The Ghosts of Tennessee Williams on Stage

The Glass Menagerie

By Tennessee Williams

In this, his first hit play, Tennessee Williams draws on many aspects of his own life—his alcoholic traveling shoe salesman and often absent father, his Southern belle mother (a recurring character in Williams’s work), his mentally ill sister Rose (who received a lobotomy), and his own difficulties with not fitting in—to create a compelling and complex psychological drama of people trapped in an illusory world. In the end, one attempts to escape, as Williams himself did, only to acknowledge that escaping from memories is impossible.

Tom Wingfield narrates the story of his family, focusing on his last days he is with them. Deserted by the father, whose picture hangs prominently on the wall, Tom must work in a shoe factory to support his mother Amanda and sister Laura. His role makes him resentful and angry. He dreams of and threatens to leave to pursue his own interests, writing.

Amanda lives in the past, regaling family and audience with stories of her upbringing and her beaus. Abandoned once, she fears Tom will walk out on Laura and her.

Laura suffers from crippling shyness, more debilitating than her physical limp.

At the urging of Amanda, Tom agrees to bring a “gentleman caller” home for Laura, who is reclusive, withdrawn into her own world populated by her glass figurines. Jim O’Connor accompanies Tom home one night, a night for which Amanda pulls out all the stops and spares no expense, though their resources are limited.

After a rocky start, Jim, with his big aspirational personality (though he, too, is a character wounded by life), puts Laura at ease to the point where possibilities seem to glimmer in her future. She admits to having had a crush on him in high school, where he was quite a big deal. There’s even a spark between them. But, alas, it’s not to be, as Jim has a girl, Betty, he will soon marry.

Jim excuses himself early, leaving Amanda to attack Tom for the joke he played on Laura and herself. Of course, he didn’t know Jim was about to be married, because Jim had not announced it in the factory. It’s the final row for Tom who leaves never to return. However, as his final words reveal, he really can never leave; the memory of Laura haunts him over distance and time.

While only the barest of bones, hopefully you can see just own psychologically complex Williams’s play is. It’s also filled with interesting features, some of which audiences never see, as directors omit them as clumsy, redundant, even condescending. The most prominent of these is the screen that displays key ideas that the characters pretty much speak almost immediately. The others are the cinematic quality of the piece that include explicit key lighting direction and music cues.

For those who would like to see the play performed, you will find the 1973 television adaptation particularly good. It stars Katharine Hepburn as Amanda, Sam Waterston as Tom, Joanna Miles as Laura, and Michael Moriarty as Tom. w/c

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