The Glass Menagerie, which we have seen at the Liverpool Playhouse, was Tennessee Williams’ most autobiographical play, drawing on early experiences, and particularly the characters of his mother and his sister, Rose Isabel Williams who never recovered from a botched lobotomy in 1943.
This was a Salisbury Playhouse/Shared Experience touring production, directed by Polly Teale, who comments:
Because The Glass Menagerie is so autobiographical we are placing Tennessee, the writer, at the heart of his own creation. We are imagining we are inside Tennessee Williams’ head and we are seeing everything through his eyes. For example, I don’t think Amanda is an accurate portrait of his mother, but I think she expresses his experience of her, which is overwhelming and suffocating.
At the interval I have to admit to not feeling that impressed. I had thought the acting, and especially the rather wonky American accents, left something to be desired. In particular I found Imogen Stubbs as Amanda, the mother, unconvincing – too young-looking, rather shrill and with a very unconvincing accent. The character was so wearing to listen to: ‘Why can’t you and your brother be normal people?’ she asks at one point, when clearly she is the most deluded of the three.
However, in the second half the performance burst into life with the encounter between Laura (Emma Lowndes), the shy, disabled sister of Tom, the narrator (Tennessee’s real name) and her ‘gentleman caller’ (Kyle Soller). This brief, liberating and life-enhancing encounter is the heart of the play and was exquisitely and tenderly played.
During dinner, Laura – faint with shyness and anxiety – spends most of the time on the sofa, away from the others. After, Jim gently approaches her and gradually, she begins to open up to him. He begins to remember her from the time they went to school together. She reminds him of the nickname he gave her: ‘Blue Roses’.
Jim: Didn’t we have a class in something together?
Laura: Yes, we did.
Jim: What class was that?
Laura: It was – singing – Chorus!
Laura: Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Jim: Now I remember – you always came in late.
Laura: Yes , it was so hard for me, getting upstairs. I had that brace on my leg – it clumped so loud!
Jim: I never heard any clumping.
Laura [wincing at the recollection]: To me it sounded like – thunder!
Jim: Well, well, well, I never even noticed.
Laura: And everybody was seated before I came in. I had to walk in front of all those people. My seat was in the back row. I had to go clumping all the way up the aisle with everyone watching!
Jim: You shouldn’t have been self-conscious.
Laura: I know, but I was. It was always such a relief when the singing started.
Jim: Aw, yes, I’ve placed you now! I used to call you Blue Roses. How was it that I got started calling you that?
Laura: I was out of school a little while with pleurosis. When I came back you asked me what was the matter. I said I had pleurosis – you thought I had said Blue Roses. That’s what you always called me after that!
Jim: I hope you didn’t mind.
Laura: Oh no – I liked it. You see I wasn’t acquainted with many – people…
Jim encourages her to be more self-confident and declares:
Somebody needs to build your confidence up and make you proud instead of shy and turning away and—blushing. Somebody ought to—ought to—kiss you, Laura!
They kiss, and for a moment, we are lured into thinking that everything will work out happily, with Amanda’s dreams for Laura’s security coming true and Tom finally able to escape the trap of family obligations. Yet, a moment after the kiss, Jim backs away and reveals that he is engaged. When he explains that he will not be back to visit again, Laura bravely smiles.
Tennessee Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi in 1911. While he was a young child his father travelled for the telephone company. At the age of seven, and when his sister Rose was nine years old, his father suddenly took a job with a shoe company and the entire family moved to St. Louis. It was here, as tensions in the family intensified, that Rose’s mental health began to deteriorate. In the future, Williams would blame himself for leaving her with their parents and allowing them to go ahead with the lobotomy.
There is an entry in Tennessee’s journal in which he expresses his remorse:
Grand, God be with you.
A chord breaking.
1000 miles away.
Rose. Her head cut open.
A knife thrust in her brain.
Me. Here. Smoking.
My father, mean as a
devil, snoring – 1000 miles
The closing lines of the play echo this:
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! Blow out your candles, Laura – and so good-bye…