John Lahr, the esteemed longtime senior drama critic for The New Yorker, is no stranger to the Kirkus Star. He has won acclaim from us for his dramatic criticism, his novels (The Autograph Hound, 1972, etc.) his many biographies (Prick Up Your Ears, 1978, etc.) and has been starred once more for Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, his phenomenal new biography of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, about which Kirkus writes, “There is only one word for this biography: superb.”
Lahr is also no stranger to the art of biography, having first plied his trade on his own father, the actor Bert Lahr, who memorably portrayed the Cowardly Lion in the classic film The Wizard of Oz. The author—the only drama critic to possess his own Tony Award for co-writing the infamous one-woman show performed by the late actress Elaine Stritch—has also written several dozen long-form profiles of actors, directors and comedians for The New Yorker, ranging from the late Bill Hicks to an in-depth portrait of Al Pacino published just this month. When I catch up with the author in London, Lahr has just been long-listed for the National Book Award, adding to the plethora of praise for his new biography.
Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh was originally begun as the follow-up volume to biographer Lyle Leverich’s Tom (1995), which took a deep dive into Williams’ childhood and education. In fact, it was Lahr who contributed to the release of Tom after he published a scathing expose of Williams’ literary executor, Lady Maria St. James (“The Lady and Tennessee,” 1994), who had, in fact, blackmailed Leverich’s publisher to stop the release of the book.
“Being a biographer, the idea that the free exchange of ideas about this important playwright—which had a lot of new information in it—could not reach the public, well it was enough to piss off the Good Humor man,” Lahr says. “We finally got a great result. Lyle’s book was published to great acclaim—in fact, my quote is on the cover—and we became friends.”
Lahr was in San Francisco reviewing a play by Tom Stoppard when he was told that Leverich had passed away. He was later surprised to find that he had literally inherited the Tennessee Williams biography project, having been named as Leverich’s successor in the will, and was gifted seven FedEx boxes worth of correspondence, clippings, and other research. But as Lahr began looking at Williams’ life through his own unique lens, he began to realize that he couldn’t simply write a straightforward sequel to Leverich’s Tom.
“Once Williams becomes ‘Tennessee Williams,’ he becomes a public figure,” Lahr explained. “So now you’re dealing with a public man and a private man, plus you also have to deal with the work itself. I argued that you couldn’t deal with that material in an encyclopedic manner. I was able to convince the editors at Norton that what the plays are about is Williams’s interior, so I wanted to show that the synergy between his life and his work was about projecting the argument he was having in what he called his ‘irredeemably split personality.’ I think the book shows this. You can get a sense of the trajectory of his internal life by seeing how the arguments in the plays change as his heart hardens.”
Because Williams was largely held out of the public eye by St. James in the decade following his death, Lahr believes there’s an opportunity here to re-frame the public perception of one of America’s greatest playwrights.
“One of the pleasures of writing this book is to allow people to look at Williams through another lens,” Lahr says. “One of the things about Williams’ growth as a human being—why his youth is so extraordinary—is that he willed himself into becoming a carnal man. He came from a repressed, callow, and beaten down young man raised in a Christian household of monolithic Puritanism. He left that behind and transformed himself as both an artist and a man away from the notion of surrendering one’s self to God, to making a god of one’s self. That transformation is what he’s dramatizing.”
The book begins with arguably Williams’ greatest moment: the Broadway opening of The Glass Menagerie at the Playhouse Theatre on March 31, 1945. During his research, Lahr had discovered an oral history by the famous play’s first director and star, Eddie Dowling, in which he recounts the evening.
“I thought, ‘Oh my god, what an opening,’ ” Lahr says. “The opening of one of the great productions of the entire 20th century and one of the greatest performances ever, and the star is off-the-rails drunk. It’s a great scene filled with great drama at which all the players, including our hero, are present.”
The book also captures for the first time the volatile, creative partnership between Williams and his collaborator, the legendary Greek-American director Elia Kazan, who directed Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and, late in life, gave Lahr his blessings on the biography.
“In my mind, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about Tennessee Williams if it weren’t for Elia Kazan,” Lahr says. “Kazan didn’t direct Rose Tattoo but he freed up Williams and provoked him and he trusted Kazan, so he got a good play out of it. Kazan organized the absolutely brilliant mosaic of Camino Real into a structure. It’s about construction. That’s what Kazan was brilliant at. Williams was great at building the lyrical arias and the deep feeling but organizing that into a theatrical mechanism that worked was not his forte.”
As we explored the nuances of profiling artists and the art of biography, we talked about the different approaches one can take in writing about the lost, instead of contemporary figures.
“It’s always different,” Lahr explains. “When I approach a potential subject, I tell them that it works on the same principles as good tailoring—the more sittings, the better the fit. In writing the biography of my father, I had my father (Notes on a Cowardly Lion, 1969). When I wrote the biography of Joe Orton, I exclusively had the brilliant diary that Orton wrote in the eight months of his life before he was murdered. In the case of Dame Edna (Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilization: Backstage with Barry Humphries), I traveled with Barry for six weeks, which became primary material. What I had with Williams when I took on the job was a quarter century of letters that I had access to, but had never been published. What it offered me was a kind of GPS system to get much closer to what Williams was thinking at the time he was writing these plays.”
Asked what sets Williams apart from his contemporaries in a brilliant generation of writers, Lahr paused, and composed his thoughts before answering.
“I suppose the best way to answer that question is in the context of the theater,” he says. “Williams said that wartime was no time for his type of theater, which was delicate and was about looking into the self. The Glass Menagerie comes on two weeks before the end of the war. Suddenly America was rich and powerful and in the next decade, they would experience the highest rise in per-capita income in the history of western civilization. So desire, yearning, and fulfilment of desire became crucial, and Williams was really speaking to these ideas. What he did for the theater was to free it of its shackles of naturalism. He gave it a new language, not just verbal, but also a physical language that used the interplay of light, color and setting. To that extent, he really was revolutionary. There wouldn’t be a Death of a Salesman or an Angels in America without Tennessee Williams and The Glass Menagerie.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.