Conversation with HUMANITAS Winner Tony Kushner
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.
Read more at American Theatre: http://americantheatre.org/2014/10/in-conversation-tony-kushner-and-john-lahr-talk-tennessee-williams/