Tennessee Williams’ play, The Glass Menagerie is an American Classic frequently staged and reworked for every generation. Recently I went to see an Australian production with my daughter, who is studying the play for her year 12 International Baccalaureate Diploma. I had last seen the play staged in Melbourne when I was in my early 20s and a student of English Literature at university, before my marriage, before I had children. The biggest shock and the greatest pleasure on this recent occasion was how differently and much more deeply I understood the play this time.
Written in 1943 and set in Southern United States during the depression years after World War 1, the play references a time of social conservativism and racial divide. It is based on Williams’ own life. As we stood in line, juggling coats, and waiting to step into the world of the play, my daughter told me, laughing at herself, that when she first held the text in her hand she thought it was written by a contemporary Afro-American, because of the name of the author. Apparently Tennessee was the first person to be named after an American state. My daughter’s joke was a reminder of how significant the cultural context is to understanding the story.
When you are in the theatre you are forced to make sense of what is unfolding before you: the choices of the producers, director and actors. As a member of the audience you need to work quite hard to make sense of what you see. Constructing a coherent framework for the production is an intellectual challenge that I enjoy. I particularly love to watch the transformation of a text into a production, fully realised on stage.
As a young woman, respectful of the play and awed by the theatre, I remember being strangely unmoved by a production of The Glass Menagerie. It was staged inside a glass box which, though clever in its metaphor, alienated the audience from the action. I was unmoved by the plight of the characters, found the mother shrill, the daughter passive and pathetic, the protagonist callous. I could not access the play. I didn’t know how to frame it to make it meaningful. I knew about the plantation history of the South, the genteel poverty after the war and the collapse of traditional industries and ways of life, the conditions that made creativity difficult to honour. Still, I was unaffected by it.
The historical and political context of the play can be researched and learned. There are critiques and text guides to help students understand the text. But more profound than the historical conditions that produced the play was my personal response. The power of theatre lies in this subjective response of the audience to the production. The electricity lies in the space between the stage and the seating. The way the audience relates to the production makes people laugh, and cry and be moved by what they see. There is a little bit of magic created in the interaction between the lighting, the set, the costumes, the staging, the acting, the direction and the audience. The play resonates with each audience member differently according to their experience. This is not a new idea. It’s standard literary criticism. But it was brought home to me very clearly watching this recent production of The Glass Menagerie with my daughter.
When I was young, I did not yet know the regret and disappointment that the play addresses so poignantly. I did not yet know the urgent need to establish children and provide for them. The character of Amanda, mother to two young adults each struggling to reach maturity, is often played as shrewish and shrill. In this current production, doyen of Australian stage, Pamela Rabe plays her in a fine balance of anxiety, responsibility, and regret. I had great sympathy for Rabe’s character that I did not feel those years earlier when Amanda was played by another actor. I now recognise her weary desperation and embarrassing nostalgia. Certainly the acting was nuanced, but my life experience also gave me access to the role’s depth and pathos.
So many things about the play make sense to me now. I had a clear sighted and satisfying theatrical experience because of it. The space between the stage and the seating was filled, for me, with experiences, memories and feelings to give me new ways of understanding the material which had not previously touched me. Wisdom and knowledge are consolations of ageing. Deeply satisfying theatre is another.