On December 26, 1944 while the Battle of the Bulges raged on in Belgium, Tennessee Williams paced the floor in the Civic Theatre in Chicago minutes before the first performance of The Glass Menagerie. Williams had a lot on his mind after the failure that was Battle of Angels four years ago and the mediocrity of the final rehearsals. During the four years after Battle of Angels, Williams worked for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as a writer and worked on The Glass Menagerie in the meantime. Right before Williams had moved to the west coast to work for MGM his sister had undergone a prefrontal lobotomy in his home of St.
Louis. While working at MGM Williams kept working on Menagerie on the side and eventually he presented a screen version to MGM. A battle for screen rights ensued and after MGM lost, the play was set to open in Chicago. Right up until opening night there were complications such as Eddie Dowling and others wanting to change the script, but Williams stuck to his guns and everything worked out in his favor. The play was so well received by the Chicago audience that it was set to move to New York’s Playhouse Theatre.
Eventually, the Wingfield household was well known throughout the country, especially due to the great performances of Laurette Taylor as Amanda. Throughout his life, Tennessee Williams had been a habitue of movies and wanted to bring some of those themes into plays. Williams was especially fond of the technique called mise-en-scene where the characters move as little as possible to give them a statuesque appearance. Williams’ romantic lyricism was essentially a rebirth of European expressionism, but it was new and appealing for an American audience.
This play was a welcome change from the others that were being performed at that time. Even today, the play is still popular and draws many famous actresses including Helen Hayes, Jessica Tandy, Katharine Hepburn, and Joanne Woodward to perform it. Why is it that the play has withstood critics and stayed popular for over half a century? Many of great American plays including Long Day’s Journey into Night, Death of a Salesman, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and Buried Child, feature familial tensions and domestic warfare.
This idea of the struggles of family has deep roots that go as far back as Aeschylus, but Tennessee Williams is able to evoke so many emotions in the audience based on the position the Wingfield family is in. The Glass Menagerie was the saddest play that Tennessee Williams had to endure because most of the characters were modeled after his family members in real life. After his family moved from Mississippi to St. Louis Tennessee had to get a job working for a shoe company and wrote on the side. His sister Rose unfortunately had imperfections and the family was troubled by her illness.
His mother Edwina was nearly identical to the character Amanda. His brother Dakin does not have a parallel character as well as Mr. Williams who was always around. There was even a gentleman caller that Tennessee brought home for his sister much like Jim from the play. In the play, the three characters are in a very difficult situation and each tries to control his or her inner demon so that they can work together to get through the struggle. Each person tries to hide his or her problems from the others because if the family had any more problems they would surely collapse.
As the play progresses, Tom has to face a very difficult choice of whether or not he will abandon his family and pursue his personal freedom like his father or stay and sacrifice himself for his mother and sister. When Tom finally makes his decision, he realizes that the curse of leaving his sister will haunt him wherever he goes but he feels that he must free himself and live out his dreams. This “fugitive kind” character that Tennessee Williams creates is typical of his writing. Amanda is another character who cannot live in the present.
She has such vibrant memories of the past when gentleman callers knocked down her door by the hundreds. Her days of summer in the south with beautiful dresses and jonquils are gone. She recalls these memories so that she can get as far away from her present situation in St. Louis as possible. Amanda tells these stories in order to give her daughter hope that one day a caller will come for her, but the reality is that chances are slim Laura will ever find a mate. The way in which Amanda tries to control her children but also wants what it best for them is very confusing.
It is difficult to tell if she truly wants the best for them or if she is trying to keep them close to her as long as she can. Laura is a very unique girl with certain physical defects. She is very shy and vulnerable and she resembles the animals on her shelf. Like them she is very fragile, and she cannot hold her own in the real world. Jim O’Connor is a man who was the star in his high school days but has not done much with his life after that. He still keeps his hopes up for the future but at the present time he barely makes more than Tom.
The time that Jim and Laura share together is very special for her and when the horn breaks on the unicorn it seems as though a curse has been lifted off of Laura. After the kiss, Laura gets the false sense of security that she can one day find a mate until she hears about Betty. Jim leaves shortly after this and does not realize the damage he has caused. This play is very unique and is still well liked today thanks to Tennessee Williams’ ability to create so many emotional scenes from nothing. Williams describes this as a quiet play and from this silence, the cries of desperation from the characters are heard.