Vancouver actor Scott Button will soon step onto the Jericho Arts Centre stage as Tom Wingfield in a production of Tennesee Williams’ enduring memory play The Glass Menagerie. In preparing for his role, he and director Shawn MacDonald have delved into Williams’ tortured personal life and the links to his character of Tom. In this special to Vancouver Presents, Button shares what he and MacDonald have discovered.
[pullquote]The Glass Menagerie is humorous, devastatingly sad and unapologetically autobiographical. [/pullquote]In the 1930s, while working on a play called Battle of Angels, a young writer named Tom Williams had thought he had settled on his penname: Valentine Sevier. Drawing on a surname from his family tree, the romantic pseudonym also inspired the naming of the lead character in Battle of Angels – Val Xavier. In biographer John Lahr’s words, Val was the playwrights’ own “myth of his remodeled self.” It would not be the last time Williams put himself into one of his plays. In a subsequent work, initially titled The Gentleman Caller, he gave the narrator his own first name. In later drafts, The Gentleman Caller became The Glass Menagerie. Before the success of that play made him a household name, Tom decided against Valentine Sevier as his professional moniker. Being a descendant of one of the first governors of a particular southeastern state, he kept his old surname and remodeled himself into one Tennessee Williams.
The Glass Menagerie is humorous, devastatingly sad and unapologetically autobiographical. Throughout my research on the play and its author, I was continually reminded of Lahr’s description of Williams renovating his reality through his work. The narrator of the play, Tom Wingfield, has a sister named Laura and together they live with their mother in a shabby apartment in Depression-era St Louis. Laura is a fragile young woman who relies on her glass animal collection for companionship. Like the Wingfields, Tennessee’s family also lived in a tenement building in St. Louis. He too had a delicate sister whom he cherished – her name was Rose. Their dimly-lit apartment overlooked an alley which hosted vicious fights between stray dogs and cats. Rose often awoke to the sight of mangled cat corpses outside her bedroom window. It became so horrifying that she sealed off her window, painted everything in the room white and amassed a collection of tiny glass animals. Williams said of his sister’s collection that “they stood for the small and tender things that relieve the austere pattern of life… The alley where cats were torn to pieces was one thing – my sister’s white curtains and tiny menageries were another. Somewhere between them was the world that we lived in.” The fraught world he and his sister lived in, one caught between beauty and harshness, is the world of The Glass Menagerie. Living in those circumstances, who can blame Tom Wingfield – or Tennessee Williams, rather – for wanting to tell a different story?
It has been a pleasure to research a bit into the life of Tennessee Williams to prepare for the role of Tom Wingfield. For anyone interested, I’d highly recommend the fantastic biography Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr, which I have quoted here.
The Fire Escape Equity Co-Op’s production of The Glass Menagerie plays at the Jericho Art Centre December 5-21. Tickets are available online at Brown Paper Tickets.