JOHN LAHR was born with the smell of greasepaint and the roar of the crowd in his DNA: “I count myself a theatrical and I am proud of my raffish pedigree: My father was a clown, my mother a chorus girl. One way or another, most of my life has been spent within shouting distance of a stage: either helping to run theatres, writing plays, or reviewing them.” As he once told me, the drama critic not only writes about the theater but also takes the reader inside it and cares deeply about it.

I’d followed his earlier work in The Nation, Evergreen Review, and Village Voice. As senior drama critic for The New Yorker, his theater reviews and profiles have been must reads for both theater hounds and fans of brilliant critical writing.

His day job however hasn’t stopped him from writing several eloquent biographies, starting with his father in Notes on a Cowardly Lion, followed by Prick Up Your Ears about the English playwright Joe Orton. Lahr is also the first drama critic to have won a Tony for co-authoring the Broadway show Elaine Stritch at Liberty.

In taking up a biography of Tennessee Williams, arguably the most important American playwright of the second half of the twentieth century, Lahr is more than up to the challenge. He not only has reviewed Williams’s plays over the years, but it is apparent in rereading these that all along he was forming his unique approach to Williams’s plays and how our most autobiographical playwright was writing himself only to ultimately cannibalize himself.

Lahr came to write this biography after he interceded to get Lyle Leverich’s Tom, The Unknown Tennessee Williams published. Leverich, who was Williams’s official biographer, died while researching a second volume that was to open with Williams’s first Broadway success — The Glass Menagerie. He requested in his will that Lahr finish his work.

As Lahr explains in the preface, this is not a sequel to Leverich’s book. Lahr’s had a different way of approaching the playwright. He quotes Williams as saying that his plays were “an interior landscape of himself” at the time he wrote them. Lahr adds: “So if you chart what he was doing at the time he wrote the plays in his personal life, it becomes an emotional autobiography so that the plays reflect the man and the man reflects the plays. That is what I wanted to catch.”

That is precisely what Lahr has done. Williams’s life and the relationship to his work have never been chronicled in this manner. It is as incisive as it is captivating. Some 30 years after his death, and after some forty-odd books written about him, Williams has found his Boswell in Lahr.

I first met Lahr in 2008 when he contacted me while he was researching Williams’s relationship with Pancho Rodriguez, Williams’s muse and lover who was the template for Stanley Kowalski. My play Rancho Pancho centered on that relationship and had just premiered at the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival. We shared information and names of those who might provide more details on Rodriguez. By then I was working on a second play about Frank Merlo and Williams. Lahr in turn provided me with information that proved invaluable. In his acknowledgement page, Lahr generously includes my name.

Earlier this month, Lahr received the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award for his biography on Tennessee Williams. The interview that follows was conducted by phone with Lahr in his London home and I in Texas.

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GREGG BARRIOS: I was streaming an old radio show, NBC’s Best Plays, with John Chapman. They had a version of The Rose Tattoo with Maureen Stapleton and Eli Wallach. And it struck me how well these stories translate to a theater of the ear. Tennessee often complained that he couldn’t hear his writer’s voice in productions of his work.

JOHN LAHR: They’re terrific poetry, aren’t they? One of the things, I suppose, we are very aware of when we watch a Tennessee Williams play in the theater; it’s like the subliminal power of song. The power of his lyricism takes the stage imagery deeper into the audience because they’re held by the music of the words. The audience is listening to the dialogue, and they are unaware of the unconscious communication of the rhythms. But like in song, it’s the rhythm that holds the imagination and the ear and pleases invisibly. I think that is part of the pull of those plays.

I recently saw a highly praised production, which was incredibly bad as far as I was concerned, of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic. And although the play was in my view badly produced — on a stage that revolved all the time, so that you could never see the scene entirely, the scene always moving away from you or coming towards you; it was a revolving that never stopped — the audience listened to those words. The stage wasn’t still but the words sort of held them in place. I think the idea of listening to a Williams play emphasizes that: of course one of the tests of whether a play is really meant to be a play is if you can shut your eyes and hear the whole play, then it’s not really for the theater.

And the thing about Tennessee’s plays is that what he pioneered in American theater — as I know you know — was this kind of personal lyricism which spoke not only of the language of the spoken word, but of the core movement of set design. He actually made those elements of the stage thematic and dynamic parts of his meaning: the light, the texture, the symbolism of things. So you can’t really get a Williams play by just hearing it. Which is why it’s great theater. But when you hear them on the radio, you do hear just how beautifully written the plays are.

He was also able to use his poetic sense — his sensibility.

That’s what I’m talking about. You know like they say, It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

Absolutely! I was also struck by your use of Williams’s poetry.

Oh yeah. Most Americans don’t realize that Williams wrote 70 plays, and they certainly don’t know his poetry. A lot of his poetry is quite strong. And one of the pleasures of the book was being able to introduce stuff that nobody has read — not only published stuff, but also poems that were discovered in the archive.

They’re not all serious poems. There is a wonderful poem, a drinking poem called “Drinky-pie” which I love. It brings a whole other dimension — not only his ability, but also the fun to the reading experience.

I was also struck by your ingenious use of Williams’s poetry to explicate not only what was going on in his personal life, but to shed light on the characters he is creating in the plays.

That was the point of choosing them — part of what I was trying to do. In writing my biography about my father, I had him. With the Orton book, I had, as the spine of the book, Orton’s diaries for the last eight months of his life. With the Williams book, my strategy was to keep as close as possible to his words, and to where Williams was, at the time of the writing in himself.

The idea was that his writing, as he always said, reflected his feelings. When he handled problems, he’d create a simulacrum. So what I wanted to do was to use his words as a kind of primary source. And work off of them. So this is as close as I could come to where he was at that moment of time, and see where that would take me, and see the resonances of it. Because that was his process, I think my biographical approach worked.

I have a Caedmon recording of Williams reading the poetry of Hart Crane. He was a consummate performer as well. He had a perfect voice for his characters. My friend the late actress Annette Cardona regaled us with stories of Tenn (as his friends called him) acting out parts of The Red Devil Battery Sign. Did Williams always have this innate talent to be a ham?

What he was, as he said, was a hysteric. And performance is part of what a hysteric does. They perform their wound and project it onto other people. And there is that brilliant line in Sweet Bird of Youth where the Princess says, “I have this thing like a sculpture almost heroic that I can unveil.” And that’s it. That is what the negotiation is, both as an artist and as an ordinary citizen if you’re a hysteric. You are projecting your inner life into others and watching and enjoying their response, and controlling their response with your act. So the performative thing was always a part of Williams’s life.

Remember that essay he wrote about the sidewalk histrionics of a little girl? Dressing up, saying, “look at me, look at me.” I think he calls it “Sidewalk Theatrics” [actually, “Person-to-Person”]. It’s in his collected essays. And that in a cartoonish way is what a performer does. He is drawing attention to himself. He has a need for that attention. That’s part of the DNA of an entertainer.

Your biography brings the reader that marvelous collaboration with Elia Kazan. In today’s theater world where the Dramatist Guild is always defending playwrights against dramaturges and directors who claim rightly or wrongly that they deserve credit for rewrites, I wonder if Kazan actually was entitled to more credit for shaping many of the plays.

One of the things I wanted to do with this book was to tell the story of how these plays got made. The Kazan estate gave me access to use all the information I could get my hands on to show this collaboration. I think the issue here with Kazan was that he never got the credit he deserved for the writing of the plays. Not that he wrote the words, but playwright is not write but wright. In other words, it’s about construction — that building as much as it is about writing, and it’s there in the construction — and the rearrangement and the focus — where his writing of the plays was invaluable. Their argument — and it’s a thing that Williams could never accept, ever — was that Kazan had to preserve the idea of his own authorship, and Williams really couldn’t accept the fact. He never actually defended Kazan when people would say, “Kazan’s directorial excesses spoil the purity of Williams’s idiom.” He would never defend him, and then Kazan writes him that final letter — saying callously, “get yourself a new boy.”

Williams couldn’t accept the fact that Kazan was part of his success and part of his literary success. I mean the whole issue of Kazan doing the Broadway version, forcing him essentially against his better judgment to bastardize Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is bollocks. It’s not true. Williams wanted that commercial ending but couldn’t face the fact that he did. He split off. He denied it to himself.

Undoubtedly Kazan was responsible for The Rose Tattoo in the sense that he didn’t direct it, but he gave Williams the structure that allowed him to finish it. Ditto with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — when he read it he urged Williams not to go into production, but to really work on it. And look what Kazan did with that play. He brought Brick up. He brought Big Daddy into the third act. He completely turned that play into a very tight, dramatic, fun machine. I don’t necessarily think he worked the same trick in Sweet Bird because it has a real structural flaw in the middle, but he did work it. He made it work. It didn’t successfully solve the play, but he made it work.

The fact is that after Kazan left, Williams never had — he had Iguana — but he never really had anyone who was psychically as simpatico with him, who loved what he did, who trusted him, who Williams could receive notes from and trust enough to take those notes, and really go with them, because he never trusted anyone the way he trusted Kazan. They were very close emotionally as well as artistically.

Ultimately, Kazan was emboldened to write his own plays and novels and move on.

Kazan says as much in his memoir, A Life. He admits he became tired of interpreting other people’s work and improving their work. And he probably did take over the plays like Sweet Bird in ways he hadn’t in other productions. He was moving away from being an interpreter and expressing what he felt. And at issue was often a difference in emphasis with Williams. Williams didn’t necessarily see Brick in Cat the way Kazan did; Kazan kept pushing Williams to make Brick more than simply a sort of negativity, to make him actually have behavior and responses that had a progression and not just a single tone.

I was intrigued that Tenn wrote many of his film scripts with censorship consideration, as much as he denounced that. You touch upon this — the rape scene in Streetcar when it was being filmed. I was hoping for more insights of some of the other films like Cat but especially the castration scene in the film version of Sweet Bird.

To be truthful, Gregg, I am not a fan of the films. I think the films are quite bowdlerized both by the studios and by him, as you mentioned. I actually think Williams wasn’t that interested in the movies. He was interested in the money. He hated what Gore Vidal did in Suddenly, Last Summer. He hated it! And I don’t think he got a particularly good result in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. For me, for other reasons, The Fugitive Kind didn’t work.

The two that stand out for me are Streetcar and The Night of the Iguana. I think those are well made even though in Night of the Iguana, the meaning of the play is completely transformed by the ending. Williams was simply pragmatic. He really was interested in making a lot of money. He was interested in having pictures that had great stars and great actresses. A good percentage of his script got translated in moving to the screen, and he would settle for 80 percent of what he had to say being there. But I think he didn’t take it as seriously as the theater. It wasn’t his medium. And I don’t think he was well served by the people who did the adaptations.

On Baby Doll for instance, he was very cavalier. He would just write a scene and say, here, use this scene wherever. There are all sorts of letters and envelopes from Kazan that say: “Tenn, send me a scene. What are we going to do about this? Here’s what I want to do.” And in the end, it’s partially that kind of experience that forced Kazan to increasingly do more of the heavy lifting. And this goes back to your other point. Look what he did with Camino Real. It was just a collection of pieces of paper.

To put it in a psychological context, Williams never had a father. And in terms of a child growing up, a father is order, a father is penetration, a father is control of reality and reason. Williams never had that organizational capacity. He didn’t, as you know from looking at his papers — he would write and create this mess, and at the end of the day, he’d pick up the papers and fold them up, and the next day start again. It was a very chaotic, wasteful process. And at the end of the day, he couldn’t organize a scene. He couldn’t see the woods for the trees. And that’s what Kazan did for him. He laid it out. He saw a structure, made a structure so that the inherent drama of the characters could unfold — so Camino Real, The Rose Tattoo, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Streetcar?

Streetcar was more or less complete without Kazan. He didn’t do much for that play — it was all there. But Sweet Bird was one he did an awful lot of work on. I don’t think we’d be talking about Tennessee Williams the same way without Kazan. I think if Williams had continued writing, he might have written some okay plays. They wouldn’t have the penetration and longevity without the structure. They are always gratifying when you see them and that gratification comes with how they are built as much as with what they say.

The other very important relationship in your book and in Tenn’s life was “Madame Wood,” a.k.a. his agent Audrey Wood.

She was someone that I knew. I knew her because I was briefly the literary manager of Lincoln Center and I had to negotiate with her. And I knew her because she was also the agent of a couple of my friends. So yes, she was quite an imposing person, both in the drama of their collaboration, and in their separation, their divorce — which was something that always interested me, because it marked the end of Williams’s greatness. And I think it precipitated his decline, because she really understood him, fought for him, and actually was prepared to stand up to him and his capriciousness. He grew tired of it, because he projected onto her a lot of stuff that belongs with him. All of Williams’s close associates felt it was a big mistake. And it is my understanding that when Bill Barnes came on as his agent, the head of the agency felt it was only a holding pattern. He was there to keep her in place until they mended their fences. They hoped it wasn’t as serious as it was.

I see Tenn’s relationship with Kazan and Wood as a mother and father thing.

That’s absolutely right. Kazan was the father and Wood — you know the thing about Edwina [Williams’s mother] was that she had all these desires for Williams to be great, but she had no abilities. She was full of cultural gas so to speak. Expectations yes, but she really didn’t see Williams as a person. But that’s another discussion. People’s notion of Edwina is completely colored by The Glass Menagerie, which is to the truth what a musical is to history. Edwina was far more aggressive, intrusive, crazy-making than that show indicates. She was an environmental mother. She didn’t really see Tennessee; she didn’t understand him. Edwina gave him money, but he was just a narcissistic extension of her. Wood, instead, was an empowering mother. Wood was a mother who allowed him to be who he was. Understood who he was. And wanted to help him be who he was. And engineered things so he could be more than who he was. Theirs was one of the two or three greatest agent-author collaborations of the century.

Those two relationships are riveting because of the way you frame and explain them.

You know Gregg, part of the news that the biography brings — and I’m proud of it — was that I was able to get Wood’s archive and use it. If I hadn’t been at The New Yorker and done 30 years as a drama critic, and the people around Wood and the lawyers didn’t know me, I don’t think those would have been made available. I’m proud of that aspect of it, because there is the intimacy of his collaboration with Kazan and there is the intimacy of his collaboration with Wood. And in both of those relationships, you get Williams at his purest, at his most intense. Where he’s talking about his art and what he cares for, at his most passionate, and more of his humanity comes through.

So part of the trick of the biography is to try and find the intensity, the pulse of the man. And my feeling was — because Williams was a pretty cool character and very detached — that where the truest self, the most authentic self came through was in those artistic collaborations where he felt equal to everyone, and he could be vainglorious and inspired in equal terms. You get a very vivid sense of his reality, but at the same time, you know when you write to your agent and I write to mine, you have a certain kind of humor and confessional quality, because they are, as it were, part of your family. Your artistic family, your internal family. They’re extensions of you in the world. For a writer nothing is more important than an agent in a way.

How much can we credit the letters? How much can one depend on them? What persona do we put on when we write a letter or engage in our daily negotiations with others?

That’s a good question. First of all, I think you can get a sense of the guy’s rhythm, his pulse. You get a sense of what he’s feeling at the moment intensely. You get a feeling of the history of the negotiation, whatever it is. But it’s a question that can’t really be answered, because there is no one person. You are a different person to different people. Depending on whom you are talking to and what mood or posture you want to strike. But I think what you can get is a larger sense of who the person is — the swagger, the confidentiality.

When you have a success like Tennessee Williams had, there are not too many people you can talk about it to — because it inspires envy, but also because people don’t understand it. They don’t understand what went into it, the struggle; they don’t understand the dimension of exhilaration or the problems that come with the success. And all of that you get in the conversation with Audrey Wood where he first has a big hit with Glass Menagerie, he’s down in New Orleans and says, “I feel like the cat has had the cream. I can walk around. I am somebody.” He could not say that to too many people. So that is what you get — a shared intimacy, a shared excitement of success. Which is fabulous.

How much interpretation can one apply without betraying an artist’s original intent?

I think you have to interpret. Everyone interprets all the time, but your interpretation has to be backed up by evidence. The skill is weaving that interpretation into material that proves it.

In one of our earlier conversations, we spoke about the artist or genius and his beloved, and how only one voice could be dominant in such relationships. And you mentioned how the muse or collaborator is often left out of the story.

I can see it in my mother and father. I can see it in my own first marriage, but not in my second. My second wife is famous in her own right. Which is one of the reasons why I enjoy our marriage much more than my first. Intimacy requires equality. And one of the problems with marriages and relationships like that of Williams and [Frank] Merlo is that the issue of fame or celebrity kills the balance. It makes it almost impossible for the other person to be equal. And that initiates a very toxic situation, where the person is needed but alienated at the same time. In Merlo’s case, Williams was the ticket, and Merlo was along for the ride. Even though Williams needed Merlo, even though Merlo was Williams’s factotum, he was always inevitably at Williams’s beck and call, and over time that becomes oppressive. Williams I don’t think really understood that, and you see it in all his diaries, notes — I don’t think he got the nature of quite why Merlo was so insistent on his independence and so angry with Williams. I think Williams must have been an awfully hard person to live with.

But as you say, Williams was also his employer. That often creates another type of relationship at odds with the personal one. And many a relationship can’t weather that combination.

Of course not. And Williams tried very hard to be fair to Merlo, but he wasn’t fair to him really. He gave him a percentage from The Rose Tattoo. That gave Merlo some money and some independence. He was aware of the need for that, but their relationship was fraught and unhappy. Merlo by all accounts was a terrific guy. He had all the social qualities that Williams lacked. As Williams often said, Merlo took him into the world and allowed him to function in it. But even if you read the letters carefully, even when he was dying, Merlo couldn’t bring himself to say to him: “I love you.” Who knows in these relationships how it goes. It’s clear from what remains of the letters and diary notes that Williams wanted love but wasn’t really willing to work for love. He needed to be needed, but he didn’t want to shoulder the responsibilities of what that means.

That is made clear in the letters Pancho Rodriguez wrote to his brother, saying “I love Tenn.” But he was also getting a salary from Williams. That relationship, too, was doomed.

That was Williams’s first real relationship and it was chaotic. I think Tennessee was thrilled to be wanted in the way that Pancho’s jealousy manifested itself. It was a perverse relationship. And it was another thing: Merlo was a healthier guy and rather pragmatic. I think he saw Williams as a ticket into the world of the arts, the world of celebrity that he was interested in. He fought in the War and wanted to have an extraordinary life, he wasn’t going to have it by his own making, but he might get it by his association. He made a decision to live with Williams — I think Merlo was bisexual but more homosexual — and to join forces with him. And all the people Williams cared about — Anna Magnani, Maureen Stapleton, they loved Tennessee, but they really cared about Merlo, because he had charm, charisma, humor, and life. Merlo was in the world. Williams was in his imagination. And the thing about Williams — which comes through in the plays he’s dramatizing — is his absent presence. There is something ghostly in Tennessee. He’s here but not there. He’s distracted but he’s also not complete. He’s like a shadow of himself a lot of the time. Which becomes exaggerated by drinking and drugs.

Would you say that the most tragic figure in the biography is Frank Merlo?

That’s an interesting statement. Tragic in the sense that he didn’t live out his life, but not tragic, because I think he had a life. He made relationships. People loved and cared about him. He took enjoyment from things around him as far as one can tell. And he chose to stay with Williams. One feels sorry for him in a sense that he never found a direction in his life, but he latched on to someone that had a direction and a mission. So he was like a pilot fish on this gigantic monstrous genius. So I don’t know how to answer your question to your satisfaction, because, was it a sad life? Yes, because each life at one level is sad, but I think he got much more out of life than he could have expected to have gotten given his life chances.

Going back to Pancho — he gets this letter late in Tenn’s life, years after Merlo’s death, in which Williams calls Pancho a poem, and writes that he spent the best two years of his life with him.

I agree with you that it’s one of the greatest letters of all time. But it’s Tennessee idealizing Pancho. “Walk proudly in the world,” etc. It’s great. He did feel that in moments, but that doesn’t mean he saw Pancho. It means he idealized Pancho.

I have a poster size photo of Tenn and Pancho some 30 years after their breakup. Williams is gazing at him with such longing that you wonder whatever happened to their relationship? I mean the guy is obviously still smitten by him. Or is he just looking for an easy lay?

I think the answer is both. That’s the tragedy of Tennessee — he had this huge gift for literature, but no gift for life. He just didn’t have it. He made his decision to go for greatness, which I really understand. In doing that he cut himself off from so much and sacrificed himself to his endeavor, which required that he destroy himself for meaning. As Oscar Wilde said, the artistic life is a long, lonely suicide. I think Williams’s life demonstrates that.

Writing on Tenn’s death at the Easy Lay — Hotel Elysée — you augment your CSI of his autopsy by a reading of a short play, “The One Exception,” his last piece of writing. For the longest time, another one-act play, “The Traveling Companion,” was presented at festivals as prescient, since rumors were that his death was perhaps due to foul play by a gentleman caller.

The answer is that he’d been thinking of this for a very long time. I mean all of the last plays of his great period are meditations on self-destruction or death by suicide. Or sacrificing oneself in one form or other — sacrificing yourself for meaning, and that is exactly, literally what Chance says to Princess before he allows himself to stay and be castrated. Life’s gotta mean something. And then he stays. And you know when Shannon goes down that hill at the end of Iguana, he is going down to drink and fuck himself to death, it’s entirely self-destructive — it’s a self-destructive act — not as the movie has it. And the same in a largely literal and figuratively way in Suddenly, Last Summer. What’s interesting about “The One Exception” is that it’s actually the last play he wrote and it does actually predict the very situation he found himself in at the end of his life. Not that there aren’t other plays that meditate on this.

And I might add that I was also reminded of his wonderful poem “Life Story” that begins and ends in bed, and its line, “and that’s how people die in hotel rooms.”

Yeah. That’s a wonderful poem. That was a party piece of his. He read that a lot.

While at the University of the South, Sewanee, I was informed that the amount of royalties from Williams’s plays doubled to four to five million in 2013 due to the success of the all-Black versions of Cat and Streetcar on Broadway. How do you think Williams would have reacted to this?

I can answer that because a letter actually exists which I’ve seen where he says he does not want that.

And I am certain if Audrey Wood were still alive she wouldn’t have permitted that.

I agree.

Which brings us to the Lady St. Just, of whom Williams once said: “She’s no lady, no saint, and not just.”

Actually it was someone else that said that.

My bad. When we first made contact, you sent me a copy of the article on St. Just that you wrote for The New Yorker. And after Tenn’s death, in her book, Five O’Clock Angel, she is the one that earns the last gasp.

I have no way of knowing for sure, but the ending of her book feels entirely fraudulent. Because what she does is — there is nobody to see her as she goes back to the grave and the last line is: “I buried my friend alone.” So it’s like a really bad B-movie. You fade out on the heroine by the gravesite kneeling down. I don’t believe it! There is so much in her book that has been manipulated and just full of wild fantasy. I just don’t buy it. I couldn’t prove it either way but I wouldn’t allow it to stand in my biography, because there was no way of proving that she did that. I wouldn’t have thought it would have been possible.

If there is a heavy in your book, is it she?

Yes, in a way she does because of what she did in the end. The imperialism of her. She was not a woman without qualities but her own vainglory and her need for power — she abused it. She abused the lives of a lot of people. What she did that was really egregious and unconscionable was she stopped the discussion about Tennessee for about a decade. So once he had died, for about a decade there was no critical discussion because critics and writers couldn’t Xerox or quote from his work. By her fiat, she stopped two books, Lyle’s [Leverich] book and also [William] Prosser’s book on the late plays. She stopped Something Cloudy, Something Clear from being published, and worse, she stopped A House Not Meant to Stand — which I think is a better play than has been yet acknowledged — from coming into New York and actually having a production in Lincoln Center. She stopped it! She may have had the best of intentions in her enthusiasm for Williams, but her effect was quite toxic. And Williams didn’t intend for her to be as involved as she became. She wasn’t his executor. According to Lyle and people who were around Williams at the end of his life, he really wanted nothing to do with her. He wouldn’t answer her calls; she was bossing him around; got him to give his stuff to Harvard in the end. From a narrative point of view, although it’s true that she comes out as something of a heavy, as you say, in the book, because she’s so mischievous and outrageous, she also provided me with a little up beat at the end of a terribly sad story, because you can’t believe what she was up to, and that in its own way is outrageous and slightly funny and awful at the same time.

Is there one Tennessee Williams play in particular that remains at the top of your list?

Oh, you know I like parts of them all. I guess I am moved by Glass Menagerie. In a strange way although it’s the most flawed play of the great ones — I like Sweet Bird of Youth because I love the monologues about celebrity and fame and about the rich and flawed monsters. “I have this thing that I can unveil almost heroic like a sculpture.” That speech speaks volumes, I think, about 20th century fame and art and his life. It resonates with me. The word monster, which matriculates increasingly through his late plays — the etymology of that word is very strange and interesting. It means blessing and warning. It is formed by two opposite things. I think Williams’s life speaks to both sides of that experience — both brilliance and barbarity, greatness and to a certain extent lostness — it’s almost a bipolar experience.

A sacred monster?

The root idea is that a monster — a person so deformed — had to be touched by god on some level, and it’s a warning.

What’s next on the table?

I am publishing a book called Joy Ride. It’s a theatrical palaver. It’s a way of talking and showing students and fans in publishing my profiles and reviews, to show the synergy between knowing about contemporary writers and how they live, using it as a way of entering into the world of theater and plays. For example, I’ll write my profile of August Wilson and there will be two or three reviews of the plays. The reader gets to know about the life of the writer and then see the critic engaging with the work of the writer.

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Gregg Barrios is a 2013 USC Annenberg Getty Fellow, and serves on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle.