The Glass Menagerie: The Theme Of A Play And Its Actuality Today
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams is an American classic that keeps the audience engaged in the story with its dramatic portrayal of family relationships, the dream of escape, and the way people come to terms with abandonment. As the first memory play The Glass Menagerie shaped theatre history and has inspired many playwrights with its message and unique writing style. This coming of age play has carved its way into the hearts of many and remains just as relevant today.
Tennessee Williams, born Thomas Lanier Williams III, was born on March 26, 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi. His life growing up greatly influenced his writing, from his family relationships to each place he lived. He grew up almost solely raised by his mother, as his father was a salesperson who preferred his work to raising his family. He described his birthplace in Mississippi as pleasant, happy, and carefree but that soon changed after his family packed up and moved to St. Louis, Missouri. Not used to urban life, Williams became introverted, choosing to stay in rather than go play outside, and this is when he first started writing (Biography.com).
The Glass Menagerie is noted as Williams most auto biological work, mirroring his life in multiple ways. The narrator of the story is based on himself, even named Tom after Williams birth name. Much like Williams, Tom loves literature, poetry, and daydreams of escaping his life but is grounded by his mother, sister, and his warehouse job the very things that he dreams of escaping. There isn’t a father figure in The Glass Menagerie, just like there wasn’t for most of William’s life. Rather there is a matriarch with Amanda raising her children by herself. Amanda is modeled after Williams own mother, Edwina. She is vivacious, and headstrong, but also a faded Southern belle trapped in the past. One of William’s sisters is also represented in the play. Laura is written after William’s older sister, Rose, who suffered from a mental illness that isolated her from the outside world and rather chose to surround herself with glass ornaments. Williams also took inspiration from his surroundings growing up for his stories, placing the play in an apartment in St. Louis, much like the one that he lived in when his family moved to St. Louis (Puchko).
On December 26th, 1944, The Glass Menagerie premiered at the Civic Theatre in Chicago, Illinois. Not only was this the premiere of the play but also Tennessee Williams as a playwright. Uncertainty was in the air following the plays pre-production, but that was dissipated after the debut night. Critics raved over the show, with overly positive reviews and the audience loved the show. After 10 weeks in Chicago, The Glass Menagerie was moved to New York where it opened on Broadway at the Playhouse Theatre on March 31st, 1945 with the entirety of the original cast. There it was also received incredibly well, with reviews such as “Hardly anything happens in it and it is as quiet as quiet can be—yet, when one leaves the Playhouse and meets reality on the 48th St. sidewalk, one realizes that some kind of hypnotism has been at work (The New York Daily News).” After its total run of 563 performances at the Playhouse Theatre, the show came to a close.
The play has been revived numerous times with the latest revival opening on March 9th, 2017 at the Belasco theatre. The show was not received well and closed on March 21st, 2017 after only 85 performances. This is very unusual as the actress playing Amanda, Sally Field, was in the running for the Tony award Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play and it is uncommon for a show with a Tony nominee to close before the awards ceremony. Its scheduled close was for July 2nd, 2017 but with ticket sales were too low to keep the show running the fully prepared length. Sally Field did not win the Tony either, with it going to Laurie Metcalf for her role as Nora in A Doll’s House, Part II (Chow, Paulson).
The explicit theme in The Glass Menagerie would be how living in a dream world is harmful and the difficulty in accepting reality. Every one of the Wingfields is living in their own fantasy world, and they clash with each other in some form during the play. Laura’s form of escape comes from her glass menagerie, choosing to surround herself with objects like herself. The glass animals are fragile but also beautiful, just like how Laura is. Toms dreams are the most grounded in reality comparatively, being able to cope with the real world but dreaming of escaping his life and his warehouse job. Tom dreams of adventure make it to where he turns to literature, movies and alcohol to have even a sliver of the adventure he dreams of. Tom even slips some money that he is supposed to pay the electric bill to pay his dues for the Merchant Marines. Amanda’s dreams are the most complicated compared to her children as they are tied to her past and the real-world values that she holds from adolescence. This way of living is chaining her down, as these values are what blocks her from seeing the truth in her life, and how she is no longer the Southern belle that she was growing up, that Laura is unusual, and that in a lot of ways Tom is too much like his father. These dreams also get in the way of her realising that she is partially responsible for their sorrows that her children are going through, and that she can not put all the blame on their absent father. Her coping mechanism is meager compared to her children as her dreams are not imaginatory escape but rather a distortion of her reality. The implicit theme stems from the unreliability of memory, from the lack of realism, to its on the nose symbolism. With Tom being the narrator and his memory, this is all how he recalls these events taking place, but no one’s memory is one hundred percent the truth, so as soon as Tom says that its a memory play we know that he’s an unreliable character. Tom isn’t the only character chained to their memories though. His mother Amanda refuses to move on from her past, consistently bringing up her experiences growing up and expecting for her life to be as it was back then.
Symbolism is abundant throughout The Glass Menagerie, from the menagerie itself to Laura’s nickname Blue Roses that Jim gave her. The most obvious would be the unicorn that is Laura’s favorite. It is not like the rest of the horses because of its own and this uniqueness makes it stand out. It is not until the horn breaks that its like the other horses finally, and although Laura says she’s happy that it’s now like the rest, with it being her favorite the audience can infer that this is sad for her. The unicorn is a symbol on Laura and how shes peculiar to society. Laura is also a unicorn in a herd of horses, with her being unusual, lonely, and can’t fit into the world around her. Her leg is the same for the unicorns horn, the thing that makes her stand out in this world. The figure being broken is also similar to what happens to Laura but on a smaller scale. When Jim kisses her she is experiencing the normality the rest of the world experiences, but just as the unicorn horn had to shatter in order for it to be normal, the way that normality is suddenly forces upon her makes it to where Laura’s world had to shatter for it to become normal. The actual menagerie is another symbol, representing Laura as a whole. Glass menageries are fragile but also beautiful in their own way, and when there’s the right light the transparent glass turns into a rainbow of colors. Just as how Laura is odd and boring to strangers but when you know her you see just how colorful she truly is. The other symbol for Laura would be the nickname that Jim gave her in high school “Blue Roses.” Blue roses are not naturally occurring in nature, but are alluring to people. This is also a way that Williams could bring his sister, Rose, more into the play, as Laura was based off of her.
The Glass Menagerie is an episodic plot, with the story being seperated in 7 sections that each have their own climax point. The Glass Menagerie is also a memory play, therefore making it non realistic as memories can be unreliable. The narrator Tom tells the audience this himself in his opening monologue. This play also uses a term Williams himself coined called Plastic Theatre. Plastic Theatre is ”the use of props, noises and/or stage directions to convey a blatant parallel with the characters’ states of mind on stage (Philips).” Williams first used this in The Glass Menagerie production notes to help the productions use the spectacle of the show to take it from a realism show to nonrealism, with the appearance that this was Tom’s memory. From wanting it dimly lit, one recurring tune for the sound, to going into great lengths on what the stage is supposed to appear like Williams clearly maps out how to properly do this show. This show was groundbreaking as it expanded on what theatre could be. It took domestic realism and reinvented it, adding elements of expressionism and introduced the method of memory. This was revolutionary for theatre at the time and changed theatre history forever.
This play is still just as important today as it was when it was written for many reasons. The themes in this story are still just as relevant today, with dealing with the dream of escape to the shackles that memory can have on a person. These are issues people have always dealt with and will continue to. The characters while they may seem over the top at times are still people we see in today’s society, from children being raised by single parents and how that affects them to how disabilities make people feel like they don’t fit in with society. These are all still issues that are prevalent in America and this play brings to light those people that society seems to forget about. The Glass Menagerie is just as prevalent today as it was as it was written and is still an important show.
The Glass Menagerie is a wonderful and deeply unique play, from its character dynamics to the spectacle of the show, this show is a beautiful dramatic piece that has audiences coming back year after year. It changed theatre history with its revolutionary style while still being a piece that the audience can see themselves in. The Glass Menagerie is sure to delight many more audiences in the future.