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Tony Kushner and John Lahr in conversation at the 92nd Street Y. (Photo ©2014 Nancy Crampton)
Tony Kushner and John Lahr in conversation at the 92nd Street Y. (Photo ©2014 Nancy Crampton)

In Conversation: Tony Kushner and John Lahr Talk Tennessee Williams

Tony Kushner talks with John Lahr about his new biography of Tennessee Williams, and what the playwright’s declining later years say about his art—and about America.

Critic and author John Lahr’s critically lauded biography Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (W.W. Norton & Company) was published earlier this year. Lahr was joined in late September by award-winning playwright Tony Kushner at New York City’s 92nd Street Y for a public discussion about the book’s treatment of Williams’s increasingly erratic life and work during his later years. Here are excerpts from their conversation, selected and edited by Ben Kaplan.

TONY KUSHNER: I love the way that the book delves into and honors both Williams’s process of writing and the writing itself. The structure proceeds not so much from biographical event to event, but rather from play to play—and you make that seem as though it’s also the way his life was structured. Was it a surprise to you that his work often exactly mirrored what Tennessee was going through?

JOHN LAHR: That was the challenge. Williams said that he was an irrevocably divided person, that he worked out his problems by creating a simulacrum, and then expressing and trying to understand himself that way. And it struck me, especially with the publication of the letters and the notebooks, that the plays reflected the man just as the man reflected the plays. You could chart his interior. The debate, and the fight internally that he fought until the end of his life between creativity and self-destruction, changed over time, as he changed.

KUSHNER: You quote him as saying that if he made a pie chart of his life, 89 percent of his life was about work…

LAHR: …10 percent was a fight against madness, and 2 percent was loyalty to friends. And that got smaller!

KUSHNER: As did the number of friends—and then you would have to have a whole other pie chart for the sex and the drugs and the booze.

LAHR: The only thing he cared about in life was his work. As he famously said, “For love I make characters.” In focusing on the work, and the struggle to make the work, and the price he paid for that output, you are focusing on his best self. But, in another way, I think it would be fair to argue that Williams’s career represents the brilliance of American individualism, and in his decline, to a certain extent, the barbarity of it. I’ve always thought of him as a metaphor of America in the 20th century: In pursuit of his absolute greatness, he does this amazing thing, and gets lost in it.

KUSHNER: I went into a tailspin towards the end of the book, because it’s so heartbreaking. What I think is true about him—and I’ve never seen it put this way before—is that because he was mining himself, his self, so endlessly, at some point what you call a kind of calcification of the heart manifests itself, and the self-mining becomes a kind of self-devouring, self-cannibalism, even; the business of putting your self and your inner life on stage over and over becomes a form of self-consumption.

LAHR: Absolutely. Oscar Wilde said that the artistic life is a long, lovely suicide, and I think Williams personifies the problem. He found himself blocked by the enormous success of those early plays— his word for the experience of his fame was “sunstroke”—and he started to drink. I think it really was a Faustian thing, that he needed to drink to get back in touch with his unconscious—the green world. But then he realized that that drunkenness—that sense of collapse—was his subject. So he pushed himself farther and farther through drugs and drink, to the precipice, so that he could look at it. His success meant that he would kill himself—he died essentially for the work that we are discussing.

KUSHNER: Does the brilliant individual inevitably slide into barbarism? Much of your career has been spent thinking about other artists. You’re clearly interested in the individual personality, the individual and the ego that creates a work of art. You once said that the whole history of the American musical is the staging of the drama of the individual. The shadow of Tennessee’s grim personal life hangs over the work, all of it—so you have to wonder what it was that made it inevitable that this guy would wind up in this race between self-expression and self-destruction, with the latter triumphing, as your book makes scarily clear.

LAHR: It’s a fascinating conundrum: If you have the ability to be great, how do you negotiate serving your talent and being a good person living in the world? Esteem is awarded on evidence, and so the famous, in order to keep fame, have to keep producing. So they’re caught in this terrible bind of output; and when you read Williams’s diaries and letters, the guy who’s writing eight hours a day for all his life—I mean, it just never stops—he was exhausted. Part of the tragedy for me is that he began to lose contact with his unconscious, to trust it. And when it didn’t produce success, then he distrusted it.

KUSHNER: You had said earlier that there was a sense that the writing was there to both explore this inner pain and turmoil, and also to some degree to protect him from it.

LAHR: To get it out.

KUSHNER: It sort of vomited forth, and the intimate connection between his agony inside, the guilt, and the rejection by both parents, and the whole horror of what happened to his sister—between that pain and his writing, and the writing as a way of controlling pain—all that may have been part of what made him very great; but it also made him a graphomaniac—he just produced this endless stream of writing. Even critics were saying, “He’s got a lot of money, why doesn’t he go off somewhere and breathe for a while and think?” And he couldn’t do it.

LAHR: Taking a psychoanalytic model, his family was at war, and he and his brother and sister were startled witnesses at this terrible bloodbath of a marriage; I think his whole life was spent trying to parse and understand the nuances of all that agony and mania and wrath.

KUSHNER: But why, in this lifelong crisis of staging himself, making his life and work the spectacle of the rise and fall of the individual…well, let’s talk a bit about Tennessee and politics. One of the things I didn’t know until I read your book was this weird flirtation with the antiwar movement in the early ’70s, after he was introduced to it by Dotson Rader, an activist and writer for The Nation.

LAHR: It didn’t last very long.

KUSHNER: It didn’t last long, but for this weird brief moment, Tennessee was hooked, showing up at an anti-war rally…

LAHR: Dotson was his pathfinder to the chic downtown world. He introduced him to all these people, and Williams loved it. He liked the youth, he emotionally identified with renegades, he was against the capitalists, and was generally for the outsiders and the fugitives and the bohemians, so he went along.

KUSHNER: He said it in a speech you quote in your book: “I’m too old to march with you, but I’ll be marching on paper.” So you feel it’s not going to succeed, his involvement in communal struggle. But it’s a tantalizing “what-if” moment. What if, instead of focusing entirely on his individual self, reflecting on his own individual internal mishegas and projecting that onstage, creating these landscapes that are always in some ways interior landscapes—what if, especially at this juncture, when he’s really falling apart, he’d found another way to think about life, about his inner concerns and about the world?

The big dialectic in Williams is loneliness versus relatedness, and relatedness—the ability to love, the ability to connect sexually, emotionally, romantically, with friendship, in other words, to form communities and act collectively—is the great antithesis to the isolating, destructive forces that visit barbarism on the weak or turn the weak into barbarians.

LAHR: You watch his struggle with that in his life, and it’s a losing battle. And that’s tragic. It’s interesting, because in his very first interview to the New York Times, he was unguarded, untried— but he learned very quickly not to tell the truth to the Times or to anybody else. He said, “You know, I don’t need people very much—I’m friendly and I like company, but anybody will do. I just sort of like people who will help me.” It’s a jaw-dropping admission, a sense of deep unbridgeable separation from the body politic.

KUSHNER: That moment you write about so beautifully, with Chance Wayne at the end of Sweet Bird of Youth, where the character says, “I’ll stay here, not go to Hollywood, looking for fake meaning. Instead I’ll stay and face castration and death because life has to mean something.” And that’s the choice—life is horror, generated by the catastrophes your neurotic self plunges into, or its meaningless. Torture, mutilation and death are the only meaning he can see. I had this pang when I was reading about this tragicomic flirtation with the antiwar movement; there was this possibility, and it was right after he had gotten out of the asylum, and he’d dried up to some degree—a moment of looking for meaning somewhere other than this black hole in his soul he was sinking into.

LAHR: He wasn’t a political playwright, he just wasn’t.

KUSHNER: It’s tantalizing for me as a gay man, this moment that he begins to pay some attention to the existence of the political, because it’s immediately after Stonewall, right at the beginning of the new movement for gay liberation.

LAHR: I think he was treated by the gay activist world as a dead letter. And Tennessee’s answer to that was, “Look, I was like the granddaddy of you fellas.”

KUSHNER: You remind us that his version of Proust’s Baron de Charlus in Camino Real is the first time any American playwright put an explicitly gay character on stage.

LAHR: He was brave, and he fought the good fight, but he had to fight it obliquely, given the commercial and emotional constraints of the time.

KUSHNER: One of the most exciting and valuable parts of the book is your precisely detailed, insightful parsing of his relationship with Elia Kazan—the way in which Kazan took this genius’s disorganized, somewhat inchoate mass production of material, and helped him find a dramatically effective shape to it.

LAHR: Kazan and Williams were quite alike: They both had oppressive families, they both were fiercely ambitious and true to their art form, they both—and this is really important for understanding Williams, and vice versa—believed that promiscuity was an aid to their creative life, because sexuality was the beginning of knowledge, and also of curiosity. In our moralistic culture that idea is misread and misinterpreted, but that was the reality, and that brought them together. Kazan would say, “Tennessee, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, you cannot show this to anybody! I’m not going to direct this play, until you do more work on it.” Nobody could talk to Tennessee like that.

KUSHNER: The way that Kazan writes to him is astonishing—it’s amazingly blunt! And brilliantly incisive!

LAHR: It’s just vigorous and in-your-face. Look at the body of Tennessee’s work in the ’50s, including Rose Tattoo, which Kazan didn’t direct, but which, nonetheless, Tennessee rewrote from the outline that Kazan made. Kazan took the complete mess of Camino Real, which is just a canasta-hand of scenes, and melded them together into something that was coherent.

KUSHNER: But Tennessee played a very dangerous game with Kazan, with their friendship, especially after Cat, when he constantly publically accused Kazan of commercializing and betraying his writing. You quote this article in the New York Times, after Kazan had dropped out of Period of Adjustment and their working relationship ended, in which Tennessee admits that Kazan never commercialized his plays—he said that everything Kazan did made his plays better. And in the same article, when they asked Kazan to comment on that, he said, “He should have said that a lot earlier.”

LAHR: Every major person who was there for Tennessee, who really helped him and supported him, he betrayed. It’s a facet of a self-destructive personality.

KUSHNER: It really struck me that in both Cat and in Sweet Bird of Youth, Kazan’s notes to Tennessee are: You’re losing sight of the main thing we’re watching, which in Kazan’s opinion in Cat is Brick, and in Bird is Chance. I wondered if this suggests that part of Tennessee’s struggle with and divorce from Kazan, an unacknowledged aspect of it, was Kazan pushing his focus back over and over to the male protagonist? I remember after she learned she wasn’t playing Blanche in the film of Streetcar, Jessica Tandy warned Tennessee that Kazan and Hollywood would try to make the film about Stanley. I guess I’m asking if there’s something in this about gender politics, maybe something that speaks to a gender issue with single-point perspective, the focus that Kazan champions. Tennessee seemed to have an impulse to let the play wander, dramaturgically.

LAHR: All I can say is that Kazan had this structural genius that Tennessee didn’t have. I don’t think it was a gender thing. I mean, what is the first gesture of Streetcar?

KUSHNER: When Stanley comes in and throws the meat.

LAHR: Right, the first thing Stanley does is throw meat to Stella, and the stage direction says it’s red. So it’s carnality. And to me, Williams’s story is that he actually reinvented himself as a carnal being. He went from being an ascetic hysteric to this florid gay man, and that was his accomplishment. It’s more a debate about Romanticism, and asserting this myth of sexual transcendence, making a god of the self and the sexual self.

KUSHNER: It’s sort of like the moth and the light bulb: Sex is what Romantics desire and what burns them up. The moths, the Blanches, keep flying into the light bulb, over and over, until…

LAHR: Blanche is seeking somebody to destroy her. The life force versus the death force, the central battle psychically inside Williams, is there from the beginning, and what we see for the rest of the oeuvre is Williams’s losing battle to engage it, to try to hold it at bay. And finally, he has to surrender.

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