Winner of the Drama Critics Circle Award when it opened on Broadway, The Glass Menagerie has become a classic of the American theater. The Glass Menagerie is rich in themes. One of the play’s primary interests lies in exploring illusion versus reality. From the beginning, Tennessee Williams, through his narrator, Tom, explains to the audience that this is a memory play, and he emphasizes the irony that truth is often cloaked by illusion.
Amanda represents the past, the pre-World War II era of the South, where she once reigned supreme in a culture that taught her to confuse appearance with substance. Amanda expends her ingenuity in manipulating others to care for her and for themselves, a seemingly selfish but also naïvely altruistic stance that ironically alienates and defeats those she most wants to encourage. Instead of acknowledging her children as individuals both gifted and flawed, she subconsciously denies them their humanity by insisting on their perfection. Tom and Laura retreat—Tom to the movies and eventually to distant lands, and Laura to the world of her imagination, peopled by music and glass animals. Tom and Laura react subconsciously to their mother’s demands by avoiding any possibility of success, a stance that ensures their psychological and social defeat.
Tom is every bit the romantic his mother is, despite the fact that he does not realize it. He sees himself as a poet, as an artist whose very soul is stifled by his warehouse existence. In much the same way as Amanda is stuck in the past, Tom survives only on dreams of the future, ironically failing to realize his goals and the satisfaction he covets by dismissing his relationships and work obligations. He and Amanda both love Laura, but Tom believes that Amanda’s refusal to recognize Laura’s limitations is now what most demeans her daughter. Amanda believes that Tom’s failure to treat his sister as the prize Amanda would have her be will seal Laura’s sad fate.
Laura, the character who at first appears most divorced from reality, emerges as the only member of the Wingfield family who is in touch with the truth about herself. She understands her limitations, and even as she escapes the business school that does not fit her psychological needs, she seeks refuge in places designed to showcase precious and exotic specimens. Like her mother and brother, Laura takes comfort in illusion, as her preoccupation with her glass menagerie proves. When Jim, who provides Laura with hope, destroys her illusion, Laura realizes that she is indeed ordinary, like her unicorn-turned-horse. She understands the irony of the unicorn’s accident and accepts her own altered psychological circumstances. Thus, in spite of the illusion that Laura is the weakest Wingfield, she emerges as the emotionally strongest family member. Laura is also the family peacemaker, the single person who understands the others so well that she refuses to challenge their fantasies, knowing that they, as has she, depend on their illusions to survive.
In the end, Tom leaves St. Louis, but as he so eloquently states, he cannot escape his memory of Laura. “[Time] is the longest distance between two places,” he notes. Tom realizes that he cannot start life anew without coming to terms with the past. The audience understands that he is a metaphor for the post-World War II future.
Williams himself stated the play’s essential significance best in his 1945 article “How to Stage The Glass Menagerie.” He wrote that “Everyone should know nowadays the unimportance of the photographic in art: that truth, life, or reality is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest, in essence, only through transformation, through changing into other forms than those which were merely present in appearance.” That one must look beyond the facts to find the truth is Williams’s loudest message, an early and significant literary manifestation of the psychological implications of human behavior first noted by Sigmund Freud. The playwright also observes that truth itself is subjective, its delineation ironically depending on a character’s and an audience’s always-illusory perspective.