Critic’s Notebook: My disastrous tea with Glenda Jackson
Be careful what you wish for. Tea with Glenda Jackson, an actress I’ve admired since watching “A Touch of Class” on TV with my mother as a teenager, turned out not to be the dream encounter this fan imagined.
The 81-year-old English actress, making a triumphant return to Broadway in Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women,” seemed friendly enough when we exchanged greetings at an Upper East Side café. But she went into battle mode once the tape recorder was switched on.
Jackson’s clipped replies and occasional pounding of the table with her hands made me wonder if this Labour Party stalwart had mistaken me for the Conservative opposition. Her default position of peremptory bewilderment — “I have no idea what you’re asking me ” — was perplexing.
My questions about her reemergence on stage after her long break from acting to serve as a member of Parliament seemed to me fairly straightforward and innocuous. I had come to worship Jackson, not to grill her. I left expertly filleted by that trademark voice she still wields like a scalpel.
Time has reinterpreted Jackson’s stern beauty so that her face now resembles a Francis Bacon portrait of itself. The lines on her face are etched with a deliberateness that matches her unyielding disposition. Her eyes, not quite blue, not quite brown, have a watery quality, as if some sadness in her nature has finally overtopped its banks.
Her practical dress suggested a pensioner running errands on a blustery day. Like Lear, the role she came out of retirement to play in London two years ago, Jackson seems to have grown antipathetic to the finery that conceals the truth of unaccommodated man.
There were rumors that Deborah Warner’s production of “King Lear” at the Old Vic was bound for New York. What better way for an acting royal, last on Broadway as Lady Macbeth in 1988, to make her American return? Jackson’s performance was heralded, but Warner’s rambunctiously modern staging received mixed reviews.
Betraying no disappointment, Jackson said the logistical challenges of a large cast and the difficulty of finding the right-sized theater must have proved insuperable. Broadway, happily, is getting a version of Jackson’s Lear through her portrayal of A, the wealthy despotic widow in Albee’s “Three Tall Women.”
The character, a version of the playwright’s adoptive mother from whom he was long estranged, is given a letter rather than a name in a drama that arranges itself along faintly cubist lines. Haughty, seething with resentment, her memory clouded by age, her will to dominance undiminished by frailty, Jackson’s A is every inch an embittered queen.
The other two statuesque women in the play are known as B (Laurie Metcalf) and C (Alison Pill). In the first act they are identified as A’s caretaker and legal intermediary, but the play undergoes a transformation after the vitriolic, bigoted matriarch suffers a stroke.
In the second act, A, simulated by a dummy with a breathing mask, is on her deathbed. But this is not the end of Jackson’s performance, as the character returns in a lavender dress to review her life with B and C, who have now explicitly become younger versions of this complicated woman at ages 52 and 26, respectively.
In his published introduction to the play, which won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for drama, Albee stresses that, in writing “Three Tall Women,” he was seeking neither revenge nor catharsis but rather the artistic satisfaction of objectivity. He wryly notes that he may have been too generous: “Very few people who met my adoptive mother in the last 20 years of her life could abide her, while many who have seen my play find her fascinating. Heavens, what have I done?”
Jackson, perhaps unable to leave her character’s acrimony at the stage door, foiled my attempts to understand how she made sense of A’s changing relationship to B and C. “What relationship?” she rasped. “They’re the same person.” That must be very difficult to act? “Acting is always hard. Why else would you bother to do it?”
Rephrasing the question, I asked how she understands the transition that takes place between the first and second acts. “You seem to think I stand outside the play,” she said impatiently. “My job is to see the world through the character’s eyes.” And how does A see the world? “She sees it as she’s made it.”
“What do you got other than scones?” she imperiously demanded of the waiter. After settling on whole-wheat toast with jam, she deigned to shed some light on how she works: “Our job is to unleash the play. It’s not just about your character or interaction with the other characters. There’s an energy in all good plays which you have to find. And that is part and parcel of ensuring that an audience gets what it’s about.”
Her refreshing answer, born out of a career in which realism hasn’t been the ultimate option, enticed me to ask her about Lear. It seemed to me that her portrayal, which combined Brechtian distance with Artaudian savagery, was calling upon Jackson’s groundbreaking work with director Peter Brook.
“I studiously avoid any academic dissections of the play and any kind of previous experience of playing,” she said. “For me, it’s all in the play. And in that play in particular, it is all there.”
How would she describe Warner’s postmodern staging? “ ‘Fashionable’ is the word,” she dryly retorted. Naturally, I followed up by asking how she got on with Warner. “We strongly disagreed about things,” Jackson said. “I still feel that there were parts of the play where the riff weren’t actively dug out, but there you go.”
Playing Lear is a monumental challenge for anyone, regardless of age or gender. Drama critic Kenneth Tynan compared Lear’s final act to a landing by parachute on the top of Parnassus.
“That was my worry, that I wouldn’t have the physical or vocal strength, so I used to go swimming every day,” Jackson said. “But there is so much energy in that play that, yeah, it worked.” One of the things that she finds irritating, she said, is the way “King Lear” is deemed to be about the eponymous hero. “Well, of course, it isn’t, because every single character is unutterably fascinating,” she said. “They’re literally unpeeled before your eyes. It’s a great privilege to be allowed to do it.”
It was around this time in the interview that all hell broke loose. After sharing that I had made the trip from Los Angeles expressly to see her Lear, I told her that she had helped me to hear a line from the play as if for the first time. When Lear painfully acknowledges a lifetime of neglecting the vulnerable poor (“Oh, I have taken too little care of this!”), it seemed as if Jackson’s political and artistic commitments merged in a rich understanding of the play.
“I didn’t write the line,” she roared. “Why do you dismiss Shakespeare?”
“I’m not dismissing Shakespeare at all,” I said. “I’m devoted to him in fact. I just wrote this long essay on the play for an academic journal.”
“You’re the people I avoid like the plague!”
Her adversarial manner, confounding at first, left me feeling defeated. Aware of her contentious reputation, I asked if she thrived on conflict.
“I don’t. I have opinions, yes.”
“Would you describe yourself as angry?”
“Depends on what context.”
“This is a conversation.”
“I’m not angry.”
“You’re quite ferocious in your manner.”
“Oh no, really, come on.”
Seeing that I was prepared to end the interview, Jackson grew conciliatory. I must say in her defense that her refusal to traffic in bromides and pleasantries is rare and somewhat admirable. It is her fierce independence of mind, after all, that has set her apart as an actress. Her lack of deference, once seductive in its challenge, retains a regal integrity. When I later listened to the tape of our interview, I was better able to appreciate her rough candor.
Recalling her experience of Albee, who directed her in a 1989 Center Theatre Group production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Jackson pulled no punches: “He was an extremely locked-in person, as far as I was concerned, and I have to be honest, he wasn’t the easiest director to work with. I think for him ‘Virginia Woolf” was both a blessing and a curse because everything was compared to it. And also I think an additional burden for him was that we were doing it in L.A., and ‘Virginia Woolf’ had become [Richard] Burton and [Elizabeth] Taylor, hadn’t it?”
Jackson doesn’t regard herself as a celebrity and expressed surprise that anyone still remembers her in New York. But has she forgotten about her Oscars for “Women in Love” and “A Touch of Class”?
“My mother kept all my awards on the sideboard of her front room and she polished them,” she said. “She polished everything religiously. And it doesn’t take long for the very thin layer of gold to disappear and the base metal underneath to show through. I think that’s a very good analogy.”
Becoming a member of Parliament, she said, is her most meaningful achievement: “When people give you what I regard as possibly the most precious gift, their vote, that’s amazing to me.” But would this illustrious alumna of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art not consider acting her true calling?
“Oh, I don’t think so,” she said. “I left school with no particular qualifications. I was working at a local chemist shop, and a friend of mine was a member of a local amateur group and said, ‘Come along, it’s fun.’ And somebody said to me that I should do this professionally, so I wrote to the only drama school I had ever heard of and said I have to have a scholarship, because we have no money. But I think the motive, which I came to later, was that I felt that there had to be more to life than I was experiencing, and that I possibly had more to offer than was being asked of me. So that’s how I got into it.”
What delights her most about being back on stage is working with Metcalf and Pill. “It’s so unusual to be in a play with other actresses, because usually there’s only one decent part for a woman and if you have it, there’s nobody else. So that is a real treat, quite apart from the play’s quality itself.”
She’d like to keep working, provided the right material comes her way. Her eyes widened when I proposed that she do Samuel Beckett next, but she laughed off the idea of a bucket list.
“There aren’t any roles for women whatever their age, certainly not as far as contemporary writers are concerned,” she said. “Why they don’t find us interesting, I find utterly bewildering. But rarely, if ever, is a woman the dramatic engine of the piece.”
Her concern for women’s rights goes beyond her own profession, which she feels has drawn disproportionate attention through the #MeToo movement.
“Women die every week at the hands of their partners, usually men, and it isn’t front-page news,” she said. “I’m glad to say that the discussion has moved beyond being just about Hollywood, because it’s happening in every profession. The problems have been here since they walked out of the Garden of Eden. It’s going to take more than what is happening for things to fundamentally change. But I think there is a desire to move forward. When I was girl, what happened behind your front door was nobody’s business but the people who lived in that house. That’s changed.”
Her voice, dropping low, resonated with both relief and vigilant concern. When we talked about the role of the arts in shaping an educated citizenry, she gloomily observed that the Greeks laid it all out for us, but people never really learn. Her work, as both politician and actor, seems fueled by a somber awareness of our exasperating blindness.
Jackson circled back to Lear: “One of the things that was central to me in doing it was I had visited as a member of Parliament old people’s homes, day centers, things of that nature. And what I found interesting was that at the extremes of age, very young and very old, the gender barriers begin to crack. I found that very useful in playing Lear. Nobody ever mentioned that I was female and he was male. I wasn’t interested in the gender battle. I just wanted to see if I could do the play.”
She succeeded magnificently, I assured her. As I asked for the check, a troubled look washed over her face.
“I’m a bit stymied because I frightened you,” she said. “I didn’t mean to do that. There are two things I always find amazing when I read about myself. One is that people say they’re frightened of me. The other is that I speak in complete sentences. I don’t understand either of those.”
“Your ferocity is part of your greatness,” I said truthfully.
“It’s justifiable on stage when you’re playing Lear,” she replied. “But it’s not justifiable when you’re siting across the table having a cup of tea with someone. I mean, I can’t get over that.”
I hadn’t yet seen her performance in “Three Tall Women” when we met. But if I had, I’d have said that her virtuosic wrath, aflame with genuine grievance, would win her a Tony. But she had already told me what she thinks of acting prizes, and by this point I was completely wiped out.
Sensing this, she parted from me with words spoken with unsentimental fellow feeling: “Get some rest.”
Follow me @charlesmcnulty
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