What is Good Acting? How will I know when I see it?
Just as I was turning fifteen, in the spring of 1946, my parents took me to see “The Glass Menagerie,” well into its year-long run. I had seen a number of shows on Broadway by then, but nothing like this—because there was nothing like this on Broadway. It was an era of well-made plays and musicals, plus worthy revivals of Shakespeare and Shaw. Tennessee Williams’s sad, delicate drama of a struggling family in extremis was greeted with modified rapture by most of the critics as a new voice, a potential turning point for a tired commercial theatre.
But the true rapture was reserved for the play’s star, Laurette Taylor, reappearing after a difficult interlude of alcoholism, but still a revered name in the theatre. Her biggest success, decades earlier, had been in the comedy “Peg O’My Heart,” which she performed for years both in New York and around the country, and in a movie adaptation. Now, as Amanda Wingfield, first in Chicago and then on Broadway, she emerged as an actress without peer, her performance referred to again and again as the greatest ever by an American actor. When I saw her, I knew it was the finest acting I had ever seen, and, more than sixty-five years later, I still feel that way. But why? What did she do that made her acting so unforgettable?
She simply didn’t act. Or so it appeared. She wasn’t an actress; she was a tired, silly, irritating, touching, fraught, aging woman with no self-awareness, no censor for her ceaseless flow of words, no sense of the effect she was having on her children—or the audience. It was as if you were listening in on the stream of her consciousness. Her self-pitying yet valiant voice, reflecting both the desperation of her situation and the faded remnants of her Southern-belle charm, was maddening, yet somehow endearing. You wanted to hug her, to swat her, to run from her—in other words, you reacted to her just the way her son, Tom, did.
The crucial thing was the absolute naturalism: her acting wasn’t “realistic”—that is, like real life. It was real life. The production was in some ways stagey, but there wasn’t a touch of staginess about her. She knew exactly what she was doing, though; she just didn’t want you to know what she was doing. What she deplored, she once wrote, was when “you can see the acting.”
Here are some of the things people in the theatre have had to say about her performance:
Patricia Neal: “The greatest performance I have ever seen in all my life.”
Hal Prince: “I knew when I watched it and I sat in the balcony, you’ll never see greater acting as long as you live.”
Charles Durning: “I thought they pulled her off the street. She was … so natural.”
Martin Landau: It “was absolutely like this woman had found her way into the theatre, through the stage door, and was sort of wandering around the kitchen.”
Fred Ebb: “Laurette Taylor turned around and pulled down her girdle, and I have never been that affected by a stage action in my whole life. It made me weep.”
Maureen Stapleton: “Oh boy … I can’t describe what she did or how she did it, but boy …. ”
Marian Seldes went to see her four times, Uta Hagen five times.
And Tennessee Williams himself: “Of course I consider her the greatest artist of her profession that I have known…. In this unfathomable experience of ours, there are sometimes hints of something that lies outside flesh and its mortality. I suppose these intuitions come to many people in their religious vocations, but I have sensed them more clearly in the work of artists, and most clearly of all in the work of Laurette Taylor. There was a radiance about her art which I can compare only to the greatest lines of poetry, and which gave me the same shock of revelation, as if the air about us had been momentarily broken through by light from some clear space around us.”
I’ve only once since then seen anything resembling her. When I was at Cambridge in the early fifties, there was a school nearby for training Army officers in Russian, and some imaginative genius came up with the idea of putting on Russian plays with the students to improve their language skills. To direct these plays, the school brought over from Paris a pair of very old Moscow Art Theatre actors who had been stranded there decades earlier. Their names, as I recall, were Gretch (or Gretsch) and Pavlov, and, in their first year, they both directed and appeared in secondary roles in Gogol’s “The Inspector General.” Their acting was consummately brilliant and supremely natural.
At that time, I was directing plays in Cambridge, so the following year, when they were brought back to stage Pushkin’s “Boris Godunov,” I was able to talk my way into an extra role—I was one of a number of poverty-stricken mendicants, with a beard, a ragged coat, and a gnarled walking stick. I even had a single line that I chanted over and over in Russian—the only acting I’ve done since high school. But the point wasn’t to act; it was to watch Gretch and Pavlov close up. They didn’t speak a word of English, but in rehearsal they made themselves totally clear. And again they themselves appeared: as a wandering monk and as the hostess of an inn, in a single unforgettable scene. Even close up, you couldn’t believe that they were actors, acting; they just were. Immediately I thought of Laurette Taylor—here was the same phenomenon. For me, the thrill, apart from the phenomenon itself, was inferring from their work what Stanislavski’s theatre must have been like.
Acting has changed since the nineteen-forties. Taylor was a high-water mark of natural acting, just as Duse had been fifty years earlier and Lillian Gish was in silent film. There was comparable work in the great, posthumously produced O’Neill plays, in later pieces by Williams and others, and in the work of the most important director of the period, Elia Kazan. The stream of cutting-edge plays from Europe—by Beckett, Ionesco, and Genet—required other approaches, though, and Laurence Olivier, a highly technical actor, who was the benchmark of the period, was always riveting, but not always real. The enormously influential Actors Studio, descended from Stanislavski by way of the Group Theatre and founded in part by Kazan, promoted the concept of emotional truth, helping a generation of stage actors, Kim Stanley perhaps the finest of them, to superb performances. But “emotional truth” became a substitute for lack of technique as the concept spread from the stage to Hollywood and television. And then the pendulum swung yet again. The signal that the tide had turned decisively back was the emergence of Meryl Streep, with her extraordinary powers of impersonation. I watched the first half of one of her early successes, “Silkwood,” with astonishment at her skill. But as the character approached her tragic death, I found myself thinking, again and again, What a brilliant choice! My attention was being drawn not to her pain but to the acting.
This kind of impressive actory acting has become the gold standard, and our theatre critics praise it above all else. And so we come to the performance of Cherry Jones, the star of the latest “Glass Menagerie,” which has been hailed as a triumph. Jones is probably the most admired of her generation of Broadway actresses, and she’s very talented, very hardworking, very serious. But her Amanda Wingfield is the exact opposite of Laurette Taylor’s. She’s strident and hectoring rather than bewildered and plaintive—at moments she could be auditioning for “Gypsy” ’s Mama Rose. She’s artificial: you see the mechanism at work. Did I believe her as a loving mother? Not for a moment. Did I care about her? Never. What she did, she did very well, but her Amanda does not come alive.
Of course, Jones was hampered by the intensely irritating nature of the production, with its heralded choreographed gestures and symbolic moments—Laura emerges through a slit in the back of a sofa, for instance, and, at the end, dives back through. The talk in reviews and interviews has centered on the idea that this is both a play and a production about memory, but that device of memory is the weakest, because it is the most self-conscious element of Williams’s accomplishment. By using Tom (that is, himself) as a kind of commentator, he’s distancing himself from the powerful and painful autobiographical nature of the material, putting a barrier between it and the action. But that barrier is forgotten when the play is at its best—when “The Glass Menagerie” is allowed to be about what actually took place in that forlorn apartment in St. Louis in the thirties. John Tiffany’s direction is agenda-driven, not text-driven, and his agenda isn’t persuasive enough to make up for the lack of emotional truth.
The rest of the acting ranges from Zachary Quinto’s stab at Tom—everything labored, beginning with those awful vowels and studied pauses—to Celia Keenan-Bolger’s touching but one-note Laura, to the production’s best performance, Brian J. Smith as the Gentleman Caller, who gives us a modulated and persuasive character and doesn’t thrust his technique in our faces. Strangely, the three young characters are all played too young, as if they were still in high school or college; the sense of failure that surrounds them seems premature. In the original cast, Julie Haydon (Laura) and Anthony Ross (the Gentleman Caller) seemed considerably older, justifying her pathos and his slight seediness. Laura, in particular, seemed more a crippled woman than a crippled girl. As for Eddie Dowling, the original Tom, he was in his mid-fifties! Which made some kind of sense, because he was remembering back after half a lifetime. Quinto’s narrator is the same immature boy he’s remembering.
Without Laurette Taylor’s overwhelming performance, the play’s virtues and problems become clearer. There’s an imbalance: the first act is all Amanda; the second is Laura and the Caller. And the over-all effect is more pathetic than tragic. But the exquisite texture of the writing doesn’t dull with time, through this production and others we’ve seen, some better, some far worse.
Two years after “The Glass Menagerie,” Williams gave us “A Streetcar Named Desire,” with another overwhelming performance, Marlon Brando’s. It’s a larger play, a deeper play, but not a more affecting one. Amanda and Laura are closer to Tennessee Williams’s heart than any of his later characters, which may explain the play’s permanent hold upon us.
There was a coda to my own relation to the play. When Williams died, in 1983, he left the care of his beloved sister, Rose—the original Laura—to his great friend (and literary executor) Maria St. Just. (Rose had been lobotomized in her thirties, and lived in institutions for the rest of her long life.) Maria was a devoted caretaker, and often had Rose with her when she was in New York. One day in the mid-eighties, Maria came to see me in my office at Knopf, to my astonishment bringing Rose with her and parking her out at the receptionist’s desk. When she took me to meet her, I was rattled. In my mind, Rose was the fragile, doomed girl I had seen on the stage forty years earlier. Here was a pleasant, well-groomed woman in her seventies, with nothing to say beyond the usual pleasantries, spoken in a somewhat halting but self-possessed manner. I knew that this was Laura, but it also wasn’t. I was fascinated, unsettled, and nearly in tears.
By Simon Furness Actors Temple Acting Tutor