Why Glass Menagerie Persists

| 02 Mar 2015 | 05:04

Zachary Quinto wants to be the Tom Wingfield for his era. In the new Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' 1945 play The Glass Menagerie at the Booth Theater, Quinto presumes a modern Sad Young Man interpretation of the play as Williams' autobiographical gay memoir, making Tom (Williams' nickname) an archetype of the regret-filled gay youth who left his hometown behind yet can't escape his family ties and emotional obligations--memories of his club-footed sister Laura and effusive mother Amanda.

Why has this sentimental play--America's second most powerful sentimental play after Thornton Wilder's Our Town--persisted despite Williams' later, more daring works (A Streetcar Named Desire, Eccentricities of a Nightengale)? Because of its vivid, moving and regretful subtext which has been respected and internalized, universally.

Everyone identifies with Tom's attachment and his resentment (see the films of Andre Techine to find its international-and most provocative--influence). Tom's family ambivalence carries a fount of self-deprecating affection that should never be vulgarized into camp. But Quinto, of the self-entitled Glee generation, makes this delicate, poignant, funny aspect of the play overexplicit. Quinto's Tom, a puppydog with literary affectations who joins the Merchant Marines to get away from the mother he both loves and resents, flounces and affects effeminate mannerisms--a bold, stupid choice.

Director John Tiffany further bowdlerizes Williams' fragile, ambivalent conceit. It has to be a fragile conceit or else it's a monstrously crude and manipulative one. Tiffany's production (with the exception of Cherry Jones' performance as the mother Amanda Wingfield) is all manipulation, not sensitivity. It lacks that delicately balanced ambivalence (home vs. the world) that is key to the outcast's sense of identity.

Tiffany emphasizes the "dream play" aspect that Williams borrowed from both Wilder and Strindberg, disrespecting 1940s post-war plangency, the sense of longing that did not require a literal representation of dreaming--as in the disastrous, absurd introduction of Laura (played wimpishly by Celia Keenan-Bolger) crawling out from under sofa cushion. Tiffany misses the appropriate emotional beats of the material. Its essence is in Tom's realization that "In memory everything seems to happen to music"--an insight that should spark any modern cultured person's recall of Terence Davies' great memory/musical films The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices Still Lives.

Instead, Tiffany Glee-fully exaggerates Tom's secondary traits and even imputes them to his relationship with the Gentleman Caller character (played bi-curiously by Brian J. Smith) with whom there is much inappropriate physical flirtation. Gone is Williams' wise, mid-century understanding of the fluidity of sexual attraction, the force of the Gentleman Caller's masculine heterosexuality. Tom's sexual longing to be a "man among men" (Carson McCullers) is only pat of what can be powerfully felt in artists as diverse as Hemingway, McCullers, Davies, and others.

In the Glee era, Williams' nostalgic sense of home is mocked. The Gentleman Caller makes faces at Amanda's fluttery hospitality. And his scenes with Laura, which should combine empathy about his own failings and chivalrous defense of hers, wind up flat and monotonous. (Morrissey telepathized the Gentleman Caller's lines in two Smiths songs, "Shakespeare's Sister"--referring to how Laura is addressed--and "These Things Times" taking on her and Tom's affliction: "I'm the most inept that ever stepped.") Their sexual affection is needed to make the Gentleman Caller scene the vital crux of the play.

Although Tom prepares GC's appearance as "the expected thing that we live for," Tiffany's disrespect for Williams' probing of the heterosexual "norm" neglects that complex sense of desire that was Williams' gift to human understanding. It was what Jacques Demy got from Williams for his 1962 debut film, Lola. And Demy's Lola, in turn, ignites the sexual discovery of Techine's teen characters in Wild Reeds. They could as well have attended a performance of The Glass Menagerie, but not one that told them their sexual identity was more significant than their complicated, humane compassion.

When Amanda tells Tom "I don't believe you go to the movies ever night. Nobody in their right mind goes to the movies every night," Williams covered for waterfront cruising; he confessed the existential release that social outlaws sought in the fantasy of cinematic/theatrical romanticism. His insight stings. That's what Quinto and Tiffany patronizingly deny to today's Broadway audience. It's not a desire to escape, but a need to dream, to access romantic/sexual/artistic fulfillment away from the family but without rejecting it.

It's impossible to reject Cherry Jones' Amanda, she portrays a fully actualized, if sorrowful heroine--a woman who, due to the very social conventions she believes in, cannot pass on her courage and faith to her children. "I need to give you courage--for life" she tells Laura, an echo of her plaint "I am overwhelmed--by life." Jones's radiance embodies this strength and beauty. It is more than Tiffany's p.c. smugness understands.

This interpretation of The Glass Menagerie misunderstands the play's beauty and its particulars (Laura plays with a single figurine rather than an assortment representing the world of fragile human kind). Despite the political justifications attached to contemporary gay identity, Tennessee Williams was not stupid or insensitive to his own needs. His subtlety--and Wilder's, and Demy's and Morrissey's and Davies'--require new appreciation. The Glass Menagerie doesn't need p.c. updating; it persists because the truth and feeling and poetry of Williams' subtext have always taken care of itself.

The Glass Menagerie plays at the Booth Theater, 222 Wests 45th St.

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