Chattering Class

How Tennessee Williams Brought Poetry to Broadway

New Yorker writer John Lahr remembers one of the most significant writers of the 20th century -- and the opening night he probably preferred to forget.

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For over twenty years, John Lahr has been the senior drama critic for The New Yorker magazine. He’s also the Tony-winning co-author of the one-woman Broadway hit, “Elaine Stritch At Liberty” (among other plays and books). His latest project, out in the U.S. this week, is an exhaustive biography, “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.”  He gave Rico a primer on the playwright.


Rico Gagliano: John, welcome.

John Lahr: Thanks, nice to be here.

Rico Gagliano: I’m actually a relatively new student of Tennessee Williams’ work, so something I really liked about the book is learning about kind of the early failures, before the plays that have become required reading for theater and literature students. lahr usTell us about the opening night in Boston of Williams’ 1940 play “Battle of Angels,” which was supposed to go to Broadway.

John Lahr: It was probably the most famous fiasco of any opening, mainly because the ending of this play, which is a rather overheated southern drama —

Rico Gagliano: Almost literally!

John Lahr: — required the burning down of a building. And in the tech rehearsal, when it came time for the house to burn down, it was just a little smoke. The director said to the tech people, “Look, do what you have to do, give me a fire.”

Well, they sort of gave him a fire and a half.  So when the finale came, when things started to go up, the audience started to choke.  And as the actress was taking her final bow, people were literally running for the exits, thinking that the theater was on fire.

It was as famous a disaster as “Glass Menagerie” — his first Broadway play, the first play that got to Broadway — was a success.

Rico Gagliano: Right, just five years later, he debuts “Glass Menagerie” on Broadway. Arthur Miller is quoted in your book as saying it was a “revolution of New York theater.” Describe what the theater was like before that play, and how “Menagerie” changed it.

John Lahr: What Williams did, simply, was he brought poetry to the theater – and not just the poetry of language, but the poetry of the stage. Lighting, costumes, the interaction of that, the symbolic nature of color on the stage. He freed up the theater from its staged naturalism.

Don’t forget that the theater had just gone through a depression and a World War, so what you had, really, was a sort of staged naturalism. A kind of very gray, monochrome, unexpressive… it was journalistic. And then here comes Williams, who shows how to be both real and inside the mind of his characters. It’s very internal.

It’s very interesting, since you mentioned Miller, that the title “Death of a Salesman” — which couldn’t have been written without “Glass Menagerie” — was “Inside His Head.” That was the original working title.  And that’s where Williams’s revolution was. He was able to take an event which is real, and turn it into something that was real and at the same time symbolic.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, very psychological and internal as well.

You met Williams only once, in the 1970s…

John Lahr: That’s correct.

Rico Gagliano: ..My understanding is it wasn’t a wonderful moment.

John Lahr: At Lincoln Center, where I was briefly the literary manager, we revived “Camino Real” with Al Pacino as Kilroy, and Williams was “legless,” as we say. He literally had to be lifted into his chair.

Rico Gagliano: Because he was so doped up.

John Lahr: He was, as he said, a zombie. I mean, he was drugged and drunk. And when I met him backstage, I’m sure he couldn’t remember anything. But the play was well-received. He hadn’t had, in that period — which he called his ‘stoned age’ — many successes after 1965.

Rico Gagliano: Well, this is actually my question to you: starting in the mid-’60s, he was just ripped to shreds by critics…

John Lahr: Yes, and there was a wonderful play, I mean, a first-rate play, called “The Gnadiges Fraulein” which was done on Broadway in 1965. I was reviewing, I saw it. Terrific play. Badly directed and overproduced and the play failed. But the play, as a play… it’s playful, it’s funny. These critics, I’m afraid, they  were really piling on.

You’ve also got to remember that we were in the middle of [the Vietnam War] and Williams knew that his kind of play didn’t play well in war. His interest was solipsistic — he was self-involved, he was worried about the self. In the periods of war, you’re writing about the society. It wasn’t the right time for his sensibility.

Just as, conversely, it was the perfect time when “Glass Menagerie” came in 1945. America was now the leader of the Western world. People were now free to pursue – without a war, without a depression – to pursue their self interest. Williams’ plays are all about the self. They’re all about individualism and finding your pleasure and your desires – or having those frustrated.

Rico Gagliano: And in the ’70s in the middle of a war, that doesn’t play so well.

John Lahr: Yeah, ’60s and ’70s. And, as you say, rightly, the reviews were awful. And, you know, I’m a great fan of one of my favorite critics, Robert Brustein, who, one of his lines was “Williams should go to Three Mile Island with a one-way ticket.” I actually got an email from Bob a couple of days ago saying, “Did I write that? That was so cruel!” But there it was. He was written off. As Williams said, “I am frequently thought of as a dead playwright.” They had sort of consigned him to being dead, alive.

Rico Gagliano: Let me ask you: The book is 600 pages long, you had access to unprecedented piles of his letters, long interviews with people, so obviously —

John Lahr: Can I just say, Rico — it’s 600 pages, but 50 of those pages are beautiful pictures which are half-page at least!  So it’s not as big and awesome as that, come on! He is the most important playwright of the 20th century, give a guy a break!

Rico Gagliano: It’s an impressive tome is what I’m saying. Let’s say 550 pages.

John Lahr: Okay, that’s more like it!

Rico Gagliano: Obviously, even given that length, you can’t get every great quote or anecdote in there. What is a gem that you couldn’t squeeze in?

John Lahr: No, I got it all in!