” Lahr comments. His growth was in large part dependent on “her keen critical eye, her deep knowledge of the theater, and her understanding of his complex personality.” A third force, a more volatile one, during the most creative period in Williams's life was his lover and personal secretary, Frank Merlo, whose tales of his Sicilian-American family Williams drew upon in “The Rose Tattoo.” Merlo is also the model for that play's ebullient Alvaro Mangiacavallo, whose wooing of the widow Serafina Lahr sees as “a slapstick simulacrum of Williams's relationship with Merlo.” Despite the hectic, even violent nature of their relationship, Williams and Merlo stayed together for almost 14 years, and the Key West home they shared gave Williams's life a much-needed center and stability. Over the course of 16 years, Williams's plays would win a Tony Award, two Pulitzer Prizes, and four New York Drama Critics Awards. He would accumulate a small fortune, much of it from the sales of film rights to his plays. And he would, in Lahr's words, change “the shape and the ambition of the American commercial theater” with a body of work drawn from his inner life that resonated particularly well with the American mood from the end of World War II to the beginning of the Vietnam war. Then, in 1961, Williams's great period ended with the opening of “The Night of the Iguana.” “In the twenty-two years of life that remained to Williams,” Lahr observes, “he would have seven more Broadway openings, but 'Iguana' would be his last hit.” A year earlier, Williams and Kazan had gone their separate ways when Kazan decided not to direct Williams's “Period of Adjustment.” Williams's alcoholism had become exacerbated by the amphetamines prescribed by Dr. Max Jacobson, the pharmacologist to the stars known as “Dr. Feelgood,” and he became subject to paranoid delusions that finally caused Merlo to move out. Merlo died of lung cancer in 1963. And in 1971 Williams completed the break with his past by abruptly and irrationally firing Audrey Wood, his agent for more than 30 years. For the rest of his life, Williams was prey to sycophants and enablers, including Maria St. Just, a Russian-born social climber, whose marriage to an English aristocrat allowed her to style herself Lady St. Just. Her hold over Williams extended even beyond his death in 1983, whereupon she became his de facto literary executor, even though she wasn't named as such in his will. She exerted arbitrary control over productions of the plays and frightened off biographers. And when theater owner Rocco Landesman wanted to name what is now the Walter Kerr Theatre for Williams, St. Just demanded that Landesman also produce Williams's play “Orpheus Descending” on Broadway. “Tennessee would have had the most beautiful theater in New York named after him,” Landesman said. “But I wouldn't submit to blackmail.” Lahr gives us a sense of the ebb and flow of Williams's life, exercising a critic's keen eye on the plays, a novelist's gift for characterization, and a historian's awareness of the way a changing American society colored his work. The result is almost as much a biography of the plays as of the playwright, a book that lets the life illuminate the work and the work illuminate the life.

  • Carol Masciola
    2019-02-07 13:09

    Very intimate, highly entertaining and thorough biography of the playwright Tennessee Williams, a look at his life and how it influenced his work. It was interesting to learn how heavily commercial concerns influenced his work through his entire life. Even when he was the most famous and esteemed, he had to work with producers, censors, actors, directors, financiers, to shape the plays into a products that would have the best chance of success on stage/screen. The process seems to have made his life a continual anguish, a process involving a lot of concessions and sacrifice, but in most cases leading him to greater commercial and financial success. He was often bitter and angry about changing his work but went along with it because he did also enjoy the money and good reviews. I suppose I had thought a play was written and performed, and never thought of the organic process that goes on and interacts with current events, politics, moods, times, tastes, critics. The author delves deep into Williams's psychology and family/personal/romantic/sexual relationships--quite outrageous and gossipy, but ultimately illuminating as to his character and works.