The Glass Menagerie (1944)
by Tennessee Williams (1911-1983)
Did the agonizing suffering experienced by Tennessee Williams as a homosexual introvert drive him deeper into a consciousness of compassion and sensitivity enabling him to “feel” reality more vividly? This is a good way to approach Williams’ work because as Williams’ fellow playwright Thornton Wilder said: “Without your wounds where would your power be?” And Tennessee Williams certainly wrote with the power of a “wounded” artist.
We are all “wounded,” of course, trapped in the illusion of a narrative with no clear way to escape. “His great theme is escapism—people at the end of their ability to cope. There isn’t a Tennessee play without somebody who is unable to deal with life. Mostly, its women, but a lot of his men are on the brink too—unable to go on.”[i]
The Glass Menagerie is an autobiographical “memory play” set in St. Louis in 1937 and the events are “remembered” by Tom Wingfield, an aspiring poet who feels trapped toiling in a shoe warehouse to support his mother Amanda and his sister Laura. Amanda lives in the past with romantic memories of her life as a genteel lady from a well-to-do Southern family pursued by numerous suitors. Amanda’s immediate objective is to assist Laura, who is painfully shy and wears a leg-brace, to find a husband. Tom escapes the fantasy world of the family’s apartment by drinking, attending movies and reading literature. During one of the arguments between Amanda and Tom over his behavior, Tom accidentally breaks several of the glass animal figurines in Laura’s prized glass menagerie.
Tom invites a fellow warehouse worker and potential suitor for Laura to dinner. Laura realizes upon hearing Jim O’Connor’s name that she had a crush on him in high school. The evening of the dinner, Tom reveals to Jim that he plans to leave his job and family using the money for the family’s electric bill to join the merchant marine. As dinner is ending, the lights go out because of the unpaid electric bill. After lighting candles, Amanda and Tom retreat to the kitchen to clean up leaving Laura and Jim in the living room.
While they are dancing, Jim accidentally knocks over a unicorn in the menagerie and breaks off its horn. Laura remarks that now the unicorn is a normal horse. Jim reveals that he has a serious girlfriend and Laura offers him the unicorn as a souvenir. Jim leaves hastily after revealing to the family that he is engaged to his fiancée. Amanda is upset with Tom who did not know that Jim had a fiancée and accuses him of being a selfish dreamer. While Amanda is comforting Laura, Tom steps out onto the fire escape and watches the two women. Not long after Jim’s visit Tom is fired from his job and leaves Amanda and Laura feeling guilty for the rest of his life for leaving Laura.
The theme of Simple Reality and a prominent theme in The Glass Menagerie has to do with the distinction between illusion and reality. “Each member of the Wingfield family is unable to overcome this difficulty, and each, as a result, withdraws into a private world of illusion where he or she finds comfort and meaning that the real world does not seem to offer.”[ii] As Williams himself came to realize after leaving his dysfunctional family, the “real” world does not offer comfort either but only more suffering.
Truth is an elusive goal for most of us as we move from one illusion to another in our search for reality. “Tom tells Jim that the other moviegoers are substituting on-screen adventures for real life, finding fulfillment in illusion rather than the real world. Even Jim who represents the “world of reality” is banking his future on public speaking, television and radio—all of which are meant to create illusions and to persuade audiences that these illusions are true. The avoidance of reality is a huge and growing aspect of the human condition in 1937.”[iii] Illusion has always been and is today the defining reality of the human condition.
“Tom’s double role as a character whose recollections the play documents and as a character who acts within those recollections—underline the play’s tension between objectively-presented dramatic truth and memory’s distortion of truth. Unlike the other characters, Tom sometimes addresses the audience directly, seeking to provide a more detached explanation and assessment of what has been happening onstage. But at the same time, he demonstrates real and sometimes juvenile emotions as he takes part in the play’s action. This duality can frustrate our understanding of Tom, as it is hard to decide whether he is a character whose assessments should be trusted or one who allows his emotions to affect his judgment. It also shows how the nature of recollection is itself problematic: memory often involves confronting a past in which one was less virtuous than one is now. Tom is full of contradictions.”[iv]
We know that truth is found only in the present moment and that living in the past or the future complicates life with illusions. The task for all of us as it was for Tom is to detach from the illusions and accept the reality of what is currently happening in our lives. In truth, Tom has no past, he is projecting his current reality, which is full of contradictions and identity issues into the past. Ironically he is haunted, not by his past, but by his “present” which he projects into the non-existent “past.”
“All we learn is what he [Tom] thinks about his mother, his sister, and his warehouse job—precisely the thing from which he claims he wants to escape.”[v] Tom’s life is full of illusions relating to time and space and he expends a lot of energy trying to escape the present moment. He finds many ways to try to deny his current reality and none of them work since the real source of his suffering can only be found within himself and his struggle to avoid where he finds himself and who he finds himself to be.
“After all, Amanda and Tom live to some extent in fantasy worlds—Amanda in the past and Tom in movies and literature.”[vi] Amanda Wingfield is archetypal of the delusion that is at the heart of human unconsciousness. She tries to live in the past and at the same time assiduously avoids the reality that assaults her as her illusion collapses with each passing day. As an archetype, she assembles a survival strategy of denial that differs only in its detail from that of most human beings. She distracts herself from her suffering with sex, alcohol and fantasy. “Williams describes life in these tenements as the constant burning of the ‘slow and implacable fires of human desperation.’”[vii] Amanda is “the faded Southern belle [having] a hard time coming to terms with their new status in society [and] modern society.”[viii] Her worldview contains the hope that “the South will rise again” without realizing that the “South” was an illusion and never existed in the first place as indeed for all humanity the world that they live in doesn’t exist except in their own fantasy of it. We all escape into the illusion of the past or into the fantasy of the future—anywhere but the present moment—the only “place” where reality exists.
Amanda is “deeply flawed [and] withdraws from reality into fantasy.”[ix] To see the nature of reality we must always be aware of our perspective. Are we looking from the perspective of the relative (P-B) or the Absolute (P-A)? Amanda is, of course, unaware of P-A and therefore is caught in a double illusion of the “dead South” and the “dead present.” A pretty ghastly “reality.” Human beings are not “deeply flawed,”—not even Amanda—they are only unconscious. Each human being is in truth “perfect” as seen from the context of P-A.
If we could understand that human pain is natural and learn to see the human condition objectively, we would be empowered to detach from our self-destructive reactions to our pain and be free to respond in a healthier and more life-enhancing way to our experience of life. Amanda was not “doomed” to suffer, she chose to resist her situation and create her own suffering. In that regard, Amanda’s story is universal.
Although we are not aware that any critics have made this observation, we find that the irony of the play is that Laura, the “weak” character, is actually the strongest. She is the character least disillusioned with life—making the most conscious response to life of them all. “Laura displays a pure compassion. Laura repeatedly displays a will of her own that defies others’ perception of her, and this repeatedly goes unacknowledged.”[x]
One trait that is seen most often in an “awakening” person is compassion. The second is that they surrender to reality with a minimum of delusion. Laura has accommodated to the facts of her life and is in much less resistance to “reality” than either Amanda or Tom. Laura is seen as others want to see her, not as she is. In short, the other characters project their own fears and shadows on her. “Laura can take on whatever color they wish.”[xi]
Amanda wants Laura to be the reborn Southern belle that she wants to be, and Tom sees his own weaknesses in Laura and must flee this Self-realization rather than confront it. Tom has a momentary glimpse of this reality. “As Tom puts it, the fact that what we are seeing is a memory play means that ‘it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.”[xii]
“It seems that she [Laura] is just making a joke, which would indicate that she can, on the right occasion, distance herself enough from her fantasy world to find humor and absurdity in it.”[xiii] In short, Laura is conscious of what she is doing when she fantasizes which is more than can be said for either Amanda or Tom. Williams himself was aware of the distinction between reality and illusion albeit from a P-B perspective. He was incapable of freeing himself from what amounted to a double illusion or an illusion within an illusion which is a definition of unconsciousness.
The drama critics are in the thrall of the same double illusion and hence can only ineffectually grasp for the deeper reality of life as portrayed in The Glass Menagerie. In fact, it often seems as if the main effect of the play’s nonrealistic style is to increase the sense of reality surrounding its content. The play, as Tom says, is committed to giving its audience “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”[xiv] Which is precisely what each of us is experiencing in the “drama” of our lives.
[i] Adler, Stella. Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights. New York: Knopf, 2012, page 204-205.
[ii] Inside/Out. “The Glass Menagerie.” Denver Center Theatre Company, September 2016/17, page 8.
[iv] Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. New York: Spark Publishing, 2002, page 11.
[vi] Ibid., page 48.
[vii] Ibid., page 49.
[viii] Williams, op. cit., page 12.
[ix] Ibid., page 13.
[xii] Ibid., page 50.
[xiii] Ibid., page 48-49.
[xiv] Ibid., page 50.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.