Analysis of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie

Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie (1944) was regarded when first produced as highly unusual; one of the play’s four characters serves as commentator as well as participant; the play itself represents the memories of the commentator years later, and hence, as he says, is not a depiction of actuality; its employment of symbolism is unusual; and in the very effective ending, a scrim descends in front of mother and daughter, so that by stage convention one can see but not hear them, with the result that both, but especially the mother, become much more moving and even archetypal. The play is also almost unique historically, in that it first opened in Chicago, came close to flopping before Chicago newspaper theater critics verbally whipped people into going, and then played successfully for months in Chicago before finally moving to equal success in New York.

The setting is the Wingfield apartment in a shabby tenement building, in Saint Louis, Missouri, in the year 1937. The set has an interior living room area and an exterior fire escape.

Scene 1

Tom Wingfield is in the fire-escape area outside the Wingfield apartment. He explains the concept of a memory play. He enters the interior setting, where his mother, Amanda Wingfield, and his sister, Laura Wingfield, who wears a brace on her leg, are seated at a table, waiting to eat dinner. All aspects of the meal are mimed, and as Tom seats himself, Amanda begins to instruct him on how to eat politely. Tom abruptly leaves the table to have a cigarette. Laura rises to fetch an ashtray, but Amanda tells her to stay seated, for she wishes Laura to remain fresh and pretty for her prospective gentleman callers. Amanda recalls her Sunday afternoons in Blue Mountain, Mississippi, where she received and entertained countless callers. Amanda asks Laura how many callers she expects to have, and Laura explains that she is not expecting any callers.

Scene 2

In the interior of the Wingfield apartment, Laura sits alone, polishing her glass figurines. Hearing her mother approach, Laura quickly hides her collection and resumes her place behind a typewriter. Amanda reveals that she has discovered that Laura has dropped out of secretarial school. Laura explains that she became ill during the first week of school and was too ashamed to return. Amanda pleads with Laura, asking her what she is going to do with her life. Amanda fears that Laura will be dependent on the charity of others for the rest of her life. Amanda warns Laura that there is no future in staying home playing with her glass collection and her father’s phonograph records. She implores Laura to set her sights on marrying. Laura confesses that she had liked a boy named Jim O’Connor in high school, but she is certain that he must be married by now. Laura acknowledges her disability as her primary obstacle in forming relationships. Amanda dismisses this claim and advises Laura to cultivate aspects of her personality to compensate for her disadvantage.

Scene 3

The same location as scene 2. Tom addresses the audience. He explains that Amanda has become obsessed with finding a gentleman caller for Laura and has begun selling magazine subscriptions to generate extra income. Amanda has a telephone conversation with a neighbor, trying to convince her to renew her subscription to The Homemaker’s Companion. Tom and Amanda quarrel about his habits, his writing, and his books. Amanda accuses Tom of being selfish and of engaging in immoral activities. Tom swears at his mother and bemoans his fate of working in a warehouse to support his mother and sister. In the heat of the argument, Tom accidentally crashes into Laura’s glass collection, shattering it to pieces on the floor. Amanda refuses to speak to him until he apologizes. Laura and Tom collect the shattered glass from the floor.

Scene 4

The same location as scene 3. Tom returns home from a movie and talks with Laura. She asks him to apologize to Amanda. Amanda sends Laura out on an errand so that she may speak with Tom alone. She and Tom make peace. Amanda warns Tom of the danger in pursuing an adventurous life. Amanda raises the subject of Laura and the need for Tom to bring a nice young man home to meet Laura. Amanda promises Tom that she will let him do as he pleases and leave after he has provided for Laura’s future. Amanda begs him to secure a nice man for Laura first. Tom grudgingly agrees to try to find someone. Amanda happily returns to soliciting magazine subscriptions.

Scene 5

On the fire escape, the exterior of the Wingfield apartment, Amanda suggests that Tom be more mindful of his appearance. She makes a wish on the new Moon. Tom tells her that he is inviting a gentleman caller for Laura to the apartment the following evening. Amanda inquires about the character of the gentleman caller. Tom describes Jim’s qualities and characteristics, and Amanda determines that he is suitable to call. Tom warns Amanda not to be too excited, because Jim is unaware that he is being invited for Laura’s benefit. Tom expresses concern that Amanda has unrealistic expectations of Laura. Amanda refuses to accept the reality of Laura’s condition. Tom goes to a movie and Amanda calls Laura out onto the fire escape. Amanda urges Laura to make a wish on the new Moon.

Scene 6

On the fire escape and in the interior of the Wingfield apartment, Tom speaks directly to the audience and explains the nature of his friendship with Jim. Tom makes Jim feel important because Tom can recall Jim’s high school glory days. In the living room, Amanda and Laura prepare for the arrival of the gentleman caller. Amanda dresses Laura and discovers one of her own former gowns. At the mention of the name Jim O’Connor, Laura refuses to participate in the evening’s events. Amanda chastises Laura and orders her to answer the door when the doorbell rings. Laura freezes with anxiety as Amanda forces her to welcome Tom and Jim. Laura hides in the kitchen while Amanda converses with Jim O’Connor. Tom goes to the kitchen to check on supper. Amanda summons everyone to the table. Laura maintains that she is sick and lies on the couch for the duration of the dinner.

Scene 7

In the interior of the Wingfield apartment, the lights in the apartment suddenly go out. Amanda quickly lights candles, asking Jim to check the fuses. Finding that the fuses are fine, Amanda asks Tom whether he has paid the electric bill; he has not. After dinner, Amanda asks Jim to keep Laura company. She gives him a candelabrum and a glass of wine to give to Laura. Amanda forces Tom to join her in the kitchen to wash the dishes. Settling down on the floor beside Laura, Jim asks her why she is so shy, and Laura asks whether Jim remembers her. She explains that they had singing class together in high school and reminds him that she was always late because of her disability. Jim confesses that he never noticed her limp and admonishes Laura about being self-conscious. Laura takes out her high school yearbook and Jim autographs it for her.

Laura shows her glass collection to him and Jim marvels over her delicate figurines. Hearing music from the nearby dance hall, Jim asks Laura to dance. She hesitates, but Jim persuades her to join him. They stumble into the coffee table, breaking Laura’s favorite figurine, a unicorn that she has had for 13 years. Jim apologizes, and Laura consoles him. Struck by Laura’s charm and delicacy, Jim kisses her. He chastises himself for his hasty action and informs Laura that he is engaged. Laura gives him the glass unicorn. Amanda gleefully returns to the living room with a pitcher of cherry lemonade. Jim apologizes and announces that he has to leave to collect his fiancée at the train station.

Amanda is horrified by the news and calls Tom out of the kitchen. She accuses him of playing a cruel joke on the family, but Tom explains that he had no knowledge of Jim’s engagement. Amanda again chastises Tom for selfishness and for lack of concern for his abandoned mother or his disabled sister. Tom finally leaves the Wingfield apartment for good. The lights fade on the interior setting, leaving Laura and Amanda in candlelight. Tom appears on the fire escape and offers the audience details of his departure and journey away from his family. He explains that no matter how much distance is between them, he can never forget his sister. He instructs Laura to blow out her candles, and she does.

A scene from The Glass Menagerie/New York Public Library

COMMENTARY

The Glass Menagerie began its life as a screenplay, The Gentleman Caller. This script was an adaptation of Williams’s short story “Portrait of a Girl in Glass.” The script of “The Gentleman Caller” was submitted to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in the summer of 1943. Williams had hoped that this script would impress studio executives and ultimately relieve him from other contractual obligations at MGM such as writing what he scathingly termed a “celluloid brassiere” for the actress Lana Turner. MGM was less than amenable to Williams’s idea. They declared that the popular film Gone With the Wind (1939) had served up enough Southern women for a decade (Spoto, 97). In an oddly ironic twist, this response and its implicit preference for fiction over reality resonated with the play’s central theme.

Stylistically, The Glass Menagerie reflects its prehistory. The screenplay-turned-stage-script shows a number of elements more familiar, and perhaps more suited, to the cinema than to the theater. In theatrical terms, Williams’s approach is Brechtian: It uses devices meant to create what the German playwright and dramaturge Bertolt Brecht, a contemporary of Williams’s, called the “alienation effect.” In The Glass Menagerie, these devices constitute a sometimes disjointed sequence of tableaux (or scenes) rather than the more conventionalthree-act structure; a narrator/commentator (Tom) who also is a character in the play and steps in and out of the action; Williams’s scripted suggestions of legends to be projected onto gauze between the dining and front rooms, “to give accent to certain values in each scene”; the very strictly defined music, which assigns specific pieces or themes to certain scenes, especially in relation to Laura; and the lighting, “focused on selected areas or actors, sometimes in contradistinction to what is the apparent center.”

For Brecht, the alienation effect served to remind the audience that what they saw on stage constituted the real world. Williams takes this concept a crucial step further, in that he turns alienation— the conscious or unconscious loss of a person’s feeling of connection with his or her surroundings—into the mainstay of the play: It becomes a way of life for the characters. Brecht tries to prevent his audience from escaping into illusion. Williams forestalls his characters’ conquest of “a world of reality that [they] were somehow set apart from.” None of the characters is truly able to cope with the demands of everyday life; therefore, all seek refuge in their own dream world, to such an extent that illusion itself becomes subjective reality.

In this the characters are not alone. Williams declared this denial of reality symptomatic of an era during which individuals would seek out “dance halls, bars, and movies, and sex that hung in the gloom like a chandelier and flooded the world with brief, deceptive rainbows,” in order briefly to forget about their lives and their troubles. But the diversion cannot last, and the conflict between fact and fiction, reality and make-believe, remains irreconcilable. This is the central theme of The Glass Menagerie. From it emerge two related themes: the impossibility of escape and the trap of memory—or of the past in general.

The play is memory in more than one sense. As is much of Williams’s work, The Glass Menagerie is poignantly autobiographical. However, this is by far his most autobiographical work. In July 1918, Williams’s father, Cornelius Coffin Williams, exchanged his job as a traveling salesman for a managerial post with the International Shoe Company in Saint Louis, Missouri. Cornelius, his wife (Edwina Dakin Williams), and their two children, Rose Isabel Williams and Tom, left Clarksdale, Mississippi, to take up residence in what then was the fourth-largest city in the United States and a major industrial center.

From their initial quarters at a boardinghouse they moved into and out of a succession of apartments, including one at 4633 Winchester Place in downtown Saint Louis. The apartment had “two small windows, in the front and rear rooms, and a fire escape [that] blocked the smoky light from a back alley” (Spoto, 16). The wording may be less poetic than Williams’s stage directions for The Glass Menagerie, but it accurately describes the Wingfield home, and the Williams’s tenement at 4633 Winchester Place in Saint Louis later became known as the “Glass Menagerie Apartments.”

For Rose and Tom, both delicate and accustomed to the rural gentility of Mississippi and the relative stability their maternal grandparents had helped to provide, the relocation and its effects on their home life proved traumatic. Tom was seven years old at the time of the move, old enough to recognize that “there were two kinds of people, the rich and the poor, and that [the Williams family] belonged more to the latter” (Tynan, 456)—with all the ostracism this entailed. Although the play’s references to the Spanish civil war and the bombing of Guernica in April 1937 set The Glass Menagerie nearly two decades later, during the depression, the social and economic context and its bleak inescapability are virtually the same.

The family’s reduced circumstances were due to Cornelius Williams’s compulsive drinking and gambling, and the domestic situation was worsened by a string of illnesses and operations Edwina Williams had after the birth of the Williams’s youngest son, Dakin Williams. Caught between a volatile father and an infirm mother, Rose and Tom each found their own ways of escaping into safer fantasy worlds. Tom fled into literature, at first reading voraciously (much to his father’s distaste), but when his mother gave him a typewriter, he started to write poetry. The consequences for Rose, however, were far bleaker. By the early 1920s mental illness began to manifest itself through psychosomatic stomach problems and an inability to sustain any social contact, which turned her enrollment at Rubicam’s Business College into a debacle. Her condition worsened over the next 15 years, until, in 1937, her parents agreed to a prefrontal lobotomy, which left Rose in a state of childlike, almost autistic detachment. Tom, studying at the State University of Iowa by then, was informed only after the disastrous procedure. From that point on, the spirit of his sister “haunted his life” (Spoto, 60).

It also haunts The Glass Menagerie. Though physically rather than mentally disabled, Laura Wingfield is painfully shy and socially inept, and she wears her physical difference as a stifling protective cloak. Nicknamed “Blue Roses” in a clear reference to Williams’s sister, she has stomach pain caused by nervous self-consciousness when exposed to strangers, and she visits the penguins at the zoo instead of attending classes at Rubicam’s Business College. The focus of her life, to the exclusion of everything else, is her collection of glass animals, which serves as a symbol of her (and Rose’s) fragility. When Jim O’Connor accidentally breaks her glass unicorn, the loss of the horn offers a subtle but nonetheless striking reminder of Rose’s lobotomy. As Laura states, her unicorn “had an operation” to make it “less freakish.”

Rose is not the only member of the Williams family to appear in The Glass Menagerie. With the exception of Dakin, all of the Williamses are cast. Williams himself infuses his namesake Tom, the trapped poet-narrator, who hides in a closet to write and dreams of joining the merchant marine. Tom is a warehouse worker for Continental Shoemakers, and his job fills him with the same desperate frustration that caused Williams to suffer a nervous breakdown after his father withdrew him from college and forced him to work at the International Shoe Company between 1932 and 1935. Cornelius Williams, an alcoholic and a former telephone company employee, is clearly identifiable as the absent head of the Wingfield household, “a telephone man who fell in love with long distances.”

A more oblique and more sinister reference, which plays on Cornelius’s middle name, illustrates Tom’s/Williams’s attempts to break away from the presence of the father. Recounting his nightly exploits to Laura, Tom launches into the tale of Malvolio the Stage Magician and a coffin trick, “the wonderfullest trick of all. . . . We nailed him into a coffin and he got out of the coffin without removing one nail.” For Williams, his father, Cornelius Coffin Williams, was a flesh-and-blood opponent; for the character, Tom Wingfield, he is a photograph over the mantel and the mirror his mother relentlessly holds up to him. This disembodied specter is all the more oppressive because it cannot be fought or escaped. Condemned to stay at home because his father ran away, Tom looks for vicarious adventure, always fancies himself on the brink of moving, but has no idea when or where. When he finally does make a break, it is at the expense of taking the past with him. True escape is as impossible for him as it was for Williams: Laura/Rose constantly haunts him.

Completing the family analogies, Tom and Laura’s mother, Amanda, is a replica of Edwina Dakin Williams. Both have pretensions to be Southern belles, both claim to have been pursued by countless gentleman callers only to marry “this boy,” both are capable of prattling incessantly, and neither can cook or bake anything apart from angel food cake. They also share a dangerously tenuous grasp on reality that materializes in their aspirations for Laura and Rose, respectively. Both mothers are convinced that their daughter’s problem—be it lameness or schizophrenia—will dissolve if only she finds the right man. In the autumn of 1933, Edwina invited a family friend, “the very handsome Jim O’Connor” (Spoto, 43), as a prospective suitor for Rose. The experiment concluded in only one brief visit, which apparently upset Rose greatly. In the same vein, Amanda badgers Tom into inviting his shoe company colleague, and former high school basketball hero Jim O’Connor, as a gentleman caller for Laura. This attempt leads to an equally devastating result. Jim, brimming with self-satisfied optimism and bent on self-improvement, has nothing in common with Laura. He has genuine affection for her and does manage to draw her out, but the relationship cannot go further, because he is engaged to someone else. This revelation occurs just as Laura is beginning to believe that her high school crush on Jim could be fulfilled. In other words, the Gentleman Caller breaks her illusions and her spirit as easily and as casually as he has broken her glass unicorn.

The Glass Menagerie is Tom’s recollection of the events culminating in the visit of the Gentleman Caller. Everything in the play happens in and from memory. Insight and perspective are counterpoised by that peculiar trick of memory that diminishes some things and enlarges others, according to their importance. Such distortion always serves to sharpen and explain. Likewise, Tom’s account, always slightly unreal, always slightly over the top, veers between caricature and canonization.

Reminiscent of the brittle translucency of glass, Laura is imbued with a “pristine clarity” similar to that found in “early religious portraits of female saints or madonnas.” In stark contrast to Laura’s otherworldliness, Amanda and her idealized Southern girlhood—grotesquely laden with jonquils and suitors—clash with the everyday contingencies of cold-calling, mastication, a disabled daughter, and an absconded husband in a way that is both painfully comical and brutally revealing. Even Jim cannot escape from the exaggeration of memory. Having failed “to arrive at nothing short of the White House by the time he was thirty” (53), he is shown to wallow in the sweet smell of former basketball glory, yearbook pictures, and the admiration of a shy, lonely girl. “Try and you will succeed” is the futile battle cry Jim and Amanda share in the face of stagnation.

Because he is an outsider and inhabits the real world, Jim is raised to a symbol of hope, “the longdelayed but always expected something that we live for.” For Amanda expectation does not stop here. Roger B. Stein makes a convincing case that Jim has been cast as a Christ-like savior figure or, at the very least, as Moses about to lead the Wingfield family to the promised land of harmony and happiness (Stein, 141–153). There is no such land, of course, and only Amanda has promised it. The pivotal scene between Jim, the flawed suitor, and Laura exposes this fallacy. “Unicorns, aren’t they extinct in the modern world?” he asks when Laura shows him her favorite glass animal. The unicorn is a mythical animal and an alien even in the unreal world of Laura’s glass menagerie. In fact, it is so strange that Jim cannot recognize it as what it is without being prompted, just as he is unaware of the real reason why he has been invited to dinner. At this point the unicorn stands for the Wingfields’ combined dreams of escape: Amanda’s hope of the miracle cure of marriage for Laura, Tom’s longing for adventure and motion, and Laura’s tentative, naive, and unformed dream of love. The shattering of the glass unicorn heralds the collapse of those dreams as much as it heralds the personal shattering of Laura. Unicorns are extinct in the modern world, Jim is engaged, and escape from reality is impossible. Tom’s last monologue underscores this fact. His own break from home has only succeeded in setting him adrift and the sole guilty resting point he has left are his memories. Ironically, it is precisely those memories that prevent his true escape, because they forever tie him to the past.

With The Glass Menagerie, Williams set out to create a new kind of “Plastic Theatre,” a highly expressionistic language of the stage that would replace what he saw as the stale conventions of realism. He succeeded, thereby revolutionizing American theater. Within two weeks of opening on Broadway in 1945, the play won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Claudia Cassidy, present at the Chicago premiere, had predicted The Glass Menagerie’s success: “It was not only the quality of the work as something so delicate, so fragile. It was also indestructible and you knew right then” (Terkel, 144). Cassidy was correct about the play’s indestructibility, although for a long time, critics either failed to see or attempted to marginalize the play’s achievement. For some, the lyricism of language and expressiveness of theatrical devices obstructed the action. This response was due to the fact that the critics were married to an American theater tradition that demanded realism, which is precisely what Williams denounced in the production notes for the play. Instead of scientific photographic likeness, Williams attempted and conveyed spiritual and emotional truth.

The acid test of audience reception bears this out. Not tied to ideologies and convictions, audiences understood and responded immediately and favorably to The Glass Menagerie. A generation after its Chicago premiere, critical attitudes and opinions had shifted markedly. Many acknowledge The Glass Menagerie as possibly Williams’s greatest achievement because of the breadth of its cataclysmic vision, a vision “not only of individuals who fail to communicate with one another, nor a society temporarily adrift in a depression, but of man abandoned in the universe” (Stein, 153). This is the explanation for the play’s enduring appeal. As are all great works of art, it is not limited by time and space but manages to transcend both by touching on matters shared and universal. Spoto surmised that nothing Williams wrote after The Glass Menagerie possesses the “wholeness of sentiment,” its “breadth of spirit,” or its “quiet voice about the great reach of small lives” (Spoto, 116).

CHARACTERS

O’Connor, Jim

Jim is a former hero of the high school Tom and Laura Wingfield attended. He is also a colleague of Tom’s at the International Shoe Company. Tom invites Jim for dinner at the Wingfields’ apartment. Jim does not realize that Tom’s mother, Amanda Wingfield, has the ulterior motive of presenting him as a gentleman caller and prospective suitor for Laura. The plan fails, as Jimis already engaged. The character of Jim is based on an actual Jim O’Connor, who was one of Williams’s fellow students at the University of Missouri at Columbia. On one occasion he was invited to the Williams home with the goal that he would become better acquainted with Williams’s sister, Rose Williams.

Wingfield, Amanda

She is the mother of Tom and Laura Wingfield. Living in a dingy, Saint Louis apartment and struggling to make ends meet by selling magazine subscriptions, Amanda finds solace in the romantic memories of her girlhood. Her concern about her children’s future prompts her to bully them to live her ideal life, that of Southern gentility. Her inappropriate sense of propriety makes Tom and Laura miserable. As does Esmeralda Critchfield in Spring Storm, Amanda places importance on the need to have Laura marry a socially suitable young man. This goal causes an unhappy tension in the household and bitter friction, especially between Amanda and Tom. At her insistence, Tom invites Jim O’Connor, a fellow shoe factory worker, to visit the Wingfield home as a prospective gentleman caller for Laura. Amanda Wingfield is based on Williams’s mother, Edwina Estelle Dakin Williams. Mrs. Williams acknowledged the similarity and recalled that in her youth she was always “the belle of the ball,” who proudly “made [her] debut in Vicksburg twice” (Brown, 119). Mrs. Williams also said that she greatly enjoyed the character of Amanda, especially when she was played by Laurette Taylor, a “real genius,” who adequately captured the “pathos” of the character (Brown, 115–116).

Wingfield, Laura

Laura is the daughter of Amanda Wingfield and older sister of Tom Wingfield. A childhood illness has left her with a shortened leg, for which she has to wear a brace. Laura’s self-consciousness about her disability renders her unable to attend business college, and she seeks refuge in her collection of glass animals, the eponymous glass menagerie. Her encounter with Jim O’Connor, with whom she has been secretly infatuated since high school, proves traumatic when she finds out that he is engaged. Laura Wingfield is based on Williams’s sister, Rose  Isabel Williams.

Wingfield, Tom

Tom is the narrator and simultaneously a character in the play. He has ambitions to be a poet, but he is forced to work at a shoe factory warehouse to support his mother, Amanda Wingfield, and his sister, Laura Wingfield. His home life in their Saint Louis apartment is miserable. His mother repeatedly accuses him of being selfish and regularly looks through his possessions. Dreaming of adventure and escape from his depressing job and home life, Tom spends most of his evenings at movies. He becomes a reluctant accomplice in his mother’s plan to secure a gentleman caller for Laura. He invites his workmate and former high school associate Jim O’Connor to the Wingfield apartment for dinner. The evening is a disaster, and his mother blames the negative turn of events on Tom. As a result, he leaves home, abandoning Amanda and Laura to their own resources. Tom is forever haunted by memories of his sister, and the play is his account of events surrounding his departure. Tom Wingfield is Williams’s most autobiographical character. Tom’s leave-taking mirrors Williams’s own departure from his family’s Saint Louis, MISSOURI, apartment and from his emotionally unstable sister, Rose  Isabel Williams.

FURTHER READING Brown, Dennis. Shoptalk: Conversations about Theatre and Film with Twelve Writers, One Producer—and Tennessee Williams’s Mother. New York: Newmarket Press, 1992). Cassidy, Claudia. “Fragile Drama Holds Theatre in Tight Spell,” Chicago Daily Theater Tribune, December 27, 1944, p. 11. Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985. Stein, Roger B. “The Glass Menagerie Revisited: Catastrophe without Violence,” Western Humanities Review 18, no. 2 (spring 1964): 141–153. Terkel, Studs. The Spectator: Talk about Movies and Plays with the People Who Make Them. New York: New Press, 1999. Tynan, Kenneth. “Valentine to Tennessee Williams,” in Drama and the Modern World: Plays and Essays, edited by Samuel Weiss. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1964, pp. 455–461.



Categories: American Literature, Drama Criticism, Literary Criticism, Literature, Theatre Studies

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