By Elaine P. Pearce
One of the best known plays of the American theatre, The Glass Menagerie was Tennessee Williams’s first critical and financial success. The play opened to a small audience in Chicago on a chilling December 26, 1944, but “by the third week . . . the house was packed every night. Soon the play was grossing $15,000 weekly, almost five times the take of the first week” (Norma Jean Lutz, “Biography of Tennessee Williams,” Bloom’s BioCritiques Tennessee Williams, ed. Harold Bloom [Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2003], 7-8).
Its success continued when the play opened in New York on March 31, 1945, where it had a run of 563 performances and earned Williams his first New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for the best play of the year, the Donaldson Award from Billboard magazine, and the Sidney Howard Memorial Award from the Playwrights Company (Lutz 9).
The Glass Menagerie went through several incarnations before it opened in Chicago. The short story, “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” was completed in 1943. Later that year, Williams rewrote the story into the unsuccessful script, “The Gentleman Caller,” while working as a screenwriter in Hollywood for MGM. In 1944 the work evolved into The Glass Menagerie.
Williams had originally doubted the play would have a broad appeal for audiences because the material was so personal (Lutz 42). Throughout his career, his life provided the material for his writing, but his writing was the means of coping with his life. Gore Vidal believed that Tennessee Williams, “could not possess his own life until he had written about it.” He remembers Tennessee rising early each morning to write, often reworking a story that had already been published (Introduction, Tennessee Williams Collected Stories [New York: Ballantine Books, 1985], xxiii). Interpreting and reinterpreting details of his life ultimately gave him a sense of control over his past, a degree of understanding if not an acceptance.
The Glass Menagerie is a memory play. Tennessee Williams tells us this in his production notes, stage directions, and the first speech of the play. He believed that “truth, life, or reality is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest, in essence, only through transformation.” His staging rejects the concrete reality of many of the plays of the era to give “a more penetrating and vivid expression of things as they are” (The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams: Plays 1937-1955, eds. Mel Gussow and Kenneth Holditch [New York: The Library of America, 2000] 395).
What is the underlying truth of The Glass Menagerie? The plays deals with the isolation that people feel when they cannot connect to each other or the world at large. Williams used his own isolation and that of his family. The Glass Menagerie mirrors Tennessee Williams’s life. Born Thomas Lanier Williams, Tennessee had a difficult childhood, suffering from diphtheria followed by Bright’s disease, which made it impossible for him to walk for the next two years. Throughout his illness, his mother was his devoted nurse, and his sister Rose, just sixteen months his elder, was his constant playmate, making his convalescence a happy time as they sailed paper boats, collected bits of brightly colored broken glass from garbage cans, and listened to the amazing tales of their nurse Ozzie.
When Tennessee’s mother and father married, his father worked for the telephone company but left that job to work as a traveling salesman while his wife and young family lived with her parents. They did not have a home of their own until Rose was eight and Tom was seven, and then their father was emotionally distant. In the 1930s, when this play takes place, Tennessee was compelled to work for a shoe company. It was a time when his father dictated his choices in life, having pulled him out of school because he had failed ROTC in his third year at the University of Missouri. Like Tom, he hated the job. Like Tom, he earned $65 a month. Unlike Tom, he could not be fired nor could he easily leave. Instead he worked as poorly as he could, disappearing to the roof every half hour or so to smoke a cigarette and ponder a poem or short story he was writing.
Together Tom, Amanda, and Laura Wingfield create one of the most memorable plays of the American theatre. Initially, The Glass Menagerie seems to be Tom’s play. As narrator, he sets the scene and is the presenter of illusions that hold the truth. After introducing the characters, he concludes, “I think the rest of the play will explain itself” (401). Once Tom enters the Wingfield apartment, his mother is in full control. Tom may be the stage manager of the play, but Amanda is director, designer, and producer of the family’s existence. In the first scene, Amanda instructs Tom on the proper way to eat his supper, undoubtedly not for the first time. Her lecture on “mastication” would offend any male in his twenties. Later she demands that he sit still while she brushes his hair to work on his cowlick. Amanda treats him like a child and rails against him for not being a man. Nothing he does is acceptable. He does not earn enough money, he wastes his time at the movies, he smokes too much, he drinks. Her anger toward her absent husband is focused on Tom, and she attacks any real or imagined similarity to his father.
Amanda projects her past onto her family’s present and future. She sees her children as extensions of herself, not as separate individuals. Her children know her story of the seventeen gentlemen callers by heart. Tom even provides the cues she needs to keep the story going. Amanda married for love, truly loves her children, but perhaps she loves herself even more. In the first scene of the play, Amanda refers to Tom as “son,” but Laura is “sister” and “little sister,” not daughter. When the gentleman caller arrives, everything is carefully staged—the apartment, Laura, and most noticeably Amanda herself dressed as the bell of the ball, her southern accent even more pronounced.
When Laurette Taylor, the remarkable actress who played the first Amanda Wingfield, met Tennessee Williams’s mother, she reportedly asked, “Well, Mrs. Williams, how did you like yourself?” Edwina was a genteel Southern woman, who married a telephone man and suffered long distances both physically and emotionally in her marriage. She talked all the time. “She not merely talked–and talked–she had the ability to overcome friend and adversary alike, usually leaving them limp and defenseless under the sheer weight of words” (Lyle Leverich, Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams, [New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1995] 47-48). Edwina talked about her gentlemen callers, the DAR, salivary glands, and the fine art of mastication. Her silences were worse. She had a way of looking at her children to register a deep disappointment. Even though she was an ardent supporter of Tennessee’s writing, if she disapproved of any books that he was reading for his work, she got rid of them.
Even though Amanda overshadows her, Laura is the true center of the play. Her extreme shyness makes it impossible for her to function in secretarial school. Instead she plays her father’s old phonograph records and dusts the glass animals to whom she has given personalities and emotions. In the production notes, Williams describes the music of The Glass Menagerie, “the lightest, most delicate music in the world and perhaps the saddest,” as “primarily Laura’s music” (396–7). Williams also calls for a shaft of light to fall upon Laura at particular points in the play—the argument scene and dinner with the gentleman caller—even though she is not engaged with the other characters.
Laura is the means whereby we know and better understand the other characters. Tom is gentle with her, protecting her even though she is the older sibling. He understands her innocence and accepts her limitations. He also concedes to her intercessions between him and his mother. When Jim, the only boy she ever liked, “an emissary from a world of reality” (401), accidentally breaks the horn of her unicorn, her favorite glass ornament, changing it from magical to ordinary, Laura’s concern is for Jim. She does not want him to feel bad. When you think of Laura, you think of delicately spun glass, and “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” (396).
Williams’s own sister, Rose, was high spirited and exuberant as a child but suffered emotional problems as she grew older. After high school she started business school with her bother. She “could not cope with the workload” or her instructor’s criticism and stopped going, “without telling her mother. She simply wandered about the city and Forest Park” (116). Eventually she was institutionalized in 1937, and in 1943 doctors assured her parents that a lobotomy would improve her condition, now diagnosed as schizophrenia. The surgery reduced her rages but did not restore her sanity.
Even if Tom Wingfield, like his father, abandons his family, Tennessee Williams could not. His family provided the material for his writing, and his writing provided the support for his family. In 1945 he assigned half of the royalties of The Glass Menagerie to his mother. In 1948 he assigned half of the royalties of Summer and Smoke to Rose. In 1949 he arranged for Rose to be transferred from the state hospital to a private sanatorium. Throughout his life he endeavored to improve her comfort. He left the bulk of his estate for her care. He was always faithful to her.