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Essay: Discussion of the Glass Menagerie

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams has served as a ground for a bulk of scholarly literature. Some of them deal with external impacts upon the writer’s work such as addiction to alcohol and pills and the influence of the autobiography on the presentation of the South. Others dig deeper into the intricacies of Williams’ imagination and conceptual framework for his plays.

The influence of alcohol is in depth explored by Roy Starling in “The Impact of Alcoholism: The Writer, the Story the Student” (1990). The critic claims that the play is dedicated to the impact of alcoholism of Mr. Wingfield. By deciding to leave the family, this man “casts his wife, Amanda, and children, Tom and Laura, into roles for which they are badly suited, a truth Williams demonstrates by giving the Wingfields an illfitting wardrobe” (Starling 1990: 89). He also claims that Tom, Laura, and Amanda also “tend to exhibit symptoms of the alcoholic’s disease, for example, the escape from and/or denial of reality” (Starling 1990: 89). This is an interesting perspective on the retreat into the imaginary world so typical of the whole Wingfield family in the play. However, in my view, this is in many ways a simplification of the motives of the characters; in fact, people tend to start drinking not only because of the need to escape from reality. They may be motivated by cultural attitudes that sanction drinking, and the Wingfields may never develop the harmful habit once they find other ways to escape.

Allean in Hale “Tennessee Williams’s St. Louis Blues” explores another important influence on the creation of The Glass Menagerie – the city of St. Louis where Williams spent his formative years. The unhappiness of the family in which the boy found little understanding may have led him to the conceptualisation of a family setting as “a menagerie, each member caught in a separate cage”, together with the fact that St. Louis had an impressive natural-habitat at this point (Hale 1995:609). The description of the Wingfield residence as “one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living-units” found in the play is supposed to point to “Enright Avenue, where the events of Menagerie actually took place in 1933” (Hale 1995:609). It is interesting that one can actually see many of those buildings standing there till this day, a vivid memory of the origins of America’s perhaps most famous play. To me, the knowledge that the author perhaps links the idea of the menagerie to his personal experiences is very revealing. Choosing to deprive the Wingfield family of the father as compared to his situation where the father was there, Williams may have tried to indicate that it is in many ways better to be fatherless than have a father present who drinks and abuses the family. He may also have thought that introducing a father he would be forced to make the play too complex and overloaded with all kinds of relationships.

The actresses interviewed by Randy Gener and Charles Osgood also hold the opinion that Williams portrayed his own mother as Amanda.  Rosemary Harris, for instance, brings up the memory of Williams watching the first production of his play with words “The old witch. The old witch”, making her suppose that “he thought he was seeing his mother” (Gener, Osgood 2004:36). This reaction tells us a lot about the motives of the playwright for including this or that character in the play and the feelings the writer could have harboured towards Amanda, identifying it with his mother. However, I would be somewhat resistant to the idea that the work of art is merely a product of influences the writer experienced in his or her life. To me, a gifted individual is someone who can go one step beyond obvious perceptions and see the world not only through the personal prism. To put it plainly, the two writers one of whom was an alcoholic and the other perfectly free from substance addiction can have far more in common than two writing alcoholics as there are deeper principles that govern a writer’s work. Thus, because Williams was a homosexual, critics suggest that “the tragic, weary and self-loathing female characters that populate many of his best-known plays have frequently been viewed as strange and suspect” (Gener, Osgood 2004:34). However, I do not think that it is fair to say that a homosexual writer cannot produce a reliable feminine portrayal; Williams, for instance, could rely on the experience with his mother to get a glimpse into the feminine nature.

Therefore, I think that the analysis of Williams’ work presented in John Timpane’s article “Gaze and resistance in the plays of Tennessee Williams” is a more profound one. This article explores Williams’ positioning of his plays with respect to the audience. In Timpane’s mind, his plays tend to evoke a certain reaction of resistance from the viewers and readers; this resistance may come both the audience and from the play itself as it resists the audience. Timpane connects it with gaze – the term introduced by Laura Mulvey that means “a particular vantage point, a peculiar, often idiosyncratic one, full of aesthetic and moral values not our own” (Timpane 1995:751). Timpane connects this gaze with the masochistic pleasure of looking at the audience and insists that it is evident in the first place in the presentation of the place. In particular, in The Glass Menagerie, Williams underscores that happenings are not real, they are imaginary. In fact, the settings are “transformations that lead to the truth, and therein lies the pleasure” (Timpane 1995:760). The author sees “a loving masochism in The Glass Menagerie in returning to a nostalgia for a ruined past” (Timpane 1995:760). This is an interesting viewpoint of the story, seeing it a masochistic revival of the old wounds. It is interesting to think that Williams can be nostalgic even though his childhood and youth were probably far from happy, as the reading of the previous articles suggests. It is exciting, too, to think of a playwright who would not hesitate to set the audience on edge. In my view, it is the feature found in most good literary works – the ability to resist the audience, to dispute the stereotypical perceptions in people and the determination to teach them something new, something they do not already know.

Most critics would point to the pervasiveness of Williams’ desire to escape from reality, setting The Glass Menagerie in an unreal setting. William Fordyce in “Tennessee Williams’s Tom Wingfield and Georg Kaiser’s Cashier: A Contextual Comparison” explores how the “plastic theatre” created by Williams was reminiscent of the Expressionist ideas. He states that many things in The Glass Menagerie are “typical of Expressionism”, as the play “is structured in a series of short scenes, each of which represents a significant station in the protagonist’s intense quest–a quest that tends to invite failure” (Fordyce 1998:250). Like Expressionists, Williams in his plays tries “to find ways of representing on the stage the protagonist’s highly subjective, even dream-like, point of view” (Fordyce 1998:250).In fact, the extreme tension found in the happenings within the Wingfield family reminds one of exaggeration found in the paintings of the German Expressionists. Their dramatic perception of the world after WWI echoes the dramatic stance of Williams’ play, although their views were probably shaped by largely different factors.

Gilbert Deboussher (2000) also draws on homosexualism, alcoholism and family history to explain many things in the play. He points, in addition to those influences, that lies and secrets are another crucial factor in “a network of lies binds the family together” (Deboussher 2000:59). These lies appear inevitable in a situation when a whole family is struggling with the aftermaths of father’s alcoholic addiction, and “making excuses, avoiding truth, and creating phantasies become a way of life” (Deboussher 2000:59). This article, too, explores the effects of alcoholism on the whole family that cannot come to terms with their father’s disease. In my view, it is very easy to explain the problems of the Wingfields through the departure of their father; however, there must be other social mechanisms at work that prevent Amanda from finding a new husband and Tom from finding a more meaningful job and a social circle that will replace movies to a certain extent.

A highly interesting analysis from the phenomenological perspective is developed by Darryl E. Haley (1995). He states that characters in the play are in fact “representations of Tom’s consciousness; they are not “real” in the sense that their actions do not represent exactly what the physical characters did, but Tom’s memory of their actions” (Haley 1995). The critic concludes that, as the Laura, Jim, and Amanda are simple products of phenomenological reduction, “it is possible to argue … that Tom Wingfield is the only real character” (Haley 1995). In a sense, I would suggest that this is true as we get to see the events through Tom’s eyes: he is therefore closest and most real to the viewer or reader. At the same time, I would say that other characters do have some independence of their own, as Tom’s recollections are in direct dependence with what he really saw. He cannot recall, for instance, that Jim married Laura, as events were totally different, and given Laura’s character, her failure to ‘get’ Jim was perhaps predictable.

Essays focusing on The Glass Menagerie often deal with the same array of topics, including the autobiographical nature of the play, Williams’ alcoholism and homosexuality, and the unreal, ‘dreamy’ character of the settings. However, each author comes up with a special perspective, drawing often unexpected parallels so that reading different essays each time provides the individual with an enriched idea of the play.

Debussher, Gilbert. Tennessee Williams’ Dramatic Charade: Secrets and Lies in the Glass Menagerie. 2000. 9 December 2005 <http://www.tennesseewilliamsstudies.org/archives/2000/4debusscher.pdf>.
Fordyce, William. “Tennessee Williams’s Tom Wingfield and Georg Kaiser’s Cashier: A Contextual Comparison.” Papers on Language & Literature 34.3 (1998): 250+.
Gener, Randy, and Charles Osgood. “Tom and His Feminine Mystique: Four Acclaimed Actresses Compare Notes on Tennessee Williams’s Incomparable Heroines.” American Theatre, 21.7 (September 2004): 649+.
Hale, Allean. “Tennessee Williams’s St. Louis Blues.” The Mississippi Quarterly 48.4 (1995): 609+.
Haley, Darryl E. A Phenomenon of Theoretical States: Connecting Crane and Rilke to Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. East Tennessee State University, 1995. 9 December 2005 <http://www.etsu.edu/haleyd/essay1.html>.
Starling, Roy. “The Impact of Alcoholism: The Writer, the Story the Student.” College Teaching 38. 3 (1990): 88-92.
Timpane, John. “Gaze and resistance in the plays of Tennessee Williams.” The Mississippi Quarterly 48.4 (1995): 751+.