John Tang

Reading some Tennessee Williams

Posted in Sketchbook by Jt's Item Roster on June 11, 2010

On Being Jim (part i)

Perusing through the library shelves, I found William’s collection of plays. Where has this memory gone? I thought, as the book split into a scene from The Glass Menagerie. My last semester at Solano Community College, I enrolled in theater with Mr. McGuire, an Irish actor from San Francisco. He was spry for an old man when he taught, but silent and reserved every morning throughout the semester. Every story he told was accompanied with gestures. He could cover the entire auditorium in telling his trip to buying gasoline. His voice was deep, his movement a bit flamboyant with “class,” in its caricature bourgeois-sense (i.e. holding a fine glass of wine, pinching your lower lip while you contemplated and spoke). First week of class he asked what kind of scenes interested us. All the students had brought scenes from movies, printed on copy paper, perhaps from online. A few had brought in screen-plays. Being last, at the very back of the semi-circle, he caught me holding an enormous anthology of plays, as I read off Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

“You know Williams?”

“Tennessee?” I looked up. “I read The Glass Menagerie before.”

“Interesting. You will be Jim for midterm.”


“Do you smoke?” He asked. “Well, you can’t anymore on stage. It’s illegal since the early 90’s. It’s for the smell than the health-issue of it. One time someone from the audience past out just festering in perfume. But find someone who does smoke and ask for some cigarettes. Do you know anyone?”

“My parents.”

“Get some. Study their gestures.”

While speaking, he ran behind the class and pulled a ladder to my side.

“Do you remember the opening scene?”

“Where he’s just talking?”

“Do you know where he’s at?”

I was a bit afraid of his enthusiasm. Holding the western canon of plays, I didn’t want to appear being fake. I remember enjoying my first read; my English professor Nils Michals offered the play because it was conveniently in our anthology (not the same as I’m holding now), and he explained the “too easy” significance of the glass animals and Laura.

“At home?”  I faltered. “Sorry, I haven’t read the play for months now.”

“On a fire escape!” He said. “This will be your fire escape.”

He asked me to climb it, and I did. I was high-up, about nine-steps in, when I turned around and couldn’t focus on the play. Further up, you were sharing space with the lighting which hung on steel wires. Also, you could see the yellow and black lift for the stage managers to adjust the play in the process of being produced.

“Did you want to me to finish it?”

“You might want to sit on top.” He suggested. “No. You’re on a fire escape. Have a hand on the next rung. Then you other hand will be smoking.” He stopped and turned to the class. “During a play, an old friend of mine was doing a farce, a comedy—and he was at the end. He climbed the top of the curtains and he fell. The audience was laughing, the curtains came down. I hope if I die on stage I make the people laugh. It’s easier to do comedy than tragedy.”

The students seemed amused, and I was still high-up looking down at Mr. McGuire tell the story.

“I don’t want to die.”

“John. You can come down now.” He called. “So Jim, get some cigarettes. Looks like we have our  Jim. Talk to me after class and you should know a little bit about Tennessee. Because Jim was Tennessee, you know.”



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