An Excerpt from "The Sculptural Drama":Tennessee Williams's Plastic Theatre
By Richard E. Kramer
In his production notes to The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams introduces a concept that describes the theatre for which he was writing:
Being a "memory play," The Glass Menagerie can be presented with unusual freedom of convention. Because of its considerable delicate or tenuous material, atmospheric touches and subtleties of direction play a particularly important part. Expressionism and all other unconventional techniques in drama have only one valid aim, and that is a closer approach to truth. When a play employs unconventional techniques, it is not, or certainly shouldn't be, trying to escape its responsibility of dealing with reality, or interpreting experience, but is actually or should be attempting to find a closer approach, a more penetrating and vivid expression of things as they are. The straight realistic play with its genuine Frigidaire and authentic ice-cubes, its characters who speak exactly as its audience speaks, corresponds to the academic landscape and has the same virtue of a photographic likeness. 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. These remarks are not meant as a preface only to this particular play. They have to do with a conception of new, plastic theatre which must take the place of the exhausted theatre of realistic conventions if the theatre is to resume vitality as a part of our culture.
Today, plastic theatre is not a particularly rare application. It is what Meyerhold, Eisenstein, and Brecht were after, and directors like Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, Peter Brook, and Yuri Lyubimov, and groups such as Théâtre du Soleil, Théâtre de Complicité, Ex Machina, Wooster Group, Mabou Mines, and Théâtre de la Jeune Lune do it all the time. Now, these artists are not strictly playwrights, though they function as auteurs, and the companies work as collaborative ensembles in creating their works, but that may be closer to what Williams had in mind than a conventional dramatist-director symbiosis. Certainly the plastic playwright would have to have more control over the production than Williams managed to get in 1944. Even on Broadway today, however, there could not have been M Butterfly, say, or The Invention of Love without plastic theatre. What makes Williams's 1945 expression remarkable is that, first, he is often not regarded in such terms even though he wanted to be and, second, he was writing at a time when straightforward realism was the dominant style on American stages, and the Actors Studio—the creation, in part, of Elia Kazan and the nurturer of Marlon Brando, both part of Williams's early, defining success—was the paradigm for American acting and production.