Why should I book?
Tennessee Williams' early play, which took first Broadway by storm in 1945, is a complete and utter heartbreaker when done well. You should leave the theatre choked up. And this revival opening at the Duke of York’s in May should be done very well because it is directed by former Headlong artistic director Jeremy Herrin and it stars Amy Adams as fading Southern belle and matriarch, Amanda Wingfield. This isn't just a piece of ticket-selling star casting, either: the luminous Adams may now be a Hollywood icon but she began her career on the American stage.
So, it’s an autobiographical play?
Williams called it a memory play and it comes drenched with regret. You might see in the character of Tom Wingfield, caught between the need to support his mother and sister and his desire to be a writer, a portrait of the artist as a young man and/or a dramatic exploration of his own guilt at abandoning his beloved sister Rose—the disabled Laura in the play—to a lobotomy which went wrong and meant she spent the rest of her life in an asylum. Meanwhile, Amanda was based so strongly on Williams’ own mother, Edwina, that on opening night the actress playing Amanda asked her “And how do you like yourself on stage?” Her response is not recorded. The son definitely does not depict his mother as a saint. One of the reasons I love Williams' work and the same reason why some people hate it is because on stage he always shows us his insides. It’s often not pretty but it is unbearably honest and completely compelling.
Success came at a price then for Williams?
It did. In more ways than one. Shortly after the success of The Glass Menagerie he wrote an essay called The Catastrophe of Success about the dangers of being over feted and no longer having to struggle to survive. It’s a good read for anyone, but particularly the aspiring artist dreaming of success and a life in first class.
From the original 1945 Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie.
Williams’ early life was a struggle then?
It was very much so and was affected by the Great Depression just like the lives of the Wingfields in The Glass Menagerie. It’s also one of the reasons why this revival might feel exceptionally apt given that so many people are facing the rage and pain of a cost of living crisis not seen in a generation.
So, what makes Williams so great as a playwright?
Let’s hear it from Richard Eyre for this one, “He was a formal visionary, with a theatrical imagination that was barely understood in his times—much closer to Robert Lepage than to Granville-Barker.” Like Blanche in Streetcar, Williams didn’t want realism; he wanted magic. Or let’s hear it from the critic Gordon Rogoff who described Williams quite accurately as “a pointillist painter of shimmering portraits.”
Shimmering portraits? So he was good at character?
Very much so. Apart from Shakespeare, how many playwrights give us characters who we know by their first names? Amanda (Glass Menagerie), Maggie (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Blanche (A Streetcar Named Desire) are as famous as Hamlet. He wrote women far better than most mid-20th century playwrights on either side of the Atlantic.
Who else is involved in this production?
It’s designed by Vicki Mortimer and lit by the magnificent Paule Constable (and Williams’ plays are all about the lighting) and making her West End debut as Laura is Lizzie Annis, who has cerebral palsy.
Cover image from The Glass Menagerie which runs at the Duke of York's Theatre from 23rd May through 27th Aug.