‘Tennessee Williams,’ by John Lahr

16Bailey-master495Blake Bailey at the New York Times:

Tennessee Williams’s career began and ended very badly. The boffo finish of his first Broadway-bound play, “Battle of Angels” (1940), was a big onstage fire — a special effect that generated so much smoke a number of theatergoers fainted while others bolted for the exits. “If ever the professional debut of a major playwright was a greater fiasco,” John Lahr writes in his new biography of Williams, piquantly subtitled “Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh,” “history does not record it.” Five years and a lot of crummy jobs later, Williams clawed his way back with a play that would make him famous, “The Glass Menagerie,” whose premiere almost proved an even bigger disaster. Laurette Taylor, plucked from a long alcoholic oblivion to play Amanda Wingfield, was found an hour and a half before opening curtain in an alley outside the stage door, soaking wet in the rain and all but dead drunk. Occasionally pausing to vomit in a bucket offstage, she gave the performance of her life and thus saved our greatest postwar playwright from almost certain ruin.

“Well, Mrs. Williams,” the raffish actress remarked to the author’s mother, Edwina, after the Chicago premiere, “how did you like yourself?” Whether Edwina had sufficient self-awareness to recognize her own maundering about (say) “seventeen! — gentleman callers!” is doubtful, but she was indeed Amanda in the flesh: a doughty chatterbox from Ohio who adopted the manner of a Southern belle and eschewed both drink and sex to the greatest extent possible.

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