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...
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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 jonquils—the legend of her youth is nearly revived." This dress is not only "girlish," but is precisely the one "in which I led the cotillion" over twenty years earlier. But the intervening time has collapsed; Amanda's girlhood merges with her middle age.
Although Laura remembers liking only one boy rather than receiving seventeen gentlemen callers and although she knew this boy approximately five rather than twenty-five years ago, Laura's romantic life initially seems as decidedly over as Amanda's. While Amanda's illusions lead her to act foolishly, to become coyly extraverted, Laura's function with opposite results. Laura's fantasies are not simply a preference but a need; they incapacitate her. Laura's fantasies, that is, don't merely supplement reality but become reality. More specifically, her glass menagerie which gives the play its title resembles Laura in disturbingly accurate detail. Even the stage directions instruct us to interpret Laura as more similar to these delicate glass objects than to any of the other human characters: "A fragile, unearthly prettiness has come out in Laura: she is like a piece of translucent glass touched by light, given a momentary radiance, not actual, not lasting." Laura describes the unicorn with similar language: "he loves the light! You see how the light shines through him?'' In the Reference Guide to American Literature, Christian H. Moe supported this view. Laura, he argued, "reveals herself as too fragile ... to pursue outside reality and thus becomes instead its victim retreating into her own fantasy world." This glass collection constitutes Laura's community, for she indicates that she devotes most of her time, and implicitly her emotional energy, to it. She personifies the animals, creating lives for them that reflect her own. When the unicorn's horn breaks, for example, Laura speculates that "The horn was removed to make him feel less—freakish! . . . Now he will feel more at home with the other horses."
By this point, Laura has revealed why she also feels "freakish." The brace on her leg "clumped so loud" according to her memory, drawing everyone's attention, she believes, to her disability. Yet the one time Tom uses the word "crippled" to describe Laura, Amanda reprimands him—demanding that her fantasy take precedence over the family's reality. One could argue that when the unicorn's horn breaks, he becomes "crippled" rather than "less—freakish." For it is his horn that grants him individuality. Laura, of course, longs to be more similar to others rather than so distinct from them.
In his willingness to be honest about Laura, Tom is perhaps the only character who can see Laura simultaneously as "peculiar" and as beautiful; a person so delicate that light can shine through her. Because he acknowledges that his life is frustratingly dull and confining, Tom fantasizes about the future. If he can leave the family, he believes, if he can imitate his father and simply follow his desires for long distance, he will have opportunity rather than responsibility. He will be able to write poetry rather than sell shoes. Tom does leave, of course, after he loses his job selling shoes because he was writing poetry. But though he does join the merchant marine and though he does abandon the family physically, he discovers that memory can haunt him. He can never leave them emotionally. The future becomes as oppressive as the past, for the "cities swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from the branches." Rather than live merrily in the past as Amanda does, Tom is haunted by it, "I was pursued by something," he says. Try as he might to escape, "all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes. Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!"
Even Jim O'Connor, the most conventional of these characters, is nagged by his past. In an article published in Players, Gerald Berkowitz critiqued Jim for his own fantasies: "His dreams and values, as practical and realistic as they may be, sound shallower and more comical than Amanda's ... and his disquisitions on the art and etiquette of its [a pack of chewing gum] use sound far more odd and foolish than Laura's fantasies about the animals' feelings." While he may not be as obsessed as any of the others, he has discovered that the present has not lived up to his hopes. In high school, he had been extremely popular and had been expected to succeed at whatever he attempted. Yet, even if he makes somewhat more money, he nevertheless works in the same warehouse as Tom. Rather than surrender to disappointment, however, Jim continues to invest his hope in the future. Although he acknowledges that he had "hoped when I was going to high school that I would be further along at this time,'' he is currently studying public speaking because he believes it will suit him for "executive positions." It will give him "social poise," the one characteristic that will make him more successful, although the image he presenls of himself in high school would indicate that he had been poised then. Like Tom, Jim continues to believe that the life he desires is possible. He lives with the illusion that if he simply tries harder, if he alters the details of his circumstances without altering their substance, then his search for excitement will be validated. Jim claims that "being in love has made a new man of me!" but he provides no evidence for this outside of rhetoric.
Although we don't discover what occurs to Jim in the future, the desolation of the play's conclusion indicates that disappointment is the inevitable outcome. In the words of Benjamin Nelson in his book, Tennessee Williams: The Man and His Work, these characters are "doomed to failure because of their inability to do more than dream." Whether these characters attempt to achieve freedom through a family or detached from one, the play indicates that such freedom is the stuff of which dreams are made.
Source: L. M. Domina, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.
A lady, obviously no psychologist, once encountered William Lyon Phelps on the street in New Haven. "I hope you won't mind my telling you how much I enjoyed your lecture yesterday?'' she asked. "Madam," beamed Professor Phelps, "you misunderstand me entirely. I am glutton for praise."
All of us are. Praise has never made anyone unhappy. We like it even when we do not believe it. We tire of it only when it is bestowed too long on other people. It is a music we do not object to having played off-stage. Although it may shame our consciences and insult our minds, it does no damage to our ears. So long as we remember that it sings the song not of what we are but of what we wish we were, it probably does not hurt us.
But the advance praise we hear of a book we have not read or a play we have not seen is another matter. Genuine and well meant as it is, if too unstinted it can do harm. Not to us, but to what it has been lavished upon. We take such praise seriously. It sends our hopes skyrocketing. It prepares us for a miracle in a world where miracles are infrequent.
To the book or play in question it presents a challenge few works can survive. Critics (and what playgoer or reader is not one?) are never more gluttonous than when it comes to giving praise. When disappointed because of the praise bestowed by others, we forget our own guilt in anticipating reactions or, worse still, raising expectations. We remember only our present disappointment. At such moments we are tempted to understand why managers employ, ungratefully, though not unreasonably, the word "raves" to describe reviews which find hats tossed so far in the air that their owners' heads are lost sight of.
I raise these general questions with a specific instance in mind. Recently I had the good fortune to see The Glass Menagerie but the bad fortune to see it after reading the reviews and hearing ecstatic reports about it from Chicago. Although Tennessee Williams's fantasy is a play I would not have missed, I wish I had missed both the reviews and the advance reports. At least until later. I wish I had missed them because Mr. Williams's play was forced to live them down. It was compelled to struggle against them much as a joke, however good, is condemned to a harder hearing when introduced by some witless fellow who insists upon laughing first, and then saying, "Oh, that reminds me of a very funny story.''
A play would have to be a masterpiece indeed to compete with what has been said about The Glass Menagerie both in Chicago and New York. Mr. Williams's script, I am afraid, is not that masterpiece.
It has its high, its shimmering virtues. It is blessed with imagination. It has its many lovely moments. It is the kind of play one is proud to have the theatre produce, and pleased to sit before even when disappointed in this scene or in that. In any season it would be uncommon; in this season it is outstanding. It is the work of a mind both original and sensitive. Although it follows trails blazed by Thornton Wilder and William Saroyan, it manages to walk down them with a gait of its own.
It is as promising a first play as has been seen hereabouts in many a year.
Mr. Williams's is a play of moods; a study in frustration. Its plot is nonexistent, at least so far as plotting is ordinarily understood. It is too close to the heart of life to bother about story-telling merely for the sake of telling a story. To attempt to suggest its qualifies by outlining its actions would be as unfair to The Glass Menagerie as it would be to try to suggest the qualities, say, of The Three Sisters in terms of a synopsis. No one can deny that The Three Sisters is about three Russian women who want to go to Moscow and never get there. Yet to say—this and only this—is to omit the wit, wisdom, perception, and autumnal radiance which make Chekhov's play one of the wonders of the modern stage.
Mr. Williams bases his drama upon an incident rather than a plot. The only story he tells is how an impoverished Southern mother has her hopes dashed when she learns that the Gentleman Caller, who has at last come to see her crippled daughter, is already engaged. But Mr. William's interest does not stop with this story. His concern is what lies under the surface of events. He deals with those small happenings which can loom so large in the lives of unhappy people. He shows us the hopes such happenings can quicken, the memories they stir, the transformations they are able to effect, and the despair they often evoke.
His drama is projected as a memory, seen at moments not only through the actual gauzes provided by set designer Mr. Mielziner, but in flashes through the thicker curtain of time itself. Mr. Williams's is the simplest kind of make believe. The narrator he employs is the crippled girl's brother. The scenes we are invited to share are this brother's recollections. They are recalled to him when, as a merchant sailor in a foreign port, he sees objects in a store window which remind him of his sister's glass menagerie at home.
We move back in the sailor's life until we encounter the nagging the dullness which drove him to seek the release of the sea. We learn of his hatred of the factory in which he worked; of his need for escape; of his incessant movie-going when (as Mr. Williams puts it), in the company of millions of other Americans sitting in darkened theatres in the pre-war years, he let a few Hollywood actors have all his adventures for him.
With this sailor brother we enter the poor home his memory has recreated. We inhale the honeysuckle of his mother's Southern recollections. We overhear her steady, soft-voiced scoldings, and understand her exasperation. We meet the crippled sister too. She is a girl who lives in the dreams summoned by the music of her Victrola records and the small glass animals in her collection to which she has given her heart. This sister is painfully shy. She is denied life by the selfconsciousness her braces have forced upon her. In an overstressed moment of symbolism Mr. Williams insists that, because of her deformity, she is as out of place among her healthy contemporaries as is the glass unicorn in her menagerie among the commoner animals.
We learn how this girl blooms under the attentions of a happy extrovert who cannot marry her. We also eavesdrop on her when, at last, she consents to face the boy her brother has asked home from the factory for a humbler version of the "Alice Adams" dinner party. Above all, we understand the decision of the brother, being what he was, to go to sea.
Mr. Williams writes about his characters warmly, with a sympathy that is constant and yet probing. He knows how to etch them in line by line, so that before the evening is over we know them well. We are on intimate terms even with the hard-drinking father who has deserted them and is represented only by a shoddy photograph on the wall. But, in spite of Mr. Williams's perceptions and the quality of his play, his writing lacks the impact of Clifford Odets's phrasing and the ultimate radiance of William Saroyan's feeling.
Full though his heart is, Mr. Williams's drama sometimes proves empty. I found that it lost my interest even while it held my admiration. Fascinated as I remained by the way in which its lines were spoken, it became difficult for me to keep my mind (in the second act) on every line that was being spoken. I was certain of my respect for the play in general, but increasingly aware of Mr. Williams's uncertainties.
Perhaps this was because, unlike Chekhov, Mr. Williams permits us to become uncomfortably conscious of how slight is the incident upon which he has based his play. Perhaps it is because his dialogue is not always active enough to compensate for the lack of action in his story. Perhaps it is because he allows us to know too much too early about all his characters except the charmingly written and played Gentleman Caller. Perhaps it is because Miss Taylor is off-stage for so long a scene in the second act. Or perhaps, as I have hinted, it is because the praise the play had won in advance had led me to expect that miracle which is every critic's hope.
Source: John Mason Brown, "Miss Taylor's Return" in the Saturday Review, Vol. 28, no. 15, April 14, 1945, pp. 34-36.
The theatre opened its Easter basket the night before and found it a particularly rich one. Preceded by warm and tender reports from Chicago, The Glass Menagerie opened at the Playhouse on Saturday, and immediately it was clear that for once the advance notes were not in error. Tennessee Williams' simple play forms the framework for some of the finest acting to be seen in many a day. "Memorable" is an overworked word, but that is the only one to describe Laurette Taylor's performance. March left the theatre like a lioness.
Miss Taylor's picture of a blowsy, impoverished woman who is living on memories of a flower-scented Southern past is completely perfect. It combines qualities of humor and human understanding. The Mother of the play is an amusing figure and a pathetic one. Aged, with two children, living in an apartment off an alley in St. Louis, she recalls her past glories, her seventeen suitors, the old and better life. She is a bit of a scold, a bit of a snob; her finery has worn threadbare, but she has kept it for occasions of state. Miss Taylor makes her a person known by any other name to everyone in her audience. That is art.
In the story the Mother is trying to do the best she can for her children. The son works in a warehouse, although he wants to go to far places. The daughter, a cripple, never has been able to finish school. She is shy, she spends her time collecting glass animals—the title comes from this—and playing old phonograph records. The Mother thinks it is time she is getting married, but there has never been a Gentleman Caller at the house. Finally the son brings home another man from the warehouse and out comes the finery and the heavy if bent candlestick. Even the Gentleman Caller fails. He is engaged to another girl.
Mr. Williams' play is not all of the same caliber. A strict perfectionist could easily find a good many flaws. There are some unconnected odds and ends which have little to do with the story: Snatches of talk about the war, bits of psychology, occasional moments of rather flowery writing. But Mr. Williams has a real ear for faintly sardonic dialogue, unexpected phrases and an affection for his characters. Miss Taylor takes these many good passages and makes them sing....
Source: Lewis Nichols, in a review of The Glass Menagerie (1945) in On Stage: Selected Theater Reviews from The New York Times, 1920-1970, edited by Bernard Beckerman and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973, p. 260.