“A lover, a hunter, a fighter” — Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh

John Lahr’s latest biography is a feast for Tennessee Williams fans.

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh
(Norton, 765 pages, $39.95)

In May, 1957, Tennessee Williams put himself into the care of psychoanalyst Lawrence S. Kubie, who began his ministrations by trying to cut off all of Williams’s addictions: drink, men, travel and writing. It’s no wonder the therapy failed; according to John Lahr, in his monumental, full-to-bursting biography Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (Norton, 765 pages, $39.95), Williams was these addictions; there was no self without them.

Writing came first: “If I can’t write, I don’t want to live,” he told one correspondent, and Lahr’s evidence demonstrates that this was no exaggeration. Next to writing, there were men: the ones he lived years with, like Pancho Rodriguez (the inspiration for Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar) and Frank Merlo (who spawned Alvaro Mangiacavallo in The Rose Tattoo), and the innumerable one-night stands and brief encounters he enjoyed while cruising the streets of the world with friends and alone. As for drink — and a “gargantuan intake of drugs” — the older Williams got, the more he depended on alcohol, pills, and the “fire-shots” provided by “Dr. Feelgood,” purveyor of oblivion to the rich and famous.

It was an overdose of Seconal that killed him at last — the news that Williams choked on a bottle cap was incorrect, Lahr shows convincingly — and if his brother Dakin hadn’t committed him to the psychiatric ward of a St. Louis hospital in 1969, he would likely have died of “acute drug poisoning” 14 years earlier. Finally, there was travel: for reasons Lahr doesn’t explain, the playwright was repeatedly shuttling from Key West to Rome to Bangkok to New Orleans, as if always on the run from unseen enemies — or himself.

He never stopped running — not when Broadway loved him, and he responded by taking a cruise to Europe, and not when Broadway spurned him, and Eli Wallach had to prevent him from launching himself off a hotel balcony at a party in his honor. Of course, one looks to Williams’s childhood for the explanation of the grown man’s mysteries, but Lahr is frustratingly inattentive to the playwright’s earliest years. This is probably because Mad Pilgrimage was at first supposed to be the sequel to Lyle Leverich’s Tom¸ about Williams’s childhood. But Lahr changed his mind, deciding to write a standalone volume, so it’s exasperating when we can’t turn up the sources of Williams’s wanderlust, or of his literary style, or of his love affair with intoxicants. Lahr is such a good writer/detective/critic/fan — what a pity that he didn’t start at the beginning.

Still, this biography is a feast. There are so many telling anecdotes here, so many scenes from Williams’s life graphically recounted, we feel that we’re right there at the premieres, the parties, the panics as they occur. The story more-or-less begins with a young man suffering defeat in a Boston theater (Battle of Angels), then finding redemption in Chicago (The Glass Menagerie), and apotheosis in New York (Menagerie, Streetcar Named Desire, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Night of the Iguana and others). There’s Williams’s fraught relations with his mother Edwina, his guilt about his lobotomized sister Rose, and his hatred of his abusive, hard-drinking father Cornelius. Then there’s the long decline after Iguana (1961); 22 years without a successful Broadway opening, years of increasing drug abuse (“My Stoned Age,” Williams called it) followed by a desperate, only fitfully successful attempt to win back the love of audiences and critics.

Of supporting players, four stand out: Elia Kazan, the directing genius whom Williams refused to desert when the left denounced him as a traitor; Audrey Wood, Williams’s agent for 30 years, whom the playwright fired cruelly and unjustly; Rodriguez, whose mercurial temperament and bouts of violence Williams at first found thrilling; and Merlo, the decent man who became increasingly incapable of living in the playwright’s shadow.

Then there are the hangers-on like Maria Britneva, model for Maggie the Cat; and Dotson Rader, the activist who introduced Williams to the radical ’60s. And always there are the critics, especially Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, whom Williams read like a heart patient anxiously checking his pulse. The ultimate result is a portrait of a man who was driven, inspired, vain, despondent, inexplicably original, helplessly addicted, gladly hedonistic, and, on his worst days, suicidal. He was nothing like a hero, except with his typewriter. Fifty years after his death, it’s undeniable that he’s one of the greats.

This fine biography brims with his outsize life. Every theater lover should know it. 

Scroll to read more Local Arts articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.