Glenda Jackson Stands Tall, On And Off Stage

Mar 31, 2018
Originally published on April 4, 2018 8:58 am

A generation after it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, Edward Albee's Three Tall Women makes its Broadway debut this week.

Three women of different generations — one in her 90s, one in her 50s, one in her 20s — are brought together around a deathbed. They bark, joke, bicker and compare their different vantages in life.

A small but all-star cast gives vivacity to Albee's surgically sharp words: Allison Pill, Laurie Metcalf and, as the commanding dowager of the trio, Glenda Jackson. The Academy Award-winning actress — a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, a Commander of the British Empire and, for 23 years, a member of Parliament — is making her first return to Broadway in 30 years.

"It's a marvelous, marvelous play," Jackson says. "And it is such a treat to work with other actresses, because it shocks me still that contemporary dramatists don't find women interesting. Usually if there is a woman's part in a piece, there's only one so you've got no other actresses to work with. With this, there are just the three of us. And that is really thrilling, to have that."


Interview Highlights

On executing Albee's distinct language

In this particular play, extremely difficult, because he uses very, very simple words, and he uses the words more than once. But he'll put them in different places in sentences. And so towards the beginning, occasionally still, you'll think: Haven't I just said that? No, there's a slight variation on that. So that is one of the difficulties.

On her 23-year spell as a member of Parliament

I enjoyed the constituency responsibilities. I was extremely fortunate — I represented a very, very interesting constituency. ... But essentially, every single aspect of the demographic breakdown is living in that part of London. And it was a marvelous constituency to represent — and I miss that, and I miss the constituents. But I must be honest: I don't miss Parliament itself. I mean, I saw egos going up and down those corridors that would not be tolerated for 30 seconds in the professional theater. And you think: What are they doing, you know?

On how she feels about the ending line:

That's the happiest moment. When it's all done. When we stop. When we can stop.

It varies, I mean, because, you know, every performance is different. Some nights I'm quite teary. Other nights I'm not. It's quite interesting.

I've always said the first duty of life is to live it, and I do believe that. And we delude ourselves if we think it's not going to end. How we individually meet that, I think, is entirely individual. Obviously, I have met it when those I've loved have died. And that — what I found surprising about that, was that, for example, I still think: Oh, I must get my mother one of those. Or the time the grief stays with you. But whether how you as the individual meet that moment, well, it is — it's the last great adventure, isn't it?

On any role she still longs to play

It always amazed me — it still does — that people offer me work. And when the theater was my basic bread and butter, every time a show finished, I was convinced I would never work again. So I'm still amazed that people offer me work.

I suppose my earliest experience where getting a job was extremely difficult. I mean, it still is. Ours is a vastly crowded profession. And if you're a women within it, it's even more overcrowded, 'cause there is such a dearth of parts for women. So to be offered anything is — to say, you know, 'I fancy doing this' — seems to me to be gratuitously greedy, in a funny kind of way.

On what's next for her

Well, what I'm doing next is another performance of the play — I mean, at the moment. 'Cause every performance is the first one.

Sarah Handel and Viet Le produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A generation after it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, Edward Albee's "Three Tall Women" makes its Broadway debut. Three women of different generations - one in her 90s, one in her 50s, one in her 20s - are brought together around a death bed where they bark, joke, bicker and compare their different vintages in life. A small but all-star cast gives vivacity to Albee's surgically sharp words - Alison Pill, Laurie Metcalf and, as the commanding dowager of the trio, Glenda Jackson, the Academy Award-winning actress, former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Commander of the British Empire and for 23 years, a member of Parliament. This is her first return to Broadway in 30 years. Glenda Jackson's in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

GLENDA JACKSON: It's entirely a pleasure. You shock me. Really, is it 30 years since I was last here? Goodness me.

SIMON: Well, we did the math, yeah.

JACKSON: Well, you've got good mathematicians.

SIMON: Look, I know politicians are on stage, too, in their own way, but how does it feel to be back before the footlights?

JACKSON: One of the most surprising things - this is not my first return to the stage. It's my first return to Broadway.

SIMON: Yeah, in Britain.

JACKSON: Yes, I did "King Lear" at The Old Vic. And it's a theater I know because I worked there before, but what really amazed me was how - somebody said to me, oh, don't worry. It's like riding a bike. You'll never forget. And I thought, it's rather more complicated than riding a bike...

SIMON: (Laughter).

JACKSON: ...But in a strange way because actors have such a sense of communal need. You know, people - we all just worked together as though we'd been working together for years. It was amazing.

SIMON: What drew you to this role in "Three Tall Women?"

JACKSON: Oh, it's a marvelous, marvelous play, and it is such a treat to work with other actresses because it shocks me still that contemporary dramatists don't find women interesting. Usually, if there is a woman's part in the piece, there's only one, and so you've got no other actresses to work with. With this, there are just the three of us. And that is really thrilling to have that.

SIMON: In the second act, there - in "Three Tall Women," there's a flip. The characters we think of as being separate become your character at different stages of her life. Did you and Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill find yourselves trying to coordinate certain business to embody the same character?

JACKSON: Not that I think because he has written I think very accurately, Albee, and with great depth and perception our attitudes at different stages of our life. I'm talking about us as human beings, not exclusively women here. And so what is really interesting is how there are similarities, but they both diminish and increase over time. And that is something that you discover through doing the play. I mean, we're still discovering things that - I suddenly thought at one point in the evening when she's talking to her younger self, the criticism that she's making, my character, is criticism of herself. And that is something she realizes at that instant. And obviously, that reflects, then, in how you say the line.

SIMON: Yeah. Your character spends a lot of time explaining her life, her decisions, to her younger selves. And I wonder if doing this play occasionally prompts you to look into your own rich life.

JACKSON: No, not really because one of the guiding rules, for me anyway, of acting is you have to see the world through the eyes of the character you're playing - good, bad, indifferent. That's your modus operandi. So reflecting on oneself, there are things within the play where obviously there are direct relation to my life's experiences, but then they're direct relation to everybody's experience, for example, who've lost their parents or things of that nature.

SIMON: I don't want to give away the ending, but these words are very well known - (reading) that's the happiest moment, when it's all done, when we stop, when we can stop.

How do you feel about that?

JACKSON: It varies, I mean, because, you know, every performance is different in that sense. Some nights, I'm quite teary; other nights, I'm not. It's quite interesting.

SIMON: Well, how do you feel about that in life?

JACKSON: Well, I've always said the first duty of life is to live it, and I do believe that. And we delude ourselves if we think it's not going to end. How we individually meet that, I think, is entirely individual. Obviously, I have met it when those I've loved have died. And that - what I found surprising about that was that, for example, I still think, oh, I must get my mother one of those or the time the grief stays with you. But whether - how you as the individual meet that moment, well, it is - it's the last great adventure, isn't it?

SIMON: You were in Parliament for 23 years. Did you enjoy it?

JACKSON: I enjoyed the constituency responsibilities. I was extremely fortunate. I represented a very, very interesting constituency. It contained - essentially every single aspect of a demographic breakdown is living in that part of London. And it was a marvelous constituency to represent, but I must be honest, I don't miss Parliament itself. I mean, I saw egos going up and down those corridors that would not be tolerated for 30 seconds in a professional theater.

SIMON: (Laughter).

JACKSON: And you think, what are they doing, you know.

SIMON: Glenda Jackson stars in Edward Albee's "Three Tall Women" on Broadway, along with Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill. Thanks so much for being with us.

JACKSON: Well, thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.