The Glass Menagerie

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Author: Francesca Coppa
Date: 2003
Literature and Its Times Supplement 1: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them
From: Literature and Its Times Supplement 1: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them(Vol. 2: The Great Depression and the New Deal to Future Times (1930s -). )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay; Work overview; Biography
Pages: 10
Content Level: (Level 4)

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About this Person
Born: March 26, 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi, United States
Died: February 25, 1983 in New York, New York, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Playwright
Other Names: Williams, Thomas Lanier
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The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams

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THE LITERARY WORK

A play set in the mind and memories of Tom Wingfield, who recalls his escape from St. Louis in the late 1930s; first performed in 1944.

SYNOPSIS

Tom Wingfield is haunted by memories of the mother and sister he abandoned.

Tennessee Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Mississippi, on March 26, 1911, to Cornelius Coffin, a traveling shoe salesman, and Edwina Dakin Williams, the well-bred daughter of a southern minister. When Williams was seven, the family moved north to St. Louis due to a decline in the family’s fortunes. The young Williams wanted to be a writer, but his father forced the would-be-writer to work in a shoe factory, a job he hated and that eventually caused him to suffer a nervous breakdown. Williams attended college at the University of Missouri and Washington University, where he first began writing plays and gained the nickname “Tennessee” because of his southern accent. The Depression interrupted his education for two years; in 1938 he earned a B.A. degree at the University of Iowa, where he had gone to study dramatic writing. After graduating, Williams traveled from city to city working at menial jobs. A course in playwriting in New York City and the prize he took in a writing contest resulted in a job offer to be a screenwriter in Hollywood. It was at this point that Williams began writing what would later become The Glass Menagerie, drawing on his early days in St. Louis to portray a declassed Southern family. He wrote the tale into a short story, “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” as well as a screenplay, The Gentleman Caller, but it was as a play that the tale would finally find success. With the performance of The Glass Menagerie, Williams became famous overnight, though he regarded his success as a “catastrophe” and tried to hide from it (Williams, The Glass Menagerie, p. 11). Still drifting from city to city, mostly living in hotels, Williams went on to write such plays as A Streetcar Named Desire (1947; also in Literature and Its Times), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), Suddenly Last Summer (1958), Sweet Bird Of Youth (1959), and Night of the Iguana (1961). Both A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof won Pulitzer prizes, and Williams is now considered one of the three greatest U.S. dramatists, along with Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill. Like these two writers, Williams transformed his personal experience into drama that captured the frustrated emotions of his age.

Events In History at the Time the Play Takes Place

The Great Depression

The Great Depression spanned the years from 1929 when the stock market crashed, through 1940 when the American economy began seriously gearing up for the

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Second World War. In the intervening years, stocks became worthless, businesses closed, banks failed, agriculture (its setbacks compounded by drought) was in near-complete collapse, and unemployment soared. Many people lost absolutely everything they had. By 1932 a full quarter of the American workforce was unemployed and largely without any resources for coping with their dire financial straits. Government provisions like welfare and unemployment insurance did not yet exist. Families took to living on the streets, and desperate men hawked apples on street corners. Not until Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president in 1933 would conditions begin to improve. Roosevelt started to institute his “New Deal,” introducing a host of innovative policies to support the banks, raise farm prices, employ people in federal works projects, and create a welfare system to help the needy. A veritable alphabet soup of programs and institutions emerged: the AAA (Agricultural Adjustment Act), CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), NRA (National Recovery Administration), WPA (Works Progress Administration), and TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority), to name a few. Some of these programs were successful, but in the end, it would take World War II to lift America out of the Great Depression.

In fact, in the late 1930s when The Glass Menagerie takes place, there was an economic downturn within the Depression. Economic recovery had ensued from 1933 through the spring of 1937, peaking in May. Then the economy faltered anew, unemployment climbing back up by the spring of 1938 to more than 19 percent. Sometimes called a depression within the Depression, the crisis was addressed with fresh measures from the president, but with only limited effectiveness. The U.S. economy would not begin to fully recover until 1940, when wartime spending brought unemployment and the Depression to an end. In The Glass Menagerie, Amanda believes it worthwhile to send her daughter Laura to a business college where she can learn shorthand and typing, skills that would serve her well when the economy rebounded in 1940, if not earlier. Tom, Amanda’s son, is gainfully employed in a shoe warehouse during the late Depression but restless to join the U.S. Merchant Marine, which would in fact be a timely move. The Merchant Marine proved vital to the war effort early in the conflict, when the United States was still neutral. In late 1940 Britain, experiencing grave sea losses, asked Roosevelt for help from U.S. merchant ships to deliver war goods to Britain. Roosevelt obliged, going so far as to request that Congress empower him to arm U.S. merchant vessels and let them enter combat zones. In late 1941, before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Congress complied.

The Spanish Civil War

“In Spain there was a revolution” Tom explains to the audience in The Glass Menagerie (Glass Menagerie, p. 23). The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) has often been thought of as a dress rehearsal for World War II. The Spanish Nationalists, ultimately led by the fascist General Francisco Franco, were supported by Germany and Italy. The Spanish Republicans were aided by the Soviet Union and a group of foreigners called the International Brigade. Many of these foreigners were liberal or pro-communist British, French, and Americans, although technically Britain, France, and the United States remained neutral in the war. Tom describes American youth at this time as “caught in the folds of Chamberlain’s umbrella” (Glass Menagerie, p. 57). Famous for his trademark black umbrella, Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had gained a reputation for appeasement that became symbolized by the umbrella. Several times The Glass Menagerie alludes to the Spanish Civil War. Tom reads a newspaper with the huge headline “Franco Triumphs!” and twice makes reference to Guernica, a Spanish town horribly bombed by the Nationalists (supported by Hitler’s air force) on Page 143  |  Top of ArticleApril 26, 1937 (The Glass Menagerie, p. 56). One of the bloodiest conflicts of the twentieth century, recent estimates place the total number killed in this civil war at close to 500,000. Shortly thereafter many of the foes would face each other once again, but on a global rather than a national scale. World War II saw the Germans and Italians pitted against the British, French, and Americans as declared enemies. This time Spain would officially remain neutral.

The dominance of radio

During the 1920s, radio was a flourishing business. The rise of the electronics industry and the growing popularity of the radio were the basis for much of America’s economic success in the roaring 1920s, beginning with the first broadcasted commercial blaring from Detroit in 1920. RCA, The Radio Corporation of America, had just been established in 1919; it would be followed in 1926 by the founding of NBC (the National Broadcasting Corporation), then CBS (the Columbia Broadcasting System) in 1927-28. By 1929, ten million American homes had radios; by 1939 the number had reached 27.5 million.

Radio (often called the “wireless” in these years) continued to be popular throughout the Depression, mainly because it was free. It also filled the need for a reliable source of information, providing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with a medium through which he communicated frequently with the nation, both in official addresses and in a series of so-called “fireside chats.” Exploiting radio for how close it could bring him to the American people, he spoke to them in their own living rooms in a confidence-inspiring voice. Listeners tuned in for not only news but also entertainment: plays, comedies, serial dramas, variety shows, quiz shows, game shows, and soap operas found a listening audience. During the era in which The Glass Menagerie takes place, this audience heard one of the most famous radio broadcasts ever: the 1938 dramatization of the novel The War Of The Worlds (also in Literature and Its Times), in which narrator Orson Welles unintentionally convinced millions of Americans, who mistook the science-fiction broadcast for a real news show, that New Jersey was under attack by Martians. In the field of entertainment, radio provided a window on the world for people who, like the Wingfields in The Glass Menagerie, otherwise had little spare money to spend on leisure-time activities. Tom’s coworker in the play, Jim O’Connor, is taking a course in radio engineering, which he hopes will prepare him for a job in the up-and-coming medium of television. “I believe in the future of television.” he tells Laura. “I wish to be ready to go up right along with it. Therefore I’m planning to get in on the ground floor… all that remains is for the industry itself to get under way!” (The Glass Menagerie, p. 100). The ambition earmarks Jim as a man at the forefront of his generation. In the late 1930s, television was still an experimental technology.

The Golden Age of Hollywood

Between 60 and 90 million people—including Tom Wingfield—went to the movies at least once a week in the 1930s. Hollywood was in its Golden Age. Shaken by the events of the Great Depression, people flocked to the movies to escape the hardships of everyday life, to lose themselves in a world of glamour, mystery, or adventure. It has been said that the United States, a country without an aristocracy, carved out its own variety of kings and queens in Hollywood. Film spawned the closest institution America had to royalty, and the 1930s became the era of great screen stars, including actresses (Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, and Ginger Rogers) and actors (Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart). A film-goer could watch gangster movies featuring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart). A film-Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance the night away. Comedians and child stars flourished too. Filmgoers could be cheered up by the charm of little Shirley Temple, or lose themselves in the antics of comedians like the Marx Brothers and W. C. Fields, or escape into make-believe dramas that gave them relief from their own harsh lives. They could even spend 80 some minutes in an animated fantasyland; Snow White and the Seven Owarfs, Disney’s first feature-length cartoon, was produced in 1937.

Unlike today when one goes to see a specific film for roughly two hours, moviegoing was an all-day event in the 1930s. There might be an “A” feature and a “B” feature, plus newsreels and cartoons, so a person might buy a ticket and make a day (or a night) of it. Moviegoing was so popular that some people, like Amanda Wingfield, worried that the movies were having a bad effect on popular morality. In 1934 a production code was put into place to ensure that movies would not “lower the standards” of those who saw them. On-screen flashes of profanity, sex, and violence were thereafter subject to censorship. Still people went to the movies. Apparently moviegoing achieved the purpose that Page 144  |  Top of ArticleTom ascribes to it in The Glass Menagerie: “Hollywood characters are supposed to have all the adventures for everybody in America, while everybody in America sits in a dark room and watches them have them!” (Glass Menagerie, p. 79).

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THE DAUGHTERS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

The Glass Menagerie’s Amanda Wingfield is a member of the D.A.R., the Daughters of the American Revolution. Founded in 1890, the D.A.R. has three goals: to perpetuate the memory and spirit of the men and women who fought the Revolutionary War. to promote institutions that encourage enlightened public opinion, and to foster American patriotism. Membership is restricted to direct descendants of people who fought for American independence during the Revolution, either in a military or a civilian capacity. At one time First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a member; she resigned, however, in 1939 when the D.A.R. refused to allow the black singer Marian Anderson to perform in Constitution Hall in Washington D.C. because of her race (instead, at the invitation of the U.S. Government, Anderson sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial). That the play’s Amanda is a member of the D.A.R. means her family must have had a fairly long and distinguished history in (he country. Obsessed by her own past, Amanda seeks to perpetuate the memory and spirit of a bygone age, though her present circumstances show that her family has come down considerably in the world.

Labor unrest and the strengthening of unions

While trade unions certainly existed before the 1930s, they were often disregarded or attacked by employees. During the Great Depression, however, the public began to be more supportive of unions. Because of massive unemployment, it was easy to exploit workers—many employers tried to get the most work out of employees for the least amount of money possible. But in 1935, the National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act) was passed as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. This act explicitly gave workers the right to unionize without interference from an employer. It entitled them to organize, bargain collectively, and go on strike.

Unions took advantage of the moment and began both to create new unions and to build membership in already existing unions. A new group of dedicated, defiant labor leaders emerged to organize workers whose area of business had not yet been unionized, making great progress in mass-production industries such as automobile manufacturing, steel production, textiles, and coal mining. Literally millions of workers were unionized in the 1930s, including for the first time, black workers. Union membership soared from 2.7 million in 1933 to more than 8.5 million by the end of the 1930s.

Of course, many employers were less than happy about this increase in union membership. General Motors, for instance, refused to recognize the United Automobile Workers of America, established in 1935. In 1936 in Flint, Michigan (near Detroit), workers decided to hold a sit-down strike until General Motors recognized the union. Historians have described this strike as the most important in American labor history. By sitting down in the factories rather than leaving, they stopped General Motors from replacing them with other workers. Group singing captured the spirit of defiance: “When the boss won’t talk, don’t take a walk./Sit down! Sit down!” (Kennedy, p. 312). Roosevelt took behind-the-scenes action, urging General Motors to recognize the union as the workers’ representative, and after a 44-day strike, General Motors did. The company allowed the United Auto Workers union to meet in the lunchroom, and promised to negotiate with it about pay, minimum weekly hours, and various benefits.

Other strikes did not end so peacefully; in May 1937, police in South Chicago, Illinois, opened fire on striking workers, killing ten. That same month and year, United Auto Workers leader Walter Reuther and three of his colleagues were beaten so badly in River Rouge, Michigan, by Ford Motor Company’s security police that they had to be hospitalized. Reuther would later survive two assassination attempts. Other companies worked more stealthily, hiring spies and paying them to stir up trouble within unions, or to stop workers from organizing at all in various places. Capturing this moment in labor history, Tom Wingfield, who is himself a worker in a shoe warehouse, notes, “[T]here were disturbances of labor, sometimes pretty violent, in otherwise peaceful cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Saint Louis …” (The Glass Menagerie, p. 23).

The Play in Focus

A note on editions

There are two editions of The Glass Menagerie: the Acting Edition and the Reading Edition. The Acting Edition, the more

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PLUEROSIS, BEING “CRIPPLED” AND ATTITUDES TOWARD DISABILITY

In The Glass Menagerie, Jim calls Laura ‘Blue Roses” because she once had an attack of pleurosis. Pleurosis or pleurisy, is a disease that affects the membranes or air sacs lining the lungs. Characteristic symptoms include pain in the chest or side, fever, and loss of appetite. It is often a complication of other diseases such as scarlet fever or rheumatic fever. Laura also suffers great embarrassment because she wears a brace on her leg; she tells Jim how her brace “clumped so loud!… to me it sounded like thunder!… I had to go clumping up the aisle with everyone watching!” (The Glass Menagerie, p. 93). Jim insists she shouldn’t be self-conscious, but the attitude of most people toward disability was not as positive as his during this era, despite the fact that the President of the United States at this time, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had been paralyzed by polio and governed the country through two of its biggest crises—the Depression and the Second World War—from a wheelchair. On one hand, the fact that Roosevelt was electable to the highest office in the land showed that being disabled wasn’t necessarily the end of one’s life and career; on the other hand, even Roosevelt attempted to hide his disability, preferring to be photographed standing behind a podium orseatiid in an armchair with his wheelchair nowhere in sight. So popular was he with the press that its members cooperated, never picturing him in a wheelchair. In the play Laura’s mother echoes this same concern. Amanda clearly worries about how people will perceive her daughter’s disability; when Laura describes herself as “crippled,” her mother snaps, “I’ve told you never, never to use that word. Why, you’re not crippled, you just have a little defect—hardly noticeable, even!” (The Glass Menagerie, p. 35)

“realistic” of the two, is commonly used as the basis for productions. The Reading Edition, the one Williams himself preferred, is the version published and anthologized. The Reading Edition features stage directions that include a number of symbolic devices to help tell the story, including the projection of words and images on a background screen, specific themes of music to be played at particular times, and a particular lighting scheme. Despite the clearly theatrical nature of these devices, most producers choose not to use them on stage.

The plot—Scene 1

Tom Wingfield, our narrator, begins the play by speaking directly to the audience. He first informs us that “the play is memory” and is therefore not realistic (Glass Menagerie, p. 23). We are about to see the past only as he remembers it, not as it really was. Tom also provides the audience with an overview of the play’s social background, sketching the historical context in which his largely personal memories are set. The time, Tom tells us, is the 1930s during the Great Depression; there is a revolution in Spain and labor violence in major American cities. Tom then introduces the play’s characters—himself, his mother Amanda, his sister Laura, and the gentleman caller who “appears in the final scenes” (Glass Menagerie, p. 23). He explains that the play has a fifth character who never appears—his father, who abandoned the family long ago and whose photograph dominates the back wall. It is at this juncture that the memory part of the play begins.

Over dinner with her son and daughter in their shabby apartment, Amanda reminisces about her carefree youth and all the gentleman callers she had when she was a girl back in Blue Mountain, Mississippi. She asks her shy and crippled daughter Laura how many gentleman callers she thinks they’ll be entertaining this evening. But Laura doesn’t think she will ever have any gentleman callers. She confides to her brother that “Mother’s afraid I’m going to be an old maid” (Glass Menagerie, p. 28).

Scene 2

Laura is polishing her collection of glass animals when Amanda comes home, looking shocked; Laura has not been attending her business classes. Laura explains that going to school

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made her physically ill; she was simply too shy and strange to continue on with her course. Amanda worries about the future; how will Laura support herself if she has neither skills nor the courage to face people long enough to earn a living? “Of course,” Amanda muses, “some girls do marry” (Glass Menagerie, p. 34). Amanda asks Laura if she has ever liked a boy, and Laura confesses that she had a crush on a boy named Jim back in high school. Jim used to call her “Blue Roses” because Laura got sick with pleurosis, and Jim misheard the name of the disease. Amanda tells Laura that “Girls that aren’t cut out for business careers usually wind up married to some nice man” (Glass Menagerie, p. 35). Laura protests that she’s crippled, but Amanda tells her never to use that word.

Scene 3

Tom tells us that Amanda became obsessed with finding a husband for Laura. He then steps back into the play to argue with his mother, who thinks he’s selfish for spending too many nights out at the movies. Tom protests that he’s the one supporting the family with his job at the shoe warehouse, a job that he hates. He screams at his mother, calls her a witch, and flings his coat at her across the room, breaking some of Laura’s glass animals by accident. Amanda, near tears, says that she won’t speak to him again until he apologizes.

Scene 4

Tom comes home drunk but tells his sister he’s been out all night at the movies. Laura begs him to apologize to their mother, who still won’t talk to him. Tom apologizes to Amanda over breakfast, and she breaks into tears. She is worried that Tom is going to abandon them as her husband has; she is worried that Tom is going to become a drunk; and most of all, she is worried about what is going to happen to Laura. Amanda asks Tom to bring home a nice boy from the shoe warehouse to introduce to Laura, and Tom agrees to do so.

Scene 5

Amanda tries to comb her son’s hair, and he escapes outside onto the fire escape to smoke. There, Tom tells the audience that young people that year were looking for adventure, which lurked just around the corner, since the Second World War was about to start. Amanda comes out on the fire escape to talk to Tom, whereupon Tom informs her that they are going to have a gentleman caller; he has invited his friend Jim to come to dinner the following night. Excited, Amanda exclaims that he should have told her sooner—there are so many preparations to make! Tom warns her not to get her hopes up, but in Amanda’s mind, Laura is as good as engaged. Frustrated, Tom goes out “to the movies,” while Amanda grabs Laura and tells her to make a wish on the moon.

Scene 6

Tom tells the audience about Jim, a highly confident person who is Tom’s only friend at the warehouse. Meanwhile, Amanda works furiously to transform the apartment and get Laura prettied up. While Amanda is fixing Laura’s dress, she mentions that their caller’s name is Jim O’Connor. Laura realizes that this is the same boy she liked in high school. Tom arrives with Jim, but Laura is terrified to open the door and soon escapes into the other room. Tom, left to entertain Jim, confides that he’s planning to run away to join the Merchant Seamen, a group of sailors who ship goods during peacetime and become a naval auxiliary during wartime to deliver troops and war materiel. Amanda appears, all dressed up in a gown from her youth, and tries to charm Jim. When called to dinner, Laura nearly faints with terror and has to lie down while the other characters eat.

Scene 7

The lights go out after dinner because Tom has used the electric bill money to join the Union of Merchant Seamen. Amanda lights candles and sends Jim to talk to Laura while she and Tom do the dishes. Jim finds Laura and tries to be nice to her; at first she avoids him, but eventually he coaxes her into conversation. She admits

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WOMEN AND WORK DURING THE GREAT DEPRESSION

While Laura Wingfield’s own fears prevent her from attending business school, she would have in any case faced difficulties as a working woman in the late 1930s. With so many people out of work, competition for jobs was fierce. There was pressure to hire men first, because men were considered “breadwinners” while women’s incomes were treated as secondary and supplementary. Professional women in previously maledominated fields (medicine, science) had a particularly hard time staying employed, but women encountered difficulties even in female-dominated areas like social work, clerical work, and teaching. Many women who had the kind of clerical skills that Laura was learning in The Glass Menagerie were forced to take less skilled, less well paid work as maids or cleaning women. Guidance counselors of the time warned women that there were fewer and fewer jobs for private secretaries. Secretaries in general were at a disadvantage, not only because of the Depression, but also because of new technological developments like the Dictaphone (a recorder to which businessmen could dictate letters), which made large secretarial pools obsolete. With so many women competing for fewer jobs, a woman’s looks and social skills became especially important; the men doing most of the hiring preferred young, pretty, and charming women. So even if Laura Wingfield had finished business college, she would have had a difficult time competing in the late 1930s job market. It is worth noting, however, that the decade gave rise to some new clerical positions and the position of switchboard operator, jobs deemed particularly suitable for women, so that when employment finally improved, women tended to re-enter the work force more rapidly than men.

that she knows who he is and reminds him that he used to call her “Blue Roses.” Flattered, Jim asks her why she didn’t say hello right away, and Laura explains that she’s painfully embarrassed about being crippled. But Jim tells her not to be and tries to encourage her to be more confident about herself. He tells her that she’s pretty, takes an interest in her glass collection, and finally coaxes her into dancing with him. As they dance, they knock over Laura’s favorite glass animal, a glass unicorn, breaking the horn off. Laura takes the mishap in stride, saying that she’ll “just imagine that he had an operation. The horn was removed to make him feel less—freakish!” (Glass Menagerie, p. 104). Jim tells Laura that she’s different and special and kisses her, literally knocking her off her feet. At this point, Jim guiltily admits that while he likes her a lot, he can’t see her again because he’s going steady with another girl. He doesn’t want her to misunderstand; he doesn’t want to hurt her feelings. Laura is devastated by this news: “You—won’t—call again?” (Glass Menagerie, p. 107). Jim tells her he can’t, and Laura gives him her broken glass unicorn as a souvenir. When Amanda returns, bringing fruit punch, Jim makes a quick escape, explaining that he has to pick his fiancee up at the train station. Amanda is stunned that Jim is already engaged, and when he leaves, she whirls upon Tom furiously—how could he have brought home a boy who already had a girl?! Tom, who had no idea that Jim was engaged, flees the apartment: “The more you shout about my selfishness to me the quicker I’ll go—and I won’t go to the movies!” (Glass Menagerie, p. 114).

Stepping back into the role of narrator, Tom informs the audience that he left St. Louis soon after that, abandoning his mother and sister. It’s been years since he fled, but he is still haunted by guilt, particularly by the memory of his sister’s face. Behind him, Laura blows out the candles in the apartment, ending the play.

Fading glory—the American South

The Glass Menagerie is a play haunted by memories—not only Tom’s memories of a particular set of family events in Saint Louis, but by his mother Amanda’s memories (or romantic delusions) of her carefree girlhood in the American South. “She Page 148  |  Top of Articleloves to tell it,” Laura whispers to Tom, and indeed, Amanda takes every opportunity to reminisce about a past full of cotillions and balls, dances and picnics (Glass Menagerie, p. 25). Amanda claims to have been courted by “some of the most prominent young planters of the Mississippi Delta” (Glass Menagerie, p. 26). In fact, to hear Amanda talk, one would think that the Old South was a paradise of sorts.

A careful reading of the play tells another story. The South of Amanda’s childhood is a deeply racist place; Amanda speaks of having to “send the nigger over to bring in folding chairs” when she had too many gentleman callers in one afternoon (Glass Menagerie, p. 26). At another point, she offers to fetch the pudding by telling Laura, “You be the lady this time and I’ll be the darky” (Glass Menagerie, p. 25). Old-fashioned Southern gentility was dependent on old-fashioned servitude. The planters who courted Amanda were enriched by plantations that depended on slave labor before the Civil War, making the South far from a paradise for a good many of its inhabitants. Underscoring this not immediately obvious fact in the play is the information that at least some of Amanda’s gentleman callers met with unhappy fates: one was “drowned in Moon Lake,” another was shot “on the floor of Moon Lake Casino” (Glass Menagerie, p. 27).

Yet looking back, Amanda’s genteel pretensions allow her to idealize the era—“Gone, gone, gone! All vestige of gracious living! Gone completely!” (Glass Menagerie, p. 82). In her romantic imagination, the genteel South of her past is as much an escape from current hardships as Tom’s trips to the movies. Both escapes dovetail in Amanda’s sales pitch for her magazine subscriptions. The new serial novel that will be published, she promises, is as exciting as Gone with the Wind, the famous Civil War novel published in 1936 and turned into an epic movie adventure in 1939.

AMANDA: You remember how Gone with the Wind took everybody by storm? You simply couldn’t go out if you hadn’t read it. All everybody talked was Scarlett O’Hara. Well, this is a book that critics already compare to Cone with the Wind. It’s the Gone with the Wind of the post-World War generation!

(Glass Menagerie, p. 38)

Gone with the Wind won eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, so the story of a determined Southern woman in a crumbling world was very much in the air as Williams was writing The Glass Menagerie. Indeed, Williams himself was perhaps the one to really write “the Gone with the Wind of the post-World War generation”—his own story of a determined Southern woman in a crumbling world, The Glass Menagerie.

Sources and literary context

The Glass Menagerie is Williams’s most patently biographical play. Tom Wingfield is an obvious Williams stand-in; he gave the character his first name, his initials, his hated job at the shoe warehouse, his desire to be a writer, his weakness for drink and the movies, and his own restless nature. Williams’s mother, Edwina, like Amanda, was a culture-shocked Southern belle, and while his father Cornelius never abandoned the family, he did travel a lot when Williams was young, and became a drunk and an abusive presence once they moved north.

Most importantly, Williams’s sister, Rose, like the fictional Laura Wingfield, was a weak and damaged creature. Rose’s background, like Laura’s, suggested that Rose ought to be a debutante, and in late 1927 she was, in fact, sent south to her aunt in Knoxville to make her debut in a swirl of parties and lunches. But Rose, like Laura, did not find a gentleman caller, and she became increasingly depressed. After the economy collapsed in 1929, the family tried to send Rose out to work, but they had to come get her after only one day; terrified, Rose had hidden herself in the bathroom. After this, Rose became increasingly depressed and erratic, and had several nervous breakdowns. In 1937, around the time in which The Glass Menagerie is set, Rose was diagnosed as schizophrenic and paranoid delusional and was committed to the State Hospital in Farmington, where she received insulin shock and Metrazol therapy. Unresponsive to the treatment, in 1943 she was given a bilateral prefrontal lobotomy, which was supposed to cure her depression. Instead it damaged her mind beyond repair, and she spent the rest of her life in an institution. Williams was obviously thinking of his sister Rose when he gave his fictional character Laura the nickname “Blue Roses.” Rose’s fate haunted her brother for the rest of his life. In fact, one of the reasons that Williams could never enjoy his own success as a writer was because he was keenly aware of how much luckier he had been than the women of his family.

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

The Second World War

“Adventure and change were imminent in this year.… All the Page 149  |  Top of Articleworld was waiting for bombardments!” says the play’s narrator (Glass Menagerie, p. 57). The bombardments of the Second World War began in earnest in 1939, after Hitler invaded Poland. France and Great Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939. Within a year, France would be invaded and forced to surrender to the Germans, and Britain would suffer a series of intense German bombings of its major cities. The bombardments the world was waiting for would indeed come!

The United States did not enter the war until its naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was attacked by the Japanese on December 7, 1941. But it had been sending planes, tanks, guns, and other goods to England throughout the war, even when Britain didn’t have the money to pay for them, and as noted, had used U.S. merchant ships on Britain’s behalf. Today people often talk about the Second World War as an obviously “good” war, one that was honest and worth fighting. They tend to forget that before Pearl Harbor, there was a huge and violent controversy in the United States over the question of whether the country should enter the war at all.

There is perhaps more than a little wartime feeling in Williams’s play when Jim O’Connor describes his former girlfriend, Emily Meisen-bach, as a “kraut-head” (Glass Menagerie, p. 97). Anti-German sentiments had reached a feverish pitch during the First World War (1914-18). So vehement were Americans in their antipathy that they renamed sauerkraut “liberty cabbage” and redubbed the German measles “liberty measles.” The anti-German feelings subsided in the interwar period—after all, Jim did date Emily in high school. But by the writing of the play, the United States and Germany had been deadly enemies for more than two years and a degree of virulent anti-German feeling had resurfaced.

The rise of television

Jim O’Connor’s interest in television, then only an experimental medium, illustrates how forward-thinking he is. In 1937 there were only 18 experimental television stations in the entire United States. Television was publicly demonstrated at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, but the Second World War stopped the emerging industry in its tracks as scientists and engineers refocused their attention on technological developments that had more obvious military applications. Electronics factories were needed for the war effort more than the television industry. So for the next few years production centered on the war.

Thus, in 1944, when The Glass Menagerie was written, television was poised to explode across the American landscape. Commercial production of television was still banned, so that it wouldn’t interfere with the war effort, but many people eagerly anticipated the spread of the new technology. In 1946 the government removed its restrictions on broadcasting; at this point there were about 10, 000 television sets in the U.S. The fact that the industry was about to burgeon can be seen in the exponentially increasing numbers of sets shortly after the writing of The Glass Menagerie; by 1949, there would be one million; 10 million by 1951; 50 million by 1959. By the 1950s, television was rapidly replacing radio as America’s number one medium for communication and entertainment. Certainly for some Americans, the excitement was already in the air during the writing of the play. Williams was obviously paying attention to this medium in the midst of its emergence in the 1940s, since his play links television to Jim O’Connor’s confidence and ambition. Like television, the character seems destined for success. He comes across as a man with his eye on the future, in sharp contrast to the Wingfields, a family held down by the weight of their collective past.

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THE USE AND ABUSE OF LOBOTOMY

Alobotomy is an operation in which parts of the brain are severed from each other; it is. literally, the intentional infliction of brain damage. The operation was introduced in 1935 by two Portuguese neurophysicians, António Egas Moniz and Almeida Lima, and was soon adopted as a “miracle cure” for mental illness. In practice, what this meant was that a braindamaged person was more manageable and docile than someone who had a mental illness. A device like an icepick was inserted through the back of the eye and into the frontal lobes of the brain, severing the nerves and causing irreparable damage. Lobotomies were performed widely throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s along with other brutal “treatments” like electroshock therapy. Today, depression, paranoia, and schizophrenia are treated with various kinds of medications, and lobotomies are performed very rarely. Williams’s sister Rose, the model for Laura Wingfield, was given a pretrontal lobotomy in 1943, a year before The Glass Menagerie was written.

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Reviews

When The Glass Menagerie first opened in Chicago in 1944, not many people were interested in seeing a first play by an unknown playwright. But critics loved the play and helped it find its audience. Chicago Tribune drama critic Claudia Cassidy published a wildly enthusiastic review on December 27, 1944, and continued to go to the play night after night as she exhorted her readers to see the play. Cassidy was convinced that Williams had vast insight into human nature and insisted to her readers that they would find the play spellbinding. Cassidy eventually won an ally in fellow drama critic Ashton Stevens of the Chicago Herald American, and thanks largely to their perseverance, The Glass Menagerie was soon playing to packed houses. The casting of Laurette Taylor, a beloved stage actress who had gone into semi-retirement after the death of her husband, did much to catapult it to popular success too. Taylor’s performance as Amanda has become such a famous theatrical landmark that every Amanda since has been unfavorably compared to her. Three months later, in March, 1945, the play opened on Broadway. The cast received an amazing 25 curtain calls, and the play later went on to win the prestigious New York Critics’ Circle Award.

—Francesca Coppa

For More Information

Bigsby, Christopher. “Tennessee’s Lost Sister: Obituary: Rose Williams.” The Guardian (London), 20 September 1996, 19.

Cardullo, Bert. “Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.” Explicator 55, no. 3 (1997):161-64.

Gounaridou, Kiki. “The Quest for Identity in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.” Text & Presentation: The Journal of the Comparative Drama Conference 19 (1998): 33-40.

Gussow, Mel. “Rose Williams, 86, Sister And the Muse of Playwright.” New York Times, 7 September 1996, 13.

Hoare, Philip. “Obituary: Rose Williams.” The Independent (London), 12 September 1996, 18.

Kennedy, David M. Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Levy, Eric P. “Through Soundproof Glass’: The Prison of Self-Consciousness in The Glass Menagerie.” Modern Drama 36, no. 7 (1993): 529-537.

Parker, R. B., ed. The Glass Menagerie: A Collection of Critical Essays. Engelwood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1983.

Reynolds, James. “The Failure of Technology in The Glass Menagerie.” Modern Drama 34, no. 4 (December 1991): 522-27.

Roudane, Matthew C, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Tynan, Kenneth. “Tennessee Williams.” in Profiles. London: Nick Hern, 1990.

Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. New York: New Classics, 1949.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2875200084