Can a writer who produced so much lousy work really be considered major?
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.
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.