Devoured By Desire A new biography tells of the self-destructive fall of the poetic playwright

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh

John Lahr (W.W. Norton, 2014) 604 pages with chronology, endnotes, bibliography, index and illustrations

America’s greatest playwright, Tennessee Williams (1911-83), also was our most controversial. His output was vast—in addition to thirty-three full-length plays and over seventy one-acts, Williams also wrote volumes of short stories, poetry, and a novel. Following his breakthrough Broadway success with The Glass Menagerie (1944), much of his life was lived in the public eye, and both the basic facts of his life growing up in St. Louis, and his increasingly outré lifestyle (including a proclivity for cruising waterfronts and gay bars in search of one-night stands) has been well-chronicled in biographies, films, and memoirs (including the playwright’s own Memoirs,1975). In addition to this wealth of materials available to the scholar, Williams’s voluminous and revealing correspondence, diaries, and notebooks have been published. Indeed, so much has been written both by and about Williams that the reader might justifiably wonder why another study of his life should even be necessary.

However, John Lahr’s Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, is more than an addition to the trove of extant biographical literature on Williams, it is groundbreaking in its contribution not only to the study of the playwright, but to the genre of biographical criticism itself. The breadth of its scholarship and the subtle critical understanding of the complicated interplay between the author’s life and work make this 604 page book a remarkable achievement. Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh reads with the page-turning fascination of fiction; yet it is based on a profound and nuanced understanding of both the playwright’s life and—most important—his art. Williams’s ample human weaknesses and artistic flaws are never masked in this book—he is revealed as a man who casually observed that “As the world grows worse it seems more necessary to grasp what pleasure you can, to be selfish and blind, except in your work.” Great and small betrayals are illuminated (notably towards the foremost director of his works, Elia Kazan, and the vindictive paranoia exhibited towards his loyal agent of three decades, Audrey Wood). But while weaknesses are exposed, they are never exploited or sensationalized. Instead, the portrait which emerges is of a man as powerfully complex, driven, and emotionally divided as the greatest of his own psychologically troubled protagonists.

The genesis of Lahr’s biography is itself worth noting. In 1994, Lahr (senior drama critic of The New Yorker), was approached by Williams’ authorized biographer, Lyle Leverich, to exert his influence upon the playwright’s manipulative and self-serving executor, Maria St. Just, who refused for five years to allow publication of Leverich’s biography of Williams’ early years, Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams (W.W. Norton, 1995). As a result of Lahr’s intercession, he and Leverich became friends with Leverich requesting that Lahr “finish the job” if for any reason he was unable to complete the intended second volume. When Leverich died some years later, Lahr (by this time included in his will), inherited notes, recordings and transcripts, and was prepared to write the sequel to Leverich’s study, which only takes up Williams’ life through 1945. However, instead of following Leverich’s comprehensive, encyclopedic methodology, Lahr chose a different approach, one better suited to his talents as both drama critic and as the previous biographer of Joe Orton, Noël Coward, Kenneth Tynan, and his own father, the actor Bert Lahr (Notes on a Cowardly Lion). Lahr wisely chose to concentrate on critical interpretation of Williams’ major stage productions (from his earliest successes through the decades of drugs, self-destruction and critical failure), in conjunction with the coordinates of his life, rather than copy Leverich’s exhaustive and narrow focus on the precise details of biography. The result is not a sequel, nor does it invalidate Leverich’s valuable study of the playwright’s formative years; rather, Lahr’s work is a unique amalgam of dramatic criticism and biography—one which results in a comprehensive and original re-assessment of the playwright.

“Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh,” the phrase which provides the book with its title appears in a diary entry from 1939, certainly a pivotal year for Williams. This was the year the 28-year-old playwright finally chose to leave his St. Louis home for the exotic and liberating world of New Orleans. Significantly, it was also the same year in which Williams used his adoptive name “Tennessee” (invoking the frontier legacy of his father’s ancestor) and signed his name “Tennessee Williams—Writer” at the boarding house where he roomed. It was also the time he began to acknowledge his homosexuality, something not previously accepted—even to himself. In an early one-act, “Auto-da-Fé” written in that same pivotal year of 1939, the young protagonist Eloi (named for the “degenerate,” underground race in H.G. Wells’ 1895 novel, The Time Machine), is confronted by his priggish, judgmental mother, and divulges the existence of a compromising pornographic photograph of a tryst between a young man of nineteen, and “One of those—opulent—antiques dealers—on Royal …” which has fallen out of an envelope in the post office where Eloi is employed.[1] With a match held between his trembling fingers, Eloi refuses to burn the photo in the presence of his mother, and instead chooses to rush inside and immolate himself (and a boarder), preferring to burn down his own house rather than purge the incriminating evidence of homosexual desire. Like the timid (and aptly named) Anthony Burns who is literally devoured by the object of his desire in the short story, “Desire and the Black Masseur,” Williams saw his life as an ongoing battle between repression and acceding to sexual temptation and impulse. Sex, then, not only allowed the playwright to rebel; it provided him (like one of his literary heroes, D.H. Lawrence) with the means of piecing together a divided self.

“Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh,” the phrase which provides the book with its title appears in a diary entry from 1939, certainly a pivotal year for Williams. This was the year the 28-year-old playwright finally chose to leave his St. Louis home for the exotic and liberating world of New Orleans.

As Lahr’s biography makes clear, Williams was raised in a home where a pitched battle between the sexes was enacted over and over on a daily basis. On one side was his mother, Miss Edwina, a domineering figure who was associated with frigidity and sexual repression; on the other stood his father Cornelius, perpetually angry and drunk, a figure whose ear was bitten off in a bar fight, and who in the words of Williams, walked into a room “as though he were entering with the intention of tearing it down from inside.”[2] Known as C.C., Cornelius mercilessly mocked his son’s effeminacy, calling him “Miss Nancy.” However, as he was often absent (he is memorialized as the absent father in The Glass Menagerie, “a telephone man who fell in love with long distances”[3]) Edwina wielded the real power in the family. As the grandson of William S. Dakin, an Episcopal minister who lived with the Williams family after they moved to St. Louis, young Tom was raised in a climate where sex was associated with impurity and sin. In his diaries, Williams observes that he did not masturbate until age 26, and remained celibate (except for one disastrous heterosexual encounter at the University of Iowa) until age 27. In the words of Lahr, “the evolution to genital sexuality … was woefully postponed.” Describing himself as “the little Puritan,” his rebellion was a conscious attempt to liberate “the restless beast in the jungle under the skin.”

This conflict between instinct and repression is exquisitely rendered in the well-known dialogue between mother (Amanda) and son (Tom) in the autobiographical The Glass Menagerie:

TOM: Man is by instinct a lover, a fighter, and none of those instincts are given much play at the warehouse!

AMANDA: Man is by instinct! Don’t quote instinct to me! Instinct is something that people have got away from! It belongs to animals! Christian adults don’t want it![4]

Asking himself the question, “Am I all animal, all willful, blind, stupid beast?” Williams carved out a spiritual and personal identity which embraced the very thing which terrified him. By the same token, writing enabled him to face his demons on a daily basis. The character of Val in Battle of Angels, quotes another literary antecedent, August Strindberg; “I, too, am beginning to feel an immense need to become a savage and to create a new world.” Sadly, the rebellion which allowed Williams to survive was not provided to his older sister Rose; she had no such opportunity to exorcise her demons and express her defiance and rebellion in word or deed.

In the early short story, “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” which served as inspiration for The Glass Menagerie, Williams describes a nightly scene of cats being torn apart by dogs in the street (“Death Valley”) beneath Rose’s bedroom.[5] Unlike her brother who found it possible to metamorphose the violent struggle he was privy to in words, Rose had no such release from the prison of family. By the time she reached puberty, she showed clear signs of mental illness. Williams recalled that after her first breakdown, she walked into his tiny room “like a somnambulist,” declaring simply: “we must all die together.” In his journal from January, 1937, Williams wrote “Tragedy. I write that word knowing the full meaning of it. We have had no deaths in our family but slowly by degrees something was happening much uglier and more terrible than death.”

In that same year of 1937, while Williams was studying at Washington University in St. Louis, his sister was admitted to Farmington State Hospital. In 1943, as he was completing the final version of The Glass Menagerie, she was subjected to a pre-frontal lobotomy as a cure for what was diagnosed as dementia praecox. Although the decision to have this “state of the art” procedure was Edwina’s, Williams felt guilty for not intervening and preventing his sister’s horrible fate. This guilt is the principal subject of many of his works, including The Glass Menagerie where the narrator Tom begs his sister to “blow out your candles, Laura,”[6] but the torment is perhaps most feelingly described in what Lahr terms a “Haiku” in his diaries:


Rose. Her head cut open

            A knife thrust in her brain.

            Me. Here. Smoking. 


While sexual promiscuity served as a “profound anti-depressant” for Williams, it was of course writing which was the ultimate form of rebellion allowing him to leave the stifling city of St. Louis (“St. Pollution”) behind. Always the most autobiographical of writers, Williams decided writing was successful “in exact ratio to the degree of emotional tension which is released in it.” To accomplish this, he claimed that “I invent people in parallel circumstances, create parallel tensions. It is my way of working out problems.” In an almost literal sense, Lahr observes, Williams’ work was his life; his life was also the subject matter of his work.

No single person in his life was ever more important than his addiction to work. In an interview with the New York Times in 1945 he confided that “the real fact is that no one means a great deal to me, I’m gregarious and like to be around people, but almost anybody will do … I prefer people who can help me in some way or another, and most of my friendships are accidental.” (xiv)

As he aged and lovers died or were discarded, Williams continued to concentrate on work; “I took to the theatre with the impetus of a compulsion,” he noted at the dawn of his career. Now, however, the results were different. Following the success of Glass Menagerie and the even greater achievement of A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), a series of impressive contributions followed, works like Summer and Smoke, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Sweet Bird of Youth. But as he reached middle age in the 1960s (Williams described it as his ‘Stoned Age’), commercial failure and critical disdain became commonplace. Night of the Iguana (1961) was his last Broadway triumph, and by the mid-1960s younger playwrights like Edward Albee had displaced both Williams (and his contemporary, Arthur Miller) as America’s most significant playwrights. Plays focusing on individual psychology seemed old-fashioned and out of step with a more politically engaged generation, and were displaced by experimental or collectivist theatrical ensembles working Off-Off Broadway. By 1969, as though to highlight his demise, Williams (increasingly addicted to prescription pain-killers and alcohol, and susceptible to extended bouts of depression and paranoia) was convinced that someone was trying to break into his Key West home to kill him. On a supposedly brief visit to see his mother, his younger brother Dakin contrived to have him involuntarily admitted to the psychiatric ward of St. Louis’ Barnes Hospital. Although Williams termed his incarceration “legalized fratricide,” Lahr notes that it is likely that his brother’s intervention saved his life and allowed him to continue writing for another decade.

The final years of Williams’s career were marked by more critical displeasure—or worse, indifference. When he experimented with new forms, his works were dismissed as trivial and inconsequential; when he attempted to work in the same vein as he had previously, he was an aging hack pathetically trying to repeat the same old tricks. Many of the attacks in the press were gleeful in their Schadenfreude. One critic described a new play as “more deserving of a coroner’s report than a review,” while another labeled the playwright a “White Dwarf”—alluding to a star at the end of its life cycle; “We are still receiving its messages, but it is now obvious that they come from a cinder.”

Despite the loss of critical and popular favor and increasing drug and alcohol abuse, Williams continued to write. It was the key to his survival. Finally, he lost even that; “I can’t write,” he admitted days before his death; “And if I can’t write. I don’t want to live.”

As early as 1972, Williams was very precise about his burial plans; he wanted a burial at sea as close as possible to the site in the Caribbean where the poet Hart Crane (long a beloved symbol of the idealized poet/martyr to Williams) took his own life. Ironically, following his death in New York’s Hotel Elyseé (Williams called it the “Easy Lay”), his brother Dakin connived to have the playwright’s body brought back to his despised St. Louis, and buried in the Williams plot at Calvary Cemetery, his mother Edwina peering over his shoulder for eternity. As Lahr unforgettably puts it of the brother who was cut out of his will for incarcerating him in a St. Louis psychiatric ward; “If he couldn’t make [his brother] pay attention to him in life, Dakin could make him pay in death.”

John Lahr’s Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh is an instant classic. It also breaks new ground by strongly suggesting that Williams’ death was neither accidental, as was widely reported at the time, nor murder, as Dakin tried to allege—it was suicide by a man driven to create by a variety of compulsions and demons—yet finally was devoured by them like Sebastian in Suddenly, Last Summer. More significantly, Lahr’s work captures the essence of the career of a great artist, and clarifies his character and work with unflinching illumination. The arc of the playwright’s meteoric rise and fall are narrated in an accessible style which combines sympathy with critical acuity. Lahr censures the man for his selfishness, petty cruelty, and hypocrisy; yet he always reminds us of his inestimable value and greatness as an artist. As Arthur Miller wrote feelingly of his departed colleague, “For a while the theater loved him, and then it went back to searching in its pockets for its soul. He chose a hard life that requires the skin of an alligator and the heart of a poet. To his everlasting honor, he persevered and bore us all toward glory.”

[1] “Auto-da-Fe,” in Tennessee Williams, Plays 1937-1955 (New York: The Library of America: 2000), 200.

[2] “Preface: The Man in the Overstuffed Chair,” in Tennessee Williams, Collected Stories (New York: New Directions, 1994), vii.

[3] The Glass Menagerie, in Tennessee Williams, Plays 1937-1955, 401.

[4] Ibid., 421.

[5] “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” in Collected Stories, 111.

[6] The Glass Menagerie, in Plays 1937-1955, 465.