Thursday, July 25, 2019

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

Reviewed by James Baur

Premiering in 1944, The Glass Menagerie after a rocky start became a famous play and won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. Like other plays of the period, The Glass Menagerie focuses on the drama of family life and explores topics such as feeling “stuck” in life and achieving ones’ dreams. What makes this play stand out is its unique usage of a narrator that both speaks on the events of the story and takes part in them. As such, the events are presented as he looks back on them in his mind. This really works to the play’s advantage, allowing for much more dramatic conversations, placement of music, and scene descriptions. The narrator claims that his memory isn’t the most reliable, so it’s up to the audience to think about what really happened in these scenes.

            The play focuses on the Wingfield family. Tom, the narrator, is dissatisfied with his life and seeks adventure. However, his obligations to family have prevented him from acting on these desires. Laura, Tom’s sister, is a very shy and sensitive woman who collects small glass statues – the titular “glass menagerie."  Amanda, the mother, seems to be stuck in the past and thoughtfully reminisces on the days of her youth. Finally, and most interestingly, we have the father figure, Mr. Wingfield, only present in the form of a smiling picture on the wall. He isn’t dead, however. Mr. Wingfield chased his own desires and abandoned his family. Each character faces a problem and desires a change in their life, but the way of accomplishing it isn’t immediately apparent.

            The play offers many little subplots, from Tom’s work life to Amanda attempting to arrange a date for the chronically shy Laura. Each share in common this failure to find something that makes them happy. Many will claim that the “glass menagerie” is simply a reference to Laura’s fragile emotional state, but it actually applies to each member of the family and serves as a sort of ironic message to the audience. Whether it is Tom afraid to emulate his father and walk out on his responsibilities, Laura being too nervous to get very far, or Amanda being stuck in her past, they all are afraid to “rock the boat” so to speak. They seem to think that one little knock will shatter this glass menagerie that the story speaks so much of. The story doesn’t end favorably for everyone by any stretch of the imagination, and this is largely because their behaviors do not change throughout it. In fact, the only person that escapes the life presented in the play makes a rather drastic action that may not have even been the morally right choice. The Glass Menagerie seems to urge the audience to make a decision when the time comes instead of endlessly lingering on it. While it may not be the correct one, the only way to find out is by trying.   

            The play is especially enjoyable to read, as the drama is amped up intentionally. Tom uses the excuse that memory allows for things to be presented more dramatically and somewhat unreliably. The stage notes include images and words flashing onto the stage and music appearing at different intervals. The reader will also get a pretty quick idea of the problems of each character and their personalities. They seem to be overstated and larger than life, which adds to entertainment value. The play is not written in any sort of intimidating dialect, and it isn’t very lengthy either. I would highly recommend The Glass Menagerie as an introduction to the genre of American plays for the adult reader. The action is quick, the message is interesting and contemplative, and the interesting “memory” mechanic of the play ensures a unique read, even for one experienced in other plays.

James Baur is a student at Valparaiso University, in Indiana who lives in Bristol when not away at school. While he studies Japanese and Accounting, he has always had a strong interest in literature and drama, especially classic works. 

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