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Tennessee Williams

Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh

John Lahr (Author)


National Book Critics Circle Award Winner: Biography Category
National Book Award Finalist
2015 Winner of the Sheridan Morley Prize for Theatre Biography
American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award
A Chicago Tribune 'Best Books of 2014'
USA Today: 10 Books We Loved Reading
Washington Post, 10 Best Books of 2014

The definitive biography of America's greatest playwright from the celebrated drama critic of The New Yorker.

John Lahr has produced a theater biography like no other. Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh gives intimate access to the mind of one of the most brilliant dramatists of his century, whose plays reshaped the American theater and the nation's sense of itself. This astute, deeply researched biography sheds a light on Tennessee Williams's warring family, his guilt, his creative triumphs and failures, his sexuality and numerous affairs, his misreported death, even the shenanigans surrounding his estate.

With vivid cameos of the formative influences in Williams's life—his fierce, belittling father Cornelius; his puritanical, domineering mother Edwina; his demented sister Rose, who was lobotomized at the age of thirty-three; his beloved grandfather, the Reverend Walter Dakin—Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh is as much a biography of the man who created A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as it is a trenchant exploration of Williams’s plays and the tortured process of bringing them to stage and screen.

The portrait of Williams himself is unforgettable: a virgin until he was twenty-six, he had serial homosexual affairs thereafter as well as long-time, bruising relationships with Pancho Gonzalez and Frank Merlo. With compassion and verve, Lahr explores how Williams's relationships informed his work and how the resulting success brought turmoil to his personal life.

Lahr captures not just Williams’s tempestuous public persona but also his backstage life, where his agent Audrey Wood and the director Elia Kazan play major roles, and Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, Bette Davis, Maureen Stapleton, Diana Barrymore, and Tallulah Bankhead have scintillating walk-on parts. This is a biography of the highest order: a book about the major American playwright of his time written by the major American drama critic of his time.

Book Details

  • Paperback
  • September 2015
  • ISBN 978-0-393-35165-1
  • 5.6 × 8.3 in / 784 pages
  • Sales Territory: Worldwide including Canada, but excluding the British Commonwealth.

Endorsements & Reviews

“Scrupulously researched and elegantly written…makes you feel the day-to-day life of Tennessee, onstage and off, like no other I’ve read…required reading for anyone in the theater.” — Nathan Lane, New York Times Book Review

“Offers plenty of backstage anecdotes and high private drama…. But Mr. Lahr, ever the critic, keeps the plays themselves front and center…. The book has already won enthusiastic advance notice…along with blurbs from a kick line of A-list ‘theatricals’ including Helen Mirren, John Guare and Tony Kushner.” — Jennifer Schuessler, New York Times

“Intricately detailed… gripping.” — Janet Maslin, New York Times

“A masterpiece.” — Hilton Als, New Yorker

“Scintillating on the backstage and bedroom dramas and almost intrusively perceptive on the autobiographical nature of Williams’ art.” — Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times

“A crucial contribution to the arguments that should always rage around a man who was one of the greatest American playwrights of his tempestuous century.” — Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune

“Raises the curtain on Tennessee Williams.” — Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair

“There is only one word for this biography: superb.” — Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review

“Brilliant… [Lahr’s] achievement is not likely to be surpassed.” — Publishers Weekly

“Splendid beyond words. It would be hard to imagine a more satisfying biography.” — Bill Bryson

“This is a masterpiece about a genius. Only John Lahr, with his perceptions about the theater, about writers, about poetry, and about people could have written this book. What a marvelous read.” — Helen Mirren

“Unsurpassable…An eloquent, spellbinding narrative that emerges as an instant classic.” — Ron Chernow, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Washington: A Life

“It is a MAGNIFICENT work. Mesmerizing, illuminating, and heartbreaking.” — André Gregory

“Brilliant and seamless. A labor of the profoundest love, and it comes from the heart and mind of one of our greatest theater writers.” — André Bishop, artistic director of Lincoln Center Repertory Theater

“A splendid book, one of the finest critical biographies extant.” — Robert Brustein

“The singular achievement of John Lahr’s magisterial book, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh is that it’s one betwitching writer’s journey into the lives—public and private—of another.” — Jeremy Gerard, Deadline Hollywood

“Magnificent…one of the best written and most extraordinary biographies I’ve ever read, in any field.” — Mike Fischer, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“At once sensitive and magisterial, and it fulfills the ultimate test for a literary biography by convincing you that the works cannot be understood without it. Once you have read it, it becomes part of their meaning.” — John Carey, Sunday Times (UK)

“It is a masterpiece on several levels: of synthesis and analysis (an amazing life apprehended afresh, with great learning lightly borne and a strong streak of showbiz savvy; a page-turner that is almost embarrassingly devourable).” — Paul Taylor, The Independent

“Essential reading for anyone who cares about the theater.” — Wendy Smith, Daily Beast

“Dazzling… an epic achievement.” — Ann Levin, Associated Press

“Fascinating… Lahr gives us a sense of the ebb and flow of Williams’s life, exercising a critic’s keen eye on the plays, a novelist’s gift for characterization, and a historian’s awareness of the way a changing American society colored his work… As much a biography of the plays as of the playwright—a book that lets the life illuminate the work and the work illuminate the life.” — Charles Matthews, Washington Post

“Excellent… A forceful claim for the playwright’s immortality.” — Laura Collins-Hughes, Boston Globe

“Lahr’s expansive, polished and keenly observed volume is a major work of American theater criticism and biography.” — Gerald Bartell, San Francisco Chronicle

“Elegantly written as well as psychologically acute… Lahr balances quotation and interpretation, sympathy and criticism, in this searing and unforgettable portrait of the artist who gave voice to the repressed, the reviled and the restless.” — Brenda Wineapple, Wall Street Journal

“[P]rodigiously researched… acute and elegant… Lahr is most superb on the relationship between Williams and the director Eliz Kazan, perhaps his greatest collaborator.” — New York Times Holiday Gift Guide

“Witting, moving, ferociously intelligent… essential reading for any theater fan.” — Jocelyn McClurg, USA Today

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