Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr - review by Richard Canning

Richard Canning

Laughter in the Dark

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh


Bloomsbury 765pp £30 order from our bookshop

‘The catastrophe of success’ was Tennessee Williams’s memorable response to his anointment as the undisputed – to Arthur Miller, ‘revolutionary’ – genius of American theatre, following the triumph on Broadway of The Glass Menagerie in 1945. The succinct phrase captures Williams’s temperament, which inclined towards paradox, and sometimes towards self-destructiveness. It also lays bare a naked, human truth: that success, ultimately, begets failure – or at best relative failure, by the very strength of the shadow cast by our highest achievements. Thomas Lanier Williams knew this as clearly aged thirty-four as he did later, when he saw himself, like Sisyphus, endlessly condemned to attempt the impossible – matching the creative force of his most celebrated works, which critics generally agree ended either with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955, Sweet Bird of Youth in 1959 or, most generous of all, The Night of the Iguana in 1961. (Even then, we have to take account of career missteps such as Camino Real in 1953 or the ridiculous cannibalistic plot of 1958’s Suddenly, Last Summer.)

There’s an agreeable wit in the coinage too, reminding us of something invariably overlooked in Williams’s nature: a dominant, all-encompassing, darkly subversive sense of humour. Famously, the dramatist was heard at the back of the theatre, laughing alone and uproariously at the climax of A Streetcar Named Desire, when the

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

The Incomparible Monsignor

Kafka Drawings

Follow Literary Review on Twitter