Hello, and welcome to the Glass Menagerie blog! I’m Alexandra, the dramaturg for this production, and, over the next few weeks, I’ll be blogging about all things Tennessee Williams. Rehearsals began in New York the week before Christmas where we began by … choosing which script we wanted to use. There are at least three major versions of Glass Menagerie, not including a short story called Portrait of A Girl in Glass, dozens of fragments in various stages of completion, and a one-act called The Pretty Trap, featuring the “happy ending” Tennessee Williams wrote to tempt MGM into producing the story as a film. In fact, when I emailed John (Tiffany, our director) to check which script he wanted to use, he dealt a blow to my confidence in having discovered all available versions by introducing me to the London edition of the script. (John Gielgud directed the London production, and the joke in the ART rehearsal room is that the differences in this script come from Gielgud telling Helen Hayes, who played Amanda, to “say whatever you want, darling!”)
So, what’s with all these versions? Tennessee Williams began writing The Glass Menagerie while working for MGM studios in Los Angeles in 1943. He developed the script as a film treatment, but Louis Mayer, the studio head, said the script, then titled The Gentleman Caller, would never work onscreen. Tennessee didn’t give up and turned the treatment into a play.
The completed Glass Menagerie reached Williams’ agent Audrey Wood in 1944. Tennessee had briefly studied theater at New York’s New School and was inspired by the ideas of his teacher Erwin Piscator, a German theater director and scenographer. Piscator’s ideas were close to the vision of a “plastic theater” that Tennessee would extrapolate in his production notes to Menagerie, and prized expressionism over realism. Although Tennessee disagreed with Piscator’s emphasis on the director’s supremacy, he took plastic theater to heart. In the script received by Wood, Williams called for projection screens that would flash various phrases and pictures to augment the action. These range from the romantic – quotes from Emily Dickinson poems underscore Jim and Laura’s candlelit meeting – to the questionable – when Amanda tells Laura the name of her gentleman caller, the legend “Not Jim!” flashes on the screen, and when Tom mentions the Merchant Marines, the Jolly Roger appears. In addition to the screen devices, Tom actively stage manages his memory – when Amanda rhapsodizes about her seventeen gentlemen callers, Tom stands and gestures to the lighting booth for a spotlight for his mother.
If this doesn’t sound like any production of Glass Menagerie you’ve seen, you can thank Laurette Taylor. Taylor originated the role of Amanda, and she was a big deal. Taylor was the Meryl Streep of her day – Konstantin Stanislavsky considered her the greatest American actress and asked her to join the Moscow Art Theatre in 1924. However, she had been absent from the stage for nearly twenty years by 1944, owing to battles with alcoholism. For an unknown playwright like Williams, getting Laurette Taylor to star in your new play was a huge coup. Unfortunately, during the rehearsal period in Chicago, Taylor frustrated the other cast members by mumbling, not knowing her lines, and appearing generally uninterested in rehearsals. “Her bright-eyed attentiveness to the other performances seemed a symptom of lunacy,” Williams once commented. Taylor, confident in her ability to play Amanda, was really studying the others’ performances; when Tennessee scolded her, exclaiming “My god, what corn!” she threw herself into the performance, astonishing everyone. Tennessee recalled that he and Julie Haydon, who played Laura, cried when she was finished.
Listen to a radio play starring Laurette Taylor:
Jo Mielziner, the set and light designer, also deserves credit for shaping the final script of Menagerie. Mielziner began his career as a painter. Like Williams, he was inspired by German expressionism and leitmotif, feeling that less scenery was better. Mielziner found the lyricism and poetry of Menagerie was sufficient to bring out the images Williams initially called for in screen projections. The set he created had translucent walls and a scrim with a fire escape and brick wall painted on it that could be lit from either inside or out. It was the designer’s idea to have Tom deliver his first line outside of the set – this breaking of the fourth wall gave Tom “physical and psychic” distance from his memories. Besides, Mielziner couldn’t spare any power for the projections – seven switchboards controlled the lights for the show, and he only finished cueing three hours before curtain went up.
Taylor’s and Mielziner’s contributions to the original staging gave Tennessee the confidence to cut his screens and projections, but after the play became a smash Broadway hit, it was rushed to print before the cuts and changes developed in the rehearsal period could be added to the manuscript. The version of The Glass Menagerie that you read in high school is likely to be this so-called “Reading Edition.” (An easy test – if Tom’s first monologue begins with “yes,” you have the Reading Edition.) An Acting Edition that recorded the play as it was presented on Broadway was finally published in 1949. In addition to cutting the projections, this script included over 1100 other verbal changes. The London Edition of 1948 sticks closely to this Acting Edition, but several lines are added for Amanda as well as additional interactions between Tom and Laura.
Most productions of Menagerie use the Acting Edition, but there are no restrictions on using the Reading Edition. (In fact, the 1984 Broadway production with Jessica Tandy stuck to this script.) So what will the Cambridge Edition of Glass Menagerie be like? Will Amanda encourage genteel Christian ladies to read Gone With the Wind or Honeymoon for Three? Will the Wingfields have blancmange or coffee for dessert? Can you expect a skull and crossbones projected over Jim when he sings Pirates of Penzance?