Had Tennessee Williams only written the plays from the 1940s and ’50s for which he is most famous — “The Glass Menagerie,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Summer and Smoke,” “The Rose Tattoo,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Sweet Bird of Youth” and “The Night of the Iguana” — there would be no denying he had left an indelible mark on 20th century theater, and that he was a dramatic poet of immense gifts who created characters who, once encountered, could not be forgotten.
So my first question to John Lahr, whose massive new biography, “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh,” has just been published (W.W. Norton, $37.95), is this: Why didn’t Williams see the creation of these great plays as enough of an achievement, and why did he torment himself with alcohol, drugs and sex, finally succumbing to a rather sordid death in 1983, at the age of 71?
“Williams had a long life, and a big one,” said Lahr, who will be discussing his book at Steppenwolf Theatre beginning at 7 p.m. on Oct. 13, in a conversation with artistic director Martha Lavey. “But there is a sense of ‘never enough,’ especially in America. The notion of progress and fame — not just of celebrity, which is simply ‘being known’ — is compelling in this country. I live in London, and I can tell you that in Europe you can live on just one great book for years.”
“To a certain extent the kind of fame Williams enjoyed when his first plays hit Broadway turned him into a live wire,” said Lahr. “He owned Broadway from 1945 to 1963, so when things began to turn, there was a compulsion to try and get back on the winning track. And the fact is, he went on to write many more good, if not great plays — ‘Vieux Carre,’ ‘A House Not Meant to Stand’ — as well as some not so good ones. They might have lacked the lyrical shellac of earlier years, but he still had his chops.”
“Williams needed to write for himself,” said Lahr, who has done an immense amount of writing, too, serving for more than two decades as theater critic at The New Yorker magazine, co-authoring the Tony Award-winning “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” and penning books about everyone from his dad, Bert (“The Cowardly Lion”) Lahr to playwright Joe Orton. “Writing was how he made meaning of the madness of his life, how he ‘charted losing the green world’ of his own consciousness, as he put it. In a letter to Elia Kazan — the director who Williams didn’t give half enough credit for shaping the plays that made him famous — he wrote that from the minute he was given a typewriter at the age of 13 he realized he was afraid of losing his gift, of being blocked.”
Lahr said he hopes his biography— which joins a good 40 books written about the playwright since his death, but includes new information, as well as a treasure trove of photographs — will reveal how Williams’ plays reflected his life, and how that life was transformed in his plays. To be sure, Williams lived with armies of demons from childhood on: An absent father; a “prim and protective” mother who allowed Williams’ sister, Rose, to undergo a devastating lobotomy; his own homosexuality, in an era when it was deeply closeted, though his often volatile relationships with hustlers and lovers was often quite public.
“I think the best way to describe it all was that there was a stain on the cloth of his life, and no matter how hard he scrubbed it, it seeped through,” said Lahr. “And it only grew stronger in his last decades, which were full of self-destructiveness. It was very much like Blanche DuBois in ‘Streetcar’ looking for someone to save her or take her away, or Brick in ‘Cat,’ drinking himself to destruction, or Shannon in ‘Iguana.’ As he wrote in a poem in 1973: ‘Old men go mad at night but are not Lears/There is no kingly howling of their rage, their grief, their fears, dementedly, from sea-cliff into storm’.”
Lahr also sees Williams’ life as in many ways an allegory of 20th century America itself.
“American culture is obsessed with output, with pursuing greatness, and then it gets corrupted,” said the writer. “There is a brilliance and a barbarity to it. And it is echoed in Williams’ life and career. He is aware of it from early on — you can hear it in Tom’s opening monologue in ‘The Glass Menagerie.’ And much like this country, he thrived in the years after World War II, and then lost his way during the Vietnam War era. He said many times that he wanted his ‘goodness’ back.”
Lahr admits the most playwrights — with Williams and Edward Albee the rare exceptions — have a golden age that lasts no more than 15 years.
“They don’t lose their talent, but they lose their connection with their audience,” he said. “It’s hard to have a second act, especially in the theater.”
NOTE: Tickets for Lahr’s discussion of his book at Steppenwolf are $10. Call (312) 335-1650 or visit steppenwolf.org. The conversation will include a Q & A, followed by a book signing in the theater lobby.