Playbill spoke to Glenda Jackson upon her return to Broadway in 1985's revival of Strange Interlude.
Almost 20 years ago a young English actress made her debut in New York portraying Charlotte Corday, the woman who assassinated one of the most sinister figures of the French Revolution. In one of the most memorable images in The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, Glenda Jackson, as the inmate playing the assassin, whipped Marat with her long, unbound hair. What made the flagellation more striking was that Marat was in a bathtub, where he spent several hours a day because of a skin condition. The whipping might have seemed merely poetic or even gentle were it not for the unhinged and intense look in Miss Jackson’s eyes.
Miss Jackson’s angular, pouting face, ideal for this bizarre role, did not seem one Americans were likely to encounter again. But a few years later, in 1970, she appeared as Gudrun in Ken Russell’s film version of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, for which she won an Oscar. Two years after that she popped up on the small screen as Queen Elizabeth I in one of the earliest successful PBS miniseries. Her screen appearances have remained steady, and a few seasons ago she returned to Broadway in a more conventional part, that of an unhappy schoolteacher in a contemporary British drama entitled Rose.
Now she has come back in a role closer to the revolutionary one in which she first arrived, playing the central character in Eugene O’Neill’s 1928 Strange Interlude, which galvanized audiences when it was first done as thoroughly as Marat/Sade did four decades later. In its time the play’s hardheaded look at adultery, its portrayal of a woman strong and manipulative enough to rule a trio of powerful but doltish men, was considered scandalous. The techniques with which O’Neill told his story made the play one of the most experimental of its time.
A negative image of emancipated woman, the character of Nina Leeds, depending on how she is regarded, may be more disturbing than Charlotte Corday, since she dominates, and in some cases ruins, the lives of all the men with whom she is intimate. Miss Jackson is convinced the play, whose power to shock has been diminished over the years, will exercise its force in new ways.
“In those days people were willing to be shocked,” Miss Jackson observes dryly. “Now people use high amounts of energy to prove they can’t be shocked.”
She admits she was initially afraid of O’Neill’s nine-act, four-and-a-half-hour play, which she did last year to critical acclaim in London and is repeating at the Nederlander Theatre. But the more she worked on it, the more she found herself impressed with it.
“On the page you think it will never, never work. The more you do it, the more you see it’s meticulously constructed. The themes all do link up—the ideas you see seeded in act one all turn up a few acts later. In the first act Nina wants to be happy. In the last act she says she can’t even imagine happiness.”
One of the innovations of Strange Interlude was dialogue printed in smaller type—interior thoughts the actors speak aloud. “Originally everybody froze in a nice blue spotlight to deliver these lines,” Miss Jackson explains. “At first when you read them now, they seem unplayable. Then you realize they’re not spoken thoughts but spoken emotions. They must have been a way for him to express in experimental terms what happens when you are in the grip of deep emotions, how you respond when they come crash-walloping through.
“The thing I love about O’Neill is he doesn’t explain anything. A character comes in in a white heat of rage and passion, and you think, ‘What’s all this about?’ A few acts later the same thing happens. Not until the end do you see what has been happening.
“Somebody in London said that the play was like a soap opera shot through with poetry. It’s really quite a moral piece without being judgmental. O’Neill was influenced by Greek tragedy. What his characters do is inevitable—it comes from what they are as human beings.
“Obviously O’Neill was passionately against the theatre of his time—the theatre in which his father had become so famous and successful. O’Neill saw the possibilities of what theatre could be but wasn’t always certain how to realize them. So he goes in for endless stage directions and exclamation marks. And when he’s not sure what to do, he’ll direct the actor to say a line ‘strangely.’” (A hint of sarcasm is evident in Miss Jackson’s voice, but it is gentle and does not mitigate her admiration for the playwright.)
“I do think the characters are psychologically true. They all at some point say something with very deep conviction. An act later they say something quite opposite. It’s your job to persuade the audience your character is neither a liar nor a fool.
“The play only seems non-subtle if that’s the idea you start with.”
Although she is often thought of as an actress who specializes in playing “difficult women” (“What’s a difficult woman? One man’s ‘difficult woman’ may be another’s dream”), Miss Jackson has done light comedy—winning another Oscar for A Touch of Class with George Segal and House Calls with Walter Matthau—and played the eccentric but methodical British poet Stevie Smith in Stevie, for which she was named Best Actress in 1981 by the New York Film Critics Circle.
“Stevie was entirely fascinating because she trotted off every day on the tube, did her job, fulfilled the requirements of her lion aunt, fulfilled the expectations of a lot of people. I admire Stevie Smith. I didn’t ‘identify with’ her. I don’t regard acting as creative in the same way writing is.
“I never understood what is meant by ‘identify with.’ Part of one’s job is to try and find expressions of feeling, whatever the feeling may be. And after all, feelings are pretty similar for all of us—we all laugh, we all cry. What matters is finding what triggers those reactions. Once you’ve found the trigger, the revelation is more of yourself. You don’t need ‘similarities.’
“You don’t need to like a person to play her. You mustn’t be judgmental. You must play them as they see themselves, not as you see them. Think of all the women in Greek tragedies. Think of Lady Macbeth. To play roles like those, experience is not as vital as imagination and observation.”
Are there any roles she expressly wants to play?
“I never ‘burned’ to play anything. I’m always surprised I’m offered work. That’s not at all a facetious remark. My career started well, and then there were two years where I didn’t work in the theatre at all. It took eight years to reach a position where I could say I earned my living as an actress. You never really lose that ‘Will the phone ever ring?’ syndrome.
“When I left drama school I was told not to expect to work until I was 40 because I was a character actress. Then John Osborne wrote Look Back in Anger and the whole world of British theatre changed. Until then the leading ladies all had to look like Margaret Leighton, and the juves [juveniles] had to be either Dorothy Tutin or Mary Ure. In addition to not having those looks, I had traces of a regional accent—I was born in Birkenhead, Liverpool’s poor relation.
“I was not unwilling to wait. I was willing to do a fair amount of time in the provinces and a little telly in between. After about eight years I joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1964. I was with them for three years after that. Then I was in a position where people said, ‘What is Glenda Jackson doing?’ rather than ‘What is your name, dear?’”
It was, of course, with the RSC that she played Charlotte Corday, which began the trail that led through D.H. Lawrence’s Gudrun and dozens of other parts to Nina Leeds and, more recently, Racine’s Phaedra, which she did in London before Christmas and will play again after the limited engagement of Strange Interlude. It has been a career full of challenging roles, and that is the way Miss Jackson likes it.
“I find acting very difficult—the process of it. It is something over which one sweats blood and tears. There are certain characters that function exceedingly well because they serve the author—but the realities of human behavior don’t impinge on the author’s vision. Brecht can be like that, but sometimes he can also be very moving.
“I much prefer to expend the amount of energy on something of quality. The most difficult plays are the best. I’ve learned to my cost not to believe my first assessment of what a play means, what a character needs. It’s always much more difficult than you believe it will be.
“The only lesson you truly learn is how easy it is to be painfully awful, how difficult it is to be even reasonably good.”