Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A playwright named Enigma

New Yorker drama critic John Lahr has written a new biography of Tennessee Williams, who in the 50s and 60s was generally conceded to be the greatest living American playwright. It's a big book and deeply researched, and it starts off like gangbusters, but once Lahr gets around to the plays, things go wrong. Some biographies of artists wind up giving short shrift to their work, so I'm glad to have a volume that deals in criticism of Williams' plays and presents background about the production and reception of the plays. But Lahr winds up burying the reader in pages of lengthy quotes from letters between Williams and his directors and collaborators (usually Elia Kazan). He is using correspondence that has been largely unavailable for publication until recently--the backstory on the vagaries of the Williams literary estate is told, again in overwhelming detail, in the last chapter--so I understand his temptation to use the writings, which are quite candid, but we end up slogging through paragraph after paragraph of seemingly unedited letters that make the same point about the plays and productions over and over again.

The material on the major plays, including The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is interesting, though I would like to have had a bit more discussion of the movie versions, which are barely mentioned here even though Williams himself often worked on the screenplays. On occasion, Lahr spends so much time and effort on the rough birthing processes of the plays that the plot summaries or details about the actors suffer--I'm still vague on what happens in Orpheus Descending and Summer and Smoke, and aside from Laurette Taylor (Glass Menagerie) and Marlon Brando (Streetcar), the actors are definitely kept in the background.
Lahr approaches the plays from a psychological criticism viewpoint and that is helpful; I found it a particularly illuminating way to read the very odd Suddenly Last Summer and the late play Clothes for a Summer Hotel, which on the surface is about F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. A fairly full portrait of Williams from the outside is presented, yet I still came away from this book feeling like I didn't know what made Williams tick. Lahr does a nice job of bring some of Williams' friends to life, particularly the director Elia Kazan and William's partner Frank Merlo, and I enjoyed learning that one of Williams' companions later in life was a relative of Jack Nicklaus. I would recommend this, with the caveat that it bogs down in drowning detail in the last half. (BTW, the cover image above is of the British edition, which is a much better cover than the odd, gaudy, cheap-looking American cover.)