'The Glass Menagerie' Revisited: Catastrophe without Violence

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Author: Roger B. Stein
Editors: Thomas Votteler and Laurie DiMauro
Date: 1992
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,425 words

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In an interview with Newsweek in the spring of 1960, Tennessee Williams made an announcement which was bound to be of interest to widespread audiences and critics of the drama alike. He declared that he was “through with what have been called my 'black' plays,” that from then on his plays would be free from their earlier accent on the bestiality of man. While not denying that bestiality still existed, Williams declared, “I want to pass the rest of my life believing in other things. For years I was too preoccupied with the destructive impulses. From now on I want to be concerned with the kinder aspects of life” [Newsweek, 27 June 1960]. The sweeping quality of the remark was almost Tolstoyan in its rejection of Williams' earlier vision. By contrast to the violence and blackness of the earlier plays, the newer vision seemed to be one of sweetness and light. Williams' last phrase alone reverberates with William Dean Howells' injunction seventy years ago that our novelists “concern themselves with the more smiling aspects of life, which are the more American” [Criticism and Fiction].

The turn in Williams' career should not have come as a complete shock (even putting aside the question of psychoanalysis). In the foreword to Sweet Bird of Youth several years ago, Williams marveled at his audiences' capacity to accept the violence which he was dealing out to them, and by this time violence—of rape, castration, and cannibalism—had become the hallmark of the Williams mode, his way of resolving, or avoiding the real resolution of, the conflicts between his lonely, haunted characters. In that same foreword Williams tried to indicate that violence was not his only dramatic weapon. He divided his dramas into two groups: the violent plays, those which emphasize man's bestiality, and the non-violent plays. Among the latter he included both The Glass Menagerie and the then uncompleted Period of Adjustment, because neither depends for its moral justification upon the Aristotelian idea that violence is purged by its poetic representation on a stage and neither play offers us violence as the way to “the release from the sense of meaninglessness and death,” which Williams understands to be the object of a work of tragic intention.

The grouping is useful in showing Williams' earlier uneasiness with violence as his sole dramatic technique. Reaching back to his earliest successful drama, Williams grasped again at an approach built not upon the reduction of dramatic situation and motivation to a series of overcharged, sexually violent and symbolically loaded confrontations, where “release” comes from explosion, but upon a quieter pattern of lonely human beings who fail in a variety of ways to make contact with one another and with their universe.

Then, to strengthen one's conviction that Williams was searching for a way out of the pattern of violence which had become his trademark, the 1961 Broadway season gave us The Night of the Iguana. Despite the hints of violent action offstage and the explosive personality of its...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100001575