I read Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie” in 10th grade English class. Ever since then, I’ve been a fan of his work. In particular, I love his concept of a “memory play,” the idea of a play taking place entirely in the mind of a character and thus being warped by the distortions, diminutions and exaggerations we all experience in our memories. Williams himself states at the beginning of the play that “the scene is memory and is therefore non-realistic …. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart.”
“The Glass Menagerie” takes place in the mind of the main character, Tom, as he tries to find a suitor for his introverted sister, Laura, at the urging of his mother, Amanda. Tom eventually invites his friend, Jim, to come to their home to meet Laura. After Jim meets Laura, he claims that he is already engaged. Amanda angrily blames Tom for not having already known this. In the end, Tom leaves his sister and mother, determined to never return. As his memories of the two of them end, Tom says goodbye to his mother and sister and asks his sister to blow out the candle on the memory play.
Given how essential the memory-induced distortion of narrative is to this play, I’ve always assumed this concept would carry through Williams’s other works. I’d assumed this, along with many other staples of Modernist theater, would carry through any Williams play being performed today.
So this past weekend, when I had the privilege of seeing the Roundabout Theatre’s new production of Tenessee Williams’s “The Rose Tattoo,” I assumed I would see the same narrative-distorting concepts come into play. Williams wrote “The Rose Tattoo” in 1951, after all, shortly after the success of “The Glass Menagerie” in 1944. How could he not be influenced by the ground-breaking success of this memory play concept while he worked on “The Rose Tattoo”?
But to my great surprise, “The Rose Tattoo” is a simple, if quirky, romantic comedy. It follows main character Serafina Delle Rosa as her husband passes away, her daughter grows up, and she learns to love again. It’s almost a dark comedy: Right when Serafina is ready to love again, she meets a man with the body of her husband but the head of “a clown.” As she grows to love him, the audience cannot help but note his many faults.
My predisposition towards unreliable narrative in this play proved to be entirely unfounded. If anything, the narrator/point of view of this play is so loosely defined as to be entirely negligible. But because of my experience with “The Glass Menagerie,” I found myself assuming throughout the show that the narrative I was witnessing was not accurate. At one point, as Serafina’s daughter cuts her wrist right before she goes on a date with her new love, I all but assumed that she was about to pass away — that Serafina’s love for her daughter had blinded her (as the narrator of the play) to the reality of her daughter’s feelings.
As the play began to conclude, I couldn’t help but allow the tragic ending of “The Glass Menagerie” to keep me constantly on edge — just as Tom’s relationships to his family fall apart, I all but assumed that Serafina’s would fall apart as well. Serafina’s withdrawal from the world, after all, is eerily similar to both Laura and Amanda’s withdrawal. I couldn’t see how this play could end with such a simple, happy conclusion given the incredibly somber ending of “The Glass Menagerie.”
Oddly enough, this wasn’t the first time that my knowledge of an artist tainted my perception of their work. As a young composer back in high school, I’d been obsessed with Beethoven’s “Große Fuge,” his thorny, dissonant, (seemingly) über-avant-garde late work. For those unfamiliar with the piece, it's a blistering 15-minute trek through Schoenberg-esque atonality and rhythmic, harmonic and melodic dissonances.
As a high school composer, and as I began branching out to other Beethoven string quartets, I remember being constantly affected by the rhythmic and harmonic dissonances that I’d learned to expect in the “Große Fuge” — I’d study early Beethoven works that were quite dissonant for the classical era he lived in at the time, but would barely notice the structural dissonances. I’d been preconditioned, almost, to expect all of Beethoven’s music to reach the height of his quasi-Serialist masterpiece, and I was unphased by anything less dissonant.
While Beethoven’s incredible artistic output allows for many separate interpretations and listening mindsets — notice that my obsession with the “Große Fuge” merely tainted my perception of his string quartets, not his greater catalogue of compositions — Williams’s comparably slim output leaves little room for this. “The Rose Tattoo” is a perfectly good play, after all, but given Williams’s other famous plays, it’s frequently neglected.
Perhaps minor, less successful artists are frequently affected by the fame and success of their magnum opuses. Perhaps the “one hit wonder” concept in popular music transfers to other genres of the performing arts.
Almost as soon as I posited this, I saw the inherent flaws. Unlike popular music, which has only recently become a topic of historical study, other performing artforms have years of scholarly study preventing this hierarchical abandonment from taking place — I wouldn’t be surprised if a scholar or two have founded their entire careers on the study of Williams’s entire catalogue, from “The Glass Menagerie” to “The Rose Tattoo.”
What I have learned, however, is that it can sometimes be just as interesting to study an artist’s minor works as it is to study their major works. In the case of Williams, for example, I learned far more from the discrepancies between this work and his other more popular works than I did from any of these successful works themselves. Perhaps our interests should lie not in an artist’s success but in their other attempts at reaching such success. Perhaps it is not the masterpiece but the almost-masterpiece, the near-masterpiece, that is most deserving of our critical thought.