Strange History

Strange History

John Lahr’s biography of Tennessee William gets mired down in psychoanalysis.


Tennessee Williams’s late plays, chronicling and at times exemplifying his deterioration, were commercial failures and targets of critical vituperation. In his exhaustive, frustrating and essential new biography, John Lahr, former senior drama critic at The New Yorker, seeks to rescue this work from obscurity and disdain, not least because he sees all of Williams’s writing as a palimpsest revealing the artist’s disordered personality. Lahr, for instance, calls In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel “a fascinating dissection of the perversity of [the playwright’s] psyche” that, despite “obvious structural limitations,” had “more intellectual sinew, moral complexity, and psychological nuance than the critics acknowledged.”

Far more telling and delicious, however, is Lahr’s anecdotal recounting of the “most annihilating” of the play’s reviews—from Williams’s own mother, Edwina. After attending the 1969 opening, she reportedly told her Pulitzer Prize–winning son, “Tom, it’s time for you to find another occupation.” So much for maternal pride! But Williams had his revenge: hours earlier, he had delegated his literary agent, Audrey Wood (whom Lahr sees as a mother substitute), to take Edwina to Bergdorf Goodman to be fitted for an expensive fur coat. After her lacerating comment, the playwright canceled the purchase, striking a temporarily triumphant blow in their decades-long drama of family dysfunction.

It was a drama that fueled his drama, a point that has become a critical truism. Williams put the case rather simply in a foreword to Sweet Bird of Youth, initially published in The New York Times in 1959: “At the age of fourteen I discovered writing as an escape from a world of reality in which I felt acutely uncomfortable. It immediately became my place of retreat, my cave, my refuge.”

If Lahr is correct, the playwright burrowed mostly into his own unconscious. Williams was “the most autobiographical of American playwrights,” Lahr writes, a claim that is hard either to substantiate or disprove (though among his contemporaries, Eugene O’Neill would surely be a contender). The plays, Lahr adds, are “snapshots of his heart’s mutation.” It makes sense that Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh should begin with the 1945 Broadway opening of Williams’s first big success, The Glass Menagerie. The play is a barely disguised autobiographical meditation in which the narrator, Tom (the playwright’s birth name), reimagines his family of origin—the absent father, eccentric and controlling mother, and impaired sister—through the gauzy scrim of memory.

In Lahr’s view, the sister’s final gesture of extinguishing her candles at the narrator’s behest “broadcasts Williams’s dramatic goal—to redeem life, through beauty, from the humiliation of grief.” (It also seems to suggest an attempt, however futile, to distance the past by metaphorically snuffing out its memory.) Lahr’s lovely prose passage signals his own goal: to redeem the life of this taxing, troubled man, beset by addictions and instability, by illuminating how his art both served and sapped him.

One problem, however, is that Lahr—steeped and sometimes mired in psychoanalytic lingo—tends to slight the social and political contexts in which Williams created. (One of those contexts, to be sure, was the influence of Freud on mid-twentieth-century American culture.) Drawing on some newly available letters and journals, Tennessee Williams is astonishingly intimate. But that intimacy can turn claustrophobic, especially in the case of a person as thorny as Williams. Dissecting him with a psychological scalpel, Lahr threatens to exhaust us (much as the playwright did his intimates) and misses the chance to explain why the best of Williams’s dramaturgy still resonates so powerfully today.

* * *

In his preface, Lahr recounts the “strange history” of this biography. In 1983, after Williams’s death at 71, representatives of his estate asked Lahr if he was interested in writing an authorized biography. The request, Lahr says, was meant to “force off the field” the San Francisco theater producer Lyle Leverich, to whom Williams had already offered the commission. Lahr declined.

Then, in 1994, he was approached by Leverich, whose completed first volume, Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams, on the playwright’s childhood, was being blocked from publication by the estate. Lahr’s response, in The New Yorker, was “The Lady and Tennessee,” a devastating posthumous profile of Lady Maria St. Just, Williams’s longtime friend and the co-trustee of his estate. With St. Just dead, Leverich’s book finally saw print. The two writers and Williams enthusiasts became friends, and Leverich, who died a few years later, bequeathed his biographical enterprise to Lahr, including boxes of files and untranscribed tapes.

Lahr at first planned to write volume two (another reason, perhaps, that his biography starts in medias res and treats the childhood only in flashback). But after abandoning Leverich’s “encyclopedic chronological approach” in favor of close analysis of the plays, and after devoting twelve years to the project, Lahr wound up publishing a stand-alone biography.

Can there be such a thing as an affectionate pathography? That is what Tennessee Williams amounts to. Williams’s pathology is obvious, and Lahr doesn’t deny it. But he admires the writer effusively, even when he can’t quite stomach the man. At one point, almost offhandedly, Lahr refers to Williams as a “borderline personality”—a controversial diagnosis with a contested causality and, until recently, no effective treatments. (Googling the disorder and the playwright elicits references to one of his most memorable characters, A Streetcar Named Desire’s Blanche DuBois, who ends up in the madhouse.) Lahr, however, never takes the time to define borderline personality disorder, or to suggest specifically how it might have fueled Williams’s destructive behavior, let alone his prodigious creativity.

People with borderline personality disorder typically report feelings of emptiness and depression; are prone to addictions; see the world in black and white; exhibit sudden, over-the-top rage on scant provocation; and tend alternately to cling to and abandon the people closest to them. On first meeting, they can be tremendously seductive and display rare psychological acuity. They do not, to put it mildly, wear well over time; left untreated, their risk of suicide is high. The diagnosis certainly seems to fit the tormented Williams: raised in an atmosphere of parental violence, absence and rejection, he was perennially afflicted by self-doubt and depression. Like Princess Kosmonopolis, the aging movie star in Sweet Bird of Youth, Williams used sex as a narcotic, even as he doubted the motives of those who indulged him. “Promiscuity was another way of forgetting home and its deadly climate of repression,” Lahr writes. Williams also battled addictions to prescription drugs and alcohol, in the end dying of an overdose. (Among his pushers was the notorious Dr. Max Jacobson, known as “Dr. Feelgood,” who also medicated JFK and other celebrities.)

According to Lahr, Williams blamed himself for not preventing his mother from lobotomizing his sister Rose, another echo of the Kennedy saga. To atone, he left much of his considerable estate to the Rose Williams Trust, which cared for his institutionalized sister. Williams essentially disinherited his brother Dakin, who in 1969 had him committed to a hospital’s psychiatric ward to undergo drug withdrawal—a traumatic experience that Lahr believes may have saved his life.

Williams was hard on those he purported to love, including his most serious romantic partner, Frank Merlo; his favorite director, Elia Kazan; and his devoted literary agent, Audrey Wood, whom he summarily dismissed after decades of loyal service. Even Lahr’s tolerance for Williams’s peccadilloes falters when he contemplates the shabby treatment of Wood. He is troubled, too, by Williams’s breaks with Merlo and Kazan, though the temperamental Merlo was clearly no angel, and Kazan was an egotist who “knew how to dissimulate and to seduce.”

A somewhat closeted gay man in a rabidly homophobic era, Williams had a propensity for tumultuous romantic relationships. “Perhaps only a woman could love me,” he wrote provocatively in his journal, “but I can’t love a woman.” Instead, he chose young, hunky men—avatars of Stanley Kowalski and Chance Wayne—who were rarely his intellectual equal. He treasured them for their “bed-sweetness” and employed them as factotums, with varying degrees of success. In return, he offered financial security, travel, homes in Key West and New York City, and proximity to celebrity and its perks. It was usually enough—for a while.

During the most productive period of Williams’s career, the playwright’s years-long partnership with Merlo worked relatively well. He was certainly an improvement, Lahr suggests, over Williams’s previous lover, the possessive and violent Pancho Rodriguez: “In public, Merlo was alert, buoyant, and generally full of fun. He had a natural warmth that drew people to him.” But, as Lahr tells it, Merlo came to resent his own dependency and Williams’s moodiness; he “soon found himself oppressed by the imperialism of his doting friend’s fame.” Both men had dalliances, and both were jealous. They grew apart and separated periodically, eventually splitting for good. But when Merlo was diagnosed soon after with terminal lung cancer, Williams was by his side—and Merlo’s death shattered the playwright’s already precarious mental health.

Lahr’s portrayal of the relationship between Williams and Kazan, largely through the prism of their correspondence, is one of the biography’s signal contributions. To Kazan, Williams’s plays were “as naked as the best confessions,” and Williams saw the director, in Lahr’s words, as “a kind of luminous, empowering father figure.” Lahr calls their collaboration “the most influential in twentieth-century American theater.”

It was also an unusually intimate friendship. Kazan was heterosexual (and “an expert philanderer,” according to Lahr), but the two men had in common a preoccupation with sex. According to Kazan, he and Williams double-dated, “sharing the same hotel bedroom for their homosexual/heterosexual couplings” on at least one occasion. This enabled Kazan to satisfy his voyeuristic, and possibly homoerotic, curiosity. What their unnamed partners thought of the arrangement is lost to history.

* * *

Williams, for all his volatility, could be loyal, at least when it served his interests. In 1952, Kazan, a disenchanted former Communist Party member, decided to bow to McCarthyism and attempt to salvage his film career by naming names. Williams was among the few friends who stuck by him afterward. Kazan was grateful.

Williams trusted Kazan, whose brilliant casting choices included Marlon Brando and Paul Newman, as he did no other director. He sent Kazan drafts of works in progress, begging him to take them on. But the two sometimes tangled when Kazan, a future novelist with strong literary instincts, demanded rewrites. Their ugliest clash came over Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, after Kazan urged Williams to make his characters more sympathetic and to soften the play’s ending. While the New York critics raved and the play won Williams his second Pulitzer (the first was for Streetcar), the playwright became “convinced that, for commercial success, he had sold out the truth of his characters and his heart.” He blamed Kazan, even though the director had ultimately left the choice of the ending to him. “Like Brick with Maggie,” Lahr writes, “Williams projected onto Kazan his own moral failure and turned it into a kind of legend of betrayal.” In 1960, after directing Sweet Bird of Youth, an angry Kazan ended their professional relationship. Nevertheless, the two stayed in touch.

One of Williams’s happier friendships seems to have been with a young man named Dotson Rader, whom Lahr interviewed. The author of the 1985 memoir Tennessee: Cry of the Heart, Rader takes credit for introducing Williams to the counterculture and the anti–Vietnam War movement, opening up his world (and, in the telling, Lahr’s biography). Lahr’s real passion, though, is for showing just how Williams’s characters and plots re-enacted and sometimes helped resolve aspects of his family resentments, stormy love life, and fears about aging, impotence and his declining literary powers. Lahr can be eloquent (verging on florid) in his description of the playwright’s psyche: “From the mid-fifties, in Williams’s mind, creation and betrayal were psychologically conjoined. To give life to his characters Williams preyed on himself—drawing on drugs and promiscuity to engineer the extravagant conversion of despair into art. In seeking his liberation, he became his own oppressor…. Like Fitzgerald, Williams remained devoted to a covenant that he’d long since betrayed: the purity of romantic transcendence through art.”

Lahr’s critical vocabulary betrays his seduction by psychoanalysis. “Williams’s ambivalence about love—his longing for it and his need to diminish it—had its origins in the primary couple in his life: his toxic, unreachable parents,” he writes at one point, without addressing how being a gay man in a homophobic culture might also have fueled the conflict.

It is certainly true that Freudianism was profoundly important in mid-twentieth-century America, where the Viennese doctor had become, in W.H. Auden’s memorable phrase, “a whole climate of opinion.” In 1957, Williams began treatment himself with a prominent psychoanalyst, Lawrence S. Kubie, though with mixed results. Kubie demanded that he cut off “all his addictions: drink, men, travel, and writing,” not recognizing, in Lahr’s view, how indispensable writing was to the playwright’s survival. (He couldn’t give up booze, travel or men, either.) But Lahr insists that analysis helped Williams recognize “his underlying love for his long-absent, frustrated father” and also “seemed to have opened [him] up to the deeper reverberations of his unconscious.”

That Williams absorbed Freudian ideas into his art is evident in Sweet Bird of Youth, which involves several castrations. But the play’s Princess Kosmonopolis, an actress hiding out with her gigolo, Chance Wayne, may be casting herself as a Freudian skeptic when she says: “I’ve been accused of having a death wish but I think it’s life that I wish for, terribly, shamelessly, on any terms whatsoever.”

Lahr, by contrast, puts too little daylight between his own critical apparatus and ideas that have been under attack for decades. Whatever problems Williams’s mother Edwina had, it registers as antiquated, grating and misogynistic when Lahr labels her a “frigid virago” whose dominion over her family was “castrating”—examples of the biographer at his clumsiest. At his best, though, Lahr has the goods on Williams’s complicated relationships, and he analyzes the work with lyric grace. “Out of the sad little wish to be loved,” he writes, “Williams made characters so large that they became part of American folklore. Blanche, Stanley, Big Daddy, Brick, Amanda and Laura transcend their stories—sensational ghosts who haunt us through the ages with their fierce, flawed lives.” The fact of this haunting, which suggests Williams’s profound connection to the American cultural landscape, is potentially rich and fertile territory. Too bad that Lahr, for all his brilliance, never lights out to explore it. n

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