I’ve come upon some spectacular and memorable performances in my experiences as a playgoer. Richard B. Harrison’s eloquent acting as De Lawd in “The Green Pastures” stays in my memory, as does John Barrymore’s stirring Hamlet. Alfred Lunt, in the years before he became a stage immortal, brought gaiety to Booth Tarkington’s “Clarence” and he later contributed a captivating performance in the role of Harry Van, hoofer with a soul, in Robert E. Sherwood’s “Idiot’s Delight.” That same Sherwood’s “Abe Lincoln In Illinois” provided a part in which Raymond Massey distinguished himself and Maxwell Anderson’s “Elizabeth the Queen” gave Lynn Fontanne the opportunity to establish herself as one of the greatest actresses of her time.
I relished Louis Wolheim’s playing as the haggard and heroic Captain Flagg in that unforgettable war play, “What Price Glory;” I was under the spell of Emily Stevens in “Fata Morgana” and again when she brought her extraordinary magnetism to Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler.” I certainly responded to the lyrical beauty of Katharine Cornell’s Juliet, to Jane Cowl’s loveliness in the same role, and to the savage and relentless characterization that Tallulah Bankhead brought to Lillian Hellman’s finest play, “The Little Foxes.” I enjoyed Frank Fay’s acting as Elwood P. Dowd in Mary Chase’s “Harvey”, but the player who made that comedy-fantasy a special delight for me was Josephine Hull, who was cast as Dowd’s harassed and entirely desperate sister.
And there have always been two performances that enthralled just about all of us – the magnificent Jeanne Eagels as the tortured Sadie Thompson in that withering drama called “Rain” and the incomparable – I’m sure that incomparable is the word – Laurette Taylor in the role of the living-in-the-past Amanda in Tennessee Williams’ play, “The Glass Menagerie.” If that wasn’t the great acting I’ve never seen it.
Laurette Taylor had finesse. She had magic. In 40-odd years of acting she appeared in only three or four plays that were actually worth her time, but at the time of her death, following her great performance in “The Glass Menagerie,” she had so impressed those playgoers who had the great privilege of seeing her upon the stage that the vast majority of them, if called upon to name the finest actress they had ever seen, would have made the instantaneous decision in a single word, “Taylor!”
Miss Taylor was a weak, willful, undisciplined and brilliant woman of the theater who dropped to the depths through over-drinking and who went on to achieve, via her performance in “Outward Bound” and “The Glass Menagerie,” one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the American theater. I didn’t see Miss Taylor in her early years when she was in the wild, wild, melodramas of Charles A. Taylor, her first husband, years of which Guthrie McClintic has written fascinatingly in his autobiography, “Me and Kit.” I didn’t see her in her first plays for the Broadway stage, such pieces as “The Great John Ganton” and “Alias Jimmy Valentine” and “The Bird of Paradise” but I finally caught up with her when she revived the indestructible “Peg O’ My Heart” in the early 1920s, and I got to know her during her years of adversity, following the death of Hartley Manners, her second husband, and after she had scoored <sic> the greatest hit of her life in “The Glass Menagerie.”
Laurette Taylor took great pride in that performance and she spoke of it with deep humility.
“I’m sort of kicking the clouds around,” she told me in 1945, when she had reestablished herself as the sensation of Broadway. “In playing Amanda, and when I get on the stage, I become Southern. The rest of the time I suppose I’m just American. As for the South, I’ve never been below Washington except for trips to Florida. I got most of the Southern accent that I use from our author, Tennessee Williams. I really don’t know any tricks any more. Acting is really so simple and my advice to young actresses is to try not to become a bedroom thinker but wait until you get to the theater to do your acting. I have never felt that playing Amanda was particularly difficult. It’s a part in which you’re actually riding on an audience’s shoulders. There are actually only two parts in the play—the shrew in the old wrapper and the young girl in the faded blue dress.
“I’d like to go on playing Amanda for as long as they’ll let me and I’d enjoy returning to Chicago with the play—it was there that we got off to such a wonderful start—but I don’t think I’d want to try any real touring. I haven’t enough time left in my life for that. … I suppose I’m a Southerner—out of Ireland. I have a peculiar ear for dialect and that might give me an advantage over other actresses. My parents and all my ancestors were born in Ireland and I suppose that’s what’s the matter with me. I’m Irish all the way through.
Miss Taylor took a gulp of her martini, her third during our dinner-time talk but she had them under control, and went on:
“The person who had the greatest influence on my life was Hartley Manners, to whom I was married for fifteen years. I’d always imagined our growing old together and when he died it completely threw me. I lost my religion and went in for the longest wake in history. If such a man as Hartley could be taken away from me what did anything matter? … I began drinking harder and harder, and it was only my success in ‘Outward Bound’ that finally pulled me out of it. Then along came this blessed ‘Glass Menagerie’ and I knew I was all right—and that I would be forever.
“Hartley Manners was a graceful man, a gentle man, a wonderful man. He wrote ‘Peg O’ My Heart’ for me. I still get royalties from ‘Peg’—from churches and little theater groups and summer stock and all that sort of thing. My! How old that girl is! She goes right back to 1912 and T. R. and William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson and the Red Sox beating the New York Giants in the world series. I loved ‘Peg’ and still do, but it’s always made me furious that amateurs haven’t wanted to do Hartley’s better plays, such as ‘The National Anthem’ and ‘The Harp of Life.’
“Until this part of Amanda came along I was offered all the old ladies in the world, but I didn’t want a part—I wanted a play. I found it, thank God, in ‘The Glass Menagerie.’ And before this I had that great chance in ‘Outward Bound.’ Bill Brady gave me that chance. He was one of the wonderful people to come into my life. He loved the stage; the theater was wrapped around his heart.”