The Glass Menagerie is a play by Tennessee Williams. The play premiered in Chicago on December 26, 1944, and in 1945 won the prestigious New York Drama Critics Circle Award. The Glass Menagerie was Williams's first successful play; he went on to become one of America's most highly-regarded playwrights.
The play is set in St. Louis, Missouri, United States, and deals with the troubled relationship between an aging mother, Amanda Wingfield, and her painfully shy daughter Laura Wingfield, as told by the son and brother, Tom Wingfield, who is supposedly recalling events from his memory. He states that the play is not completely realistic, because "memory takes much poetic license." In this "memory play", the time scheme moves freely between the past (the 1930s) and the present (1944-1945).
Amanda is fixated on her idealized version of her Southern childhood, recalling days when as many as seventeen gentleman callers would visit her. She is, however, grimly aware of her current reality. Her husband, described as a "telephone man who fell in love with long distance," abandoned the family when Tom and Laura were children. Amanda has since made a meager living working in a department store and selling magazine subscriptions. Laura has a slight physical handicap: she wore a brace in high school, and has a slight limp now. She has become cripplingly shy as a result. The outside world frightens her. She prefers the comfort of her collection of glass animals and the sounds of her father's old victrola records. Although Tom provides financial support working long hours in a shoe warehouse (a job he hates), Amanda sees Tom as a "selfish dreamer" who irresponsibly retreats into movies, alcohol, and novels instead of doing more to provide for the family.
Amanda soon discovers that Laura, instead of attending business college, dropped out after a few days. Sensing her mother's disappointment, Laura explains that she was frightened and embarrassed, becoming physically ill at her first typing test. Her hopes of Laura's employment dashed, Amanda resolves to find a suitable companion for Laura, fearing that she will become like the "barely tolerated spinsters" she recalls from her past. Laura is less enthusiastic, but nevertheless mentions a boy she liked in high school, named Jim.
Meanwhile, Tom and Amanda's relationship grows even more strained, illustrated by a quarrel in scene 3. The fight is sparked by Amanda's returning one of Tom's D. H. Lawrence novels to the library, which she sees as obscene "filth". At the climax of the argument, Tom hurls Amanda's coat across the room and breaks some of Laura's glass animals; at the sound, she cries out as in pain.
In the next scene, Tom apologizes for the fight, and Amanda asks him to find a clean-living man from the warehouse to meet Laura over dinner. Somewhat reluctantly, he does so, and in scene five announces that he has found one: an Irish man named Jim O'Connor. Ecstatic, Amanda interrogates Tom about his suitability and frantically prepares for his arrival, tidying the house and fussing over Laura's appearance. However, once Amanda mentions Jim's name, Laura immediately recognizes him as the boy she loved in high school and pales. Once he arrives at dinner, Laura is so nervous she can barely come to the dinner table. After entertaining Jim at dinner, Amanda leaves the room to do dishes, leaving him alone with Laura.
During their conversation, Jim judges Laura as the victim of an inferiority complex, and advises her to see herself as "superior in some way", relating his own experience and goals for the future - in his case, television. Jim manages to coax Laura out of her shyness. She shows him her collection of glass, noting a unicorn as her favorite. Laura even agrees to dance with him after he offers. Inadvertently, Jim breaks the unicorn; Laura says it is no trouble, imagining that it had an operation to feel less "freakish". Eventually, Jim kisses Laura; however, he quickly realizes this mistake and hurriedly explains that he is engaged to a girl named Betty, proceeding to expound on how this engagement has changed him through love. Laura, crushed, offers him the broken unicorn as a "souvenir".
Amanda returns and soon discovers Jim's engagement for herself. When Jim leaves, she blames Tom for the situation; furious, Tom leaves for good. As Amanda is shown comforting Laura, silently, Tom delivers a soliloquy, revealing that he was never fully able to abandon their memory. The play closes with an image of Laura blowing out the candles, leaving darkness.
Like most of Williams' works, The Glass Menagerie is rich in symbolism. Probably the most prominent is that of the glass menagerie itself; it symbolizes Laura's fragility and delicacy, qualities that contrast with the bleak setting. The unicorn in particular represents her as well, being different from other horses; other critics interpret it to represent her illusions about Jim. When he breaks it, the action foreshadows his ensuing revelation.
The setting contains much symbolism as well. The fire escape (a name described as having "poetic truth"), one of Tom's chosen retreats, parallels his desire and eventual escape from reality. Tom's recounting of the stage show given by Malvolio is similar. Across the alley from the house is the Paradise Dance Hall; as its name suggests, it is a surrogate paradise for the people who frequent it.
A more overt device is seen in Tennessee Williams' use of on-screen "legends" written to accompany certain portions of dialog. However, these are omitted in most productions of the play.
In addition, a pattern of religious imagery is seen throughout the play, likely influenced by Williams' Episcopalian background. Amanda and Laura are often described in saintly or angelic fashion; for example, light shining on Laura described as similar to that which illuminates saints or madonnas. Tom's descriptions, by contrast, tend more to the anti-religious; one example is seen during his fight with Amanda, where he refers to himself as "El Diablo" (the devil). Jim is portrayed as a modern-day savior similar to Jesus Christ; this portrayal becomes ironic when he fails to rescue the Wingfields.
Another important symbol repeated throughout the book is that of light. Tom's refusal to pay the light bill, his command for Laura to blow out her candle at the end of the play, Laura coming into the light during Jim's visit and the moonlight vigil, seem to suggest that it represents the characters' hopes and their relationships to each-other.
Perhaps even another important symbol is Tom's obsession with film. His constant retreat from the house to the theatre is a way for him to literally and mentally escape his life. While watching a movie, Tom can escape from his world in the movie world. His final departure to the Marines seems almost theatrical in its un-uniqueness.
Autobiographical themes in the play
One of the key interpretations of the play is its relation to Williams's life. All of the characters appear to be connected to members of his family: the mother, Amanda Wingfield, shares characteristics with Williams's mother, an aggressive woman who had delusions of being a southern belle and living a genteel life. Laura Wingfield, her daughter, is similar to Williams's mentally handicapped sister, Rose. For most of his life, Williams felt guilty about leaving his mentally ill sister on her own, to nearly die from a botched lobotomy. In the play, Tom feels as if he is betraying his sister by leaving home, just as his father did.
Some critics have thought that Tom is a homosexual (just as Williams was). Tom is a writer working a menial job in a shoe factory. While he works at this factory, Tom actually writes poetry. Tennessee Williams's real given name was Thomas, so there is clearly a connection between Tom in the play and Williams himself (also, Williams' father was a traveling shoe salesman). Jim O'Connor, Laura's love interest, may reflect the type of popular, charismatic character that Williams wishes he could have been. Women flock to O'Connor; Williams has not always been so loved. The end of the play is tragic: O'Connor leads Laura on with a kiss but lets her down shortly afterwards with the news that he is engaged to another woman. Tom, the family's sole provider, leaves home to be a sailor and fulfill his want for adventure. He fulfills it, much as Williams finally fulfilled his dream of being a successful writer.
The Glass Menagerie was parodied by Christopher Durang in a short one-act entitled For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls, in which Laura is replaced by a wimpy hypochondriac son named Lawrence, and the "gentleman caller" becomes a butch female factory worker with a hearing problem named Ginny.
The Glass Menagerie was first produced by Eddie Dowling and Louis J. Singer at the Civic Theatre in Chicago, Ill., on December 26th, 1944. It was later performed at the Playhouse Theatre in New York City on March 31st, 1945. The cast was:
At least two movie versions of The Glass Menagerie have been produced, the first directed by Irving Rapper in 1950, starring Gertrude Lawrence, Jane Wyman, Kirk Douglas, and Arthur Kennedy, and the second by Paul Newman in 1987, starring Joanne Woodward, John Malkovich, Karen Allen, and James Naughton. Williams characterized the former, which had an implied happy ending grafted onto it, as the worst adaptation of his work. More popular than these, however, is a TV adaptation by Anthony Harvey from the year 1973, starring Katharine Hepburn, Sam Waterston, Michael Moriarty, and Joanna Miles.