The main functions of an opening scene are to obtain the audience or reader’s attention, introduce the characters and prepare the audience for later events in the play.
The Glass Menagerie starts with extensive stage directions about how the set should look, and information about the period the play is set in. The stage directions are full of metaphors concerning imprisonment and escape, also non-individuality. Tennessee Williams uses metaphors throughout the play to help to describe the scene or situation. When describing the Wingfield’s apartment Williams uses the term ‘vast hive-like conglomerations.’ This suggests the inhabitants of these buildings are like worker bees, lacking individuality. A ‘fundamentally enslaved section of American society’ who operate as one. It is the first mention of a main symbol in the play. Another would be the fire escape, which Tom wishes to uses to escape his life and the ‘fires of human desperation.’
Tom is the first character we are introduced to. He is both the narrator and a character in the play. In Tom’s opening speech he talks about the period in which the play is set and how America is going through the Great Depression. This mention of something outside the action of the play is used to demonstrate how the troubles of the Wingfield’s fits into the troubles of the wider world. The Wingfields, like the rest of American society are choosing to ignore the Depression and the threat of the imminent war. Hence Tom’s suggestion that America was ‘matriculating in a school for the blind.’
Tom introduces the other characters, which includes his mother Amanda, who shows her unrealistic approach to life immediately. Her retraction into her past life in the ‘Blue Mountains’ and her seventeen gentleman callers signifies the start of her constant fixation with obtaining a gentleman caller for Laura.
Laura, Tom’s sister, is very economical with words in scene one and throughout the play. This is to indicate the shyness of her character. She is quickly established as the peacemaker between Tom and Amanda. During the argument over Tom’s lack of etiquette at the table, she calms the situation by saying she’ll fetch the blancmange.
A theatrical devise that Williams uses includes lighting which is unrealistic. The use of a spotlight is to highlight certain characters during key moments, like when the light focuses on Laura because Tom remembers her more than anything else. The scene is done to music, this helps enhance the characters emotional state and personality. For example Laura’s music is delicate sounding circus music, when heard from a distance. This music reiterates not her shyness, but the fanciful nature of her imaginary world. Williams describes it as expressing ‘the surface vivacity in life with the underlying strain of immutable and inexpressible sorrow.’
Williams uses a legend to indicate the importance of several features of the play. When Tom mentions his need for adventure the picture on the screen becomes a Jolly Roger flag. Also when Laura confesses her high school nickname, a picture of blue roses is on the screen. All these devices, music, lighting and the legend, are designed to give the audience a three-dimensional experience. This unconventional approach is called plastic theatre.
The Glass Menagerie is a memory play, so it is not representational. Williams uses transparent wall of gauze to make the action hazy, like memory it is often unclear. Another way Williams emphasises the play being memory is by omitting and exaggerating certain details. When the legend says ‘Ou sont les neiges,’ meaning; where are the snows. This is not the full saying and also adds to the feeling of nostalgia. Williams also uses mime to take emphasis away from the actions, so more attention paid to the dialogue. When Amanda is badgering Tom while they are eating with imaginary cutlery. It is unlikely that you would remember the meal but you would remember the argument.
The exaggerated detail is the enlarged photograph of Mr. Wingfield, ‘the telephone man who fell in love with long distances.’ He is a symbol of escape for Tom, which is why the photograph has been exaggerated in his memory. As someone who has already done the coffin trick, Tom possibly looks to him as someone to model himself on to stop any guilt he might feel about leaving Laura. For Amanda the photograph symbolises abandonment. This is the image that will haunt both Tom and Amanda throughout the rest of the play.