Re-membering the Canon
Sam Gold’s The Glass Menagerie
What is at stake when disability in the text doesn’t match disability in the actor’s body? This is the question that came to mind after seeing the current Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and then reading the critical responses to it. Though Menagerie remains one of theatre’s most famous memory plays, many critics had trouble with the re-membering (some would argue dis-membering) of Sam Gold’s production and revealed themselves to be more comfortable with the playwright’s incorporation of disability than the director’s. Gold’s bold interpretation of the play seemed to get under the skin of critics in a way that few productions do, as much as for his directorial vision as for his casting of an actor with a disability in a leading role. The vehement responses from critics admit their predisposition to privilege the supremacy of text above all else.
When disability shifts from being a theatrical metaphor to a material presence on stage, it raises questions about acting versus being and, indeed, theatrical representation itself.
While several critics did respond favorably, I am more interested in addressing those who expressed discomfort and dis-ease in their reviews. This production and the critical response to it foreground the consideration of disability in the text versus disability in a live, human body. When disability shifts from being a theatrical metaphor to a material presence on stage, it raises questions about acting versus being and, indeed, theatrical representation itself. Why, for instance, did critics applaud the casting of Deaf West Theatre’s two Broadway productions, Big River and Spring Awakening, which featured a mixture of deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing actors in nondisabled roles, but express something akin to outrage at the casting of an actor with a disability as a character with a disability in The Glass Menagerie? Gold’s casting of Madison Ferris as Laura incited some measure of critical controversy because she uses a wheelchair due to what one critic referred to as her “palpable muscular dystrophy.” Ferris’s wheelchair apparently did not sit well with critics who prefer their disability metaphoric and their texts sacred.
Menagerie, Williams’s first Broadway success, sits in a long lineage of disability as theatrical metaphor extending back to the origins of Western theatre (see: any Greek tragedy featuring Tiresias, theatre’s original “super crip”). Because the current production was greeted by such vitriol by critics who felt that Gold had somehow violated Williams’s text, let us turn to what Williams actually wrote. Williams himself does not shy away from disability as metaphor; indeed, Tom opens the play by describing how “the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind.” Williams’s description of Laura has led to the role nearly always being cast with an able-bodied actress cripping up for the role: “A childhood illness has left her crippled, one leg slightly shorter than the other, and held in a brace. This defect need not be more than suggested on the stage. Stemming from this, Laura’s separation increases till she is like a piece of her own glass collection, too exquisitely fragile to move from the shelf.” The play contains two notable exchanges where Laura’s unnamed disability is spoken of, first in the second scene:
LAURA [in a tone of frightened apology]: I’m—crippled!
AMANDA: Nonsense! Laura, I’ve told you never, never to use that word. Why, you’re not crippled, you just have a little defect—hardly noticeable, even! When people have some slight disadvantage like that, they cultivate other things to make up for it—develop charm—and vivacity—and—charm! That’s all you have to do!
Later in the play, in scene five, Tom confronts Amanda with the c-word again:
TOM: Laura seems all those things to you and me because she’s ours and we love her. We don’t even notice she’s crippled anymore.
AMANDA: Don’t say crippled! You know I never allow that word to be used!
These exchanges are all the extant mentions of disability in the text, and their brevity adds to their potency—disability is clearly not to be spoken aloud in this house. In the first exchange, Laura attempts to claim her disability identity only to be told by her mother to develop an extraordinary ability to “make up” for her “little defect.” Though Williams explains in the opening stage directions that “The scene is memory and therefore nonrealistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license,” many critics felt the need to go to great lengths to point out the disjuncture between Ferris’s specific disability and Laura’s unnamed disability. Why does the presence of a disabled performer onstage seem to confuse reviewers’ critical ability to discern the difference between acting and being? In a piece arguing that critics should learn the language of disability, Howard Sherman asks, “Does a disability that blurs the line between actor and role blur it in some undefined way that all other acting performances manage to escape?” One might argue that critics often point out these differences, usually when they are about age differences between actor and character (to which this production was no exception), yet we must ask why the critical dis-ease with Ferris’s casting was so dominant in the negative responses.
The onstage wheelchair, used for an actor’s mobility instead of as a prop for a nondisabled actor as is conventional, caused anguish amongst those whose sensibilities were upset by having the realization that realism is not the same thing as reality. Critic David Rooney went so far as to claim that “the incontrovertible reality of the wheelchair onstage constantly takes us out of the play.” He had earlier slammed Ferris for not playing “the fragile, terrified girl…that Williams wrote,” implicitly asking how dare Laura be played against the text and the usual type? In the New York Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz called the wheelchair a trick “that’s been done onstage before.” While he’s not wrong, there has been exactly one actual wheelchair user on Broadway before (Ali Stroker in the ensemble of Spring Awakening), yet Ferris is the first wheelchair user to play a leading role on Broadway. This alone should have been cause for celebration, not consternation. In an interview with People, Ferris acknowledged the difference her casting has on the play: “It definitely brings more to the character,” she says. “There’s higher stakes for the family of Tom leaving and there’s a literal, physical dependency on him. In this production, Laura ends up being the survivor of the family. Which is pretty empowering.” The Wingfield’s story becomes one of accommodation, which also raised the economic stakes for a Depression-era family at a time when the national conversation about disability was centered around institutionalization and/or sterilization rather than accessibility. The Wingfield apartment is clearly not accessible, as the opening moments of this production demonstrate; later, we see are shown how Amanda and Tom have learned to accommodate Laura’s disability and, devastatingly, the consequences of Amanda’s refusal to acknowledge Laura’s difference.
Most disturbing of all critical responses was Rex Reed, writing for the Observer. After parroting the by-now usual lines about Williams rolling over in his grave, Reed openly describes his prejudice against seeing disabled actors onstage. He writes, “Forgive me if it’s not a politically correct thing to say, but I found [Ferris’s] struggle alarmingly distracting enough to throw the whole play off balance. For an actress who knows too well this might be her last chance to be cast in a major role on Broadway, the experience is probably a dream. For the audience, it’s something of a nightmare.” Who knew Reed was a mind reader in addition to being a critic? I, for one, can’t forgive openly espousing this patronizing stigmatization of both actor and audience.
Why does the presence of a disabled performer onstage seem to confuse reviewers’ critical ability to discern the difference between acting and being?
Recent Pulitzer Prize winner Hilton Als, writing for The New Yorker, referred to Ferris’s casting in derogatory language, asking, “Why is Ferris’s disease called upon to generate a spectacle, the ‘drama’ of this scene? This kind of manipulative bid for tension is a trick that reveals not Williams’s understanding of illusions but Gold’s lack of comprehension.” Als pathologizes Ferris at the same time he turns her body into a prop to be used by the director, which is in line with those who see Ferris’s casting as somehow exploitative of her disability. Writing in the New York Times, Neil Genzlinger counters this line of argument by explaining, “I read that as, ‘It was unpleasant to see Ms. Ferris pull herself along the floor by her arms; I prefer that people with disabilities remain invisible, as they so often are.’” Theatre is, literally, a place for looking and spectators are asked to look at the bodies onstage. The critical response to this production is ultimately about what disability scholar Tobin Siebers describes in his book Disability Aesthetics as “how some bodies make other bodies feel.” For some of us in the audience, the bodies onstage made us feel awakened to a new perspective on a canonical play, whereas others felt like an old friend had been violated.
Violence was the other metaphor critics turned to in discussing this production. Ben Brantley opened his review in the New York Times by writing that “Gold [took] a hammer to everything that’s delicate” in the play, before going on to privilege the seemingly destructible poetry of Williams’s language. Worse still, Hilton Als wrote that “the despair and disgust” he felt after seeing this production “was so debilitating” partially because he felt “robbed of the beauty of Williams’s script.” Als’ turn to disability as metaphor (was he really debilitated afterwards?) only hints at the regressive language to come. He ruminates, “But I don’t know how Ferris’s reality jibes with the world that Williams created: Laura wishes to hide her difference; Ferris’s difference cannot be hidden—it defines her in society and thus on the stage.” He seems to see Ferris less as a person and more as tool for Gold to use as he destroys Williams’s poetry.
This essay aims to push our theatrical and social cultures forward by challenging ableist assumptions not just about who gets to play certain roles but about who is allowed to be seen—not just represented—onstage at all. To those critics so finely attuned to the power of Williams’s language, I implore you to consider the power of your own.