John Lahr is a respected critic and biographer and in his latest book, a definitive life of Tennessee Williams, he has outdone himself in giving us a completely readable and somewhat provocative re-telling of a story that is almost as bizarre as any of the Williams plays and just as compelling. Like Allen Shawn, Lahr takes the line that the work is an important and central aspect of and also reflection of the life. There are plenty of backstage stories that can amuse or shock, but this biography gave me much pleasure mainly because of its concentration on telling how each work was written and produced; it places each work in the context not only of the life of Williams but also in that of the contemporary culture. The anecdotes about the putting on of plays like The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, let alone The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More (Tallulah Bankhead and Tab Hunter created the parts played by Taylor and Burton later in the film Boom!) are worth the price of admission alone. That said, the glory of this book is that it is a fine, extremely sensitive and utterly sympathetic view of a man who was troubled but a remarkable magnet for affection and friendship; as well as in the portraits of his friends and colleagues, including Laurette Taylor, Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando. It’s good to find out where many of the Williams characters grew from in his life; but it’s even better to come away from a book caring so much for the protagonist and having such understanding for this turbulent, troubled and immensely gifted personality and how it fed into the creation of one of the most important bodies of theatrical work of the last century. Through letters, diaries and interviews, Lahr has recreated the life of a fascinating playwright and also thrown a spotlight on some of the ways things worked on Broadway and in Hollywood not so long ago. The book is extremely well-written, thoroughly researched and a damned good read.
I think what links these three books for me is not only the sense of learning more about the background of three very interesting people involved in the worlds of theatre, classical music and film; but above all a sense of getting to know more about them in ways that explain why they and their work are to be respected and even admired.