The Glass Menagerie Essays and Criticism
by Tennessee Williams

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Williams's Use of Modern Theatrical Technology as an Essential Element of his Drama

(Drama for Students)

Tennessee Williams is admired for the theatricality of his plays and for introducing literary, specifically poetic, devices into the theater. In The Glass Menagerie particularly, he relies on the craft of modern theater—on such devices as lighting and sound techniques—to enhance the effectiveness of his themes, themes which are not difficult to recognize.

Throughout this play, the characters are tempted toward illusion when they find reality too painful. Although the illusions of some characters are more socially acceptable, even typical, than others, Williams suggests that the "American dream'' is as illusory as more overt psychological illnesses and that any given manifestation of illusion is as understandable, even acceptable, as any other one. Even Jim O'Connor, the character an audience would likely describe as closest to "normal," in other words, does not distinguish between reality and fantasy. Jarka M. Burian, writing in International Dictionary of Theatre-1: Plays, stated that each of the Wingfields "has a secret life and dream that inherently has little likelihood of actualization." Furthermore, in this play Williams suggests that the most specific arena of confinement, the family, is also the primary motivation for fantasy. Freedom equals freedom from familial responsibilities; yet since each character either attempts to achieve conventional family relations or obsessively to deny them, Williams indicates that such freedom is at best a vain hope.

This tendency to resist reality is most obvious in the female characters. Amanda Wingfield, the mother of Tom and Laura, is an abandoned wife who longs for a stable family structure, that is, a stable means of support, for her daughter. Amanda does not rely on her own experience as a cautionary device—or her experience cautions her toward conservatism. Her husband, who had left the family years ago, remains present in the "warty growth" of the Wingfield apartment; his photograph, "the face of a very handsome young man in a doughboy's First World War cap... gallantly smiling, ineluctably smiling," dominates the living room. Rather than suggest that Laura should not depend on a husband to support her (as difficult as this choice would have been during the 1930s), Amanda desires instead that Laura find a suitable husband, one who will not drink excessively, who will find excitement enough in a conventional career and family.

Yet although she has kept her husband's photograph on her wall, Amanda sometimes seems to forget that she chose to marry a less-than-ideal man. She speaks frequently, almost obsessively, of the Sunday afternoon when she received "seventeen!—gentlemen callers! Why, sometimes there weren't chairs enough to accommodate them all." And each of these men was special: "Among my callers were some of the most prominent young planters on the Mississippi Delta—planters and sons of planters! ... There was young Champ Laughlin who later became vice president of the Delta Planters Bank. Hadley Stevenson who was drowned in Moon Lake and left his widow one hundred and fifty thousand in Government bonds.... That Fitzhugh boy went North and made a fortune—came to be known as the Wolf of Wall Street! He had the Midas touch." In continually reliving this Sunday afternoon, Amanda is able to retain a sense of her own popularity, a sense of success rather than of the failure that accompanies the marriage she did make. The unstated question is, of course, why she married the man "who fell in love with long distances" rather than one of these other implausibly successful beaux.

Simultaneously, however, because she lives more energetically in the past than in the present, she appears rather foolish when a gentleman caller does accompany Tom home for dinner. Although she does desire that Laura find a suitable husband, Amanda dresses and acts as if the gentleman is calling for her: "She wears a girlish frock of yellowed voile with a blue silk sash. She carries a bunch of...

(The entire section is 3,586 words.)