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Qualitative Essay: The Integration of Realism in The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

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Introduction

For this qualitative essay I will use a practice based approach in order to explore the character of Laura, in Tennessee Williams’ the Glass Menagerie. I will undertake this by, going into the theories of expressionism and realism that are explicitly seen in the play, and explore how it affects character interpretation. In order to do this, I will be looking into the primary sources of, the Glass Menagerie, and Building a Character by Konstantin Stanislavski. Additionally, I will be looking into Celia Keenan-Bolger’s performance of Laura in John Tiffany’s revival of the Glass Menagerie on Broadway in 2013. Exploring her personal interpretation, preparation and performance is crucial to allow myself to have general ideas of how Laura is seen on stage from a professional perspective. Furthermore, seeing how Keenan-Bolger uses realism techniques in her acting approach. The manner which she prepares the character is contrasting to the base of expressionism that the performance lies on. Thus, I will be exploring the following question: how can Tennessee Williams’ expressionist play, The Glass Menagerie, embed techniques of realism to the physical representation of Laura? Said play, is considered to be vaguely autobiographical to Tennessee Williams himself. Therefore, it is essential to have general knowledge of the playwright to extract the importance of the themes in the play.

Williams was born on March 26, 1911 and grew up in a considerably toxic family unit. His only close relationship was with his sister Rose. Williams has described her to have been the salvation of his childhood. However, in 1943 she was diagnosed with schizophrenia which led to her lobotomy. This made her inaccessible inwardly and Tennessee lost his only familiar companion. As Rose had such a strong role in Tennessee’s life, she became a vital component in his writing. The sibling characters of Tom and Laura in the Glass Menagerie have been interpreted as a direct representation of Tennessee and Rose. The Glass Menagerie was published and performed in 1944. The story is set in 1937 in St. Louis, Missouri. The narrator is Tom Wingfield, an aspiring poet that works in a shoe warehouse to support his mother, Amanda, and his older sister, Laura. The play is about the dynamic of this family and how their distinct traits contrast each other. Amanda, Tom and Laura live together in a worn down apartment. The story begins with prior events in which Amanda enrolls Laura into a business school.

However, weeks later she finds out that Laura’s shyness led her to secretly dropping out. Due to this, Amanda decides that the only way for Laura to have a decent future is to have a husband. During all of this, Tom is either gone at “the movies” or at work. When he is home he is constantly fighting with his mother, while Laura is taking care of her precious glass figurines. Amanda tells Tom to find Laura a potential fiance. Therefore, he invites a coworker and old highschool friend, named Jim, over for dinner. After some time of being painfully shy around Jim, Laura is able to have a conversation with him. The two clearly have a connection, however it is not possible for them to work out as Jim is engaged. Due to this, Jim leaves. Amanda becomes furious with Tom; Tom decides he can no longer put up with his life and abandons his mother and sister. As known, I will be concentrating on how this storyline brings out the physicality in Laura. A feature that defines Laura is her physical disability. As stated in the text, “…crippled, in one leg slightly shorter than the other, and held in a brace. The defect need not be more than suggested on the stage”. Therefore, her disability does not have to be prominent, but must be incorporated into her character.

Even though, it is a physical disability it has also transformed into an emotional one. The weight of her physical difference leads to her becoming painfully shy and having a disintegrating self esteem. As a consequence, she closes herself into her own internal world. This world consists of herself, old records and the collections of glass figurines; this is all the indepence she has. She is a twenty four year old women treated like glass. Her treatment is childish therefore there is a sense of innocence and vulnerability in her character. This ties in how Laura should be interpreted from the inside out, this manner will allow for her demonstration of being both, “emotionally and physically crippled.” This is extracted from a realist approach to preparing a character, even if the play is based off of expressionism.

Expressionism and Realism

Expressionism and realism are both theatre theories derived from 20th century Europe. They are forms of interpreting a play in terms of, atmosphere, setting, plot structure, characters, dialogue, and style of acting. But most importantly, what distincts them the most is purpose of the performance. In the Glass Menagerie I have identified a mix of both theories to accurately invision Tennessee Williams’ purpose. Specifically, in the manner of how Laura is physically represented. Thus, in order to discuss this concept, I must develop what makes up expressionism and realism. To begin with, expressionism is art that enhances extreme expressive properties with the objection of exploring subjective emotions and inner psychological truths. Expressionism theatre conveys the idea that spiritual realization is ideal, rather than logical. While discussing this theory, Williams stated, “Everyone should know nowadays the unimportance of the photographic in art: that truth, life, or reality is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest, in essence, only through transformation, through changing into other forms than those which were merely present in appearance.” He was one of the playwrights that implemented this theory into the american theatre scene. The conventions of expressionism consist of having the performance be, dreamlike with minimal detail and dialogue based on poetical and rhapsodic language. Also, the style of acting is a departure from reality, where reality is subjective. Correspondingly, Williams uses the concept of Plastic theatre, which lies under expressionism. Its effect is a closer approach to truth, the truth within the soul of the characters. It is merging related arts of fiction, poetry, dance, painting, design, lighting, etc. into performance. The sole purpose of this addition is to create a, “more penetrating and vivid expression of things as they are.”

On the other hand, realism theatre is based on the idea that the stage is an environment compared to being an acting platform. Where the behavior of characters is similarly reflected to that of what we consider reality in the majority of the western world. It consists of giving the audience a piece of the real world in a manner that is convenient for the story itself. One of the most influential people that have embraced realism theatre, is russian theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski. He was the one to create the realistic acting system, which then triggered more areas of realism including, American realism and method acting. Realism normally follows a classical dramatic structure of inciting incident in order to promote the storyline. Additionally, characters act in a way that is true to the environment. Characters only react within themselves and never break the fourth wall.

Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura Wingfield

Celia Keenan-Bolger is an American actress that played Laura in the American Repertory Theatre production of the Glass Menagerie. This was the seventh major revival of the piece and was directed by John Tiffany. The cast consisted of Keenan-Bolger, Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto and Brian J. Smith, and they preformed from September 26, 2013 until February 23, 2014. Celia, was 35 years old when she played the piece, which is 11 years older than Laura’s actual age. As a result of her performance, she won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play in 2014.

The director, John Tiffany, was fascinated by Williams’ piece and emphasized the use of conventions of expressionism in his interpretation. He focused on the idea of plastic theatre and how it could benefit the play as a whole, “…expand from the script – be plastic – to create a physical world for the characters’ emotions and tensions.” He was against the idea of realism in his production. When asked about his interpretation he said, “I’m doing it the only way I know how to – very spare, very pure, with none of the phony realism that I dislike in theatre.” His purpose was to step out of the “exhausted theatre of realistic convention” and create a space for the story and characters to flourish. However, after doing extensive investigation on Celia Keenan-Bolger, I found that the way in which she interpreted, prepared, and performed Laura was extracted from Stanislavski’s realism theatre and this was how she was able to accurately represent her. Depicting Laura Wingfield can be challenging due to her complex internal and external complications. Celia Keenan-Bolger interpreted her in a manner that would stay true to Tennessee Williams’ intention, but additionally bring the character to life within the actress. She wanted to understand people that are nothing like her, in a way that would benefit the presentation of Laura.

Keenan-Bolger was able to do so by working from inside out, “For the first two weeks of rehearsal, I didn’t have a limp…I just felt like in some way it was the least of her problems.” This ties into Stanislavski’s approach seen in Building a Character, specifically in “Toward a Physical Characterization.” He presents the idea that, achieving external physical characterization can only occur when the inner values of the character are established within an actor. Keenan-Bolger decided that Laura’s physical disability was not the most important part in conveying the character, instead it’s her internal struggles. Keenan-Bolger describes the complexity of Laura as, “her interior life is pretty wild and complicated. She also grew up with a sort of physical disability which I think stunted whatever emotional growth that maybe happened or could have happened earlier on.” Hence, the actress has interpreted Laura in a manner in which, even though her disability is part of her existence, it isn’t the most important part of her as a person and character. This demonstrates Stanislavski’s concept of, “the inner values of the character must be established before moving onto the external.” One must be at a certain level of maturity to even begin preparing for a character like Laura. As Stanislavski states in the chapter, “Perspective of Character Building”, “(if) an actor is drawn away from the main course of his part by something extraneous and irrelevant to it. Then he loses the perspective of his role.” If maturity is not present, then the actor is not able concentrate on the important parts of the role.

Celia Keenan-Bolger was able to identify this, “I’m not sure that I would have totally understand what to do with this ten years ago. When I was the actual right age to play this part.” Additionally, maturity is necessary to embed aspects of said character that are dissimilar to yourself. In Keenan-Bolger’s own words, “understanding what makes people that are nothing like me tick.” This allowed for Celia to accurately represent Laura by, going into depth of not only how the character feels but as well, how they move, speak, etc. Preparation is key to any successful performance, let alone one that is physically restraining. In Stanislavski’s text he mentions the idea that, “…your voice has to be well placed and trained if you are to change it, for otherwise you cannot, for any length of time, speak either with your highest or your lowest tones.” Celia Keenan-Bolger decided as an actress that she was going to demonstrate Laura’s disability as an unobtrusive, yet noticeable limp. She chose something that portrayed the character’s physical defect, but not in a way that was overly restraint to herself as an actor. In the chapter, “Perspective of Character Building”, Stanislavski’s talks about the idea of the taking care of both the character and yourself as an actor, “Two perspectives in mind. The one related to the character portrayed, the other to the actor.” This is what Celia did, she struggled to find what exactly consisted of Laura’s physical disability, therefore she needed something that respected the character, but was still flexible enough for her to focus on different aspects of Laura. If she would have created a more complex physical defect then, she wouldn’t have been as successful portraying Laura. She would have had to concentrate more on the physical rather than emotional and this would go against the concept of, “nor the artificial distortion of my mouth should influence my inner life as a human being.” This would create a weak character, therefore Celia Keenan-Bolger’s approach was more accurate to represent Laura. All of the hard work that goes into analysing a text, interpreting your character, preparing said character, and rehearsing for hours on hours, all leads to presenting the final product. Hence, the performance. Performing is the reason actors become actors, being able to immerse yourself into your character and not needing to be anyone else but them. This is also where you share your craft with the rest of the world. In the case of Celia Keenan-Bolger, this is where she shared her interpretation and preparation of Laura. Celia’s performance of Laura was extravagant as she was able to well-roundedly show all layers of the character, on an emotional and physical level.

The two factors intertwined and made the character seem realistic, while flowing with the storyline. As mentioned prior, the actress portrayed physicality in an elegant manner. She was able to show the defect, without saturating the action. This ties into Stanislavski’s idea that, “All of your body needs to move together and all movements need to be purposeful. To show a character with a physical defect, in which case he should be able to display it in just the proper degree, he should move in an easy manner which adds to rather than distracts from the impression he creates.” In the actress’ performance she did exactly this. She was able to make Laura’s disability be one with the natural way that character walks, without interrupting the storyline. The manner in which she walks shows a defect in her right foot, specifically at the ankle the foot bends inwards. The foot is progressively bent as she walks, meaning that whether it is lifted or on the ground the visual aspect of the disability is still prevalent. Additionally, his movement is noticeable, however it does not have any effect on the capabilities of the character or actor. Even in scene 7 of the play, Jim is able to dance with Laura around the room and Celia has no issue doing so. At no point in this scene, is the defect is lost or enhanced to point of distraction. Therefore, the actress was able to make the decision to take control of the defect instead or it taking over her. This directly, ties into Stanislavski’s theory in Building a Character which states exactly that.

Myself as Laura Wingfield

Throughout my extensive research on the Glass Menagerie and Laura Wingfield, I have found that embedding Stanislavski’s theory of realism in representing Laura, allows for the expressionism of the play to flourish. Therefore, when interpreting Laura myself actress, I knew that I had to incorporate realism in a manner that would perfectly intertwine her physical defects with her emotional ones. After watching several interpretations of the play, I found that I was influenced off of Celia Keenan-Bolger’s performance. She was able to transform herself into the character in a manner that enhanced Laura’s personality rather than her defect. However, the defect was still noticeable, but not overwhelming. I used her performance as my source of inspiration, that I would go back to whenever I was unsure of which direction to go. As well, I organized myself by dividing my research into three parts: interpretation, preparation, and performance. However, as this is an individual investigation I was unable to perform the entire play so I pick two to concentrate on. These are from scenes two and seven. The first one being in scene two, where Laura is showing Amanda the picture of Jim from the high school yearbook. The second moment is in scene seven when Jim takes Laura and begins to dance with her. In these two scenes Laura’s emotional and physical characteristics interact in a manner where her physicality doesn’t disturb the plot. While interpreting, preparing, and performing for the character I concentrate on Stanislavski’s aspect that, “nor the artificial distortion of my mouth should influence my inner life as a human being.” This is because, Laura is so much more than her physical defect; she is a flawed individual that has internal conflicts, such as being painfully shy and childish.

Interpretation is how one character can be molded uniquely by different actors. This is why there are several versions of the same play or film. When reading the Glass Menagerie for the first time I imagined Laura completely different from how Celia Keenan-Bolger or any other actress that played her, did. I saw her wearing a huge leg brace that she would drag around with her. I saw that as the root of her emotional and personality based issues. However, after looking in Stanislavski’s realism techniques in Building a Character, I noticed that there was no need for such a large concentration on her personal defect as, “extra gestures are the equivalent of trash, dirt, spots.”

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Qualitative Essay: the Integration of Realism in the Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. (2020, December 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 9, 2021, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/qualitative-essay-the-integration-of-realism-in-the-glass-menagerie-by-tennessee-williams/
“Qualitative Essay: the Integration of Realism in the Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams.” GradesFixer, 10 Dec. 2020, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/qualitative-essay-the-integration-of-realism-in-the-glass-menagerie-by-tennessee-williams/
Qualitative Essay: the Integration of Realism in the Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/qualitative-essay-the-integration-of-realism-in-the-glass-menagerie-by-tennessee-williams/> [Accessed 9 Dec. 2021].
Qualitative Essay: the Integration of Realism in the Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2020 Dec 10 [cited 2021 Dec 9]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/qualitative-essay-the-integration-of-realism-in-the-glass-menagerie-by-tennessee-williams/
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