Monday, February 2, 2015

Flesh and Soul: A Life of Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams at his desk in 1948. (Photo: W Eugene Smith/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

John Lahr’s biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, which came out from W.W. Norton late last year, evolved in a curious fashion. In 1995 a San Francisco theatrical producer named Lyle Leverich with no other books to his credit published a very fine first volume of a Williams bio called Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams that took the playwright’s story up through the triumphant Broadway opening of The Glass Menagerie in 1945. Lahr had an odd connection to Leverich’s book in a number of ways. Maria St. Just, Williams’ infamously possessive and tyrannical literary executor, had attempted to frighten Leverich off by asking Lahr to write an authorized biography (which he refused to do). Then, ironically, it was Lahr whose help Leverich and his publisher asked in getting St. Just off his back, after she had succeeded in holding up the publication of his book for five years, and Lahr ended up writing a profile on her in The New Yorker. Eventually Tom saw the light of day, but Leverich died four years later, before completing the second part of his project. He and Lahr had become friends, and he had asked Lahr if he would finish the biography if he proved unable to; he went so far as to put that request in his will. That’s how Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh came into being, nearly two decades later. Lahr claims in the preface that it didn’t turn out to be part two of Leverich’s bio but its own stand-alone bio. But though the writers’ styles and approaches are understandably different, there’s so little overlap in the stories they tell that effectively they are indeed two halves of a deeply engrossing story, and readers who want to learn as much as they can about Williams’ life and career are advised to read them back to back. (Each runs roughly 600 pages.)

Lahr derives the title of his book from a phrase in Williams’ notebooks (which Yale Press published in 2006):  “How much better is man with all his advantages than the beast? . . . What does he do to cultivate the spiritual, to feed the spiritual?  Is there another part that is not an accomplice in this mad pilgrimage of the flesh?” The title feels appropriate, not only because Williams led an unabashedly carnal life as a gay man, which he chronicled not only in his notebooks and letters but in his memoirs, but also because, as Lahr expresses it, “the mission to which Williams’ great plays of the forties and fifties [were] dedicated [was] the emancipation of desire and the celebration of the wild at heart.”  The link that Lahr makes up front between Williams the man and Williams the playwright prepares us for his theme: that his subject was “the most autobiographical of American playwrights” and engaged, throughout his career, “in a sort of séance with the ghosts of his past, their narratives and their voices . . .  perpetually reworked into his cast of characters.” Well, with all due acknowledgement that the characters of Amanda, Laura and Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie were dramatic versions of Williams’ mother Edwina, his sister Rose and himself – an idea that has sometimes been taken too literally in productions of the play (like the annoying one I saw a few years ago in New York where Tom sat on stage throughout the play at his typewriter) – I think you might award that distinction to Eugene O’Neill. After all, O’Neill wrote one play, Long Day’s Journey into Night, that renders in almost journalistic detail the crisis of his own family, and then concocted a second, fictional one, A Moon for the Misbegotten, around his brother James. And though Lahr quotes Williams’ friend Gore Vidal, “Tennessee could not possess his own life until he had written about it,” his argument for the mirror Williams’ plays puts up to himself and his family and lovers (especially Kip Kiernan, his first, and Frank Merlo, whom he lived with for much of his adult life) is sometimes rigged. I’m not convinced that Karen Stone’s throwing the keys to her apartment down to a “menacing, anonymous figure” at the end of the novella The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone replicates “what Williams did from the stage: she shares herself – puts herself at risk – with her audience by inviting it in.” Nor do I see that his play Camino Real is “a phantasmagoria of Williams’ turbulent interior life” or that that the “strategy” of Lady, the heroine of Orpheus Descending, “like Williams’, is to restage her oppressive history in order to defiantly triumph over it.” (I’m not even sure what that sentence means.)

I suspect that Williams’ life, like those of most great artists, is too complex for a thesis. But Lahr’s claim that his work reflected his life is persuasive more often than not. I certainly buy the notion that “while he was enduring the torture of increased separation from Merlo,” which whom he had an embattled relationship, “and feeling both unloved and unlovable, his plays registered an ancient despair about the possibility of love.” (Moreover, it’s no stretch for Lahr to argue that Elia Kazan, who directed Camino Real after turning friendly witness for the House Un-American Activities Committee, might identify with the characters in the play, since, like them, he “had his back against the wall and was making a daring fight for his integrity.”) And the provable ways in which Williams drew on events and people from his own story always provide intriguing footnotes. Maria St. Just, née Maria Britneva, who sought to commandeer him when he was alive and succeeded in doing so after his death (at least, until her own), inspired Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which he dedicated to her; “no-neck monsters,” Maggie’s descriptive for her in-laws’ unbearable children, was an actual quip of Britneva’s.  Karen Stone was based on the writer and artist Elizabeth Eyre de Lanux. Williams put his affair with Kiernan down on paper late in his life in the one-act Something Cloudy, Something Clear, though it was another one of his early lovers, Pancho Rodriguez, who broke all the light bulbs in the house as Stella Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire reports Stanley did on their wedding night. Nonno, the fragile, nearly hundred-year-old poet in The Night of the Iguana, was Williams’ portrait of his beloved grandfather, the Reverend Walter Dakin. (“Nonno,” which means “grandfather” in Italian, was Merlo’s nickname for Dakin.)

Lahr’s book is an excellent read, even if it falls off somewhat (inevitably) in the last hundred pages, when Williams’ plays stop being interesting – though Lahr works hard to make a case for several of them, like The Gnadiges Fraulein – and the accounts of their failures increasingly dreary, his personal life is something of a wreck, and his body is succumbing to the abuse by drugs and alcohol that he’s put it through for decades. Five-sixths of a terrific biography is certainly nothing to sneeze at. Lahr is smart enough to let Williams do some of the work for him, quoting extensively from the exhaustive accounts he kept of his own life and his feelings about it; Williams is just as superb a descriptive writer in his notebooks and letters as he is in his plays. Here’s an excerpt from a reminiscence of New Orleans he wrote on a trip to Mexico: “The sunlight rich as egg-yolk in the narrow streets, great, flat banana leaves, and the slow, slow rain. The fog coming up from the river, swallowing Andrew Jackson on his big iron horse . . . Life getting bigger and plainer and uglier and more beautiful all the time.” On the other hand, the straight poetry Lahr quotes is mostly awful. Except for the beautiful lyric Nonno finishes at the very end of The Night of the Iguana, I was unfamiliar with any of Williams’ poetry before reading Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, and now I think I haven’t missed a thing.

Tennessee Williams with Maria St. Just at Cannes in 1976.
You learn all sorts of fascinating things here, about the critical debate over Camino Real (I side with those who thought it extraordinary, but sadly there weren’t enough of them) and Williams’ brief effort to join the activism of the 1970s and his friendship with the tragic figure Diana Barrymore, daughter of John, who played Maggie the Cat and Catherine in Suddenly, Last Summer and finally Blanche and who was determined to play Princess Kosmonopolis in Sweet Bird of Youth – if she’d lived long enough. Some is entertaining gossip, like the evident psychopathology of Robert Carroll, one of Williams’ post-Merlo lovers, and the fact that when Tallulah Bankhead played Blanche at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Los Angeles, Williams came to her dressing room after the opening to tell her that she was the first actress who truly got the character but then told everyone else that she was a fiasco. John Gielgud, who staged The Glass Menagerie in London, wouldn’t let Williams take a bow because he “didn’t want the beautiful effect of this play diminished by a perspiring little author with a wrinkled shirt and a messy dinner jacket coming up on stage.” The stories about Bette Davis’ scandalous behavior during rehearsals of Iguana, in which she played Maxine, are irresistibly juicy, and I had no idea that the actress he wrote the role of Hannah for was Katharine Hepburn, who had just played Mrs. Venable in the movie of Suddenly, Last Summer – a hilarious high-comic performance that almost, if not quite, justifies the existence of that appalling picture. Imagine if she’d said yes. (She turned it down because she felt that Spencer Tracy, who had just had one of his alcoholic episodes, needed her.) What would an Iguana with both Davis and Hepburn in it have been like?

The book is particularly strong on Williams’ friendship with Britneva, his association with the agent Audrey Wood (who discovered him but whom he discharged, bitterly, unfairly and probably under Britneva’s influence), and his relationship with Elia Kazan. Theirs was, as Lahr underlines, one of the great theatrical collaborations in the history of the American theatre. Kazan directed Streetcar on both stage and screen as well as Camino Real and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway, but they fell out – professionally, at least (they mended their friendship) – after Kazan withdrew from Period of Adjustment in 1960. The letters between them in the course of preparing the Broadway productions – including The Rose Tattoo, which Kazan helped Williams to develop but then was unable to stage because of scheduling conflicts – provide glimpses into the effect a gifted and perceptive director can have on the work of a brilliant playwright with whom he has built a rapport over a period of years. It’s well known that Kazan insisted that Williams rewrite the final act of Cat to bring back Big Daddy and end the play – and Maggie’s relations with her husband Brick – on a more hopeful (or at least ambiguous) note. When the play was published, Williams included both versions and an essay that, as Lahr puts it, “portrayed himself as a hapless author victimized by the exigencies of commercial theater and the power of his director.” Kazan was understandably furious; when he stepped away from Period of Adjustment, he wrote the playwright a letter that alluded to the essay (“this horseshit”) and offered a devastating analysis of Williams’ love-hate attitude toward the director’s contributions to his plays:
I thought, Why does he want me to direct his plays? The answer: Because of some superstition that I bring commercial success. Which you terrifyingly want. But that is part of the same distasteful picture. . . . I’m not going to break my neck . . . on Period of Adjustment only to be told in time, again, that I had misdirected your play into a hit.
Of course, these interactions also address Williams’ love-hate relationship with commercial success, which he sought and disdained, and with his critics.

Tennessee Williams with Elia Kazan in 1967.
As far as Cat goes, Lahr is on Kazan’s side, and I guess he’s right and the rewritten third act is an improvement. But I wish I could conjure up a time machine that would allow me to see the 1955 Broadway premiere of this play, which I’ve never found satisfying, either on the page or in any production I have seen. I’ve always thought it was booby-trapped, both because the sex-bomb actresses who are continually cast as Maggie make it hard for us to sympathize with an alcoholic husband who can throw her out of bed and because the hinted-at reason, that the only object of Brick’s sexual desire, though he himself doesn’t realize it, is his friend Skipper (who committed suicide after Maggie accused him of being in love with her husband), isn’t plausible – at least, not the way Williams has drawn Brick. But in 2003, in the documentary Broadway: The Golden Age, I saw a clip (presumably taken from The Ed Sullivan Show) from Kazan’s production, with Barbara Bel Geddes – emphatically not a sex bomb – as Maggie and Ben Gazzara as Brick that was so compelling that for the first time I began to sense what might have excited critics and audiences about the play. It’s always been the case – though it’s rarely acknowledged – that a bad mounting of a good play, even a great one, can mask its special qualities, and a spate of bad mountings can bury it, certainly for a while. And Williams’ work seems especially prone to those dangers, perhaps because of its delicacy and the idiosyncrasies of his style. I’ve rethought Suddenly, Last Summer and The Night of the Iguana through the years as a result of seeing revelatory productions of them. It doesn’t help that except for Streetcar and Baby Doll, Kazan’s film of the one-act 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, the movies made from Williams’ plays have been so dreadful. (Lahr’s account of the first filming of The Glass Menagerie, in 1950, is horrifying – even for someone like me, who isn’t sold on the greatness of The Glass Menagerie.) Watching those few minutes of Gazzara and Bel Geddes in Cat made me wonder if, had I been fortunate enough to see them create those roles, I would see the subsequent renditions as failures rather than lay the blame on the play itself.

I’m not a fan of Lahr’s theatre criticism (most of which has appeared in the pages of The New Yorker), and I think that sometimes Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh falls victim to his misreadings. The Glass Menagerie doesn’t really turn Edwina Williams “into a figure of ‘great but confused vitality’ instead of a scold,” Laura doesn’t “know her disability debars her from a normal life” (it’s her pathological shyness that does that), and the end of the play, where Tom, reconnecting to his sister through his lyrical memory of her, urges her to blow out her candles, doesn’t “broadcast Williams’ dramatic goal – to redeem life, through beauty, from the humiliation of grief.” It would help if Lahr explained that Camino Real is set in the afterlife, a point he seems to have missed, and since it’s a bona fide piece of surrealism, I don’t know why he argues that it’s both naturalism and not naturalism. (It isn’t even faintly naturalistic.) He calls the recently widowed Maxine in Iguana “predatory,” which doesn’t seem right to me, and claims that “in her newfound freedom [she has] been entertaining herself with local youths,” but Maxine tells Shannon, the play’s protagonist, that she and Fred hadn’t slept together in years and yet it’s clear that her behavior is a consequence of her grief over his loss, not her liberation because he’s been good enough to give up the ghost. He dismisses Kazan’s marvelous Baby Doll but he calls the 1964 film of Iguana “outstanding,” though its director, John Huston, misreads the play so badly in terms of both style and character that it’s impossible to read Williams’ intentions.

But as many times as he’s wrong about Williams, in the most important ways he’s right about him, and Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh is written with such dedication that what it mostly merits is our admiration. The book ends with a lovely epitaph: “In the game of hide-and-seek that he and his theater played with the world, Williams left a trail of beauty so that we could try to find him.” Even if you don’t put down the book with Lahr’s conviction that everything Williams ever wrote was autobiography, it’s hard not to see, alongside him, that taken together it mirrored a haunted and passionate soul.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie.

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