Symbolic illustration of Laura's hands holding a glass unicorn

The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams

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Teaching Approaches

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The Glass Menagerie as a Memory Play: The Glass Menagerie was revolutionary for introducing a new dramatic form: the memory play. Tom, who is a main character in the play, narrates the story from his own perspective many years later, after he has lived the action on stage. He bookends the play with monologues which speak directly to the audience and break the fourth wall. He watches from the fringes of the set as his sister and mother recreate his memories. He moves fluidly between his two roles—from narrator to participant, and back again. When he narrates the final moments of the play, he describes the effects of distance and hindsight on his memories as a whole. This structure allows the play to develop crucial motifs about the power of memory and nostalgia. 

  • For discussion: How does the audience understand that The Glass Menagerie is based on memory? What stage directions and props support this theme? What other production elements could contribute to it? 
  • For discussion: How does the memory play touch on themes of nostalgia and memory? Since Tom is the narrator of the play, how does his point of view control the play? Is Tom a reliable narrator? Why or why not? Imagine if the play was told from Laura’s or Amanda’s perspective. How might that change the course or tone of the play? 
  • For discussion: What does Williams mean when he writes that the scene “dissolves” in the play’s final moments? How would you interpret this on stage? What other aspects of the memory play seem like they might be challenging to stage? 
  • For discussion: In Williams’s opinion, how is memory different from reality? Do you agree with how Williams depicts memory? Why or why not? How do you remember your past? 

Avoiding the Present as a Theme: Each of the Wingfields in The Glass Menagerie frequently, even obsessively, reminisces about the past or envisions the future: Amanda daydreams about her youth in Blue Mountain; Laura recalls her high school years when she was in love with Jim; Tom imagines leaving his family and job to become a poet and live a life of adventure. Each of these characters’ perceptions of time is skewed and causes rifts within the family. For example, Amanda’s grandiose memories push her children away, because they cannot live up to the pressures of the idealized past. Because the Wingfields are preoccupied with either the past or the future, none of them are able to express themselves in the present. 

  • For discussion: After Tom tells Amanda he has found a gentleman caller for Laura, Amanda tells him, “You are the only young man that I know of who ignores the fact that the future becomes the present, the present the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don’t plan for it!” How does this phrase encapsulate Amanda’s opinion of the past? How does Amanda obsess over the past? How does her nostalgia create tension between her and Laura? Her and Tom? 
  • For discussion: Tom dreams of a life beyond the St. Louis alley. What does Tom desire for himself? Why does he leave his family at the end of the play? How does Tom’s memory of his father affect his decision to leave the family? In what ways is Tom similar to his father? 
  • For discussion: How do Laura’s memories of the past affect how she interacts with Jim in the play? Why is she so nervous? How does Amanda escalate Laura’s fears? 
  • For discussion: While Amanda reminisces about the past and Tom plans for his future, Laura’s memories of high school are tainted by shame, and she is unable to envision a future for herself. How might Laura be trapped by her present? How could she break out of this trap? Does that seem likely? What sort of relationship with time does Williams seem to be advocating for? 
  • For discussion: Jim, the gentleman caller, talks about both his past and his future with Tom and Laura. How do his recollections and envisionings differ from those of the Wingfields? How does this affect his characterization? Does Williams seem to consider his relative flexibility a positive trait or a negative one? Why? 

Motifs of Stage Magicians and Illusions in The Glass Menagerie: In Tom’s first monologue, he says to the audience: “Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” Through the memory play format, the characters are continually oscillating between reality and illusion. Laura lives vicariously through her glass menagerie, Amanda lives in her past, and Tom looks to the future. None of the characters have a firm grasp on their realities, and they survive purely off of their imagined pasts or futures. 

  • For discussion: If, as Tom claims, he is not a “stage magician,” what role does he play in the drama? Do you agree that Tom is not a stage magician? How does Tom present truth? How does Tom manipulate time, place, and atmosphere to “give truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion”? 
  • For discussion: Do you think any of the characters are “stage magicians”? How might Amanda be a stage magician in her interactions with Laura? How might Jim? 
  • For discussion: How do you think the play’s end will impact the illusions of each family member? 

The Use of Symbols Throughout the Play: Williams employs myriad symbols throughout the play to touch on various themes. These symbols include Laura’s glass menagerie, her glass unicorn, candles, and blue roses. Each of these symbols are rife with meaning, and there is no clear answer as to what each symbol represents. In these cases, it is up to the audience to decipher their meanings. 

  • For discussion: Explore the symbol of Laura’s glass menagerie. Laura is frequently polishing and cleaning her glass menagerie. What could it represent? When Tom breaks several of the pieces in the menagerie, Laura is distraught. Why? 
  • For discussion: After the glass unicorn breaks, Laura remarks that it looks like it had an operation, and will now “feel more at home with the other horses, the ones that don’t have horns.” How does the breaking of the unicorn reflect the scene between Laura and Jim? What larger themes could the unicorn also symbolize? 
  • For discussion: How are candles and ambient lighting integral in creating a memory-like scene? How are candles used in Tom’s final monologue to signal the end of the play? How do candles represent Tom’s memory of Laura after he leaves his family? What does Tom mean when he tells Laura to “blow out your candles”? 
  • For discussion: How does Jim come up with the nickname “blue roses” for Laura? What unintended connotations does this name have? How does this name indicate her fragility? How does the use of the name and the projection of blue roses on the screen demonstrate a sense of nostalgia? 

The Use of Stage Directions and Props as Integral to the Play: In The Glass Menagerie, Williams employs poetic language both in the dialogue of the characters as well as in the effusive, descriptive stage directions. His plays, critics note, are like movies in that they incorporate lighting, music, screens, and projections. 

  • For discussion: While some playwrights abstain from including lengthy stage directions, Williams believed that descriptive stage directions were important in establishing a play’s particular atmosphere. Remind students that stage directions are not imparted to the audience and that directors do not always need them to stage a production. What purpose do these elaborate stage directions serve? How might they help the actors become their characters or influence the direction of a production? 
  • For discussion: How do the opening stage directions establish the tone of the play? What does Williams mean when he says that the Wingfields live in “one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living-units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centres of lower-middle-class population and are symptomatic of the impulse of this largest and fundamentally enslaved section of American society to avoid fluidity and differentiation and to exist and function as one interfused mass of automatism”? How might Williams expect that metaphor to influence a director or set designer? 
  • For discussion: How do the music and lighting create a sense of nostalgia? How do the legends on the screen foreshadow coming scenes? What would the play be like without the music, lighting, legends, or lengthy stage directions? What do these elements add to the overall atmosphere of the play? 
  • For discussion: If you were a director, a designer, or an actor, how might you approach Williams’s stage directions? Are there some you see as more integral to a production than others? Why? 

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

The Glass Menagerie Deals with Physical Disability: Laura Wingfield had pleurosis as a young girl, and an unknown condition has left her with a bad leg, for which she used to wear a brace. Although Tom openly refers to Laura as a “cripple”—a term also used by Laura herself—Amanda insists they refrain from using that word. 

  • What to do: Before reading the play, introduce students to the motif of disability in various literary works. Remind students that these issues are integral to the play, and that the character of Laura is based on Tom’s real-life sister Rose. 
  • What to do: Have students close-read Laura’s text to interpret how she feels about her disability, and compare her own feelings with those of her mother and brother. Point out that Laura seems more affected by their conflict than by her own circumstances, and remind them that introversion is not an inherently negative trait. 
  • What to do: Point out to students that, as a figure in a memory, Laura is being interpreted through her brother’s eyes, and the end of the play (specifically, her teasing of Jim and her smile at Amanda) implies she may not be as confined as Tom thinks she is. Ask students what they think Laura wants, and what she will do after Tom’s departure. 

The Glass Menagerie Deals with Challenging Family Dynamics: One of the main tensions throughout The Glass Menagerie is the dynamic between Amanda and her two children. Amanda and Tom disagree on many subjects, but Tom stays home to support her and Laura. The family suffers both emotionally and, it is implied, financially, from the loss of Tom and Laura’s father, who abandoned them long ago. Nevertheless, his presence is felt through the life-size painting of him that hangs above the mantle. 

  • What to do: Use your discretion to determine whether or not to mention these challenging topics before reading. In some cases, it may be helpful to introduce your students to these themes. 

Students May Have a Difficult Time Understanding the Structure of a Memory Play: Even in 1944, the year The Glass Menagerie was published and first performed, the memory play was a striking new narrative structure. It is possible that students may have a difficult time grasping how Tom can serve as both a participant in the play and as the narrator. In order for your students to make sense of this structure, introduce students to the notion of the fourth wall in drama and have students perform the exercise below. 

  • What to do: Have students remember a pleasant memory, or even a sad memory. Have them write down their memory. How do emotions affect their memory? How is the way Williams writes his play similar or different to how they recall the past? 
  • What to do: In groups, have students share their memories. As a class, discuss the subjectivity of memory. Asks students to compare and contrast how other students recall their memories. Do you think that the other people involved in your memory would remember it in the same way you did? Do you think Laura and Amanda would tell this story in the same way as Tom? Why or why not? 

Alternative Approaches to Teaching The Glass Menagerie

While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions preceding are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the play. 

Focus on the discussion of disabilities throughout the play. How is Laura disabled? Why does Amanda refrain from referring to her daughter as “crippled”? What effect does Amanda’s insistence appear to have on Laura? How does the play deal with disabilities? 

Focus on the play as a work of autobiography. Introduce students to Williams’s life story and discuss how he incorporates many of his life experiences into his works. Ask students to draw parallels between Williams’s life and the events and characters in the play. Working in groups, have students create short plays and/or monologues about a significant period or event in their lives. 

Focus on Jim, the gentleman caller, a minor character who is nevertheless integral to the climax of the play. Ask students to identify the climax of the play. What are the repercussions of discovering that Jim is already engaged? How do the other characters react? Would Tom still have left the family if Jim’s visit had gone well? 

Focus on the play as an early example of literary modernism, a literary period that arose post-World War II. The Glass Menagerie was published shortly before the end of WWII. How do you think this historical period influenced the play? Why does Williams choose to include real-life events—the bombing of Guernica, for example—in the play? 

Focus on the Wingfield patriarch as his own character. Despite being absent, how is the father still an active character in the play? What does the large photograph of him on the living room wall represent? How does Amanda view him? How do Tom and Laura view him? 

Focus on the play as an example of Southern gothic literature. How does Williams incorporate the grotesque or the disturbing into the play? How does Williams engage with other Southern gothic tropes? Specifically, how do Laura and Amanda subvert the archetype of the southern belle? 

Focus on the play as a reaction to WWII. Many critics argue that Tom looking to the future is symbolic of the United States looking to the future following the war. Do you agree with this reading of the play? What could this interpretation imply about the United States? 

Focus on the play as a text intended for performance. While Williams does direct many line readings through punctuation and stage direction, there is nevertheless an element of character interpretation that will be brought by the actor inhabiting a role. What are some ways in which different actors might change the depictions of these characters? What about the play’s overall themes? What actors might you expect to see cast in these roles? What new dynamics might they uncover? 

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