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Posted on 17 Mar 2015 in Non-Fiction | 1 comment

JOHN LAHR Tennessee Williams: Mad pilgrimage of the flesh. Reviewed by Walter Mason

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tenneseewilliamsThis biography treats the life of a wounded genius with immense sensitivity.

John Lahr’s edition of Joe Orton’s homoerotic diaries was the go-to book for Queer literary types in the late 1980s. I was always strangely thrilled that the son of the Cowardly Lion (his father was Bert Lahr, one of the stars of The Wizard of Oz), should be responsible for a literary artefact that was so thoroughly debauched. Lahr has gone on to a stellar career as theatre critic for the New Yorker and this, I suppose, is what caused him to write a mammoth life of America’s greatest playwright.

Tennessee Williams: Mad pilgrimage of the flesh is a gargantuan book in size and scope, and is a testament to the biographer’s complete obsession. I am quite fond of the works of monomaniacal biographers, and a slightly unhinged passion for one’s subject is always sure to produce interesting work. I think here of Ellmann’s exquisite biography of Wilde and Norman Sherry’s insanely detailed three-volume study of Graham Greene. But Tennessee Williams in particular seems to inspire this kind of elaborate devotion. The edition of his notebooks by Margaret Bradham Thornton is 828 pages of minutely-printed type, making Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh a mere jotting at an otherwise-impressive 784 pages.

Williams’s fortunes and fashionableness waned throughout his career and after his death, but there is still a sizeable library devoted to the study of his work. There have been any number of academic studies and Williams’s own, quite fantastic but occasionally Mitty-esque Memoirs (1975). My own absolute favourite in the previous literature is Dotson Rader’s Tennessee: Cry of the heart, a satisfyingly salacious read that is occasionally cited in this new book.

And what an immense and time-consuming read Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh is. Its detail, particularly in discussing the theatre-craft surrounding each of Williams’s important productions, can be Proustian and, as other critics have noted, even occasionally dull. Perhaps any work of this size and claiming completeness is bound to be slow at moments, but such slowness can be forgiven by the indulgent reader because it is the result of Lahr’s utter fascination with the plays. I still ached, at times, for a little more gossip and scandal.

That said, for the most part I found this biography consistently engaging and never really wanted to be far from its bulk. I knew it would be a grand commitment of time, but for any fan of Williams it is time well spent. Lahr’s book has, once and for all, cemented Williams’s position as one of the greatest literary talents of the 20th century. It just so happens that this is an opinion that old Tennessee himself shared, and he would have been well pleased by the seriousness of the endeavour.

As is only right in a dramatist, Williams was himself an eager self-dramatiser, and lived his life in the manner of one of his plays. Constantly feuding with directors and other writers, he was an obsessive hypochondriac with a talent for picking the wrong men. And, even at the height of his literary fame, he was inclined to write to friends, and in his diaries, things like: ‘… wonder if I should quit writing. But there is only one other thing I like doing very much, and you can’t do that all the time. Or can you?’

That other thing that he liked very much was channelled, for some time at least, into the person of Frank Merlo, a previously heterosexual military man who devoted his life to Williams. Williams’s nickname for Merlo was ‘Little Horse,’ an appellation that Lahr says came from Merlo’s diminutive frame and long, toothy face. Dotson Rader suggests there may also have been one other reason for the name. Merlo was Williams’s great love, and for the rest of his life his relationships with others were measured against the loyalty and suffering of Merlo. Lahr includes him a great deal in this book, reclaiming an important part of Queer history and reminding us of the bravery and fortitude of same-sex partners in a difficult and complicated time: ‘Like all factotums to the famous, Merlo was both needed and unacknowledged; he was trapped between empowerment and alienation.’ Dying young, he was treated strangely by Williams at the end, though in this book Lahr makes less of their separation, and seems more willing to spring to Williams’s defence.

By the late 1940s Williams was a tremendous success and in the 1950s his name was Broadway and box-office gold. Big names wanted to be associated with Williams vehicles, and he drew the accolades of people like Edith Sitwell (an enormous fan of his play Camino Real, for which he brought the Italian star Anna Magnani to America) and Gore Vidal.

But there was no doubt that Williams was a wounded genius, and Lahr treats his damaged subject with immense sensitivity. The plays themselves were portraits of this woundedness, and Williams always drew on his life to populate his plots. One thinks, for example, of the plot of Suddenly, Last Summer, in which the vicious old woman is threatening to have her young relative lobotomised because she speaks the uncomfortable truth. In his own life, Williams’s mother had had his own mentally ill sister lobotomised in an attempt to control her sexually explicit ramblings. ‘For Williams to keep his heart open, he had to lacerate it,’ writes Lahr. ‘“I never could keep my finger off a sore,” Maggie [in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof] says. Neither could Williams.’

But the other side of Williams’s personality is also there, in all its fabulousness and triumph. The Southern diva, the grand old man of letters, and, quite importantly, the defiantly and openly homosexual celebrity. I was, struck, reading this book, by the extent to which he was out of the closet, even in the 1940s. Vogue did a glamorous photo shoot with him and Frank Merlo, and his letters to his collaborator Elia Kazan, along with other contemporaries and collaborators, were completely open about his sexuality and living arrangements. His bravery and example have, I think, gone too long unremarked, and he should be recognised for the Queer revolutionary that he was.

He was also artistically vulnerable, seeking advice and input from his peers, including the glorious Carson McCullers, his great pal and protégé. He was alert to the sensitivities of writing for the stage, and managed to straddle the commercial and artistic requirements of his craft. He had his plays changed drastically, and shaped, by directors, producers and actors, and he workshopped things with great good grace. Even as his career began to falter in the late 1960s he still remained prolific and interested in new ideas in the theatre. He was wedded to writing, and managed to do it constantly, no matter how much drink, drugs and rough trade got in the way.

The drug-induced paranoia of his final years is recorded sensitively in the book, and though he could easily be cast as a pitiful, pathetically irrelevant character scorned by a new generation of activists and identity politics, Lahr remains loyal both to Williams’s artistry and his personal integrity. Williams flirted with radical politics and continued his defiant parading of his male partners, though the Gay Liberation movement occasionally treated him shabbily. The great man who had reinvented American theatre was lost in his own drug-addled world, alarmed by the realities of old age and nervous about his own future.

Lahr writes that Williams was destroyed by his own genius. He who had once been the greatest of all remained obsessed with retaining that greatness, and with having his talents recognised and lauded. Faced with appalling reviews and new assessments of his legacy which belittled him and his achievements, he sought right to the end to produce something that the public could engage with and love. ‘I want to get my goodness back,’ he would say to friends.

Tennessee Williams: Mad pilgrimage of the flesh is both great and good, and a worthy investment of time. It resurrects the reputation of a man whose plays remain an essential part of the theatrical repertoire and who invented a style and manner uniquely his own that he managed to export to the rest of the world. It is a book for lovers of the theatre, amateur literary historians and those interested in Queer writing and subjects. It is also immensely motivational, leaving you in thrall to Williams’s sheer output and work ethic, and his commitment to constantly making himself a better writer. He managed to live thoroughly the motto of his grand old Southern family: ‘Know Your Opportunity – Seize It.’

John Lahr Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the flesh Bloomsbury 2014 HB 784pp $49.99

Walter Mason is a writer, spiritual tourist and a lifelong dilettante. He is the author of Destination Saigon: Adventures in Vietnam (2010) and Destination Cambodia: Adventures in the Kingdom (2013). You can visit his blog here.

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1 Comment

  1. loved this review. Succinct and fair