Tennessee Williams turned despair into art

A masterful, in-depth analysis of the playwright's life and art


“My native habitat is the theatre,” explains waspish Addison Dewitt in the opening narration of Hollywood’s foremost backstage fable, All About Eve. “I am a critic and commentator. I am essential to the theatre. I have lived in the theatre as a Trappist monk lives in his faith.” It is an apt description of the decidedly more jocund John Lahr. Born into showbiz (his dad, Bert, was The Wizard of Oz’s cowardly lion), Lahr has contributed to The

New Yorker since 1992, including 21 years as senior drama critic. Few, if any, theatrical commentators are as well respected.

Lahr has published more than a dozen books but is most renowned for 1978’s Prick Up Your Ears, his portrait of scandalously brilliant British playwright Joe Orton. Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh is equally masterful, at last providing keen, thoroughgoing examination of Williams’s life, his art and, fundamental to Lahr’s thesis, their inseparability and interdependence.

If Williams’s life were a play, it would have surprisingly few major characters. His family—emotionally distant mother, Edwina, fractious absentee father, Cornelius, troubled sister, Rose, institutionalized for almost her entire adult life, and straight-laced brother, Dakin—frequently inspired his work. Rose was, famously, the model for crippled heroine Laura in Williams’s career-establishing gem The Glass Menagerie. Yet they served as mere supporting players in his personal drama.

His true family emerged as his talent grew: longtime agent and champion Audrey Wood; director Elia Kazan, whose genius at interpreting Williams’s plays was essential to their success; lover Frank Merlo; confidante and fellow mischief-maker Maria St. Just. All were there as Williams progressed from triumph to triumph—A Streetcar Named DesireCat on a Hot Tin RoofSuddenly Last SummerSweet Bird of YouthThe Night of the Iguana. All remained loyal when the applause dimmed. Yet Williams dismissed each as he descended into a miasma of booze and pills. As early as 1952, he observed, “I have not made a success of life or love. And if my work peters out, I am a bankrupt person.” Now, 31 years after his unseemly death in a dishevelled New York hotel suite, Lahr concludes, “To give life to his characters, Williams preyed on himself—drawing on drugs and promiscuity to engineer the extravagant conversion of despair into art. In seeking liberation, he became his own oppressor.”