John Lahr mines "treasure trove of Williams material" for new biography
John Lahr's new biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (Norton), draws upon his subject's plays, letters, and even his own experience of meeting the writer to give readers greater insight into the complicated mind of one of America's greatest playwrights. His research included visits to the Harry Ransom Center, which houses an extensive collection of Williams's papers, including original manuscripts. Lahr's biography was shortlisted for the National Book Award this fall.
Lahr discusses how he stayed true to Williams by spending time with primary sources, including items in the Ransom Center's holdings.
Was there a particular aspect of Williams's life or work that you were particularly drawn to?
So much new primary source material—diaries, letters—had been published about Williams since the first biography was written, that I felt a new narrative was needed to tell the story with a deeper sense of event, and a surer knowledge of the internal issues with which Williams was struggling. Also, the plays needed to be interpreted not just recapitulated. Williams always said the plays were a map of his internal life at the time of the writing. My goal was to chart the trajectory of the mutation of Williams's consciousness, to show how the plays reflected the man and how the man re-presented his internal turmoil in his plays.
Was there a particular item that you found interesting?
The Ransom Center is a treasure trove of Williams material, so it's really impossible to say which item was more revelatory. For me, I think the letter from his institutionalized sister Rose ("I'm trying hard not to die") and the typing lessons which the blighted Rose, who never in the end held a job, were scorching. Miss Edwina, her mother, had her typing Puritan platitudes about the blessings of work and rigor and attainment—a regimen that finally helped to drive her crazy. And of Williams, there is a beautiful valedictory letter to his first real companion, Pancho Rodriguez, telling him in later life to walk tall in the world.