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John Lahr delves into “treasure trove of Williams material” for new biography, “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh”

By Marlene Renz

Cover of John Lahr’s “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.”
Cover of John Lahr’s “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.”

John Lahr, a renowned theater critic who wrote for The New Yorker for more than two decades, took up the task of continuing to record and analyze Tennessee Williams’s life in 2007.  In Lahr’s new biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (Norton), he 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 a 2011 visit to the Harry Ransom Center, which houses and extensive collection of  Williams’s papers, including original manuscripts.

 

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, which has been nominiated for a National Book Award, was released today.  To read more about the book and its reviews, visit John Lahr’s website.

 

In a Q&A with Cultural Compass, 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. The book, which has just been shortlisted for the National Book Award, seems to have met a need for the public for a change in narrative about Williams, to see the man and his work with a new lens.

 

In this biography you sought to avoid capitalizing on the sensationalism of Williams’s public life.  How useful were primary sources in helping keep an objective perspective?

In my other biographies, I had primary sources to hand. For Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr, I had my father to depose and the experience of a lifetime of living with him; in Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton, I had exclusive use of Joe Orton’s diary of the last eight months of his life as a backbone of the narrative; in Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilization: Backstage with Barry Humphries, I was backstage with him at the Drury Lane Theatre and on the road. With Williams, my tactic was to stay as close to his words and what he wrote at the time of writing each play to get a sense of the man and to give the reader the pulse of his metabolism. His published diaries, his published letters (which only go up to 1957), and the remaining correspondence of nearly a quarter of a century to which I had access formed the primary source for my narrative. I think of this as a sort of “global positioning device” for the interpretation both of the plays and the man.

 

Do you recall if there was 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 Roderiguez, telling him in later life to walk tall in the world.

 

 

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In the galleries: Stella Adler’s notes on Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie

In the Galleries: “Love and Relationships”

In the galleries: The “Ruins of a Play” evolve into “The Glass Menagerie”

In the galleries: “Girls! Girls! Girls! Did You Marry Your First ‘Gentlemen Caller’?”

 

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Dramaturg uses archival materials to edit new version of Tennessee Williams play for production at The Old Vic

By Abigail Cain

Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich star in The Old Vic's production of "Sweet Bird of Youth."
Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich star in The Old Vic's production of "Sweet Bird of Youth."

Dramaturg James Graham admits he had barely heard of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth before starting work on the play. Alongside Williams’s other works—including Pulitzer Prize winners A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof—the difficult script often fades into the background.

This summer The Old Vic in London is bringing Sweet Bird of Youth to center stage. The play, which follows professional gigolo Chance Wayne and aging Hollywood star Alexandra Del Lago, exists in countless forms. Williams spent over 15 years writing and rewriting the play; some versions conclude with the characters alive and well, others with them dead. Entire acts that were slashed from earlier versions are later revived as Williams struggled to get it right.

Dramaturging involves editing and analyzing an existing text, and in the case of Sweet Bird of Youth, this task was especially difficult. Although many theaters select a single version of the play to perform, Graham instead wove together the different versions to make a cohesive whole. As part of his research, he spent time with the Williams collection at the Ransom Center in early 2013 reading through drafts of the play.

“Following [Williams’s] brain was an adventure—insertions, appendices, and keys leave a trail,” Graham said. “Seeing the names of his characters evolve, as Delphine became Valerie became Heavenly, and Phil Beam elevated to the more heroic-sounding Chance Wayne. I noted his coffee stains and allowed myself to imagine the smell of cigarette smoke wafting from the page.”

The Ransom Center’s collection is one of the principal archives of Williams’s works. The Center acquired the author’s own papers between 1962 and 1969, which document his career through more than 1,000 separately titled plays, poems, and short stories, along with correspondence and newspaper clippings. In 1964, the Center purchased the correspondence between Williams and his literary agent Audrey Wood. Then, in 1965, the collection expanded with the acquisition of family papers from his mother.

Sweet Bird of Youth, starring Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich and directed by Marianne Elliott, premiered on June 1 and will run through August 31 at The Old Vic in London.

Watch a scene from the production.

From the Outside In: Typescript of "The Member of the Wedding," Carson McCullers, ca. 1946

By Edgar Walters

Typescript of "The Member of the Wedding."
Typescript of "The Member of the Wedding."

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows

Carson McCullers sets the scene for her stage adaptation of The Member of the Wedding in this typescript page from her papers, held at the Harry Ransom Center. Here begins the story of Frankie Addams, a lonely 12-year-old girl who wants to find a place to belong—her “we of me”—by joining with her older brother and his bride. As you stand looking at this window, a portrait of McCullers herself can be seen not far away in the glass surrounding the Ransom Center’s northwest atrium.

Carson McCullers (1917–1967) is considered one of the significant American writers of the twentieth century. She is often compared to her contemporaries, the Southern female authors Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Katherine Ann Porter. McCullers, however, transcends the “Southern gothic” genre in her novels, plays, and short stories with their universal themes of loneliness and isolation. Her work is notable for its keenly observed cast of misfit characters.

McCullers’s body of work consists of five novels, two plays, 20 short stories, more than two dozen nonfiction pieces, a book of children’s verse, a small number of poems, and an unfinished autobiography. She is best known for her novels The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The Ballad of the Sad Café, Reflections in a Golden Eye, and The Member of the Wedding, all published between 1940 and 1946. At least four of her works have been made into films.

Soon after the 1946 publication of McCullers’s fourth novel, The Member of the Wedding, she began work on a dramatic adaptation. The project was interrupted by the first of a series of strokes that left the writer paralyzed on her left side, but in 1948 she completed the adaptation while staying with her friend Tennessee Williams in Nantucket. McCullers’s theatrical adaptation of the novel opened on Broadway in 1950 to near unanimous acclaim, and it enjoyed a run of 501 performances. The adaptation proved to be her most successful work, commercially and critically. It won the 1950 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play of the Season and the Donaldson Awards for Best Play and Best First Play by an Author.

During the final 15 years of her life, McCullers’s health and creative abilities declined. Her second play, The Square Root of Wonderful, closed after only 45 performances on Broadway in 1957, and her final novel, Clock Without Hands, drew mixed reviews. She died in 1967 after suffering a cerebral stroke.

In 1975 the Ransom Center acquired a comprehensive collection of McCullers’s materials, including drafts, revisions, translations, and adaptations of her works, as well as correspondence, photographs, and even personal objects such as her cigarette lighter.

Ransom Center volunteer Katherine McGhee wrote this post.

Stella Adler scholar explores acting master's interpretation of great American playwrights

By Emily Neie

Cover of "Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights" (Knopf) by Barry Paris
Cover of "Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights" (Knopf) by Barry Paris

“Mommy, is that God?” a little girl once whispered to her mother as Stella Adler swept into a party in New York City. The girl’s mistake was understandable: Adler was known as a presence of divine proportions, a tall, glamorous woman whose grand gestures and dramatic one-liners captivated audiences both large and small. Adler began acting at age four in the “Independent Yiddish Art Company,” run by her parents, and continued her acting career until 1961. In 1931, Adler joined the Group Theatre, where she worked closely with Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg.

In 1934, she went with Clurman to Paris to study with Constantin Stanislavski, an acting great famous for developing the Stanislavski System, a set of acting techniques that was tweaked by Strasberg and is known today as Method acting. Adler believed strongly that actors should use their imagination to synthesize characters, whereas Strasberg relied on emotional memory exercises, and the two eventually split over their differences. Adler left the Group Theatre and later opened her own acting school, The Stella Adler Studio of Acting, in 1949 in New York City, where she taught famous actors such as Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro. She opened another school, The Stella Adler Academy of Acting, in Los Angeles in 1985 with her friend and protégé Joanne Linville, who continues to run the school today.

The Ransom Center hold Adler’s papers, which were used extensively by Barry Paris in his book Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights (Knopf). The volume peeks into Adler’s classroom and explores the acting master’s take on American playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Clifford Odets, and others.

The book was put together using transcripts from Adler’s script analysis classes, where lively discussions of American culture, socioeconomics, and history fleshed out the context of the plays—a practice on which Adler placed the utmost importance. Adler once said of the great artists featured in the book: “these playwrights all saw what was wrong.” She believed it was imperative for the actor not only to bring personal experience to the role, but to truly understand the beliefs, prejudices, and lives of the playwrights who crafted the plays she taught. Peter Bogdanovich, one of Adler’s former students, praised the book for “bring[ing] back the sound of Stella’s unique voice and thought processes, as well as her own particular vision.”

Paris, the book’s editor, did extensive research in the Ransom Center’s holdings on Stella Adler and Harold Clurman.