December 13, 2013

Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie: 3 Themes Everyone Can Relate With. ~ Heather Grimes {A Review}

I had the good fortune of seeing The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams, on Broadway while in New York City last month.  

I belabored how to write about it for weeks, with little success.

Then, it occurred to me that I was applying too much of a thinking-brain to a play that has little to do with thinking.  It’s complexities lie in it’s feeling, it’s heart.

Here’s the premise: An adult brother and sister—Tom and Laura— live with their overbearing mother, Amanda. Amanda expresses love through controlling and micromanaging her children. Laura is slightly crippled, with no real life skills; she’s been convinced her only chance for salvation is to find a mate. Tom is working at a factory that he loathes to support his family and resents them both for the situation he is in. Each character is faced with the realization that the life they are living is not the life they envisioned for themselves. And, in Amanda’s case, for her children.

In addition to all that, they love each other deeply and, sometimes, drastically, as families sometimes do.

(For a thorough plot summary of The Glass Menagerie, click here.)

The beauty of such an uncomplicated story is that it allows the readers and the audience to fill in the gaps on their own. It takes a master to be able to hold back from telling  the recipients of his or her work what to feel and expect.  Leaving space for the recipient to draw their own conclusions, without coercion, is ultimately the author’s act of trust.

Williams offered up a number of themes in The Glass Menagerie that can be universally understood. Simply.

So, in the few weeks since I saw the play, I have, in a sense, been simplifying my thoughts around the experience. Paring down, if you will.  And the following is what I came up with, beneath all the jargon and over-cerebrating:

The Memory Play

The Glass Menagerie is referred to as a ‘Memory Play,’ a term coined by Tennessee Williams so that the play, as Williams put it, ‘can be presented with unusual freedom of convention.’ Tom is the son and he is also the narrator of the play, telling it from the vantage point of the future, and drawing on his memory for specifics.

But memory is not a linear thing, and can become more and more skewed over time, so the audience is never really sure what is accurate and what has been distilled through the lens of hindsight.

“Everyone should know nowadays the unimportance of the photographic in art: that truth, life, 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.

~ Williams on the ‘Memory Play’

Amanda lives inside of Tom’s memory, and also in a world of her own recollections. She continues to identify primarily with things that happened decades in the past.

Amanda: Why, I remember one Sunday afternoon in Blue Mountain—

Tom: I know what’s coming!

Laura: Yes, but let her tell it.

Tom: Again?

Laura: She loves to tell it.

Amanda: One Sunday afternoon in Blue Mountain, your mother received seventeen gentleman callers!

And, though she no longer experiences being sought after by countless men, the memories continue to define her and the nature of what she wants for her children.

In some sense, it’s impossible to live a life that is not somewhat a memory play. We are constantly carving out and judging our current experiences based on what came before. No moment occurs without being colored by the past. But to have that be all, to not have access to the reality of now because of the weight of reminiscences, like Amanda, is a dangerous place to live.

The (Actual) Glass Menagerie

Laura distracts herself from her limitations by obsessing over her collection of tiny glass animals. She dusts them and gazes at them as if they were her pets. She retreats into the controllability of that tiny predictable world, and the delicious safety of it.

It is apparent that Amanda uses her children as her glass menagerie, hardly coming up for air from having her nose in their business. She is oblivious to the impact of her emotional suffocation and benefits by being distracted from her own life and what is really going on.

In essence, we live in a world of glass menageries—escapes from reality. Though few are as subtle and delicate as Laura’s, they are prevalent and evolve with the times.

Personal Expectations vs. Family Expectations

Zachary Quinto, who plays Tom, said (regarding The Glass Menagerie), “It’s a classic story in terms of relate-ability. I think any adult child who pursued their own goals, their own dreams at a certain point had to confront the limitations of what their family expected of them.”

Well said. I believe every human being on the planet can relate to that.

I read the play before I saw it performed, and was reminded of the fact that seeing a play on stage is a treasure on the one hand, because you are witnessing the text come to life from the page. The power that a playwright has in filling his words with a heartbeat and a pulse is magic, indeed.

But the one thing the stage leaves out is the scene direction that playwrights include in the text which is often written in the poetic language that is distinctly theirs. (Think of Arthur Miller’s economical scene descriptions versus Tennessee Williams’ more lyrical explanations.) It is in the reading and the viewing that the audience can taste the artist’s work fully.

Some examples of Williams’ descriptions from The Glass Menagerie that appear only in his written work and not on stage are as follows:

On Amanda: A little woman of great but confused vitality clinging frantically to another time and place. 

On Tom: His nature is not remorseless, but to escape from a trap he has to act without pity.

On Laura: She continues to live vitally in her illusions.

On the environment: The building is flanked on both sides by dark, narrow alleys which run into murky canyons of tangled clotheslines, garbage cans, and the sinister latticework of neighboring fire escapes. (WOW.)

On a particular moment: After each solemn boom of the bell in the tower, he shakes a little noisemaker or rattle as if to express the tiny spasm of man in contrast to the sustained power and dignity of the Almighty.

Williams’ words have a tendency to settle in lightly, but linger for a very long time thereafter. I, for one, have not been able to get him off my mind.

The following is an interview with the current cast of The Glass Menagerie, on Charlie Rose. They share a complex dialogue about what it was like to play these characters, and what they would say to Tennessee Williams if he were still alive.

I believe I’d be pretty tongue-tied if I had a chance to meet him.  And tempted to do the exact opposite of what he does in his work—to say much more than what is called for.


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 Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo source:  Here

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