Near Touchdown Jesus, a statue nicknamed for his outstretched arms, the smell of pot ambles through the French Quarter. A makeshift band — clarinet, tuba, and drums — plays for tips on the corner. A man in a long-sleeve shirt, sits cross-legged in the middle of the street where his friend has already propped a chair. Bells from St. Louis cathedral announce the time: 12 gongs.
“That’s where Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire,” says a tour guide dressed in all-purple. He’s driving a mule-drawn carriage with signature fleur-de-lis on the back. He points to the Avart-Peretti House at 632 St. Peters Street. After reading John Lahr’s biography Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, shortlisted for the 2014 National Book Award in nonfiction, I came looking for the playwright. I’ve found one of Williams’s French Quarter homes, red brick, nearly identical to others in the neighborhood. Across the street, a sign for a “boutique smoke shop” reads Pipe Dreams. This sign could probably apply to how Williams felt when he first started writing plays.
While a lot of biographies begin with dry lineages, Lahr puts us at Williams’s opening night of his first big play The Glass Menagerie. Right from the start, there’s tension. For Williams, this is his make-or-break moment, because his very first production Battle of Angels had been a crowd-booing fiasco. Williams is considered an autobiographical playwright, so many of his plays’ scenes are dramatized versions of his life. Throughout Mad Pilgrimage, Lahr presents a Williams play, then ties it back to the playwright’s personal life. The Glass Menagerie, Lahr shows, depicts his more-than-dysfunctional family.
When Williams was 7, his family moved from his home state Mississippi to St. Louis. During his childhood, his father, a salesman, often drank and became violent. His father, Lahr says, called the young Williams “Miss Nancy,” because he considered the boy effeminate. To keep a distance from his father, Williams clung to his overbearing mother Miss Edwina. Though Miss Edwina protected her son and nurtured his interest in writing, she barely hugged her children and raised them with fire-and-brimstone-esque ideals. As a result, Williams’s plays often deal with repression, both physically and emotionally. Lahr tells us the playwright didn’t masturbate until the age of 26, a shocking bit of information, but also valuable insight to helping understand the depth of his plays’ characters’ struggles. Williams often turned his work’s gaze toward the male body — think Stanley Kowalski played by Marlon Brando in Streetcar. In his iconic characters Blanche DuBois (Streetcar) and Brick (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), we see the personification of struggling with desire
“On the one hand there is truth,” writes Virginia Woolf in “The New Biography,” “on the other there is personality.”
When done with “personality” in mind, a biography can mimic a piece of jazz music. Lahr states in the preface that he constructed the book closer to a profile than a traditional biography. In this way, he listens to the music. Texture, seemingly improvisational moments, comes from the layering of different sounds. Elements overlap and knock up against each other. He situates Williams’s many pithy and entertaining letters, the post-office kind, in conversation with diary entries, theater reviews, and interviews. To punctuate Williams’s nearly 15-year relationship with Frank Merlo, Lahr often incorporates the playwright’s poetry:
It was not easy to crawl
against those unending torrents
of light, all bending one way.
And only your voice calling, Stay!
— “Humble Star”
As the middle child, Williams often compared himself to his siblings. He adored older sister Rose, but while he had writing to escape his mother’s tyrannical spirituality, Rose wasn’t as lucky. Their mother committed Rose to an institution, in which she received shock treatments and an eventual prefrontal lobotomy. Lahr deftly explores Williams’s relationship with Rose. She was one of the few people he cared for all his life. He had a tumultuous relationship with younger brother Dakin, who Williams saw as their father’s golden boy. The two brothers butted heads their whole lives, and in the biography we see just how much they seemingly despise each other. By portraying Williams’s personal life in connection with his art, Lahr not only makes a claim for the playwright’s artistic ability, he also gives a touching portrait of a complicated — and somewhat selfish! — American icon.
Along with Williams’s family, we hear from many of the people integral to Williams’s life such as Gore Vidal, director and collaborator Elia Kazan, his agent Audrey Wood, and friend Maria St. Just. These voices mix on the page. At times, the book feels close to attending a fancy cocktail party with an A-list invite list. The collage style is effective because Lahr pulls from multiple points of view and recollection. At just over 600 pages long, he crafts crescendo moments and other, softer points to control the rhythm. When analyzing a Williams’s work, Lahr often includes a telling piece of dialogue. These sound bites seem ripped verbatim from Williams’s life.
GLADYS: Your son misses you, Pere.
PERE: That’s likely.
GLADYS: In your mind you have branded him a sissy, and that’s what’s come between you.
PERE: Does he still have on them little velvet knee britches?
— from a sketch of what was then called “The Big Time Operators”
As a theater reviewer in NOLA, I’ve seen two of Williams’s plays over the past year. A company staged The Night of the Iguana, his last big commercial success, in a re-purposed funeral home on Elysian Fields. Later in the year, I sat in a sold-out audience for Cat on A Hot Tin Roof, which coincided with the yearly Tennessee Williams Festival. The playwright moved to the city at the age of 27. New Orleans became, as John Lahr writes, the beginning of Williams’s “literary adventure and his sexual coming-of-age.” Out from under his mother’s thumb, he explored his queerness in the South. At one point, Lahr notes, he was taking home a new guy seemingly every night.
While Lahr’s play analysis sections might drag for some readers — especially those unfamiliar with the stage — this isn’t just a book for the theater-loving set. The biographer guides us through Williams’s work, and he gives us enough of the plot to help us understand the plays’ significance. The narrative is interested in the story of American theater, but Lahr also uses Williams’s work to place the playwright in the larger context of U.S. history. His popularity in the late 1940s “registered the spiritual shift after America’s return to normalcy” at the end of World War II. The response to his work often mirrored the social climate of the time. During his six decades of writing, Williams authored over 30 full-length plays and 70 one-acts. He won numerous awards, including two Pulitzer prizes. Hollywood came calling his name, and his audience expanded to the movie-going public. American screen-royalty Elizabeth Taylor starred in the adaptation of his work Suddenly, Last Summer and as Maggie in the film version of Cat. Williams gained access to the most fabulous social circles. He drank with celebrities and the literati alike.
As with any good party, though, the spotlight eventually starts to dim.
Public tastes changed. More experimental and abstract forms of theater became popular. Though still considered one of America’s greatest playwrights, his style no longer felt like a hot commodity. Even his thematic exploration of repressed sexuality, started to seem tame fare for the progressive sexual movement. He eventually, as Lahr says, found himself a “revolutionary in a post-revolutionary” era. Lahr tracks the playwright’s fall with the same keen eyes as his success. The latter section of this biography is compelling as it explores how an esteemed writer deals with failure. Despite poor reviews of his late work, Williams didn’t stop producing. Writing helped him understand his experiences. Without his typewriter he’d die. Williams had dealt with depression through most of his life, and his new has-been status lead to excessive drinking and drug use. We see his extended stay in treatment facility. Lahr’s prose delicately handles Williams’s collapse. With the playwright approaching personal oblivion, the biographer continues to join the life with his work. He won’t let us forget Williams’s genius, and Lahr writes he ultimately “devoured himself for the sake of his work.” This biography becomes more than a portrait of a famous writer who “changed the shape and the ambition of the American commercial theater.” We see the duality of the human psyche, at once tough and all together fragile. It’s an experience similar to one of Williams’s plays.
While the playwright died in 1983, he’s still alive here in New Orleans. In Jackson Square, where Williams would have walked, artists sell black and white painting of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley. Down the St. Peters Street stands a community theatre which recently produced one of his shows. One of his French Quarter apartments, 710 Orleans Street, is now sandwiched between a property management company and a used bookstore. I had walked passed the front door many times without knowing one of the city’s literary heroes had lived there. It took reading Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh for me to stop and look at his front door. The biography helped me get to better know not only an important writer, but also the city in which I live. Lahr makes Williams feel alive to me. As alive to me as the playwright is here in these New Orleans streets.
It is hardly news by now that Broadway theater has become a high-priced museum of its former self. This year’s Broadway season, which kicked off earlier this month, will feature a few new plays, including a limited run of Outside Mullingar from Pulitzer-winner John Patrick Shanley in January, but for the most part Broadway theaters will host the usual disheartening mix of jukebox musicals, retooled Disney movies, and revivals of hoary classics populated by downshifting movie stars.
For those who care about theater as an art form, it is this last category, the endless stream of revivals of classic American plays populated by movie stars, that really hurts. Sure, there are theaters off-Broadway and in other cities around the country that still commission and produce new plays, but the Broadway revivals, like the production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie starring Cherry Jones that opened earlier this month, show that there was once a time when serious new plays found favor not just with a small, theater-loving elite, but with a broad cross-section of middle-class America.
My own grandparents, like many educated young people in the 1940s, loved culture and fine things, but they lived in an isolated mill town in Southern Virginia without good bookstores or restaurants, much less a vital theater scene. So, like thousands of their fellow Americans, once or twice a year, they hopped a train to New York to eat a few decent meals, shop at the department stores along Fifth Avenue, and “see the shows,” which for them meant Broadway. This was, for a generation of American provincials like my grandparents, the height of sophistication and an annual ritual that sustained New York theater for decades.
Now that golden age of serious, culturally ambitious drama is gone forever.
Or is it? Certainly, given the sky-high ticket prices and the emphasis on circus-like musicals catering to baby boomer nostalgia, the next generation of great American dramatists like Tennessee Williams or Lorraine Hansberry, whose 1959 classic A Raisin in the Sun is being revived this spring, won’t be returning to Broadway any time soon. But in fact we have a platform for serious, character-driven drama in this country, and it is more popular and broad-based than Broadway ever was. It’s called cable television.
The inexorable slide of quality theater from the cultural mainstream and the rise of cable TV as the defining dramatic art form of the 21st century is a prime example of technological “creative destruction” at work. The theater of Broadway’s Golden Age was indeed terrific stuff, but as a consumer product it was wildly inefficient. Because shows were live and unrecorded, they could be seen by a limited number of people, many of whom had to travel hundreds of miles to get to the theater. Successful Broadway shows spawned touring companies – as hit musicals still do to this day – but such tours are costly to run and audiences in the smaller cities inevitably get a watered-down version of the real thing, with lower quality actors and production values.
Cable shows like Homeland or Breaking Bad, which airs its series finale this Sunday, are cheap and easily accessible to anyone with a subscription to cable or Netflix. More importantly, though, thanks to a complex set of market forces, all the incentives push cable channels to hire top-drawer actors and writers and allow them the artistic freedom to create compelling characters and story lines, much the way the best Broadway plays did half a century ago. This fragile cultural moment won’t last – more on that later – but for now it seems clear that if Tennessee Williams and Lorraine Hansberry were writing today they would be showrunners for a cable series, because that’s where the audience is.
You can measure the Golden Age of American theater in many ways, but I would mark it from the 1944 debut of The Glass Menagerie to the opening night of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1962. There were, of course, serious American playwrights before then – Eugene O’Neill is the best-known, but there were plenty of others – but those writers always seemed slightly ahead of the popular culture of their time. Likewise, many great American plays have debuted since 1962, and a select few, like Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, became part of the wider national conversation.
But for a short time after the Second World War, American commercial theater hit that elusive sweet spot where popularity meets ambitious social and artistic agendas. In his fascinating 1987 autobiography Timebends, Arthur Miller speaks of this era as
a time when the audience was basically the same for musicals and light entertainment as for the ambitious stuff and had not yet been atomized…So the playwright’s challenge was to please not a small sensitized supporting clique but an audience representing, more or less, all of America.
Miller explains how this broad-based, yet culturally hungry audience shaped the work of the era’s two greatest writers, himself and Tennessee Williams. Both men were, to differing degrees, outsiders to American culture – Williams because he was unapologetically gay, Miller because he was a Jew with strong radical beliefs. In another era, Miller says, they might well have slanted their work to please a minority audience that already agreed with them, but suddenly in the postwar years there was a mainstream audience waiting to hear what they had to say, and being both great artists and profoundly ambitious men, they opened their work outward to a mass audience.
To do that, they didn’t preach to their audiences like Clifford Odets did in his political plays of the 1930s or bash the viewer over the head with a bleak vision the way O’Neill too often does in his plays. Instead, Miller and Williams created characters – indelible, psychologically complex protagonists like the struggling salesman Willy Loman riding on a smile and a shoeshine or the tragic, half-mad Blanche DuBois forever depending on the kindness of strangers. These characters had to be psychologically complex and indelibly drawn because that’s how you appeal to a heterogenous audience not already united by social background or political outlook: you get audiences to care deeply about a character, to see themselves in someone who may not be in any outward way like them. Once you’ve done that, an audience will follow you anywhere.
Interestingly, it wasn’t the movies that put an end to Broadway’s Golden Age. Hollywood’s own Golden Age, stretching from the advent of sound in the late 1920s to the late 1950s, roughly overlaps that of Broadway. No, it was TV that killed the Broadway of Miller’s era – that and probably the jet plane. At a time when the only viable home entertainment was radio and all but the stratospherically rich traveled by train, car, or boat, Broadway theater was part of a broader leisure industry that catered to Americans like my grandparents yearning for cultural experiences they couldn’t enjoy in their own hometowns.
But once the desire for entertainment could be satisfied by a magic box in the living room and a desire for horizon-broadening travel could by satisfied by plane trips to Europe and beyond, Hollywood and Broadway had to adapt or die. They did so by splitting their audiences – “atomizing” them, in Miller’s terms – into high and low. After a decade of trial and error, Hollywood reinvented itself in the 1970s with ambitious, director-driven films like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and money-spinning summer blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars. Broadway did much the same thing, filling the bigger houses with crowd-pleasing musicals like Cats and A Chorus Line while supporting more adventurous, writer-driven work by the likes of David Mamet, Sam Shepard, and Wendy Wasserstein.
This worked for a time, thanks in large part to off-Broadway and the regional theater movement, which allowed playwrights to grow their careers at subscription-based resident theaters around the country and then bring their most popular work to New York for a money-making Broadway run. This system, low-paying and outside the mainstream as it was, still made for some pretty terrific theater. Shepard, sustained by a long-running affiliation with San Francisco’s Magic Theater, introduced audiences to his singularly bleak and funny Western vision, while August Wilson, who premiered most of his plays at the Seattle Repertory Theater, opened a window onto working-class black characters quite nearly invisible to the mainstream.
But while regional theater provided an audience for more adventurous fare, unlike in Arthur Miller’s day, it was no longer the same audience that went to see the big musicals. Mamet, Shepard, and Wilson, talented as they were, were no longer writing for “an audience representing, more or less, all of America,” but for the “small sensitized supporting clique” that Miller saw as an artistically narrowing force. And then, lo and behold, the free market worked its magic. As Broadway ticket prices escalated to pay for ever more lavish, spectacle-driven musicals, it became harder to persuade theatergoers, even the ones who like the more ambitious stuff, to risk several hundred dollars on a new play.
Enter Carrie Bradshaw and Tony Soprano. Gallons of ink have been spilled, and thousands of terabytes expended, trying to explain why audiences have become so obsessed with characters on modern cable shows, but as Adam Davidson demonstrates in a December 2012 New York Times “It’s the Economy” column, the answer has more to do with business models than any quirk of culture. When there were only three major networks, programming success depended on producing a great number of shows that were just incrementally better than what was on the two other networks, which inevitably led to the creation of a vast wasteland of expensively bland mediocrity.
But once cable blew up the TV dial, giving viewers hundreds of channels to choose from, programmers had to shift their strategy. Now, it wasn’t enough to be just a little better than the competition; now, your shows had to be a lot better. You didn’t have to come up with a huge number of great shows, just one or two at a time would do, but they had to be so good that viewers would become obsessed with the characters and story lines to the point that they would shun cable providers that didn’t carry the channels where those shows appeared.
In other words, out of the morass of network TV, the very technology that ended Broadway theater’s Golden Age, came a sort of small-screen Broadway in which a few big talents – David Simon of The Wire, Lena Dunham of Girls, Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad, and so on – have been given wide artistic latitude to create characters and stories audiences will care about. Because cable providers often operate as near-monopolies, the average cable bill has doubled in the past decade, and viewers pay close to $90 billion a year for cable service. That is a huge pot of money, and for many cable companies nearly half of their revenue is pure profit, so there is an enormous incentive to get the formula right.
But as Davidson points out in his Times column, this fragile model is already fraying at the seams. So far at least, cable subscribers aren’t canceling in large numbers, but as piracy becomes more pervasive, fewer younger people are signing up for cable in the first place. “When people in their 20s move out of their parents’ house or dorm room, they are less likely to get into the habit of paying for cable,” he writes. “If they get addicted to Breaking Bad, they’ll often download it free through file-sharing services like Bit Torrent or wait for it to come out on iTunes.” To make up for lost revenue, cable providers have to jack up rates, which drives more new viewers away, setting up a vicious spiral that, according to one industry expert Davidson spoke to, could cause the entire edifice to collapse as early as 2016.
What comes after that? The short answer is nobody knows. It could get seriously messy there for a while, leading millions of Breaking Bad and Mad Men obsessives to bore their children with talk of the Golden Age of Cable. But if this history teaches us anything, it is that there is always going to be a sizeable audience that cares about quality drama enough to pay real money for it. After all, in the 1940s, Broadway’s principal competition was local amateur productions and guys on their front porches telling funny stories – a sort of analog version of today’s BitTorrent downloads and YouTube cat videos. My grandfather, who told some pretty funny stories himself, was willing to plunk down serious money to take his family to New York for a few good meals and a chance to see the best writers and performers of his age. I have no idea what entertainment technology will look like when my future grandchildren begin to hunger for something more edifying than a quick joke or a funny story, but my bet is they will be able to find it if they are willing to pay for it.
Image via studentrush.org