Master of Seduction

No one writes seduction as well as Tennessee Williams.  In his Ten Blocks on the Camino Real, earlier this season, sex is morally and physically deadly for Kilroy — i.e., he has every reason to resist.  And it does take the Gypsy’s daughter awhile — a delicious, suspenseful while — but he succumbs.  In Vieux Carre, another game played out on a small bed, an unattractive man, elderly and sickly, uses skill, experience and patience in a breathtaking seduction of a beautiful young man.  You might think you wouldn’t want to see that — but you do.

Act I of The Glass Menagerie sets up an intriguing psychological situation but it’s not until the great seduction scene of Act II that, in this production, the play comes alive.

Tom, who’s both a character and narrator in this play, wants to be a writer and yearns for adventure but is stuck in a shoe factory supporting his tyrannical mother, Amanda, and lame and reclusive sister, Laura, who finds emotional refuge in her collection of small, glass animals that break easily, like her.  Amanda, an erstwhile Southern belle, chatty and flirtatious, tries to make her intensely shy daughter into a creature like herself, while holding too tight a rein on her son through emotional blackmail and incestuous flirtatiousness — at one point, as my friend noted, in response to one of her intimate onslaughts, Tom covers his groin with his cap.  The traps that lock this family are economic and psychological but Williams is most interested in the psychological.  As Sartre concluded in his play No Exit, of the very same year, 1944, “Hell is other people.”

Frantic to find Laura a suitor, Amanda pushes Tom to invite for diner a man from the factory, Jim who, it turns out, Laura had been attracted to in high school, only intensifying Laura’s pathological shyness.  Jim takes it on himself to draw Laura out of her shell … instead of a bed, Williams here gets them sitting together on the floor, in candlelight, while the others are in the kitchen.  Outstandingly handsome in this production (though not in the script) and sure of himself in a full-of-himself sort of way, Jim succeeds in opening her to romance and a kiss in a tender and cruel seduction.  It turns out he’s engaged.  For him, it was a combination kindness and ego-trip.  For Laura, it’s the ultimate loss.

The Glass Menagerie, Williams’ first great theatrical success, has strong reference to his own life (see also Vieux Carre).  Like the narrator-son in The Glass Menagerie, Williams’ true name was Tom, and it’s no stretch to see in the psychologically fragile and abandoned Laura a reflection of his mentally ill sister Rose whom Williams felt he had abandoned (Jim’s nickname for Laura is “Blue Roses” from his play on words of the pleurosis she suffered.)

The play’s psychological themes speak strongly to the powerful stream of Freudian thought in much twentieth-century literature, particular in the earlier years when everyone was writing about psychological arrest, a la Kafka, and when it was widely believed, for instance, that homosexuality was caused by absent fathers and over-protective and seductive — Amanda-like — mothers.  But the play remains fresh because Williams’ characters are vivid and fully developed, their passions deep, and their interactions intense, believable and inevitable.

The Glass Menagerie, with Amy Irving as Amanda, Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Tom, Louisa Krause as Laura and John Behlmann as Jim, plays at Guild Hall in East Hampton through July 26.