The production at Liverpool Playhouse of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie that my daughter took me to see on Saturday was slated in the Observer. In her review Clare Brennan wrote that ‘Ellen McDougall’s direction constrains 3D actors in a 2D concept’. She went on:
Context matters. In this new co-production by Headlong, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, and West Yorkshire Playhouse, it has been eradicated. We are left with a tight focus on individuals separated from the indicators of the circumstances that mould them.
I could not disagree more. Not only is this a very fine production that excels in every department – direction, stage design and acting – but Brennan’s review, one of several that have taken the production to task for its lack of realism, completely misses misconstrues Tennessee Williams’ approach to drama, and his specific intentions with regard to The Glass Menagerie.
In his stage directions for the play, Williams writes :
The scene is memory and is therefore non-realistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic licence. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart. The interior is therefore rather dim and poetic.
Even more specifically, in the play’s introductory monologue, Tom (who is, at once the narrator, one member of the dysfunctional family on stage – and Tennessee Williams himself) states:
The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.
And if ‘context matters’, and theatrical productions must always conform to the realities of the period of their creation, we would only ever see Tudor-style full-dress performances of Shakespeare, and none of the exciting ones that strip his plays of context and make them relevant to our own times.
Everyone should know nowadays the unimportance of the photographic in art: that truth, life, or reality is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest, in essence, only through transformation, through changing into other forms than those which were merely present in appearance.
That’s Tennessee Williams again, in another quote from his production notes to The Glass Menagerie. The point about this play (and Williams’ whole approach) is that it uses expressionism to interpret the world through Williams’ autobiographical and very personal lens: although Tom’s introductory monologue sets the action very firmly in a particular time and place (St Louis just before the outbreak of World War Two), the play that follows is not intended to be an objective reflection of reality, and is full of imagery and symbolism.
Just because The Glass Menagerie is renowned for being intensely autobiographical, doesn’t mean it should be treated as an exercise in realism. It is suffused with symbolism, as Williams intended it to be. We know this because for most of his Broadway plays Tennessee Williams would compose an essay, usually for The New York Times, to be published just prior to opening to whet the appetites of theatregoers. Writing about The Glass Menagerie, he stated that his plays relied on ‘metaphorical ways of expression’ and insisted that ‘symbols are nothing but the natural speech of drama . . . the purest language of plays’. ‘Art,’ he said, ‘is made out of symbols the way your body is made out of vital tissue.’
I have strong feelings about this, not just because Ellen McDougall’s production was so good – brilliantly staged, moving and compelling – but also by virtue of the fact that I saw a ‘realistic’ production of this play by Shared Experience – also at the Playhouse – five years ago. Headlong’s production simply outshone the earlier one, driving home the meaning of Williams’ text with its stripped-down expressionism and attention to Williams’ symbolism.
I suppose the symbolism often gets neglected and realism is placed centre-stage because there are so many parallels between its story and Williams’ own life. Tom is not only the name of its narrator: it was
Williams’ given name. Williams, like Tom, was a writer employed in a shoe warehouse, a job that he hated; he had a friend named Jim Connor, just as Tom has a friend named Jim O’Connor – the ‘gentleman caller’ of the final act.
Williams went to the movies incessantly, as Tom does; he left home and become a wanderer, as Tom does. Like the family in the play, the Williams family lived in an apartment in St. Louis. Rose, Williams’ sister, went to Business College, just as Laura does.
There was even a ‘real’ glass menagerie. Tennessee once told an interviewer that he helped paint the walls and furniture white in his sister’s room, and
install her collection of glass animals, making ‘a place of white and crystal in the midst of squalor’.
The New York Times critic Frank Rich once said, ‘anyone can write an
autobiography, but only an artist knows how to remake his past so completely, by refracting it through a different aesthetic lens’. In The Glass Menagerie, beyond the flesh and blood humanity of the play’s characters, and the intensity of their feelings towards each other, Williams raises deep philosophical questions about how we treat other people, and how sometimes we fail in our dealings with others.
The Glass Menagerie is narrated by Tom (played here by Tom Mothersdale), a warehouse worker desperate to escape his claustrophobic home life. His mother, Amanda (Greta Scacchi), was abandoned years ago by her alcoholic husband and has never comes to terms, not only with being left unsupported financially and emotionally, but also with having married so low. She is determined to find a ‘gentleman caller’ for her fragile daughter, Laura, who walks with a limp after a childhood illness, and is intensely shy, living in a world of her own, obsessed with her collection of small glass animals. It’s a superb performance by Erin Doherty, who creates a character that is as fragile and beautiful as the world of glass animals she inhabits.
In his production notes, Williams said:
When you look at a piece of delicately spun glass you think of two things: how beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken. Both of those ideas should be woven into the recurring tune.
Speaking of his sister Rose, Williams also said this about how he transformed physical and emotional details from his memory into the central symbol of the play:
On the shelves around her room she collected a large assortment of little glass articles, of which she was particularly fond. Eventually, the room took on a light and delicate appearance, in spite of the lack of outside illumination, and it became the only room in the house that I found pleasant to enter. When I left home a number of years later, it was this room that I recalled most vividly and poignantly when looking back on our home life in St. Louis. Particularly the little glass ornaments on the shelves. They were mostly little glass animals. By poetic association they came to represent, in my memory, all the softest emotions that belong to recollection of things past. They stood for all the small and tender things that relieve the austere pattern of life and make it endurable to the sensitive.
Also there alongside the actors taking their bows at the end, ought to have been the director (Ellen McDougall) and the stage designer (Fly Davis). Because it’s the minimalist, expressionist look of this production that first grabs your attention. Fly Davis has created a black rectangular set that frames the action like a widescreen television. The stage is bereft of furnishings, with a couple of lamp standards being virtually the only props, while the costumes convey no sense of any particular period. The fire-escape which, following Williams’ own stage directions, is usually represented in realistic detail, is here a plain black set of steps. The overall effect is to give the play and its ideas a timeless quality.
Throughout the show I puzzled as to why the set appeared to float above a tank of water, with Tom Motherdale, in the moments when he is the narrator, sloshing through the water in bare feet. All was explained in the final scene when, drawing upon a reference in Williams’ stage directions, it rains.
Eventually, to his mother’s delight and his sister’s consternation, Tom brings home a ‘gentleman caller’, Jim O’Conner, who we discover Laura high school crush. Jim tries to boost Laura’s confidence, and the scenes between the two characters are superb. In the narrator’s introduction, Jim, the ‘gentleman caller’ is described by Tom as:
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.
In another distinctive aspect of the production, Jim is played by the black actor Eric Kofi Abrefa. This casting provoked a particularly sharp response from Clare Brennan in her Observer review:
The production’s lack of connection to a reality beyond its own construct is emphasised by the colour-blind casting. I wholeheartedly endorse the principle and, had the cast been more racially mixed, would not have thought it an issue. But to introduce a non-white outsider into a white family in Missouri in the late-1930s and have none of the characters in any way (positive or negative) acknowledge skin colour is to pretend that racial difference was not a factor in those lives. However little we like it, the fact is that it was. It still is: less than a year ago, members of the Missouri Ku Klux Klan threatened those protesting the shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson. In obliterating the fact of the importance of racial identity within this situation, the production expects its audience to turn a blind eye to the history of the African American experience – and to its continuing, terrible consequences today. I don’t think that’s what Williams was about.
I’ll admit it was jarring, especially when Amanda, recalls to Jim her days as the daughter of southern plantation aristocracy:
All of my gentlemen callers were sons of planters and so of course I assumed that I would be married to one and raise my family on a large piece of land with plenty of servants. But man proposes and woman accepts the proposal! To vary that old, old saying a little bit – I married no planter! I married a man who worked for the telephone company!
But, at that point Eric Kofi Abrefa turned towards the audience and gave us a meaningful look. It was a bit of Brechtian distancing that simply underlined the thoughts that ought to have been going through the mind of any thinking member of the audience. It’s true that Williams loathed racism (appalled that he had been unable to stop The Glass Menagerie playing to all-white audiences in Washington in 1947, insisted on a contractual clause that the play should never be performed in the capital ‘while this undemocratic practice continues’), and his plays give us a devastating portrait of the ugly prejudices of the American south. But, Williams wanted his audience to think: he was, after all, influenced by the theories of Brecht’s collaborator Erwin Piscator, a German emigre who ran the Drama Workshop in New York, and so might have appreciated the rich irony of the look that Eric Kofi Abrefa shared with the audience.
At the heart of this play is the tragic isolation of Laura, a thinly-veiled study of Tennessee Williams’ sister, Rose. Williams was born in Mississippi in 1911, at the age of seven, and when his sister Rose was nine years old, his father 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 introversion grew and her mental health began to deteriorate. She never recovered from a botched lobotomy in 1943, and in later years, Williams would blame himself for leaving her with their parents and allowing them to go ahead with the lobotomy.
Williams’ study of the family’s fault lines is unwavering, especially in his portrayal of Amanda, whose personality is closely based on that of his mother. ‘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.
It’s in the final scene, when the gentleman comes to call that we encounter the aching heart of this drama. During the dinner upon which Amanda has placed all her hopes for her daughter, Laura – faint with shyness and anxiety – removes herself to her room. Later, Jim gently approaches her and she begins to open up to him. She reminds him that they went to school together, and of the nickname he gave her: ‘Blue Roses’. She tells him how she dreaded walking into class, acutely aware of the clumping noise made by the brace she wore on her leg.
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.
This scene – the words that Jim uses to gently ease Laura out of the trap of her isolation, and the way he draws her to her feet to dance – is, for me, one of the finest in modern drama.
Jim: Yep – that’s what I judge to be your principal trouble. A lack of amount of faith in yourself as a person. You don’t have the proper amount of faith in yourself. I’m basing that fact on a number of your remarks and also on certain observations I’ve made. For instance that clumping you thought was so awful in high school. You say that you even dreaded to walk into class. You see what you did? You dropped out of school, you gave up an education because of a clump, which as far as I know was practically non-existent! A little physical defect is what you have. Hardly noticeable even! Magnified thousands of times by imagination! You know what my strong advice to you is? Think of yourself as superior in some way!
Laura: In what way would I think?
Jim: Why, man alive, Laura! just look about you a little. What do you see? A world full of common people! All of ’em born and all of ’em going to die! Which of them has one-tenth of your good points! Or mine! Or anyone else’s, as far as that goes – Gosh! Everybody excels in some one thing. Some in many!
We hear in Jim’s words an inspirational modern message of the worth of every individual, whatever their abilities or characteristics.
People are not so dreadful when you know them. That’s what you have to remember ! And everybody has problems, not just you, but practically everybody has got some problems. You think of yourself as having the only problems, as being the only one who is disappointed. But just look around you and you will see lots of people as disappointed as you are.
Sweeping Laura off her feet to the sound of music from the Paradise Dance Hall across the alley, Jim says:
I wish that you were my sister. I’d teach you to have some confidence in yourself. The different people are not like other people, but being different is nothing to be ashamed of. Because other people are not such wonderful people. They’re one hundred times one thousand. You’re one times one! They walk all over the earth. You just stay here. They’re common as – weeds, -but – you – well, you’re – Blue Roses!
How beautiful, and how easily broken.
But, Jim is engaged and Laura will never be liberated. There is tragedy on stage, but this is also Tennessee Williams’ own story, the expression of his own pain and guilt at having left his sister to her fate. Tennessee’s anguish at the memory of Rose is expressed in Tom’s final heart-wrenching speech:
I didn’t go to the moon, I went much further – for time is the longest distance between places. Not long after that I was fired for writing a poem on the lid of a shoebox. I left Saint Louis. I descended the step of this fire-escape for a last time and followed, from then on, in my father’s footsteps, attempting to find in motion what was lost in space. I travelled around a great deal. The cities swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly coloured but tom away from the branches.
I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something.
It always came upon me unawares, taking me altogether by surprise. Perhaps it was a familiar bit of music. Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass. 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 coloured glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colours, like bits of a shattered rainbow. Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes …
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.
Tennessee Williams has been described as ‘the poet of lost souls’. This play – brought to life so powerfully by the actors and director of this production from Headlong – reveals his empathy with the spiritually wounded, the luckless, the outcast, and every ‘unharmful, gentle soul’ who has been abandoned and forsaken.