Playwright Tennessee Williams in rehearsal for "You Touched Me!" in...

Playwright Tennessee Williams in rehearsal for "You Touched Me!" in 1945. Credit: Eileen Darby Images, Inc.

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, by John Lahr. W.W. Norton & Co., 765 pp., $39.95.

John Lahr begins his fascinating new biography in medias res: opening night of 34-year-old Tennessee Williams' first Broadway hit, "The Glass Menagerie," in 1945. It's an appropriate place to start "Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh," for as Lahr asserts, Williams "was the most autobiographical of American playwrights," and "The Glass Menagerie" is the most nakedly autobiographical of his plays.

The play's narrator, Tom (Williams' real name), is trying to cope with his self-deluding mother and his fragile sister after his father has abandoned them. Amanda is a barely disguised version of Williams' own mother, Edwina, who bristled with indignation when actress Laurette Taylor asked after the opening night of the Chicago tryout, "Well, Mrs. Williams, how did you like yourself?" The sister in the play, Laura, has a physical handicap, a limp, which Williams substituted for the mental illness of his real sister, Rose. Even the father's absence reflects the frequent periods when his bullying salesman father would go on the road, leaving Tom, Edwina and Rose at one another's mercies.

Eventually, Rose's mental instability received a more explicit treatment in "Suddenly Last Summer," which works out what Lahr calls "Williams' grief and guilt over his sister, Rose, as well as his anger at Edwina for deciding to allow a bilateral prefrontal lobotomy to be performed on her." And even Williams' father had his turn on stage, inspiring Big Daddy in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

But Williams revealed even more of himself in his second Broadway hit, "A Streetcar Named Desire." As Elia Kazan, the play's director, put it, "Tennessee Williams ... is Blanche. And Blanche is torn between a desire to preserve her tradition, which is her entity, her being, and her attraction to what is going to destroy her traditions." Sensitive but self-destructive, both Blanche Dubois and Tennessee Williams depended on the kindness of strangers. But Williams also depended on the patience and understanding of friends and colleagues, among them Kazan, who "chivied him to work for greater depth, and allowed his imagination to soar," Lahr writes.

Williams might not have had a theater career at all if not for Audrey Wood, who became his agent in 1939, having discovered something in his early writing that she nurtured into maturity. "No playwright-agent relationship in American theater history had . . . a longer or more glorious story than Williams' partnership with Wood," Lahr comments.

A third, more volatile, force was his lover and personal secretary, Frank Merlo, whose tales of his Sicilian-American family Williams drew upon in "The Rose Tattoo." Merlo is also the model for that play's ebullient Alvaro Mangiacavallo, whose wooing of the widow Serafina is seen by Lahr as "a slapstick simulacrum of Williams's relationship with Merlo." Despite the hectic, even violent nature of their relationship, Williams and Merlo stayed together for almost 14 years.

Over 16 years, Williams' plays won a Tony Award, two Pulitzer Prizes and four New York Drama Critics' Circle awards. In Lahr's words, he changed "the shape and the ambition of the American commercial theater" with a body of work drawn from his inner life that resonated with the American mood from the end of World War II to the beginning of the Vietnam War.

Then, in 1961, Williams' great period ended with the opening of "The Night of the Iguana." "In the twenty-two years of life that remained to Williams," Lahr observes, "he would have seven more Broadway openings, but 'Iguana' would be his last hit." Williams' alcoholism had become exacerbated by amphetamines, and he became subject to paranoid delusions that finally caused Merlo to move out. In 1971, Williams abruptly fired Wood, his agent for more than 30 years.

For the rest of his life, Williams was prey to sycophants and enablers, including Maria St. Just, a Russian-born social climber. After his death in 1983, she became his de facto literary executor, exerting arbitrary control over productions of the plays and frightening off biographers.

Lahr gives us a sense of the ebb and flow of Williams' life, exercising a critic's keen eye on the plays, a novelist's gift for characterization and a historian's awareness of the way a changing American society colored his work. The result is almost as much a biography of the plays as of the playwright -- a book that lets the life illuminate the work and the work illuminate the life.

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