John Lahr has done it again. While writing about one specific playwright, he has managed to capture an entire theatrical movement. Thirty-five years ago he wrote the biography of Joe Orton, an important but by no means the most feted of the ‘kitchen sink’ British writers, and in doing so created the definitive book on the era. Prick Up your Ears gave remarkable insight on the happenings of Sixties British drama.

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh does exactly that for the period in American theatre between the austere times of the Depression/World War II and the 1960s counterculture movement that saw the rise of dramatists such as Leonard Melfi, Jack Gelber and Israel Horovitz…and the fading popularity of arguably our most important playwright. “It is no coincidence that The Glass Menagerie, his first great success, happened just weeks before Roosevelt’s death and the end of the war in Europe” Lahr states.

He also is able to capture the voice of his subject in the all be it dense material, making this six hundred page book feel short. It, along with the meticulously researched tome, is Lahr’s gift to the reader. Even as he quotes the poetry of Williams’s lines, there is an eloquence to his own writing style.

And an intimacy.

Early on we get to hear from Williams’s friend, then a struggling dramatist and failing actor, Horton Foote recalling hard times and early successes of Williams. The prospective these small musings give a conflicted Williams show great insight into the man who admittedly was at odds with any and all interpersonal relationships.

“Monster”, Lahr says, “is a concept Williams sees in himself. It’s roots are in two separate ideas. It comes from both ‘blessing’ and ‘warning’. It was a perception he had of himself.”

Lahr sees Williams as America’s original autobiographical playwright. Although no one would take away Eugene O’Neill’s clear personal connection to Long Says Journey into Night, it is Williams that infuses his own backstory into most of his major works. “It is the beauty of his writing”, Lahr continues, “private life, public life, all in his lines.”

Lahr began working on the book at the behest of Lyle Leverich, Williams’s authorized biographer who completed a book on the playwright’s early years, Tom. When Leverich died Lahr inherited his voluminous papers and notes. This book was a decade in the making and as definitive a biography as one will ever read.

Even as the reader learns of the playwright’s personal life, with all the demons of his family and his growing dependence on both alcohol and drugs, Lahr never fails connecting these stories to his body of work. The more we see his struggles to grasp reality, the more we revel in the majesty of his art. To Williams, writers before him were writing about fiction as if they were truths, and he was writing about truth in the form of fiction. Tom opens up The Glass Menagerie by making this precise point. “Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”

This book is a remarkable read. It has all the research of a scholarly work, yet with the prose of a great novel. It is impossible to put down. The flow is as seamless as the story is provocative. It is sure to be shortlisted for many awards. I have seen, the the past month, it listed as the ‘Manager’s Choice’ in three different bookstores. And that is of no surprise.

Even its choice for reader on Audio Books is a perfect one. Lahr wanted Elizabeth Ashley to do the honours, and it is beautifully read by her. Ashley, Williams’s last major actress, performs the book like she is performing one of his plays, and it is a pleasure to hear.

Lahr sees Williams place in theatrical history as how “his great body of work defined his times. He changed the shape of American theatre.”

And Lahr himself continues to change the shape of theatrical biography.

Leave a Comment