[Laura] was doll-like in many respects. [Two sentences deleted.] Her face was perfectly symmetrical with a porcelain complexion and very prominent strawberry cheeks and her blonde hair was fixed in neatly permed curls. Even her voice was doll-like, or child-like. When she smiled the joy shot from her sparkling eyes into the dark of the auditorium like bolts from a cross bow. She limped, moved awkwardly about the stage, dragged her reluctant body up stairs and levered it out of chairs only with the help of an arm to lean on. I squirmed in my seat at the difficult lines she had to speak. The play was so close to the bone. We were enchanted and moved and shocked and in thrall to her every word. Even when she sat to the side of the stage silently wringing her strange little hands or carefully washing her little glass animals, we watched her every move over the words of the other actors. She was quite compulsive.
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams was first performed in Chicago on Boxing Day 1944. It is set in St Louis in a period of economic deprivation: “the thirties, when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. Their eyes had failed them, or they had failed their eyes, and so they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alpabet of a dissolving economy”. It is considered to be the most autobiographical of Tennessee Williams’s plays and takes the form of a long memory of another of the four characters, the brother of the crippled actor, Tom. Like most memories the play is shrouded in an enveloping uncertain cloud of darkness penetrated only by a few sharply lit events. The lives of the two siblings – Tom and Laura – twine inexorably around each other like two snakes winding up a branch. To extend the metaphor, their mother is the prey along which they wind, slowly squeezing out of her all her dreams for her children’s lives. She desperately tries to make life work out for them the way she had wanted her own life to turn out, batting her disappointment away with ridiculously rosy memories. Her hope is to marry off the daughter that she refuses, until the end, to call “crippled”, and to see her son well placed in work and married to a nice girl.
The son is weighed down by the expectations of both parts of her dream since he is expected not only to succeed for himself but also to bring suitable “gentleman callers” to come and visit his sister. The gentleman caller is a symbol, the “long-delayed but always expected something that we live for”. Laura knows that there is no hope for she is crippled and likely to become an old maid. She has retreated into an imaginary world animated by a menagerie of glass animals. She washes her precious glass unicorn and a herd of glass horses, accompanied by the same music played over and over again on the Vitrola. She lives in a dream, doing nothing to help herself.
Tom finds someone to bring home, but not before he has cruelly burst his mother’s bubble of hope forcing her to face facts: Laura is crippled and shy and seems peculiar to the world outside their house.
Nonetheless, duty-bound Tom brings a gentleman caller home and the visitor kisses Laura, bowled over by her uniqueness and her innocence, and then leaves to meet his able-bodied girlfriend. Laura’s rhapsody is embarrassing to the audience just as the gentleman caller’s hasty exit convicts us. The audience, too, has to face facts. There is no happy ending just a momentary happy interlude. We are left to make up our own outcome and most of us will decide that that kiss is the only kiss she will ever get and she will grow old washing her glass ornaments, though the unicorn’s horn is now broken. Tom is gone. He runs as far as he can, just as his own father did, but nowhere is far enough away. He can never escape the memory of Laura or his brotherly obligations which flicker like candles in his dreams. “Blow out your candles” he pleads with Laura from afar. One by one, with determined puffs, she blows out the lights.
And we slumped in our seats, exhausted. We are lucky enough to live only a minute away from our theatre, close enough to go home in the interval for drinks. We have seen a string of powerful productions in recent years that have left an indelible-never-come-off-til-you’re-dead-and-buried stamp on us. To be able to introduce our daughters to such difficult themes and to see them respond is a very great delight. I know that they will choose to go to the theatre when they are grown up and that they will not avoid difficult subjects.
Nicola Miles-Wildin, a founder member of the disabled-led theatre company, Graeae, was a mesmerising Laura.
Having talked about this at some length with my family, I have decided that I understand why many people, including particularly the actress, might be offended by some of what I wrote in my personal review of the Glass Menagerie. I have, therefore, deleted the sentences which I believe were those most capable of giving offence. I apologise for any offence caused, particulary to Nicola, and will bear in mind what I have learnt from this when writing in the future.