The Royal Exchange’s The Glass Menagerie has it all — except for just one thing
A surprisingly joyful rendition of Tennessee Williams’s tragic play
Dear Millers — in today’s edition, Sophie Atkinson heads to the theatre to review the Royal Exchange’s The Glass Menagerie. Helmed by the award-winning director Atri Banerjee, the Tennessee Williams play was meant to run way back in 2020 but was postponed because of the pandemic. So was it worth the wait?
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The Royal Exchange’s Glass Menagerie has it all — except for just one thing
by Sophie Atkinson
Two packets of tissues had been stashed in my bag, in readiness for what was to come. The first packet was for me, the second for my mother — we were attending the press night performance of The Royal Exchange’s The Glass Menagerie. It is famously sad, with the Wingfield family spending the course of the play being slowly crucified on their own everyday agonies. The Wingfield matriarch Amanda, is struggling to make ends meet for her family on her son’s wage as a warehouse worker (her husband abandoned his family years ago). Tom, her son, hates his life at the warehouse and dreams of becoming a writer. Most wretched of all is Laura, Amanda’s daughter, a 23-year-old high school dropout who is too painfully shy to engage with the outside world — she’s too emotionally fragile to land a job or find a husband.
It brought virtually overnight fame for playwright Tennessee Williams, something he claimed was corrosive. In his essay “The Catastrophe of Success”, he described the professional benefits the play brought him as something which resulted in “spiritual dislocation” for a time. He was unable to write and felt alienated from his friends and his art until a cataract operation removed him from the deadening environs of luxury hotels and jolted him back to life.
The saddest part is what we might reasonably assume to be the inspiration for the play — the story of his sister, Rose. According to Robert Bray, who wrote the introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition, Williams had been “sketching” The Glass Menagerie since the late thirties, but “his full concentration on this still-evolving play” took place in the early forties while he was working as a scriptwriter for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Los Angeles. This, Bray writes, was “probably the result of thoughts turning toward home.” Rose was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent the thirties going in and out of hospitals. In 1943, in Williams’s absence and without his knowledge, Rose was given a frontal lobotomy. She spent the rest of her life in institutions. The symbolism of the play’s glass unicorn getting its horn broken off is hard to miss.
So what is a person to think if they leave a production of The Glass Menagerie dry-eyed, tissues untouched? What should a reviewer write if, instead of leaving the theatre wrung dry from sobbing, they leave, having enjoyed…a surprisingly upbeat, feel-good night? This might boil down to how they measure a play’s success: by fidelity to an author’s vision (something which is particularly slippery to attempt here — more on this later) or by performing a feat of directorial alchemy — essentially, a director’s slant on a play transforming it into something new.
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