A note from Eamon Flack on The Glass Menagerie

17 May 2016

A note from Eamon Flack on Tennessee Williams' famous 'memory play'

In 1943, the man obsessively writing and rewriting numerous versions of this play (half-drafts, short plays, short stories, a film) was a restless 32-year-old with a few minor theatrical successes and a wobbly stint as a screenwriter at MGM behind him. He was somewhere between the half-formed kid he’d been—Tom Williams of St Louis, Missouri, son of Edwina and Cornelius, brother of Rose and Dakin—and the man he thought he wanted to be—the poet and dramatist Tennessee Williams. In other words he was very much Tom Wingfield, the narrator of his unfinished play, raging eloquently in the shadow of his youth yet still seeking the clear light of his fate. Like Tom Wingfield, Tom Williams was a poet and a homosexual and, like Tom Wingfield, he had slipped the knot of a particularly interesting family situation in St Louis, leaving his troubled sister in the sole care of his troubled mother.

But who would do for Tom Williams what Tom Williams was trying to do for Tom Wingfield? How to make something of the vividness, the madness, the lust and the pain which had characterised his adult life? Where was Tennessee Williams when you needed him? Sure, Tom Williams had called himself Tennessee for four years already, but the fact remains that in 1943 Tennessee Williams was really just an outsized moniker for a restless 32-year-old obsessively writing and rewriting versions of this play...

Meanwhile, his elder sister Rose Williams was recovering from a lobotomy at the State Hospital in Farmington, Missouri. Except, of course, one doesn’t really recover from a lobotomy. Her fate, unlike her brother’s, had already been decided: the vividness, the madness, the lust and the pain which had characterised her adult life was to be kept in trim for the rest of her existence by institutional medical care.

Unlike her brother, there seems no output from her long life. Except for this: the fate of Rose Williams is the organising principle of the play that came to be called The Glass Menagerie by the playwright now very much known as Tennessee Williams. Laura’s quietness in the play is loud with the absence of Rose’s voltage. In the legendary stakes young Tom Williams had set for himself when he left his sister to his mother and grandly took the name Tennessee, the poetic force of Rose’s lobotomy is dreadfully perfect: once there were two Williams siblings, so close and so alike, both so full of impulse and oddity, both so original and forceful, but now only one of them could still speak for himself. When 1943 rang its terrible bell for Tom/Tom/Tennessee, his play acquired a new purpose: not only must he rescue himself from the clumsy oblivion of ordinary life, he must also rescue his sister.

The play he managed to write wants everything for itself: truth and illusion, penury and theatrical grandeur, delicacy and brutality, eternal life and utter momentary fragility. The multiplicity of details and ideas and forms is immense. Williams looked back into the shoebox of his years in St Louis with his sister and mother (he lobotomised his real-life father and brother from the stage) and created a tiny theatre in the theatre, a small private stage for the large drama they performed for each other. Out of the small mire of their daily lives there emerged, from time to time, glimpses of an enormous vision at work. It was a compound of many visions.

There was a vision of munificence—a largeness of temperament, a beneficence, a sense of latter-day glory on earth—a very American vision, wonderful until it swells to the psychotic proportions of American megalomania, which it very often does. There was a vision of capitalism, at once effervescent and obtuse, characterised by roughness and sameness and mass-ness (mass-ness was such a theme last century; now, when the world is twice and three times as large, we seem to have forgotten it). There was a vision of human optimism, a weave of delusion and good faith. There was the lost glory of his mother’s 19th century Southern childhood, dropping its plum-line deep into the age-old schadenfreude of knowing for sure that one has lived through a golden age, which no longer exists. There was a vision of non- compliance, a knowing refusal to accede to the claims of reality, neither domestic reality nor the reality of war and history. There was a Whitmanesque vision of poetry in the midst of squalor. There was a vision of love: both impossible and inescapable, ruined and pure, secret and undeniable. There was an unarticulated vision for something else, something different—perhaps not so much a vision as a queerness in the lens that altered all the other visions and had its own peculiar primacy.... Such a wonderful, deranged concoction of visions for such a small family.

Williams put them all in the play and bound them in the tyrannical details of daily life—a dozen genies in one tight bottle. But still, he wanted more for his play (for his sister?) so he added a projection screen, titles, a narrator, a love story... He made a great contemporary tragedy in a little room. He wrote it like a dream, like a film, like a memory, like a wound, and he gave it a perfect dramatic arc. All this—the detail, the originality, the experimentation, the rawness—unfolds with dizzying exactitude on the page: forceful and gorgeous and a little bit euphoric. But the sad silence at its centre is perhaps the most eloquent thing about it.

Tom Wingfield’s fate in the play is unknown because Tom Williams’ own fate wasn’t sealed until the play opened. When it did, in Chicago in 1944, the play became its own denouement: its greatness was recognised almost instantly, and both Toms entered the spheres of their own destiny. Tom Wingfield became trapped forever inside the infernal machine of the play, bound by his intimate, intractable acquaintance with vision and peculiarity. And Tom Williams finally filled out his oversized new name. The full-blown life of Tennessee Williams was now in motion—but that’s a whole other story....

As for Rose Williams, she never lived outside of a medical facility again. Tennessee paid for her care. When he died, she inherited his estate. She outlived her brother by thirteen years. In some secret way his greatest plays were all about Rose. This particular production is an attempt to do for this play what Tennessee Williams tried to do for his sister: to revive a peculiarity in the midst of crushing sameness; to come to know and hopefully never forget what it is to have a care for a queer, fragile, beautiful thing; to look past the obvious for the truth. Tennessee Williams is foolhardy—by which I mean heroic—to propose such an undertaking. The rough vitality of our society doesn’t care. It obliterates indiscriminately. What do we do about the gentle, the odd, the peculiar, the monstrous, the marvellous, the broken?

But what are we without them?

Eamon Flack / Director of The Glass Menagerie.

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The Glass Menagerie plays 18 May – 5 June 2016.