Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Outsider Art of Tennessee

by Geoffrey O’Brien

New York Review of Books

October 23, 2014

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.


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