‘Hell has descended on me’ wrote Tennessee William’s from his cot in Touro Infirmary: ‘retribution for all my misdoings and the things undone’. The celebrity playwright in 1953 had reached the crest of his misery; already suffering from psychological distress, alcoholism, gender confusion and paranoia as well as the physical agony of ‘thrombosed haemorrhoids’. William’s, at this stage, was in the heat of his success; by 1953, the playwright had already revolutionised American theatre, having published both Street Car Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie the crème of his work.
However the early success of William’s career was only to be eclipsed by crisis and heartbreak till his death in 1983. Indeed William’s, himself, was all too aware of the tragic impact that his fame had had upon his personal life, a fact made explicit in his famous essay The Catastrophe of Success, in which William’s attached his many psychological difficulties and emotional problems to ‘the Bitch Goddess’ fame.
The Catastrophe of Success – and its poignancy in William’s own life – forms the cornerstone of John Lahr’s epic biography Tennessee Williams’s: Made Pilgrimage of the Flesh, in which the poetic calamities of William’s life after his youthful success become a captivating story in themselves.
Lahr’s biography is without doubt the most comprehensive study on Tennessee Williams to date. The monstrous volume is an intimidating 600-page exposition of this fiercely complicated character, complete with scandalous revelations about William’s romantic life, as well as delving into the emotional instability that inspired characters such as Tom from Glass Menagerie and Street Car Named Desire’s Blanche.
The narrative of Williams’ life is rolled out as a sort of part comic, part tragic story, episodically interrupted with descriptions and textual inferences of his plays and short stories. Throughout the descriptions of lavish parties, bustling with the artistic elite and holidays in Europe with his literary contemporaries, Williams’ is depicted as simultaneously gratified and neurotically insecure within himself and his own work; a feeling that Lahr stresses more and more the further into Williams’s life that we travel.
For a biography to have its desired effect of rekindling one’s interest and love in any given profile, there must always be fresh angle explored or area examined that presents a different character to the one commonly known. For Lahr, this area is the affinity that Williams had with his difficult characters. The complicated life of such an esteemed playwright is suddenly made simple. Indeed, the book finds its structure and form through the characters that impressed upon the audience the emotional depth and authenticity that gave Williams his fame.