March 18, 1985 12:00 PM

Around teatime on performance days, butterflies begin to invade her stomach, and a general malaise racks her angular, boyish frame. By early evening, when Glenda Jackson sits down to her stage makeup, her palms are sweating, her fingers trembling. Then, a few minutes before the curtain goes up, one of England’s most prized actresses is suffering the indignities of heart palpitations. She fears that she simply cannot go on.

The stalwart Jackson always does, of course, and she leaves her stage fright backstage. But there it waits for her, night after night. “You would think it is something one would grow out of,” the 48-year-old performer says. “But you grow into it over the years. I suppose it’s that the more you do, the more you realize how painfully easy it is to be lousy and how very difficult it is to be good.”

To hear the critics tell it, Jackson has achieved the latter in a marathon Broadway performance that would give any actress stage fright, apoplexy and exhaustion. In Eugene O’Neill’s rarely performed 1928 melodrama Strange Interlude, which she did first in London last year, Jackson must be onstage for four hours. She must also age not so gracefully from a naive 20-year-old virgin to an embittered mother who has suffered through, among other things, abortion, congenital insanity and long-thwarted love. “The actress jumps each hoop with grace and conviction: She’s equally mesmerizing as a Zelda Fitzgeraldesque neurotic, a rotting and spiteful middle-aged matron and, finally, a spent, sphinx-like widow happily embracing extinction,” said the New York Times of Jackson. Such raves have helped pack audiences for the nearly sold-out eight-week run. But, despite a need to pop glucose tablets for energy, the indomitable lady professes to feel little more fatigue than she would in a show of normal length.

But then again, she has never been one to complain about her work. “I regard acting as a serious job for serious-minded people,” says Jackson, who has disdain for those who don’t. Utterly lacking the self-consciousness of other leading ladies, she remembers of her nude scenes in Women in Love and The Music Lovers primarily “a prevailing sense of coldness.” Of showing a brash middle age, as she does in her role as a dowdy housewife in her latest film, the well-received The Return of the Soldier, Jackson says with a shrug, “I’ve never thought of myself as being physically attractive or desirable, so I’m not losing anything.”

Sitting in the Manhattan hotel suite she is occupying through the run of Strange Interlude, Jackson in her snow boots and corduroys looks out of place amid the stuffy chintzes. The gaunt face is bare. “Why put on makeup when you only have to take it off again,” she says. The tiger eyes are aloof, the voice stainless steel. What molds her attitudes and behavior is “arrogance,” she explains. “It’s a sense that this is what I am and if you don’t like it,—off. It makes my life easier. I’m not an actress to make friends and influence people. I’m here now, for example, to do a play. What I feel about someone offstage is irrelevant. What I feel about an actor onstage with me is relevant. If I think they are———-about with me, they will be told.” She’s equally harsh on reviewers. “The bunch of critics we have now in London couldn’t write decent advertising copy let alone journalism,” she declares. “They are blind and deaf.”

As for Hollywood and its trappings, don’t get her started. “If all that system can offer its talent is the crap it does, then producers should pay through the eyes, ears, nose, mouth—any orifice you can think of.” Her own film work has been rewarded with two Oscars—for Women in Love in 1970 and for A Touch of Class three years later. But Jackson has attended the ceremonies only once, to present the Best Actor award in 1974. “It shows how important those things are that I can’t remember who I gave it to,” she says before recalling that it was Art Carney for Harry and Tonto. Her Oscars are in the care of her mother. “She polishes them to an inch of their lives until the metal shows. That sums up the Academy Awards…all glitter on the outside and base metal coming through. I guess they’re nice presents for a day, but they don’t make you any better.”

Blame some of this caustic pragmatism, perhaps, on Jackson’s working-class roots outside Liverpool. Her father was a builder, her mother tended shops and cleaned other people’s houses, and Glenda went stoically to work in the local pharmacy after finishing secondary school at age 16. Boredom and aesthetic curiosity led her to join a YMCA drama group and later, audaciously, to apply to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. The intense, sexually-charged talent that later awed critics won her a scholarship—and, two years later, work in regional repertory companies. In 1965 Peter Brook cast her as the ranting Charlotte Corday in the original production of Marat/Sade, and a career was launched.

Possibly as an escape from her tempestuous acting persona, Jackson also pursued the role of suburban mum. For 17 years she tended house in Black-heath outside London for her actor-turned-art dealer husband, Roy Hodges, and their son, Daniel, now 16. The marriage ended in 1976 but left Glenda with an enduring love of such rituals of domesticity as gardening and baking. Still, Jackson says remarriage is highly unlikely and claims to have no one cluttering her life right now. “Men can be a great deal of hard work for very little reward,” she says. “If you treat them like babies, they are perfectly happy. I’m a very good mother, but I don’t want to be that to a supposed adult.”

Following her Broadway triumph, Jackson will return to London, her son—and a problem many mothers will recognize. “I’m marked with maternal guilt for the rest of my life for not being home more when he was a baby and growing up,” she admits. “If anything goes wrong in Daniel’s life, I will always regard it as my fault.”

But the work goes on, and Jackson’s next project is on the London stage in Racine’s Phèdre, which she performed briefly last season. Although stage and film offers are unlikely to dry up, Jackson has a plan in case they do: returning to school to earn a degree in English and then teaching it in an underdeveloped nation. “What else would I do with my time? I’m certainly not going to hang around waiting to play the old nurse in Romeo and Juliet. And I’m not going to stay home and polish the furniture.

“I’m looking forward to being an irresponsible old lady,” she continues. “I shall call policemen ‘young man’ and insist on seats on buses. I shall be outrageous and hopelessly demanding…the most disliked old lady in the world.” Jackson’s eyes are burning as she speaks, as if her single visitor were a full audience, admiring her curtain speech. “And I shall like that.”

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