One Great Good True Thing
- Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr
Bloomsbury, 765 pp, £30.00, September 2014, ISBN 978 1 4088 4365 9
To spend time with Tennessee Williams – for months on end in the case of Elia Kazan, the director who put his plays on the stage in the 1940s and 1950s; 12 years in the case of his latest and best biographer, John Lahr; or even as little as six weeks by me while reading Lahr’s absorbing Life, along with the work, and a big chunk of all the stuff Williams wrote and said about the work – is to learn and relearn how soberly Williams was speaking when he told Kazan: ‘I don’t know what it is to take anything calmly.’
Two or three times in the course of his life Williams gathered up all the things that agitated him, and following his peculiar method, not like that of any other writer I ever heard of, fashioned a headlong dramatic work of the kind that sends people home half-stunned. How Williams did it was a mystery. When he tried to explain it he only deepened the mystery. In 1947 Williams wanted Kazan to stage his new play, A Streetcar Named Desire, which at its most basic level is about two sisters, as different as any two humans could possibly be, who fall into the orbit of a man whose sexual power may be likened to gravity. Williams wanted a great director for his play but weeks passed with no word from Kazan, who was called Gadget or Gadge by everybody in the theatre world. When Williams called Kazan at home, Molly, Kazan’s wife, picked up the phone. She told Williams she had read Streetcar and thought it a masterpiece. Williams was relieved but Kazan’s silence alarmed him: ‘Gadge likes a thesis,’ he told Molly. ‘I haven’t made up my mind what the thesis of this play is.’ He had worked on the play for a year, it was done, he had a producer, he had a theatre, he was tugging at the lapels of a director – and he still hadn’t decided what the thesis was?
Williams came to Kazan filled with doubt and fear despite the immense success of his first big play, The Glass Menagerie. Lahr begins his book with a long account of its opening night and how Williams at the age of 34, after the ghastly failure of a previous play in Boston, reached Broadway at last. Central to The Glass Menagerie’s success was the performance of Laurette Taylor, an ageing alcoholic directors were afraid to cast. But the play’s director, Eddie Dowling, had insisted on Taylor. When Williams heard an early read-through he pleaded: ‘Oh, Mr Dowling, you’ve got to get rid of that woman who’s doin’ a Negress. My mother ain’t a Negress. My mother’s a lady.’ But Dowling held fast and Taylor, so drunk she couldn’t stand ninety minutes before the curtain went up on opening night, managed to pull herself together, got rapturous notices for her performance, made Williams rich and presented him with the challenge that faces every artist after he or she has dazzled the world – to do it again.
Lahr tells his stories well and his sixty-page version of The Glass Menagerie’s opening is as full of suspense as The Perils of Pauline. Williams’s early life was exhaustively told in Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams by Lyle Leverich, who died before he could complete a second volume but left his trove of materials to Lahr. The new book doesn’t go back over that early ground, but includes enough to sketch in the family dynamics that gave Williams his material. For twenty years Lahr was the New Yorker’s chief drama critic, and he has a sound grasp of all the things that can go wrong for a play on its way to Broadway. Taylor could have been one of them. She had the genius and depth to play Amanda, but her drinking could have sunk the show, and that wasn’t the only danger facing The Glass Menagerie. Lahr maps all the hazards and wrings each for what it’s worth until great success wrested from fate transported Williams in one night from empty pockets to room service in posh hotels.
For the next fifteen astonishing years, Williams, like Pauline, again and again approached the edge of the pit where flops expire with a string of big plays that were all close things, and that’s the way Lahr tells them. The reader always knows what’s coming. If a play’s title is familiar it was a triumph; if not, not. Once or twice the approaching locomotive runs right over Pauline on the tracks. But from The Glass Menagerie to The Night of the Iguana in 1961, the plays mostly worked, adding to Williams’s reputation and bank account. Even the few failures from that period, like Camino Real and Orpheus Descending, were big, substantial, formidable and interesting. Lahr likes some of the plays that followed The Night of the Iguana, or parts of them, or at least something about them, but after 1961 until his death in 1983 Williams never again achieved a big commercial and critical success. Failure was painful and he made it worse with reckless abuse of drink and pills. His sexual and emotional lives were in chaos. It makes for an awful spectacle, but Lahr never loses sight of the work that mattered, or loses interest in the question that haunted Williams: where did he lose his way?
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[*] Published by Mississippi in 2012 in the excellent Literary Conversations Series.