“When you look at a piece of delicately spun glass,” Tennessee Williams wrote in the stage directions for The Glass Menagerie, the 1944 play that made his name, “you think of two things: how beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken.” The observation has obvious relevance to that particular drama, which famously features, as one of its symbols, a collection of delicate spun-glass animals owned by one of its soon-to-be emotionally broken characters. (As it happens, the reference to spun glass isn’t a bit of pontificating about the themes of the play: Williams is trying to suggest, with typically ample, even novelistic, descriptiveness, the quality of the musical leitmotif he has in mind for his play.) But it’s hard not to read that stage direction without thinking of Williams’s entire theatrical output: in one way or another, nearly everything he wrote is about beauty and brokenness.
Or, perhaps, about the beauty of brokenness. For Williams, those “two things”—the beautiful and the broken—were always connected. Even if you discount the by now well-known biographical details that seem to overdetermine this recurring theme—the once-distinguished family fallen into decline; the stunted career of the father; the slightly mad, overbearing mother; the institutionalized and then lobotomized sister—his place, time, and culture seem to have chosen his great theme for him: a recognition that the beautiful (love, romance, “art,” the glories of the past) will always remain out of reach or, if briefly achieved, will always be smashed.
He was, after all, a product of the deep South, where many families, like his, struggled to balance memories of a romanticized past with the realities of a less-than-exalted present; and he was, too, a homosexual living at a time when society still insisted on a certain furtiveness—a time when you couldn’t openly acknowledge what it was you found to be beautiful. (Not, as an even cursory perusal of his memoirs suggests, that Williams bothered about secrecy.) In The Rose Tattoo, there’s a stage direction that calls for two dressmaker’s dummies, “a widow and a bride who face each other in violent attitudes, as though having a shrill argument, in the parlor.” Although the argument persists throughout Williams’s work, you never really doubt that it’s the widow who’s likely to win. Williams was the great dramatist of the beautiful failure, the poet of the noble defeat.
The sense of inevitability that haunts Williams’s most powerful plays is the reason they are not tragedies in the classical sense but rather dra-mas of pathos. What makes classical tragedy irresistible is the spectacle of a great figure, powerful and competent, brought unexpectedly low by some flaw in himself, some bad decision rooted in his character that leads, with awful irony, to inexorable destruction. In Williams’s plays, the bad decisions have already been made by the time the curtain rises; the emotional core of his drama lies not in a critical moment of choice but in the spectacle of abjection, of an already doomed, ruined person struggling to hang on to something beautiful. Greek tragedians tend to be interested in character, which is why the suffering comes at the end of their plays (it’s the result of bad choices). Williams is interested in personality, which is why he begins with the suffering, with the poverty or the madness.
This is why his characters, while complex, rarely develop. He prefers, instead, to counterpose characters who represent monolithic and unchanging concepts or values—the raw energies of capitalism or of libido, say (to take the most famous examples, from Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire), and the delicate, even delusional, ideology of beauty and romance, an ideology that is, you could say, characteristically Southern and homosexual of a certain period—and then watch the hand play itself out as we all know it must. When you watch Antigone or Bacchae, you are always haunted by the possibility that things just might have turned out differently, because the characters seem to be independent subjects—seem, however briefly, to be in control of their own choices. When you watch The Glass Menagerie, you know from the start that the narcissistic Amanda Wingfield’s desperate attempts to find a suitor for her crippled daughter will end up crushing the girl forever; when you watch Streetcar, you know, from the minute Blanche DuBois appears outside her sister’s tawdry New Orleans apartment dressed in her dainty white garden party outfit, that she will end up in a loony bin.
And yet that same sense of inevitable doom, the spectacle of abjection rather than the drama of choice, is what generates the considerable emotional interest in Williams’s best work. This lies in the pathetic tension between the characters’ illusions about themselves (the dainty white outfit) and the crushing disappointments that, we know, await them (poverty, the sordid reality of lust). We respond to his heroines not because they are particularly good—they are, if anything, often unattractive; nobody in his right mind would want Blanche DuBois as a houseguest any more than Stanley Kowalski does—but because, since we all have secret fantasies and illusions, we are bound to be moved by the spectacle of characters who can’t, or won’t, give in to the sordid realities of life.
In his expansive stage directions for Menagerie, Williams amplifies his description of the music he wanted. This melody, he said, must be
like circus music, not when you are on the grounds or in the immediate vicinity of the parade, but when you are at some distance and very likely thinking of something else…. It expresses the surface vivacity of life with the underlying strain of immutable and inexpressible sorrow.
Surface vivacity competing with inexpressible sorrow: it would be hard to find a better characterization of Williams’s greatest characters. The question is not whether, but rather how long, the vivacity, the beauty, can hold out against the sorrow.
A crucial feature of Williams’s dramas of beauty crushed and heroic failure—a feature that does, after all, suggest a certain resemblance between his theater and Greek tragedy—is the playwright’s use of female characters to represent both the aspiration toward beauty and the inevitability of defeat. In the time and place and culture that produced him, women could still serve, without irony, as useful vehicles for exploring those qualities. Few dramatists in the Western tradition apart from Euripides have made such memorable and distinctive use of women and even girls—striving, pathetic, relentless, deluded, murderous—as mouthpieces for certain kinds of repressed emotional currents.
Like Euripides, Williams was, in his own lifetime, instantly marked, in the eyes of both critics and the public, by a rare imaginative sympathy for his female creations. Like Euripides, he exploited personal and cultural notions of the feminine (soft, poetic, silly, emotional, prone to madness and vengefulness, cunning) to create female characters who transcended them; like Medea and Phaedra and Iphigenia, Williams’s women and girls manage to be both memorably, even frighteningly, extreme and sympathetic at the same time. Even when they do repellent things, these characters successfully gain our sympathy by their ability to articulate, or in some way to represent, everything that has been left out of the worldview of the men with whom they come into conflict on stage: delicacy of feeling, spirituality, nostalgia, fantasy, art.
It is for this reason, I suspect, that Williams’s plays are themselves rather “fragile” just now. His dramatic preoccupation with suffering, with madness and desperation, can strike us, in the Prozac era, as excessive; even more, his vision of the feminine as pathetic—which is to say, as liable to pathos, as vulnerable, pitiable, as well as hopelessly striving—is likely to strike us, in the post-feminist era, as dated and perhaps embarrassing. This is why the line between his theater and camp can now seem a blurry one. A young comparative literature professor I know, when he found out I was writing about Williams, wrote an e-mail which he intended to be encouraging: “He pulls off the extraordinary feat,” he wrote, “of showing how the camp is—genuinely—tragic: how camp, in fact, is genuine.”
But of course Williams didn’t write his plays as camp. They only seem campy if wrenched out of the quite specific social and cultural contexts in which they organically developed. However much it can strike us as outmoded or the product of highly idiosyncratic circumstances—his family history, his homosexuality, the South, postwar sensibilities—Williams’s vision of the feminine is as much a part of his distinctive style as his idiosyncratic poetic language is. In his introduction to Williams’s collected short stories, Gore Vidal recalls the result of his attempts to edit Williams’s prose. “So I reversed backward-running sentences, removed repetitions, simplified the often ponderous images. I was rather proud of the result. He was deeply irritated. ‘What you have done is remove my style, which is all that I have.'” If you try to ignore Williams’s intellectual and cultural “style,” or to update it—to modernize or find feminist issues in it—the plays can’t mean what they’re supposed to mean, and won’t produce the emotions they’re supposed to produce.
This, at any rate, is the conclusion you’re likely to reach after sitting through the star-studded new productions of The Glass Menagerie and Streetcar currently enjoying limited runs on Broadway. (I will write about Streetcar in a second article.) In each, a failure in sensitivity to the cultural mise-en-scène, to the importance of the feminine pathetic, and above all to Williams’s specific requirements for its female and indeed male roles—each production features highly unconventional casting of a major male lead—demonstrates how fragile his work has become.
The Glass Menagerie is, in many ways, Williams’s most emotionally delicate work, perhaps because it is his most obviously autobiographical; the characters have not yet hardened into the types, almost the stereotypes (frail belles, abusive men), who inhabit some of the later works. If the play’s characters have the unresolved complexity of real life rather than the symbolic power of dramatic and psychological archetype, it’s because the relationship between the domineering and manipulative Amanda Wingfield and her two wounded children—the crippled Laura, for whom the once-much-courted Amanda strives to find a “gentleman caller,” and the sensitive, rebellious would-be poet, Tom—bears more than a passing resemblance to that between Williams’s mother, Edwina, and the playwright and his unstable sister, Rose.
Williams famously refers to Menagerie as a “memory play,” and he wrote at great length about the “unusual freedom of convention” with which it ought to be presented in order to bring out its dominant qualities of delicacy and fragility. He suggests the use of an onstage screen on which thematically significant “magic-lantern slides bearing images or titles” might be projected (“SCREEN LEGEND: ‘OÙ SONT LES NEIGES'”) and insists that the lighting not be realistic, either. (“A certain correspondence to light in religious paintings, such as El Greco’s… could be effectively used,” he goes on to say.) Music, as we know, also plays an important if impressionistic role, with that single, recurring, circus-like tune used “to give emotional emphasis to suitable passages.”
Still, however impressionistic Williams wanted stagings of this play to be, it is clear from his further directions (to say nothing of the action of the play) that the design must convey the Wingfields’ economic situation, which is both precarious and soul-destroying:
The Wingfield apartment is in the rear of the building, one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living-units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centers of lower middle-class population…. The apartment faces an alley and is entered by a fire-escape…. At the rise of the curtain, the audience is faced with the dark, grim rear wall of the Wingfield tenement….
And so forth.
All this is important because everything that happens in the play—Amanda’s obsessive invocations of her more genteel past and her desperate attempts to find her crippled daughter first a job and then a husband; her son Tom’s furtive nocturnal escapades, a reaction to his dreary job at a shoe factory—is both fueled by, and made more poignant when considered against, the squalor in which the characters live. Tom’s eventual decision, alluded to in a flashback but never actually dramatized in the course of the play, to leave Amanda and Laura in order to find himself as a poet and a man is so dreadful precisely because of its material rather than merely emotional implications: without the sixty dollars a month that he earns at the shoe factory the two women will be finally pushed over the line that separates genteel lower-middle-class hardship from true, dire poverty. If the audience does not feel this, the play goes slack—it loses its moral and emotional weight.
So it is dismaying to see the Wingfields, in the ill-conceived and clumsy set design you get in David Leveaux’s new staging, inhabiting an airy, spa- cious, rather comfortable-looking apartment—something you might find in one of the postwar, white-brick buildings omnipresent on the Upper East Side, with a big, new sofa downstage center around which, alas, Leveaux tends to clump his actors. The fire escape that Williams calls for is dutifully represented, but it’s an empty gesture, since there’s no sense of the claustrophobia that makes this particular fire escape “a structure whose name is a touch of accidental poetic truth,” as Williams wrote—no sense of why Tom feels compelled to flee over that fire escape each night en route to the bars (or worse) that he frequents, no sense of what it is he’s fleeing from (“The implacable fires of human desperation”).
What flickerings and gleamings there are to be seen here come, if anything, from the shiny brass-and-glass furniture that the designer Tom Pye has concocted for his set, which hardly suggests imminent economic disintegration. In Williams’s text, Laura’s glass animals, tiny and glittering in presumed contradistinction to the drabness of the “old-fashioned what-not” that houses them, are the lustrous yet frangible icons of “beauty,” of hopes that will never be realized. But there’s so much gleaming glass in Pye’s set that you barely notice the play’s eponymous fauna. The hideous rectangle of neon (or perhaps fluorescent) white tubing that hovers over the set, occasionally and rather distractingly going on and off, is, I suppose, Leveaux’s and Pye’s nod to Williams’s call for “non-realistic” lighting; but it sheds light on nothing in particular, except perhaps the creators’ sense that they ought to innovate in some way.
The healthy middle-class polish of the sets is, in a way, reflected in the performances. Thirteen years after her Blanche DuBois received mixed reviews, the beautiful Jessica Lange has returned to Broadway as Amanda Wingfield. It is possible to admire Lange’s ambition without admiring her performance. She has played several deranged Southern women on screen—Frances Farmer, in Frances (1982), and a homicidal mother in the Southern Gothic thriller Hush (1998) —and it may be this that gives to her Amanda a prefabricated quality. But there is nothing in the predictable cute fluttering, the flirtatiously broad Southern vowels, that corresponds to the playwright’s instruction, apropos of this “little woman of great but confused vitality,” that “her characterization must be carefully created, not copied from type.”
Watching Lange’s clichéd impersonation of faded Southern womanhood, you realize that she, or perhaps Leveaux, has made the mistake of trying to find the appealing “strength” beneath Amanda’s desperation—an interpretation that owes more to (and will undoubtedly appeal to) the current popular culture’s investment in the bland ideology of personal self-sufficiency, of “wellness,” than it does to anything in Williams’s troubled text. Lange is, if anything, a big, beautiful woman—she radiates a feline, almost leonine tawniness and self-confidence, and has been admired by some crit-ics for her “lithe” presence. But for that very reason she has a hard time conveying the “frantic clinging” of Amanda, who, like many other women in Williams’s plays, combines a manic repulsiveness with a poignant dreaminess. Far better in the role, last year at the Kennedy Center, was Sally Field, who has the advantage of a poignant physical smallness—just getting around the stage seemed to require a kind of gritty determination, and she used that frenzied doll-like quality to advantage.
But then you never feel in this staging that either the director or the actress was particularly interested in exposing the character’s less appealing side, the way in which her Southern charm has putrefied, during a life of hard knocks, into a vanity and ugliness that will destroy her family. During the play’s climactic dinner party, Amanda is meant to dither around, grotesquely, in a pathetically outmoded gown from her girlhood; abetted by an obliging costume designer, Ms. Lange manages to look stunning in this scene. This reflected a lot that was wrong here. The actress seems to want to find something to admire even in Amanda’s destructive “power”—the way people admire Madonna, say, for having “control.” But Amanda’s domineering isn’t admirable, it’s pathetic—it’s admirable only in its scope, its monstrosity.
Watching Ms. Lange’s performance, you are not made unpleasantly aware that Amanda is using the search for a gentleman caller for her daughter as a way of reliving her own glorious and more successful young womanhood. Nor, later, do you feel horror at the ugly devil’s bargain she makes with the frustrated and unhappy Tom, on which the plot, such as it is, revolves. For Amanda promises her son that she will let him leave the house and join the merchant marine, as he longs to do, if he helps to drum up a suitor for his sister. The disaster that follows is largely owing to the fact that he’s in such a rush to get away that he doesn’t bother to ask whether the young man he drags to dinner is already taken. Both the mother and the son act with unseemly and selfish haste, and the victim is the innocent sister. If you see Amanda as a proto-feminist heroine, as I suspect Lange and Leveaux wanted to see her, the play can’t go anywhere, because there is nothing admirable about the results her “strength” produces.
The casting of the female lead has an unfortunate parallel in another choice Leveaux has made, that of the movie actor Christian Slater as the sensitive and tormented Tom—the role so closely modeled on the playwright himself. Tom, like Amanda, is a character of extremes, but they do not preclude considerable subtlety and delicacy. He is a dreamy poet who drinks hard and stays out late at night doing things Amanda can’t bring herself to imagine; a gentle would-be artist who, presumably in order to set himself free, ends up abandoning the two women after the plan to find a gentleman caller for Laura fails so miserably—largely because of his thoughtlessness.
As with Amanda—as with so much else in Williams—the interest lies in the delicately established juxtapo-sitions, in the tensions between extremes—in Tom’s case, his gentleness and cruelty, his adoration of Laura and his self-protective egoism. Christian Slater, an actor you rightly tend to associate with wisecracking street toughs, is not someone who conveys gentleness or sensitivity very well: strutting around the set in a leather jacket, he doesn’t seem much of a poet, either. What gives Tom three dimensions on stage—what makes his decision to abandon his mother and sister so brutal—is that he is not, in fact, insensitive: he is delicate enough to know what his leaving them will mean, and he does it anyway. Without this sensitivity, he’s just a brute, in which case it’s not clear why he acts so guilt-ridden in the play’s famous epilogue—a short anguished monologue in which a tormented Tom cries out the name of the sister he has abandoned. It’s a speech that should devastate you precisely because Tom—like, you are forced to realize, his mother before him—is a delicate soul, who has been hardened by life, has been forced to be cruel by circumstances. That’s the tragedy of the play, and it’s one this Menagerie cannot convey.
The lack of delicacy of Leveaux’s conception of the play extends, disastrously, to the direction of the play’s other characters—Amanda’s lame daughter, Laura, and Jim O’Connor, the former high school star on whom Laura once had a secret crush, who, she and we realize with horror, is the well-meaning gentleman caller whom Tom drags back for dinner from the shoe factory one fateful night. The two roles are, structurally speaking, brilliantly conceived: the typically Williamsesque conflict that makes Amanda so fascinating, both repellent and pathetic at once—the conflict, that is, between hardened optimism and pathetic incompetence—is externalized, ingeniously, in the disastrous confrontation between Jim and Laura. Yet these are precisely the qualities that fail to come across in Leveaux’s production, with the result that the heartbreaking climactic scene, in which Jim’s well-meaning attentions to the delicate young woman smash her and her family’s illusions forever, becomes pointless.
Of the two performances, that of Sarah Paulson, a fresh-faced and clear young actress, is the more forgivable—you can see what she was up to. Because we know a lot about Williams’s life, and in particular because the madness and subsequent lobotomy of his sister, Rose, on whom Laura was to some extent based, are well-known facts of the writer’s biography, Laura tends to be presented as a wispy victim—a kind of St. Louis Ophelia. But what makes the character interesting—what gives her the complexity that Amanda, too, ought to have—is that, alone of the Wingfields, Laura is the only realist, the only one who tells the truth. She can admit that she’s “crippled,” a truth plain to see and which Amanda cannot, until the bitter end, bring herself to acknowledge, and which she covers with the kind of self-deceiving fripperies so beloved of Williams’s heroines. (“Why, you’re not crippled, you just have a little defect—hardly noticeable, even! When people have some slight disadvantage like that, they cultivate other things to make up for it—develop charm—and vivacity—and—charm!“)
Laura is, I’d argue, also the only character who deals with the realities of life by resort to a beauty that is real: art. She not only collects her lovely figurines, which give her great pleasure, but (as we learn) spends her idle time at the art museum, the zoo, the “Jewel-box, that big glass house where they raise the tropical flowers.” (Her mother and brother, by contrast, withdraw into drink and delusional fantasies about themselves.) It is precisely because Laura is the sanest of the Wingfields, the one whose interest in beauty is neither morbid nor nostal-gic, that the spectacle of her allowing herself to become hopeful about Jim O’Connor is so unbearable.
Still, there’s no question that Laura is a victim, and here something is lacking in Paulson’s performance. You never feel genuine pathos—you never feel that this Laura is, as she is surely meant to be, ultimately as fragile as her glass animals. The lack of vulnerability in this Laura makes nonsense of the play’s principal preoccupation, what Williams always said he thought was the one inexcusable thing: deliberate cruelty by one person to another. (His own guilt about his treatment of his sister, at one point or another, haunts many of his plays.)
Much of the poignancy of the play, its great emotional subtlety, is that the cruelty of which Laura is the victim comes not from the stranger, Jim, but from those who profess to be protecting her—Amanda and Tom. This point is utterly lost because of the misguided performance of Josh Lucas as Jim O’Connor. Lucas, a young actor with toothpaste-commercial good looks, plays O’Connor as a slightly oily slickster who, it’s obvious from the moment he swaggers onto the stage, will have no trouble penetrating poor Laura’s defenses. This obtuse interpretation misses the point of Jim: he’s a heartbreaker not because he’s seamy, but because he’s simply normal—“an emissary from a world of reality that we were somehow set apart from,” as Tom tellingly puts it in his prologue speech.
The sudden, mystifying flare-up of feelings which Jim didn’t even suspect he could have for someone like Laura, and which culminates in an unexpected kiss that is, so typically of Williams, a moment of utter happiness that is also a moment of destruction, is moving precisely because it’s genuine, not put on. That Jim then pulls back and declares that he is, in fact, engaged to another girl is not a malicious act but an acknowledgment of confusion, all too human: that’s why it’s so devastating. The Glass Menagerie can’t mean a great deal if Laura is a victim of Jim’s narcissism: the far more dreadful reality, which gives the play its characteristic twisted pathos, is that she—and, to some extent, Jim himself—is a victim of her mother and brother, pawns of their selfish fantasies. That terrible truth is crushed if you play the scene as an encounter between a crippled girl and a manipulative suitor—a cliché that fails to arouse any feelings at all.
But then, the night I saw this performance I wondered which emotions could be at stake in a Glass Menagerie stripped of the nuances of character and sensibility that give the play, give each character, a deep pathos; I wondered what genre the spectacle of a gorgeous, competent mother, her tough, streetwise son, and a smug young hunk ganging up on a feisty crippled girl belongs to. Reality TV, perhaps—those spectacles in which public humiliation has become a source of amusement. And indeed, the night I saw the play, I was startled to hear people chuckling throughout that most awkward and shame-filled encounter between Jim and Laura; when Jim admits so devastatingly that he is already engaged—when he acknowledges that he’s just being nice to Laura—the man next to me laughed out loud.
As the audience at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre—the theater where Williams’s Streetcar had its New York première in 1948—leapt to its feet for the by now ritual standing ovation at the conclusion of this meaningless production of a play that is, more than almost any other in the Williams canon, about the destruction of beauty and the inevitability of failure, I wondered whether the delicate emotions of such a play are beyond current audiences—whether great drama’s demand that we identify with the helpless victims, and with the strident suffering made visible to us on stage, makes us so uncomfortable that it can only be played for laughs. As I got up to leave, a teenaged girl sitting behind me turned to her parents and said, “But I thought this was supposed to be sad.” So did I. The only heartbreak in the theater that night was that there was no heartbreak at all.
—This is the first of two articles on recent productions of Tennessee Williams’s plays.
May 26, 2005