When Tennessee Williams was eight years old his father got a job in St. Louis, and the family moved north from their home in Mississippi. He was very close to his slightly older sister named Rose, and wary of his hard drinking dad who was sometimes violent, often away, and who had only contempt for his effeminate son. His mother, Edwina, was a southern belle with social aspirations, always looking for a better address, who kept the family even more unsettled.
Their new life in a congested city was a shock after the spacious yards and porches of their southern home. Their apartment, Williams wrote, was “about as cheerful as an Arctic winter.” There were outside windows only in the living room and kitchen. In between, the bedroom windows looked out on a narrow cul-de-sac they called “Death Valley.” Cats would fight and die there, and the scene was so ugly Rose always kept her window shade down and relieved the gloom by adding white curtains and painting the furniture white too. She also kept a large collection of little glass animals on the shelf, which managed to find the light and make the space the only pleasant room in the apartment. Williams later wrote, “they came to represent, in my memory, all the softest emotions that belong to recollections of things past. . . The areaway where the cats were torn to pieces was one thing—my sister’s white curtains and tiny menagerie of glass were another. Somewhere between them was the world we lived in.”
This world in between, touching both edges, is the world of The Glass Menagerie, which Williams calls a “memory play.” The memory belongs to the character Tom, the son and brother in the Wingfield family, who is also the play’s narrator, but it also belongs to the author, who was Tom before he adopted his professional name of Tennessee. The apartment of the play closely resembles the one Williams lived in and described. The Wingfield family has a dad too, gone missing. His presence is felt mostly by a portrait on the wall and by the black hole created from his absence. Tom has an older sister, named Laura, who he is close to, and Laura, like Rose, is emotionally distressed. Rose was afflicted with severe depression; Laura thinks of herself as crippled, and is overwhelmed by uncontrollable shyness. They are both shut-ins.
This family has a mom too, Amanda, and like Edwina she is a real mother of a mother. Edwina, by all accounts, was a woman of legendary volubility or, as someone who knew her said, she was “yammer, yammer, yammer.” Williams wryly wrote of her, “Miss Edwina will still be talking for at least a half hour after she’s laid to rest.” From a distance, a friend said, the talk was comical, but close up it was “absolutely destructive.” She was full of “complaint, contention and concern” and often at a hysterical pitch. It’s like that with Amanda too—at one moment she is ridiculous, hilariously so—at another she’s a monster. She’s constitutionally self-centered and oppressively devoted. You can see how foolish she is, how desperate, even how charming. She will do anything for her children, which means she nags, she cajoles, she lectures and she drives them nuts. She’s loving and she’s completely impossible. She makes you cry, she’s so awful, and then she just makes you cry. She’s one of the great roles in American drama.
There are no cats called for in the soundscape of the play’s stage directions. But we’re always aware of the harsh and mostly unfriendly world outside the small tenement apartment. Amanda is on the phone selling subscriptions to romance magazines, and she has to fight for each and every one of them. Tom works in a shoe factory, a dead end, mind numbing job. Laura is almost too frightened to go out at all. The world outside is not so nice, and inside it’s no fun either. Quite understandably, everyone is looking for an escape. The father found one. He was “a telephone man who fell in love with long distances.” The last anyone heard of him was a postcard from Mazatlan saying, “Hello--Good-bye!” For the rest of the family, getting away is not so easy. Amanda finds refuge in her genteel past, when she was courted by many beaux and made much of. Laura immerses herself in her glass collection and the occasional trip to the zoo where she escapes the humiliations of typing school. Tom hangs out on the fire escape and listens to the music from the dance hall across the alley. And he goes to the movies. Lots of movies, especially the ones with adventure and magic tricks.
Tom is the one character in the play with a real chance of getting out. It’s a chance you feel he has to take. It’s a necessary step of family separation on the road to adulthood. But it comes at a price, since Tom is the chief source of family income, and the protector of his beloved sister. Leaving home may be necessary, but it is also abandonment. For Williams, the dilemma was even more acute. Like Tom, he wanted out, and he wanted to leave home and become a writer, and he did. But Williams himself tacitly sanctioned a lobotomy operation for his mentally disturbed sister. It was designed to cure her illness, yet it left her even more passive and hopeless than ever. Williams was haunted by guilt for a very long time. Though few of us have such lurid memories, I wonder if some variation of this experience is not shared by others—this moving out, this moving on, this looking back, and looking in, which is what Tom is doing throughout the play. Tom has to get away. And eventually he does. He goes very far indeed, and yet he never entirely escapes. As he exclaims at the play’s end, “O Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!” The Glass Menagerie is not only his memory play, it is testimony both to his betrayal and his devotion.
The Glass Menagerie is one of America’s best loved plays. We seem to know the Wingfield family—mother, daughter and son—better than most of our neighbors and relatives. They are entirely human, and as our director says, “full of ticks, guilt trips, delusion, and love.” This familiarity partly obscures how unusual the play was when it first appeared in 1944. Though its characters and situation are directly drawn from the author’s personal experience, the play itself was a reaction to the prevailing realistic drama then in vogue. Williams came from what the critic John Lahr has called “an environment of fluency”—a rich vocabulary compounded of biblical passages, religious aphorisms, classical allusion, genteel sonorities, southern eloquence and African-American metaphors. As a writer, he began life as a poet, and he remained a poet even in his plays. The Glass Menagerie is shaped like a poem, full of saturated language, and extending beyond language into sculpted sound, light, space and symbol. This is one reason why we have gathered a young and highly collaborative design team for our new production—both the sound and the set designers will be with us for most of the rehearsal project. Our director, Anna Brenner, has a special affinity for the interplay of scenic ingredients, as well as for the complexity of character and the fluent movement of the action.
The play’s genuine poetry, its tenderness, and its filtering of memory have given The Glass Menagerie a much exaggerated reputation as a misty and elegiac night in the theatre. Yes, the play is music and memory, but it isn’t drippy at all. It’s a vivid and tightly constructed drama, often harsh, often very funny and moving towards salvation. And salvation in this play comes in the form of the character I have not mentioned so far, the gentleman caller. He is, as Williams says in his character description, “a nice, ordinary, young man.” He is also, as Tom says, “an emissary from the world of reality that we were somehow set apart from.” The gentleman caller is the promise of rescue and connection for Laura. He appears at the end of the play, and his scene with Laura is pure magic. We can guess in advance that the promised salvation is a mirage. Rescue would be a happy and false conclusion to this play, which is far too real to accommodate an ending that you would more likely find in The Home-Maker’s Companion, the romance magazine Amanda breathlessly promotes. But even so, between cats and unicorns, we still hope for a way out, and for a moment we are all so close, so unbearably close.
This is such an intimate play, ideally suited to our intimate theatre. In conception The Glass Menagerie was a radical experiment. Williams said that as a playwright he “was trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent—fiercely charged!—interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of common crisis.” He did exactly that in The Glass Menagerie. The lighting may sometimes be dim, and supplied by candles, and at one moment the stage goes dark because the utility bill has not been paid. But there’s not a single moment that’s not electric and fiercely charged. This is the most haunting play in American drama.