Tennessee Williams Essay
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The American theatre public first took notice of The Glass Menagerie by Mississippi-born Tennessee Williams when it was presented in Chicago in December 1944. Opening in New York on March 31, 1945, it ran for more that 500 performances and won both popular and critical acclaim. It is now considered one of the most delicate plays of the twentieth century.
Much of the play is drawn from the writer’s own life and perhaps because of this, he invests it with extraordinary realism and poetry.
Though the lives of his characters are blighted by frustration and misery, he paints them with the softness of illusion, the patina of tenderness (Krutch, 424). And no wonder: Tom is Tennessee, Amanda is his mother, and Laura is his sister Rose.
Williams calls The Glass Menagerie a memory play. Tom, the son, narrates in seven emotionally-charged scenes the events that happened to him, his mother, Amanda Wingfield, and his sister Laura before he deserted them to become a merchant sailor.
Extremely unhappy as a shoe-factory worker, Tom, the poet-dreamer, frequently escapes to poetry-writing or the movies.
Because Amanda loves her son, she nags him so that he would be more serious about improving himself. Amanda also notes that her delicate, sensitive, helpless Laura will never be able to cope with the realities of making a living. So Amanda asks Tom to invite an eligible bachelor to dinner for his sister. Tom invites Jim O’Connor, a fellow employee at the shoe-factory. Good-natured Jim gradually makes Laura warm up to him, but before the evening is through, he reveals that he is engaged to be married. Shortly after, Tom breaks away from the two women to join the merchant marine.
All three are yearning to get out of the coffin of their lives. Tom pines for romance and adventure, which, however, cannot blow the candles of memory out. Amanda escapes from present by retreating to her memories, but for her children she decides quite realistically that the practical, not the romantic, way is the path to an easy life.
An interesting feature of the play is the application of William’s theory of expressionism. Because it is a memory play, much leeway is given to “atmospheric touches and subtleties of direction. In the romantic spirit of expressionism (Young, 506), Williams contends that the truth, life, or reality is an organic thing, which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest, in essence only those through transformation, through changing into other forms than those which were merely present in appearance.
The use of symbols is inline with the expressionistic theory. For instance, the delicate glass unicorn is a symbol for the fragile loner that Laura is. The blue roses, the apartment in the tenement, the fire escape, the alleys, and the dance-hall are all symbolic. Williams experiment with more open forums, and colloquial styles also contributed to the mode of expressionism. Creating stellar roles for actors, especially women, Williams brought a passionate lyricism and a tragic Southern vision.
Besides using the symbols, the author recommends that the use of magic-lantern slides to show titles or images which could stress certain values or the most important phrases. These slides are considered redundant by some critics (Tischler, 232) because the play is self-sufficient—and eloquently so.
Our unconventional or non realistic techniques are the use of the narrator and special lighting to express changes in mood. The stage is kept poetically dim, in keeping the mood of memory while shafts of light draw attention to certain areas or actors. An effective literary accent in the play is provided by the repetition of haunting tune that expresses “the surface vivacity of life and the underlying strain of immutable and inexpressible sorrow” (Bloomfield, 233).
Finally, not the least of the reasons for the powerfully moving quality of The Glass Menagerie is the dialogue. Williams has accurately recorded every nuance and beat of American speech, giving the language a poetic touch to boot. The language lives, the characters live. As the characters play out their lives before us, our hearts vibrate unfailingly to the play’s humanity and beauty or the beauty of its humanity. Everything in the play contributes to pure theatre magic, the secret of which lies deep in the heart—and the art—of Tennessee Williams.
Bloomfield, Morton and Eliot, Robert., eds. Great Plays: Sophocles to Brecht. New York: Holt,
Rinehart and Winston, 1966.
Krutch, Joseph Wood. “Drama”. The Nation, CLX (April 14, 1945).
Tishler, Nancy. Tennessee Williams: Rebellious Puritan. New York: The Citadel Press, 1961.
Young, Stark. “The Glass Menagerie”. The New Rpublic, CXII (April 6, 1945).