- Play title: The Glass Menagerie
- Author: Tennessee Williams
- First performed: 1944
- Page count: 116
The Glass Menagerie was Tennessee Williams’ first big theatrical success. It is a play centered on the Wingfield family who live in a small apartment in St. Louis during the 1930’s. The family consists of an abandoned, middle-aged mother, Amanda, and her two adult children, Tom, a budding writer, and Laura, a mildly disabled and ultra-shy girl. Williams gives this play a solid historical context with references to hardship and poverty in the American, lower-middle classes in the 1930’s as well as noting specific international events like the bombing of Guernica in Spain. However, this is not a work of realism but is described instead as a “memory play.” Tom is the main narrator, and the events described are his recollections of his family. While Tom is headstrong and independent, Laura is socially awkward and does not thrive. The central story is about how Amanda, an old-fashioned Southerner, becomes increasingly desperate to find a suitable “gentleman caller” for Laura in the hope of an eventual marriage. The glass menagerie of the title is a collection of delicate, glass figurines owned by Laura.
Ways to access the text: reading/listening.
There are multiple online sources for this text. For example, there is a PDF file of the play text on the educational website, http://www.pval.org. Alternatively, you may source the text via the Open Library (registration needed). The Open Library version is more reader friendly due to the page format.
On YouTube, there is a full audiobook version of the play. The recording is divided into two files with a total running time of 1hr and 46mins. However, please note that these have been recorded from an original vinyl record and there is, at times, a distinct scratching sound on the 2nd file. The file names are listed below.
“Tennessee Williams – The Glass Menagerie (Act One)”
“Tennessee Williams – The Glass Menagerie (Act Two)”
Why read/listen to The Glass Menagerie?
A dependent daughter.
Amanda Wingfield’s daughter, Laura, is quite a distinctive character but primarily for what may be seen as negative characteristics. She is mildly disabled, namely with a permanent limp, but it is actually shyness that is her true or overriding disability. Tennessee Williams is said to have based Laura on his own sister, Rose, and it may explain why this character holds such a significant role in the play. Williams explores the problem of having a dependent, reclusive daughter chiefly through the eyes of a mother. While Laura does sometimes go out in public, her social ineptitude means that she is known by very few people. This makes her vulnerable to the influences within her family especially since she is accommodating and generally passive. The main question that arises in the play is about Laura’s uncertain future, and the socio-economic backdrop of 1930’s America serves to exaggerate the pressures on this already struggling family. Williams’ play explores how someone who is loved, like Laura, may still be subjected to a certain degree of cruelty by the people who are most protective of them. In the opinion of Mrs. Wingfield, a dependent daughter has only two choices, a career or marriage. Laura is shown to be pushed towards both of these ‘solutions’ in the order in which they are deemed viable.
A play made of memory.
In the opening scene, the play is presented to us as a memory of Tom’s. We are told that Tom is the narrator of, and indeed a character in, his own story. This frames the play in a most self-conscious manner as the theatrical staging of the personal and obviously subjective memory of one single character. This is interesting for multiple reasons, for instance, Tom functions as a mouthpiece for the playwright Williams, also, it serves to locate the play’s action in the past even though it happens before our eyes/ears, and finally, it calls into question the truth of the work. Indeed, Williams highlights many of these issues in the play’s introduction. When one thinks of the play as a replaying of a personal memory of Tom’s, then it serves to attune one’s focus to the difference between scenes that show typical, household events like family meals or repeated family arguments, versus standout scenes with unique life changing events and decisions. Thus, we have the difference between generic memories of home life versus the times when specific memories are branded onto the mind because of high emotions, or anger, or shock. Also, one notices if Tom is actually present in certain scenes which in turn draws attention to his level of artistic license. Finally, one begins to question why this overall memory is so important to Tom, why does this particular sequence of events remain so vivid in his memory?
A pawn in a game.
Laura’s story is central to the play but in many respects, she is just a pawn in a game. The game is a battle for dominance between Amanda and Tom, each in pursuit of quite contrasting individual wishes. In the absence of Mr. Wingfield senior, Amanda expects Tom to continue to financially support the family and Laura complicates things due to her dependence. It is significant that Tom and Amanda have quite different views on Laura because her prospects will directly impact the lives of her mother and brother. Tom describes Laura in a pessimistic manner as “terribly shy” and a girl who “seem[s] a little peculiar to people” whereas Amanda says optimistically that her daughter is “lovely and sweet and pretty.” While both mother and brother are generally protective of Laura, there are also significant levels of cruelty in their behaviours. Laura is so shy and reserved that she offers no open contradiction to the choices constantly being made on her behalf. Therefore, the reader needs to heed Tennessee Williams’ subtle hints concerning Laura’s predicament. The explanations for why and how Laura gets hurt will be explored in this essay and they include: societal conditions, comparisons between mother and daughter, growing family resentments, and Laura’s exclusion from decision making. As Tom is the story’s narrator, we get only his perspective, but Laura’s story is clearly one of disempowerment. Indeed, the strongest evidence that Laura is wronged during the events depicted is Tom’s unquenched guilt. The play is a merging of his memories, and he is apparently unable to leave these hurtful episodes in the past.
The Wingfield family are entangled in the societal conditions of 1930’s America. The family are impoverished and have few if any prospects. Even though The Glass Menagerie is not a work of realism, Williams makes significant references to the social and economic conditions of the times for reasons that become apparent. Williams describes the Wingfield’s family apartment as typical of the “vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living units” in the “overcrowded urban centres” of America, describing the inhabitants of such neighbourhoods as “fundamentally enslaved.” The theme of slavery is interesting because it can be understood in two distinct ways in the play. Firstly, there are the black servants that Amanda refers to in a derogatory manner who are a memory from her youth in Mississippi. Even now in their little apartment, Amanda tells Laura, who wishes to serve table, “no, sister, no, sister – you be the lady this time and I’ll be the darkey.” However, the era of slaves is long gone, as is the era of black servants for the Southern belle, Amanda, who must now contend with her impoverished conditions. While Williams refers to Amanda’s current social position in America’s lower middle class as “enslaved,” it is arguably the burden of a disabled, socially awkward child that truly enslaves Amanda and by extension, Tom. Enslavement indicates the loss of hope, or at best, a false and always unfulfilled hope and this is also true of the Wingfield family. Amanda lectures Tom, saying “life’s not easy, it calls for – Spartan endurance!” It is this mindset that fuels a covert resentment towards the fragile Laura, the only one in the family who does not strive for independence. For Amanda, hope lives only in her Mississippi past when everything was possible, even marriage to the “Fitzhugh boy” who had the “Midas touch.” For Tom, the future alone offers hope in the guises of freedom and success. Laura holds both figures in a depressing present tense of hardship that they cannot escape.
Yet, the pressures are not just societal, there are also household frictions that serve to hurt Laura. One of the most evident and indeed harshest examples of Amanda’s cruelty toward Laura is the implicit comparison continually made between mother and daughter. Amanda’s worn-out story of the seventeen gentleman callers in one day back in “Blue Mountain” is certainly evidence that she seeks refuge and solace in her once-promising past. However, the story also leads Amanda to repeatedly pose the question to Laura of where are her own “gentleman callers” and an embarrassed Laura dutifully replies on one occasion, “I’m just not popular like you were in Blue Mountain.” Apart from being an ego boost to an ageing beauty, it is clearly hurtful to Laura. It would be possible to consider Amanda’s question as just mild teasing except for her conscious insistence that no one in the house refer openly to Laura’s disability, not even Laura herself. By ignoring an obvious disability, Amanda puts significant, additional pressure on Laura to achieve the goals set for her, for example regarding admirers and romance. Also, according to Amanda, a girl’s two chief prospects in life are through securing a husband or becoming a career woman. Since Amanda encouraged her 23-year-old daughter to enrol at Rubicam’s Business School, it is clear that marriage was not the first choice for attaining Laura’s independence. Only when Laura’s debilitating self-consciousness, most evident in pressurized situations, causes her to drop out of education (again), does her mother decide on marriage as an alternative solution. In fact, when Amanda happens upon the idea, it is like a eureka moment, saying “sister, that’s what you’ll do!” (meaning marriage). Amanda apparently deemed marriage as the less logical option in earlier times but will resort to it as a desperate last attempt. It is Amanda’s consciousness of her daughter’s predicament that reveals the cruelty of a mother and daughter comparison.
It is relatively easy to find sources for Tom’s and Amanda’s thinly veiled resentment toward Laura. It is Tom who is now the family wage earner, replacing his father who abandoned them many years previously. Amanda unashamedly uses Laura’s situation to force Tom to stay in a work environment which he hates and, in this way, suspend or even destroy his own future dreams. Once Amanda discovers that Tom secretly plans to join the Merchant Marine, she strikes a deal with him that he can leave home, “but not till there’s somebody to take your place” which means a gainfully employed husband for Laura. Thus, opens the conversation on the topic of securing a “gentleman caller” for Laura, something that becomes “an obsession” for Amanda. One can understand why Tom, a budding writer who works in a shoe factory, may come to resent the burden of his sister’s dependency being placed on him. On Tom’s drunken night out, he sees the “coffin trick” performed by “Malvolio the Magician” and later says to Laura, “there is a trick that would come in handy for me – get me out of this 2 by 4 situation.” Tom clearly feels trapped in the current situation. Williams gives the apartment’s fire escape added symbolism by referring to the “implacable fires of human desperation” and Tom does exit by the fire escape in the end. On the other hand, what possibly could be Amanda’s reason to resent her daughter? The answer lies in her envisioned shared future with her daughter. Amanda speaks of unmarried women as “barely tolerated spinsters” and “little bird-like women without any nest – eating the crust of humility all their life!” to which she quite importantly adds – “is that the future we’ve mapped out for ourselves?” As Laura’s likely destiny is continued poverty then it is a destiny that she condemns her mother to as well. The power struggle between Amanda and Tom becomes a high-stakes game as both risk their futures. Laura is the anchor that binds both of them to an unsatisfactory current living situation.
The continual exclusion of Laura from decision making by her family is conspicuous in the story. It seems clear that Laura was cajoled or coerced into joining business school because subsequently she wanted desperately to hide the fact that she had dropped out. If it had been her own original decision, then surely failure would not prompt Amanda’s “awful suffering look … like the picture of Jesus’ mother.” It appears that Laura dashes her mother’s dreams rather than her own, or as Amanda puts it “all of our plans – my hopes and ambition for you – just gone up the spout.” In regard to organizing a gentleman caller, Laura is again infantilized by her mother because she is excluded from Amanda’s “plans and provisions.” In fact, Amanda sends Laura to the shops for butter when discussing Laura’s future and the possibility of a gentleman caller with Tom. Just like Amanda’s and Tom’s opposing characters, they have polar opposite views on Laura. Tom loves his sister but sees her obvious limitations while Amanda persists in ignoring the obvious, courting disaster. When Tom finally arranges for Jim O’Connor to visit then the proceedings become a mockery of romance. For example, Jim does not know the “ulterior motives” for the dinner invitation, with no knowledge at all of Laura’s existence. Laura, likewise, does not know the identity of the visitor until just before he arrives, and it is unclear if she even suspects her mother’s masterplan. Amanda is shown to be quite insensitive to her daughter when Laura learns the identity of the caller is none other than her high school crush. Laura asks persistently yet unsuccessfully to be excused from the event. Amanda’s plan does not accommodate her daughter’s obvious social limitations and she dismisses the girl’s growing anxiety by saying “I don’t intend to humour your silliness” and “I’m sick, too – of your nonsense!” Laura is finally excused from the charade when she stumbles and almost faints at the dinner table, practically sick with anxiety. However, Amanda still persists, sending Jim to sit with Laura after dinner and she even tries desperately to arrange further dates until the news of Jim’s fiancé, Betty, shatters all prospects. The whole evening is an exposition of Laura’s powerlessness.
Laura is at the centre of the family drama yet strangely disconnected from any sense of power over her future. Two strong characters, Amanda and Tom, battle over issues of money, freedom, and future – with Laura as the burden holding them both back in separate ways. Laura is not like her mother, “possessed of a pretty face and a graceful figure … a nimble wit and a tongue to meet all occasions” but a young woman who lives in her mother’s shadow, never living up to unrealistic expectations. For Tom, his sister is used by their mother as an obstacle between him and his future potential, a tie to the family home until he finds someone to replace him as the wage earner, and marry his sister. Laura’s predicament seems impossible to solve to the satisfaction of her mother, or brother. Tom’s eventual departure expresses his own frustration at the situation. As Laura was apparently based on Tennessee Williams’ own sister, Rose, one may assume that the depiction, though laden with symbolism, resonates the life of a tragic figure. Laura never complains so it is for the reader alone to take her perspective into account when judging each scene.
The closing episode of The Glass Menagerie exposes the truth of the family situation. In a fit of despair, Amanda chastises Tom, saying, “don’t think about us, a mother deserted, an unmarried sister who’s crippled and has no job!” The description of Laura is for once unadorned by euphemisms, revealing the harsh yet always present reality. Amanda’s twin hopes of marriage or career for Laura are shown to be equally unattainable. For Amanda to describe her daughter as “crippled” reveals the potent anger of someone who cannot fix the situation and who relies on her son to burden a responsibility that is not rightly his. Amanda tells the truth for once but only when she feels it will weigh Tom down with enough guilt to make him stay – it does not. The Wingfield daughter, Laura, stands at the centre of this family storm and we are never quite sure how much she understands or how much she hurts, but if she is indeed as fragile as her little glass figurines then the hurt is substantial. The Wingfield daughter is a pawn in a game best described as a power struggle for survival between mother and son, against the backdrop of a depressed, hopeless economy.
There are several notable references to Shakespeare in The Glass Menagerie. Jim O’Connor who is Tom’s friend and fellow worker at the shoe factory is the man who gives Tom the amusing moniker of “Shakespeare.” The nickname was originally prompted by Tom’s habit of going to the washroom to write poems during slack work periods. To call an aspiring writer who works in a dead-end job by the name of the most famous writer in history can be interpreted in many ways. As a nickname, it is mildly disparaging but also somehow hopeful. Williams wrote of his own long struggle before he attained success, namely with The Glass Menagerie, in his essay, “The Catastrophe of Success.” The character of Tom is most representative of Williams as a young, struggling writer and this struggle has artistic dividends in Williams’ view. In this light, Tom’s nickname is a mark of honour because it symbolizes the preparatory work, hard and very valuable, that normally comes before any breakthrough. The references to William Shakespeare in the play are, however, more extensive. For example, Laura is referred to as “Shakespeare’s sister” by Jim and this is clearly an allusion to Virginia Woolf’s extended essay “A Room of One’s Own” which proposes the hypothetical existence of a sister of Shakespeare’s. Thus, Tom and Laura become Shakespeare and his unknown sister. Furthermore, Jim refers to the Shakespearean character, Romeo, when talking of his love life and Jim also quotes a few famous lines of Ophelia’s from Hamlet. Lastly, the distinctly named “Malvolio the Magician” who Tom sees perform, may be a reference to the character Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The task for a reader is to make sense of these various references to Shakespeare within The Glass Menagerie.
To begin, one may take a broad overview when seeking links between The Glass Menagerie and Shakespeare. One quickly finds a clear connection between Williams’ “memory play” and Shakespeare’s most famous play, Hamlet, where the ghost of old King Hamlet, the ghost of the past, implores his son to, “remember me” (1.5.91). Old King Hamlet wants his son to correct an injustice. Therefore, in both cases the plays’ chief protagonists, Tom and Hamlet, are forced to look back at events that evoke a sense of responsibility and ultimately guilt. Another parallel between these two plays is that the characters of Laura and Ophelia are both mentally fragile women who are spurned by the men they love. We must now hop to a separate Shakespearean play, Romeo and Juliet, because Jim aligns very well with the figure of Romeo (with whom he identifies) since he is charismatic and very much idealized in Laura’s eyes. Laura’s heartbreak is sealed by Jim’s kiss because this man she adores then goes on to announce his engagement to Betty and declare it impossible to see Laura again. When Jim leaves the Wingfield household in the climactic scene of the play, he says, “so long, Shakespeare! Thanks again, ladies – Good night” which echoes Ophelia’s lines, “Good night, ladies, good night. Sweet ladies” (Hamlet 4.5.73). This quote returns us to Hamlet. The link between the scenes is that Ophelia has suffered a mental breakdown due to the death of her father, Polonius, and her earlier cruel rejection by her lover, Hamlet, and now we have Laura, who also ‘lost’ her father and has been rejected by the one man she loves, Jim. The parallels between The Glass Menagerie and Hamlet are quite strong, yet it is strange that Jim speaks Ophelia’s lines and not Laura herself. One explanation is that Laura is repeatedly depicted as virtually voiceless in the story, so we constantly learn of her predicament through others. The focus is clearly on a heartbroken Laura with Tom as the Shakespeare-like figure who must construct the entire play from a painful memory. It is also a painful remembrance that is the thorn at the centre of the play Hamlet, forcing the young Prince into mental anguish and indecision.
The specific reference to “Shakespeare’s sister” is quite interesting in its own right. In “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf’s key point regarding this fictional sister is that “it would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare” (58). Woolf then goes on to construct such a woman, writing, “imagine, since facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith” (58). The imagined biography of Judith is that she is just as talented as her brother William but is barred from educational opportunities on account of the era, she is burdened by the expectations of her sex (marriage and domesticity), she runs away from home and tries to succeed as an actress, and finally, she gets pregnant and tragically commits suicide! This synopsis does an injustice to Woolf’s story, but it makes explicit the kind of comparison being used by Williams for the character of Laura. It is clear that even in 1930’s America, Laura is restricted to just two life choices, and these are marriage or a gender-appropriate career. Yet, much like a solitary writer/artist who has no real outlet for her talents, this girl “lives in a world of her own.” It is not clear if Laura is in fact talented, but she certainly has a well-developed imagination as proven by her obsession with the glass menagerie. Unfortunately, Laura, like Shakespeare’s sister, Judith, is obstructed from expressing herself in any way that does not conform to societal expectations. Jim’s throwaway joke of calling Laura “Shakespeare’s sister” is Williams’ ingenious manner of giving us a glimpse of Laura’s potential, a girl otherwise walled in by suffocating expectations, living in a world which is only a shadow of the life possible for Tom.
As Tom is the Shakespeare figure in this play, one must not forget that he artistically shapes the presentation of his own memories. In such case, is this modern-day poet in fact moulding his memories to ameliorate his guilt? Laura’s story does not end as tragically as Judith’s, but we sense a bleak, unfulfilling future for her. When reading the play, it is of particular note that Tom is conspicuously absent in the scene between Jim and Laura, so it is most definitely a work of poetic imagination on Tom’s behalf. Isn’t it strange that such a fragile girl as Laura not only receives a kiss from the boy she loves in a fantasy scene but also forgives him when he breaks her prized glass unicorn! After all, the glass unicorn is symbolic of Laura’s own delicate character and breaking it surely means a crushing, psychological blow. When Tom previously breaks one of her other glass figurines, Laura is inconsolable, screeching “my glass! – menagerie.” This is also the girl who cannot join the dinner table group due to overwhelming anxiety when Jim is present. Yet, Tom as Shakespeare, crafts a scene where she forgives a clumsy young man and even gives him her prized possession as a “souvenir.” Also of note, is that Laura has no lines at the play’s ending, in fact, no lines after Jim leaves with her good wishes ringing in his ears. As Williams cautions at the play’s opening, “memory takes a lot of poetic license.” One may even go as far as interpreting the reference to Laura as “Shakespeare’s sister” as containing the opposing voices of the sympathetic playwright Williams (on account of his sister, Rose) and the bristling, overburdened character, Tom. In modern America, a frustrated brother would expect Laura to work just as hard as others to succeed and not allow a “little defect” to determine her life. Maybe Tom not only envies “Malvolio the Magician’s” escape trick but is also like the Malvolio character in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, i.e., a man duped to perform a certain role due to his love of a woman but who eventually realizes that “there was never a man so notoriously abused” (4.2.78). It may seem ironic to debate if Tom seeks to lessen his feelings of guilt in a play defined by guilt. Yet, the shaping of memory is complex work. However, in the end, even this modern “Shakespeare” seems unable to quench a memory that haunts him every time he looks in a shop window and sees “pieces of coloured glass.”
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, edited by T. J. B. Spencer, Penguin Books, 2005.
Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet, edited by Horace Howard Furness, J. B. Lippincott Company, 1913.
Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. Hodder and Stoughton, 1908.
Williams, Tennessee. “The Catastrophe of Success.” New York Times, 30 November 1947.
Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. Signet, 1987.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Read Books Ltd, 2012.