Five minutes into John Dexter’s revival of The Glass Menagerie it had become apparent that something was wrong. The audience was laughing. Not laughing out of hostility or derision, but laughing the way people do when they think someone has just said something funny, before they realize that it isn’t meant to be funny at all.
Tom was talking to the audience, which always comes as a surprise in itself. For what one remembers about The Glass Menagerie are its characters (the forlorn sister and the impossibly domineering mother), the fiery exchanges between mother and son, the little glass animals that keep breaking at opportune moments, and a lot of fuss being made about a “gentleman caller.” One tends to forget that it is Tom who begins and ends the play and that the scenes we see enacted between Amanda, Tom, Laura, and the Gentleman Caller are presented as Tom’s memories of something that happened a long time ago in another city.
Tom’s opening monologue, and his closing piece, contain some of the best writing Williams ever did. And Williams at his best is quite good. But Williams at his best is also fairly rare, given his propensity for crude symbolism, his tendency to drift toward the precious and the self-indulgent, his seemingly endless capacity to be easily impressed with himself and with the hollow reverberations of his own deep-sounding pronouncements. For Williams, even stage directions, even instructions to the set designer, were pregnant with meaning. The Wingfield apartment in The Glass Menagerie, for example,
faces an alley and is entered by a fire escape, a structure whose name is a touch of accidental poetic truth, for all of these huge buildings are always burning with the slow and implacable fires of human desperation.
Traces of sententiousness are certainly not absent from the opening sequence of the play, but on the whole they are kept to a minimum, and thank goodness: the opening sequence of The Glass Menagerie, in my opinion, is the one really solid theatrical idea Williams ever had. Tom’s monologue, in addition to setting the stage and establishing the mood of the whole piece, provides the perspective from which we are to view the play. It relegates the world of depression-era St. Louis and the Wingfield apartment to a place somewhere between truth and the slightly distorted fiction that events in the past can become. If Laura and Amanda are not “realistic” characters, that is not only because they live in a world peopled by glass animals and non-existent suitors, but also because we see them through the filter of Tom’s memory and memory is not the medium of reality but of imagination, regret, self-justification, guilt—the whole spectrum of emotional colors through which we view the past. This is one of the few pieces of truth that Williams ever hit on, and it is what makes The Glass Menagerie a good play rather than just a pleasantly sentimental period piece. Williams uses Tom’s monologue to warn us against taking the little domestic drama we see enacted at face value.
I am the narrator of the play, and also a character in it. The other characters are my mother, Amanda, my sister Laura, and a gentleman caller who appears in the final scenes. He is the most realistic character in the play, being an emissary from a world of reality that we were somehow set apart from. But since I have a poet’s weakness for symbols, I am using this character also as a symbol; he is the long-delayed but always expected something that we live for.
It’s a bit self-conscious, yes, but with gentle pacing and a light, self-deprecating tone a clever actor ought to be able to manage it.
[Music begins to play.] The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic. In memory everything seems to happen to music. That explains the fiddle in the wings.
It’s not a funny line, not intentionally anyway. It is the sort of line one can imagine Williams writing and then leaning back to draw on a cigarette, thinking with satisfaction of its powerful simplicity and of the quiet smiles of approval it would elicit from an intelligent audience, an audience capable of recognizing truth mixed with wit, irony, and poetic imagination.
From the audience at the Eugene O’Neill Theater the line brought forth a delighted hoot. “That was a good one, that was!” the laughter seemed to say. “Didn’t know this was going to be a comedy!” Then, raggedy, the laughter subsided into confused silence. They had laughed once earlier, at an unexpectedly empty and ungainly image: “the huge middle class of America . . . matriculating in a school for the blind . . . having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy.” This, too, they had honestly taken for a joke and had been embarrassed. The third time the audience cracked up, though, it happened to be over a line I have always rather liked. Tom, having come to the end of the list of characters, begins to describe his father:
There is a fifth character in the play who doesn’t appear except in this larger than life-size photograph over the mantel. This is our father who left us a long time ago. He was a telephone man who fell in love with long distances; he gave up his job at the telephone company and skipped the light fantastic out of town…
“A telephone man who fell in love with long distances”: now that is an awfully good line, good because its cleverness creeps up on you rather than knocking you unconscious. Why the audience at the Eugene O’Neill Theater found it funny I will never know; but Tom, who had begun looking rather more haunted than the part actually calls for, finished his speech off at a clip. The first line after that is, fortunately, Amanda’s. “Tom?” she calls from the table where she and Laura are just sitting down to their evening meal. Tom takes leave of the audience with a polite bow and goes to take his place among the actors in the play. The minute Jessica Tandy opened her mouth everyone perked up, so it looked as though everything was going to be all right after all. But it wasn’t.
Tennessee Williams’s plays are full of “fiddles in the wings"—and I don’t mean someone sawing a violin offstage. If the opening of The Glass Menagerie works structurally but is verbally close to an embarrassment, that is not an aberration. The fact is that as a playwright Williams combined an unusual talent for thinking in theatrical terms with an extraordinary lack of literary sensibility. It is scarcely possible to read a single one of his plays without coming on something—some embarrassing flight of verbal fancy—that makes you blush for him and want to hide your face. The main body of Williams’s work is riddled with them, from small errors of judgment—the Mexican woman who pops up in A Streetcar Named Desire babbling “Flores, flores para los muertos”—to whole plays, like The Rose Tattoo, Camino Real, Sweet Bird of Youth, and Orpheus Descending, that really amount to no more than huge lapses of taste. Here, for example, is a passage from The Purification:
Knocking down walls with two blue brutal bare fists clenched over quicksilver could ever— could certainly never—enclose such longing as was my sister’s! How much less night, fearlessly stating with stars that breathless inflection— Forever?
The so-called acting version of The Glass Menagerie calls for a sort of multi-media effect using a slide projector to cast “images or titles” at appropriate moments in the play on “a section of wall between the front-room and the dining-room area.” The purpose of this device, as Williams explained in his production notes is “to give accent to certain values in each scene.” Thus, the script for Scene Four reads like this:
TOM [gently]: What is it, Mother, that you want to discuss? AMANDA: Laura! [TOM puts his cup down slowly.] [Legend on screen: “Laura.”] TOM:—Oh.—Laura …
If Williams had had his way, every time Laura reminisces about “Blue Roses,” the Gentleman Caller’s old nickname for her, an image of blue roses would have appeared on the screen. Most directors wisely follow the original Broadway production in choosing not to notice the playwright’s recommendation here. Williams wrote that, for various reasons, he did not “regret the omission of this device” from the original New York production. I dare say he was not the only one. (The audience for the 1983 revival is not so lucky. Although John Dexter does not follow the playscript to the letter, he finds nothing wrong with clarifying Laura’s feelings when she goes to open the door to Tom and the Gentleman Caller: “Terror!” reads the screen over the stage.)
Williams’s explanation for the importance of this device offers an insight into the Classic Comics terms in which he instinctively thought:
Each scene contains a particular point (or several) which is structurally the most important .... The legend or image upon the screen will strengthen the effect of what is merely allusion in the writing and allow the primary point to be made more simply and lightly than if the entire responsibility were on the spoken lines.
I like that word “lightly”! Slapping the word “Annunciation” across a stage flat was Williams’s notion of subtlety.
A writer of few ideas to begin with, Williams played over the several themes that did engage his imagination almost without interruption or variation. Loneliness, desperation, and vague intimations of mortality were his windows on the soul, and the vista they afforded him amounted to a rather addled view that sex is somehow at the bottom of everything, that—as Stella tells Blanche in Streetcar—“there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark—that sort of make everything else seem—unimportant.”
Williams, however, not content with the literary opportunity that sexual realism offered him, always groping hotly after greater implications, imbued his vision of sexuality with the oozing mysticism that makes much of his writing so cloying. The women in his plays are never pregnant: their bellies are “rounding slightly with new maternity” and they whirl and stagger about the stage—like Serafina in The Rose Tattoo and Lady in Orpheus Descending—shouting “I have conceived! Two lives again in the body!” and “I have life in my body! This dead tree, my body, has burst into flower!”
Such writing is the product not of poetic imagination but of arrested development. Take an all-consuming desire to be admired as a great playwright and mix it with a perennially adolescent outlook: it is the perfect recipe for pretentious melodrama and most of Williams’s work is just that. Things happen in his plays that happen nowhere else in the world with such rhythmic regularity and they are raised to the status of universal truths rather than relegated to the realm of the outrageous or unusual. The rapes leading to insanity, the abortions leading to barrenness, the homosexuality leading to suicide, the loneliness leading to nymphomania—such things do happen certainly, but they don’t all happen to the same people, or in the same melodramatic way. Neurotics do not go slowly mad to the strains of “Varsouviana” playing in the distance.
They do, however, suffer from reminiscence, and they do touch up the truth in their visions of the past. That is what makes The Glass Menagerie different from the formless mass of Williams’s other work: whatever is not quite believable can be refiltered by the audience through Tom’s romantic nostalgia.
Unfortunately, the current production fails miserably in this regard, which is partly the result of casting “personalities” who cannot act (like Amanda Plummer) or who no longer need to (like Jessica Tandy) and so only play themselves. As the ethereal Laura (“like a piece of her own glass,” wrote Williams, redundantly as usual, “too exquisitely fragile to move from the shelf”), Amanda Plummer is very far from a vision of inestimable sadness: with her hoarse, unmodulated voice, her distracting lisp, and her golly-gee-yuk-yuk tone, which she seems incapable of varying, she gave the impression, far from being pathologically shy, of being perhaps not quite shy enough. Bruce Davison’s Tom was every mother’s son, affectionate, attentive, and respectful. At every moment you expected him to burst into a round of “M is for the million things she gave me . . and was it any wonder? Jessica Tandy was playing Irene Dunn in I Remember Mama, a paragon of sweet reasonableness, concerned for her children and eager for their happiness. Oh, she nagged a bit, but what mother wouldn’t have with such children? One wept with her for youth today: no interest in paying the electricity bill or in raising a family, thinking they've been put here on earth to go to the movies and sit around playing old phonograph records. What’s a mother to do?
Tandy’s performance—which incidentally is not peculiar to this production: twenty years ago she read the part exactly the same way on the Howard Sackler recording—does more than tamper with the dynamics of the play. It actively changes it. It was as if Tandy had been called in to avenge the ghost of Amanda Wingfield, maligned and branded for nearly forty years as a harridan and a shrew.
Of course Amanda Wingfield does not need Jessica Tandy to rescue her from ignominy. Intelligently played, Amanda, like all slightly self-deluded characters who live primarily in the world of a better and fairer past, moves between the faintly noble and the faintly absurd. But she does have a penchant for playacting, and an exasperating habit of turning every mundane situation into a minor domestic tragedy with herself as long-suffering victim. She is the Jewish Mother turned coloratura and gone south for the winter. Sure, any mother would be incensed on discovering that her daughter had secretly dropped out of business college weeks before! That’s fifty dollars down the drain and what does the hopeless girl plan to do? But Amanda takes four histrionic pages to get to the point, running through a whole repertoire of hackneyed theatrical gestures along the way: she “leans against the door and stares at Laura with a martyred look"; “continuing the sweet, suffering stare,” she lets her hat and gloves “fall on the floor—a bit of acting”; she picks up Laura’s typing chart, “holds it in front of her a second, staring at it sweetly and sorrowfully—then bites her lips and tears it in two pieces,” and so on. If Jessica Tandy did these things, she did them so unobtrusively that no one noticed.
With a little help, playing Amanda this way can do a lot of damage to The Glass Menagerie, especially to the final scene, which rests on the juxtaposition of the melodramatic and the mundane. Amanda, when the Gentleman Caller turns out to have a girlfriend at the depot, immediately becomes the center of another tin-pot tragedy and is eager to lay the blame: she weeps, she cries, she tears her hair. Reproaches and recriminations fly. We know, however, because we have seen what happened, that there is no blame to be laid, just as there is no real tragedy: an ordinary young man—one of those ordinary young men with sunny dispositions and lots of boyish charm—flirted with Laura in the careless way that self-assured young men with lots of boyish charm flirt with girls who need to be “drawn out.” Properly played, the Gentleman Caller’s flirtation should be entirely innocent, almost unconscious. He should saunter in and saunter out unchanged and unaware that anything in the house has been changed by his progress through it. John Heard’s Gentleman Caller seemed to have blundered into the wrong theater from an O'Neill play. He brought to the part a whole casebook of motivations for leading poor Laura along and crept out of the house like the Ancient Mariner devastated by the harm he had done. This boy, you knew, would never flirt again! So heavy did the tragic gloom hang over his departure that Amanda’s reaction seemed entirely appropriate, right in keeping with the reasonableness that Tandy had been giving her all along. The audience had no reason to contrast Amanda’s histrionics with the very real pathos of Laura’s situation: her circumstances have not really changed, but she might have kept her illusions.
More than anything else, The Glass Menagerie is a play about lost illusions: Amanda’s, Laura’s, and Tom’s. But the last illusion the play shatters is the audience’s. Throughout the play, Amanda is the center of dramatic attention because she makes herself the martyr of every situation. Laura, a pale shadow of background insignificance, is important only as a pawn in Amanda’s self-dramatizing plans and fantasies. No one who talks to Laura is ever really concentrating on her: even the Gentleman Caller is more intent on impressing himself than the girl he is talking to (“I happened to notice you had this inferiority complex . . .”). Laura does briefly become the focus of attention, at the beginning of Scene Four, when she slips on the fire escape and fails, but even here she only becomes the excuse for a temporary rapprochement in the ongoing row between Tom and Amanda, the central conflict that ends in Tom’s departure.
When Tom slams out of the house at the end of the play in response to Amanda’s “Go to the moon, you selfish dreamer!” he lingers on the fire escape for a moment, then turns to face the audience:
I didn’t go to the moon, I went much further .... I traveled round a good deal. The cities swept about me like dead leaves .... I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something.
If we are about to find out that Tom’s dreams of adventure and release have come to nothing, we naturally assume that Amanda is the cause. Amanda, after all, is what Tom wanted to escape; if something pursues him it must be some lingering sense of filial guilt. It comes as a surprise, therefore, when halfway through the final speech it turns out to be the sister, not the mother, who is pursuing Tom:
Perhaps I am walking along a street at night, in some strange city, before I have found companions. I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The window is filled with pieces of colored glass .... Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn and look into her eyes.
Needless to say, the last scene of the current production did not register shock as it should have. With Tandy playing Mary Poppins and Amanda Plummer playing the Elephant Man, with Tom playing the Gentleman Caller and the Gentleman Caller playing Tom, your attention had been drawn to entirely the wrong people. Why is it, then, that two weeks after seeing The Glass Menagerie I still see the closing image in my mind?
The answer has to do with that part of theater—perhaps the biggest part—which is visual. In this production, Ming Cho Lee’s set for the Wingfield apartment and the fire escape took up, at a guess, about three quarters of the stage, with the dim suggestion of a tenement building rising behind it to distorted heights. The rest of the stage to the left, where Tom usually stood when he addressed the audience, was space, just empty space, and a backdrop painted with impossibly feathery clouds against a sky the color of blue you've never actually seen, but, thinking back, always remember.
The final scene had been so grossly misplayed and misdirected that the delicately ironic nonevent to which the play builds up (so the Gentleman Caller turned out to have a girlfriend at the depot: so what? “Lot’s of fellows meet girls whom they don’t marry, mother!") had been reduced to so much Louisiana melodrama. But while Tom had been speaking to the audience you had forgotten this. Amanda was going about the apartment turning down the lights and she and Laura had arranged themselves in a sentimental tableau. No matter that it was the wrong tableau, that Laura now is meant to be alone on stage. By now you had had time to forget that it was Jessica Tandy and Amanda Plummer sitting there; you forgot to notice the places in Tom’s speech where Tennessee Williams waxes eloquent or Bruce Davison’s hokey gesture, blowing a farewell kiss.
Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be. I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger—anything that can blow your candles out! For nowadays the world is lit by lightning!
As Laura bent over the candles, putting them out one by one, you saw only—and days afterward remembered—a lone figure gazing back into the half-light at a vanishing tableau.
“Blow out your candles, Laura—and so, goodbye!” Tennessee Williams was no great playwright, but he did think, occasionally, in visual theatrical terms, which is more than you can say for half a score of people who insist on writing plays these days. To write well is certainly something, and it is something Williams certainly could do only rarely. But it is also something to write a play that, however far from greatness, and however badly presented, has got to be a play and is well worth reviving in a huge Broadway theater at all the expense that a Broadway theater can command. It is something to leave an audience with an image that, hovering about the edges of judgment, lingers on long after the sound of an ill-tempered bow, straining for a melody that no one willingly would hear, has died away.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 2 Number 6, on page 52
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