Distinguished theatre critic John Lahr sheds a rather complex light on the life of one of America’s all-time greatest playwrights. In “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh”, Lahr explores in great depth the real life details that lie beneath the sublime, yet turbulent and psychological shifts of his characters. It is hard to argue against the notion that Williams had used the raw material of his troubled youth to fuel his art. The aim of playwriting, according to Williams was, “to be simple, direct and terrible… I will speak the truth as a I see it… without concealment or evasion and with a fearless unashamed frontal assault upon life”. The biography, it goes without saying, propels Lahr’s central thesis that Williams is “the most autobiographical of American playwrights” and that his writing “was a kind of cleansing”. Some of the baggage he was trying to shed was that of his sordid familial past.
William’s father, Cornelius Coffin, was a perennial underachiever, who took to alcohol, violence and licentiousness. According to Lahr, William’s mother, Edwina, was “a frigid virago”. Suffice to say, the combination of parents – one abusive and the other repressive–left a deep psychological scar on Williams and his siblings. William’s sister, Rose, suffered from “delusions of sexual immorality”, despite never having sex. She was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and lobotomised in 1943. However, amidst all the insane in his family, it was, according to Williams, his mother, who was the “true psychotic” in the family. In fact, Edwina had killed herself thinking that there was a horse in the room. The mental imprint that Edwina left behind on her children, however, went beyond her tragic end. She had taught them to be ashamed of their bodies.
This notion of bodily shame had a profound effect on Williams. Until his mid-twenties, he had not indulged in any form of sexual stimulation out of that sense of shame. However, he soon made up for it. Moreover, Williams often blamed his mother for his sister’s lobotomy, claiming that she wanted to silence the “delusions” at any cost. Critics have often said that nothing represented that shedding of William’s familial past more than his first great play, “The Glass Menagerie”. Read any of his great works, and it isn’t hard to draw both direct and indirect parallels between some of the characters and those he encountered in real life Pancho Rodriguez, Williams’s lover from 1946 to 1948, for example, was the model for the brutish Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Suffice to say, the violence and melodrama of William’s life found its imprint on his work. That morbid sense of realism, with a flavor of melodrama, is what catapulted Williams into America’s imagination. “I think of this book (biography) as a club sandwich,” Lahr had once said. “I wanted to explore this synergy between the private life, the public life and the plays, with some extra mayo of storytelling and interpretation.” Despite the massive success of The Glass Menagerie, Williams felt a palpable sense of insecurity that his plays were merely “a grade or two superior to a radio soap opera”. However, these insecurities were often assuaged by theatre director and long-time collaborator Elia Kazan.
In keeping close to the spirit of Williams’s life as a playwright, Lahr dwells deep into the first-person accounts of his closest professional companions. Without any sense of exaggeration, it is fair to say that the collaboration with Kazan created one of the most profound and significant partnerships in the history of American theatre. William’s words and the intrinsic vision behind them were best realized on stage by Kazan. It goes without saying that some of William’s best work, which include “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, were significantly shaped by Kazan. Another personality central to William’s work was Audrey Wood, his longtime agent. Lahr unmistakably uses up a significant amount o the biography describing the creative struggles Williams shared with both Wood and Kazan. Unsurprisingly, it was the fateful split with both Kazan and Wood that saw Williams go downhill through the latter stages of his career.
The downhill spiral was a consequence of the numerous excesses that consumed William’s life, namely alcohol and drugs. Massive success is often bestowed with excessive fame and adulation. And when the personality in question is unable to maintain that level of success, it is often a hard crash down. Suffice to say, Williams could not come to terms with the “baleful sun of success” and was terribly shaken by the failure of Camino Real in 1953. His excessive drug habit had soon resulted in erratic and unpredictable behavior. Allied with his success, which had reportedly made him obnoxious, Williams fell out with many allies. When everything else fell apart, it was art that kept him going. However, in the years after The Night of the Iguana”, when his art was unable to reach the soaring heights of the past, even his art suffered. Without the all-consuming success of his past and rising star of playwrights such as Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett, Williams was driven to a sense of obsolescence.
What the biography captures so evocatively is that the key aspects of William’s life are all understood in the context of his literary work. “In his struggle to unlearn repression, to claim his freedom, and to forge glory out of grief,” Lahr writes, “Williams turned his own delirium into one of the 20th century’s great chronicles of the brilliance and the barbarity of individualism. In order to name our pain, he devoured himself.”