Summary of The Glass Menagerie
This Edition: 1944
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What It’s About
A New Theater but Familiar Feelings
A family that, despite their love for one another, fail to understand each other is the tragedy of Tennessee Williams’ breakthrough play. In this brief dramatic masterpiece, Williams captures the tension between duty to those you love and the need to follow your dreams, complicated relationships between present and past, and feelings of isolation. Despite such familiar themes, this “memory play” shook the framework of American theater. In 1944, at a time when stodgy and predictable realism dominated Broadway, Williams created something new by combining the roles of character and narrator and using unusual dramatic conventions. His bold experimentation ushered in a wildly popular style of American drama. Despite the avant-garde nature of his expressionist dramatic techniques, they enhanced rather than detracted from the intensely real emotions his play portrayed. To this day, regular stage revivals are testament to the enduring power of this richly human family drama.
- Tennessee Williams’ breakout play offers a tragic glimpse of human desire and frailty.
- Tom toils in a factory job he loathes to support his aging Southern belle mother, Amanda, and his disabled, crushingly shy sister, Laura. As Tom longs for escape, Amanda plots to find a husband for Laura. When Tom brings home his work colleague Jim to meet the fragile young woman, it proves disastrous. Jim is engaged to another woman, and Tom decides to abandon his family.
- The Glass Menagerie launched the career of Tennessee Williams, one of America’s most famous playwrights.
- Based on his short story “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” the play opened in 1944 and moved to Broadway in 1945.
- Praised as “a new dawn for the American theater,” this “memory play” broke with staid realism and used music, lighting, set and text unconventionally.
- Williams believed expressionism and unconventional techniques should present “a more penetrating and vivid expression of things as they are.”
- The play reveals the emotional and financial pressures of the Great Depression, pitting familial duty against personal dreams and desires.
- In writing the play, Williams drew inspiration from his own life, especially his experience with his schizophrenic sister, Rose.
- The Glass Menagerie illustrates the implacable grip of memory and the past on people’s everyday lives.
- “For time is the longest distance between two places.”
Scene One: A Family in the Past
The curtain rises on a grim tenement apartment that burns with “the fires of human desperation.” Tom Wingfield, who acknowledges himself to be both narrator and character, explains that the play is memory; as such, it is sentimental and unrealistic. He introduces his mother, Amanda Wingfield, and his sister, Laura Wingfield. As a result of a childhood illness, one of Laura’s legs is shorter than the other, and she wears a brace. Hovering over the scene is a photo of their absent father, Mr. Wingfield. Captured forever as the handsome and smiling young soldier, he seems to be gloating about his escape.
As the three family members sit down to eat dinner, Amanda berates Tom for his table manners and urges him to chew his food in a leisurely manner. Frustrated with her overbearing nit-picking, Tom lashes out. Although Laura tries to distract them from their argument by fetching dessert, Amanda urges Laura to remain seated so she can “stay fresh and pretty” for gentlemen callers. Amanda then launches into fond reminiscence about her past as a Southern belle who once received 17 gentleman callers in a single afternoon. To Tom’s dismay, she offers an elaborate catalog of her past beaus, even boasting that one carried her picture until the day he died. One prospective husband became fabulously wealthy, and Amanda bitterly alludes to the mistake she made in having chosen the children’s father, a salesman, instead. Laura again tries to stem the tide of regret and make peace, but Amanda insists that Laura instead practice her typewriting or shorthand until her gentlemen callers arrive. When Laura admits that she isn’t expecting any callers, Amanda exclaims that a flood or tornado must have prevented them. Her voice catching, Laura confesses to her brother that their mother fears Laura will die an old maid.
Scene Two: Deception and Inception
Laura contentedly polishes her collection of glass ornaments. When she hears her mother arriving home, she frantically pretends to be practicing her typing. Amanda arrives, dressed in a formal but outdated costume. Putting on an air of martyrdom, she turns on Laura, decrying her daughter’s deception. Amanda reveals that on the way to her Daughters of the American Revolution meeting, she stopped by Laura’s business college, only to discover that Laura hasn’t been attending the last six weeks of lessons. The college revealed that Laura suffered an anxiety attack during the first lesson; she fled and never returned. As Amanda laments Laura’s waste of tuition fees, hope and ambition, Laura reveals how she spent her days while pretending to attend lessons: She walked the streets, sometimes visiting the park, museum or zoo.
“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.” (Tom)
Amanda responds with an ominous description of the purposeless spinsters she knew in the South and demands to know if Laura ever liked any boys. Laura reluctantly confesses that back in high school she had a crush on Jim, who played the lead in the school production of The Pirates of Penzance. Jim had nicknamed Laura “Blue Roses” as a result of mishearing Laura when she explained that she missed school because of her pleurosis. Amanda interrupts Laura’s recollection by insisting that since Laura won’t pursue a business career, she must marry. When Laura protests that she is crippled, Amanda refuses to be dissuaded, brashly insisting that Laura must cultivate charm to compensate for her defect.
Scene Three: Broken Glass, Broken Family
Tom describes how from that moment, the specter of a gentleman caller haunted the apartment. Amanda became obsessed with her plan to find Laura a husband. Seeking money to fund Laura’s wooing, she began selling subscriptions to a glamour magazine called The Homemaker’s Companion.
“Resume your seat, little sister. I want you to stay fresh and pretty for gentlemen callers!” (Amanda to Laura)
The lights come up as Tom and Amanda bicker viciously and Laura cowers. Amanda has interrupted Tom’s work on his manuscripts, and Tom erupted in response, furious that he can call no part of his life his own. The previous day, Amanda had confiscated Tom’s copy of D. H. Lawrence’s novel, insisting it was the product of a “diseased mind.” As Amanda shouts about the literary filth, Tom throws in her face that it is he who pays the rent and enslaves himself to provide for the family. Tom says that he loathes his job at Continental Shoemakers and explains if he had his own way, he would leave them just like his father did.
Tom prepares to storm out of the house; when Amanda insists that he tell her where he is going, he says he is heading to the movies. Amanda accuses him of lying, and he offers a series of comically melodramatic alternatives for what he might be doing with his evenings: wallowing in opium dens, working as a hired assassin or gambling. After calling his mother a witch, he throws on his coat. However, in doing so, he accidentally shatters one of Laura’s glass figurines; Laura cries out as though wounded. Amanda insists that she won’t speak to Tom until he apologizes, but Tom stops and helps Laura to gather the broken glass.
Scene Four: Magic and Adventure
A drunken Tom stumbles home at five in the morning. While fumbling for his keys, he wakes Laura, who asks where he has been. He claims he was at the movies, where he also saw a stage show by Malvolio the Magician. Ignoring Laura’s urging to be quiet lest he awake Amanda, Tom sings the magician’s praises – especially the act in which he escaped from a nailed-shut coffin. When Tom asks who could escape such a coffin without removing a single nail, in answer, the portrait of their absentee father lights up.
“You know it don’t take much intelligence to get yourself into a nailed-up coffin, Laura. But who in hell ever got himself out of one without removing one nail?” (Tom)
The next morning, Laura acts as go-between while Tom and Amanda’s war continues. After Amanda sends Laura to the shops (to purchase butter on credit), Tom finally caves and apologizes to his mother. A mollified Amanda gushes about her love for her unusual children and solicits Tom’s promise that he will never become a drunk like his father. Still laying on the guilt for Tom’s drunken exploits the previous night, she asks Tom why he spends so much time at the movies. He explains that he needs adventure, and since he can’t find it at the warehouse where he works, he lives vicariously through film to satisfy his human instincts for loving, hunting and fighting.
“Man is by instinct a lover, a hunter, a fighter, and none of those instincts are given much play at the warehouse!” (Tom)
Amanda dismisses such instincts as being animalistic. She reveals that she has seen Tom’s letter from the Merchant Marines and knows he plans to leave the family. She begs him first to find someone to marry and take care of Laura. Amanda demands that Tom find a clean-living young man at the warehouse and invite him home to meet his sister. After much nagging, Tom agrees.
Scene Five: Annunciation of a Savior
Now reconciled with her son, Amanda babies Tom, admonishing him for his smoking and urging him to comb his hair. Tom escapes to the fire escape and gazes out at the Paradise Dance Hall across the alley. In a monologue, he considers the that the pleasures sought there are just a poor substitute for the adventure provided by war and revolution in other countries.
Tom makes a wish on the moon, and when Amanda demands to know his wish, he distracts her with some news: Jim O’Connor, a shipping clerk from work, is coming for dinner the following night. Thrown into a flurry, Amanda fusses about how to spruce up the house for the gentleman caller’s arrival and interrogates Tom about Jim’s looks and character. Tom reassures Amanda that Jim isn’t too handsome, that he attends night school where he studies radio engineering and public speaking, and that he isn’t a drunk. However, Tom cautions Amanda that she shouldn’t expect too much of Laura. In addition to her disability, she is crushingly shy, and she lives in a world all her own; Tom warns that Jim may find her peculiar. Amanda dismisses his concerns and drags Laura outside, demanding she make a wish on the moon for happiness and good fortune.
Scene Six: The Gentleman Caller
Tom discusses Jim. In school, Jim’s good nature, vitality, and his talent at both sport and singing had made him a hero. He bounded rather than walked – a young man destined for great things. However, his life has sputtered since graduation, and he now holds a job not much better than Tom’s. Even so, Jim values Tom as someone who could recall his glory days. It’s Jim’s good humor toward Tom’s habit of hiding in bathroom stalls to write poetry during work that has led Tom’s colleagues to accept him. Jim even gave Tom a nickname: Shakespeare. Although Tom is aware that Jim and Laura knew each other at school, he is sure Jim has forgotten Laura.
“You are the only young man that I know of who ignores the fact that the future becomes the present, the present becomes the past and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don’t plan for it!” (Amanda)
In preparation for Jim’s visit, Amanda has transformed the apartment. The new lamp, curtains and cushions all give a misleading sense of elegance. Laura wears a beautiful new dress, and her altered hair style gives her an air of fragility and prettiness. In turn, Amanda dons the girlish and elaborate dress she wore to her own cotillion. Laura confesses that she is nervous about Jim’s arrival, but Amanda dismisses her fears and stuffs Laura’s bosom with powder puffs to enhance her cleavage. When Laura protests that it feels like they are setting a trap, Amanda informs her daughter that all pretty girls are a trap. Increasingly nostalgic, Amanda recalls how even though she suffered from malaria, she threw herself into every social engagement of her first season. It was that spring when she met Laura’s father.
“All pretty girls are a trap, a pretty trap, and men expect them to be.” (Amanda to Laura)
However, after Amanda mentions the name Jim, Laura realizes that it is likely the same Jim she adored in high school who will be arriving that evening; panicked, she exclaims that if it is him, she can’t attend dinner. She begs her mother not to make her answer the door, but Amanda is unmoved. After a frantic argument and despite Laura’s pleas that she is physically sick, Amanda demands that Laura let the men in when they arrive. The doorbell rings and, after greeting Jim, Laura scampers away like a frightened deer. Tom explains that Laura is shy, and Jim reflects that it’s unusual to meet a shy girl these days.
As the men chat on the fire escape, Jim sings the praises of his public speaking course to Tom. He insists that it is social poise that will allow him to one day earn an executive position. Jim then warns Tom that he has talked with their boss, and if Tom doesn’t wake up, he’ll lose his job. Tom assures Jim that he plans to change – but not at work. Instead, tired of finding adventure only in the movies, he has joined the Union of Merchant Seaman – using the money for that month’s electricity bill to pay for membership. Just like his father, Tom intends to abandon his family and travel the world.
“People go to the movies instead of moving! Hollywood characters are supposed to have all the adventures for everybody in America, while everybody in America sits in a dark room and watches them have them! Yes, until there’s a war. That’s when adventure becomes available to the masses!” (Tom)
Amanda interrupts, oozing charm as she makes Jim’s acquaintance. She not-so-subtly sings Laura’s praises, describing her daughter as sweet, pretty and domestic. Tom checks on Laura and dinner and returns to say that dinner is on the table but Laura is unwell and can’t join them. Amanda drags Laura forth, but Laura stumbles, nearly fainting. In despair, Amanda allows Laura to go lie down in the living room. Amanda and the men sit down to eat.
Scene Seven: Blowing Out the Candles
The lights go out, and Amanda tells Tom off for failing to pay the bill. They light candles, and Amanda sends Jim through to check on Laura. Despite Laura’s shyness, Jim strikes up a conversation with her, gradually coaxing her out of her shell. She asks him if he has kept up with his singing, and Jim realizes that he knew Laura from high school. With Laura’s prompting, he recalls his nickname for her: Blue Roses. With embarrassment, she talks about clumping to her seat in her heavy brace in the chorus class they shared; she admits that she felt her disability kept her apart from her classmates.
“You think of yourself as having the only problems, as being the only one who is disappointed. But just look around you, and you will see lots of people as disappointed as you are.” (Jim to Laura)
Jim exclaims that she shouldn’t have been so self-conscious and reassures her that people weren’t as bad as she remembers, since everyone suffers their own disappointments. He confesses that he feels he hasn’t lived up to the potential he had in high school. Laura admits that she wanted him to sign her program for The Pirates of Penzance but was too shy to ask. She produces the program and with a grand flourish, he signs it for her now. When he prompts her to talk about school, Laura explains that she failed her examinations and didn’t graduate. He asks what she has done in the intervening six years, and she struggles to answer. Jim propounds on Laura’s trouble: an inferiority complex. He exclaims that it is her lack of confidence that causes all her trouble and urges her to think of herself as superior rather than physically defective. Caught up in his own optimistic rhetoric, Jim brags of his interest in electrodynamics and explains his plans to become involved in what he sees as the industry of the future: television.
Jim urges her to reveal her own interest, and Laura confesses her love for her collection of glass ornaments, which her mother calls her “glass menagerie.” She brings out her favorite piece, a delicate glass unicorn – which Jim observes must be lonesome as an extinct creature and the last of its kind. When music drifts across the alley from the dance hall, Jim invites Laura to waltz. At first reluctantly, she joins him, and they dance. However, when they bump the table, the glass unicorn falls and his horn breaks off. Instead of growing angry, Laura observes that now the unicorn looks like all the other horses, able to fit in at last. Caught up in the moment, Jim tells Laura that she is pretty and unusual, like blue roses. Declaring that someone should build her confidence, he kisses her.
“I’ll just imagine he had an operation. The horn was removed to make him feel less freakish!” (Laura)
A dazed Laura sinks to the sofa, but Jim breaks the moment by berating himself as a “stumblejohn.” He admits that he isn’t in a position to do right by her because he is engaged to a woman named Betty. Oblivious to Laura’s silent struggle, he rhapsodizes on the tremendous power of love. At last, he begs her to say something, and instead she mutely presses the broken unicorn into his hand as a “souvenir.”
At that moment Amanda bursts in, cheerful and unaware. Jim makes his excuses, explaining that he has to take Betty out. Falsely blithe, Amanda informs him that she understands the tyranny of women. Jim assures Laura that he’ll treasure the souvenir and leaves. The moment he is out the door, Amanda rounds on Tom, furious that he brought home an engaged man – despite Tom’s protestations that he had no idea. Tom decides to flee to the movies, and Amanda urges him to go to the moon, shouting that he is a “selfish dreamer.” An angry Tom escapes.
As Amanda comforts Laura in silhouette, Tom narrates what happened next. He was fired for writing a poem on a shoe box at work and left St. Louis, abandoning his family in order to travel. He flew from city to city, pursued by something he couldn’t escape: the memory of Laura. He describes turning to cigarettes, movies, drink and strangers – anything to blow out Laura’s candles and allow him to forget her. As Laura blows out the candles on stage and Tom bids farewell, the curtain falls.
About the Text
Structure and Style
It’s hard to overstate how revolutionary the style of The Glass Menagerie was when it opened on Broadway in 1945. In the 1940s, Broadway theater was flagging – something was needed to, as Williams himself described it, “take the place of the exhausted theater of realistic conventions.” Williams stepped up and created “a new plastic theater” by writing The Glass Menagerie. Many of the changes were in his use of theatrical devices. Williams employs spotlights to draw attention to the actions or reactions of specific characters (especially Laura), even when that character isn’t speaking and so may not be the obvious focus of the scene. He uses music to create mood or memory: As Tom says, “in memory, everything seems to happen to music.” Tom is both narrator and a character within the play, slipping between roles to create the “memory play.” Williams explains that as narrator, Tom “takes whatever license with dramatic convention is convenient for his purposes.” Pictures or captions are projected or displayed on stage throughout the performance, guiding the audience or providing hints, and transparent sets allow multiple rooms to be visible at once.
Williams’s expressionist or even impressionistic devices don’t, however, detract from the realism of the emotions displayed. As he argues in his preface to the play, “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.” Though the production is stylized, the dialogue is natural and realistic, as are the feelings presented. The play consists of seven scenes, with no specified acts or intermission.
- Tom illustrates the conflict that results from a sense of duty toward those you love and the desire for personal fulfillment; his family requires him to support them, yet Tom longs for more than his factory job can offer.
- Tom’s options are all the more limited because of the crushing financial constraints of the Great Depression.
- The past’s hold on the present is evident throughout the play. The memory play shows Tom’s attempt to recall and deal with his experiences with the family he has abandoned, and his final monologue suggests how inescapable that past is. Similarly, Amanda’s obsession with her idealized past creates much of the play’s conflict.
- The glass menagerie, and particularly the glass unicorn, are symbols for Laura: beautiful, fragile and isolated by the very qualities that make them unique. Both the glass and Laura are too delicate and unusual for the world in which they live. Such stark symbolism exemplifies the play’s use of expressionism.
- In Amanda’s fears about what will become of Laura if she neither finds a job nor marries, Williams demonstrates the difficult position of women in the Unites States in the 1930s and 1940s.
- All the central characters are disconnected from reality: Tom loses his job as a result of his poetic dreaming; Amanda lives in the past and can’t recognize the truth of her own present; and Laura’s private, inner world is so fanciful that she is unable to function in real life.
- The depiction of a man struggling to support a family with an overbearing mother and fragile sister reflects Williams’s own life. Tom’s absent father, dissatisfaction with his factory career, Southern belle mother and schizophrenic sister all influence the story.
An American Dream Depressed
The Glass Menagerie’s America is mired in the Great Depression. The 1929 stock market crash resulted in the collapse of the US economy, with the failure of nearly half of the nation’s banks and rampant currency deflation. Countless people lost their homes and livelihoods, and by 1933, nearly 25% of the American workforce was unemployed. Although events like the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair boasted of the potential of America industry and technological progress, the overall mood of the country was bleak; there were few opportunities for career or social advancement.
What finally lifted the United States out of the Great Depression was the industrial boom and resulting job creation that accompanied World War II. By the time The Glass Menagerie originally opened in 1944, America had been embroiled in the war for three years. The military drafted young men into service and, as a result, opportunities grew for women in the workplace. America changed the course of the war and cemented its position as a global superpower.
Several elements of the play have a basis in Williams’s own life, including: Tom’s name (Williams, whose given name was Thomas Williams, was known as Tom throughout his childhood); the St. Louis setting, where Williams spent his teenage years; Williams’s mother’s reminiscence about her Deep South upbringing; and most crucially, Laura’s inspiration: Williams’s fragile and later schizophrenic sister Rose Williams (whom the family eventually committed to a sanatorium).
The story saw several prior incarnations before the finished play. In 1943, Williams wrote a short story entitled “Portrait of a Girl in Glass” (published in 1948), which served as the basis for The Glass Menagerie; some of Tom’s soliloquies appear word for word in this earlier version. Later, Williams adapted the short story into the unpublished one-act play If You Breathe, It Breaks. While working for MGM studios in 1943, Williams wrote a screenplay called The Gentleman Caller, a more optimistic version of Menagerie; the film was never made. The Glass Menagerie opened in Chicago in 1944 and moved to Broadway in March 1945. Eddie Dowling and Margo Jones directed the play.
Reviews and Legacy
The Glass Menagerie was the hit that launched Tennessee Williams’s playwriting career. It ran on Broadway for 17 months and won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play. Critic Ashton Steven described the play as having “the courage of true poetry,” and Arthur Miller praised the play’s “revolutionary newness.” Tony Kushner describes Williams as having “created a new language for the American theater,” and Benedict Nightingale wrote that no one “ever wrote more shrewdly and feelingly about family politics.”
In 1950, Irving Rapper directed a film version of the play that altered the story to provide a happy ending. Williams despised the adaptation. In 1987, Paul Newman directed a second film version, also unsuccessful. More popular were the play’s two television adaptations, the 1966 and 1973 versions, respectively starring Shirley Booth and Katherine Katharine Hepburn as Amanda. Regular stage productions ensure the play’s ongoing legacy (it is Williams’s most frequently staged play), including a 2013 Broadway revival nominated for seven Tony Awards. Williams’s startling use of dramatic conventions and rich emotional realism generate continued appreciation for this dramatic classic.
About the Author
Tennessee Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams on March 26, 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi. His father, Cornelius, was a traveling shoe salesman and alcoholic; his mother, Edwina, was the daughter of a reverend. Their marriage was unhappy. When Williams was eight, the family relocated to St. Louis, Missouri, where a discontented Williams began writing. He studied journalism at the University of Missouri, during which time he wrote poetry, plays and short stories for competitions. In 1931, he withdrew from college due to financial trouble and began work at the International Shoe Company. He was deeply dissatisfied with the work, and after suffering a nervous breakdown, he left the job. In 1937, the family committed his sister Rose to an asylum; fears of insanity haunted Williams for the rest of his life. He finished his education across two more institutions and in 1938 graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in English. Williams wrote five plays in the 1930s, but finally achieved success with The Glass Menagerie in 1945; the play received rave reviews and several awards, launching Williams to fame. In 1947, A Streetcar Named Desire opened, for which Williams won a Pulitzer Prize. That same year, he met and fell in love with Frank Merlo, his partner for the next 16 years. In the 1950s, Williams saw a series of artistic and commercial successes with the adaptations of his plays for film and with six more hit plays, including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. However, the 1960s proved tragic for Williams. In 1963, Frank Merlo died of cancer. Williams’s subsequent plays met with little success, and the depressed Williams increasingly abused alcohol and drugs. After his brother hospitalized him in 1969, he wrote several more plays and in 1975 published his Memoirs. At age 71, Williams choked to death alone in a hotel room on February 25, 1983. The author of 28 plays, two novels and nine screenplays, today Williams is remembered as one of America’s greatest playwrights.
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