John Lahr, Tennessee Williams biographer, speaks at Sewanee

Lahr delivers his talkBy InSoo Lee and LamHo

Staff Writer and Executive Editor

Photo by Kimberly Williams

On April 8, John Lahr came to Sewanee about Tennessee Williams after authoring Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh. Before giving his Haines lecture, Lahr went to the University Archives to have a Question and Answer session for Professor Craighill’s 330 English class, The Life and Literature of Tennessee Williams. The students gathered around tables containing Williams’ journals, wallet, manuscripts, paintings, and more. Although the artifacts were presented in an organized way, Lahr spoke of how messy Williams’ life was, “When Williams’ wrote, he threw all the pages everywhere. He did this for psychological reasons. His internal mess was now outside. As a writer, Williams was a hysteric and the way he worked was about getting it out and the process of getting out was important.” This hysteria became the reason Williams’ reason for writing, through which he worked out his various problems. By reading his plays, the reader can tell what issues Williams was dealing with at the time. However, as time went on, he started to create problems in order to write. According to Lahr: “Williams could bring himself to the brink and report on his collapse.”

In this enriching Q&A session with Lahr, almost every play of Williams was discussed along with William’s life. One of the last topics Lahr discussed with students was the collaboration between Williams and Elia Kazan. Lahr remarked the importance of Kazan in Williams’ life as “Williams would not be famous without Kazan.”

After discussing with Lahr, Professor Craighill’s class looked through the artifacts presented before them and found a lot of gems within a treasure chest, which included Truman Capote’s phone number in Williams’ address book and Williams’ pool card. For other students desiring to see these artifacts of Williams, the Archives is open to the student body.

At 4:30, Lahr gave a lecture at the Tennessee Williams Center called “Tennessee Williams: the Out-crying Heart.” During the introduction, Dr. Craighill explained that he has written eighteen books and is working on more. She recognized him for his “theatrical agility” that helped him “portray all angles of Williams’ life.” The lecture, delivered to a full audience, addressed the relationship between Williams’ personal life and his writings. In the wake of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in 1945 and the end of the war, his writing “defined longing and the loss of the new, radically new American.”

Lahr emphasized the dysfunctional nature of Williams’ family as a source of inspiration for his characters. “Hysteria was Williams’ authentic idiom,” he said, and his family added to the “theatre of war” that made Williams’ work characteristically autobiographical and Freudian. Ultimately, Lahr described his love for Williams’ work: Williams “made beauty out of” emptiness, the lack of physical love from his mother, and his psychological need to write for eight hours a day to stay alive. His love for writing, the “stripminingof his psyche,” both kept him alive and brought him grief. After the lecture, Lahr answered a number of questions in great depth, demonstrating his intimate knowledge of Williams’ life through his diary entries and Lahr’s own reading of the plays. Sewanee was lucky to host John Lahr, a drama critic who writes for the New Yorker. He was selected to give this year’s Stacy Allen Haines lecture, dedicated to a Sewanee resident who came to the Domain after his retirement from Sears, Roebuck and Co. in Chicago. Lahr is the first drama critic to receive a Tony Award for his part in writing actress Elaine Stritch’s one-woman show, “Elaine Stritch at Liberty.” The two also won the Drama Desk Award for the Best Book to a Musical. Among his other honors, he has also won the George Jean Nathan award for Dramatic Criticism.