Digging into the archives, we unearth the original articles printed in the Playbills of yesteryear.
At age 74, theatre legend Jessica Tandy returned to Broadway in a revival of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, which opened December 1, 1983, at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. After originating the role of Blanche DuBois in the original 1947 production of A Streetcar Named Desire—a role that earned Tandy her first Tony Award—she was prepared to play Williams’ towering matriarch Amanda Wingfield.
To commemorate Tandy’s birthday, June 7, 1909, we look back at this deeply personal interview with one of the theatre’s greatest actors. Tandy shares rare insights into approaching her craft, her thoughts creating character, and being a mother.
English-born Jessica Tandy, one of the great actresses of the American stage, will, at 74, play the role of Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie, which opens December 1 at the Eugene O’Neil Theatre. Though in chronological years Miss Tandy is about a quarter of a century older than the driven mother in William’s autobiographical play (the role was created by Laurette Taylor, in 1945), it is easy to see on meeting her that the fact of her extra years will in no way jeopardize her performance. Beautiful, intelligent, and self-disciplined, Miss Tandy has lived a life as far removed as one might imagine from the life of Amanda Wingfield, the abandoned, cunning woman she will soon portray.
Married for the past 41 years to actor Hume Cronyn (they worked together on Broadway, most recently, in Foxfire), and with three children, now grown, she has worked almost nonstop in the theatre since she first began, some 60 years ago. She has played most of the major Shakespearean roles for women. In 1947 she created the role of Blanche DuBois, playing opposite Marlon Brando, in the first stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Miss Tandy has also had a long career of film work; on the day I met with her she had just returned from shooting The Bostonians, in Boston. Rehearsal for The Glass Menagerie was scheduled to begin in several days, a prospect she was anticipating with great excitement.
Sitting straight-backed on the edge of a sofa in her lovely yellow living room, Jessica Tandy described how this excitement with the theatre began during her childhood in London, when she was barely five years old. “Every Christmas, my brothers and I would put together a little something for the family, some songs, some verses – and later when we were older, perhaps an act from The Mikado or Cyrano de Bergerac. We would lay our plans for these productions in the summer; then, when the boys came home from school at Christmas, we would begin our work in earnest. For me, these experiences were the breath of life.”
The chief inspiration for the children’s interest in theatre and literature came from their mother, a schoolteacher, who would read extensively to them at bedtime—perhaps Dickens, a chapter a night. She also took young Jessica to the theatre. The girl saw her first Shakespeare production when she was seven or eight. “Theatre was very available then,” Miss Tandy recalls. “You could wait in a queue, then sit in the gallery and see the show for only one and sixpence.”
For some reason there were no theatre productions at the schools Miss Tandy attended, so at 13 she was given a special drama teacher whom she would visit on Saturday afternoons. By the time she was fifteen years old, there was no doubt in her mind about what she was going to do with her life.
Following are some of the things Tandy had to say about her 60 years in the theatre, as she reached back to the beginning of it all.
The decision to go into theatre.
When I was 15 it was decided that instead of going ahead and getting an advanced degree, I should go to school to study the thing I wanted to do. The work that I’d done before I was 15, and the people I’d studied with, encouraged my mother to think that, yes, I did have talent. It was not just a wild idea. A lot of girls used to go to dramatic school because they didn’t know what else to do. For me it was a really serious commitment. And to make sure of that, my mother said, “You will go to dramatic school, but you will stay for three years. You’re going to learn properly.”
The beginning actress.
After school I had to find a job. Of course it was very, very difficult. In the theatre it’s always very difficult. But one of the chances available to me was acting in the Sunday night plays. In those days there were societies in London devoted to putting on plays on Sunday nights, plays that Lord Chamberlain deemed unfit for general audiences. It was a censorship sort of thing. Plays, for example, which had any thing to do with incest would be banned. Or the Lord Chamberlain might ask you to delete certain things from your play. It wasn’t total censorship. Those plays could still be performed, but they had to be put on by a membership group of some sort, not for the general public. The first time I saw one of these Sunday night things it was a play by O’Neill, Beyond the Horizon.
In the beginning I had no money and I had to love at home. Still, I was fortunate because it was only a year or so before things took off for me. I remember I celebrated my 19th birthday when I was at the Birmingham Repertory. From that point in my life onward I was never out of work, except to have a baby, or to have my appendix out.
If you’re going into the theatre, you know you’re going to get a hell of a lot of disappointment. As soon as the play you’re working in is finished, you start all over again. Nothing really builds up. So I suppose just to be in the theatre one has to be more resilient.
When the children were very young, I was in Hollywood making movies. Some days I would be off early in the morning but I would get home by late afternoon, so I would see the children early in the morning and then late in the afternoon. During the day, they had their nanny.
My mother was a working mother, too. She was headmistress of a school. But now that women must work, because salaries are needed just for the family to exist, I think it must be much harder to both work and have children. Even though we were pretty poor, we did have someone who was in the house all the time, someone who cooked for us and kept the house. Now, where are those people? A woman today has much more stress on her in all departments.
I always worked, but I always felt that nothing I was doing got done fully, and I felt very guilty about that. Yet I think that if I had given up theatre entirely and had stayed home and brought up my children, I would have missed a great deal. And they wouldn’t have been any better off. I think you have to do what you have to do. I don’t know, really, and I don’t think anyone can ever tell you how different it might have been if you’d done this, that, or the other thing. You must make your decisions as you go along. I’ve got three wonderful children. One daughter is an actress, the other lives in California and has four children, and my son is a film production manager. I like my children, I respect them all, and we get along well. I’m sure I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I’ve done the best I could.
Comparing theatre work and film work.
I don’t do an awful lot of film these days. I find theatre more satisfying. One is able to finish the job. In a movie you’ll play a scene that comes in the middle of a film first, and one that’s in the beginning of the film two weeks later. You do the work in small pieces and later it gets put together by someone. You don’t get to work all the way through from beginning to end. Also, once you learn your part, you get your costume and makeup on, line up the shot, and shoot it. There’s no rehearsal/discovery process.
How the actress approaches her craft.
It’s very hard to talk about the way we do things. Actually, I don’t know, I really don’t. Of course it’s all psychological, but I don’t like talking about it in that way. You can’t sort of lay it on from the outside. You’ve got to discover the flesh-and-blood person. You can’t theorize about the character, or at least I can’t.
Everyone who acts has a method, and the way we go about things may be quite different, yet we’ll end up at the same place. How you get there doesn’t really matter. So, I don’t very often warm to a psychological blueprint of a person. I’m interested in what a person says, whether he’s saying what he means, or whether he’s kidding himself, what has brought him to this point in his life, what his past life was like.
On “creating” the character.
You don’t create, you only interpret. I think that word “create” is for the writer. The director and the actors are there to put flesh on those bones and make it a three-dimensional thing for the audience. But the creative process is the author’s. Now sometimes it’s possible to reveal something the author doesn’t know he’s written but is there. But even in this instance you’re not starting from nothing. It’s the man with the pen and paper who starts from nothing.
Flip through highlights of Tandy's stage career: