This is basically 1000 words of me geeking out over the gentleman caller scene. Consider yourselves warned.
There are many reasons to see this production of The Glass Menagerie. It’s pretty wonderful.
Chief among them is Cherry Jones’ acclaimed performance as Amanda Wingfield. You can’t wrench your eyes away from her; there’s whole scenes where Tom (the really quite brilliant Michael Esper) is talking, and you only want to watch Jones’ face as she reacts. She’s big, and she’s theatrical, waving her arms around to emphasise her points. It’s a classical performance, far from the recent trends of naturalistic acting, and possibly even from psychological realism. What is brilliant is that it still feels completely real. I recognised this woman, and I did so because of the theatricality, not in spite of it.
It’s also beautifully designed by Bob Crowley, the set stretching away into infinity, the characters reflected in the floor and refracted in Tom’s memory. It never gets in the way of the text, and (thank GOD,) disposes with the legends and slides Williams suggests in the text. It’s playful, with a sense of humour; Laura emerging magically from the sofa. It seems to suggest that this world is imaginary, no matter how real the characters may seem. But they’re not imaginary; we know that much of this play is drawn from Tennessee Williams’ life, his family. So, if it’s not imaginary, it deceiving. And so are the characters.
I love American drama of the mid twentieth century, O’Neill in particular. The plays are about sons wrestling with the ghosts of their fathers. I love American drama of this period because it seems so utterly unconcerned with time, by which I mean there’s no need to cram everything into 90 minutes, and they’re not worried about spending 4 hours with a handful of characters if needs be. Everything takes exactly as long as it needs.
This means that everything can unfold in normal conversation. When it’s good, it’s never forced. The second half of The Glass Menagerie, largely consisting of a single, painful scene concerning the visit of a long-awaited gentleman caller, is an breathtaking example of this, performed with beautiful tenderness by Kate O’Flynn and Brian J. Smith. Laura Wingfield is disabled; she walks with a post-polio limp and appears to have intellectual difficulties. The gentleman caller, Jim, is ambitious, Irish-Catholic and completely charming. It’s a clash on social, economic and intellectual levels. Williams writes that this scene is unimportant to Jim, but utterly climactic for Laura. It certainly feels like it. Jim is sent into the room to keep a recently-passed-out Laura company, having just been put to work looking for a blown fuse. He is the ‘man’ present.
Amanda gives him a candelabrum, slightly molten after a lightning strike-induced fire. When Jim invites Laura to sit on the floor with him, it’s a completely nonchalant gesture for him, he’s chewing gum for God’s sake. He is completely at ease, Laura is not. O’Flynn conveys Laura’s paralytic nervousness beautifully; her voice grows louder, her shoulders soften, she shuffles closer to the candles and to Jim. She is embarrassed by her memories, those of him singing at school and her ‘clumping’ along. His autograph was unattainable; he was unattainable – and now suddenly he’s there, being friendly to her. No wonder she’s terrified.
The play draws repeatedly on the tricks of memory. The gentleman caller scene is conjured from Tom’s memory – but he is not there, so I it imaginary? Is it an excuse? Is it him giving Laura a moment of happiness before the illusion comes crashing down? Memory is increasingly malleable, what people remember is not what happened, but more interestingly, what they need to survive in the present. Laura needs to remember the times in singing class for than Jim, or at least she needs to think she does. She needs to think Jim is engaged after graduation, because that makes her loneliness understandable. She needs to know that he is engaged now, because that way it’s not her fault he leaves. Am I getting across how bloody sad this play is!?!?!?
Jim, being confident and self-conscious (in other words, he’s more than capable of lying,) moves the conversation towards Laura. He is interested in the glass, and Laura becomes enthusiastic. She shows him the glass unicorn, presumably belonging to her since the polio. It is fragile, a fragility Laura has cultivated since her illness – but it shines. There is a magic to it. And Laura and Jim start to dance, they start to court. They spin around the room listening to a record – when they knock the table and the glass unicorn smashes. The theatre gasps. The pieces are picked up, Laura seems unconcerned, it’s okay she says, and it probably would be if they carried on dancing. But they don’t.
And it’s now, now Jim has Laura enthralled and he knows it, that he becomes inarticulate. He fumbles, as if he’s besotted. He says ‘I wish you were my sister,’ which is played for laughs, as if he really didn’t mean to say that. It’s followed by ‘You’re – pretty.’ He knows he’s about to break her heart. It is he who brings up the idea of artifice, that Tom ‘made a mistake’ and that’s he’s not ‘the right type.’ In other words, he’s about to lie through his teeth.
Jim says he can’t/won’t come back, then starts to get more specific without needing to be prompted. He’s almost too eager to give his excuses. He becomes absorbed in his own memories and fantasies and Laura’s world collapses. She understands, or at least, that’s what she tells him. She gives him the broken unicorn – why? Is it bitterness? Hurt? Or just childlike affection? I’m not sure Laura believes him. I’m not sure Amanda does either. No one else knew about the engagement? It seems unlikely. So why is Jim doing it? It doesn’t seem malicious, and it does remind us of the link between Tom and Jim; are they even friends, or does Tom just admire from afar? Tom is just as surprised as anyone else at the news, after all.
So then, what is artifice and what is not? What is the creation of memory and what is truth? The production doesn’t answer these questions. Rather, it sends a bolt of lightning straight through the house – just like the fire escapes stretching into nowhere – throwing everything up in the air, leaving everyone scrambling for truth and understanding in this world ‘lit by lightning.’ You doubt that they’ll ever find it.