The Outsider Art of Tennessee

Jo Healy/Erin Clermont
Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando, 1948

Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh: John Lahr’s subtitle for his biography of Tennessee Williams nimbly fuses madness, spiritual quest, and sexuality in one inextricable formulation. The tone of the phrase alone—it comes from a 1937 diary entry—with its hint of what may now seem self-consciously overripe eloquence, its elusive mix of ironic gaudiness and open-hearted romanticism, already suggests a voice from a past more remote than could ever, to those of us who lived through Tennessee Williams’s era, have seemed possible.

That voice dominates Lahr’s exuberantly detailed and constantly engaging account: a voice of unabashed truth-telling, frequently hilarious interjections, and a sense of musicality that did not fail him. Its traces are scattered profusely in diaries, letters, memoirs, prefaces, newspaper articles, and interviews, and in the plays, poems, stories, and screenplays in which Williams never stopped exploring new frames within which to give shape and meaning to his life even as it appeared to be dissolving. Whatever his circumstances he never stopped turning himself inside out, fashioning voices to articulate what he found there. The dialogue continued to the nearly exhausted outer limit where it became an echoing chamber theater of isolation.

It was an isolation played out in public, however, and so Lahr’s book has more the quality of picaresque epic than of solitary portrait. It is an irresistible chronicle of midcentury American theater and of the media universe in which that theater still played an important role. Its pages teem with a multitude of other voices filling out or contradicting Tennessee’s testimony—among them Gore Vidal, Elia Kazan, Anna Magnani, the doomed Diana Barrymore, and the somewhat fantastical Maria St. Just, whose high-handed mismanagement of his literary estate makes a bizarre coda to the story—a hyperarticulate and often hyperbolic crew.

Williams was an unavoidable presence in the center of American culture through the years from the early triumphs of The Glass Menagerie (1944) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) to the signal failure of two successive Broadway productions of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore in 1963 and 1964. It was a culture Williams helped shape just by showing up in the midst of it. Unavoidable as he was, many would have been only too happy to dismiss him if they could have plausibly denied the power of his work. To go back over the first reviews of his successes of the 1950s is to find over and over again the signs of grudging acceptance and qualified approval if not straight-out vilification, and sampling the critical reactions when his Broadway career did eventually fall apart it is not hard to detect a certain glee in the pouring on of derision. (A critic for Life, for instance, wrote: “Other playwrights have progressed; Williams has suffered an infantile regression.”)

Unacknowledged homophobia (the word had not been coined yet) was a…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.