Theatre in Wales

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Tennessee Williams Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (part 2)

Theatre Writer Book

John Lahr , Bloomsbury , November-27-15
Theatre Writer Book by John Lahr The director link is critical. Tim Price has written of his crucial indebtedness to Hamish Pirie for the making-real of his own work. Elia Kazan had worked with Miller, Wilder and Steinbeck but it was with Tennessee Williams that he meshed best. “It was a mysterious harmony; by all visible signs we were as different as two humans could be” said Kazan “Our union, immediate on first encounter, was close but unarticulated. It lasted the rest of his life.”

Lahr, unlike the last undignified biographer of Richard Burton, is not fixated on numbers or money but both drop into the text intermittently. Williams accrued considerable wealth very fast. His relationship with film was patchy. Of “the Glass Menagerie” the New York Times wrote “it comes perilously close to sheer buffoonery in some of its most fragile scenes.” But, after the small uproar that surrounded “Baby Doll”, MGM offered him a flat half million dollars.

However, the most telling numbers are those of the productions. Other American playwrights feature in the book. In Britain Clifford Odets is revived occasionally. Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” is impressive and attracted Alan Alda to London but William Inge is unknown to a new generation.

In 2000 there were two hundred and forty-six productions of the Williams plays worldwide. In 2011 the number had risen to three hundred and nine. Lahr is clear why. “Williams made characters so large they became part of American folklore. Blanche, Stanley, Big Daddy, Brick, Amanda and Laura transcend their stories.” When he faltered, as in “Orpheus Descending” it was because, said the New Yorker, “the people in it aren’t really terribly interesting.” There is a moral for new writers- watch theatre, enjoy film but do not be led by it, write big, be big.

The book and the life swirl with people. Montgomery Cliff, Jessica Tandy and Kim Hunter invade the writer’s apartment after first success. On the first trip to Europe his hotel room in Paris sees visits by Garbo, Cocteau, Barrault. In the nineteen-sixties the counter-culture is prominent: Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, Abbie Hoffman, William Kunstler, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger are all here.

But the intimate life was disordered and inconstant, social relationships often instrumental. “I’m gregarious and like to be around people, but almost anybody will do” says Williams “I prefer people who can help me in some way or another.”

Lahr as a theatre writer embraces the whole of theatre’s ecology. He knows the producer unhappy at seeing his audience who arrives for the night soaking wet. He knows that a drenched audience is likely to be an unhappy audience. Lahr makes his own judgments but cites the critics of the time economically. The first play had 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.

No playwright can survive critically decade on decade. Come the era of Grotowski, the Living Theatre, Ionescu and Life Magazine is writing “Williams is looking into the rearview mirror. Other playwrights have progressed: Williams has suffered an infantile regression.” In 1972 the same paper publishes an article on gay writers in concealment. Williams responds in the pages of the Village Voice: “I’ve nothing to conceal. Homosexuality isn’t the theme of my plays. They’re about all human relationships. I’ve never faked it.” Lahr adds that if Williams’ early goal was “the emancipation of desire and the celebration of the wild at heart” then the world of theatre had caught up with its trailblazer.

The book is a weighty seven hundred and sixty-six pages after chronology, notes and index. Twelve years in the making many of those in the acknowledgments- Sidney Lumet, Arthur Miller, Herman Arrow- are no more. The paperback edition of 2015 is a thick small brick not easy to hold. The price of the hardback edition of 2104 has now dropped to the same price as the paperback and is the better option.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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