Written and Edited by Lindsay Price October, 2009
This month we offer an Analysis and Exercise newsletter for The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams.
This month we start our playwright series in which we examine multiple plays from a single author. Last year it was Arthur Miller, this year it's Tennessee Williams.
'I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person.' - Tennessee Williams
'For the first 30 years of his life [Williams] was living The Glass Menagerie.' - Lyle Leverich, Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams, xxiii
Williams' plays are known for their lyrical poetic dialogue, and characters on the brink. The characters make Williams' work so dynamic and universal; they are more than the cardboard 'types' Williams characters are sometimes reduced to. The men and women in his plays are always flawed, filled with emotion, and locked in the frustration of straining for something beyond reach.
We start with The Glass Menagerie. This is the play that made Williams a 'famous' and sought after playwright.
I find The Glass Menagerie an enjoyable play. That might not sound like a compliment (like I feel when someone calls my plays clever, that's not really positive) but it truly is. The play doesn't fall into the 'I love it with an unfailing passion' category perhaps because its despair is so touching and gentle.
The impending doom for the Wingfield family seeps into your lungs like dust from a room that hasn't been cleaned in decades. Hard to gush over dusty lungs. Again, that doesn't sound like a compliment. But I fully stand behind The Glass Menagerie as a classic work, a great work that should be studied and produced. The play would not be out of place on any 21st century stage.
Is The Glass Menagerie a relevant play to study? Is it a work of classic literature or is it faded and dated?
When I studied Literature in school I was often amazed at what fell under the 'classic' label. (If I never have to read a word from Tess of the D'Ubervilles again I'll be very happy.) Just because something is old and written by an author of note does not make a work classic.
The origin of the word 'classic' comes from the 1600's and deals with work of the first or highest class. Over time the word has taken on additional meanings:
When I think about what makes a classic, I'm particularly drawn to the notion of 'endearing interest.' While classics can and do remain static in their particular era, I like it when a work of literature continues to find relevance over time. There is something to the characters, stories or themes that still resonates in the current era, in our society.
For example, Romeo and Juliet is a classic work in its own era and yet has strong relevance in ours: girls continue to fall in love with boys they shouldn't. Families continue to hate each other for no particular reason. Couples make choices (rightly or wrongly) based on love every day.
This is why I consider The Glass Menagerie a classic. It may be set in 1937 pre-war America, but the motivations of the characters and the themes of the play still resonate today. How many of us have trouble with the present because the past has such a tight grip? How many of us desire to leave home for adventure? How many of us have family issues? The dysfunctional family is alive and well in our time and in The Glass Menagerie:
When studying a classic, a great place to start is to define what a classic is, what makes the work you're studying a classic, and what resonates in the characters/story for today's world.
'The straight realistic play with its genuine frigidaire and authentic ice-cube, its characters that speak exactly as its audience speaks, corresponds to the academic landscape and has the same virtue of a photographic likeness. Everyone should know nowadays the unimportance of the photographic in art...'
(production notes written by Tennessee Williams)
Tennessee Williams had a distinct and defined vision for his plays and the style in which he wanted to present them. There should be no attempt to create a photograph, a copy of the real world on stage. For Williams, The Glass Menagerie is not a realistic play. It's right there in Tom's opening monologue: 'The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.' (scene one)
The notion that the play is not realistic is interesting and potentially confusing â considering the number of productions that steep the play in a wash of realism. Take a look at the following production photos: it looks like The Glass Menagerie is a traditional realistic play.
These types of productions are not uncommon. Everything is straight forward and linear, against what appear to be the intentions of the playwright. Actors eat real food in the opening scene when Williams clearly states in the stage directions that it is mimed. Sets are done in minute realistic detail instead of memory abstract, or 'dim and poetic' as Williams describes.
This is not entirely the fault of the productions. It doesn't help either that several movies have been made of the play, encouraging realism:
Add to that the potential confusion over the different versions of the play. There are two script versions of The Glass Menagerie: a reading version and an acting version. The acting version was used in the original Broadway production and it is the one most commonly used in subsequent productions. A big difference between the two, keeping in mind Williams' desire to step away from straightforward realism, is the use of a screen in the reading version. The screen was used to project images or title cards (called 'Legend on Screen' in the script).
IMAGE: AMANDA AS A GIRL ON A PORCH, GREETING CALLERS
LEGEND ON SCREEN: THIS IS MY SISTER: CELEBRATE HER WITH STRINGS!
The images and title cards were used to emphasize moments, provide flashes of background and commentary. Some have felt the use of the screens pretentious and unnecessary. It would, if you were going for a traditional realistic production. Williams himself has said that he didn't regret taking them out of the Broadway production.
But knowing that the play is memory and the intention of the playwright is to have the play step away from realism, the images and title cards help provide that step the story needs. (Other elements used to support this 'step' are music and lighting, which we'll talk about later.)
Memories are more often than not, pictures and sounds in our heads â a flash of an image, a memorable word, a laugh. Why not have that represented visually on stage? And now with the current technology available, the effect of the screen could be quite magical.
The concept of memory must be always at the forefront when studying The Glass Menagerie. The play is memory. And memory is never real. Memories are never as concrete as when the events originally unfolded. Memories aren't tangible, no matter how strongly we believe our capacity to remember. Williams makes it clear that the truth of his memories is 'disguised in illusion' and shouldn't be taken as hard cold fact. The truth is there, the facts are there, but it's fragmented and sometimes gauzy.
Here's a production set (Kansas City Rep) that clearly combines the technical aspect of the screen and the emotional impact of memory.
Go to this page and see the other pictures from the production. It presents quite a stunning picture of the play.
'Expressionism and all other unconventional techniques in drama have only one valid aim, and that is a closer approach to truth.' (Williams, Production Notes, The Glass Menagerie)
The Technical elements in The Glass Menagerie were very important to Williams. He is extremely specific as to how the play should be lit, and how it should sound. I've never read a more detailed approach to the technical elements in a play than Williams':
Indeed it is almost as if they are additional characters in the play. At the very least, they are the support beams to the experience Williams wanted the audience to have. Light and music go a long way to solidifying the elusive, less-than-tangible memory quality the play should have.
Subtext refers to 'the underlying meaning or theme in a literary work' and in that regard there is no subtext in The Glass Menagerie. There's very little hiding at all in the play; the symbols are all out in the open and take centre stage. No need to figure out what the title is referring to. Laura is meant to be seen and portrayed as another figurine in the menagerie. The set itself is a symbol: The fire ESCAPE, is a means of ESCAPE, for those who choose to.
Having said that, there are many productions that strive to implant further subtext into the play, such as showing Tom and Laura 'in love'. Or, because the play has strong autobiographical elements, productions blanket the play in autobiography, playing Tom as gay because Williams was.
Creating subtext is something that an actor can bring to the table as part of their work on a character. If the actor simply plays the page, the effect can come across as two-dimensional. Having said that, Williams had a very clear image of the play and the expression of the play; no playwright has ever written such detailed and poetic stage directions as he did. Sometimes a glass figurine is simply a glass figurine.
The Glass Menagerie has had quite a journey and strong connections to Williams' life and the history of the time. There is a lot here to research and discuss.
'Why did I write? Because I found life unsatisfactory.' â Tennessee Williams
Williams wrote 25 full length plays, some of which include
Further biographical information on Tennessee Williams' later life can be found at the following links:
And the following books about Tennessee Williams:
'â¦the saddest play I have ever written. It is full of pain. It's painful for me to see.' â Tennessee Williams on The Glass Menagerie
The play started out as a short story called Portrait of Girl in Glass. When Williams began work at MGM as a screenwriter, he turn the story into a screenplay called The Gentleman Caller. When the screenplay was rejected, Williams turned it into a play. The play opened in late 1944 and moved on to Broadway. There have been two screen movies made of the play (1950 & 1987) and two television movies (1966 & 1973).
'If the writing is honest it cannot be separated from the man who wrote it.' â Tennessee Williams
There are many common elements between Williams' life and the Wingfield family of The Glass Menagerie, so much so that many define the work as autobiographical. Consider the following:
Question: Is The Glass Menagerie an autobiography? Is Williams trying to put his own life on stage, or is he using his life as a catalyst for fiction? What do you think? State why or why not in your answer.
The answer is no. Autobiographical elements do not necessarily string together as truth. The play is firmly grounded in the theatrical and is not a documentary. This is what makes Williams a great writer. He's creating a fiction inspired by elements from his life. Certainly, the play is loosely based on his experiences, but there are a number of differences, such as the father's abandonment of the Wingfield family in the play, and the fact that Williams had a younger brother who was also living with them in St. Louis. Also, if Williams was solely writing autobiographically, the themes and issues would not feel so universal. The family struggles in the play are ones that many, many families face.
This is the social background of the play. â Tom, Scene One
To fully understand the struggle of the Wingfields, it's important to look at the historical framework. Williams is very specific in his choice of time period and the social background. The depression-era America of the 30's is shown as suspended in time, while other parts of the world churn in turmoil:
When Tom talks to Jim on the fire escape he describes Americans as barely experiencing life:
'People going to the movies instead of moving! Hollywood characters are supposed to have all the adventures for everybody in America, while everybody in America sits in a dark room and watching them have them!' (scene six)
America is in a trapped state, much like the characters in the play.
Look at this picture of Picasso's Guernica. Using the same style, create a picture (either on paper or as a human picture in a tableau) for the America described in The Glass Menagerie.
The Glass Menagerie is chock full of cultural references. Here are a sampling of cultural references, depression-era references and geographical references mentioned in the play that might not be familiar to a 21st century reader:
A retreat in Northern Germany which Hiltler enjoyed.
Century of Progress
a technology exhibition at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933-34
A formal ball given especially for debutantes.
Neville Chamberlain was the Prime Minister of England at the time. He was often pictured carrying an umbrella and making nice with Hitler.
Daughters of the Revolution, a ladies society that promoted patriotism. They trace their descendants back to the Revolutionary War.
D.H. Lawrence, novelist best known for Sons and Lovers.
A ball player for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1930's.
Famous and Barr
A St. Louis department store.
A St. Louis crime ring.
A floral green house in Forest Park in St. Louis, built in 1936.
Electric lamp invented by Thomas Edison
The Merchant Marines deliver goods and services during peacetime. During war they were part of the Navy.
A hot whole grain cereal.
One thing you can say about The Glass Menagerie is that the themes and symbols practical leap off the page at you and introduce themselves. There's no way you can miss them and in fact Tom, as narrator, makes no excuse for them. They are there for you to notice from the first words spoken.
'Oh, be careful - If you breathe, it breaks! (Laura, Scene six)
'Isn't it funny what tricks your memory plays?' (Jim, Scene seven)
Everyone is affected by their memories. In extreme cases (and really are we interested in any other kind?) either the memories are so good the present can't live up to expectation, or so bad that one is unable to escape their grip. That is the essence of the theme of past vs present in The Glass Menagerie.
The past and the present engage in a rather quiet but violent tug of war for all the characters in the play.
The characters want the present to be better. They either want to be free of the past or experience the freedom they had in the past. None are able to achieve that freedom and it hampers their ability to live successfully in the present:
'We nailed him into a coffin and he got out of the coffin without removing one nail. There is a trick that would come in handy for me â get me out of this 2 by 4 situation!' (Tom, scene four)
All of the characters in The Glass Menagerie are trapped, and desire some form of escape. The only character who feels trapped and actually manages to escape is Mr. Wingfield. He abandoned the family sixteen years ago with only a postcard from Mexico as a good bye. The rest of the characters are not so successful:
Even the world at large is full of traps and escapes. Tom talks about America being trapped in the Depression, a 'school for the blind,' a period of waiting with no movement forward.
'So what are we going to do the rest of our lives? Stay home and watch the parades go by? Amuse ourselves with the glass menagerie, darling?' (Amanda, Scene two)
The theme of reality vs denial is different than traps and escapes in a very interesting way. It's not that the characters aren't aware of the real world:
These characters know the real world exists around them. But they do not accept it. Laura is not the only character living in a fantasy world. They each do not accept their reality. They actively deny reality.
Building upon the theme of traps and escapes, the characters cannot accept reality because to them reality is a trap. They don't see the real world as viable or wonderful.
'I have a poet's weakness for symbols.' (Tom, scene one)
A symbol is a representation of something else. Almost every person, place and thing, represents something else in The Glass Menagerie. Tom himself could be considered a symbol if you think of him as a direct representation of the playwright! It's important to embrace the symbols, they are a part of the play's expression and Williams' desire to keep away from straightforward realism.
'Glass is something you have to take good care of.' (Laura, scene seven)
Menagerie: a collection of wild or unusual animals.
Laura has a large collection of glass figurines that she's been collecting for at least thirteen years. She spends time polishing them and watching the light shine through them. She defines herself by the unicorn â alone in the modern world but never complaining.
Poor Laura. There is nothing tangible in her life but fragile pieces of old-fashioned glass. She has no life other than the glass. When Jim asks her what she's been doing since high school, she has no answer but to refer to her menagerie:
'Oh, please don't think I sit around doing nothing! My glass collection takes up a good deal of time.' (Laura, scene six)
The menagerie is the physical symbol of the life that Laura leads. She desires to be frozen like her glass. Laura is the human embodiment of the menagerie; delicate and old fashioned as she winds the victrola in times of stress. Williams is very clear of this association as in scene six he describes in the stage directions Laura standing in front of the mirror in her new dress:
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. (scene six)
In one light Laura is nothing but a blank page, completely invisible and see through. In another, she shines like a rainbow.
The symbol of the menagerie goes further than Laura. The notion of frozen glass that is sometimes see through, and sometimes temporarily radiant appears in other connotations in the play. Tom talks about the glass sphere in the Paradise Dance hall that filters the light 'with delicate rainbow colors.' (Tom, scene five) When Amanda and Tom are looking at the moon, Amanda admits that her wishes are 'transparent' for her family. (scene five)
The other characters are versions of frozen glass. Amanda would love to be frozen in time as the young debutante, Jim as the high school hero. They live in cages of their own making.
And finally, all the characters in the play are frozen glass because they are memories. They are never-changing, never moving forward or back. Just like the frozen glass of the animals, the characters themselves are trapped in a menagerie.
'The apartment faces an alley and is entered by a fire escape, a structure whose name is a touch of accidental poetic truth, for all of these huge buildings are always burning with the slow and implacable fires of human desperation.' (opening stage direction, The Glass Menagerie)
Again, there's no subtext here. As we've talked about, escape is a buzz word for these characters. The Fire Escape is an escape. An escape to the real world (Tom very specifically talks about descending the fire escape for the last time at the end of the play) and an escape from the real world â it's no accident that the only time Laura leaves the house within the play she slips on the fire escape. The fire escape is the bridge between worlds and it's significant that this is how the characters enter and exit the Wingfield home.
Why is Tom always on the fire escape? It's not to smoke; it's to escape the world Amanda would like to confine him in. Amanda works to fit the fire escape into her southern persona. Though she says the fire escape is 'a poor excuse for a porch,' (scene five) she 'sits down gracefully and demurely as if she were settling into a swing on a Mississippi veranda.' (scene five)
'Yes I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of the stage magician.' (Tom, scene one)
The Magician and the magic referenced in the play directly represent the magical escape that Tom desires. He wants to be whisked away from his life. He views his life as a coffin from which he fears he will never escape.
Also, as the narrator, Tom orchestrates the action, the audience sees what he wants them to see much like a magician does.
Being a memory play filled of Tom's memories, we only see what he wants us to see,which begs an interesting question: how much is real and how much is magician's illusion in The Glass Menagerie?
As a pure side note, Williams had a very difficult time dealing with his father. His father's middle name was Coffin. Coincidence? In this play, nothing is a coincidence!
Click herefor a Symbol Worksheet.. There are other symbols in the play such as the victrola, jonquils, the gentlemen caller, the candelabrum, the movies, the Paradise Dance Hall, the father's portrait, Amanda's cotillion frock, and Blue Roses. This sheet can either be completed individually or in groups with each group responsible for one symbol.
For an actor, The Glass Menagerie presents an interesting character dilemma. The play is the representation of Tom's memory - the characters are as Tom remembers them. At times, the characters come across as more exaggerated, most nostalgic, more distorted than three-dimensional. But if an actor doesn't approach them as three-dimensional, then the audience is shortchanged. They can't be caricatures but they do have to act as Tom's memories - not quite fully formed or real.
'A little woman of great but confused vitality clinging frantically to another time and place.' (Tennessee Williams describes Amanda in the Dramatist Play Service version of the script, page 8)
Clings is an excellent word to describe Amanda. She clings to a vision of who Tom and Laura should be. She clings to the notion that Laura will receive a gentleman caller. She clings to the idea if Tom doesn't drink he'll be a good man. She clings to the idea that she loves Mr. Wingfield and he will one day return (why else would his picture remain on the wall?). And mostly, she clings to the vision of herself in the past living a gentile socialite life with seventeen gentlemen callers awaiting her every word.
Amanda, despite all this clinging, is quite practical. She has a strong mind and a strong will: She raises the family when the father leaves, she is willing and able to step into the real world and take on horrible jobs. She has a strong love for her children, and believe it or not, wants the best for them â whether they agree with her or not. Amanda is a strong woman,who uses her strength on on the wrong things. She uses her strength to try and wrench the world around to they way she wants it. She tries to force reality to her whim. She fails at every step but never gives up.
Character Moment: Read scene six where Amanda appears in all her 'girlish' splendor, reliving for herself and everyone what she was like as a young girl taking callers. It is a sight to behold as Amanda works herself up into a fever first describing the cotillion and then putting on a southern show for Jim and Tom. The following two moments are perfect examples of Amanda trying to wrench the world to her way of thinking and failing miserably. Her vision of the past is so strong, but so pathetic at the same time. It's important to play Amanda as equally strong and pathetic so that she doesn't come across as a caricature.
In groups read aloud these two moments:
One: When Amanda first appears in the dress for Laura and tells her 'fever' story ' 'This is the dress in which I led the cotillion...' to, 'And then I met your father!'
Two: When Amanda appears in front of Tom and Jim. 'Well, well, well, well, so this is Mr O'Connor...' to, 'But feels so good â so good an' co-ol, y'know...'
'You think I'm crazy about the warehouse? You think I'm in love with the Continental shoe makers?' (scene three)
Whatever the discussion about who is the main character, or who is the focus of the play â nothing happens without Tom. Tom is the one who remembers, who opens up his memory to share this little slice of life from his past. He is the only real character in the play â the rest are fragments.
We see two versions of Tom:
Tom in the present looking back, reflective and poetic. He speaks in vivid often sorrowful images:
'The cities swept around me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from the branches.... (Scene Seven)
Then there is Tom in the past â always seething, always angry, one foot out the door, and one foot firmly caught in the trap that is his family.
'Look! I'd rather somebody picked up a crowbar and battered out my brains than go back mornings!' (scene three)
This Tom is always ready to fight, to yell, to run, to do anything to escape, if but temporarily, from his existence. This Tom is a lover of words. He writes poetry (writing poems on the inside covers of shoeboxes gets him fired), and he reads. The contradiction between angry outburst and a love of poetry is a great one to have in a character. Tom should always be played pursing those two emotions.
Character Moment: In groups, compare and contrast present Tom and past Tom. What remains the same between the two versions? What differs? Is the present Tom is looking back on his past with nostalgia or with pain? Is this look back something that he desires, or is the guilt so intense that he forces himself to remember?
One: Tom's last monologue in scene seven starting with, 'I didn't go to the moon...' to 'Blow out your candles, Laura â and so good-bye...'
Two: The monologue at the end of scene three, beginning with, 'I'm going to opium dens!'
'Laura is very different from other girls.' (Tom, scene five)
Laura is the focus of the play, whether she is speaking or not. Lights shine on her even when she's not in conversation. Amanda is obsessed with Laura's tendency to 'drift.' Jim is overcome enough to kiss Laura even though he has a fiancee. At the end of the play Tom pleads with her to let him go.
Laura is an interesting character and one who is very easy to mis-play. Her symbolism is pervasive; she is practically another figurine in the menagerie after all. Time and time again she is symbolically described as something unreal - she is linked to the unicorn, her nickname is blue roses. And with the intense attention paid to her 'sickly' demeanor it would be easy to portray her as a frozen, fragile, one-dimensional character.
There's more to Laura than that. For example, Laura is very specifically described as different. Jim uses the word as a compliment:
You know â you're well â very different! Surprisingly different from anyone else I know! Do you mind me telling you that? I mean it in a nice way...' (Jim, scene seven)
The description comes across as someone who is unique, not a frozen piece of glass. There is strength in Laura as well:
As with Amanda, Laura's strength is misplaced. Her energy goes into retreating from the world rather than learning how to live in the world. Characters with potential, no matter how faint, who fail at reaching that potential are always interesting to watch.
'My interest happens to lie in electro-dynamics. I'm taking a course in radio engineering at night school, Laura, on top of a fairly responsible job at the warehouse. I'm taking that course and studying public speaking.' (scene seven)
Jim speaks like an infomercial. That's how you know he's full of something, and it isn't roses.
When I was reading and researching The Glass Menagerie in preparation for this newsletter, Jim is the character who intrigued me the most. Williams describes Jim as 'a nice ordinary young man.' And within the play itself, Tom describes Jim as the 'most realistic character,' and as an 'emissary from a world of reality.' Both descriptions paint a specific picture of Jim â ordinary and real. But when I look at this character I see him as anything but real and far from living in the real world.
Jim is the oft-mentioned gentleman caller. He works as a shipping clerk at the shoe factory along with Tom. He's the guy who, in Amanda's mind, is going to instantly fall in love with Laura, marry her and save the family (i.e. Amanda) from their situation. This does not happen.
I suppose when you're thinking about Jim and his connection to reality, he is the element that is supposed to draw Laura out of her own world and into the real world. But even at that, I see Jim as just as caught up in his own version of a glass menagerie as Laura is.
Jim speaks in platitudes and sound bites. He still lives in the glory of his high school days and has a vision that his future will recapture that glory. It's not hard to imagine that he will spend the rest of his days at the shoe factory. If he were really an ambitious fellow, he would have done much more with the six years than land a job that pays only slightly more than Tom's does. If he were some one who lives in the real world, he wouldn't have got so caught up in Laura's attention (of his high school self) and kissed her when he has a fiancee.
This might be a completely different view than what is often thought of for this character, but that just means it's a great jumping off point for discussion.
'A telephone man who fell in love with long distance!' (Amanda, scene six)
Of course, we can't leave a discussion of characters without talking about Mr. Wingfield. Always present, with his smiling face looking down at the family, yet never-present, with his escape to Mexico, Mr. Wingfield has a grip on this family.
Mr. Wingfield is the only character who physically escapes the world and the family by disappearing without a trace.