The tormented life of a celebrated American playwright.
When The Glass Menagerie debuted on Broadway in 1945, the opening-night audience erupted in thunderous applause. After 24 curtain calls, shouts of “Author, Author!” brought a “startled, bewildered, terrified, and excited” Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) to the stage. At 34, after a decade of failed productions, he had achieved the success for which he had been desperately striving. Arthur Miller called the play “a revolution” in theater; Carson McCullers saw in it the beginning of “a renaissance.” But praise could never quash the demons that haunted Williams throughout his life. In this majestic biography, former longtime New Yorker drama critic Lahr (Honky-Tonk Parade: New Yorker Profiles of Show People, 2005, etc.) delineates the fears, paranoia and wrenching self-doubt that Williams transformed into his art. “I have lived intimately with the outcast and derelict and the desperate,” Williams said. “I have tried to make a record of their lives because my own has fitted me to do so.” In stories, poems and such plays as A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Williams drew upon his stultifying childhood; his anguish over his sister’s mental illness; and his promiscuity and failed love affairs. Addicted to alcohol and a pharmacopeia of narcotics, Williams at one point sought help from a psychoanalyst; however, when the treatment forbade him to write, he fled. His self-worth, Lahr concludes, “was bound up entirely in his work” and consequently in how directors, actors and especially critics responded to what he produced. Feeling “bullied and intimidated” by others’ expectations, he projected onto them (director Elia Kazan, most notably, or his long-suffering agent Audrey Wood) “his own moral failure and turned it into a kind of legend of betrayal.” Lahr knows his subject intimately and portrays him with cleareyed compassion. Drawing on vast archival sources and unpublished manuscripts, as well as interviews, memoirs and theater history, he fashions a sweeping, riveting narrative.
There is only one word for this biography: superb.