Sunday, May 03, 2015

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

Any skepticism that I have long harbored about paralleling an artist's private and creative lives has been dashed by John Lahr's brilliant biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh. I have read all of Williams's published drama, poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, including his memoirs, letters, and interviews. While much of his work falls short of greatness and some does not even rise to mediocrity or is downright poor, I have greatly valued every minute of that reading time. Williams was a remarkable artist who might have been hurt by negative criticism from the literary establishment, but he never succumbed to it. The inevitable pressures imposed by theater, film, and publishing circles, and by the celebrity he simultaneously craved and detested, did not stop him from creating until his accidental death in 1983. A review of his 55-year career as a man of letters shows one constant: He always wrote, always took chances, always brought new experience into his work. He had many works in progress despite struggling to find productions in lesser known venues and before smaller audiences.

Through exhaustive research from virtually every source that touched Williams's world from his childhood until his final days,   Lahr captures an epic yet realistic portrait of a man, one which so many earlier biographers and critics failed to achieve, due largely to their fetishistic focus on the more bizarre aspects of Williams's lifestyle and his legendary creative failures. Those accounts are hard to swallow because even Williams's apparent dramatic missteps, such as The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore and In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, are far better than the notices they received. Until Lahr's book, I had been continually disappointed by how Williams scholars caricatured him by eschewing the motivation of his work and the inclinations of his genius in favor of spotlighting his melodramatic lifestyle, admittedly brought on by Williams himself, as can be seen in his autobiographical accounts. Lahr, however, understands that the most fantastic fiction is often autobiography, so he does not take the obvious short cut of regurgitating what Williams said or wrote to make a point about his lasciviousness, despondency, or self-destructiveness without first positioning those viewpoints in their historical context. He moves seamlessly among an astounding range of letters and interviews by Williams’s friends, family, and lovers; his texts, journals, and interviews; and reviews, articles, and other public records to create a fascinating story of one of the most well-deserving highly awarded writers in American history, one whose theatrical revivals command huge audiences the world over more than three decades after his death. This book is a masterpiece of biography.