Tennessee Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, in 1911. The name given to him at birth was Thomas Lanier Williams III. He did not acquire the nickname Tennessee until college, when classmates began calling him that in honor of his Southern accent and his father’s home state. The Williams family had produced several illustrious politicians in the state of Tennessee, but Williams’s grandfather had squandered the family fortune. Williams’s father, C.C. Williams, was a traveling salesman and a heavy drinker. Williams’s mother, Edwina, was a Mississippi clergyman’s daughter and prone to hysterical attacks. Until Williams was seven, he, his parents, his older sister, Rose, and his younger brother, Dakin, lived with Edwina’s parents in Mississippi. After that, the family moved to St. Louis. Once there, the family’s situation deteriorated. C.C.’s drinking increased, the family moved sixteen times in ten years, and the young Williams, always shy and fragile, was ostracized and taunted at school. During these years, he and Rose became extremely close. Rose, the model for Laura in The Glass Menagerie, suffered from mental illness later in life and eventually underwent a prefrontal lobotomy (an intensive brain surgery), an event that was extremely upsetting for Williams.
An average student and social outcast in high school, Williams turned to the movies and writing for solace. At sixteen, Williams won five dollars in a national competition for his answer to the question “Can a good wife be a good sport?”; his answer was published in Smart Set magazine. The next year, he published a horror story in a magazine called Weird Tales, and the year after that he entered the University of Missouri as a journalism major. While there, he wrote his first plays. Before Williams could receive his degree, however, his father, outraged because Williams had failed a required ROTC program course, forced him to withdraw from school and go to work at the same shoe company where he himself worked.
Williams worked at the shoe factory for three years, a job that culminated in a minor nervous breakdown. After that, he returned to college, this time at Washington University in St. Louis. While he was studying there, a St. Louis theater group produced his plays The Fugitive Kind and Candles to the Sun. Personal problems led Williams to drop out of Washington University and enroll in the University of Iowa. While he was in Iowa, his sister, Rose, underwent a lobotomy, which left her institutionalized for the rest of her life. Despite this trauma, Williams finally graduated in 1938. In the years that followed, he lived a bohemian life, working menial jobs and wandering from city to city. He continued to work on drama, however, receiving a Rockefeller grant and studying playwriting at the New School in New York. During the early years of World War II, Williams worked in Hollywood as a scriptwriter.
Around 1941, Williams began the work that would become The Glass Menagerie. The play evolved from a short story entitled “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” which focused more completely on Laura than the play does. In December of 1944, The Glass Menagerie was staged in Chicago, with the collaboration of a number of well-known theatrical figures. When the play first opened, the audience was sparse, but the Chicago critics raved about it, and eventually it was playing to full houses. In March of 1945, the play moved to Broadway, where it won the prestigious New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. This highly personal, explicitly autobiographical play earned Williams fame, fortune, and critical respect, and it marked the beginning of a successful run that would last for another ten years. Two years after The Glass Menagerie, Williams won another Drama Critics’ Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize for A Streetcar Named Desire. Williams won the same two prizes again in 1955, for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
The impact of success on Williams’s life was colossal and, in his estimation, far from positive. In an essay entitled “The Catastrophe of Success,” he outlines, with both light humor and a heavy sense of loss, the dangers that fame poses for an artist. For years after he became a household name, Williams continued to mine his own experiences to create pathos-laden works. Alcoholism, depression, thwarted desire, loneliness in search of purpose, and insanity were all part of Williams’s world. Since the early 1940s, he had been a known homosexual, and his experiences in an era and culture unfriendly to homosexuality certainly affected his work. After 1955, Williams began using drugs, and he would later refer to the 1960s as his “stoned age.” He suffered a period of intense depression after the death of his longtime partner in 1961 and, six years later, entered a psychiatric hospital in St. Louis. He continued to write nonetheless, though most critics agree that the quality of his work diminished in his later life. His life’s work adds up to twenty-five full-length plays, five screenplays, over seventy one-act plays, hundreds of short stories, two novels, poetry, and a memoir; five of his plays were also made into movies. Williams died from choking in a drug-related incident in 1983.
The Glass Menagerie in Performance
When The Glass Menagerie was first produced in Chicago in 1944, Tennessee Williams was an obscure, struggling playwright. He had recently quit a job in Los Angeles writing screenplays for MGM, an experience he had not considered positive. An adaptation he had been assigned to do for the famous actress Lana Turner was rejected as unsuitable for her; Williams described Turner in his Memoirs as unable to “act her way out of her form-fitting cashmere.”
Thanks to the efforts of Williams’s faithful agent, Audrey Wood, The Glass Menagerie was picked up by Eddie Dowling, an actor, director, and producer. Dowling grabbed the role of Tom for himself and persuaded Laurette Taylor to take on the role of Amanda. Taylor, who had become a darling of the American stage for her performance as the title character in Peg o’ My Heart in 1912, had been living in semi-reclusion since the death of her husband in 1928. Bringing her into The Glass Menagerie was both a great coup and a substantial gamble. A shadowy Chicago entrepreneur whose main business was running seedy hotels financed the production. Legend has it that the rehearsals for the play did not inspire optimism; for one thing, Taylor seemed in constant danger of forgetting her lines.
Opening night was December 26, 1944. Not long before the curtain rose, the cast and crew panicked when they could not find Ms. Taylor. She was quickly discovered, however, in the bathroom, attempting to put on a bathrobe that she was to wear later in the play. Taylor, along with the other cast members, went on to give a magnificent performance. The next day, newspaper critics raved about the play and its cast. Oddly, though, attendance was sparse for the remainder of the first week. The financial backer was on the verge of closing the play, but Chicago’s theater critics mounted an all-out campaign to save it, begging readers of their daily columns not to miss the play. Within another couple of weeks, The Glass Menagerie was playing to full houses.
In March of 1945, the play opened at the Playhouse Theatre in New York. The cast was the same one that had played in Chicago, with Julie Haydon as Laura and Anthony Ross as Jim. The play’s reception in New York was every bit as strong as in Chicago. It ran for 561 performances and was named best American play of the year by the New York Drama Critics’ Circle.
Laurette Taylor’s performance as Amanda went on to become the stuff of myth. When The Glass Menagerie was revived on Broadway in 1956, Helen Hayes’s interpretation of the role was judged as acceptable but lacking Taylor’s magic. Maureen Stapleton met the same fate playing Amanda on Broadway in 1965. In 1973, the American Broadcasting Corporation staged The Glass Menagerie for television, with Katherine Hepburn as Amanda. Hepburn’s performance was praised to the skies, as was the production as a whole, with Sam Waterston as Tom, Joanna Miles as Laura, and Michael Moriarty as Jim (Moriarty’s performance was said to mark a watershed in the interpretation of Jim’s character).
The success of the ABC production points to an important aspect of the play: the cinematic quality of its staging. Its use of music to enhance atmosphere and drama is reminiscent of film technique, and its use of lighting to emphasize a character’s reaction or to show his or her face in a new light resembles the way in which movies use close-up shots to create the same effects. Even the words that appear on the screen have something in common with the titles of silent films. Nonetheless, the two film versions of the play were relatively lackluster. A 1950 film version, directed by Irving Rapper and starring Gertrude Lawrence as Amanda, manufactured a happier ending for the story; critics and Williams himself hated it. In 1987, Paul Newman directed a talented cast (John Malkovich as Tom, Joanne Woodward as Amanda, Karen Allen as Laura) in another film version, which met with reviews that ranged from lukewarm to hostile.
Almost all performances of The Glass Menagerie have followed the Acting Edition of the play, created to reflect the dialogue and staging of the first production. The Acting Edition varies a fair bit from the Reading Edition, which is the version that is anthologized in collections of Williams’s works and the version he preferred to hand down to posterity. The Acting Edition calls for more realistic lighting and over 1,000 minor changes in the dialogue. Its most significant difference from the Reading Edition, however, is its elimination of the screen on which words and images are periodically projected. Eddie Dowling, the director of the first production, found the screen device awkward, and subsequent directors have largely concurred, calling it pretentious and condescending, choosing to stage the play without it. In general, staged productions of the play tend to downplay its expressionist, symbolic, and blatantly nonrealistic elements, opting instead for a more realistic, natural interpretation of Williams’s dialogue. One of the few productions to follow the Reading Edition, leaving the screen intact, was directed by the theater critic Geoffrey Borny in Australia.
The Glass Menagerie is a memory play, and its action is drawn from the memories of the narrator, Tom Wingfield. Tom is a character in the play, which is set in St. Louis in 1937. He is an aspiring poet who toils in a shoe warehouse to support his mother, Amanda, and sister, Laura. Mr. Wingfield, Tom and Laura’s father, ran off years ago and, except for one postcard, has not been heard from since.
Amanda, originally from a genteel Southern family, regales her children frequently with tales of her idyllic youth and the scores of suitors who once pursued her. She is disappointed that Laura, who wears a brace on her leg and is painfully shy, does not attract any gentlemen callers. She enrolls Laura in a business college, hoping that she will make her own and the family’s fortune through a business career. Weeks later, however, Amanda discovers that Laura’s crippling shyness has led her to drop out of the class secretly and spend her days wandering the city alone. Amanda then decides that Laura’s last hope must lie in marriage and begins selling magazine subscriptions to earn the extra money she believes will help to attract suitors for Laura. Meanwhile, Tom, who loathes his warehouse job, finds escape in liquor, movies, and literature, much to his mother’s chagrin. During one of the frequent arguments between mother and son, Tom accidentally breaks several of the glass animal figurines that are Laura’s most prized possessions.
Amanda and Tom discuss Laura’s prospects, and Amanda asks Tom to keep an eye out for potential suitors at the warehouse. Tom selects Jim O’Connor, a casual friend, and invites him to dinner. Amanda quizzes Tom about Jim and is delighted to learn that he is a driven young man with his mind set on career advancement. She prepares an elaborate dinner and insists that Laura wear a new dress. At the last minute, Laura learns the name of her caller; as it turns out, she had a devastating crush on Jim in high school. When Jim arrives, Laura answers the door, on Amanda’s orders, and then quickly disappears, leaving Tom and Jim alone. Tom confides to Jim that he has used the money for his family’s electric bill to join the merchant marine and plans to leave his job and family in search of adventure. Laura refuses to eat dinner with the others, feigning illness. Amanda, wearing an ostentatious dress from her glamorous youth, talks vivaciously with Jim throughout the meal.
As dinner is ending, the lights go out as a consequence of the unpaid electric bill. The characters light candles, and Amanda encourages Jim to entertain Laura in the living room while she and Tom clean up. Laura is at first paralyzed by Jim’s presence, but his warm and open behavior soon draws her out of her shell. She confesses that she knew and liked him in high school but was too shy to approach him. They continue talking, and Laura reminds him of the nickname he had given her: “Blue Roses,” an accidental corruption of pleurosis, an illness Laura had in high school. He reproaches her for her shyness and low self-esteem but praises her uniqueness. Laura then ventures to show him her favorite glass animal, a unicorn. Jim dances with her, but in the process, he accidentally knocks over the unicorn, breaking off its horn. Laura is forgiving, noting that now the unicorn is a normal horse. Jim then kisses her, but he quickly draws back and apologizes, explaining that he was carried away by the moment and that he actually has a serious girlfriend. Resigned, Laura offers him the broken unicorn as a souvenir.
Amanda enters the living room, full of good cheer. Jim hastily explains that he must leave because of an appointment with his fiancée. Amanda sees him off warmly but, after he is gone, turns on Tom, who had not known that Jim was engaged. Amanda accuses Tom of being an inattentive, selfish dreamer and then throws herself into comforting Laura. From the fire escape outside of their apartment, Tom watches the two women and explains that, not long after Jim’s visit, he gets fired from his job and leaves Amanda and Laura behind. Years later, though he travels far, he finds that he is unable to leave behind guilty memories of Laura.
Amanda Wingfield - Laura and Tom’s mother. A proud, vivacious woman, Amanda clings fervently to memories of a vanished, genteel past. She is simultaneously admirable, charming, pitiable, and laughable.
Laura Wingfield - Amanda’s daughter and Tom’s older sister. Laura has a bad leg, on which she has to wear a brace, and walks with a limp. Twenty-three years old and painfully shy, she has largely withdrawn from the outside world and devotes herself to old records and her collection of glass figurines.
Tom Wingfield - Amanda’s son and Laura’s younger brother. An aspiring poet, Tom works at a shoe warehouse to support the family. He is frustrated by the numbing routine of his job and escapes from it through movies, literature, and alcohol.
Jim O’Connor - An old acquaintance of Tom and Laura. Jim was a popular athlete in high school and is now a shipping clerk at the shoe warehouse in which Tom works. He is unwaveringly devoted to goals of professional achievement and ideals of personal success.
Mr. Wingfield - Amanda’s husband and Laura and Tom’s father. Mr. Wingfield was a handsome man who worked for a telephone company. He abandoned his family years before the action of the play and never appears onstage. His picture, however, is prominently displayed in the Wingfields’ living room.
Analysis of Major Characters
Tom’s double role in The Glass Menagerie—as a character whose recollections the play documents and as a character who acts within those recollections—underlines the play’s tension between objectively presented dramatic truth and memory’s distortion of truth. Unlike the other characters, Tom sometimes addresses the audience directly, seeking to provide a more detached explanation and assessment of what has been happening onstage. But at the same time, he demonstrates real and sometimes juvenile emotions as he takes part in the play’s action. This duality can frustrate our understanding of Tom, as it is hard to decide whether he is a character whose assessments should be trusted or one who allows his emotions to affect his judgment. It also shows how the nature of recollection is itself problematic: memory often involves confronting a past in which one was less virtuous than one is now. Because The Glass Menagerie is partly autobiographical, and because Tom is a stand-in for the playwright himself (Williams’s given name was Thomas, and he, like Tom, spent part of his youth in St. Louis with an unstable mother and sister, his father absent much of the time), we can apply this comment on the nature of memory to Williams’s memories of his own youth.
Even taken as a single character, Tom is full of contradiction. On the one hand, he reads literature, writes poetry, and dreams of escape, adventure, and higher things. On the other hand, he seems inextricably bound to the squalid, petty world of the Wingfield household. We know that he reads D. H. Lawrence and follows political developments in Europe, but the content of his intellectual life is otherwise hard to discern. We have no idea of Tom’s opinion on Lawrence, nor do we have any indication of what Tom’s poetry is about. All we learn is what he thinks about his mother, his sister, and his warehouse job—precisely the things from which he claims he wants to escape.
Tom’s attitude toward Amanda and Laura has puzzled critics. Even though he clearly cares for them, he is frequently indifferent and even cruel toward them. His speech at the close of the play demonstrates his strong feelings for Laura. But he cruelly deserts her and Amanda, and not once in the course of the play does he behave kindly or lovingly toward Laura—not even when he knocks down her glass menagerie. Critics have suggested that Tom’s confusing behavior indicates an incestuous attraction toward his sister and his shame over that attraction. This theory casts an interesting light on certain moments of the play—for example, when Amanda and Tom discuss Laura at the end of Scene Five. Tom’s insistence that Laura is hopelessly peculiar and cannot survive in the outside world, while Amanda (and later Jim) claims that Laura’s oddness is a positive thing, could have as much to do with his jealous desire to keep his sister to himself as with Laura’s own quirks.
If there is a signature character type that marks Tennessee Williams’s dramatic work, it is undeniably that of the faded Southern belle. Amanda is a clear representative of this type. In general, a Tennessee Williams faded belle is from a prominent Southern family, has received a traditional upbringing, and has suffered a reversal of economic and social fortune at some point in her life. Like Amanda, these women all have a hard time coming to terms with their new status in society—and indeed, with modern society in general, which disregards the social distinctions that they were taught to value. Their relationships with men and their families are turbulent, and they staunchly defend the values of their past. As with Amanda, their maintenance of genteel manners in very ungenteel surroundings can appear tragic, comic, or downright grotesque. Amanda is the play’s most extroverted and theatrical character, and one of modern American drama’s most coveted female roles (the acclaimed stage actress Laurette Taylor came out of semi-retirement to play the role in the original production, and a number of legendary actresses, including Jessica Tandy, have since taken on the role).
Amanda’s constant nagging of Tom and her refusal to see Laura for who she really is are certainly reprehensible, but Amanda also reveals a willingness to sacrifice for her loved ones that is in many ways unparalleled in the play. She subjects herself to the humiliating drudgery of subscription sales in order to enhance Laura’s marriage prospects, without ever uttering so much as a word of complaint. The safest conclusion to draw is that Amanda is not evil but is deeply flawed. In fact, her flaws are centrally responsible for the tragedy, comedy, and theatrical flair of her character. Like her children, Amanda withdraws from reality into fantasy. Unlike them, she is convinced that she is not doing so and, consequently, is constantly making efforts to engage with people and the world outside her family. Amanda’s monologues to her children, on the phone, and to Jim all reflect quite clearly her moral and psychological failings, but they are also some of the most colorful and unforgettable words in the play.
The physically and emotionally crippled Laura is the only character in the play who never does anything to hurt anyone else. Despite the weight of her own problems, she displays a pure compassion—as with the tears she sheds over Tom’s unhappiness, described by Amanda in Scene Four—that stands in stark contrast to the selfishness and grudging sacrifices that characterize the Wingfield household. Laura also has the fewest lines in the play, which contributes to her aura of selflessness. Yet she is the axis around which the plot turns, and the most prominent symbols—blue roses, the glass unicorn, the entire glass menagerie—all in some sense represent her. Laura is as rare and peculiar as a blue rose or a unicorn, and she is as delicate as a glass figurine.
Other characters seem to assume that, like a piece of transparent glass, which is colorless until light shines upon it, Laura can take on whatever color they wish. Thus, Amanda both uses the contrast between herself and Laura to emphasize the glamour of her own youth and to fuel her hope of re-creating that youth through Laura. Tom and Jim both see Laura as an exotic creature, completely and rather quaintly foreign to the rest of the world. Yet Laura’s crush on the high school hero, Jim, is a rather ordinary schoolgirl sentiment, and a girl as supposedly fragile as Laura could hardly handle the days she spends walking the streets in the cold to avoid going to typing class. Through actions like these, Laura repeatedly displays a will of her own that defies others’ perceptions of her, and this will repeatedly goes unacknowledged.
Motifs__Symbols__Themes'>Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Difficulty of Accepting Reality
Among the most prominent and urgent themes of The Glass Menagerie is the difficulty the characters have in accepting and relating to reality. Each member of the Wingfield family is unable to overcome this difficulty, and each, as a result, withdraws into a private world of illusion where he or she finds the comfort and meaning that the real world does not seem to offer. Of the three Wingfields, reality has by far the weakest grasp on Laura. The private world in which she lives is populated by glass animals—objects that, like Laura’s inner life, are incredibly fanciful and dangerously delicate. Unlike his sister, Tom is capable of functioning in the real world, as we see in his holding down a job and talking to strangers. But, in the end, he has no more motivation than Laura does to pursue professional success, romantic relationships, or even ordinary friendships, and he prefers to retreat into the fantasies provided by literature and movies and the stupor provided by drunkenness. Amanda’s relationship to reality is the most complicated in the play. Unlike her children, she is partial to real-world values and longs for social and financial success. Yet her attachment to these values is exactly what prevents her from perceiving a number of truths about her life. She cannot accept that she is or should be anything other than the pampered belle she was brought up to be, that Laura is peculiar, that Tom is not a budding businessman, and that she herself might be in some ways responsible for the sorrows and flaws of her children. Amanda’s retreat into illusion is in many ways more pathetic than her children’s, because it is not a willful imaginative construction but a wistful distortion of reality.
Although the Wingfields are distinguished and bound together by the weak relationships they maintain with reality, the illusions to which they succumb are not merely familial quirks. The outside world is just as susceptible to illusion as the Wingfields. The young people at the Paradise Dance Hall waltz under the short-lived illusion created by a glass ball—another version of Laura’s glass animals. Tom opines to Jim that the other viewers at the movies he attends are substituting on-screen adventure for real-life adventure, finding fulfillment in illusion rather than real life. Even Jim, who represents the “world of reality,” is banking his future on public speaking and the television and radio industries—all of which are means for the creation of illusions and the persuasion of others that these illusions are true. The Glass Menagerie identifies the conquest of reality by illusion as a huge and growing aspect of the human condition in its time.
The Impossibility of True Escape
At the beginning of Scene Four, Tom regales Laura with an account of a magic show in which the magician managed to escape from a nailed-up coffin. Clearly, Tom views his life with his family and at the warehouse as a kind of coffin—cramped, suffocating, and morbid—in which he is unfairly confined. The promise of escape, represented by Tom’s missing father, the Merchant Marine Service, and the fire escape outside the apartment, haunts Tom from the beginning of the play, and in the end, he does choose to free himself from the confinement of his life.
The play takes an ambiguous attitude toward the moral implications and even the effectiveness of Tom’s escape. As an able-bodied young man, he is locked into his life not by exterior factors but by emotional ones—by his loyalty to and possibly even love for Laura and Amanda. Escape for Tom means the suppression and denial of these emotions in himself, and it means doing great harm to his mother and sister. The magician is able to emerge from his coffin without upsetting a single nail, but the human nails that bind Tom to his home will certainly be upset by his departure. One cannot say for certain that leaving home even means true escape for Tom. As far as he might wander from home, something still “pursue[s]” him. Like a jailbreak, Tom’s escape leads him not to freedom but to the life of a fugitive.
The Unrelenting Power of Memory
According to Tom, The Glass Menagerie is a memory play—both its style and its content are shaped and inspired by memory. As Tom himself states clearly, the play’s lack of realism, its high drama, its overblown and too-perfect symbolism, and even its frequent use of music are all due to its origins in memory. Most fictional works are products of the imagination that must convince their audience that they are something else by being realistic. A play drawn from memory, however, is a product of real experience and hence does not need to drape itself in the conventions of realism in order to seem real. The creator can cloak his or her true story in unlimited layers of melodrama and unlikely metaphor while still remaining confident of its substance and reality. Tom—and Tennessee Williams—take full advantage of this privilege.
The story that the play tells is told because of the inflexible grip it has on the narrator’s memory. Thus, the fact that the play exists at all is a testament to the power that memory can exert on people’s lives and consciousness. Indeed, Williams writes in the Production Notes that “nostalgia . . . is the first condition of the play.” The narrator, Tom, is not the only character haunted by his memories. Amanda too lives in constant pursuit of her bygone youth, and old records from her childhood are almost as important to Laura as her glass animals. For these characters, memory is a crippling force that prevents them from finding happiness in the present or the offerings of the future. But it is also the vital force for Tom, prompting him to the act of creation that culminates in the achievement of the play.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The plot of The Glass Menagerie is structured around a series of abandonments. Mr. Wingfield’s desertion of his family determines their life situation; Jim’s desertion of Laura is the center of the play’s dramatic action; Tom’s abandonment of his family gives him the distance that allows him to shape their story into a narrative. Each of these acts of desertion proves devastating for those left behind. At the same time, each of them is portrayed as the necessary condition for, and a natural result of, inevitable progress. In particular, each is strongly associated with the march of technological progress and the achievements of the modern world. Mr. Wingfield, who works for the telephone company, leaves his family because he “fell in love with [the] long distances” that the telephone brings into people’s consciousness. It is impossible to imagine that Jim, who puts his faith in the future of radio and television, would tie himself to the sealed, static world of Laura. Tom sees his departure as essential to the pursuit of “adventure,” his taste for which is whetted by the movies he attends nightly. Only Amanda and Laura, who are devoted to archaic values and old memories, will presumably never assume the role of abandoner and are doomed to be repeatedly abandoned.
The Words and Images on the Screen
One of the play’s most unique stylistic features is the use of an onstage screen on which words and images relevant to the action are projected. Sometimes the screen is used to emphasize the importance of something referred to by the characters, as when an image of blue roses appears in Scene Two; sometimes it refers to something from a character’s past or fantasy, as when the image of Amanda as a young girl appears in Scene Six. At other times, it seems to function as a slate for impersonal commentary on the events and characters of the play, as when “Ou sont les neiges” (words from a fifteenth-century French poem praising beautiful women) appear in Scene One as Amanda’s voice is heard offstage.
What appears on the screen generally emphasizes themes or symbols that are already established quite obviously by the action of the play. The device thus seems at best ironic, and at worst somewhat pretentious or condescending. Directors who have staged the play have been, for the most part, very ambivalent about the effectiveness and value of the screen, and virtually all have chosen to eliminate it from the performance. The screen is, however, an interesting epitome of Tennessee Williams’s expressionist theatrical style, which downplays realistic portrayals of life in favor of stylized presentations of inner experience.
Music is used often in The Glass Menagerie, both to emphasize themes and to enhance the drama. Sometimes the music is extra-diegetic—coming from outside the play, not from within it—and though the audience can hear it the characters cannot. For example, a musical piece entitled “The Glass Menagerie,” written specifically for the play by the composer Paul Bowles, plays when Laura’s character or her glass collection comes to the forefront of the action. This piece makes its first appearance at the end of Scene One, when Laura notes that Amanda is afraid that her daughter will end up an old maid. Other times, the music comes from inside the diegetic space of the play—that is, it is a part of the action, and the characters can hear it. Examples of this are the music that wafts up from the Paradise Dance Hall and the music Laura plays on her record player. Both the extra-diegetic and the diegetic music often provide commentary on what is going on in the play. For example, the Paradise Dance Hall plays a piece entitled “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise” while Tom is talking about the approach of World War II.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Laura’s Glass Menagerie
As the title of the play informs us, the glass menagerie, or collection of animals, is the play’s central symbol. Laura’s collection of glass animal figurines represents a number of facets of her personality. Like the figurines, Laura is delicate, fanciful, and somehow old-fashioned. Glass is transparent, but, when light is shined upon it correctly, it refracts an entire rainbow of colors. Similarly, Laura, though quiet and bland around strangers, is a source of strange, multifaceted delight to those who choose to look at her in the right light. The menagerie also represents the imaginative world to which Laura devotes herself—a world that is colorful and enticing but based on fragile illusions.
The Glass Unicorn
The glass unicorn in Laura’s collection—significantly, her favorite figure—represents her peculiarity. As Jim points out, unicorns are “extinct” in modern times and are lonesome as a result of being different from other horses. Laura too is unusual, lonely, and ill-adapted to existence in the world in which she lives. The fate of the unicorn is also a smaller-scale version of Laura’s fate in Scene Seven. When Jim dances with and then kisses Laura, the unicorn’s horn breaks off, and it becomes just another horse. Jim’s advances endow Laura with a new normalcy, making her seem more like just another girl, but the violence with which this normalcy is thrust upon her means that Laura cannot become normal without somehow shattering. Eventually, Laura gives Jim the unicorn as a “souvenir.” Without its horn, the unicorn is more appropriate for him than for her, and the broken figurine represents all that he has taken from her and destroyed in her.
Like the glass unicorn, “Blue Roses,” Jim’s high school nickname for Laura, symbolizes Laura’s unusualness yet allure. The name is also associated with Laura’s attraction to Jim and the joy that his kind treatment brings her. Furthermore, it recalls Tennessee Williams’s sister, Rose, on whom the character of Laura is based.
The Fire Escape
Leading out of the Wingfields’ apartment is a fire escape with a landing. The fire escape represents exactly what its name implies: an escape from the fires of frustration and dysfunction that rage in the Wingfield household. Laura slips on the fire escape in Scene Four, highlighting her inability to escape from her situation. Tom, on the other hand, frequently steps out onto the landing to smoke, anticipating his eventual getaway.
full title · The Glass Menagerie
author · Tennessee Williams (born Thomas Lanier Williams III)
type of work · Play
genre · Tragedy; family drama
language · English
time and place written · 1941–1943; a number of American cities, including New York, St. Louis, and Los Angeles
point of view · Tom both narrates and participates in the play. The older Tom remembers his youth and then becomes a younger Tom who participates in the action as scenes from his youth play out. The point of view of the older Tom is reflective, and he warns us that his memory distorts the past. The younger Tom is impulsive and angry. The action sometimes consists of events that Tom does not witness; at these points, the play goes beyond simply describing events from Tom’s own memory.
tone · Tragic; sarcastic; bleak
tense · The play uses both the present and past tenses. The older Tom speaks in the past tense about his recollections, and the younger Tom takes part in a play that occurs in the present tense.
setting (time) · Tom, from an indefinite point in the future, remembers the winter and spring of 1937.
setting (place) · An apartment in St. Louis
protagonist · Tom Wingfield
major conflict · In their own ways, each of the Wingfields struggles against the hopelessness that threatens their lives. Tom’s fear of working in a dead-end job for decades drives him to work hard creating poetry, which he finds more fulfilling. Amanda’s disappointment at the fading of her glory motivates her attempts to make her daughter, Laura, more popular and social. Laura’s extreme fear of seeing Jim O’Connor reveals her underlying concern about her physical appearance and about her inability to integrate herself successfully into society.
rising action · After Laura admits to leaving a business course that would have allowed her to get a job, her mother, Amanda, decides that Laura must get married; Tom tells Amanda that he is going to bring Jim O’Connor to dinner; Amanda prepares extensively, hoping that Jim will become Laura’s suitor.
climax · Each character’s struggle comes to a climax at different points. Tom’s decision not to pay the electric bill and to use the money instead to leave his family in search of adventure reveals his initial, decisive break from his family struggles. When Jim breaks the horn from Laura’s glass unicorn and announces that he is engaged, the possibility that he will help her overcome her self-doubt and shyness is also destroyed. When Amanda discovers that Jim is engaged, she loses her hope that Laura will attain the popularity and social standing that Amanda herself has lost.
falling action · Laura gives Jim the broken unicorn as a souvenir; Jim leaves the house to pick up his girlfriend; Amanda accuses Tom of not having revealed that Jim was engaged. Addressing the audience, Tom explains that not long after that incident he left his family but was never able to emotionally leave Laura behind—in his later travels, he frequently felt a connection to her.
themes · The difficulty of accepting reality; the impossibility of true escape; the unrelenting power of memory
motifs · Abandonment; the words and images on the screen; music
symbols · Laura’s glass menagerie; the glass unicorn; “Blue Roses”; the fire escape
foreshadowing · Tom’s departure is foreshadowed by his frequent retreats to the fire escape and the image of a sailing vessel on the screen; the music from the Paradise Dance Hall across the street foreshadows Laura and Jim’s dancing; Jim’s breaking of the unicorn foreshadows his breaking of her heart.
End of notes. Adapted from www.sparknotes.com. Retrieved Aug 2011.