"Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh" by John Lahr...

"Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh" by John Lahr (Norton, September 2014) Credit: W.W. Norton

On March 31, 1945, at the Playhouse Theatre on Forty-Eighth Street, on the unfashionable side of Broadway, in New York City, the curtain rose on the sold-out opening night of "The Glass Menagerie" ten minutes late, at 8:50 p.m. Tennessee Williams, the show's thirty-four-year-old playwright, sat in the aisle seat on the left side of the sixth row. Wearing a gray flannel suit with a button missing, a water-green shirt, and a pale conservative tie, he seemed, according to one paper, "like a farm boy in his Sunday best." Beside him was his friend, and cruising sidekick, Donald Windham, with whom he was collaborating on the romantic comedy "You Touched Me!" A few seats away in the same row, his chic, diminutive agent, Audrey Wood, sat clutching the hand of the renowned set designer Robert Edmond Jones, her escort for the evening. At the clumsy dress rehearsal the day before, an aphorism of William Liebling, her husband and business partner, kept playing through her mind -- "You're only as good as the night they catch you." At the dress rehearsal, as the cast got their notes, the play's tyro producer Louis Singer slid beside her. "Tell me -- you are supposed to know a great deal about theater -- is this or is it not the worst dress rehearsal you've seen in your life?" he said. Words, for once, failed Wood. She nodded a vigorous yes.

Wood fiercely believed in Williams and in her own instincts. Her father, William Wood, a theater manager, had exposed her at a young age to the art and business of vaudeville and theater; the agency that she founded with Liebling in 1937 would come to represent some of the most influential theatricals in the industry: William Inge, Carson McCullers, Robert Anderson, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Paul Newman, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Natalie Wood, Elia Kazan, and Joshua Logan among them. But Williams, her client of six years, had not yet known success. On April Fools' Day, 1939, tipped off to his talent, Wood had written the unknown author, "It seems to me, from what I've heard about you, that you may be exactly the kind of author whom I might help." She judged him "not a finished dramatist" but "highly promising." By May of that year, Williams had joined forces with Wood, who promptly sold one of his short stories to Story magazine. "You are playing a very long shot when you take an interest in my work," Williams wrote her. So it had proved. More than anyone in the Broadway audience that opening night, Wood understood the precariousness of his situation. "I'd reached the very, very bottom," Williams said, recalling his state of mind.

"I couldn't have gone on with these hand-to-mouth jobs, these jobs for which I had no aptitude, like waiting on tables, running elevators, and even being a Teletype operator. ... I couldn't have made it for another year, I don't think."

Eddie Dowling, a jug-eared fifty-one-year-old actor, was improbably cast as Tom Wingfield, the play's young narrator. He was also the show's co-director and co-producer.

Standing in front of set designer Jo Mielziner's transparent fourth wall -- a see-through scrim that evoked the delicate moods of the play by allowing the exterior of the alley and the fire escape to be lit both separately and simultaneously with the shabby genteel interior of the Wingfield apartment, Dowling went into the opening speech. "Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve," the Narrator said, brazenly announcing Williams's visionary powers. "But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you the truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion. To begin with I turn back time."

As the lights faded out on Dowling, they faded in on Laurette Taylor as Amanda, the matriarch of the hapless Wingfield family, entering upstage into the apartment's dining room. The reception for Taylor, who had made her Broadway debut in 1903 at the age of sixteen and had been a full-fledged star for more than thirty years, was deafening. On the eve of her sixty-first birthday, she was returning to Broadway after a five-year hiatus. Her rustication was the aftermath of an Actors' Equity suspension for drunkenly disrupting and closing a play. The death of her playwright husband, Hartley Manners, in 1928, had sent Taylor "on the longest wake in history," as she liked to joke. "She'd closed many a show on opening night. The managers despised her, and they thought I was crazy entirely to have anything to do with her," Dowling said. Management might have been wary of Taylor -- "the alcoholic of alcoholics," as she was known on the Rialto -- but the public's loyalty was rock solid. "Nothing like this we'd ever heard before. And so it thwarted the action a little bit, and it threw her. It really threw her," Dowling recalled about the barrage of applause that greeted Taylor. To fill the stage time and to settle the audience, Taylor brushed the hair out of her eyes and talked into the telephone. "It's Amanda," she said, holding the receiver in her hand -- vamping until the applause died down -- "It's Amanda. And I've got to talk to you." Finally the audience grew quiet. "This was just about the time I came through the door and said, 'Ma, I've got good news for you,'" Dowling recalled. "Instead of giving me the right answer, she took me into the second act."

From "Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh," by John Lahr. Copyright © 2014 by John Lahr. Published by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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