Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie

The Glass MenagerieThe Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While I would have liked The Glass Menagerie a lot better when I was 14—is “YA experimental theater” a genre?—two things save it from being adolescent kitsch: the character Amanda Wingfield and what Tom, the narrator, calls “the social background of the play.”

Williams’s loosely autobiographical memory play concerns a decaying Southern family, living in genteel poverty in an urban apartment. The Wingfield family is headed (after the father’s flight) by the “faded Southern belle” Amanda; her son Tom is a frustrated poet and her daughter Laura is a young woman too fragile for the world. Laura collects the titular menagerie. In the words of Williams’s production notes, spun glass should make us think of “how beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken,” a phrase that obviously applies to the delicate organism, shaped by Tom’s memory into an artifact, that is Laura. While Tom as narrator and surrogate for Williams admits that this play “is sentimental, it is not realistic,” this material could verge quickly into a bathos from which Williams’s romantic/expressionist stagecraft cannot rescue it. In his production notes, Williams discusses the need to get away from the faux-solidity of bourgeois realism in theater:

Everyone should know nowadays the unimportance of the photographic in art: that truth, or reality, is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest, in essence, only through transformation, through changing into other forms than those which were merely present in appearance.

His techniques—the use of Tom as meta-theatrical narrator, the projection of words and images as commentary on the action, the interpolation of musical themes and motifs, the encouragement of an expressive rather than mimetic mode of acting—are maybe more of a domestication of avant-gardism, an adaptation thereof to a native strain of American Romanticism; it certainly looks tame next to what Beckett or Artaud or Brecht were calling for in Europe at the same period. However, these techniques are effective at making drama lyrical, even as they create a layered tone that includes sardonic or ironic reflections on the action. They should not be associated with the folksy appropriation of modernism in Our Town that Dwight MacDonald saw as the essence of the middlebrow.

But only Amanda really comes alive as a character, growing in vitality as she tries harder and harder to make her sordid present reality live up to her exaggeratedly utopian memories of girlhood privilege and social success. Tom’s sensibility suffuses the whole play, since it is his memory, but otherwise Williams doesn’t give us enough of Tom’s talent and ambition to justify the character’s general unpleasantness; he often just seems petulant. As for Laura, she is hardly less symbolic than her glass menagerie.

As I mentioned, besides Amanda, the other strength of the play is its historical awareness. Williams is careful to establish the play’s setting as the late 1930s, as the world veers toward war. The startling first stage direction establishes the Wingfield family as lower middle class, a class educated and privileged enough to have cultural aspirations but often too poor or excluded to realize those aspirations; this is the class to which Williams belongs, to which I belong, to which so many writers belong, and also the class whose not-unjustified resentments found terrible expression in Europe in fascist politics, a tendency Williams here indicts:

The Wingfield apartment is in the rear of the building, one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living-units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centers of lower middle-class population and are symptomatic of the impulse of this largest and fundamentally enslaved section of American society to avoid fluidity and differentiation and to exist and function as one interfused mass of automatism.

Tom, who joins the merchant marine, appears to be narrating from the vantage point of wartime experience. This makes the fragility of beauty—and all else that the world rejects as too delicate or too feminine—a historical context that justifies some of the play’s lyricism and plangency. Laura and her lovely artifacts are not just what one man has lost in his quest for freedom, but what the whole world has lost in the inferno of world war. Tom is clear about this at the end:

Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger—anything that can blow your candles out! […] For now the world is lit by lightning!

As Robert Bray notes in his introduction to this edition, The Glass Menagerie has traveled far; according to Wikipedia, it has been adapted into acclaimed films in India and Iran in this century. I suspect the play’s universality has to do with the prominence in modernity of the intermediate class position the Wingfields occupy, with the longing of people all over the world who know enough to desire a life of poetry but who lack the means to achieve it. If some of the play’s poignant lyricism and angry irony feel adolescent, this theme is nevertheless a mature and relevant one.

This edition concludes with a charming essay by Williams in which he laments, in the vitalist tones of D. H. Lawrence, the sudden fame and wealth that came with this play’s success:

The sort of life that I had had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before, but it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created.

Later, he cautions readers who wish for fame:

For me a convenient place to work is a remote place among strangers where there is good swimming. But life should require a certain minimal effort. You should not have too many people waiting on you, you should have to do most things for yourself. Hotel service is embarrassing. Maids, waiters, bellhops, porters and so forth are the most embarrassing people in the world for they continually remind you of inequities which we accept as the proper thing.

This insistence on the relation between making art and meeting some amount of resistance from the world is something to consider, something to dampen the envy we penurious writers and adjunct professors may feel at times. It’s a lesson reflected painfully in the play itself: only after her decline in social station does Amanda rise to artistic glory.