‘Time is the longest distance between two places.’
There’s a splendid production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie currently running at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London (until 29 April).
We’re in a Depression-era Saint Louis tenement. Amanda Wingfield, a former ‘southern belle,’ is struggling to pay the rent and worried what will become of her angst-ridden, artistic son, and her shy, solitary daughter.
‘The future becomes the present, the present the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don’t plan for it.’
Wingfield pleads with her son to bring a ‘gentleman caller’ back to the house – someone who might possibly represent a suitor for his sister. The fragile girl meanwhile seeks solace in a world of decorative figurines, the glass menagerie of the play’s title.
‘How beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken.’
The Glass Menagerie is a delicate, sensitive meditation on the challenges facing the awkward and the outside; the responsibilities, deceptions and regrets of family life; the yearning to break free.
In his production notes, Williams describes the work as ‘a memory play’ and at the beginning of Scene One the artistic son explains to the audience that what we are about to see is a distillation of his own recollection of events.
‘Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion. To begin with I turn back time…’
Williams seems to be declaring that he is more than just a storyteller - he is a master of the theatrical medium, a manipulator of time, a truthful illusionist. This confident, context-setting sequence reminded me of the Prologue of Henry V, in which Shakespeare invites the audience to conjure up, on the simple stage before them, the muddy battlefields of France.
‘Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?’
I’m sure the most talented writers and artists are well aware of the imaginative leaps that their audience can bring to a creative encounter. And they’re conscious of the special powers of their chosen medium to ignite that imagination.
It has often been observed, for example, that the best directors treat film as a time machine – a means of compressing and extending time; of reordering and replaying it. Think of 2001: A Space Odyssey and how Kubrik takes us from the first man to the space age in one matchless match-cut; or consider the elegant synchronicity of the baptism scene in Coppola’s The Godfather. Film directors also consciously manipulate our understanding of space. With close-ups and long-shots, different points of view and perspectives, they expand and contract our perception of things. In the 1920s the women of the world fell in love with Rudolph Valentino because of the dramatic impact, in magnified close-up on the big screen, of those elegant lips, those sensitive eyes, that pomaded hair.
I wonder, do we in the field of marketing and communication too often treat media like an everyday commodity? Do we just think of it as a space to be filled, content to be generated, ratings to be registered? Do we properly appreciate the power of the tools at our disposal? Do we understand that the moving image can be a time machine; the fixed image can explore space and perspective; the printed and spoken text can conjure up hopes, dreams, recollections and regrets?
Shouldn’t we, like Williams, be seeking to deliver ‘truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion?’ For if we have no passion for the medium, how can we expect to inspire passion in our audience?