Tennessee Wlliams is, with Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, one of the three most highly regarded and best-known American playwrights. Throughout the first part of his career, many of his plays were also commercially successful. But Williams never wrote another hit after The Night of the Iguana, which opened on Broadway in 1961, the same year that he turned 50 and appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Nor has the bulk of his prolific body of work held up well. Indeed, only three of his plays, The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), continue to be revived regularly. He died 22 years later, with the astonishing record of having had his career conclude with 17 poorly received flops in a row.
It is far from unusual for a creative artist to lose his way in middle age. But Williams’s disintegration was so spectacular that it is hard not to wonder exactly what went wrong with a writer whose initial success had been no less spectacular. That question is at the heart of Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh,1 John Lahr’s newly published biography of Williams.
Lahr, who was for many years the senior drama critic of the New Yorker, is also the author of one of the half-dozen finest biographies of a playwright, Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton (1978). His new book is not quite as effective, partly because of its excessive length, but also because, having been conceived as a sequel to Lyle Leverich’s Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams (1995), it discusses Williams’s youth too summarily. In addition, Lahr’s book, given its subject matter, must of necessity deteriorate into a protracted chronicle of personal squalor and professional failure, one that inevitably exhausts the reader.
Nevertheless, Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh is a major biography, one that comes close to saying the last word about a writer whose oeuvre has always struck me as oddly unsatisfying. What was it about Williams that kept him from ascending the heights other than sporadically? Was it nothing more than a chronic lack of self-discipline? Or did his flaws as a writer go deeper than that?
Lahr explains with great clarity what kind of artist Tennessee Williams was. He describes Williams as “the most autobiographical of American playwrights,” one who was obsessed with the family life that he described more or less directly in The Glass Menagerie. That play is the story of an aspiring young writer living in shabby gentility whose mother is “prim and protective” and whose older sister is physically and emotionally crippled:
Williams’s romance with the theater allowed him to get his insides out and to act out the warring fragments of family madness to which he had been an understudy all his life…In a sort of séance with the ghosts of his past, their narratives and their voices were perpetually reworked into his cast of characters.
The particular “family madness” that became Williams’s main subject was sexual inhibition. Like so many gay playwrights of his generation, Williams found it difficult to come to terms as a young man with the furtive urges that his mother (as portrayed in The Glass Menagerie) regarded with a mixture of contempt and fear: “Don’t quote instinct to me! Instinct is something that people have got away from! It belongs to animals! Christian adults don’t want it!”
Once he did so, Williams thereafter placed what he saw as the thwarted sexuality of his parents’ generation at the heart of all his plays, embarking on what Lahr calls “his discipleship to the carnal” and “turning sexuality into a kind of theology.” Over and over again, he would create characters who, like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire and Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, are incapable of breaking with social convention and pursuing their true sexual natures, a failure that always leads them to grief. Brick is a repressed, married homosexual whose inability to accept himself as he is drives him to drink, while Blanche, who longs for heterosexual fulfillment but is too proper to pursue it directly, goes mad when confronted with the monstrous specter of her brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski, a sexy blue-collar brute who happily embraces the instinctive life (as Williams himself tried to do) and cannot understand why Blanche refuses to be no less honest about her own physical desires.
For Williams, this inhibition was mirrored by the tight restrictions of the “well-made,” plot-driven three-act play that dominated the American theater of his youth. He had dreamed as early as 1942 of creating “a new…non-realistic” form that would depart from this tradition, and he did so—up to a point—in The Glass Menagerie, in which Tom, Williams’s alter ego, addresses the audience directly instead of staying behind the imaginary “fourth wall” of the proscenium stage.
But The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire are not quite so radical as they seem, and it is this very lack of radicalism that helped to make them successful. Streetcar, for example, yokes the floridly poetic language that Williams favored with a working-class mise-en-scène that appears at first glance to be nothing if not realistic. Some critics balked at this blend, especially Mary McCarthy, who found Stanley to be altogether incredible: “Dr. Kinsey would be interested in a semi-skilled male who spoke of the four-letter act as ‘getting those colored lights going.’” But postwar audiences, unaccustomed to Williams’s comparative sexual forthrightness, found it titillating and flocked to Broadway to see what outrageous things his characters would do and say next.
Therein lay the seed of his decline. He was at bottom a poet, not a conventional dramatist, and he longed to break even more decisively with naturalism, as he did with Camino Real (1953), whose dream sequences border at times on the impenetrable. But his long-standing collaboration with Elia Kazan, who directed the original productions of Streetcar, Cat, Camino Real, and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959) and consulted with him on most of the other plays that he wrote in the ’50s, had helped to keep him cognizant of the iron necessities of pleasing a popular audience. One of the most valuable aspects of Lahr’s biography is its detailed description of what Kazan did for Williams, whose playwriting technique was always erratic: “Williams had relied on Kazan to bushwhack through his tangle of scenes, to winkle out his strongest themes, and to take the lead in their dramatic rearrangement.”
Then the two men parted company permanently in 1960, and three years later Williams came a cropper on Broadway with The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, a confused parable of priggishness and its discontents that closed after a month. By then it was clear to everyone but Williams that he was repeating himself. Irwin Shaw, for instance, had pointed out in a 1950 letter to Kazan that The Rose Tattoo, Williams’s latest play, was “new ore from the same vein, and not quite as rich in quality….I got a feeling while reading it that Tennessee had merely juggled a lot of his old characters, mixing parts of one up with parts of another.” He did so for the rest of his life, and a time came when his audiences saw what he was doing and lost interest.
Williams himself already felt unequal to the imaginative challenges posed by younger playwrights such as Edward Albee and Harold Pinter, whose adventurous work drove him “crazy with jealousy,” he wrote. “If only I were 25 and just starting out, what these boys could have given me.” But no less devastating to him were the changes in American culture that were wrought by the sexual and political radicalism of the ’60s. Like all innovators, he fell victim at last to the long-term effects of his own innovations.
In Tony Kushner’s astute words: “The [sexual] permission that Williams helped create sort of robbed him of a platform. He found himself a revolutionary in a post-revolutionary era. By the time the ’60s rolled around, the things that Williams had liberated were everywhere irrelevant.”
Already dependent on drugs and alcohol, Williams now began to abuse them in a self-devastating way. Just as his public appearances deteriorated into exercises in embarrassment, so did his new plays degenerate into pseudo-poetic burble. By the time of his death, he was widely seen as a half-comic, half-pathetic figure whose achievements lay far in the past.
When asked to name France’s greatest poet, André Gide quipped, “Victor Hugo, hélas!” Though John Lahr unequivocally describes Tennessee Williams as “America’s greatest playwright,” one comes away from his book wondering whether he, too, might have similar reservations about his subject’s ultimate stature, given the paucity of his accomplishments. Indeed, when Lahr remarks on the next-to-last page of Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh that Williams created “characters so large that they became part of American folklore,” the six whom he cites are all from The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
One need not create a large body of major work in order to crack the history books. But a prolific artist whose output is for the most part gravely flawed is by definition problematic, and few artists of stature have been more problematic than Williams. Nor are all three of his still popular plays of equal quality. Cat, which has been revived repeatedly but without artistic success on Broadway, is a bloated period piece, a faded keepsake of the days when Broadway audiences could still be staggered by semi-candid talk of sexual heterodoxy.
On the other hand, I regard The Glass Menagerie as one of the two best American plays of the 20th century (the other being Thornton Wilder’s Our Town), and I revised my once lukewarm estimate of Streetcar sharply upward after seeing a series of stagings that broke with the now iconic interpretation of the play enshrined in Kazan’s 1951 film version, in which Stanley was played by Marlon Brando as a walking, talking phallus. Streetcar proves to be far more interesting when Blanche DuBois, not Stanley, is placed at the center of the action and presented not as a fluttery, ineffectual caricature of southern womanhood but as a mature woman of a certain age who is well aware of her sexual allure but cannot live with its implications.
Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh ends with a chronology of Williams’s life whose final item, from 2011, is significant in this connection: “The Comédie-Française in Paris produces Un tramway nommé Désir, staged by American director Lee Breuer, the first play by a non-European playwright in the company’s 331-year history.” Of such tributes is immortality made. But the fact that Streetcar, Cat, and The Glass Menagerie are the only plays by Williams that have ever been successfully revived on Broadway says much about the likely survival of most of the rest of his output. For like most autobiographical artists, he had only one story to tell, and after he transformed its characters into archetypes and told it twice—literally in The Glass Menagerie, symbolically in Streetcar—he had little choice but to tell it again with increasingly predictable variations. Small wonder that postmodern audiences stubbornly insist on preferring the real thing.
1 W.W. Norton, 736 pp.