Academic journal article The Hudson Review

On the Tennessee (Williams) Trail

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

On the Tennessee (Williams) Trail

Article excerpt

On the Tennessee (Williams) Trail

JOHN LAHR'S NEW BIOGRAPHY OF TENNESSEE WILLIAMS, Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh,' makes an impression before you even open it. It's huge and it's lurid. On the cover, a middle-aged guy who looks like an out-ofshape Clark Gable stuffed into a dark suit and pink silk tie, holds a smoking cigarillo and stares at us. His eyes shine with intelligence while his sensual lips beneath the moustache lift slightly at the edges, as if he's about to mouth a bon mot. He's standing in front of the most toxic sunset you've ever seen, the sky an apocalyptic orange, the earth beneath it dark green, roiling. The colors of the words overlaving this image-baby pink juxtaposed with bright yellow-add to the discord.

This book, the cover by Paul Davis tells us, will be about a man who's larger than life, perceptive and snarky, addictive, and stuck in some Purgatorial place. Mad, pilgrim, flesh-free associate: Monkish lunatic, sex. Pink tie and title: gay pilgiim. His journey won't be easy, not in Puritan America. And so you open the book to find out if you're right, or if you are already a fan of Williams' plays and life, you know you are. But how much do you know? Lahr has packed this book so full of contemporary commentary from Ten's friends, enemies, and self (frenemy indeed) that your head will soon be aching, unable to absorb it all.

Lahr had a mountain of material to work with-forty books have been published about Williams' life, and there are innumerable letters, diaries, and other documents he had access to, plus interviews he conducted with those who had worked with, slept with, partied with, or shook hands once with Williams. Lahr tells us in his preface he's writing yet another book about this neurotic genius because the first forty were flawed. In them, "[m]uch is gossip, much is self-serving, much is academic tracery, almost none of it risks an interpretation, which is the job of criticism." That's a bracing statement, but the interpretation Lahr gives of Williams' life in the course of hundreds of pages doesn't live up to it. Lahr's fine sentences can't finesse his simplistic thesis. Repeating isn't the same as developing, but the "interpretation" never gets beyond its first formulation, which goes something like this:

Tennessee (né Tom) Williams was, first and foremost, an artist. He only felt alive when making art, but his art would eventually destroy him. He longed for love but spent his life feeling lonely, his only lasting connection the one he felt for his own creations.

Lahr repeats this several times but never does paint a nuanced portrait of the artist as a tortured man. Lahr is less like a painter (a trope he loves-there are a lot of "palette" references in the book) and more like a chef who has to use up a lot of ingredients going bad in the refrigerator.

By the last chapters of the book, he's making sundaes out of his surfeit of anecdotes, topping them with little psychoanalytic cherries: ".. . [I] n Williams's mind, creation and betrayal were psychologically conjoined. To give life to his characters Williams preyed on himself -drawing on drugs and promiscuity to engineer the extravagant conversion of despair into art. In seeking his liberation, he became his own oppressor." One senses Lahr's oppression beneath the weight of all this material and his need to give Williams his just deserts. Alas, the last thirty years of the artist's life were no picnic for him, Lahr, or us.

If you read the book straight through, as I did, you will wish the repetitions had been cut, that Lahr had had an editor who would do for this book what Elia Kazan did for Williams' plays. No such luck. Lahr seems determined to quote from each piece of a gargantuan heap of source material. He acknowledges that the book took him twelve years to write, and it feels like it. The stops and starts of such a project would explain why he repeats himself so much. Of course, Williams also kept repeating himself, so perhaps it's a case of identifying too much with one's subject. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.