TENNESSEE WILLIAMS by John Lahr
Kirkus Star

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS

Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh

KIRKUS REVIEW

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 Drawing on vast archival sources and unpublished manuscripts, as well as interviews, memoirs and theater history, he fashions a sweeping, riveting narrative.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.

Pub Date: Sept. 22nd, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-393-02124-0
Page count: 736pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 2014




BEST BIOGRAPHIES OF 2014:

NonfictionBOY ON ICE by John Branch
by John Branch
NonfictionTHE TASTEMAKER by Edward White
by Edward White
NonfictionTHE MANTLE OF COMMAND by Nigel Hamilton
by Nigel Hamilton
NonfictionONE WAY OUT by Alan Paul
by Alan Paul
NonfictionTHE SNOWDEN FILES by Luke Harding
by Luke Harding

MORE BY JOHN LAHR

NonfictionTHE DIARIES OF KENNETH TYNAN by Kenneth Tynan
by Kenneth Tynan
NonfictionSHOW AND TELL by John Lahr
by John Lahr
NonfictionLIGHT FANTASTIC by John Lahr
by John Lahr

SIMILAR BOOKS SUGGESTED BY OUR CRITICS:

NonfictionTHE COLLECTED ESSAYS OF GORE VIDAL by Gore Vidal
by Gore Vidal
NonfictionTHE SELECTED LETTERS OF ELIA KAZAN by Albert J. Devlin
by Elia Kazan
NonfictionTOM by Lyle Leverich
by Lyle Leverich