Symbolic illustration of Laura's hands holding a glass unicorn

The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams
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The Glass Menagerie has been called a “memory” play. Analyze what that means in terms of the play’s structure (Tom the narrator versus Tom the character, music, screen, lighting, etc.).

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Writing about wrote extensively about the “memory play” aspect of this drama. Tennessee Williams provides a relevant comment in the initial directions.

The scene is memory and is therefore nonrealistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated. . . .

Past and present mingle uneasily in Tom’s consciousness. His combined relief at living his own life and guilt at leaving his mother and sister to fend for themselves create a confused mixture of sentiments in the scenes from the past, as Tom’s present-day knowledge shapes his view of their past lives. Tom especially has difficulty facing the fact that his family has aged as he has, thinking instead of his sister as a young woman with possibilities ahead of her.

Tom’s dual function and attitude is summed up in his statement about the “tricks” he can deploy, saying that he is unlike a magician in a stage act. Although the details Tom provides may not be exactly what happened, the essence of the Wingfields’s real life is there. The magician

“. . . gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”

Williams’s expressionistic setting and stage directions further this idea of intersecting realities. The production notes are specific about the “dim” lighting corresponding to the “sentimental” quality. The projected images and text on the “screen device” call the audience back to the reality that they are seeing illusion, as Tom the narrator has announced.

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The conceit of employing Tom as a narrator while he is also a character establishes a distinction of narrative time and space into at least two separate realities. The implication is that Tom the narrator is looking back on his past, and that Tom the character is living his present. So the narrator is constructing his speeches from fragments of memory, and we are to understan that the other characters as being portrayed only as he remembers themm not necessarily as they really were. Most productions of the play utilize the same actor for both aspects of Tom, but it would also be possible to use two different actors to underscore this temporal/spatial separation. The use of music and lighting is described in detail to accentuate Williams' vision for this play, but often directors and designers may discount what has been written by the playwright and create something original, or in the case of older works, more up to date.

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