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Tennessee’s Tragic Muse

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Here in Chicago, the Steppenwolf Theatre Company is currently mounting a well-reviewed “Young Adult’s Production” of The Glass Menagerie, which raises the question, “what production of The Glass Menagerie is not for young adults?” 

I don’t mean this at all facetiously, because there is no more poetic and poignant play in the American canon, and its status as an American literary classic is very much merited.  

But when I saw a production some years ago at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, it struck me that, as gloomy as the play’s portrait of the repressed and crippled Laura Wingfield might be, it represents a kind of wish-fulfillment on the part of Tennessee Williams, a determinedly brave and poetically false obscuring and softening of a much darker reality that might have been difficult for 13-year-olds to absorb or accept. 

After all, Williams’ sister Rose, upon whom the character of Laura is based, was crippled much more severely than Laura.  A schizophrenic from early adulthood, Rose was lobotomized against her will, and the guilt experienced by her younger brother Thomas (he changed his name to Tennessee in college) after failing to stop his mother from authorizing this primitive and pointless operation is said to be one of the reasons he was plagued by severe insomnia, depression, and drug and alcohol problems throughout his life.

Williams dealt directly with lobotomization — not to mention cannibalism and similarly unsavory subjects — in other plays, but The Glass Menagerie is, like the play’s metaphorical glass collection, itself something of a fragile fantasy.  Interestingly, I saw the play myself as a teenager, and in my early twenties as well, and greatly enjoyed both productions.  But it wasn’t until a decade or so later in Stratford that I fully understood that Laura, as lonely and hopeless as she might have been, was actually Williams’ idealized dream version of how the real-life Rose (who was, incidentally, born 99 years ago today) might have lived under better circumstances.  Like most “young adults,” I hadn’t been ready, back then, for the ugly reality.

The night of the Stratford production, I woke up abruptly in my hotel room, and, disoriented, thought for just an instant that I was in my childhood bedroom.  I was probably disturbed by the play’s dark undercurrents, and likely had had a bad dream about the play, or my own past, or both.  Not long after this slightly unsettling night, I wrote the following poem, which isn’t about the play itself so much as Williams’ painful and beautiful fantasy, with a bit of my own family history mixed in, and which I offer now as a modest birthday gift to the memory of Rose Williams: 

A Memory Play

(After seeing a production of “The Glass Menagerie”)

Later that night I’d lifted up from sleep —
My body obeying my baffled head —
And thought I was back in the bed and room
I’d shared with my brother when we were young.
Though certain I was grown, I couldn’t say,
In the billion-dotted darkness, where I lay,
The real walls receded, crayoned, changed.

I searched for the sad door I hadn’t seen
Since seven other homes had intervened
And thought I could limn the dim, familiar lines
Of wavering walls descending out of time
Like the stars you know you see but then you don’t
But only sense at all because the sun
Has deferred before their feeble lights again.

I’d lifted up from sleep and fallen back
Into a crack between the bed and the past,
And, seventeen years since I’d left my home,
Again in my sleep I wandered those halls
From which the souls I’d left behind emerged
And, stirring to a deeper dark than mine,
Helped to make a memory play begin.

With the houselights down, in a scriptless scene,
My cast had mingled out of sense and time,
Their day-diminished stars allowed to shine.
So my wife at her breast had nursed, say, Rick,
Who after school I’d scouted gutters with
For interesting trash when we were six:
All my pals, and the odd adults we’d be

And all my family spirits but for one,
Mingling, for an act, in the happy gloom.
And seconds before I’d awakened to dawn,
My brother appeared through the scribbled scrim
To join us in our early lives again:
Made better in my mind, and whole in his,
A child again, and seated beside me.

The way you’d once dreamed your sister could be:
Not happy, but, in the candlelight, alive.
You turned around and looked into her eyes
Back when you still could sleep. Before all the lights.
Before the substances and sun that lightened
And faded everyone you wanted to see.
Before the first act. Before you were Tennessee.


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