Last Updated on July 10, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1120
The Glass Menagerie’s Production History and Reception: According to The New York Times, The Glass Menagerie is considered “American theater’s most exquisite mea culpa.” Since its premiere in Chicago, the play has garnered praise for its depiction of a shattered family and has won numerous awards for its powerful and poetic language. One of Williams’s most recognizable works, The Glass Menagerie is still produced in theaters across the country.
- Chicago Premiere: Williams’s play premiered in Chicago in 1944. Though it was received poorly at first, the play garnered rave reviews from a few key critics who thought it demonstrated “courage . . . of true poetry.” This early praise launched the play from obscurity into the spotlight.
- Broadway Premiere: The Glass Menagerie opened in the Playhouse Theater on Broadway on March 31, 1945 and ran until August 3, 1946. Directed by Eddie Dowling and Margo Jones, the opening cast included Eddie Dowling as Tom Wingfield, Laurette Taylor as Amanda Wingfield, Julie Haydon as Laura Wingfield, and Anthony Ross as Jim O’Connor. The play opened two years prior to the creation of the Tony Awards, but it won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best American Play in 1945 and launched Williams’s career as a playwright. Between 1945 and 1959, A Streetcar Named Desire and six other Williams plays were produced on Broadway stages. With its 2014 and 2017 Broadway revivals, The Glass Menagerie went on to receive several Tony Award nominations and one win.
- Laurette Taylor’s Iconic Performance as Amanda Wingfield: In the New York Times review from March 31, 1945, art critic Lewis Nichols wrote that “Tennessee Williams’s 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 . . . Miss Taylor’s picture of a blowsy, impoverished woman who is living on memories of a flower-scented Southern past is completely perfect.” Lauded for her performance as Amanda, Taylor’s performance set the standard for future actors tackling this part. Williams, in turn, went on to create a number of iconic female roles. In a tribute to Taylor published in The New York Times in December of 1949, Williams wrote, “I feel now—as I have always felt—that a whole career of writing for the theatre is rewarded enough by having created one good part for a great actress.”
Tennessee Williams’s Personal History: Tennessee Williams’s life was challenging, and led him to grapple with dark subject matter through the poetic expression of his plays.
- The Life of Tennessee Williams: Thomas Lanier Williams (1911–1983), later known as Tennessee, was born in Columbus, Mississippi, and brought up in St. Louis, Missouri. Williams demonstrated promise as a writer from an early age. Two of his plays were staged by the University of Missouri’s Dramatic Arts Club when he was a student there as part of their Dramatic Prize Plays Contest. At his father’s urging, Williams went on to work in a shoe factory. He was deeply unhappy and suffered a nervous breakdown at just 24 years old. From then on, he devoted himself to writing. In 1945, Williams won national and international acclaim with the Broadway premiere of The Glass Menagerie. Williams received myriad awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980. However, Williams fell out of favor later in his career. When Frank Merlo, Williams’s long-time romantic partner, died of lung cancer in 1963, Williams entered a deep depression, exacerbated by a history of drug and alcohol addiction. In 1983, Williams died from asphyxiation while trying to ingest barbiturates.
- Williams’s Family Background and Semi-Autobiographical Works: Many of Williams’s plays, including The Glass Menagerie, which he developed from his short story “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” drew inspiration from his relationships with his disabled sister, difficult mother, and absent father. Rose, Williams’s sister, was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and, at their mother’s request, received a prefrontal lobotomy at the Missouri State Sanitarium in 1937. From then on, Rose lived in and out of mental institutions until her death in 1996. Rose’s lobotomy and subsequent incapacitation inspired Suddenly Last Summer, a play about a woman who attempts to lobotomize her niece to prevent the disclosure of a dark secret. A faithful brother and friend to Rose, Williams left the majority of his inheritance to his sister. Edwina, Tennessee’s mother, was a strict Southern woman who abided by prudish Victorian mores and suffered from bouts of hysteria and fainting spells. She alternately smothered and alienated her children; nevertheless, she encouraged Tennessee in his writing endeavors, even supplying him with his first typewriter at age twelve. Like the Wingfield patriarch in The Glass Menagerie, Williams’s alcoholic father Cornelius was a shoe factory worker who was frequently absent from his son’s life and scornful of his son’s ambition to become a writer.
Tennessee Williams’s Poetic Expressionism: A distinctive voice in the literary canon, Tennessee Williams is known for his ability to mix poetry with drama.
- Williams’s Lyrical Writing Style: Through elaborate stage directions and dialogue, Williams incorporated a lyrical writing style into his plays. For example, stage directions usually convey necessities of production to a director and design team. The first scene of The Glass Menagerie, however, opens with an effusive extended metaphor comparing the Wingfields’ apartment building to “one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living-units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centres . . . [which] are symptomatic of the impulse of this largest and fundamentally enslaved section of American society.” This level of figurative writing in both his stage directions and his dialogue gives Williams’s plays an elevated and poetic—as opposed to strictly realistic—tone.
- Southern Gothic Literature: Williams’s writing is part of the Southern gothic tradition, which frequently deals with delusional characters and grotesque or violent themes. Like many Southern gothic works, Williams’s plays often include themes of alienation and fallen grandeur. For example, The Glass Menagerie subverts the southern belle archetype with the characters of Amanda and Laura, who are presented in negative and darkly absurd ways.
- Williams’s Portrayal of Complex Subject Matter: Williams was not afraid to confront difficult subjects. Many of his plays deal with toxic family dynamics, mental health, depression, alcoholism, rape, and death. Williams also addressed sexuality with a directness that was unusual for his time, portraying women as complex characters with motivations and sexual desires of their own. Williams was even blacklisted in 1956 by Catholic Cardinal Spellman for the screenplay Baby Doll, which, like many of his other works, directly confronted male and female sexuality.
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