Discussion #4 The Glass Menagerie

 

Greetings Everyone!

Here is some extra information about the play listed above. For this piece, there is only a typed lecture and no audio. Think about the questions posed in the lecture - they are designed to get you thinking about the play and its various ideas and symbols. Enjoy!

 

The Glass Menagerie

THE CHARACTERS

· TOM WINGFIELD

When Tennessee Williams created Tom he pulled a neat trick. He created a character who exists outside and inside the play's action at the same time. When you see him standing on the fire escape adjoining the Wingfield apartment, Tom is the narrator. He is outside the action. He is a seasoned merchant sailor who's traveled on both land and sea. He's a good talker, too, the kind you might like to spend an evening with over a few beers. He can be funny, as when he describes his runaway father as a "telephone man who fell in love with long distances."

One actor's reading of Tom's lines can give you the impression that Tom regrets being a wanderer. Another actor can create the sense that Tom looks back with relief, pleased that he broke away, at least from his mother. Regardless of the interpretation you favor, you know that Laura, Tom's sister, has a firm hold on his affections. "Oh, Laura, Laura," he says in the play's final speech, "I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!" Evidently, memory is a potent force, one that Tom can't escape.

Because the whole play is Tom's memory brought to life on the stage, Tom may be the most important character. However, you could make a case for Amanda's importance as well. Either way, Tom sets the sentimental mood of the play and reveals only what he wants you to know about his family. If Amanda narrated the play, can you imagine how different it would be?

Tom calls himself a poet. He writes poetry at every opportunity. You hear poetic speeches pour from his lips. A co-worker at the warehouse calls him "Shakespeare." Does he deserve the name? Do any of his speeches sound like poetry to you?

In addition, Tom claims a poet's weakness for symbols. In fact, the story bulges with symbols of all kinds, some obvious (the little glass animals signifying Laura), some more obscure (frequent references to rainbows, for example). But let us talk about symbolism later and stick top the characters.

You rarely see Tom in a cheerful mood. He complains, groans, sulks, argues, or pokes fun at others, especially at Amanda. He bristles under her constant nagging. He quarrels about inviting home a beau for Laura. Most of all, he is repelled by Amanda's repeated references to her long-ago past. Tom's resentful manner leads his mother to accuse him of having a "temperament like a Metropolitan [Opera] star." Does Amanda have a point? Is Tom preoccupied with pleasing himself or do you sympathize with Tom?

Tom's obligations seem to tear him apart. He's caught between responsibilities to his family and to himself. In short, he faces a dilemma that's often part of growing up - to take on family responsibility or follow personal ambition.
To cope with frustration and pain Tom sometimes uses bitter humor. Humor provides only a little relief, however. That's why he rushes off to the movies whenever he can. Watching someone else's adventures on the movie screen offers Tom another diversion from his own dreary existence.

What Tom tells you as he stands at the edge of the stage may be more than just the story of one young man's disillusion. You might think of Tom as a representative of a whole generation of young people coming of age just as the world is exploding into war. They have high hopes and rich dreams. But the future they wish for never comes. It is destroyed by forces beyond their control. "The world is lit by lightning," Tom says.

Tom's story, then, may be both personal and generally symbolic of life at a bleak time in our history. You can read it either way.


· AMANDA WINGFIELD

In the production notes of The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams tells you that Amanda is "a little woman of great but confused vitality clinging frantically to another time and place.... There is much to admire in Amanda, and as much to love and pity as there is to laugh at." Do you agree? Do you find her as difficult to bear as Tom does?
In contrast to Tom, who sets the mood in the play, Amanda is a mover, the character who sets the story into motion. Therefore, you might consider her the play's main character. Throughout the play Tom, Laura and Jim respond to Amanda's stimulating and complex personality. Even her husband, who has run from her, showed a distinctive response to Amanda. Tom shares a few tender moments with his mother, but more typically, he's put off by her scolding and nagging. Laura, unlike her brother, usually obeys Amanda's wishes and tries to understand her. Jim, during dinner with the Wingfields, is caught up by Amanda's vibrant cheerfulness.

What are you likely to remember most about Amanda? Is it her irrational and inappropriate belief in the romantic past? Or might it be her pathetic conviction that her children are bound to succeed in life because of their "natural endowments?" She refuses to accept the fact that Tom is a malcontent with a dead-end job. As for Laura, Amanda denies that her daughter has anything wrong with her that a little charm and a typing course won't fix. Even Jim O'Connor, quite an ordinary young man, strikes Amanda as a shining prince destined to rescue and marry Laura. Amanda's wishes for her children sometimes leave her blind to reality.

To understand Amanda you should decide whether she is really as far gone as she often appears. Is she unaware of the truth, or does she simply refuse to accept it? Despite her frequent silliness, she evidently has a practical streak. She thinks seriously about the future. That's why she presses Tom to bring home a friend for Laura.

Amanda tries hard to be a good mother. After her husband runs off, she does the best she can to provide for her family. Above all, she is strong, stronger than Tom and stronger than her husband. When all her efforts have failed, she sticks by Laura. She emerges tender and noble. And you can depend on her never to give up hope. At the end of the play, with Tom enroute to the seven seas and Laura brokenhearted over Jim, Amanda shows "dignity and tragic beauty." What, in your opinion, is the source of Amanda's transformation? Or might she have had dignity and tragic beauty within her all along?


· LAURA WINGFIELD

It's more than coincidental that the play's title refers to the collection of glass animals that belongs to Laura. She is so fragile that she can hardly function in the real world. Not surprisingly, her favorite figure in the menagerie is the unicorn, a creature which Laura calls "freakish," which is precisely the way Laura has felt much of her life. Can you think of other qualities of the unicorn that resemble Laura?

Laura frequently escapes to a private, imaginary world occupied by fragile glass animals. When you consider Laura's personality, it makes sense why the menagerie is glass rather than some other material.

Of the three Wingfields, Laura stands in the greatest peril, for she lacks both the strength of Amanda and the potential to escape, like Tom. Laura creates the impression that she's forever going to be a misfit. The world is simply too harsh for her. She confesses to Jim how awkward she felt in high school. She wore a brace on her leg and believed that everyone in school noticed her "clumping" around. As people grow older they usually overcome feelings of shyness. Why didn't Laura?
In spite of her fragility, though, Laura is the most serene member of her family. She leaves the worrying to Amanda and Tom. Sometimes she may remind you of a child who creates havoc and doesn't know it. In her innocence, Laura doesn't realize how Tom and Amanda bleed for her.

It's possible to think of Laura as merely a timid, neurotic little girl, totally absorbed in her own troubles. But can you find more substance in her character? Is she sensitive to Amanda and to Tom in any way? Does she contribute to the well being of her family? You may not have to search far to find likeable and sympathetic traits in Laura's personality.
Laura hides in her make-believe world. Only once, during Jim O'Connor's visit, does she venture out of it into the world of reality. Jim has given Laura a bit of self-confidence. He even convinces her to dance with him. During the dance, they bump the table, knocking the glass unicorn to the floor and breaking off its single horn – no longer fantastic – it is but a horse. Laura, for a short time, feels like any other girl who has been swept off her feet by the boy of her dreams.

Unfortunately for Laura, though, the time of her life lasts no more than a few minutes. When Tom leaves home for good, it is thoughts of Laura that haunt his memory.

· JIM O'CONNOR

Tom tells you in his opening speech that Jim is an emissary from the world of reality. If that is so, reality must be a fairly dull place, for Jim is a nice, but rather ordinary, young man. On the surface, he is well-mannered, hard-working, and responsible. He is a pleasant guest, and he dutifully entertains Laura after dinner. He does all you'd expect him to. Why, then, is Jim so disappointing?

Even Jim himself knows that he's a disappointment, although he puts up a smooth-talking and self-confident front. When you consider his admirable high school record, he should be racing up the ladder of success by now. Instead, he's still in the pack.

Common wisdom, which Jim believes, says that if you work hard, you'll succeed. Jim has worked hard, but he hasn't succeeded. So he takes self-improvement courses in public speaking, thinking that greater "social poise" will help him land the executive position of his dreams.

Although he's trying hard, you never know if Jim will make it big. Perhaps he will. On the other hand, when you recall that illusion dominates the play, you might suspect that Jim's plans are pure fancy, and that he's placed too much faith in a hollow dream. In the end, he may just plod along like everyone else.

After dinner at the Wingfields Jim is pleased with himself for winning Laura so easily. His conquest reminds him of his high school days when he held the world in his hands. Laura is good for his ego. He's driven to pursue his dream, even if he has to step on others as he goes. Finally, he dismisses Laura with the news that he's engaged. Dinner at the Wingfields' turns out to be only a brief stop along the way to elusive success.


SETTING

The whole play is set in the Wingfields' apartment, which faces an alley in the downtown slums of St. Louis. In the stage directions Tennessee Williams draws a vivid picture of the place. It's cramped and dark, almost like a jail cell. You can't tell it apart from the thousands of other apartments occupied by people trapped in drab and joyless lives. No one in the family wants to live there. But poverty forces them to. It shouldn't surprise you that "escape" develops into a major theme in the play.

In addition to the usual rooms, there is an important fire escape off to one side. The characters in the play sometimes stand on the fire escape. Tom delivers his speeches to the audience from there. The family uses it to go in and out every day. But it's an "escape" only in name because the people living here are "fundamentally enslaved" in their lower middle-class lives.

Across the alley you see the Paradise Dance Hall. Much of the music you hear during the play comes from there. Sometimes the melodies are subtle comments on events taking place in the Wingfield apartment. Almost every detail of the setting in some manner suggests a theme or contributes an idea to the play. Consider, for instance, the name "Paradise Dance Hall." The young people who meet and dance there will soon be going to war. Many will be killed. Could Williams be implying that this two-bit dance hall is as close to paradise as those boys and girls will ever get?

Think also of the smiling photo of Mr. Wingfield prominently displayed on the wall. Isn't it odd that Amanda, who expresses disdain for her husband, keeps it there? Perhaps Amanda preserves the photograph as a souvenir, a remembrance from the past. Or the photo, which hangs in the living room, may also be kept there to serve as a daily reminder to the Wingfields- especially Tom- that escape is possible.

When Tom steps onto the fire escape to introduce you to the play, the 1940's have begun, and World War II is raging. In his story, he takes you back to the 1930's, a decade of hopeless depression.

You might ask why Tennessee Williams wants you to know the world situation during the time of the story. After all, affairs of state don't directly touch Tom and the other characters. Is the play, then, meant to be more than just a drama of family life? Can you find parallels between the events in the apartment and events in the world? Would the play be less poignant if you didn't know about the civil war in Spain, the massive poverty of the Great Depression, and the growth of Nazism? As you think about the play, these are questions worth considering.


THEMES

1. ILLUSION

We all have illusions. You can hardly live without them. Usually, they are harmless thoughts about, say, last summer's vacation or that very attractive person you just met. Whenever you hold an opinion based on what you think is true, or should be true, rather than what actually is true, that's an illusion. Because illusions sometimes help you deal with painful facts, like good medicine they make you feel better. But when you are disillusioned, the pain returns.
The characters in The Glass Menagerie are hooked by their illusions. Without illusion, Amanda would realize the hopelessness of Laura's condition. In fact, it's because of her illusions that Amanda keeps her hopes alive for that "always expected something" to rescue Laura from a life of dependency. Initially, Amanda thinks that a good typing course will help Laura pull herself together. And later in the play, Amanda foolishly counts on Jim to be Laura's prince charming. Amanda, of course, also has illusions about herself. Whether she really entertained seventeen gentleman callers one Sunday afternoon is beside the point. What counts is that she believes it. Illusions, you see, can be very powerful.
Tom suffers from illusions, too, by expecting to find adventure in the movies. When he leaves home and joins the merchant navy he anticipates more adventure. Does that fire escape lead to romance and glamor? Study his final speech for an answer. Note that Tom is haunted by reminders of Laura. Is escape, in the end, an illusion, too?
The imaginary world of glass animals provides Laura's refuge from reality. But in her case, illusion may be perilous, for her menagerie serves as a substitute for life. How long can she go on playing with the glass collection before disillusion strikes?
Jim O'Connor, like the other young people Tom tells you about, is also living in an illusion. When success eludes him he places faith in the future. But the future he counts on is an illusion, for there's a terrible war just around the corner that's going to change the world forever.


2. ESCAPE

The theme of illusion is first cousin to the theme of escape in The Glass Menagerie, for all the play's characters believe incorrectly that escape from their present situation in life is possible. Tom tries repeatedly to escape from tedium and responsibility. Amanda indulges at times in reveries about her girlhood. The glass menagerie serves as Laura's means of escape from reality, and Jim tries desperately to escape from his dead-end job by taking public speaking and radio courses.

Observe that no character in the play makes a clean break from this situation. Correction: only Mr. Wingfield escapes- at the expense of his family's happiness, but that took place before the play begins.

A fire escape symbolically points the way out of the Wingfield apartment. But when Laura uses it, she stumbles. When Tom leaves for good he claims to follow in his father's footsteps, but he is pursued by "something." A powerful love? Guilt? He tried to leave Laura behind, but couldn't. His closing speech reveals how securely he is bound to the past.
What conclusion about escape can you draw from the situation in the play? Does the play advise you to make the best of what you've got, because change is impossible? Note Mr. Wingfield's smiling portrait. Does the grin tell you anything?


3. FRAGILITY

Can you think of anyone who embodies the idea of fragility better than Laura? Both physically and psychologically, she is fragile. A childhood disease left her with a slight limp. Under the everyday stresses of life, her composure shatters, and she can't complete her typing course. The thought of receiving a gentleman caller makes her sick. How fitting for Laura to keep a menagerie of delicate glass animals of which the unicorn- the "freakish" one- is her favorite.

The characters in The Glass Menagerie have built their lives on a fragile foundation of illusions. Take away their illusions and which of them would not break?

In 1939, the time of the play, world peace is in a fragile state. The lives of the young lovers who kiss in the alley will soon be shattered by big guns and heavy bombardments.


4. LIGHT

Because The Glass Menagerie is a memory play, the setting is dimly lighted. Dim lights keep details from being seen, for details fade from the memory first.

The electric company turns off the Wingfields' power. Then the characters must resort to candles, which soften the illumination and add the aura of romance to Jim's visit with Laura.

Light shining through little glass objects often gives off tiny spots of rainbow color. A rainbow, as you probably know from the old song, is something you chase. And in biblical myth, the rainbow is the symbol of a promise. But when you get close it vanishes. It's an illusion, a false promise, like so much else in the play. Tom recognizes the illusory quality of rainbows. He says the pleasures offered by the Paradise Dance Hall were "like a chandelier [which] flooded the world with brief deceptive rainbows." Notice also that the scarf given as a souvenir by Malvolio the Magician is rainbow-colored. In the end, what is it that keeps Laura embedded in Tom's memory? Shop windows, "filled with pieces of colored glass... like bits of shattered rainbow."

Tom associates images of Laura with candlelight. To rid himself of the haunting memories of his sister, he implores Laura to "blow out your candles." At the same time Tom may be urging Laura out of her dimly lit past. Her world of candlelight and little glass animals will no longer do, for "nowadays the world is lit by lightning."


5. FAILURE AND THE MYTH OF SUCCESS

Amanda believes in several common myths about money, success, and working hard. She thinks that money, for example, buys happiness. If she had only married one of those rich gentlemen callers.... Then, too, she admires sophisticated society, the "horsey set" portrayed in the magazine stories she sells. Success, in her view, comes from hard work and from saving your money for the future. Amanda is convinced that Tom will be successful if he tries hard. Laura will also succeed if she learns to type. Plan for the future, Amanda advises. Make provisions and save money. To Tom's dismay, she calculates how much money he could save if he stopped smoking. With his savings he could enroll in an accounting course at the university.

Jim O'Connor also chases a dream. He tries to sell Tom "a bill of goods" about success, for he's already bought one that says if you work hard, take the right courses, show self-assurance, and believe in the future of capitalism you'll make it big. But Jim has made little progress since high school, and with the war coming on, the path to success is likely to be detoured.

The personal failure of all the characters in the play in some ways parallels the larger social failure of America. The Depression turned millions of American dreams into nightmares. And the only way out was no better. It took a catastrophic war to release the country from poverty and fear.


SYMBOLS

Almost from the outset you know that The Glass Menagerie is going to be a poetic play. Your first clue is Tom's playful use of words. Tom announces, "He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion." He also uses metaphors ("the middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind"), and his language is often alliterative as in "fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille...." But in case you missed all that, Tom declares outright, "I have a poet's weakness for symbols."

It is not only Tom who endows the play with poetry. Amanda also has a gift for words. She's especially fond of colorful, figurative language. You'll find some in almost all her lengthy speeches, as in her lecture to Laura about the hopelessness of the future (Scene Two): "-stuck away in some little mousetrap of a room... like birdlike women without any nest- eating the crust of humility...."

Because Tennessee Williams had his own mother in mind when he created Amanda, he tried to make her sound like a dignified Southern lady. (Her lines ought to be spoken with a Southern drawl.) Nothing tasteless or vulgar passes her lips. She often uses the sort of flowery language you'd expect to hear on a veranda in the Old South: "liquid refreshment" for drink, "position" instead of job, and "handsome appearance" rather than good looks. In addition, Amanda wants to impose her taste in words on her children. She rejects Tom's books as "filth." Also, because she thinks the word "cripple" is offensive, she won't permit Laura to use it. Of course Amanda may deny the word because she refuses to allow Laura to pity herself.

As you study the play some of the symbols, such as Laura's glass menagerie, will virtually explain themselves. You can't miss the similarity between the delicate glass animals and Laura's fragility. On the other hand, you'll have to dig a little to find symbolic meaning in, say, the breaking of the unicorn. At first Jim is a unique hero. But he turns out to be quite ordinary, after all, just as the broken unicorn resembles an ordinary horse. Similarly, during the evening of Jim's visit Laura emerges briefly from her make-believe world into the world of real people leading ordinary lives.

Symbols come in a variety of forms in The Glass Menagerie. You can readily assign symbolic importance to objects (e.g., candles, rainbows, typewriter chart) and to actions (Laura's tripping on the fire escape, Tom's moviegoing). Tom describes Jim O'Connor as a symbolic character who represents deferred hopes for the future. Many of the images projected on the screen suggest deeper meanings, too. Take, for example, "Jolly Roger" (Tom's desire for adventure) and "Annunciation" (the news that Jim is coming to dinner). Perhaps the whole play, acted out behind transparent screens and dimly lit, symbolizes the workings of memory. As you search through the text for symbols you're not likely to come up empty handed. But guard against turning everything into a symbol. You need to support your interpretations with solid evidence from the play.


POINT OF VIEW

Tom is both a character in the play and the play's narrator. At the very beginning and at several points along the way Tom, as narrator, stands on the fire escape outside the Wingfields' apartment and addresses you directly. He tells you about a period of time- about three or four years ago- when he broke away from his mother and sister and became a wanderer. He also sets the scene, establishes the mood, comments on the world situation, and gives you background information.
You know how hard it sometimes is to remember details of events that happened only yesterday? Tom knows, too, that you can't always depend on your memory. So rather than trying to re-create precisely what took place several years ago, he presents the story unrealistically. At dinner, for example, the characters don't use real dishes and utensils. They pretend to be eating. And if the actors are good, the illusion is quite satisfactory.

"Memory," the playwright tells you in his stage directions, "takes a lot of poetic license" because it is "seated predominantly in the heart." Consider Williams' words a fair warning that what you see on stage is only approximately what happened in reality. Every event has been filtered by time and by Tom's feelings. Amanda's nagging is supposed to irritate you, just as it irritates Tom. If at any time you find Laura particularly lovely or especially helpless, consider those impressions to be Tom's, too. In short, Tom is your emotional guide through the play.

You may notice that Tom's vision extends even beyond what he actually saw or experienced. Some scenes include only Laura and Amanda or Jim O'Connor. Since Tom can't know exactly what happened when he wasn't there, he invents dialogue and action and shows you what might have occurred.

When people look back to the past, do they recall the good things more readily than the bad? Does Tom? Or do his memories seem more bitter than sweet? Or are his recollections flavored by both? Tom often speaks ironically. Note how he describes Amanda on the phone in Scene Three. Is Tom's humor biting? Or do you find it gentle, touched by nostalgia? Tom calls the play "sentimental," which suggests Tennessee Williams' intentions.