By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: John Lahr
Narration by: Elizabeth Ashley
John Lahr’s biography of Tennessee Williams reflects on amped masculinity. Williams’ life and writing expose the raw edges of a man’s perspective on love and sex.
Lahr’s biography of Williams only touches on femininity in his characterization of Maria Britneva. Williams’ life story transforms sexuality into a one-dimensional view of human relationship. The view is from the characterization of Williams’ libido by Lahr. This is not to say that Lahr does not cover a great deal more (almost too much) in his detailed biography but it is a striking subject in Williams’ tumultuous life.
Lahr explains Williams’ childhood as a battleground between an alcoholic father and an overweening mother. Williams’ father is a traveling shoe salesman and his mother is the daughter of an Episcopal Priest. Williams’ dad is often away from home but when he returns he is verbally and sometimes physically abusive. Williams’ mother barely tolerates the sexual demands of her husband and cleaves to a distorted view of sexual desire. The distortion is exacerbated by her priestly father’s inferred sexual deviance and his hyper religiosity.
Williams’ sister is lobotomized at the direction of her mother because of her rebellious nature. (The daughter, as a teenager, is said to have talked to her mother about using votary candles to masturbate.)
Williams’ younger brother, though rarely mentioned, becomes an attorney; is married to the same woman for 50 years, becomes a father of two daughters, and a grandfather.
Lahr suggests Tennessee, known as Tom in childhood, carries feelings of guilt about his sister’s fate. Tom fears his father but clings to his mother. Tensions in the house are heightened whenever Tom’s father comes home. Lahr argues that the dynamics of this fragile home life are fodder for Williams’ creative writing. A listener infers that Williams’ childhood is the seedbed for his flowering sexuality.
Lahr’s view of Williams’ transformation from Tom to Tennessee is shown in the immensely successful plays and film scripts written and produced for Broadway and the cinema. At times, Lahr tends to bore his audience with lesser known works like “The Rose Tattoo” but the dissection and integration of “The Glass Menagerie”, “A Streetcar Named Desire”, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, and “The Night of the Iguana” are fascinating. These four great plays and movies rip the covers off the male psyche. Williams ignores the differences between male and female sexuality to expose the selfishness of masculine intimacy. Every play, every film blooms out of Williams’ libido; i.e. a libido that exists in all men whether heterosexual, or homosexual.
A surprising and interesting sidelight to Lahr’s research for the biography is the role a director plays in taking Williams’ two greatest works, “…Streetcar…” and “Cat…” to Broadway and the big screen. This may not be true of all directors but it seems quite apparent as Lahr explains Elia Kazan and Williams’ collaboration; i.e. a collaboration that results in Pulitzer Prizes for “…Streetcar…” and “Cat…” Williams’ extraordinary insight to male sexuality is influenced by Kazan. Kazan does not write Williams’ scripts but he demands clarity of intent and meaning in earlier versions of Williams’ plays. It seems, at times, that Williams is unsure of his intent but Kazan through experience and Machiavellian manipulation stirs Williams’ imagination.
Williams is compelled to write and re-write his scripts. The collaboration reinforces the idea of sexual universality in men. Kazan is heterosexual and Williams is homosexual but each views and exhibits man as selfish and self-absorbed with sex as a product of personal pleasure; independent of love.
Lahr offers a glimpse of the world of male sexuality through the eyes of the famous, infamous, and unknown that touch Williams’ life. It is a picture that is, at turns, good, great, ugly, and terrible. Williams’ success and fame flower after WWII’s conflagration, with “The Glass Menagerie”. He refines “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” during the Red Scare of the 1950s. And finally, reaches a level of appreciation for women’s liberation in the 1960s with “The Night of the Iguana”.
Lahr’s biography of Williams raises the age-old question about fame and fortune. Is it the result of one person’s accomplishment or one person being in the right place at the right time? Williams is famous and successful but his revelations seem like recordings of the times as much as individual effort. Without the tempests of Williams’ lovers, the support of theatrical producers, the push of directors, and the acclaim of audiences, what fame would there have been; what fortunes would have been made? The magic of Williams’ writing comes from him but it is his relationship with others, and the context of society that moves his wand.
Lahr clearly makes the case for Williams’ creative ability. Williams’ ability to translate life into universal understanding of male sexuality makes him a genius. Though Williams was gay, he defines the raw edges of male sexuality; for that alone, he deserves fame and fortune. What is needed now is a biography of a woman who has successfully translated female sexuality as clearly as Lahr’s biography of “Tennessee Williams”. That biography may be out there but men are unlikely to give up their prejudices to read it; at least, in the foreseeable future; i.e. until then, men and women will undeservedly remain separate and unequal.
FILM “THE GLASS MENAGERIE”:
FILM “A STREET CAR NAMED DESIRE”:
FILM “CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF”: