What better way to spend a Sunday afternoon than in the company of that titan of Broadway, Tennessee Williams? There’s a magical, mystical inner reality to live theatre that always takes my breath away. And when you combine great writing, great acting, great directing, and great staging — well, you have a dramatic experience that’s unforgettable and always sweeps me off my feet. That’s just how I felt when I joined Andy and Glenn, two wonderful friends from my playwriting days (soon to be resurrected, I hope!) for a performance of the incomparably fragile yet resilient play, The Glass Menagerie.
Written in 1944 and first performed in Chicago, The Glass Menagerie had a rocky start, but ultimately found its way to Broadway and became Tennessee’s first successful play. The play has a fascinating and checkered history: It was actually a hybrid, born of a short story that Williams wrote called “Portrait of a Girl in Glass” and a screenplay he penned while working briefly as a writer for MGM called “The Gentleman Caller.” Somehow, Tennessee managed to blend the two into a seamless masterpiece.
Now almost 70 years old, the play seems as fresh and timely as ever, in large part because of the timeless themes it explores: love and loss, `the often-destructive but always enduring power of family bonds, the desperate need to dream and the relentless demands of reality. When I ponder all the emotion and drama that a young playwright packed into one explosive package I am simultaneously awed and inspired.
In thinking about this haunting tale, perhaps what’s most amazing is the emotional freight and weight that is brought to bear on a seemingly simple event: the invitation of a guest to dinner. The tension that builds around this character’s appearance becomes almost excruciating for the audience as we watch the world before us, glued together with fantasy and brittle hope, shatter in front of our eyes.
How astonishing that, though we know very well how this story unfolds, we are still saddened and thrilled by it. What is there about the way this play is crafted that makes it so powerful? There’s the poetry of it, so in keeping with the themes it explores. And there’s the narrator, Tom, who stands both outside the story and within it. And there’s the sense of striving for something that beckons but seems just out of reach — a sense that seems so acutely American — the same striving that we see in Death of a Salesman. But most of all, it is the tangled web of family that Williams weaves — the web we all recognize and know so well — that ensnares and enchants us. Now that’s writing dangerously! Write on.