Saturday, April 29, 2017

Attending *The Glass Menagerie* by Tennessee Williams, Belasco Theater, NYC, April 19, 2017

When the play ended, tears streamed down my face.

What moved me?

I carried many memories and past experiences with me when I arrived at the Belasco Theater on April 19. As I watched the play, I was experiencing much more than what was transpiring on stage as Sally Field, Joe Mantello, Madison Ferris, and Finn Wittrock expertly and elegantly animated this tender, sad, nostalgic, maddening, fragile, illusory play.

I have been living with this play for over forty years. I first saw it on television. That 1973 made-for-television production featuring Katharine Hepburn, Sam Waterston, Joanna Miles, and Michael Moriarty became a touchstone for me. I can't remember if I read the play first or saw this production first, but I know I first read it in the spring of 1976, my senior year of college, when Whitworth professor Laura Bloxham agreed to let me be her teaching assistant in Introduction to Literature. Reading the play was like reading a long prose poem. Not only was the script rhythmic, musical, metaphorical, and heightened, but so were Tennessee Williams' extended stage directions and production notes, which not only tell how he wants the play to look and develop, but provide a lyrical interpretation of his play.

For the first time, around forty years ago, I realized that a play could be a physical manifestation of a character's consciousness, or, in the case of The Glass Menagerie, a physical dramatization of a character's memory, Tom's memory to be precise. The lighting, music, and progression of the play, its exaggerations, its sympathies, the sounds of the street, the songs playing from the dance hall, even Laura's glass menagerie itself all trigger Tom's memories as he tells his story of his family and I realized I was seeing not just a record of his memories, but I was watching the way memory works.

Back in 1976, I realized for the first time that a play -- or a novel or a movie -- wasn't necessarily about strict verisimilitude or about making a documentary style realistic picture of reality -- as if that were possible. I began to understand the force of a story told from a specific point of view, the power of seeing a story and its characters filtered through the consciousness (or memory) of a single character -- or characters if the point of view shifts.

While this discovery about point of view was, to a degree, an intellectual experience and a great help in my limited academic success, the deep power was emotional, even spiritual. As I was first viewing and reading The Glass Menagerie, I experienced the liberation that results from realizing that I could leave my own experience and perspective upon things and enter into another's. In my day to day life outside of movies and plays and fiction, I wasn't (and still am not) as successful at seeing things through others' perspective as I think I am when I read stories or watch dramas, but, at the very least, I know that how I see and experience things has commonality with others, but significant differences exist, too, because, like Tom Wingfield, our memories and the emotional substance of our experience bends and colors and shapes how we see things.

In the aftermath of my first divorce back in 1982, a divorce initiated by my first wife, it shocked me to learn that my wife was experiencing our marriage so much differently than I was. My longing for permanence and security and my deep desire to see myself as a great husband and to be able to tell friends and family that I was in a good marriage was so strong that I was oblivious to my wife's deep discontent and the many ways I significantly contributed to it.

The dissolution of our marriage, I know now, was accelerating in the summer of 1981, at the same time that I was about to write a four hour exam to demonstrate to those in charge of my graduate education my proficiency in the field of 20th century American drama. My studies of American drama plunged me deep into the heart of these playwrights' persistent exploration of the power of illusion, maybe I should say delusion, in American life, particularly in the American family. I began to realize that these playwrights were equating illusion/delusion with the American love of dreams, the American Dream, in particular, and were exploring the divide between the actuality of these characters' lives and these different characters' dreams, illusions, false self-image, and made-up stories they told themselves and others about their past, their current situations, and what they dreamed for their future.

I can report that as these plays rattled me.  I'd like to report that they called my own inclinations to delude myself into account, that I changed, that I learned so much about the corrosive and erosive power of illusions that I snapped out of mine. But, I didn't. These illusions are powerful. Even when recognized, they are difficult to get rid of and they continued (and continue), against my will, to shape my perceptions of the world around me and define my sense of who I was, am, and what I could and can do in my life.

Combined with my immersion into the plays of William Shakespeare, my twenty-eight year old, freshly divorced mind was jam-packed with ideas and questions regarding the interaction of illusions and actuality when I arrived at Whitworth College to teach in the English Department for two years on consecutive full-time temporary contracts from 1982-84.

The family in America was also preoccupying me, largely because I was frustrated with the simplistic pronouncements inspired by the election of Ronald Reagan about family values and the sanctity of the American family.

I wanted to see if some students and I could dig into the actualities of the American family life. I proposed to the English Department a course called "The Family in American Drama", to be given during the January term when a whole course was concentrated into the month of January. Students only took one course in January and faculty only taught one course.

I wanted "The Family in American Drama" to be intense. It was. Through plays written by Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and Eugene O'Neill and through a wide range of movies exploring particular families in America, we dove into studying these plays and movies and dove deep into our own family lives and experiences.

I showed students a grainy copy of the Hepburn version of The Glass Menagerie. Many were deeply moved by it. In the 1983 Jan term class, George Benson played the Gentleman Caller and Maia Blom played Laura as they acted out a part of the play's final scene for the class -- including the Gentleman Caller's "stumblejohn" kiss of Laura.

To conclude the course, I assigned students to write a letter home. I didn't read these letters. The students turned them into me sealed in an addressed envelope. I put postage stamps on them and mailed them out. Reports about the impact of these letters began to come back to me. One father drove over three hours to Spokane upon reading his daughter's letter to take her out and talk things over. Students told me about phone calls they received from home and letters written back to them. I don't remember a single negative report, but rather I remember stories of productive truth-telling and stories of the beginnings of reconciliation.

When tears ran down my face at the end of seeing The Glass Menagerie, featuring Sally Field, at the Belasco Theater in NYC on April 19th, 2017, I was moved by the production I had just seen but also by all the experiences I'd had with this play and American plays written in the first seventy years of the 20th century.

I marvel when I read play and movie reviews or when I talk with friends about movies and plays that professional critics and friends alike can write or talk about a movie or a play with such clearly defined standards of what makes a movie or play work and that almost never do their comments draw upon the experiences they bring to the work as they watch it and how that shapes their experience with the play or movie.

Anymore, I can't say that I know what makes a movie or a play good. I am almost always unable to give a good answer if someone asks me if I liked a movie or play.

I don't tend to evaluate or rate movies or plays; I experience them and the best I can do when asked about one that I've seen is to say what I experienced.  It's why I would make a lousy movie or theater critic. If I were to write a review of the Belasco Theater's  The Glass Menagerie, I'd have to say that while I watched it I experienced my history watching Sally Field on television and in the movies; I experienced those days in Laura Bloxham's Intro to Lit class when I first read the play and when I first saw the made-for-television version; I experienced the beauty of Tennessee Williams poetry and not only heard the lines spoken by the actors on stage at the Belasco, but I could hear Joanne Woodward, John Malkovich, Michael Moriarty, Katharine Hepburn, Karen Allen, as well as my former students George Benson and Maia Blom in that stuffy classroom on the main floor of Westminster Hall.

Most of all, I experienced my awakenings. Memories rushed back to me of long walks in Eugene and Spokane, trying to sort out the illusions that governed me from what might be actual and felt the pain I experienced when my illusions took over and I experienced any number of failures in relationships, friendships, and my graduate studies.

All of this moved me at the Belasco Theater while I was invited into the Wingfield family apartment and into Tom's memories of family life there. The production absorbed my attention. For those two hours -- unbroken, I'm happy to say, by an intermission --, the Wingfield apartment and what transpired there was the only physical reality I knew.

And, it triggered a lot of memories and thoughts and emotions. This personal experience with the play was every bit as important -- maybe more important -- to what I experienced in the theater as what happened on stage.

I loved this experience, but it doesn't form a very solid basis for a critique or a recommendation.

I had a very personal and autobiographical experience watching The Glass Menagerie on April 19th at the Belasco Theater. I'd like to be able to write insightful and detailed analytical comments about the production values and the acting and the directing. I can say every bit of it worked for me, and I don't doubt that what I experienced watching it was enhanced by the beauty of the show.

No comments: