"The Glass Menagerie" Update: What is this Play About, Anyway?

A companion to Cassandra Proball's piece, "Art Reflects Life"

Emily Picardi
Emily Picardi

A lot of people have heard of The Glass Menagerie. Maybe you had to listen to tired tenth graders read it out loud "popcorn" style in a high school English class. Perhaps you've even seen a production. Or six productions. Maybe you're a huge fan of Tennessee Williams and you've read everything he ever wrote and have this play and his biography memorized. If that last one is you, you're probably not going to learn anything from this blog entry, but if you're not Anoka's resident Tennessee Williams specialist, stick around to learn about The Glass Menagerie and how Tennessee Williams' life inspired it.

I can summarize the play in one brief sentence: Tom Wingfield darkly remembers his family and early life and examines the struggles that made him who he is today. It is so much more than that, though, especially when you think of Tom as a young Tennessee, and think of this play not as bland fiction, but, as Tom says "truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion."

The Glass Menagerie was the first play to bring Tennessee Williams real success, and it catapulted him to fame as a playwright. It's pretty autobiographical, in that there are characters that represent Tennessee and his family members, and situations that reflect his life events. The narrator character, Tom Wingfield (played by Ty Hudson), is Tennessee's theatrical manifestation of himself. Tom Wingfield and Tennessee Williams even share initials and the same given first name, Thomas. If you read Cassandra Proball's post, "Art Reflects Life," published last week you will see what Williams thought of himself, and how his early life mirrors the situation Tom Wingfield is in at the beginning of The Glass Menagerie.

Tom's sister Laura (played by Samantha Haeli) is based on Tennessee's sister, Rose. Both women battled mental illness, in fact, Rose was lobotomized shortly before The Glass Menagerie was written. Laura's character is nicknamed "Blue Roses" by one of the characters in the play. Though Laura has the least number of lines of the lead characters, she steals the entire show. Tennessee had such obvious love for his sister, and was so clearly tortured by what happened to her that an audience member cannot help but love the character of Laura, Tennessee's tribute to Rose. Just as Laura inspires and later haunts Tom, Rose is present everywhere in Tennessee's writing. She was his muse and his undoing.

As Cassandra says in her piece, Tennessee's mother and father were very similar to the characters of Amanda Wingfield (played by Patti Hynes-McCarthy) and the absent Wingfield father. A fading failed debutante and a traveling salesman round out the Wingfield family just as they influenced the Williams' family.

The play is about these characters and how their very isolated worlds cross reality (a reality exemplified by the Gentleman Caller character, played by Randy Niles). Every character is flawed, every character is sympathetic. We know from the beginning that this play has no happy ending, but the events that occur within the play show the undoing of all the characters in heartbreaking detail. The characters destroy themselves, intentionally and unintentionally destroy each other, and are finally destroyed when meeting with the outside world. What makes this story extraordinary is the visceral pain just beneath the surface, dancing like light through glass; the passion and poetry of its writer struggling to make sense of his reality. Tennessee, and therefore Tom and his family, live in a world of romantic candlelight, a world made irrelevant by the lightning that brightens and electrified the rest of the world. We are so looking forward to showing this play to you, and hope that this interpretation inspires you to think more deeply about Tennessee Williams, and the issues that he presents in The Glass Menagerie.