I am constantly reminded of the Glass Menagerie, a play by Tennessee Williams that I recently saw in Liverpool. The play is about a neurotic mother who lives in the past and makes her daughter’s life a misery. She reminds me of several people I have come across.
The performance I saw in Liverpool’s Playhouse Theatre was brilliant. The acting was tight, the set was sparse and the director is, according to this reviewer in The Guardian, a “theatre radical”. I was left with a numb feeling you get after an angry confrontation, a fight or a piece of theatre that is so emotionally charged that it’s almost traumatic.
The play left me feeling empty, depleted and unable to write. But I knew I had to write this review as the play is scheduled for theatres in Richmond and Warwick and people in those parts of the country need to be warned: here is a performance that is so good that you can’t afford to miss it. As the Michelin Guide says for its top ranked restaurants, it’s worth making a detour for this one.
I felt unable to describe the play in words and so I wrote to my Dad, who is a film reviewer when he’s not looking after his poultry. He writes in a terse style and he once wrote a novel loosely based on his own dysfunctional upbringing. This is what he sent me by email:
„The Glass Menagerie was Tennessee’s first play. Streetcar is what made his name. What makes it such a deeply emotional work is the search for love, the agonising isolation of an innocent, vulnerable girl, bullied by her dominating mother. The collection of glass figures is a metaphor of her life – beautiful, breakable.
“Paul Newman directed his wife, Joanne Woodward, in a film version, with Karen Allen playing the girl and John Malkovich as her brother. It was excellent.
“Tennessee portrays guilt well. His themes are operatic in their style and scope.”
Who was Tennessee Williams?
Still searching for context, for a way to explain the play to others, I wrote to Chris Burn who is a therapist at Castle Craig Hospital and the author of a brilliant new book with „a page-a-day of history, poetry and inspiration”.
Chris sent me the following extract from his book, helping me to put it into perspective:
“On this day in 1947 the play The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams was premiered in New York. It has been called one of the greatest American dramas ever written and like most of his work, it was drawn from experience within his own highly dysfunctional family.
“His father was an alcoholic, his mother went mad and his sister was given a lobotomy. Williams himself struggled with his homosexuality and his lifestyle became a drink and drugs fuelled rampage. Yet for a few years while he produced A Streetcar Named Desire, Suddenly Last Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, he was the world’s most famous playwright.”
I can understand why the sister was given a lobotomy: the play I saw showed a shy girl with a disabled leg being constantly put down by her controlling, neurotic mother. The portrayal of the daughter was so brilliantly done that it seemed quite natural that madness would follow.
Seeing this performance gave me an uncanny insight into neurosis and madness, acting as a reminder that we are all quite close to the edge and if our sense of control becomes obsessive then disaster can strike.
Photo credit: The St Helen Star (where you can see a proper review).