Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh

Image of Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh
Release Date: 
September 22, 2014
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

“In the end, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh stands head and shoulders above myriad other works that purport to tell the ‘whole’ story of Tennessee Williams, his life, work and loves.”

In his new XXL-sized biography of playwright Tennessee Williams, author John Lahr writes much but says surprisingly little. Or little by way of new information, at any rate.

In this, the reader is nothing if not understanding. Lahr has, in choosing to write about Williams, selected to explore an author whose persona threatens to overwhelm his literary reputation, so great are the numbers of anecdotes, bits of gossip, and nasty whispers concerning the man’s exploits. Indeed, the man himself, with his omnipresent cigarette, his tendency toward seersucker, and his honeyed drawwwwlllll, is today perhaps as famous as any of his creations, those cats on those hot metal roofs, those ladies on the streetcars with evocative names, and the grand dames for whom the milk train no longer stops.

But let’s face it, it is not until page 601 that the author states his case and gives us a summation worthy of a top-flight biography:

“In his struggle to unlearn repression, to claim his freedom, and to forge glory out of grief, Williams turned his own delirium into one of the twentieth century’s great chronicles of the brilliance and the barbarity of individualism. In order to name our pain, he devoured himself:

. . . much will be clear as any of his lost mornings,

that he did own one essential part of a hero,

the idea of life as a nothing-withholding submission of self to flame.

“Out of the sad little wish to be loved, Williams made characters so large that they became a part of American Folklore. Blanche, Stanley, Big Daddy, Brick, Amanda, and Laura transcend their stories—sensational ghosts who haunt us through the ages with their fierce, flawed lives. Williams allowed words to live like anthems in the national imagination: ‘I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers’; ‘Sometimes—there’s God—so quickly’; ‘Nowadays the world is lit by lightning’; ‘Make voyages!—Attempt them!—there’s nothing else.’

“Grabbing both the brass ring of success and the trapeze of the flesh, Williams swung high and low. His passage through time was sensational. He contended doggedly with his own roiling divided self. In him, until his last breath, the forces of life and death were pitched in clamorous battle. Art was his habit, his ‘fatal need,’ and his salvation. Foraying into those ineffable realms of sensation where language has little purchase, he uncovered our sorrow, our desire, our hauntedness. At the same time, he changed the shape and the ambition of the American commercial theater, which ultimately couldn’t support the paradoxical truth, ‘the tragic division of the human spirit’ that his stories tried to trap.”

Here, in a movie, after the summation of the man written decades after his death in a New York hotel room, either by accident or by his own hand as you may choose to believe, would be the moment for the flashback to St. Louis and to the apartment that young Thomas Lanier Williams shared with his mother and his painfully, even pathologically shy sister Rose.

This is the stuff—the runaway father, the over-anxious mother, the fragile sister—that became The Glass Menagerie, the work that transformed Tom into “Tennessee” (or, to those who received his loving gifts and/or mash notes, simply “10”), and brought to man to Broadway. It is here, on the opening night of this play that Lahr begins his book:

“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.’”

From here, Lahr presents his reader with a compendium of opening nights (A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Rose Tattoo—on and on) a panoply of theatrical, Hollywood, and literary stars (Marlon Brando, Maureen Stapleton, Anna Magnani, the omnipresent Gore Vidal, a waspish Truman Capote, and Bette Davis, whose ferocious turn—onstage and off—in Williams’ The Night of the Iguana makes for the most entertaining reading in the volume), and a parade of friends, relatives (Williams’ guilt-ridden relationship with his sister Rose and his love/hate bond with brother Dakin are of particular interest) and lovers.

Two sections shine.

The first explores Williams’ relationship with Frank Merlo, the longest and most complex of the playwright’s life. Where other works have either reduced Merlo to playing the part of servant to Williams’ master, or portray Williams as a thoughtless monster who abused Merlo and then left him to struggle on against lung cancer and, ultimately, die alone on Friday, September 20, 1963, in New York City’s Memorial Hospital.

Williams would relive the last days of Merlo’s life—a time in which Williams rushed home from a European holiday with his new boyfriend to sit by Merlo’s side, only to leave him again in his last moments—and write about them again and again, as here, where he recreates their conversation during what he called the “dreadful vigil:”

            “Frankie, try to be still.”

            “I feel too restless today. The visitors tired me out.”

            “Frankie, do you want me to leave you now?”

            “No. I’m used to you.”

“Merlo then turned onto his side, facing away from Williams, and ‘pretended to sleep.’ Williams said. ‘The statement of habituation was hard to interpret as an admission of love, but love was never a thing that Frankie had been able to declare to me except over a long-distance phone,’ he recalled. At the beginning of their relationship, Williams had written poignantly in a poem, ‘My name for him is Little Horse/I wish he had a name for me.’ At the end of their fifteen years together, he still hadn’t won any terms of endearment from Merlo.

“Williams sat silently beside Merlo for a while; then, around four o’clock in the afternoon, he left.”

He went to his analyst’s office, where he was given a sedative shot. From there, he went out with friends, visited a number of gay bars and drank to excess (as was his habit for much of his adult life).

He brought a few friends back to his New York apartment. When the phone rang just after eleven that evening, Tennessee Williams said, “Oh, my goodness, this is probably it.”

After Merlo’s death, Williams became unmoored. Merlo had balanced him, often thwarted him, always supported him, keeping the world at bay, fanning the flames of Williams’ creativity. Without him, Williams struggled through life, mixing drugs and alcohol with work that was increasingly hard to undertake, and with a theatrical community to whom Tennessee Williams was as faded as any of his belles.

Williams puttered through 20 more years—years, as he told his young friend Dotson Rader, in which he went from “good reviews, to bad reviews, to no reviews.” While he continued to write—often in the form of short, one-act plays—and while his major works continued to be revived and the playwright himself honored, by the early ’80s Williams felt that his talent had left him, and with it his will to live.

On February 24, 1983, at 10:30 in the morning, Tennessee Williams was found dead in his room in the Hotel Elysee in Manhattan. His death was first determined to have been caused by blockage of the air passage by his inhaling of a plastic cap from a medicine bottle. Later, when the results of blood tests were returned, the cause was quietly changed to a drug overdose. The question remains as to whether that overdose was accidental.

What follows Lahr’s account of Williams’ death is perhaps the most fascinating of the whole work, as it tells the story both of what happened to Williams himself after death (his brother Dakin, ignoring Williams’ instructions, buried Tennessee Williams precisely where he would never have wanted to be: right next to his mother in the family’s burial ground) as well as what happened to Tennessee Williams’ literary legacy.

In the telling, we are given an unforgettable portrait of Maria St. Just, a long-time friend of the playwright, who became known as his “Five O’clock Angel” when she published a memoir of their relationship by the same name. Throughout their many years together, the two bonded in love as much as hate, to the point that, when her own husband died, St. Just actually seriously considered that with their only hindrance removed, the two of them might marry. (Williams demurred.)

Although friends insist that their friendship had cooled my the end of Williams’ life and that he had intended to change his will, Williams named Maria St. Just (who, upon her own death was referred to as “The aristocratic hellcat who loved Tennessee Williams” in one obituary) as his literary executor.

For over a decade, St. Just ruled over Williams’ estate with an iron fist. And the tale of her mad reign makes for wonderful reading.

Indeed, the whole of the work is impeccable, if perhaps not particularly revealing. And yet can Lahr be blamed if Williams’ life has been so mined for details that few surprises remain?

In the end, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh stands head and shoulders above myriad other works that purport to tell the “whole” story of Tennessee Williams, his life, work and loves. Others, like Pink Triangle, which blended Williams’ life with those of Gore Vidal and Truman Capote in one tell-all volume, are more fun to read. And some, like Lyle Leverich’s Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams, feel more scholarly. But this volume finds the balance as a readable, sometimes gossipy, while at the same time factual and complete.

As such, it will surely in the days ahead be considered the definitive volume on the life of the man who is arguably considered America’s greatest playwright. That designation is well deserved.