In Mad Pilgrimage of the flesh, John Lahr’s critical eye is both his blessing and his curse. His direct and unsparing eye to the details of Tennesse Williams career is compelling. He gives detailed arguments about the origins and production histories of the big plays (The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo, Camino Real, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof) and why they still matter. His arguments for why his drug addiction, paranoia and self pity ended his partnerships with Elia Kazan and Audrey Wood are convincing, and yet he still makes cases for why a few of the later plays (The Gnadigues Fraulein, View Carre, A House Not Meant To Stand) endure as works.
Focused on his life, however, Lahr resorts to a withering moralism that in the end seems more than a little harsh. An Alcholic who later became addicted to pills, speed, and cocaine, Williams was no day at the beach as a person. The details of his life, however, show a soul that really only hurt himself, and throughout every bender, binge and broken relationship Lahr cannot convince the reader to be as mad at Williams’ actions as he is. His complicated relationship with Frank Merlo-in which each gave as good as they got in the drama department-isn’t going to make anyone forget Ted Hughes, VS Napaiul’s vicious abuse of his first wife, or any of the women that Derek Walcott beat or sexually harassed. Lahr’s discovery of Pancho Rodriguez, the man Williams’ patterned Stanley Kowalski after, pays too little attention to that fact that Rodriguez brutally beat him.
It is the Williams of Lyle Leverich’s Tom-the badly abused child, the survivor, the poet haunted by the sheer amount of trauma he saw as a boy and had to endure as a gay man-that hangs over “Pilgrimage”, as every detailed drug episode and public meltdown seems less like cases made for outrage and more judgments over a badly wounded animal. “In his single-minded pursuit of greatness, Williams exhausted himself and lost his way ” Lahr writes toward the end of the book. It’s greatest flaw is that Lahr, for all his lauding of the playwrights work, refused to entertain the idea that Williams had done-and suffered-more than enough.