JOHN LAHR is the biographer of playwrights Tennessee Williams and Joe Orton, and was for 21 years the principal drama critic for the New Yorker.
The magazine is famous for the time and scope it gives to its authors, as well as its meticulous fact-checking.
It was this same attention to craft and process that Lahr brought to his theatre criticism and profiles of writers and directors, now collected under the title of Joy Ride, and the subject of his fascinating discussion with Daniel Hahn at the Henley Literary Festival.
Among Lahr’s books is a biography of his father Bert Lahr, who played the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, and a man who off-stage was “sensationally morose” but the very reverse once he’d stepped into the limelight.
This early experience of watching from the wings, as it were, gave John Lahr an insight — unusual for a critic — into the “panic, mistakes and vulgarity” that are an integral part of life behind the scenes.
He soon realised the power of laughter, recalling how Barry Humphries’ Dame Edna caused audiences to rock back and forth in their seats like seaweed in a swell.
On another occasion, Spike Milligan’s rendition of the national anthem on a kazoo, followed by the remark “If you’ll stand for that, you’ll stand for anything,” caused one man to fall helpless with laughter into the aisle, so incapable of movement that the departing theatregoers had to step over him.
But along with the laughter and the joy, Lahr stressed the high seriousness and social purpose of drama.
He quoted Hamlet’s remark about actors being the “abstract and brief chronicles of the time”, and referred to them as “athletes of the spirit”.
Similarly, Lahr takes his writing with proper seriousness. Hundreds of pages of material would be condensed into a handful for his New Yorker profiles.
He employed a fact-checker for three months to comb through his biography of Tennessee Williams.
He likes to see his subjects in different settings, going bowling with Al Pacino (until Pacino’s presence stirs up too much interest in the bowling alley) or accompanying Arthur Miller on a nostalgic visit to the cabin where he wrote, in one inspired night, the first act of Death of a Salesman.
John Lahr is not a reviewer. He disapproves of stars — that is, the practice of awarding productions merit badges — but this was a session worth plenty of them.