There were no fewer than 24 curtain calls on the first night of The Glass Menagerie at New York’s Playhouse Theatre on 14 March 1945. After lengthy shouts of “Author! Author!”, a young man emerged from the stalls, stood in the aisle and bowed solemnly to the actors. As Lyle Leverich, one of his more distinguished biographers observed, from that moment on “there was no turning back for Tom Williams… he had become Tennessee Williams”. On a Broadway overrun with musicals and revues (Oklahoma! was in its second year), the fragile, poetic and ultimately tragic memory-scape of The Glass Menagerie had become the hottest ticket, and Williams the toast of the town.
Deep Southern soap opera
And now, in a West End dominated by musicals, The Glass Menagerie, which has turned out to be one of Williams’ most enduringly popular plays, is back with Hollywood actress Jessica Lange reprising the leading role she played on Broadway two years ago. Amanda Wingfield is the pivotal figure in the play - an ageing mother who lives with one foot in a remembered past peopled by “gentlemen callers” and who all but destroys the future for her son Tom and frail daughter Laura.
According to Rupert Goold, who has directed the production for London, anyone who hasn’t experienced the power of Williams’ symbolically charged ”Southern gothic” stage world is in for a dramatic treat. He suggests The Glass Menagerie might as well be re-named Deep Southerners, with its fraught family conflicts and intense relationships: “Williams’ plays are predominantly about family and in a way The Glass Menagerie is very much like a TV soap opera, which is probably why audiences always enjoy it so much. Those familial relationships are eternal and his characters have the most enormous emotional depth.”
Ed Stoppard, who plays Tom in Goold’s revival, also rates highly Williams’ accessibility for today’s audiences: “The atmosphere in his plays is very real. He’s so perceptive about human nature – particularly our flaws – and we recognise that so it comes across as truthful. There is something very exotic, sexy and seductive about his writing.” Indeed, playwright David Mamet once hailed Williams’ writing as “the greatest dramatic poetry in the American language.”
Be it on stage or screen, most people are familiar with Williams’ most commonly acknowledged masterpieces: A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), Suddenly, Last Summer (1958), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959) and The Night of the Iguana (1961), most recently revived in the West End with Woody Harrelson as the defrocked priest.
But these titles just scratch the surface: Williams was mightily prolific as well as poetic. Between the age of 13, when he acquired his first typewriter, until he died aged 71 in 1983, he wrote over 30 full-length plays, 312 short plays (The Glass Menagerie was developed from an earlier one-acter called The Gentlemen Callers which was first drafted during Williams’ brief stint as a contract MGM scriptwriter), six collections of short stories, six original screenplays (including Baby Doll), two collections of poetry, two novels (The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone being the best known), two collections of letters and an autobiography. He even found time to write lyrics to several songs and the libretto to an opera about Lord Byron.
Williams watchers will be pleased that three of his rarely seen short plays are being staged in the West End this month. And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens, Mister Paradise and Summer at the Lake echo many of the themes in almost all of his full-length plays – family relationships, sexuality and Christianity, with strong symbolic and autobiographical threads entwining everything and everyone on stage.
The Glass Menagerie is probably one of Williams’ most autobiographical plays. The character of Tom is a kind of mirror image of the homosexual author, who struggled to fit into his own family (his father took to calling him “Miss Nancy”), and one of the biggest tragedies of his life was when his schizophrenic sister Rose became institutionalised. Throughout his life, Williams lived with the ever-present fear that he too would go insane.
Meanwhile, at the National Theatre, ‘Rose’ makes a re-appearance as Zoe Wanamaker prepares to make her mark on another of Williams’ big-hitters built around a mother-daughter emotional tug-of-war, but this time with a more light-hearted vein and located within the heart of a Sicilian-American family. In The Rose Tattoo (once described by Williams as his “love-play to the world” and last seen in the West End when Peter Hall directed Julie Walters in a production at the Playhouse Theatre in 1991), Wanamaker plays prowling widow Serafina delle Rose. Mourning the loss of her husband and desperate to protect the virginity of her adolescent daughter, Rose eventually manages to get on with her life when she discovers new love in the arms of a truck driver.
Iconic female roles
“I wanted to take Rose on partly because it was scary!” says Wanamaker, a veteran of the Donmar Warehouse’s 1995 production of The Glass Menagerie. “Serafina is an epic role and that’s really what drew me to it. Tennessee Williams always wrote great parts for women and I had such a wonderful experience playing Amanda in The Glass Menagerie. I’m looking forward to The Rose Tattoo so much because it’s the type of part that doesn’t come along very often, full of passion and complexity.”
Kim Poster, who produced Williams’ relatively unknown Summer and Smoke (written mid-way between Menagerie and Tattoo) in the West End last autumn, agrees: “One of the reasons producers revive Williams’ plays time and again is because he wrote brilliant roles that leading actresses want to play. Just as Lear is almost mandatory for a great actor, so Blanche du Bois in Streetcar and Amanda in The Glass Menagerie are iconic female roles.”
Faced with an onslaught of mega-musicals, Poster’s critically acclaimed production, which starred Rosamund Pike and Chris Carmack, struggled to find an audience and closed much earlier than its projected 16 weeks. But the producer insists that theatregoers’ penchant for Williams’ passionate prose has far from cooled: “Once audiences were in, we had the most superb responses. Williams will always be popular in the UK because he writes with a tremendous amount of psychological and emotional complexity.”
According to The Rose Tattoo’s late director Steven Pimlott, who also directed the 1998 Royal Shakespeare Company/Young Vic revival of Williams’ Camino Real: “What Williams really gives you is a fantastic story, full of characters. He wrote these wonderful yarns which are larger than life and bursting with theatricality. He draws people into this world and won’t ever let go.”
The Glass Menagerie is at the West End’s Apollo Theatre. The Rose Tattoo opens at the NT’s Olivier Theatre on 19 March. The Tennessee Williams one-act plays, collectively titled Lonely and Misfit, are at Trafalgar Studio 2 from 6 March. A version of this article appeared in the February issue of What’s on Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer).