Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Glass Menagerie (1944)

     There is no play that I have read and seen more times than Tennessee William's The Glass Menagerie (1944).  I had not had any contact with the material in the last 20 years, however, and so felt that I owed it to myself and the material to revisit it.  It is entirely likely that 14-16 year old me would not be able to grasp much of what is really at the heart of the play, but that doesn't necessarily mean that much older me is going to do much better with it.
     I was most surprised – because I didn't remember – by how compressed The Glass Menagerie really is.  Williams manages to condense years of desperation to escape (outwardly or inwardly) into a few nights without it feeling false or contrived for the stage.  How the household – the cramped apartment with none of the trappings of Southern aristocracy to which Amanda Wingfield clings – is presented does feel like it was crafted for the stage, but not in such a way as to diminish any of verisimilitude of the situation.
     Tom Wingfield – a stand-in for Williams as this play largely deals with his guilt over leaving his sister to her unfortunate fate – has literary aspirations, but would just assume get away from the crushing weight of his backwards-looking mother and severely introverted sister.  As someone who has dedicated more than a small amount of energy in not following his dreams, I get where he is coming from.  But Tom is relating the play from the future, so he knows everything that is going to happen.  I would think that he would be more wistful than he is (until the very end) as he knows that nothing good will come to his mother or sister from his decision to desert them.
     But the play isn't really about Tom.  It is about Laura, Tom's older sister who is so crippled with insecurity (in part due to her belief that everyone focuses on her polio-inflicted uneven gait) that she cannot bear to deal with strangers.  She has only her collection of glass figurines and the undying dream of loving a boy from high school.  Sure, it seems obvious now that this is no way to live (at least develop a way to deal with strangers and get a job...I'm not going to make any judgments on the high school infatuation). 
     Amanda isn't so much interested in helping her children be happy or better people, preferring instead that Tom find a way to make slightly more money at his soul-crushing job and for Laura to be married-off to whatever man will take her.  At the same time, Amanda is so narcissistic that she cannot help but try to overshadow her children in the presence of the only person invited into their lives.  Now, I'm not sure how much of this is exaggerated so the audience is clear on her character or if Williams really had this kind of unfortunate mother, but she is the kind of woman that husband and children should flee.
     There is something entirely sad, much more so as an adult, in seeing Laura have to accept her unicorn being turned into something as ordinary as a horse.  It isn't just that she loses the symbol of her differrentness and her gateway into the world she has created to escape her own sadness and inability to cope, but that she has to lose it to a man who could have – in the past and even the present of the events in the play – if only she had been willing to risk an encounter with Jim and he wasn't so concerned with his social position.  Her escape is forever denied and Tom leaves her to the untender mercies of their mother.
     Still a great play, but sad even in its humor. 


  1. I played JIM in a play once. You're right about everything you said.

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