Saturday, May 16, 2015

Two formative men of the American Theatre (Books - A Life by Elia Kazan & Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr)

The life stories of two American Theatre makers monopolized my reading back in January: Elia Kazan: A Life, film and theatre director Kazan's hefty, probing memoir (Alfred A. Knopf, 1988) and Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (W.W. Norton & Co. 2014), John Lahr's deftly paced, thoroughly researched, deeply perceptive biography of the great playwright. Two men could not have had a greater influence on the structure and build of action, the feeling of innocence and epiphany, the rhapsodic music of text, the themes of individuality and of sex that were the coming-of-age of the American theatre and film in the 1930s - 1970s, than Williams and Kazan.  Two men could not have been more superficially different - Kazan was the son of Greek immigrants, born in Turkey, a scrappy fighter, and relentless womanizer, Williams a grandson of an American preacher, delicate, gay, a virgin until twenty-six years of age - but fundamentally they were remarkably similar. Aside from their obvious love of theatre, both seemed dissatisfied with the restrictions of their world, were driven to create theatre to give veiled expression to a deep sense of personal failure, both felt outsiders and compulsively pursued relief in work or, failing that, one from drink and the other from sex. John Lahr's quotes a letter from Williams to Kazan:

"Baby, you know as well as I know, that first of all, we've got to obey the first commands of our hearts," Williams wrote to Kazan about a business matter in late January 1952.  "You know that or we wouldn't be so close to each other in spirit."  Both men had educated themselves in desire; both saw sexuality as the pathway to knowledge.  "Promiscuity for an artist is an education, a great source of confidence, and a spur to work," Kazan said...
So influential was Kazan's vision on American rhapsodic realism, it is a shame that he is best remembered for naming names to the House Unamerican Activities Committee.  In his directing, he staunchly scrutinized the forces that move people to behave, ripping back the skin to expose the motor that drives the decisive acts of their lives - a motor fueled by desire for survival, acceptance, love, hatred, by the need to fix the unfixable.  His goal, by intelligence or subterfuge to have the actor bring the best and most private part of himself to the role.  In the Williams biography, Lahr quotes Arthur Miller on the alchemistic wonder of Kazan's directing process.
"His rehearsals had...the hushed air of conspiracy...not only against the existing theatre but society, capitalism - in fact everybody who was not part of the production...People kept coming up to whisper in his ear."  His approach to directing was a seduction: quiet, intuitive, penetrating.  In his assessment of both the actor's and the character's psychology, Kazan was forensic.  He paid his collaborators a kind of intense, strategic attention.  "In rehearsal...he grinned a lot and said as little as possible," which had the effect of making his actors compete even harder for his affection.  He worked by insinuation not command; stimulation and dissimulation were his twin gifts.  "he would send one actor to listen to a particular piece of jazz, another to read a certain novel, another to see a psychiatrist, and another he would simply kiss," Miller recalled.  He added, "Instinctively, when he had something important to tell an actor, he would huddle with him privately rather than instruct before the others, sensing that anything that really penetrates is always to some degree an embarrassment... A mystery grew up around what he might be thinking, and this threw the actor back upon himself. "  Kazan's trick was to make his ideas seems like the actors' own discoveries.  "He let the actors talk themselves into a performance," Miller said, which "they would carry back to him like children offering some found object back to a parent." 
Kazan is a student of the mechanisms of human behavior. While possessing a fiercely critical eye, he was loving.  He cherished the flaws in characters and simultaneously loved and pitied the actors who played them.
The beautiful and the terrible thing about actors is that when they work they are completely exposed: you have to appreciate that if you direct them.  They are being critically observed not only for their emotions, their technique, and their intelligence, but for their legs, their breasts, their carriage, their double chins, and son on.  Their whole being is opening to scrutiny, waiting for your praise, concern, and help.  Sometimes a gentle kiss will mean more to an actress, her confidence and her performance, than whatever you can say.  How can you feel anything but gratitude for creature so vulnerable and so naked?
Acting is the only art where you can't judge your own work, even in films...
 Kazan's tone, when you read on, is less condescending to actors than admiring of their willingness to show it all.  He pities actors as the victims of  the lies directors tell like himself told to elicit work from them.  Directors don't tell actors what they think, Kazan confides, but what will work.
Yes, I believe all directors ted to be a little two-faced, just as I believe all writers are spies.  
Kazan enjoys these kind of pronouncements, but why not? They are full of iconic characters - liars and spies - of colorful circumstances - the drama of life.  Above all, that's what Kazan crafts in this juicy memoir. There are many actors and directors who would disagree with Kazan's notion that an actor can't judge their own work.  It seems to me that in describing the moment of performance, he is entirely accurate. One cannot be actor and audience at the same time. Kazan's one-liner is something of a tragedy, the actor can never know himself and the director can never be himself.  Kazan seems, throughout this volume, to stay true to his role as director - expose the truth and everyone be damned.  However, he ultimately envies the actor's exposure not as shaming but as the ultimate freedom.  Kazan declares himself over and over a master of getting along - of concealing his feelings, very often negative or even violent ones. In this, Kazan seems to have embraced an Anglo-American value.  Yes he flails desperately throughout his life to relieve this sense of inauthenticity, mostly with womanizing, later with a pursuit of his Greek roots.  The two-facedness of the director with his actors is a theme Kazan plays out repeatedly in his private life.  With his serial betrayal of his wife Molly, whom he loves desperately, he tries to lose himself in selfish feeling, the way the actor does, and then hates himself for hurting the person he loved. He never actually finds this freedom he longs for, yet he attempts it again and again.  This resembles nothing so much as going on stage to act in a play every night.  

Writing this memoir, Kazan accepts that others will hate him, and he seems a little proud of it.
I'm glad I have the power, the time, and the memory to tell the truth about my own life. That is what this experience means to me; let the chips fall where they may. 
The volume is not merely a cantankerous old man having the last word.  In it, the reader will find the same piercing scrutiny of motivation, the same admiration for nakedness, the same generous acceptance of the violence roiling beneath the skin's surface and the less-than-perfect pursuit of a moral, authentic, satisfying life that characterized his best work. 

In his Williams biography John Lahr manages to dignify the story of a man who said of himself to Brooks Atkinson, the theatre critic of The New York Times that he wrote out of desperation:
"That thing that makes me write like a screaming banhsee, when under this impulse to scream all the time is a deep, deep longing to call out softly with love." On stage and off it, hysteria was Williams's idiom. "I have a vast traumatic eye/set in my forehead center/that tortures to its own design/all images that enter," Williams wrote.  His plays put those images on stage and made a spectacle of his haunted interior - which he once characterized as "sixteen cylinders inside a jalopy."  Each play, he felt, registered "the climate of my interior world at the time in which [it was] written."  I took to the theatre with the impetus of a compulsions." 
Williams life seemed to spill over the very brim of himself and yet Lahr's intimate knowledge of the full range of Williams work - letters, plays, poetry - is fashioned into a seamless narrative focused on revealing on how the artist informed the art.  Even the juciest of theatre gossip, and there is plenty informing this narrative, is crafted into artful biography that never feels like gawping.

Through the 600 or-so pages of Lahr's book, what never failed to amaze me, despite the ways the theme repeated, is how, from the chaos of his life and his relationships,Williams created so many great plays that are not merely of himself but seem to speak for so many of us.
Kazan's identification with the perilous surreal nightmare of Camino [Real] was deep.  "I was its unfortunate her," he wrote.  "I'd just been knocked down and was flat on he canvas... I had to do what Kilroy - and Williams did: get up off the mat and come back fighting....Once when I asked him what the play was about, he answered, 'It's the story of everyone's life after he's gone through the razzle-dazzle of his youth...' Then he went on, 'There is terror and mystery on one side, honor and tenderness on the other.'" The characters embody Williams's longing for a life beyond lie, for an ecstasy not just of the flesh.  
 Lahr's volume is as rich in deep reading of Williams's work and its context as it is in sympathy for the man.  It follows, after a gap of almost 20 years Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams by Lyle Leverich, a biography of Williams's life up to the time of The Glass Menagerie.  Leverich was working on the second volume of the biography when he died. Lahr picked up the gauntlet. Lahr reveals Williams's from his textual knowledge. His work is admiring, enthusiastic, but never moved me as Leverich's did.  Lahr scarcely writes a paragraph without a direct quotation which are deftly strung together to produce a coherent narrative whose conclusions are scholarly and assured. Lahr doesn't indulge in much guesswork, he tells you what you can glean from the research.  For example:
The change in Williams's story about his father inevitably led to a recalibration of his story about his mother, and her legend as the put-upon family saint. 
Leverich's work offers ample excerpts of Williams's writing, and he clearly conducted many interviews, and quotes them, but his narrative weaves them into an imagining of the man.  It's less scientific. Lahr always shows his evidence trail, but sometimes leaves himself at an admiring disctance.  Leverich risks getting inside the man - we might forget where the subject ends and the biographer begins:
by Tuesday, Tom - not having heard anything from Jim - wandered about the streets of what must have seemed to him a dead city, as eerie a place as he had ever seen...

I don't consider Lahr's work deficient, only stylistically different.  It may reflect when they wrote their biographies.  It may also stem from having less material from the earlier part of Williams's life. One cannot read Lahr's book and think that he lacked sympathy for his subject, but I was left wondering what Leverich's version would have felt like.  Perhaps this is because my own experience of Williams's writing is that it is uncontrolled, an outpouring.  As he said to Mike Wallace in a television interview:
That is what we all have as babies.  We scream in the cradle, the mother picks us up, she comforts us, she suckles us, she changes the diaper, whatever is giving us discomfort is tended to, and through this she rocks us to sleep and all that.  And whatever gives us discomfort, we find, is  - is relieved in response to an outraged cry...This is the infant feeling omnipotent.  All it has to do is cry out and it will be comforted, it will be attended to.  All right.  We grow up a little and we discover that the outcry doesn't meet this tender response always. ..It meets the world which is less permissive, less tender and comforting, and it misses the maternal arms  - the maternal comfort - and therefore, then, it becomes outraged, it becomes angry...
In the early 1970s when, as Lahr says, Williams could no longer pull himself together for "The life bit,"  he wrote a play Out Cry, his imagining of Clare and Felice - brother and sister, and the only remaining members of a touring theatre.  Beaching up in a nameless southern town without the rest of their company, playing to a nearly empty theatre, they improvise a play of two children left in terrified isolation after the murder-suicide of their parents.  The childrens' names?  Clare and Felice.  They attempt to lose themselves in a play to escape an even less tolerable reality.  Lahr terms the work "an allegory of his [Williams's] disintegration," but it strikes me less as an allegory than an outraged cry, as Williams would have it. A scrambling act of his imagination to regain that sense of lost omnipotence.  It is desperate but also shows valor.  Sometimes in reading Lahr's Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, I craved less sympathy and more empathy. However that book would likely have suffered for being less controlled, organized, and assured. In Lahr's book, we have an authoritative work of scholarship on Williams's work in the theatre.  One I value and will turn to for understanding Williams as I continue to read and reread him.       

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