DF Book Review — John Lahr’s Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh 

Tennessee Williams

What a daunting biographical subject Tennessee Williams must be!

For starters, his oeuvre – surely one of the greatest in American theatre – is also one of the most sprawling, even messy. In addition to the ten or so plays that are the source of Williams’ greatest fame, there are poems, short stories, memoirs, screenplays, letters (published and unpublished) and more.  Many of these are unfamiliar; some are short versions of works he continued to reshape later, often over long periods of time (Something Cloudy, Something Clear – usually referred to as Williams’ last play, dating from 1981 – was based on a one-act he wrote 40 years before.) It’s dizzying even to keep track of the various titles – what started as Battle of Angels later became Orpheus Descending, and (still later, on film) The Fugitive Kind.  Williams sometimes explored a plot or characters across different genres – to understand The Glass Menagerie, it’s helpful to know Portrait of a Girl in Glass, the short story where he first took up the wrenching tale of Laura Wingfield.

Williams’ private life was, if anything, less tidy than his professional one, with a cast of characters – family members adored and loathed, lovers who came and went, famous and infamous friends – as theatrical as any in his plays.

Another challenge – Williams’ career began with far greater sparkle than it ended, a fact that John Lahr, in his revelatory new biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, tacitly acknowledges in calling his penultimate chapter, The Long Farewell.

None of this, though, has kept biographers away (it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s even more writing about Williams than by him).

Nor should it. To my mind, Williams is not only America’s greatest playwright – he’s one of our greatest (most poetic, most insightful) writers in any genre. And the connections between his life and his work run unusually deep. In Lahr’s words, “In the more than thirty plays and seventy one-acts, written over six decades, Williams built a kingdom of the self, at once glorious and onerous.”

Yet much of the writing about Williams is problematic. Some very good books – Lyle Leverich’s Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams, for example – take up only part of the story. I’ve never found a book that covered the full spectrum with depth and insight – till now.

John Lahr MAD PILGRIMAGE cover

In Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, Lahr thrillingly fills the gap. Beginning very cleverly on the eve of The Glass Menagerie’s premiere, he moves backward and forward in time, incorporating enough family and personal narratives to give us a sense of Williams – but, more importantly, to support his trenchant analysis of Williams’ work. Though Lahr clearly recognizes that the unarguably great works come early in Williams’ career, he champions a number of the later plays, finding them not faultless, but fascinating. (Lahr makes a particularly strong case for the much-maligned In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel.)  Mad Pilgrimage is a work of serious scholarship and erudite criticism – but there’s plenty to theatre dish, too. (For better or worse, no one will think of Bette Davis in quite the same way after reading the backstage saga of The Night of the Iguana.)

Mad Pilgrimage will be self-recommending – really, required reading – for any serious theatregoer… and, I hope, many others. Lahr has his authorial quirks (I would not be sorry to see his love affair with the word, “simulacrum,” come to end), but this is a great, great book.

As is my current habit, I’ve been reading through listening, which in this case, adds an extra dimension. The audio version of Mad Pilgrimage is narrated by none other than Elizabeth Ashley, one of Williams’ favorite actresses, and an inspired choice.

Elizabeth Ashley and Tennessee Williams

Elizabeth Ashley and Tennessee Williams

I never saw Ashley’s famous stage performance as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which established her credentials as a Williams’ interpreter, but I’ve seen a number of her performances since – in Suddenly, Last Summer, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, and The Red Devil Battery Sign. I haven’t loved them all – she can be very mannered.

But even audio-only Ashley is a presence, and her husky, gutsy voice – suggesting a life-long devotion to cigarettes and bourbon – is certainly to the Williams’ manner born. Mad Pilgrimage includes extensive quoting of Williams.  You might imagine this would sound odd coming from a female voice, but not so – Ashley’s range is downright baritonal, and she’s an uncanny impressionist. When I was a student at UCLA, I attended a talk Williams gave for theatre students – it may be my single greatest college memory – and Ashley’s impersonation could have fooled me!

Elizabeth Ashley in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Elizabeth Ashley in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

I’m sorry to have come to the end of Mad Pilgrimage, but I’m sticking with the subject. Up next in my summer reading is James Grissom’s Follies of God, another memoir of Williams – this one, seen through the lens of some of his greatest actresses. More on that soon…

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