Our Most Autobiographical Playwright

Let this be said here at the beginning: John Lahr’s Tennessee Williams is the finest literary biography I have read in years.  Moreover, it’s a model of what should be done by other writers: comprehensive; brilliantly interpretative of the playwrights’ many, many works; analytical, where necessary; and, finally, insightful into the complicated psyche of his subject. Lahr’s subtitle, Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, pretty much identifies his approach: psychoanalytical, demonstrating throughout the work how Williams continued to write about himself, drawing on his tortured family and its puritanical foundation, and the subsequent steps to break away from that debilitating construct, and—finally—locating his own free identity, mostly through sex. I’m familiar with Williams’ greatest plays, having taught them throughout much of my academic career, and that’s why I was constantly surprised by Lahr’s original interpretations of so many of the works that I assumed I had fully understood.

Take Williams’ first successful (and perhaps his most popular) play, The Glass Menagerie (1945). Lahr suggests that the real reason Tom Wingfield brings “the gentleman caller” home to meet his sister, Laura, is not to provide a possible suitor for her but because Tom himself is interested in the guest.  In his preface, Lahr states, “The plays are his emotional autobiography, snapshots of his heart’s mutation.” The three Williams children were sexually repressed, their mother frigid. Williams himself had had no sexual relations until he was twenty-seven.  He hadn’t even masturbated until the year before that—that repressed had his childhood been. Yet, shortly after breaking out of the closet, circa 1940, he went from “prude to lewd.” As he wrote to a friend from his parents’ home in October of that year, “I was just terribly over sexed, baby, and terribly repressed….  I’m getting horny as a jack-rabbit.” After the success of The Glass Menagerie, he said of himself, “There are only two times in this world when I am happy and selfless and pure….  One is when I jack off on paper and the other when I empty all the fretfulness of desire on a young male body.”

Out of such autobiographical materials—Lahr argues—“the American theater…was reborn.” It didn’t hurt that Williams’ long-time agent was Audrey Wood and his long-time director, beginning with A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), was Elia Kazan. Unlike most of his male lovers, they both stayed with him for years until his writing and his crumbling personal life imploded. Kazan was so curious, initially, about Williams’ homosexuality that the two of them went on double dates, “sharing the same hotel bedroom for their homosexual/heterosexual couplings….” Moreover, during the actual production of Streetcar, Kazan stated, “If Tennessee was Blanche, Pancho [Rodriguez y Gonzales, his current lover] was Stanley….  Wasn’t he [Williams’] attracted to the Stanleys of the world? Sailors? Rough trade? Danger itself? Yes, and wilder. The violence in that boy, always on a trigger edge, attracted Williams at the very time it frightened him.”

Kazan’s analysis continues, no doubt becoming a source for Lahr’s own analysis of Streetcar and the dozens of plays that would follow it: Blanche “is attracted to a murderer, Stanley….  That’s the source of ambivalence in the play.  Blanche wants the very thing that’s going to crush her. The only way she can deal with this threatening force is to give herself to it…. That’s the way Williams was. He was attracted to trash—rough, male homosexuals who were threatening him…. Part of the sexuality that Williams wrote into the play is the menace of it”—easy to see as punishment for his homosexuality, for freeing himself from his emasculating mother.

These two early, seminal plays set the stage for much of what would follow in Williams’ lengthy career. The Rose Tattoo (1951), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), Suddenly Last Summer (1958), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959) and The Night of the lahrtennIguana (1961) became his most popular works, earning Williams huge royalties and record-breaking amounts for their film versions. Less successful plays, intermixed with the most successful, were constantly re-written and reproduced, sometimes with great success (Summer and Smoke, 1948), and other times less successful.  Williams published innumerable short stories, poems, a novel or two—plus, eventually, a memoir. At the time of his death, 1983, he left an estate of more than five million dollars, and that estate has only continued to grow.

There were plenty of less successful plays and those with mixed reviews and limited runs, some of the most frequently produced including Orpheus Descending (1957), The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore (1963), In a Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (1969), Small Craft Warnings (1972), and Vieux Carré (1977). Then there were the one-acts; the film versions of numerous plays, including some original titles such the hugely successful Baby Doll (1956), with its notorious billboard the size of “the Statue of Liberty,” featuring Carroll Baker sucking her thumb. Though the movie had “no nudity, no simulated sex, no foul language, and little violence; by contemporary standards, it was Simon Pure.” Dubbed “The Crass Menagerie” by one critic and “Just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited” by another, the publicity only drove up Williams’ and Kazan’s (the directors’) marketabilies.

Williams’ longest relationship was with Frank Merlo, though it—like most of the others—ended badly. Family neuroses continued to exert undue tension on him all of his career. Lahr describes his parents as “toxic, unreachable.” His sister, Rose (the model for Laura in The Glass Menagerie) was a life-long source of pain and agony because of her lobotomy, insisted on by her mother (Edwina) and against the wishes of her father (Cornelius). Rose’s fault? Her sexual repression, which frequently resulted in obscenities and graphic sexual descriptions, spewed from her mouth and designed to shock her mother. Besides the lobotomy, she had been forced into “more than sixty-five electroconvulsive shock treatments.” Williams’ guilt remained with him the rest of his life. He paid for her care in various up-scale nursing homes and the bulk of his estate was left to her when he died. (Williams died in 1983; Rose survived until 1996.) Even his relationship with his younger brother, Dakin, was often volatile, with the younger man crassly trying to cash in on his brother’s fame after Williams’ death.

Mostly, it was not a pretty life—decades of drugs and alcohol—though there were major awards during his lifetime and glowing testimonials after his death.  Lahr states, “As much as Williams wanted and demanded love, his first allegiance was to his writing….” By his honesty—particularly about sexuality—he changed the shape of American theatre, though by the time of his death, the theatre had changed again, locking him into an earlier era. After his death, Williams’ literary estate was badly managed by Maria St. Just, a sometime friend who had clung to him years after he no longer thought much of her.  In Lahr’s concluding words, he writes of his tormented subject, “In his struggle to unlearn repression, to claim his freedom and to forge greatness out of grief, Williams turned his own delirium into one of the twentieth century’s great chronicles of the romance and the barbarity of individualism.”

John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh

Norton, 736 pp., $37.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.  

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.