The Glass Menagerie
TENNESSEE WILLIAMS 1944
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
The Glass Menagerie was originally produced in Chicago in 1944 and then staged in New York on Broadway in 1945. The text was also published in 1945. This play was the first of Williams’s to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, an honor he was given four times. Although The Glass Menagerie also received much popular acclaim, some critics believe that the thematic devices that Williams relies on, such as the legends on the screen, are too heavy-handed.
The Glass Menagerie is autobiographical in its sources. In some ways, this is a coming of age story, with both Tom Wingfield and Laura Wingfield negotiating their roles as young adults. Like many coming of age stories, the major conflicts in this play are both internal and external; Tom cannot choose both the future he desires for himself and the future his mother, Amanda Wingfield, desires for him and for Laura. Emerging through this major conflict between Tom and Amanda are the themes of alienation and loneliness, duty and responsibility, and appearances and reality.
Through its poetic structure and reliance on stage technology, The Glass Menagerie has had a significant impact on later twentieth century drama. Tom serves as both narrator and character, dissolving the present into the past; Williams signals this by exploiting lighting and sound, especially music—technologies which were less available to Page 124 | Top of Articleearlier playwrights. In this sense, the themes of the play are inseparable from its production values.
Tennessee Williams was born in Mississippi in 1911. His given name was Thomas Lanier Williams. His family lived in Mississippi and Tennessee until 1918, when they moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where Williams’s father, Cornelius, worked as a shoe salesman. This move to a metropolitan area was difficult for both Williams and his sister, Rose. Williams’s family was Episcopalian and his grandfather a minister, although Williams himself converted to Roman Catholicism in 1969. As an adult, he moved frequently, living in such cities as St. Louis and New York. Many critics base their interpretation of The Glass Menagerie as autobiographical in part because of the similarities between the Wingfield family and Williams’s own. Williams’s mother, Edwina, was a Southern belle, and his older sister, Rose, to whom Williams was close, suffered from schizophrenia as an adult.
Williams attended the University of Missouri from 1931 until 1933 and Washington University in St. Louis from 1936 until 1937 before earning his A.B. degree from the University of Iowa in 1938. He began publishing his work in magazines when he was only twelve years old and decided to become a playwright at the age of twenty, although he also wrote short stories, poems, novels, and memoirs. As a young man, he supported himself with various jobs, including waiter, teletype operator, and theater usher.
After The Glass Menagerie was produced on Broadway in 1945, however, Williams consistently had his new work produced in various New York theaters, often averaging one play every other year. He was not only prolific but also successful. His plays won many honors, beginning with the Group Theatre Award in 1939. This was followed by a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship. He won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award four times, and he won the Pulitizer Prize for A Streetcar Named Desire, his other most well-known play, in 1948. Williams was the first recipient of the centennial medal from New York’s Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 1973. During the last decade of his life, he received a Kennedy Honors Award and was elected to the Theatre Hall of Fame.
Williams’s most popular plays were also produced as movies, and he frequently served as screenwriter, sometimes with a collaborator. His later work continues the themes of his early plays, and he is sometimes accused of failing to develop further. In part because of this, his audience began to drift away near the end of his life.
Tennessee Williams died by choking in a hotel in New York City in 1983.
The Glass Menagerie opens with some fairly elaborate stage directions which serve both to describe the setting and to introduce themes and symbols through their tone. For example, the apartments in the Wingfields’ neighborhood are described as “warty growths” and the people as “one interfused mass of automatism.” Tom Wingfield is the first character on stage, and he functions here as both narrator and interpreter. In this role, Tom exists several years after the primary action of the play. He introduces the other characters, and his presence in this role guides the audience in the direction of the play.
The action begins with Amanda, Tom’s mother, calling him to the supper table. Throughout the meal, Amanda instructs and criticizes Tom in his eating habits, until Tom responds with disgust. At once, the audience realizes that Tom and Amanda live in a state of tension. The other character present at this meal is Laura, Tom’s sister, who wears a brace on her leg. When Laura offers to serve the dessert, Amanda says that she wishes Laura to “stay fresh and pretty—for gentlemen callers!” Amanda will remain concerned with the possibility of “gentlemen callers” for Laura throughout the play, and here she reminisces about her own youthful days. When Laura indicates that she’s not expecting any gentlemen callers, Amanda appears to be astonished, although this conversation seems to be a frequent one. Laura explains that “I’m not popular like you [Amanda] were.”
As this scene begins, Laura is sitting alone in the living room, washing the animals in her glass
collection. Amanda enters, clearly upset. Their conversation reveals that although Laura has been enrolled in a typing course, and although she has left the apartment every day as if to attend her class, she has in fact not been going. Amanda had stopped by to speak with Laura’s teacher, who revealed that Laura had become ill during a typing test and had not returned. Laura admits that she simply goes to the zoo nearly every day.
Amanda is concerned about Laura’s future because she has no prospective husband, nor does she have any skills by which she could make a living. Laura says that she had like a boy once, while she was in high school, although she is now twenty-three years old. This boy’s name was Jim, and he was very popular then and predicted to be very successful. Jim had called Laura by the nickname “Blue Roses” because he had misunderstood her when she had said she’d been sick with pleurosis.
This scene opens with Tom again functioning as narrator and describing the changes that occurred in the family over the next several weeks. Amanda became even more concerned with “gentlemen callers.” Because she believes that the apartment will have to be redecorated if gentlemen callers begin to arrive, she takes a job selling magazine subscriptions.
The major portion of this scene consists of an argument between Tom and Amanda. Amanda has thrown away some of Tom’s books because they were written by D. H. Lawrence, a British writer some people considered scandalous. The argument continues when Tom says he is going out to the movies, although Amanda replies that no one can go to as many movies as Tom claims to. She implies that Tom is lying, especially since he often comes home late and apparently drunk. She is worried that he will lose his job because he so frequently goes to work when he has had only three or four hours of sleep. She urges him to think of the good of the family rather than only himself. Tom replies by emphasizing how much he hates his job and slams out of the apartment after calling Amanda an “ugly—babbling old—witch.”
Tom arrives home much later. Laura lets him in, apparently believing that he really has been to the movies. Laura asks Tom to apologize to Amanda at breakfast, which he eventually does. Amanda sends Laura out to buy some butter so that she can Page 126 | Top of Articlehave a few words alone with Tom. She explains that she is worried that Tom is becoming like his father, who had abandoned the family. Amanda assures Tom that he will be able to go wherever and do whatever he wants as soon as Laura is secure in a future. She asks Tom to bring home an acquaintance from the warehouse where he works to meet Laura, though Tom does not respond enthusiastically to the prospect.
Tom and Amanda argue about whether he smokes too much. Eventually, Tom reveals that he has invited someone home to dinner, and that he’s coming tomorrow. Amanda panics because of all of the preparations that will have to be made. Tom says that the man’s name is James Delaney O’Connor and that he works as a shipping clerk, making approximately eighty-five dollars per month (Tom makes sixty-five dollars per month). Tom urges Amanda not to anticipate too much, since Laura is “crippled,” a word she reprimands him for using, and “peculiar.” The scene ends with Tom once again leaving for the movies.
The scene begins with Amanda and Laura preparing supper. Laura is extremely nervous and becomes even more upset when she discovers that the visitor’s name is Jim O’Connor, since that was the name of the boy she liked in high school. Tom and Jim arrive, and Jim discusses his future he hopes for in public speaking. Tom reveals that he has joined The Union of Merchant Seamen and has paid his dues with the money he was supposed to use for the electric bill. Amanda enters wearing an old dress from her youth and acting extremely coy. Amanda claims that Laura has prepared the supper, but when it is time to eat, Laura is so nervous that she becomes ill. She rests on the sofa throughout dinner.
As Tom, Amanda, and Jim are eating, the lights go out. Amanda assumes they have blown a fuse, though Jim says none of the fuses look faulty. Amanda urges Jim to keep Laura company in the living room. Laura reveals that she had known Jim in high school, and he eventually remembers who she is. She says that she had always felt conspicuous because of her brace, but Jim assures her that it was hardly noticeable. Laura has kept a program from a play Jim had starred in, and he autographs it for her. He reveals that he broke up with his high school girlfriend. When he asks Laura what she has done since high school, she states that her glass collection keeps her very busy.
Jim suggests that she simply needs more self confidence and begins talking about inferiority complexes. Laura shows him her favorite glass animal, a unicorn. Because music is audible from the dance hall across the alley, Jim asks Laura to dance. While they dance, they bump the table; the unicorn falls off and breaks its horn, though Laura says now he’s like the other horses rather than being “feakish.” Telling Laura that she is pretty, Jim kisses her. A few minutes later, though, he confesses that he is engaged, and that he hadn’t realized Tom had invited him home in order to meet Laura. She gives him the broken unicorn. Amanda serves lemonade, and Jim tells her also that he is engaged. Embarrassed, Amanda assumes that Tom had been playing a mean-spirited joke on them. Tom leaves again, though this time his departure is permanent. The play concludes with Laura blowing out the candles.
See Laura Wingfield
Jim is the gentleman caller Tom invites home for dinner. Although he also works at the warehouse, he makes more money than Tom and has greater aspirations—even if they are somewhat conventional ones. Yet, his situation reveals that dreams are often not achieved, for in high school Jim had been predicted to become very successful. He treats Laura kindly, but during their conversation he reveals that he too is not entirely realistic, for he discounts the severity of Laura’s problem and assures her that all she needs is more confidence.
Amanda is the mother of Tom and Laura. She has difficulty facing reality, though by the end of the play she does acknowledge Tom’s desire to
leave and Laura’s uncertain future. She frequently fantacizes about the past, probably exaggerating her own popularity then. Her relationship with Tom is conflicted, most prominently when she criticizes his minor habits.
Laura is the daughter of Amanda and sister of Tom. She is extremely shy, even emotionally disturbed, and she wears a brace on her leg which makes her feel conspicuous. Her collection of glass animals gives the play its title. She does not work, and she has been unable to complete a typing class because of her nervousness. Although she says she had once liked a boy in high school, she has never had and is unlikely to have any kind of romantic relationship.
Amanda’s son and Laura’s brother, Tom is the protagonist of the play. He dreams of abandoning the family, as his father had done. He feels trapped in his job, where he often neglects his duties in order to write poetry, and in his home, where he is reprimanded for reading some modern literature which was considered scandalous at the time. Although he claims to go to the movies every night, he also probably goes to a bar, since he sometimes comes home drunk. Eventually, he agrees to bring a “gentleman caller” home to meet Laura, but he leaves the family that night. Although Tom appears to genuinely care for Laura, his greater desire is to relieve his frustration at his confining situation. When he functions as narrator at a time several years after the action of the play, readers understand that he has escaped physically but not emotionally.
Appearances and Reality
Throughout this play, emerging in every scene and through the actions of every character is the theme of Appearances vs. Reality. Characters believe in a future and a past which are not realistic, and these beliefs affect the decisions they make regarding their relationships with each other. For example, Amanda frequently describes the days of her youth, when she claims she received “seventeen!—gentlemen callers!” during one Sunday afternoon. Although she describes these men as if
they either are wealthy or have died a tragic/heroic death, the man she married was apparently both unsuccessful and irresponsible. And despite all evidence to the contrary, Amanda seems to believe that Laura, too, will one day be visited by similar gentlemen callers.
Rather than fantasizing about his past, Tom believes that his future holds excitement, if he can only escape his family. Yet he fails to escape completely even though he does leave. In his last monologue, Tom reveals that he is not running toward something but away from his past: “I was pursued by something.” And although he travels continually, he fails to find the excitement he longs for, as the “cities swept about me like dead leaves.”
Even Jim O’Connor, the most conventional character, continues to believe in unattainable dreams. Although he apparently is talented, he has been unable to make choices that will guarantee him professional success. He refers enthusiastically to his public speaking class, but readers understand that Jim is attributing more significance to this course than it perhaps deserves.
Laura, however, is the character who is most obviously detached from reality. She cannot have normal interactions with other people without becoming ill. Her emotional energy is invested in her collection of glass animals, which may be exotic and delicate but are nevertheless “unreal,” especially the unicorn she claims is her favorite. For the unicorn doesn’t even represent a realistic animal. Even the nickname Jim once gave her, Blue Roses, is a flower that doesn’t exist. By the time the play ends, Laura seems to be more detached from reality rather than able to adjust.
Coming of Age
Although most pieces of literature which have “coming of age” as a major theme discuss younger characters, in some ways The Glass Menagerie also considers this theme. While all of the characters are technically adults, they do not relate to each other as adults. Amanda instructs Tom about his eating habits as if he is still a child, and he reacts to her with the resentment of an adolescent. In this regard, Tom is in a double bind, for he cannot simultaneously exercise all of the qualities of an adult in his
situation. If he is to fulfill his family obligations, obligations Amanda has thrust upon him rather than ones which he has voluntarily assumed, he will have to relinquish his independence. If he is to act independently, he will have to forsake his family responsibilities. Although Tom does eventually assert his independence, he does not seem to ever become fully mature. Rather, he is compared to his father, who also abandoned the family, though he had presumably chosen that responsibility by getting married. It is his father’s desertion which places Tom into such an oppressive situation. Because Tom is so clearly compared to his father, readers can easily forget this primary difference between them.
Duty and Responsibility
Woven into the coming of age theme is the issue of duty and responsibility. While Amanda insists that Tom’s primary duty is to her and Laura, Tom resents this responsibility because it presents him with so few options. On the other hand, Tom also has a responsibility to himself, one he might say he exercises precisely by attempting to abandon his family. By the end of the play, however, we see that Tom is both irresponsible and a failure in attaining his goals. Yet, the responsibilities of a son are different from those of a father. Although Amanda, in some ways, wants Tom to be a surrogate husband—she holds him responsible for supporting the family although she does not permit him the authority of a head of a household—Tom’s action, while being objectively similar to his father’s, might not be identical morally.
Although the action in The Glass Menagerie occurs over only a couple of days, nearly every scene is laden with overt conflict. The most obvious conflict occurs between Tom and Amanda, since Tom needs to remove himself from the family in order to achieve his goals, while Amanda needs him to stay. This conflict is most evident during their frequent bickering about the way Tom chews his food or the number of cigarettes he smokes. A more significant conflict, however, occurs within Tom’s character. In order to follow his dream, vague as it is, he will have to abandon not only Amanda but also Laura.
Although most plays do not rely on a narrator, The Glass Menagerie is structured so that Tom can fulfill two roles. He is both a character in the play and the person who, at times, tells the story directly to the audience. This occurs particularly at the Page 130 | Top of Articlebeginning of the play, when Tom summarizes the events that have preceded the action and describes the setting, and at the end of the play, when Tom reveals what has happened to him during the intervening years.
The protagonist of a literary work is the main character, who must change in some way during the course of the events, even if the change is entirely internal. Tom is clearly the protagonist of The Glass Menagerie. Although he is not heroic and will probably never triumph over his obstacles, he does take action by the end of the play.
The broad setting of The Glass Menagerie—as described in Williams’s stage directions—is “one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living-units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centers of lower middle-class population.” In other words, it is a fairly large apartment house in a comparatively poor neighborhood. The specific city is unnamed, as if details are unnecessary since these neighborhoods so closely resemble each other. All of the action occurs within the living room and dining room of the Wingfield’s apartment; the primary importance of the setting is to reinforce the cramped feeling the characters struggle against. The time is also vague. Obviously, the play is set several decades ago, since Tom can support (although inadequately) a family of three on sixty-five dollars a month; yet, were it not for details such as these, the play could easily be set in the current generation.
The Glass Menagerie achieves part of its effect through the prominent display of symbols. The father’s portrait looms above the family on their wall, although he has been absent for years; obviously, he remains psychologically present and significantly affects the attitudes of the other characters. The candles also function symbolically. When Tom fails to pay the light bill, Amanda lights the apartment with candles, suggesting that this will lend a more romantic atmosphere to their home. The last action of the play is when Laura blows the candles out, as if this will erase her from Tom’s memory in a death-like moment.
The primary symbol in this play, however, is Laura’s glass menagerie, particularly the unicorn. The glass animals are fragile, as Laura is both emotionally and physically. Although they might imitate reality, they are not in themselves real, and their primary value lies in Laura’s imagination. When the unicorn’s horn breaks off, Laura describes him as now like the other horses, as if one must be broken in order to be normal. Laura is already “broken,” however, and has never had the mythic status of a unicorn; she will never attain normalcy.
World War II
Although the setting of The Glass Menagerie is the 1930s, during the Great Depression and slightly before the beginning of World War II, Williams wrote the play after America had entered the war but before a decisive victory had been achieved. After being produced in Chicago in 1944, the play arrived in New York in 1945, the year the war ended. For Americans, the most significant historical event of the first half of the 1940s was the entry of the United States into World War II. Although the United States had not been eager to enter this war, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, making U.S. participation inevitable on the side of the Allies—primarily England, France, and Russia. In addition to Japan, the Allies fought against Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, and Italy, led by Benito Mussolini. Through most of the war, Franklin Roosevelt was President of the United States, until he died on April 12, 1945; he was succeeded by his vice president, Harry S. Truman. The European phase of the war ended in May 1945, and the Pacific phase ended with the dropping of nuclear bombs on Japan (in Hiroshima and Nagasaki) in August of 1945.
Women in the Workforce
Among the American ramifications of World War II was the sudden increase of women in the workplace. Primarily because so many men were serving in the armed forces, women began performing jobs that had not previously been open to them, in factories for example; such work was now considered patriotic. “Rosy the Riveter” is a famous character who represents this trend. When the war ended and men returned home, however, women were expected to leave their jobs so that the men might find employment. Women did not enter
the workforce in significant numbers again until the 1970’s.
The Boom Years
Another effect of returning soldiers was the passage of the G.I. Bill of Rights which provided education benefits and home loans for many veterans. As a result, college enrollment increased substantially and began to become more available to middle and lower class students. New home construction and suburban development also expanded. This meant that many middle-class people moved out of major cities. On the other hand, because of work available in factories, this decade also saw mass migration from rural areas into cities.
Technological innovations also occurred, although contemporary standards make them seem decidedly dated. In 1944, the first general-purpose digital computer began to operate at Harvard University—although it needed four seconds to perform multiplication problems and eleven seconds to perform division! This computer had been built with 760,000 parts and 500 miles of wire—clearly neither a desktop nor a laptop version. Although its inventors might not have anticipated the electronic age of the late twentieth century, they clearly initiated a technological revolution.
More pertinent to average Americans was the development of Kodacolor, a color film marketed by Eastman Kodak. This film permitted individuals to take color pictures with inexpensive cameras.
The Growth of Post-War Arts
Within the arts, Tennessee Williams worked in a rich context. Other plays performed in New York or major European cities included The Searching Wind by Lillian Hellman, No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre, and I Remember Mama by John Van Druten, which included Marlon Brando in its cast. W. Somerset Maugham published his novel, The Razor’s Edge, in 1944. Stephen Vincent Benet won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry that year, and T. S. Eliot published his Four Quartets. Such well-known and talented painters as Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Frida Kahlo produced much of their work during this period. Cole Porter, Judy Garland, Rita Hay worth, and Gene Kelly were popular entertainers. On a more humorous note, 1944 also saw the introduction of the Chiquita Banana song, which encouraged consumers to identify the fruit with a particular brand name-a trend that reached mammoth proportions by the late twentieth century.
When The Glass Menagerie reached the New York stage in 1945, it was a resounding success. A year earlier, it had also been successful in Chicago, despite poor weather which initially deterred the audience. According to Felicia Hardison Londre, writing in American Playwrights since 1945, “a crusade by the warmly enthusiastic Chicago critics” was launched to keep the play in production. It has remained popular, with staged as well as filmed versions appearing frequently, and it is considered to be one of Williams’s most successful works. Indeed, writing in The Christian Century in 1964 while Williams was still alive, critic William R. Mueller stated that Williams “is the greatest living American playwright and ranks next to [Eugene] O’Neill in the history of American theater.”
Critics almost inevitably remark on the poetic structure and language of The Glass Menagerie. As evidenced by the success with which his plays have been filmed, Williams brought a “cinematic concept of dramatic action to the American stage,” according to Londre. She continued, describing Williams’s work as characterized by “a harmonious blending and mutual reinforcement of dialogue, character, symbols, scenic environment, music, sound effects, and lighting.” In his article Mueller stated that a “common denominator of Williams’s plays is the quality of their poetry.” Mueller defined this “poetry” not in terms of conventional poetic devices such as rhyme and meter, but as language “suffused with imagery and so phrased as to create a dreamlike state.” In Tennessee Williams: A Tribute, S. Alan Chesler credited Williams with creating “a new poetic drama. . . . Williams has employed visual and auditory effects to previously unattempted extents by emphasizing color, music and scenic devices.”
Yet poetry is far from the only characteristic for which critics have praised Williams and his plays. Although many of the stage directions in this play are almost novelistic in their detail, his work is also discussed in terms of its theatricality. Contrasting Williams with William Shakespeare, Mueller argued that “Shakespeare can be played without setting, lighting, costume, music; Williams cannot. He makes fullest use of the craft of the stage: scenic effects, lighting, color, music are of vast importance in evoking from the audience the desired emotional response.” The use of a scrim between the audience and the actors at the beginning of the play would be Page 133 | Top of Articleone example of this. Another would be the frequency with which scene changes are signaled through fading music.
Critics also frequently comment on the psychological complexity of Williams’s work, especially addressing the autobiographical roots of The Glass Menagerie. In part because of his success in creating characters who evoke empathy, even if they are not entirely typical, The Glass Menagerie and plays which soon followed appealed to an exceptionally broad audience, from high school students to professional critics. In the words of Foster Hirsch in A Portrait of the Artist: The Plays of Tennessee Williams,“Williams creates driven characters who are unlike anyone most of us are ever likely to meet and yet they are almost all convincing and recognizable.” In an article published in Players, Gerald Berkowitz analyzed these characters in terms of the setting Williams has created for them: “as we discover each aberration or peculiarity in their [the Wingfields’] characters, we also discover that it is benign or even appropriate to their setting. Laura’s pathological shyness does not stifle her at home; she is even able to overcome her fear of Jim when talking of her glass animals. Her lameness, which so embarrassed her in high school, becomes irrelevant when she is sitting in the apartment.”
In addition to the number of awards Williams won during his lifetime, another way to measure his critical success, and the critical success of The Glass Menagerie, is through the professional attention he continues to receive. Books and articles continue to be written about this play as the thematic, literary, and theatrical issues it raises continue to be debated. Within the last generation, these publications include not only a wide range of American and Canadian periodicals but also journals published in Brussels, France, Brazil, The Netherlands, Germany, and South Africa. This play, in other words, has achieved not only significant popular success but international critical success.
L. M. Domina
Domina is an author and educator. This essay examines William’s use of modern theatrical technology as an essential element of his drama.
Tennessee Williams is admired for the theatricality of his plays and for introducing literary, specifically poetic, devices into the theater. In The Glass Menagerie particularly, he relies on the craft of modern theater—on such devices as lighting and sound techniques—to enhance the effectiveness of his themes, themes which are not difficult to recognize
Throughout this play, the characters are tempted toward illusion when they find reality too painful. Although the illusions of some characters are more socially acceptable, even typical, than others, Williams suggests that the “American dream” is as illusory as more overt psychological illnesses and that any given manifestation of illusion is as understandable, even acceptable, as any other one. Even Jim O’Connor, the character an audience would likely describe as closest to “normal,” in other words, does not distinguish between reality and fantasy. Jarka M. Burian, writing in International Dictionary of Theatre-1: Plays, stated that each of the Wingfields “has a secret life and dream that inherently has little likelihood of actualization.” Furthermore, in this play Williams suggests that the most specific arena of confinement, the family, is also the primary motivation for fantasy. Freedom equals freedom from familial responsibilities; yet since each character either attempts to achieve conventional family relations or obsessively to deny them, Williams indicates that such freedom is at best a vain hope.
This tendency to resist reality is most obvious in the female characters. Amanda Wingfield, the mother of Tom and Laura, is an abandoned wife who longs for a stable family structure, that is, a stable means of support, for her daughter. Amanda does not rely on her own experience as a cautionary device—or her experience cautions her toward conservatism. Her husband, who had left the family years ago, remains present in the “warty growth” of the Wingfield apartment; his photograph, “the face of a very handsome young man in a doughboy’s First World War cap. . . gallantly smiling, ineluctably smiling,” dominates the living room. Rather than suggest that Laura should not depend on a husband to support her (as difficult as this choice would have been during the 1930s), Amanda desires instead that Laura find a suitable husband, one who will not drink excessively, who will find excitement enough in a conventional career and family.
Yet although she has kept her husband’s photograph on her wall, Amanda sometimes seems to forget that she chose to marry a less-than-ideal man. She speaks frequently, almost obsessively, of
the Sunday afternoon when she received “seventeen!—gentlemen callers! Why, sometimes there weren’t chairs enough to accommodate them all.” And each of these men was special: “Among my callers were some of the most prominent young planters on the Mississippi Delta—planters and sons of planters! . . . There was young Champ Laughlin who later became vice president of the Delta Planters Bank. Hadley Stevenson who was drowned in Moon Lake and left his widow one hundred and fifty thousand in Government bonds. . . . That Fitzhugh boy went North and made a fortune—came to be known as the Wolf of Wall Street! He had the Midas touch.” In continually reliving this Sunday afternoon, Amanda is able to retain a sense of her own popularity, a sense of success rather than of the failure that accompanies the marriage she did make. The unstated question is, of course, why she married the man “who fell in love with long distances” rather than one of these other implausibly successful beaux.
Simultaneously, however, because she lives more energetically in the past than in the present, she appears rather foolish when a gentleman caller does accompany Tom home for dinner. Although she does desire that Laura find a suitable husband, Amanda dresses and acts as if the gentleman is calling for her: “She wears a girlish frock of yellowed voile with a blue silk sash. She carries a bunch of jonquils—the legend of her youth is nearly revived.” This dress is not only “girlish,” but is precisely the one “in which I led the cotillion” over twenty years earlier. But the intervening time has collapsed; Amanda’s girlhood merges with her middle age.
Although Laura remembers liking only one boy rather than receiving seventeen gentlemen callers and although she knew this boy approximately five rather than twenty-five years ago, Laura’s romantic life initially seems as decidedly over as Amanda’s. While Amanda’s illusions lead her to act foolishly, to become coyly extraverted, Laura’s function with opposite results. Laura’s fantasies are not simply a preference but a need; they incapacitate her. Laura’s fantasies, that is, don’t merely supplement reality but become reality. More specifically, her glass menagerie which gives the play its title resembles Laura in disturbingly accurate detail. Even the stage directions instruct us to interpret Laura as more similar to these delicate glass objects than to any of the other human characters: “A fragile, unearthly prettiness has come out in Laura: she is like a piece of translucent glass touched by light, given a momentary radiance, not actual, not lasting.” Laura describes the unicorn with similar language: “he loves the light! You see how the light shines through him?” In the Reference Guide to American Literature, Christian H. Moe supported this view. Laura, Page 135 | Top of Articlehe argued, “reveals herself as too fragile . . . to pursue outside reality and thus becomes instead its victim retreating into her own fantasy world.” This glass collection constitutes Laura’s community, for she indicates that she devotes most of her time, and implicitly her emotional energy, to it. She personifies the animals, creating lives for them that reflect her own. When the unicorn’s horn breaks, for example, Laura speculates that “The horn was removed to make him feel less—freakish!. . . Now he will feel more at home with the other horses.”
By this point, Laura has revealed why she also feels “freakish.” The brace on her leg “clumped so loud” according to her memory, drawing everyone’s attention, she believes, to her disability. Yet the one time Tom uses the word “crippled” to describe Laura, Amanda reprimands him—demanding that her fantasy take precedence over the family’s reality. One could argue that when the unicorn’s horn breaks, he becomes “crippled” rather than “less—freakish.” For it is his horn that grants him individuality. Laura, of course, longs to be more similar to others rather than so distinct from them.
In his willingness to be honest about Laura, Tom is perhaps the only character who can see Laura simultaneously as “peculiar” and as beautiful; a person so delicate that light can shine through her. Because he acknowledges that his life is frus-tratingly dull and confining, Tom fantasizes about the future. If he can leave the family, he believes, if he can imitate his father and simply follow his desires for long distance, he will have opportunity rather than responsibility. He will be able to write poetry rather than sell shoes. Tom does leave, of course, after he loses his job selling shoes because he was writing poetry. But though he does join the merchant marine and though he does abandon the family physically, he discovers that memory can haunt him. He can never leave them emotionally. The future becomes as oppressive as the past, for the “cities swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from the branches.” Rather than live merrily in the past as Amanda does, Tom is haunted by it. “I was pursued by something,” he says. Try as he might to escape, “all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes. Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!”
Even Jim O’Connor, the most conventional of these characters, is nagged by his past. In an article
published in Players, Gerald Berkowitz critiqued Jim for his own fantasies: “His dreams and values, as practical and, realistic as they may be, sound shallower and more comical than Amanda’s . . . and his disquisitions on the art and etiquette of its [a pack of chewing gum] use sound far more odd and foolish than Laura’s fantasies about the animals’ feelings.” While he may not be as obsessed as any of the others, he has discovered that the present has not lived up to his hopes. In high school, he had been extremely popular and had been expected to succeed at whatever he attempted. Yet, even if he makes somewhat more money, he nevertheless works in the same warehouse as Tom. Rather than surrender to disappointment, however, Jim continues to invest his hope in the future. Although he acknowledges that he had “hoped when I was going to high school that I would be further along at this time,” he is currently studying public speaking because he believes it will suit him for “executive positions.” It will give him “social poise,” the one characteristic that will make him more successful, although the image he presents of himself in high school would indicate that he had been poised then. Like Tom, Jim continues to believe that the life he desires is possible. He lives with the illusion that if he simply tries harder, if he alters the details of his circumstances Page 136 | Top of Articlewithout altering their substance, then his search for excitement will be validated. Jim claims that “being in love has made a new man of me!” but he provides no evidence for this outside of rhetoric.
Although we don’t discover what occurs to Jim in the future, the desolation of the play’s conclusion indicates that disappointment is the inevitable outcome. In the words of Benjamin Nelson in his book, Tennessee Williams: The Man and His Work, these characters are “doomed to failure because of their inability to do more than dream.” Whether these characters attempt to achieve freedom through a family or detached from one, the play indicates that such freedom is the stuff of which dreams are made.
Source: L. M. Domina, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.
John Mason Brown
In the following excerpt, Brown offers a mixed assessment of The Glass Menagerie, maintaining that while the play is “blessed with imagination” and “is the work of a mind both original and sensitive. . . . Mr. Williams’s drama sometimes proves empty.” Brown also speculates that the play suffers from a plot that is too loosely constructed and dialogue that provides little action and thus fails to hold the audience’s interest.
A lady, obviously no psychologist, once encountered William Lyon Phelps on the street in New Haven.“I hope you won’t mind my telling you how much I enjoyed your lecture yesterday?” she asked. “Madam,” beamed Professor Phelps,“you misunderstand me entirely. I am glutton for praise.”
All of us are. Praise has never made anyone unhappy. We like it even when we do not believe it. We tire of it only when it is bestowed too long on other people. It is a music we do not object to having played off-stage. Although it may shame our consciences and insult our minds, it does no damage to our ears. So long as we remember that it sings the song not of what we are but of what we wish we were, it probably does not hurt us.
But the advance praise we hear of a book we have not read or a play we have not seen is another matter. Genuine and well meant as it is, if too unstinted it can do harm. Not to us, but to what it has been lavished upon. We take such praise seriously. It sends our hopes skyrocketing. It prepares us for a miracle in a world where miracles are infrequent.
To the book or play in question it presents a challenge few works can survive. Critics (and what playgoer or reader is not one?) are never more gluttonous than when it comes to giving praise. When disappointed because of the praise bestowed by others, we forget our own guilt in anticipating reactions or, worse still, raising expectations. We remember only our present disappointment. At such moments we are tempted to understand why managers employ, ungratefully, though not unreasonably, the word “raves” to describe reviews which find hats tossed so far in the air that their owners’ heads are lost sight of.
I raise these general questions with a specific instance in mind. Recently I had the good fortune to see The Glass Menagerie but the bad fortune to see it after reading the reviews and hearing ecstatic reports about it from Chicago. Although Tennessee Williams’s fantasy is a play I would not have missed, I wish I had missed both the reviews and the advance reports. At least until later. I wish I had missed them because Mr. Williams’s play was forced to live them down. It was compelled to struggle against them much as a joke, however good, is condemned to a harder hearing when introduced by some witless fellow who insists upon laughing first, and then saying, “Oh, that reminds me of a very funny story.”
A play would have to be a master piece indeed to compete with what has been said about The Glass Menagerie both in Chicago and New York. Mr. Williams’s script, I am afraid, is not that masterpiece.
It has its high, its shimmering virtues. It is blessed with imagination. It has its many lovely moments. It is the kind of play one is proud to have the theatre produce, and pleased to sit before even when disappointed in this scene or in that. In any season it would be uncommon; in this season it is outstanding. It is the work of a mind both original and sensitive. Although it follows trails blazed by Thornton Wilder and William Saroyan, it manages to walk down them with a gait of its own.
It is as promising a first play as has been seen hereabouts in many a year.
Mr. Williams’s is a play of moods; a study in frustration. Its plot is nonexistent, at least so far as plotting is ordinarily understood. It is too close to the heart of life to bother about story-telling merely for the sake of telling a story. To attempt to suggest its qualifies by outlining its actions would be as unfair to The Glass Menagerie as it would be to try Page 137 | Top of Articleto suggest the qualities, say, of The Three Sisters in terms of a synopsis. No one can deny that The Three Sisters is about three Russian women who want to go to Moscow and never get there. Yet to say—this and only this—is to omit the wit, wisdom, perception, and autumnal radiance which make Chekhov’s play one of the wonders of the modern stage.
Mr. Williams bases his drama upon an incident rather than a plot. The only story he tells is how an impoverished Southern mother has her hopes dashed when she learns that the Gentleman Caller, who has at last come to see her crippled daughter, is already engaged. But Mr. William’s interest does not stop with this story. His concern is what lies under the surface of events. He deals with those small happenings which can loom so large in the lives of unhappy people. He shows us the hopes such happenings can quicken, the memories they stir, the transformations they are able to effect, and the despair they often evoke.
His drama is projected as a memory, seen at moments not only through the actual gauzes provided by set designer Mr. Mielziner, but in flashes through the thicker curtain of time itself. Mr. Williams’s is the simplest kind of make believe. The narrator he employs is the crippled girl’s brother. The scenes we are invited to share are this brother’s recollections. They are recalled to him when, as a merchant sailor in a foreign port, he sees objects in a store window which remind him of his sister’s glass menagerie at home.
We move back in the sailor’s life until we encounter the nagging the dulness which drove him to seek the release of the sea. We learn of his hatred of the factory in which he worked; of his need for escape; of his incessant movie-going when (as Mr. Williams puts it), in the company of millions of other Americans sitting in darkened theatres in the pre-war years, he let a few Hollywood actors have all his adventures for him.
With this sailor brother we enter the poor home his memory has recreated. We inhale the honeysuckle of his mother’s Southern recollections. We overhear her steady, soft-voiced scoldings, and understand her exasperation. We meet the crippled sister too. She is a girl who lives in the dreams summoned by the music of her Victrola records and the small glass animals in her collection to which she has given her heart. This sister is painfully shy. She is denied life by the selfconsciousness her braces have forced upon her. In an overstressed moment of symbolism Mr. Williams insists that, because of her deformity, she is as out of place among her healthy contemporaries as is the glass unicorn in her menagerie among the commoner animals.
We learn how this girl blooms under the attentions of a happy extrovert who cannot marry her. We also eavesdrop on her when, at last, she consents to face the boy her brother has asked home from the factory for a humbler version of the “Alice Adams” dinner party. Above all, we understand the decision of the brother, being what he was, to go to sea.
Mr. Williams writes about his characters warmly, with a sympathy that is constant and yet probing. He knows how to etch them in line by line, so that before the evening is over we know them well. We are on intimate terms even with the hard-drinking father who has deserted them and is represented only by a shoddy photograph on the wall. But, in spite of Mr. Williams’s perceptions and the quality of his play, his writing lacks the impact of Clifford Odets’s phrasing and the ultimate radiance of William Saroyan’s feeling.
Full though his heart is, Mr. Williams’s drama sometimes proves empty. I found that it lost my interest even while it held my admiration. Fascinated as I remained by the way in which its lines were spoken, it became difficult for me to keep my mind (in the second act) on every line that was being spoken. I was certain of my respect for the play in general, but increasingly aware of Mr. Williams’s uncertainties.
Perhaps this was because, unlike Chekhov, Mr. Williams permits us to become uncomfortably conscious of how slight is the incident upon which he has based his play. Perhaps it is because his dialogue is not always active enough to compensate for the lack of action in his story. Perhaps it is because he allows us to know too much too early about all his characters except the charmingly written and played Gentleman Caller. Perhaps it is because Miss Taylor is off-stage for so long a scene in the second act. Or Perhaps, as I have hinted, it is because the praise the play had won in advance had led me to expect that miracle which is every critic’s hope.
Source: John Mason Brown, “Miss Taylor’s Return” in the Saturday Review, Vol. 28, no. 15, April 14, 1945, pp. 34-36.
In the following excerpt from a review that originally appeared in the New York Times on April 2, 1945, Nichols assesses a production of “The Glass Menagerie, praising the actors’ performances and noting that while the play has some flaws, “Mr. Williams has a real ear for faintly sardonic dialogue, unexpected phrases and an affection for his characters.”
The theatre opened its Easter basket the night before and found it a particularly rich one. Preceded by warm and tender reports from Chicago, The Glass Menagerie opened at the Playhouse on Saturday, and immediately it was clear that for once the advance notes were not in error. Tennessee Williams’ simple play forms the framework for some of the finest acting to be seen in many a day. “Memorable” is an overworked word, but that is the only one to describe Laurette Taylor’s performance. March left the theatre like a lioness.
Miss Taylor’s picture of a blowsy, impoverished woman who is living on memories of a flower-scented Southern past is completely perfect. It combines qualities of humor and human understanding. The Mother of the play is an amusing figure and a pathetic one. Aged, with two children, living in an apartment off an alley in St. Louis, she recalls her past glories, her seventeen suitors, the old and better life. She is a bit of a scold, a bit of a snob; her finery has worn threadbare, but she has kept it for occasions of state. Miss Taylor makes her a person known by any other name to everyone in her audience. That is art.
In the story the Mother is trying to do the best she can for her children. The son works in a warehouse, although he wants to go to far places. The daughter, a cripple, never has been able to finish school. She is shy, she spends her time collecting glass animals—the title comes from this—and playing old phonograph records. The Mother thinks it is time she is getting married, but there has never been a Gentleman Caller at the house. Finally the son brings home another man from the warehouse and out comes the finery and the heavy if bent candlestick. Even the Gentleman Caller fails. He is engaged to another girl.
Mr. Williams’ play is not all of the same caliber. A strict perfectionist could easily find a good many flaws. There are some unconnected odds and ends which have little to do with the story: Snatches of talk about the war, bits of psychology, occasional moments of rather flowery writing. But Mr. Williams has a real ear for faintly sardonic dialogue, unexpected phrases and an affection for his characters. Miss Taylor takes these many good passages and makes them sing. . . .
Source: Lewis Nichols, in a review of The Glass Menagerie (1945) in On Stage: Selected Theater Reviews from The New York Times, 1920-1970, edited by Bernard Beckerman and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973, p. 260.
Berkowitz, Gerald. “The ‘Other World’ of The Glass Menagerie” in Players, Vol. 48, no. 4, April-May, 1973, pp. 150-53.
Berkowitz argues that the setting or “locus” of The Glass Menagerie as well as of other of Williams’s plays influences perceptions of the characters to the extent that they seem “normal,” while the “normal” people seem outsiders.
Burian, Jarka M. “The Glass Menagerie” in International Dictionary of Theatre-1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 187-89.
Burian provides several character analyses, focusing especially on Tom.
Chesler, S. Alan. “Tennessee Williams: Reassessment and Assessment” in Tennessee Williams: A Tribute, edited by Jac Tharpe, University Press of Mississippi, 1977, pp. 848-80.
Chesler describes Williams’s characteristics as a playwright and contextualizes his career in terms of his affect on American drama.
Hirsch, Foster. A Portrait of the Artist: The Plays of Tennessee Williams, Kennikat Press, 1979.
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Hirsch analyzes Williams’s plays according to their autobiographical influences.
Londre, Felicia Hardison. “Tennessee Williams” in American Playwrights since 1945: A Guide to Scholarship, Criticism, and Performance, edited by Philip C. Kolin, Greenwood, 1989, pp. 488-517.
Londre provides a thorough discussion of Williams’s work and reputation, including a production history of several of his plays.
Moe, Christian H. “The Glass Menagerie” in Reference Guide to American Literature, edited by James Kamp, third edition, St. James Press, 1994.
Moe traces the development of this play from a short story and describes the plot.
Mueller, William R. “Tennessee Williams: A New Direction?” in The Christian Century, Vol LXXXI, no. 42, October 14, 1964, pp. 1271-72.
Mueller traces Williams’s career, describing characteristics common to several plays. He suggests that Williams’s earlier work was more successful, artistically, than his later plays.
Nelson, Benjamin. Tennessee Williams: The Man and His Work, Ivan Obolensky, 1961.
Nelson critiques the body of Williams’s work, evaluating the plays in terms of each other.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2692600016