I return from NEWL 2015! It was a great experience, but it’s nice to be back in action. Today’s post is about Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie! This play includes some possibly ableist language and/or depiction and extreme Expressionism, though that second one may not be such a turn off. You’ll enjoy this play if you like memoirs, domestic plays, or family dramas.
Plot: A family of an imaginative son unsatisfied with his mundane life, a differently abled daughter unable to function domestically or professionally, and a washed out Southern mother abandoned by her husband all struggle to secure satisfaction in their lives.
Initial thoughts: Familiar with Streetcar and Cat, Menagerie was extremely different than what I expected! It is an Expressionist play relying on projections and music in order to convey and amplify mood and action. I read somewhere once that more recent productions of the play are realistic rather than Expressionist, which I think is a major failing, even in a reading of just the text.
Williams is frank in terming the Glass Menagerie a memory play, but whose memory is doubtful. Tom is our narrator and while it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming the actions only stem from his memory, the scenes are episodic and sometimes take place while Tom is not around, suggesting that the play is a pastiche of memories from Laura and Amanda as well.
Itty Bitty Research: Although the Glass Menagerie was first performed in 1944 and published in 1945, the time setting of the play references events and culture from the 1920s and 1930s. For example, Victrola, created by Victor Talking Machine Company, was popular in the first two decades of the Twentieth Century, and Amanda’s “cloche hats,” which can be seen here, were fashionable during the 1920s (11). Another unfortunate fact of a play predating the Civil Rights Movement is racism. Amanda tells Laura, “you be the lady this time and I’ll be the darky,” referring to how slaves performed domestic work, which was still a characteristic trade despite the abolition of slavery in 1865 (7). The n-word also appears in the play. This is to say that there are romantic notions of historical moment in the play through technology and fashion and also disheartening reminders of toxic treatment of human beings. How do we respectfully perform the Glass Menagerie today? I don’t just mean cutting out these hurtful, racist lines. I mean talking about accounting for the labor of black people that invisible exists in the play. I might not be able to answer that question right now, but I am certainly thinking about options.
Two French phrases appear in the play, “Ou sont les neiges” (6) and “Ou sont les neiges d’antan?” (9). These phrases respectively mean “where are the snows?” and “where are the snows of yesteryear?” At first I thought this was just a poetic device, but it turns out it belongs to the song “Ballade des dames du temps jadis.” You can listen to a recent recording of it here. Music plays an integral role to this play, but I decided to focus on other aspects of the play. These lyrics caught my eye because they are translations, but depending on the familiarity of the audience, the connection between music and projection may not be so obvious.
Although I’m not positive, I’m pretty sure the D.A.R. Amanda refers to throughout the play is the Daughters of the American Revolution, an organization for women who are descendants of people who participated in securing the USA’s independence. This would make sense, given that there is a St. Louis-Jefferson chapter, which could possibly be the Jefferson Amanda refers to. This is something that is not explained at length, and there is no explanation of how the D.A.R. reflects Amanda’s pride or heritage, other than the D.A.R. being a place for her to show off and socialize with women.
And finally, among other conditions that required Laura to wear a leg brace in high school and a nervous disposition that prevents her from engaging in social interactions, she had pleurosis for a year during high school. This is a lung condition, usually called pleuritis, that makes breathing painful and causes extreme pain in the chest. Given that this is an Expressionist play, the connection to heart clenching and the difficulty breathing might be representative of Laura’s crush on the Gentleman Caller.
Works cited: Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. New York: New Directions, 1949. Print.