The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic. In memory everything seems to happen to music. That explains the fiddle on the wings.
In a couple of months, I’ll be spending the night of my 30th birthday at a preview performance of Broadway’s seventh revival of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. Sam Gold will direct Sally Field as Amanda Wingfield. This production opens just three years after the most recent revival closed on the afternoon of my birthday in 2014. In anticipation of the upcoming performance, I decided to revisit the reading text for the play that made Tennessee Williams a household name.
The Glass Menagerie is, in Williams’s own terminology, a “memory play.” Each scene constitutes a murky flashback conjured from the mind of our narrator, Tom Wingfield, as he recalls the final weeks before he abandoned his dependent mother and sister in their St. Louis tenement in 1937. The mother, Amanda, is an aging southern belle who, like her son, is caught in a vise of memories and regrets. She obsessively rehashes the glory days of her debutante youth when she could attract seventeen gentlemen callers in a single day, and hopes to redeem her own degradation by securing the future of her daughter, Laura. By contrast to the two Wingfield pugilists who rage at life’s inequities (and one another), Laura is a quiet girl, painfully shy and overcome with insecurities due to a minor limp resulting from a short leg. She leads a hermetic life, devoting all her attention to a cherished collection of glass figurines. The aspiring poet Tom supports the family with a dead-end job at a shoe warehouse, scribbling verses on box lids by day and escaping every night into a world of adventure at the movies. A large photograph of the Wingfield patriarch, “a telephone man who fell in love with long distances” and skipped town, observes their misery from above the mantel.
After an explosive argument between mother and son in Scene 3, Amanda makes a plea to Tom: find a nice, “clean-living” coworker to introduce to Laura. Tom relents and brings home Jim O’Connor, the fabled Gentleman Caller. Jim’s appearance in Scene 6 shocks the reader out of the bottled up, self-fabricated world of the Wingfields—characters whose lives form what Robert Bray calls a “triangle of quiet desperation.” Jim is an agent of insurgent banality. The reader is recalled to reality by the plainness of his speech and unaffected manner. Jim’s enthusiasm for life stands in stark contrast to the fatalism of the Wingfields, and his faith in technology and progress contradicts the family’s self-imposed displacement from time. Tom’s opening monologue confirms Jim’s disruptive normality in the hallucinatory universe of the play’s triad: “He is the most realistic character in the play, being an emissary from a world of reality that we were somehow set apart from.”
What follows in Scene 7, as Laura, left alone with Jim by candlelight, is drawn out of her anxious mistrust of the world and blossoms before our eyes, only to have her hopes crushed, is among the most tragic scenes in theater. What reader, regardless of his familiarity with the plot, can help but feel some spontaneous elation at the breaking of the glass unicorn—only to realize its symbology is not liberation, but final defeat? Moreover, if the play is Tom’s memory, and given that Tom is not present during the intimate meeting between Laura and Jim, then the substance of the encounter is suspect. Perhaps in reality Laura passed the evening alone, too afraid to join the dinner party and never experiencing even a momentary glimpse at happiness. I’m not sure which is more heartbreaking.
Tennessee Williams once said that his only influences were Chekhov, D. H. Lawrence, and his own life. The Glass Menagerie, more than any other of his works, draws extensively on autobiographical elements. Williams’s real name was Thomas, thus Tom (whose fiery confrontation with Amanda in Scene 3 is precipitated by her disposing of his copy of Lawrence, which she deems filth). Williams’s schizophrenic sister Rose was the inspiration for Laura, whose high school nickname was “Blue Roses.” In 1943, the year before the play premiered, Rose was lobotomized and spent the rest of her life in an institution. In light of this personal tragedy, one better understands the 1947 essay that Williams wrote for the New York Times on “The Catastrophe of Success,” which serves as the epilogue to the New Directions reading text. While the wild success of The Glass Menagerie brought him fame and money, Williams found the security of wealth “a kind of death,” and determined that privation led to “compassion and moral conviction,” and was thus the foundation of authentic artistic expression. Appropriately, Williams turned the success of a play about wasted time into a warning: “…time is short and it doesn’t return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.”