Melissa Brown (Laura) in Theatreworks' Fall 2012 production of The Glass Menagerie
Here's a comment from one of our favorite subscribers after seeing The Glass Menagerie: "Did we "enjoy" the play you ask? Uh, I suppose, but geez, I had to find someone to shove bamboo slivers under my fingernails to cheer me up." He also praised the acting and the production. His feeling is not untypical--it's not a play with a happy ending (in fact you could say it ends badly for everyone), and apparently it doesn't leave everyone in the audience feeling happy either. The word on the street about the play is that it's sad, it's painful, it's depressing. Is it any wonder that our production, though beautiful and much admired, is not drawing record crowds?
The real wonder is that in the great ages of theatre audiences seem to have enjoyed watching people suffer more than anything else. I'm teaching a course in Greek tragedy at the moment, and everyone knows that 5th century Athens was a high water mark for humanity--at least judged by the creation of democracy, the Parthenon, and a theatre that remains unsurpassed. It was also a time of unrivalled theatrical suffering. For one festive week the citizens of Athens spent all their time and energy watching plays in which terrible things happen to people, from which they never recover and rarely survive. You can make all sorts of arguments about how Greek theatre was connected to ritual, that it was didactic, and so on---but the fact remains that for about 50 great years the city crowded into their 15,000 seat theatre to watch the worst that could happen. Putting your eyes out, being hacked down in the bathtub by your wife, torn apart by horses, buried alive, etc. Now that's entertainment! And so it was.
The Elizabethans, too, liked their suffering. Think of Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Titus, Dr. Faustus, and virtually all the leading men and women in Middleton, Ford, Marlowe and the rest. You know the stories.
None of this, we know, could ever happen in America--it could never happen here. We like a positive spin on things, we like our escapes, we like being uplifted. Imagine a THEATREWORKS season of Long Day's Journey into Night, Prometheus Bound, Three Sisters, King Lear, Endgame, and The Glass Menagerie. Six of the greatest plays ever written! It might have been box office at the Globe or the Theatre of Dionysus, but you know it would sink us like a stone.
And yet, intense and regular suffering did happen here, in America,just once, and for a very short time. Between 1945-50 you could have seen, and on Broadway(!) a handful of plays that are on anyone's short list of the greatest drama in our history: The Glass Menagerie (1945--563 performances); The Iceman Cometh (1946-136 performances); A Streetcar Named Desire (1947-855 performances); Death of a Salesman (1949-742 performances). This is a very concentrated and unrelieved dosage of suffering, pain and unhappy endings. And they were all hits--they were entertainment! It hasn't happened since.
What can we make of this? One hypothesis is the appetite for suffering on stage rises in direct proportion to the prosperity of the culture. The happier, healthier, and richer you are at home the more pain you can handle (and even look forward to) on stage. It may be no accident that the great ages of tragedy in western civilization occurred at high tides of the cultures that created them: Athens was rich and on top of the Mediterranean; England was feeling its oats after defeating the Spanish Armada, sending its ships to hunt and gather all over the world; and America was emerging as the great new world power, an unprecedented engine of production. This may be a far too facile explanation, but it will do until a better one is proposed. What do you think?
If my rule is correct, what does it say about our state of things now? We aren't in the deepest of crises (in World War II you could see nothing but comedy and musicals on Broadway), but nor are we in a zone of national confidence and vigor. We tend to think tragedy is sad, it's depressing, it's a downer. And who wants to feel depressed? When you are depressed you feel like this (I know because I looked for depression on Google images):
And who wants to watch a show feeling like that? But I have some news. This is not the actual experience of tragedy. Tragedy does not leave an audience hunched over and tucked in and locked down. Tragedy does the opposite--it leaves you more open; emotionally drained, yes, but also more full--in fact fuller than you were before the play started. And this applies even to my favorite subscriber, who claims post show misery but in fact was prompted to send his very cheerful note. I have another good friend, an eminent theatre-goer, who claims that audiences leaving tragedies look a lot happier and more energized than audiences leaving comedies. No need for those bamboo slivers. It's true that tragedy takes something out of you, but it also gives you something back. The play may leave you feeling shattered, but very soon you'll be back together and stonger than ever. Suffering is good for you; it makes you feel better, braver, happier and more entertained. Just ask the 5th century Athenian leaving the theater after watching six hours of psychic and physical dismemberment, or the Elizabethan who saw Hamlet yesterday afternoon and is looking forward to The Revenger's Tragedy on Wednesday, or the mid-century American who saw Laura blow out her candles last night, and will gather at the grave of Willy Loman tomorrow.
Perhaps now you will begin to understand the real road to our national recovery: seeing more suffering on stage and liking it too. It will make everyone stronger, braver, happier and more energized. You want your America back? Go to The Glass Menagerie. Good times are not in the immediate future of the Wingfield family, but they are there just ahead, for you.