Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
According to Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie is a “memory play.” It is narrated from the perspective of the character Tom Wingfield. What Williams calls “personal lyricism” is employed in the play not so much to challenge the accountability of Tom’s narrative as to display, from a character’s point of view, the impact that illusion has on individuals. The play, for example, portrays a large group of characters whose obsession with the past complicates their connection to the present. Illusory worlds are created by these characters, either to cherish the not-so-accurate memory of an idealized past or to protect an already-tattered emotional integrity. It is typical of Williams, a self-proclaimed romantic dramatist, to create characters who prefer dwelling in a fantasy world. Yet, the playwright, aware of the inevitability of the conflict between illusion and reality, also leaves the audience with no doubt about his cynical and bitter attitude in dramatizing the sometimes self-deceptive but always debilitating nature of his characters’ illusory world. Flashbacks are used effectively to underscore the struggle that characters must undergo when they do not know how to disentangle themselves from the past.
The main plot of The Glass Menagerie centers on what happens to the Wingfield family on one unforgettable evening. A childhood illness has left Laura Wingfield crippled; one of her legs is slightly shorter than the...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Wingfield apartment. St. Louis, Missouri, home of the narrator, Tom Wingfield, and his mother and sister. Along with its outside fire-escape landing, this apartment is the setting for the entire play. It is too small for the Wingfields’ needs—Laura sleeps on a sofa bed in the living room—and its contents are worn and aging. The contrast between the dingy apartment and the world in which Tom’s mother, Amanda, alludes to having grown up in is striking. During the play’s first scene, Amanda relates a well-worn story of her youth in Blue Mountain in rural Mississippi. Her story contains a significant allusion to the front porch on which she received gentleman callers—some seventeen young men by her account. Williams contrasts the porch in Blue Mountain with the apartment’s fire-escape landing, on which the family watches the moon rise over a delicatessen.
Alleyways. According to Williams’s opening stage directions, the play’s audiences should see alleyways running on either side of the apartment building and its rear wall before they see the apartment rooms in which the action will take place. The alleys are described as “murky canyons of tangled clotheslines, garbage cans, and the sinister latticework of neighboring fire escapes.” This is significant, as the alleys remain visible throughout the play. Williams uses them to generate a constant visual comment on the action...
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World War II
Although the setting of The Glass Menagerie is the 1930s, during the Great Depression and slightly before the beginning of World War II, Williams wrote the play after America had entered the war but before a decisive victory had been achieved. After being produced in Chicago in 1944, the play arrived in New York in 1945, the year the war ended. For Americans, the most significant historical event of the first half of the 1940s was the entry of the United States into World War II. Although the United States had not been eager to enter this war, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, making U.S. participation inevitable on the side of the Allies—primarily England, France, and Russia. In addition to Japan, the Allies fought against Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, and Italy, led by Benito Mussolini. Through most of the war, Franklin Roosevelt was President of the United States, until he died on April 12, 1945; he was succeeded by his vice president, Harry S. Truman. The European phase of the war ended in May 1945, and the Pacific phase ended with the dropping of nuclear bombs on Japan (in Hiroshima and Nagasaki) in August of 1945.
Women in the Workforce
Among the American ramifications of World War II was the sudden increase of women in the workplace. Primarily because so many men were serving in the armed forces, women began performing jobs that had not previously been open to them, in factories for...
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Although the action in The Glass Menagerie occurs over only a couple of days, nearly every scene is laden with overt conflict. The most obvious conflict occurs between Tom and Amanda, since Tom needs to remove himself from the family in order to achieve his goals, while Amanda needs him to stay. This conflict is most evident during their frequent bickering about the way Tom chews his food or the number of cigarettes he smokes. A more significant conflict, however, occurs within Tom's character. In order to follow his dream, vague as it is, he will have to abandon not only Amanda but also Laura.
Although most plays do not rely on a narrator, The Glass Menagerie is structured so that Tom can fulfill two roles. He is both a character in the play and the person who, at times, tells the story directly to the audience. This occurs particularly at the beginning of the play, when Tom summarizes the events that have preceded the action and describes the setting, and at the end of the play, when Tom reveals what has happened to him during the intervening years.
The protagonist of a literary work is the main character, who must change in some way during the course of the events, even if the change is entirely internal. Tom is clearly the protagonist of The Glass Menagerie. Although he is not heroic and will probably never triumph over his obstacles, he does take...
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Compare and Contrast
1930s: Adolf Hitler begins to achieve power in Germany. Some Americans fought in the Spanish Civil War, although the United States did not officially participate. World War II began in Europe in 1939, but the United States declared its neutrality.
1940s: During World War II, most men served in the military, unless they were exempt for health or other reasons. Because so many people were affected, this war received prominent attention both in politics and in individual daily lives.
Today: Although The United States has engaged in comparatively minor military engagements during the last generation, no given war has become a cultural obsession since the Vietnam War ended in the mid-1970s. While men must register for the draft when they reach the age of 18, no one is currently drafted, and the military consistently speaks of "down sizing."
1930s: The major economic event was the Great Depression, which lasted most of the decade. Unemployment reached 13.7 million in the United States in 1932. Although men were considered the family's primary breadwinner when possible, women were also grateful for and sought out work.
1940s: During the war women entered the workforce but returned to homemaking when the war ended. They worked in factories and other places formerly identified with men in order to patriotically support the men who were overseas fighting.
Today: Many women...
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Topics for Further Study
Although The Glass Menagerie is set in the 1930s, many critics describe it as timeless. Describe the historical changes you would have to make if you were to set the play today.
Research the financial situation of single mothers today and compare their options to those of Amanda.
Examine the catalogs of several business or technical schools in your area and compare their curricula to the apparent curriculum of Rubicam's Business College, where Laura has been attending typing classes.
Interview someone in your school who has worked on the production of a play. Focus your questions especially on the technical aspects of stage craft so that you can discover how the screens, lighting, etc. would work in The Glass Menagerie.
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The Glass Menagerie was released as a film by Warner Brothers in 1950. This black-and-white version was produced by Jerry Wald and Charles K. Feldman and directed by Irving Rapper. It starred Jane Wyman as Laura Wingfield, Kirk Douglas as Jim O'Connor, Gertrude Lawrence as Amanda Wingfield, and Arthur Kennedy as Tom Wingfield. It also included roles for several characters who are only referred to in the play.
Another version of The Glass Menagerie was filmed by Cineplex Odeon and released in 1987. It was produced by Burtt Harris and directed by Paul Newman. Newman's wife, Joanne Woodward played Amanda; John Malkovich played Tom; Karen Allen played Laura; and James Naughton played the gentleman caller. It is available on video through MCA/Universal Home Video.
A television adaptation also aired on CBS in 1966. This version starred Shirley Booth as Amanda, Hal Holbrook as Tom, Barbara Loden as Laura, and Pat Hingle as Jim. David Susskind was the producer and Michael Elliott the director.
Another television version was broadcast on ABC in 1984.
A sound recording has also been produced by Caedmon. This two-cassette version was released in 1973; the cast consists of Montgomery Clift, Julie Harris, Jessica Tandy, and David Wayne.
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What Do I Read Next?
Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947. It features another frustrated family, though here the interactions become violent.
Eugene O'Neill is also considered a major American playwright. He published Long Day's Journey into Night in 1956. It also features a family within which tensions are obvious, in part because of the alcohol abuse present in the characters.
A Raisin in the Sun, written by Lorraine Hansberry and first produced in 1959 presents the situation of a black family, each of whose members attempts to exercise choice for the good of the family and themselves individually.
The Bluest Eye, published by Toni Morrison in 1970, concerns a young African-American girl who loses touch with reality because of her life circumstances.
Elizabeth Bishop's poem, "In the Waiting Room," (1976) tells the story of a young girl at the moment when she realizes she is both an individual and part of a community.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Berkowitz, Gerald. "The 'Other World' of The Glass Menagerie" in Players, Vol. 48, no. 4, April-May 1973, pp. 150-53.
Berkowitz argues that the setting or "locus" of The Glass Menagerie as well as of other of Williams's plays influences perceptions of the characters to the extent that they seem "normal," while the "normal" people seem outsiders.
Bunan, Jarka M. "The Glass Menagerie" in International Dictionary of Theatre-1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 187-89.
Burian provides several character analyses, focusing especially on Tom.
Chesler, S. Alan. "Tennessee Williams: Reassessment and Assessment" in Tennessee Williams: A Tribute, edited by Jac Tharpe, University Press of Mississippi, 1977, pp. 848-80.
Chesler describes Williams's characteristics as a playwright and contextualizes his career in terms of his effect on American drama.
Hirsch, Foster. A Portrait of the Artist: The Plays of Tennessee Williams, Kennikat Press, 1979.
Hirsch analyzes Williams's plays according to their autobiographical influences.
Londre, Felicia Hardison. "Tennessee Williams" in American Playwrights since 1945 - A Guide to Scholarship, Criticism, and Performance, edited by Philip C. Kohn, Greenwood, 1989, pp. 488-517.
Londre provides a thorough discussion of Williams's work and reputation,...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bigsby, C. W. E. A Critical Introduction to Twentieth Century American Drama. 3 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982-1985.
Devlin, Albert J., ed. Conversations with Tennessee Williams. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986.
Donahue, Francis. The Dramatic World of Tennessee Williams. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1964. A discussion of Williams’ plays, with a focus on The Glass Menagerie.
Leavitt, Richard F., ed. The World of Tennessee Williams. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1978. A competent introduction to the playwright and his plays, focusing on his themes.
Leverich, Lyle. Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams. New York: Crown, 1995.
Nelson, Benjamin. Tennessee Williams: The Man and His Work. New York: Obolensky, 1961. The first comprehensive study of the playwright and his work.
Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985. The first complete critical biography of Williams. Delineates the connections between the playwright’s work and life.
Stanton, Stephen S., ed. Tennessee Williams: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:...
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