Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Superlative: "Tennessee Williams Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh"

Theatre Writer Book

John Lahr , Bloomsbury , November 26, 2015
Theatre Writer Book by John Lahr “The Glass Menagerie” tours Newport to Pwllheli, and all points between, in the first quarter of 2016. Theatr Pena’s production gives the reading of John Lahr’s magisterial study of Tennessee Williams- born Thomas Lanier Williams III- an extra timeliness. Lahr is theatre’s most prolific writer over the last thirty years. In addition to his depth of knowledge of theatre’s inner being he is also a prose stylist of distinctiveness and acuity. The New Yorker has famously the most demanding of editorial regimes; Lahr served for twenty-one years as its drama critic.

Marlon Brando is the most-hailed of actors in film history. Lahr’s bold description runs “he was a beautiful specimen: mercurial, brooding and rampant… Brando's acting style was the performing equivalent of jazz. The notes were there but Brando played them in a way that was uniquely personal to him.” Williams’ family and upbringing were the shadow that darkened the whole of the playwright’s life. Of his mother Lahr writes “Edwina wasn't just a talker: she was a narrative event, a torrent of vivid, cadenced, florid and confounding speech that could not be denied. Eloquence was a show of power amid her powerlessness...Edwina's wall of words was intended to keep the world at attention and at bay.”

The Lahr acuity is as dependably good on the work as the life. Blanche Dubois is possessed of “a strung-out sense of collapse and neediness that the character shared with her author.” Of Serafina in “the Rose Tattoo” “her abiding passion, it turns out, is a passion for ignorance. Instead of making love, Serafina makes scenes.” Of the play that made the best film “Suddenly Last Summer” was a sort of autobiographical exorcism that worked through Williams’s grief and guilt over his sister Rose.”

Lahr, the writer of theatre, opens with a dramatic flourish. Whereas conventionally ordered biographies commence with origins and antecedents “Tennessee Williams” plunges straight into the drama of an opening night. The date is 31st March 1945, the location the Playhouse Theatre on New York City’s Forty-eight Street. The writing has a vividness of detail that sets the tone for the six hundred and two pages of text that follow.

Interleaved between the wealth of detail on life and work there is material here to educate the writer for theatre. The early artistic goal was to combine lyricism with realism. When Williams resolved in his early twenties to become a playwright his experience of theatre was scant. He had “not seen more than two or three professional productions: touring companies that passed through the South and Middle West”. When he was professionally produced he confessed “Probably no man has ever written for the theatre with less foreknowledge of it.”

But his instincts and approach, if formally untutored, were correct. “I begin with a character in a situation- a vague one. If I have a problem I invent people in parallel circumstances, create parallel tensions.” That is drama, the devising of overt, and more importantly covert, tensions. In an age where some commentary distrusts, even often dislikes, a script Williams knew that words were just platform for image. “I see each scene, in fact every movement and inflection, as vividly as if it were happening right in front of me” he is quoted in a letter to David Selznick
the Boston Globe commenting “the play gives the audience the sensation of having been dumped in mire”. But praise for “the Night of the Iguana” is universal.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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