On December 26, 1944, as much of the nation dialed their radios to the pivotal Battle of the Bulge raging in Belgium, a nervous young playwright fretted over matters closer to home. As he paced about waiting for the curtain to rise at Chicago’s Civic Theatre, his apprehension was not unwarranted. Last minute rehearsals had not gone well, backstage feuds had been threatening on-stage chemistry, and icy weather had almost shut down the city. There was also his bitter memory of a previous disaster almost exactly four years earlier, when an uninitiated Tennessee Williams had endured humiliation and profound discouragement at the calamitous Boston opening of Battle of Angels, the first of his plays to receive a major production. Traveling around the country in virtual penury for a couple of years after this disaster, Williams eventually landed an initially promising but briefly-held Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract in Hollywood. Here he toiled haplessly as a hired scriptwriter while he worked on his own
plays (including what would become Menagerie) and complained about a “sort of spiritual death-ray that is projected about the halls of Hollywood.”
Although he had been sketching Menagerie since the late 1930s, his full concentration on this still-evolving play while at MGM was probably the result of thoughts turning toward home. Just prior to Williams’s arrival on the West Coast in 1943, his sister Rose had undergone a prefrontal lobotomy in St. Louis, and it might well be argued that on one level The Glass Menagerie represents Williams’s attempt to come to terms with his sister’s illness and perhaps exorcise his guilt over not having taken more measures in trying to prevent the operation. At MGM, while writing what he called “celluloid brassieres” for actresses such as Lana Turner, Williams also kept drafting Menagerie and eventually offered a screen version of the play (then called The Gentleman Caller) to MGM (who would later lose a bidding war for its screen rights). Tennessee Williams’s ultimate goal, of course, was to reach Broadway, but Williams and company made the decision to open in Chicago “before we brave the New York critics.” Working through problems leading up to opening night, the playwright still faced many last minute obstacles, including admonitions by producer Eddie Dowling and others to make significant changes in the script. But by virtue of Williams’s resilience, the play’s superior material, the fine acting, and perhaps sheer good fortune, his dogged pursuit of fame was suddenly being realized. As the reviews came in and the show prepared to move to New York’s Playhouse Theatre (where it would run for 563 performances), there was the sense that a remarkable transformation was taking place in American theatre. Although audiences were profoundly moved by the pathos of the Wingfield household and
the almost mythical performance of Laurette Taylor as Amanda, it was this new playwright, with his southern manner, poetic language, and dramaturgic legerdemain, who most fascinated critics and theatre aficionados. Now the sudden object of adulation, Tennessee Williams became an immediate, if bemused, celebrity. Still trying to come to terms with his new status some three years later, he described this turning point as his being “snatched out of virtual oblivion and thrust into sudden prominence” by “the catastrophe of Success.”
As Williams worked on various play scripts during the period just prior to his completing The Glass Menagerie, he was simultaneously occupied with formulating a new aesthetic of theatre. An habitué of the movies since his childhood, Williams was now experimenting with a more fluid dramatic structure that would to some extent emulate the cinematic technique of mise-en-scène, the method by which a film director stages an event for the camera. Arguing for the necessity of a “sculptural drama,” Williams wrote, “I visualize it as a reduced mobility on the stage, the forming of statuesque attitudes or tableaux, something resembling a restrained type of dance, with motions honed down to only the essential or significant.” (An immediate example of this technique comes to mind in the final scene of Menagerie, where, Madonna-like, Amanda is seen consoling Laura.) Williams’s stage “innovations” were somewhat recycled from European expressionism, but when the elements of his “plastic theatre” (with its emphasis more on the representation of reality) were combined with his exquisite romantic lyricism, the result represented a formidable new force on the American stage.
Today one can easily understand why American audiences of the 1940s, weary of realism and prosaic dialogue, eagerly
embraced Williams’s protean gifts in this rather static and predictable theatre climate. The timing was propitious for his novel voice. Yet why does this play continue to hold our fascination; to engage the talent of such actresses as Helen Hayes, Jessica Tandy, Katharine Hepburn, and Joanne Woodward; to inspire translations into languages from Arabic to Tamil; to engender four movie adaptations; to enjoy productions ranging from high schools to London’s Haymarket; and to be scrutinized by almost countless literary analyses? More than fifty years after the Wingfields first took to the stage, this dysfunctional family is as popular as ever.
It is no mere coincidence that many of our most memorable American plays, from Long Day’s Journey into Night, through Death of a Salesman and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, up to Buried Child, depict familial tensions and alienations, the give-and-take of domestic warfare. Indeed, the venerable tradition of dramatizing family strife is by no means uniquely American, as this motif transcends cultures and predates Shakespeare’s Hamlet, even going back to the drama of Aeschylus. Tennessee Williams certainly realized that positioning crises of the heart within the immediate family would provide ample material for audience empathy and catharsis, as virtually anyone can identify with similar levels of emotional conflict.
Williams’s family years spent in St. Louis were some of the unhappiest of his life, and when asked by an interviewer what first brought him to New Orleans, Tennessee said, “St. Louis.” For Williams, writing Menagerie was an experience born of grief, “the saddest play I have ever written. It is full of pain. It’s painful for me to see it.” His composing this play forced him toward compelling reminiscences of his own family life,
particularly the misunderstandings between him and his mother and the sadness of Rose’s existence.
The parallels between the Williams/Wingfield families have been well established by Williams and his biographers. In St. Louis the Williamses inhabited a rather modest apartment after having suffered a wrenching move from their pastoral, socially prominent existence with the Dakins (Williams’s maternal grandparents) in Mississippi. Like the play’s inconsolable narrator, Tennessee (then known as Tom) worked at a shoe company while dreaming of becoming a writer. Williams’s sister Rose (the model for Laura) was extremely troubled; and most people who knew her well admitted that Edwina Williams was “the spitting image” of Amanda. Tom did bring home a gentleman caller for Rose, and his sister actually had a glass menagerie, although their brother Dakin remembers it as “just two or three pieces . . . very cheap little things, probably purchased at Woolworth’s.” Although it could be said that most of Williams’s writing is to some extent autobiographical, it is important to remember that for the obvious parallels, there are also significant deviations. First, during the St. Louis years depicted in the play, the younger brother also occupied the Williams apartment, and Williams’s father, Mr. Cornelius Williams (unlike Mr. Wingfield), was usually present after working hours. As Dakin Williams recalls, “My father was home all the time, and that was one of the major problems of our family.” In searching for autobiographical connections to Williams’s plays, then, one should come to regard Williams’s oeuvre not as a duplication of actual experience but as an organic holograph, synthesized and embellished from experience, analogous to Monet’s series of cathedral studies or Gauguin’s depictions of island life. From
these painful St. Louis years Williams extracted enough mate. rial to write a story that is completely accessible yet deceptively complex.
As the fractured world of the Wingfields unfolds, the firsi apparent fissure is the societal anonymity into which they have fallen, for they live in “one of those vast hive-like conglomerations. . .as one interfused mass of automatism.” Collectively marginalized, as individuals in search of identity they fare even worse. Amanda, Laura, and Tom live out secret horrors, all the while unsuccessfully trying to conceal or repress their respective demons from each other. As a result, Menagerie reveals the story of family members whose lives form a triangle of quiet desperation, each struggling with an individual version of hell1 while simultaneously seeking escape from the gravity of each other’s pathologies.
In fact, patterns of escape form a leitmotif that help structure the play, as every character seeks flight; if not literally, then through the imagination. Mr. Wingfield, the “telephone man who fell in love with long distances,” becomes the first fugitive from the “hive-like conglomeration.” His prominently looming, smiling photograph and “Hello—Goodbye!” postcard suggest that he suffers no regret over his departure. Victimized himself by this abandonment, Tom’s own inevitable choice between sacrifice and personal freedom thus becomes all the more difficult. Yet Tom’s vicarious adventures “at the movies” must eventually give way to his fire-escape exit for the Merchant Marines, and he departs “attempting to find in motion what was lost in space.” But his departure exacts a severe price, as he finally realizes that Amanda’s and Laura’s confinement will force them even further into their respective worlds of jonquils and glass unicorns. Although Tom eventu
ally follows his father’s footsteps, the inextinguishable candles of his sister, like the Ancient Mariner’s albatross, will forever curse his journey. Tom may perform his own version of “Malvolio the Magician” and vanish from the Wingfield apartment/coffin, but he must eventually return to retell his story, using other magical tricks (such as framing the action and then “disappearing” back into it) to validate his point of view. Furthermore, Tom’s various complexities—he is the prototypical Williams artist/dreamer/romantic/mi5undet~t00d outsider—identify him as one of Williams’s most easily recognizable “fugitive kind,” demonstrating just how thinly art can veil biography.
Tom might be a daydreamer, but Amanda’s grasp of reality is the most tenuous of all. She ameliorates her pathetic existence with fabricated memories of gentleman callers and the faded promise of what could have been. Her poetic raptures, particularly during her memorable “jonquils” tableau, transport her back to a time and place when life consisted of promising choices. These ramblings, which function almost as interior monologues, seem to be a fuzzy, out-of-focus juxtaposition of the perhaps with the improbable (were there really seventeen gentleman callers?) and underscore the degree to which Amanda can escape back in time, far away from the exigencies of the St. Louis apartment to another dimension where light bills get paid, where the verandah appropriates the fire escape, where the scheduling of her beaux becomes her most pressing concern. Ironically, her idealized past becomes her unrealized wish for her daughter’s future happiness—but this hope contrasts pitiably with the actual prospects for Laura’s finding a mate. Usually in denial about Laura’s likelihood of happiness, Amanda is forced to face the truth after the Gentleman Caller
fiasco, thus lashing out at Tom and verbally acknowledging for the first time that she is a “mother deserted” and that her “selfish” son has an “unmarried sister who’s crippled and has no job.” Audiences and readers may choose either to demonize Amanda or regard her as a misguided saint, but the complexity of her character (suggested initially by Williams’s description in the dramatis personae) precludes any facile assessment of her motherhood. By wanting the best for her adult children but attempting to dictate the terms by which they live, Amanda is a mother to whom all must remain ambivalent.
Whereas fabricating an idealized past becomes Amanda’s compensation for her present existence, Laura’s retreat into the world of her glass animals provides her only imaginative escape. With her almost pathological shyness and complete vulnerability, Laura becomes symbolically positioned alongside the animals on her shelf. Unable to hold a job or even complete a typing course, her reclusive withdrawal from the outside “world of lightning” would seem to insulate her from further chaos—until the promise of a relationship emerges.
Into the Wingfield’s triangle of despair comes the excruciatingly banal, “nice, ordinary young man” named Jim O’Connor. Jim is one of those characters, who, like Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire, aspires to normalcy and is entirely successful. Even somewhat more one-dimensional than other Williams cut-outs, Jim believes in the “Zzzzzp!” of democracy and in the System’s “Century of Progress.” Moreover, he maintains complete confidence in the future—paradoxically, a sure sign that he holds no membership in Williams’s “visionary company.” When Jim’s arrival threatens Laura’s insulation from the outside world, her first impulse is flight, the fitting reaction of a wounded creature. As the visit progresses, so does
her ephemeral dalliance with the world of normality. In one of the most brilliant and symbolically charged moments of the play, the breaking of the unicorn’s horn, we are briefly led to believe that Laura’s curse has been lifted, especially after the kiss. However, the brief romantic interlude is followed by the jarring, horrific news of Betty, and at that point, the shattering of the unicorn assumes a darker meaning. Although Jim’s “courtship” of Laura is not mean-spirited, neither is it thoughtful; and when “He grins and ducks jauntily out,” Jim departs relatively oblivious to the damage he has left behind, the world of broken unicorns and Laura’s shattered dream of companionship.
With this “memory play” Tennessee Williams transports us into private worlds where desire clashes with obdurate reality, where loss supplants hope. After more than half a century we continue to be drawn to a play that explores so many aspects of the human condition. With this first great artistic success of his new “plastic theatre,” ‘Williams demonstrated how he could synthesize music, poetry, and visual effects into compelling emotional situations, structurally underpinning them with symbolic moments so arresting that theatregoers depart the aisles—and readers turn the last page—enriched with an assortment of moments guaranteed to haunt the receptive mind. Williams once described Menagerie as “my first quiet play, and perhaps my last.” From this quietness, however, his characters’ cries of desperation will continue to reach out for understanding as long as we are there to listen.
AMANDA WINGFIELD (the mother) A little woman of great but confused vitality clinging frantically to another time and place. Her characterization must be carefully created, not copied from type. She is not paranoiac, but her life is paranoia. There is much to admire in Amanda, and as much to love and pity as there is to laugh at. Certainly she has endurance and a kind of heroism, and though her foolishness makes her unwittingly cruel at times, there is tenderness in her slight person.
LAURA WINGFIELD (her daughter) Amanda, having failed to establish contact with reality, continues to live vitally in her illusions, but Laura’s situation is even graver. A childhood illness has left her crippled, one leg slightly shorter than the other, and held in a brace.This defect need not be more than suggested on the stage. Stemming from this, Laura’s separation increases till she is like a piece of her own glass collection, too exquisitely fragile to move from the shelf.
TOM WINGFIELD (her son) And the narrator of the play. A poet with a job in a ware-house. His nature is not remorseless, but to escape from a trap he has to act without pity.
JIM O’CONNOR (the gentleman caller)
A nice, ordinary, young man.
Being a “memory play,” The Glass Menagerie can be presented with unusual freedom of convention. Because of its considerably delicate or tenuous material, atmospheric touches and subtleties of direction play a particularly important part. Expressionism and all other unconventional techniques in drama have only one valid aim, and that is a closer approach to truth. When a play employs unconventional techniques, it is not, or certainly shouldn’t be, trying to escape its responsibility of dealing with reality, or interpreting experience, but is actually or should be attempting to find a closer approach, a more penetrating and vivid expression of things as they are. The straight realistic play with its genuine Frigidaire and authentic ice-cubes, its characters who speak exactly as its audience speaks, corresponds to the academic landscape and has the same virtue of a photographic likeness. 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.
These remarks are not meant as a preface only to this particular play. They have to do with a conception of a new, plastic theatre which. must take the place of the exhausted theatre of realistic conventions if the theatre is to resume vitality as a part of our culture.
THE SCREEN DEVICE: There is only one important difference between the original and the acting version of the play and that is the omission in the latter of the device that I tentatively included in my original script. This device was the use of a screen on which were projected magic-lantern slides bearing images or titles. I do not regret the omission of this device from the original Broadway production. The extraordinary power of Miss Taylor’s performance made it suitable to have the utmost simplicity in the physical production. But I think it may be interesting to some readers to see how this device was conceived. So I am putting it into the published manuscript. These images and legends, projected from behind, were cast on a section of wall between the front-room and dining-room areas, which should be indistinguishable from the rest when not in use.
The purpose of this will probably be apparent. It is to give accent to certain values in each scene. Each scene contains a particular point (or several) which is structurally the most important. In an episodic play, such as this, the basic structure or narrative line may be obscured from the audience; the effect may seem fragmentary rather than architectural. This may not be the fault of the play so much as a lack of attention in the audience. The legend or image upon the screen will strengthen the effect of what is merely allusion in the writing and allow the primary point to be made more simply and lightly than if the entire responsibility were on the spoken lines. Aside from this structural value, I think the screen will have a definite emotional appeal, less definable but just as important. An imaginative producer or director may invent many other uses for this device than those indicated in the present script. In fact the possibilities of the device seem much larger to me than the instance of this play can possibly utilize.
THE MUSIC: Another extra-literary accent in this play is provided by the use of music. A single recurring tune, “The Glass Menagerie,” is used to give emotional emphasis to suitable passages. This tune is like circus music, not when you are on the grounds or in the immediate vicinity of the parade, but when you are at some distance and very likely thinking of something else. It seems under those circumstances to continue almost interminably and it weaves in and out of your preoccupied consciousness; then it is the lightest, most delicate music in the world and perhaps the saddest. It expresses the surface vivacity of life with the underlying strain of immutable and inexpressible sorrow. When you look at a piece of delicately spun glass you think of two things: how beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken. Both of those ideas should be woven into the recurring tune, which dips in and out of the play as if it were carried on a wind that changes. It serves as a thread of connection and allusion between the narrator with his separate point in time and space and the subject of his story. Between each episode it returns as reference to the emotion, nostalgia, which is the first condition of the play. It is primarily Laura’s music and therefore comes out most clearly when the play focuses upon her and the lovely fragility of glass which is her image.
ThE LIGHTING: The lighting in the play is not realistic. In keeping with the atmosphere of memory, the stage is dim. Shafts of light are focused on selected areas or actors, sometimes in contradistinction to what is the apparent center. For instance, in the quarrel scene between Tom and Amanda, in which Laura has no active part, the clearest pool of light is on her figure. This is also true of the supper scene, when her silent figure on the sofa should remain the visual center. The light upon Laura should be distinct from the others, having a peculiar pristine clarity such as light used in early religious
THE GLASS MENAGERIE portraits of female saints or madonnas. A certain correspondence to light in religious paintings, such as El Greco’s, where the figures are radiant in atmosphere that is relatively dusky, could be effectively used throughout the play. (It will also permit a more effective use of the screen.) A free, imaginative use of light can be of enormous value in giving a mobile, plastic quality to plays of a more or less static nature.