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.