Highlights of a Chat with Williams Biographer John Lahr

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John Lahr Photo by Paul Davis
John Lahr
Photo by Paul Davis

John Lahr’s just published Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (W. W. Norton, $39.95, 784 pp., illustrations)—on which the recently retired New Yorker senior drama critic worked for 12 years—is getting the kind of reviews an author hopes he’ll get after such a long gestation. For starters, the book is already long-listed for this year’s National Book Award.

For just one quote from among the blurbers who appear on the dust jacket, the rarely-effusive Robert Brustein says, ”A splendid book, one of the finest critical biographies extant.”

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So what is my opinion of the door-stopper volume? I think it’s as good as its ardent enthusiasts say it is. The bio-critography is right up there with Notes on a Cowardly Lion, Lahr’s book, published when he was 26, on his famous Broadway and Hollywood clown father, Bert. Additionally, it’s surely as perceptive and intelligent as his works on Joe Orton (Prick Up Your Ears) and Barry Humphries (Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilisation)—as well as being in line with the pungent New Yorker profiles he continues to contribute (the most recent, a pithy go-round with Al Pacino).

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But it may not be exactly ethical for me to comment further since I’m a longtime friend of Lahr’s and talked to him about the book—as did many others—throughout its composing. Indeed, several years ago I got to read the first chapter (as it stood then), on the events leading up to and including the Broadway opening of The Glass Menagerie.

I immediately understood that if John kept up the high quality of the insights and the writing, his would be an important book, and not just about Williams and his plays, stories and poetry. In a broader sense it would be a major contribution to literature concerning American theater and American culture.

If I couldn’t offer a reviewer’s response, however, what was perfectly acceptable for me to do was interview Lahr at Manhattan’s Drama Book Shop, where I’ve done a series of talks with theater people over the last 10 years. Therefore, what follows are comments condensed from an interview in which a biographer is talking not only about the book he’s written but also about what he encountered during the process:

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On the writing of biography:
“There are two dramas that go on in a biography: the drama of your subject and the story of his life and the drama of the biographer imposing meaning on the material. You sort of just dive and feel your way around. A lot of it is intuition.”

Tennessee-Williams-book-coverOn the surprises he experienced during the research:
“The first piece of luck was [finding] the oral history of Eddie Dowling. The person who was telling the story was there.” [Dowling played Tom Wingfield in the first production of The Glass Menagerie and also produced the drama with capital from a man whom he told not to read the play. His partner did anyway and then demanded a happy ending.]

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Another surprise:
“The myth that meant most to me—it was a wonderful surprise—is the preposterous claim by Williams that [Elia] Kazan bowdlerized his meaning in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. [Williams maintained that it was Kazan who insisted on the hopeful ending between the childless Maggie and alcoholic husband Brick.] What came to pass in Kazan’s letters is that Kazan wrote, ‘I told you at the opening that I would do your ending, and you chose to do the upbeat ending. It was your choice, not mine.’ Williams sold out his integrity for commercial success.”

Yet another myth undone:
“He did not die by swallowing a stopper. It was shown that Williams could not possibly have died the way the coroner said he did. He killed himself. His body was riddled with drugs.”

On his conclusions about the Williams-Kazan collaboration:
“Without Kazan we wouldn’t be here [for this interview]. Without his structural genius, without his forceful nature that forced Williams to write beyond himself, we couldn’t have been talking about those plays. They wouldn’t have lived long enough. He really was the engine behind them.”

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On a few specific views Williams had of himself:
“The major thing was that Williams called himself the definition of hysteria—16 engines inside a jalopy. Different themes come through in the plays. That’s how he accessed his inner life and acted it out. With Williams my guess was—and this was correct—Williams only cared about his writing, not about people. [He said,] ‘Anybody who could do anything for me, I’m interested in.’ His life and his focus [were] almost entirely on his work. I stayed on that axis.”

On the historic Glass Menagerie opening night:
“The moment the curtain came down, at that very moment he became on first name basis with the world. Even in decline he was not out of the spotlight. He was the most important playwright of the 20th century, in my estimation. He changed modern theater at a stroke. He showed how to write as an artist in the modern world.”

On the background to Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire telling her homosexual husband, “You disgust me”:
“Those very words were the words Tennessee said to [his sister] Rose in 1938 when she ragged him out to their parents about a party he’d had at home, and he looked at her and said, ’You disgust me.’ For all his life he felt that fury and insult to Rose pushed her over the edge. In more than one play, those words are repeated as if he’s sort of acting out this terrible guilt. Even in the actual diary account of that moment, he writes above the entry and dates it a few years later, he says. ‘God forgive me for this.’ He’s haunted by that, as Blanche is haunted. These are example of these fragments, this filament of his life. Each tale tells or recycles certain aspects of his psyche that he’s thinking about.”

On his and Williams’s attitude towards non-traditional casting:
“I’m all for non-traditional casting where it does not change the meaning of the play. [But in regards to all African-American casts] I have letters from Williams saying absolutely not. People had suggested doing black versions of his plays. He said, ‘Absolutely not,’ and he was right.”

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