Symbolic illustration of Laura's hands holding a glass unicorn

The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams

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How does the initial stage setting in The Glass Menagerie create a memory play mood? What do the stage notes and Tom's remarks reveal about his family's past and present?

Quick answer:

In The Glass Menagerie, the initial stage setting creates the mood of a memory play through the combination of realistic and abstract elements. The harsh alley setting and dark lighting suggest the family’s near-poverty, while Laura’s glass collection indicate efforts to escape through imagination. The music is meant to sound as if one is hearing it from afar. The stage notes emphasize the centrality of nostalgia, which corresponds to Tom’s implication that he is fictionalizing some elements of this story.

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Tennessee Williams provides extensive stage notes that immerse the reader in Tom Wingfield’s world from the moment The Glass Menagerie begins. He writes about the idea of the memory play, in which the setting, along with the characters, are presented primarily as they exist within Tom’s remembrances. Williams emphasizes the prioritizing of nostalgia over realism. He mentions his preference for a screen on which images were projected and says that the thematic music should also sound indistinct, as though it were playing at a distance, such as at a circus ground.

The grim, impoverished existence of the Wingfields during the Great Depression is made clear through the dark alley setting, the stark iron fire escape, and the correspondingly dim lighting. Williams also comments on the mindless conformity associated with the cramped, undifferentiated apartments in the building. The decision to leave the back wall open facilitates Tom’s direct address to the audience as he speaks from the fire escape; the latter is also important as his only “private” space as well as his separation from the women’s lives inside the cramped apartment.

The audience is encouraged to identify with Tom’s version of reality, which he explains is colored by the passage of time. His own nostalgia builds on that of his mother, who laments her former life of luxury as much as the absence of her husband, whose photograph is prominently featured. Within the apartment’s interior, Laura’s collection of glass animals symbolizes her unrealistic attitude toward life, as she focuses on creative expression rather than practical matters. The animals are also clear and bright, offering a direct contrast to the dark exterior.

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