Spectacularly glowing reviews have described the current Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie as an epochal staging of one of the most iconic works in 20th-Century American drama. “Be prepared to have the breath knocked out of you,” wrote Ben Brantley in The New York Times. “This is a grand and true illusion, not just to be lauded and gawked at, but studied,” according to Scott Brown in New York magazine. To quote one of the famous lines from the play, this Menagerie seems indeed to have been “lit by lightning.”
(Ironic that one of the headlines after its London premiere in 1948 actually read: “Bad Play, Well-Acted.” So much for the infallibility of critics.)
Lucky those who get to experience it in person, but the rest of us would do well to dust off the cobwebs from one of those old college textbooks and marvel at the lyrical beauty of this “memory play” in all its ethereal grandeur.
In the production notes that preface the piece, Williams addresses philosophical themes that can be considered quite visionary for a playwright of that era:
“Expressionism and all other unconventional techniques in drama have only one valid aim, and that is a closer approach to truth. When a play employs unconventional techniques, it is not, or certainly shouldn’t be, trying to escape its responsibility of dealing with reality, or interpreting experience, but is actually or should be attempting to find a closer approach, a more penetrating and vivid expression of things as they are.”
You sense such a protectiveness by Williams here (no surprise, as the play was based on his own family drama), and the numerous stage directions, so sublimely detailed, more than attest to that. On this latest reading, I focused on that aspect to the exclusion of the dialogue itself and was just as transported, again, by the poeticism of Williams’ language.
The character descriptions alone more than meet the playwright’s directives of penetrating and vivid:
Of Amanda Wingfield, the mother: A little woman of great but confused vitality clinging frantically to another time and place.
Of Laura, the daughter: …she is like a piece of her own glass collection, too exquisitely fragile to move from the shelf.
Of Tom, the son and narrator: His nature is not remorseless, but to escape from a trap he has to act without pity.
Finally, the gentleman caller: A nice, ordinary, young man. (Note the comma after “ordinary.”)
And an example of one of the many evocative stage instructions, typical of the painstaking emotional imagery which permeates the play:
Something has happened to Amanda. It is written in her face as she climbs to the landing: a look that is grim and hopeless and a little absurd. (A look that is sure to have challenged many an actress through time.)
In another passage from the remarkable production notes, Williams states 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.”
His immortal Menagerie is an organic thing itself, a reminder that timeless works of art will always find new generations ready to add their own unique imprints.