The beautiful and damned: the vertiginous life and art of Tenessee Williams

One of the underlying truisms of literary biography is that the messier the personal narrative, the more interesting the read, which is why this one is such a page-turner.

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Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh 
John Lahr
Bloomsbury Circus, 766pp, £30

Though she may have been a solipsistic spinster who confined herself to the Puritan isolation of Amherst, Massachusetts, the poet Emily Dickinson clearly understood the vagaries of her nation’s obsession with celebrity. Consider:

Fame is a bee.
It has a song —
It has a sting —
Ah, too, it has a wing.

American literary history is full of dark narratives about the writerly Totentanz with “the bitch-goddess success” (to borrow a phrase from the philosopher William James). Gaze upon F Scott Fitzgerald, celebrated as the voice of his generation at the age of 23, who, less than a decade later, considered himself a washed-up dipsomaniac when his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, failed to gain commercial traction. Then there were Ernest Hemingway’s final years, when the pressure of living up to his über-macho public image – and a sense of encroaching creative sterility – fuelled the prodigious boozing and depression that ended in his suicide.

Add to this honour roll of great American alcoholic writers such disparate talents as Herman Melville, Hart Crane, Dorothy Parker, John Dos Passos, John Berryman, John Cheever, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Carver and Richard Yates and you must begin to consider why the mercantile, “only the winner goes to dinner” ethos of American life can take such a high toll on so many of its creative giants.

One of the underlying truisms of literary biography is that the messier the personal narrative, the more interesting the read, which is one of many reasons why John Lahr’s massive, compulsive study of the vertiginous life and art of Tennessee Williams is such a page-turner. The playwright who redefined the American dramatic vernacular – and whose seminal work speaks volumes about the darker recesses of the human condition and the aching loneliness that haunts our existence – was also plagued by demons and excesses.

Williams’s life was a confluence of familial horrors, outcast isolation, sexual adventurism, ne plus ultra substance abuse, manic episodes and (amid all the dark woods within which he dwelled) a towering compassion and humanity that found such expressive voice in his extraordinary achievements as a playwright.

But what lifts Lahr’s book into the canon of biographical masterpieces (not a word I bandy about daily) is that, in chronicling the prurient excesses of Williams’s existence, he also explores, with critical and psychological acuity, the way in which great art emerged from such a profoundly unsettled and disquieting life.

His family was a testament to Southern Gothic dysfunction: a brutalising, absent father who called him “Miss Nancy” because of his perceived femininity; a mother who was a faded belle of the ball and
an Oedipal nightmare; a fragile, troubled sister who was unfairly institutionalised and then, monstrously, lobotomised with their mother’s approval. “What a dark and bewildering thing it is, this family group,” Williams wrote to a friend. “I can’t give them any help.”

Like so many of the progeny of damaged parental goods, he spent all his life searching for love and simultaneously engaging in the sort of emotional self-sabotage that ensured his ongoing personal chaos. The man who penned that now immortal line, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” certainly knew a thing or two about transient sex with frequently violent undertones. Meanwhile, he spent debilitating time in the mid-1930s as a clerk in the International Shoe Company, a soul-destroying job that his roman-à-clef personage Tom inhabits in the first of his many benchmark plays, The Glass Menagerie.

The theatre is one of the most vibrant and destructive neighbourhoods of the performing arts. Lahr’s biography is awash with wonderfully skewed backstage anecdotes from Williams’s career. The actress who first embodied his mother onstage – Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie – was the personification of such self-doubt and disorientation that she didn’t truly register the bravos that greeted her first-night performance. On the subject of the 23-year-old Marlon Brando, who made theatrical history as the brutal yet vulnerable Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, Lahr notes: “Like Stanley, he was a ruthless
man-child with reservoirs of tenderness and violence.”

Lahr leads us through the psychotic complexities of Williams’s lover of the era, a frequently explosive and physically aggressive gentleman named Pancho Rodriguez, just as he shows us how this darkly belligerent relationship informed Streetcar. Citing Elia Kazan, who directed many of Williams’s great works (and later named names during the McCarthy witch-hunt), Lahr makes it clear that if Pancho was the aesthetically ignorant and violent Stanley, Williams was the embodiment of his best-known personage, Blanche DuBois: a morass of vulnerability and old-school pride.

Beyond the backstage gossip (Lahr’s account of the crazed Tallulah Bankhead in one of Williams’s many 1960s theatrical disasters, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, is a wild tale of theatrical egos in decline), what emerges from this critical biography is the absolute importance of Williams’s footprint on the landscape of 20th-century theatre.

After The Night of the Iguana in 1961, he never knew commercial success as a dramatist for the remaining 22 years of his life. These final two decades, in which Williams did some of his most intriguing, experimental work, make for unnerving reading: the demonic episodes, the excessive dependency on pharmaceuticals and booze, the ever-encroaching death wish that was fulfilled in February 1983 in his New York residence, the très louche Hotel Elysée, which Williams always referred to as the “Easy Lay”. When the cops broke into his room, they found 13 bottles of prescription pills on a table near his corpse. Fame is a bee . . .

And fame can be stripped away from you, especially in a culture that so embraces the ethos of social Darwinism. In his last, decaying decades – in which Williams fired his loyal, matronly agent, Audrey Wood, and allowed so many of his personal and business affairs to be dictated by a manipulative European grande dame named Maria St Just – the sense of steep declivity was omnipresent. So, too, was his absolute need to write somehow within a life gone askew.

Though it would be facile to file him away as a sort of dramatic comet who burned himself out within 20 years – and whose life was, on many levels, a ruined church – what emerges from this epic retelling of his life is the singularity of his artistic vision. At the time of Williams’s death, Arthur Miller (who, as Lahr notes, had also been the recipient of American critical drubbing after his halcyon years) commented that he “chose a hard life that required the skin of an alligator and the heart of a poet”.

Perhaps Elia Kazan got it even more right when he castigated those who described Williams’s life as this side of tragic: “The man lived a very good life, full of the most profound pleasures, and he lived it precisely as he chose.” It was an ironic, existential response to a life in which the greatest of creative and professional triumphs was also riddled with despair. The seminal importance of Tennessee Williams shines through this biography – and so does the seminal sadness of his tortured life. l

Douglas Kennedy has just completed
his 13th novel, “The Blue Hour”, to be published by Hutchinson in 2015

This article appears in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris