The very imperfect Ten: Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh
Review: John Lahr’s huge biography of Tennessee Williams absorbs from start to finish
Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh
Was ever a writer so beset by calamity as Tennessee Williams? As a homosexual alcoholic and lifelong depressive, he craved literary recognition – and won it, abundantly, with A Streetcar Named Desire, his magnificent 1947 play. Yet Williams was a frightful malcontent who hastened his self-destruction through brandy and barbiturates. From his family roots in the gallant South to the flashbulb glitz of Hollywood, it was a heroic dissipation, but the heebie-jeebies triumphed. Williams died in 1983, at 71, from a cocktail of booze and sedatives, or possibly from choking on a medicine-bottle cap. (His death, like his art, invites speculation.)
Williams’s reputation rests on a handful of plays that, for their hothouse lyricism and undertow of great personal sorrow, transformed postwar American drama. Manifestly autobiographical works such as The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth planted the “flag of beauty on the shores of commercial theatre”, said Arthur Miller. For all their occasional purple-patched romanticism, these plays ushered in a new, emotionally truthful American theatre that, 70 years on, continues to enthrall.
Born in 1911 in Mississippi, Tennessee – “Tenn” or “10”, as he signed himself – is a difficult quarry for biographers. Not only could he make the wildest nonsense about himself credible; he also encouraged others to add to it. Although he was rarely forthcoming about his sexuality, homosexual love was nevertheless “spiritual champagne” for him, and a way to short-circuit depression. About his drinking Williams lied routinely that he was on the wagon when it was clear that liquor had got licked. The tragedy was that Williams was a liability to anyone who cared about him; ultimately only his writing mattered.
John Lahr, the former senior drama critic for the New Yorker, has written a gigantic, sprawling biography of Williams, which manages to absorb from start to finish. Earlier lives of the playwright amounted at times to a hotchpotch of hearsay and fabrication; wisely, in Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, Lahr has stuck to the verifiable facts. He has been greatly helped in his task by the death, in 1994, of the playwright’s long-time confidante and zealously protective literary guardian, Lady Maria St Just (who was “neither a lady nor a saint nor just”, according to Lahr); since St Just’s death the Williams archives have yielded an abundance of private diaries, letters, poems and unpublished plays.
Decayed Southern belle
Lahr has drawn on this treasure to produce an amalgam of literary criticism, life story and delectably prurient gossip. At times he overstretches the comparison between Williams and his troubled fictional creations. Is Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire really a cipher for Williams? With her secret alcoholism, decorous Southern air and flights of tawdry fantasy, we might conclude as much. But this life-and-works approach is quite reductive; Blanche, a decayed Southern belle out of Edgar Allan Poe by way of Baudelaire, is a literary quite as much as an autobiographical construct.
Williams, “the most autobiographical of American playwrights”, says Lahr, was a whole casebook of neuroses acquired in childhood. His father, a travelling salesman gothically named Cornelius Coffin (“CC”) Williams, was absent from home for much of the time, and himself a drunkard. Alcohol was the vexing devil that crept up insidiously on Williams père, who, like Tennessee later, remembered the previous night’s drinking (if he remembered it at all) with guilt and acts of physical violence. Something of his pugnacious character may or may not have emerged in the larger-than-life Big Daddy figure of Sweet Bird of Youth.
In a moving chapter Lahr relates how the playwright’s sister Rose was subjected to a prefrontal lobotomy in 1943. Only 33 at the time, she was transformed overnight, says Lahr, into a “ghost of her former self”. As an adult Williams cared deeply for his sister; his plays were, in some sense, an attempt to “redeem” Rose by elevating her to a “literary motif”. A midperiod drama like Suddenly, Last Summer, with its exploration of a florid family madness, was most likely informed by Rose’s wretchedness. The atmosphere of grotesquerie and graveyard doom that distinguished the play derived in part from the “Southern Gothic” of Poe and Carson McCullers, but beneath it all lay Rose.
Williams’s “romantic pessimism” and bouts of drinking are attributed here, not implausibly, to his childhood experiences of abandonment and the grief he felt for the loss of Rose. For much of his early life Williams was rude and excoriating about both his father and his sister; it was only through psychoanalysis, in the 1970s, that he became more forgiving and was even able to see a gentle side to his father. Alcoholism had passed like a rogue gene from Cornelius Coffin to Tennessee; for both men it must have been a balm to salve some secret hurt.
Oddly, given his sexual voraciousness, Williams claimed not to have discovered masturbation until he was 26. (“I didn’t know what such a thing was,” he pleaded.) His mother, Edwina, a stickler for propriety, had standards of puritan church behaviour, and banned all talk of sex from home. After the critical success in 1944 of The Glass Menagerie – the play won every major American literary prize except the Pulitzer – Williams indulged in sex so indiscriminately that he put himself at great personal risk. He was, according to Lahr, beaten up by sailors in Santa Monica and raped by a beach boy in Mexico. His slide from “prude to lewd” was facilitated, of course, by prodigious quantities of alcohol. Yet even with his tongue pale and furry in the bathroom mirror the morning after, Williams was reluctant to give up his beloved brandy Alexanders. He drank as though he was immune from hangovers; Truman Capote commented bitchily that he came to resemble a “booze-puffed runt”.
A mess of mendaciousness
Like all addicts, Williams was a mess of mendaciousness, self-pity and gleeful irresponsibility. His behaviour deteriorated medievally after one too many “drinky-pies” (as Williams jauntily called his brandies). Lahr tells of alcoholic showdowns in restaurants and other public places with lovers, theatre agents and actors. His stormy relation with the Turkish-American director Elia Kazan, who had made Broadway hits of Streetcar and Sweet Bird of Youth, takes up much of the biography. The “Terrible Turk” did not appreciate Williams’s histrionics and eventually ended their collaboration. The day in the mid 1960s when Williams decided to nurse his thumping head with a hair (or a “tuft”, more like) of the dog that bit him was the day the unvarnished truth had come through: the playwright was as good as played out.
If his “thin” late plays of the 1970s and 1980s – The Red Devil Battery Sign; A House Not Meant to Stand – were poorly received, says Lahr, it was partly because they looked old-fashioned compared with the stringent, pared-down works by Beckett, Pinter and other eminences of the avant-garde. Still the early works endure as classics of the repertoire, and are constantly performed. More than 40 books have been written on Williams since his death. Lahr’s doorstopper biography does handsome justice to the extraordinary man and his work. Ian Thomson is a travel writer and biographer