With it's 1945 Broadway premiere, THE GLASS MENAGERIE catapulted Tennessee Williams into the forefront of American playwrights which was confirmed with his second play A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE - his remarkable style of autobiographical poetic realism hitting an unknown chord at the time which has resounded down the years. They remain his most revived plays and for good reason, they have become plays that actors want to test themselves against. Personally I find them both incredibly moving plays to experience.
THE GLASS MENAGERIE is a four-hander and each role is wonderfully mined by Williams to give any actor who plays them so many opportunities. The play's premiere delivered a seismic shock across the theatre world and not only just for Tennessee's writing, as Laurette Taylor's performance as Amanda has echoed down the years - anyone who saw it said her naturalness in playing burned itself onto their memories and her death in 1946 aged only 63 surely robbed us of it being immortalized on screen, in the 1950 film version the British musical star Gertrude Lawrence played Amanda, a decision that Williams called "a dismal error".
What is interesting is that Taylor's performance was acclaimed because of the naturalness of her acting - Martin Landau said it was like an ordinary woman had wandered through the stage door and was moving around the stage - however it is usually the tendency for Amanda to be played in a barnstorming diva-style manner but in John Tiffany's excellent revival Cherry Jones is certainly barn-storming but totally within the world of the production; Tom, the narrator, tells us at the start that what we will see is what plays in his memory and his mother Amanda simply swamps his memory of life at home.
Tom Wingfield is a man haunted by memories of when he lived with his southern belle mother Amanda and his shy, withdrawn sister Laura in a cramped apartment in St Louis during the 1930s. Mr Wingfield left 16 years before - "a telephone man who fell in love with long distances" as Amanda bitterly says - and since then she has managed to raise her children but her overbearing love drives them to distraction. Tom longs to be a writer but has to work as a clerk in a shoe factory which he loathes and stays out at night to visit local cinemas and bars. This piece of autobiographical writing is given resonance when we read that Williams' regular trips to his local cinema were, in part, to have sex with men in the dark.
Laura's lack of self-confidence due to a crippled leg and pathological shyness have led her to pretend to go to a business school which drives Amanda to despair when she finds out. Amanda decides that Laura's only option is to find a man like the "gentleman callers" she remembers from her youth. Tom invites his only friend at work for dinner much to Amanda's delight but Jim O'Connor's appearance sets off a chain of events that will change the Wingfields forever. Tom tells Jim he has used the electricity bill money to register for the navy and when the lights cut out, Amanda encourages Jim to sit with Laura by candlelight but we know this is exquisite torture for her as she used to silently adore Jim at high school.
This scene is beautifully written - Williams taking the time to set the characters up so the scene plays almost like a thriller as we hang on their every words: Jim trying to build up Laura's confidence, Laura's hesitant introducing Jim to her beloved glass menagerie and, above all, the realization that Jim would be the perfect boyfriend for Laura; her hopes smashed - like her favourite glass unicorn figurine that Jim knocks against - when he reveals that he is already engaged, the sadness becoming unbearable when she gives Jim the broken unicorn as a parting gift to remember her by. Amanda's rage at Tom's ignorance of at his friend's engagement drives him from the flat for the last time and now his mother and sister haunt his peripatetic life.
As with most of Williams' plays it was arrived at through different permutations: it first appeared as a 1943 short story "Portrait of a Girl In Glass" and one of the interesting diversions from the play is when after The Gentleman Caller leaves, Laura enigmatically suggests that maybe she wasn't the only Wingfield child who was in love with Jim.... Williams also tried out the idea as a film script in the early 1940s when he had a six-month contract with MGM. Luckily it all came together as a play.
John Tiffany's production was beautifully realized; Bob Crowley's stripped-down set seemingly hanging in darkness and - unseen by us from the back of the stalls - surrounded by inky-black water. There was a surprising theatre moment when Michael Esper's Tom literally pulled Kate O'Flynn's timid Laura from the depths of the living room couch only to have her disappear within it at the end - this was a production which constantly reminded us through the use of Steven Hoggett's choreographed movement and Nico Muhly's tinking score that we were watching a non-realistic representation of Tom's memories.
In all the productions I have seen before, there was an imbalance in the level of performance but here John Tiffany elicited strong performances from all four: Cherry Jones and Brian J. Smith had played their characters in Boston and New York but they have still meshed well with the UK additions of Michael Esper (straight from the Bowie musical LAZARUS) and the English actress Kate O'Flynn so they feel like a real ensemble.
Esper was fine as Tom, wanting a life denied to him by his dead-end job and unhappy home life but you still felt his inner struggle with leaving the family home while Brian J. Smith was very good as Jim The Gentleman Caller who enters the home unaware of the weight of expectations awaiting him; he also added a larger-than-life quality to Jim giving him an air of the outside world that is missing from the crepuscular Wingfield home.
Kate O'Flynn gave an unsentimental performance as Laura, her shyness even with her mother and brother shown by her swallowing every word she spoke but she also rose to the challenge of slowly flowering into happiness when finally alone with her adored Jim; her slow withdrawal back into her interior world at the news of Jim's engagement was heartbreaking to watch. In other productions on both stage and screen Laura's crippled leg has been played up but here it is hardly noticeable; John Tiffany's take seems to be that Laura has convinced herself that she is a helpless cripple despite Amanda, Tom and Jim's protestations to the contrary.
I had seen Cherry Jones on Broadway in 2005 as Sister Aloysius in DOUBT and now she is making her much-anticipated London debut in a dazzling star performance. Her Amanda Wingfield is a woman whose life has not measured up to what she expected; brought up to expect a life of pampered marital leisure but who has had to raise her children alone, with no work experience to fall back on, in the challenging decades of the 1920s and 1930s. Amanda's tragedy is that she sacrifices everything for her children's future without seemingly asking what they want their future to be. Cherry Jones was funny, formidable, affecting, terrifying and, primarily, all-too-human.
John Tiffany has since had much acclaim with his direction of the Harry Potter plays but with THE GLASS MENAGERIE he lived up to Tom's opening speech - unlike the stage magician who "gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth, I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion".
This play continues to haunt you long after it ends, just as Tom is haunted by his memories of Laura and in reality Williams was haunted by the fate of his sister Rose who was given a frontal lobotomy on the agreement of their mother Edwina while Tennessee was away, working at MGM. Their initial closeness had given way under the pressure of Rose's mental condition and he turned against her when she revealed his homosexuality to their mother. But his lingering guilt at her treatment made him ensure that she was kept in the best rest homes and that she would be well cared for after his death. But the guilt remained... as it does for Tom:
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.