The Guardian has called it “compulsively readable.” Dame Helen Mirren has said it to be a “masterpiece.” On Thursday’s “St. Louis on the Air,” host Don Marsh spoke with prolific theatre critic John Lahr about his biography of St. Louis’ famous playwright, Tennessee Williams, which was released in paperback earlier this month. Turns out, Tennessee Williams was not as fond of claiming St. Louis as St. Louis is of claiming him.
“He loathed it because he had such a miserable childhood here,” said Lahr. “His family was at war, literally, drove their children crazy. One, as everyone knows, Rose, who had one of the earliest pre-frontal lobotomies and Tennessee, who was not crazy then was certainly very handicapped by the constant battle between the parents, his mother’s frigidity and his father’s violence. It was a recipe for disaster and it was.”
Lahr said Williams referred to St. Louis as “St. Pollution.” At the same time, he used the awful memories of his boyhood home as fuel for characters and themes in his plays, such as “The Glass Menagerie” and “Streetcar Named Desire,” which would later become part of the classic American theatre canon.
“Tennessee said that he wanted to paint a picture of his heart and that his plays were a picture of that heart at the time of that writing,” Lahr said. “As his heart flowered, blossomed, atrophied and declined, the plays really reflect this internal shift in him. They’re, one, long. He wrote 70 plays, and they are astoundingly astute and uncanny in how he could imagine problems that he had and then reconfigure them in stories. If you read the plays, you see his moral and imaginative transformation as he declines.”
In Williams, the battles for life and death were always in contention, said Lahr. When taken as a whole, he says, “The plays represent a landscape of American individualism.” The self, transformation of the self, desire and yearning were predominant themes in Williams’ work and transformed modern American theatre in the way few other playwrights did.
Lahr, the son of actor Bert Lahr, who played the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz,” said he didn’t realize how his childhood would prepare him to both review and write about writers and actors in his career.
“I realize now how I always had a perception of the difference between a person’s public persona and their private persona, because my father, who was sensationally fabulous on stage was sensationally morose off of it,” said Lahr.
This background well prepared Lahr for the task of applying meaning to the varied and confusing life of Williams.
“As a writer, the narrative challenge [of Tennessee William’s life] is hard,” Lahr said. “You have a public life, a private life and this extraordinary body of work, which includes the plays, 70 he wrote, and an awful lot of very good poems and short stories. You’re juggling the work, the man, and the celebrity. And also, as a biographer, you have to impose an interpretation on all of this. My game is putting the writer’s work into the context of culture and to impose meaning.”
Lahr actually met Williams while working on a revival of “Camino Real” at Lincoln Center in the 1970s. He said that he was taken aback at the realization that Williams was so drunk he had to be lifted into the theatre to see the production of his work. He became further immersed in learning about Williams’ life as the New Yorker’s drama critic in the early 1990s. It was there he began work on the biography, which took 12 years to write. Lahr’s book won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography in 2014 and was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Lahr’s next book is called “Joy Ride: Show People and Their Shows” and takes readers behind-the-scenes of contemporary dramatists’ creation process. You can also hear Lahr speak this afternoon at Washington University.
2015 Helen Clanton Morrin Lecture, Washington University Performing Arts Department
When: Oct. 1, 4 p.m.
Where: Ann W. Olin Women's Building Formal Lounge.
"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.