By Grace Ekalle
The Glass Menagerie, written by Tennessee Williams first premiered in December of 1944 at the Civic Center in Chicago. It is a memory play, a term coined from the playwright himself, where the main character narrates the play from their own distinct memory. A play narrated from memory, a neurological phenomenon that is not always accurate and realistic, already sets in a unique perspective. The play depicts familial tensions within the Wingfield residence and illustrates each character’s detachment from the realities of life or longlines to escape such realities. Amanda Wingfield, the mother, escapes her realities through recollections of the past; Tom, her son and narrator, escapes his through nights at the movies; While Laura, the crippled daughter, escapes her own harsh existence through collecting glass animals. Such simple and symbolic acts all done to fade the actual, to fabricate the losses and disappointments of their own lives. The common and relatable theme of familial strife is one that resides in a vast majority of the intended audience, whether the strife is caused by expectations, burdens, grief, and so on. Williams knew this relatability would evoke empathy and catharsis within the audience and used techniques like projection of images mirroring memory to psychological realism in the dialogue and setting/ light fixtures, to build the connection with the audience so that they could react accordingly with the sentiments of the play’s theme.
The Glass Menagerie is told from the memory of Tom Wingfield. Williams, trying to encapsulate what a memory would look like, projects images and legends onto a screen to give a simplistic visual representation of what the characters are thinking and feeling in the moment. For example, when Laura is reminded of her old high school crush, she remembers the nickname he used to call her, “blue roses”, and an image of blue roses emerges on the screen. Even when a feeling important to the story occurs, a legend is displayed. When Laura met her old crush, the word “Terror” appeared on the screen, explicitly outing the characters current emotional state. The main purpose of this technique is to grasp the key emotion or point of the scene in one go, so that one is not lost in the play. Like a memory remembers the important or key events, facts, and emotions, Williams directed projections mirror this by dividing each scene by a distinct significant phrase or image to centralize the story more. As an effect, the audience can simplistically understand the sentiments of the events as they unravel in a vivid sense, something that would be harder to grasp through ongoing dialogue. The scenes are strengthened and immortalized by this, creating the effect as though the memory was the audiences, encouraging them to understand the characters, search for parallel emotions as the plot commences and construct their opinions. The audience is given the platform to build a connection with the general story and its characters. Like Laura, from the projected memory of blue roses and her explicit nervousness in meeting people, one can generalize she is a woman of shy nature, who reeks of social anxiety and low self-esteem, but can be sympathized with as she cherishes the little significant pleasures in her life.
Psychological realism is a literary method used to reveal the internal motives or mental narratives of the characters, instead of just telling the story. This technique can be most prominently seen in the dialogue between Tom and Amanda, who as the story progresses, reveal their true nature to one another. Amanda’s son Tom, a worker at a shoe warehouse in Chicago, feels burdened by the responsibility of taking care of the family in response to the abandonment of his father. Because of this, his dreams of exploring the world and becoming a writer are stifled, slowly fading away the longer he takes on the burden. The backstory alone is enough reason for Tom to be angry and irritated with his situation. The way psychological realism takes a role in the play is through the dialogue with his mother, Amanda. Both the characters can be seen quarrelling with one another in each scene, but the quarrel occurs every time the mother tries to stop Tom from “escaping his reality.” Telling Tom to “stop drinking” or “you go to the movies entirely too much!” to “stop smoking,” his coping mechanisms to his sad and stagnant life are all said to wake Tom up to be a better man in her eyes, a man not like his father. Tom’s character is revealed every time he reacts to these phrases, often in an aggressive verbal attack toward his mother, giving insight to the audience that he might not be as emotionally mature or composed as when he had introduced the play in the beginning. As the play progresses and these outbursts occur, we as the audience are left to conclude that Tom really is as selfish and as emotionally immature as his father, him even agreeing with the similarity in scene six exclaiming “I am like my father. A bastard son of a bastard,” who had left for the exact reason Tom wants to leave, to discover a love that apparently isn’t at home. The quarrels reveal true nature in the play, fostering characters to come to conclusions and realizations that they were wary about in the beginning. We as an audience are enthralled by this familiar parent-child quibble and are kept entertained by questioning who side we agree with more, the mother who wanted the best for her son, or the son who wanted to live his dream.
Lastly, light fixatures help to bring out the emotion of the audience in their own personal way. The setting of the play was in the Wingfield modest apartment in Chicago, the most symbolic area being the fire escape patio. For Tom, the fire escape patio was ironically a place he went to mentally escape from the harshness of his actual life. He often went out to smoke or leave to go to the movies. Every character had their own symbolic escape from reality. From Tom’s patio and Amanda’s stories to Laura’s glass collectibles, every symbol of imagination was illuminated and highlighted by lighting. The lighting of the play alludes to the audience that it is not realistic, thus initiating the feeling that when the lights are dim, something unrealistic or imaginative was occurring, and when shafts of contrasting lights were used, reality set in. For example, Amanda in scene three. The stage, which is usually dimly lit to symbolize the fantasies of the memory, allows a spotlight to be placed on her, whilst she is on the phone working. This differentiates the real from the unrealistic and uncertain. The real and factual being Amanda working, because Tom knew what she would act or say, to the uncertain being the background, completely irrelevant to his memory and therefore unrealistic. The lighting of the play is always dim to represent the illusion of their unspoken dreams and expectations, but the breaks of spotlight help to highlights the truths and realities within their illusion which help the audience differ what is actual to what is Tom’s biased memory of what occurred. He warns at the beginning of the play that some people serve illusions as truth, and he will serve you truths in illusions, foreshadowing that the events were not credibly actual, but the sentiments were vivid and true. The audience are once again enthralled to the play by its technique, that employs them to choose whether to resonate with the characters based of the illusions or the sentimental truths of the play.
In conclusion, The Glass Menagerie, is a play that portrays the clash of illusion and reality, abandonment, and the will to escape. It is a quiet play that screams the internal misery of its characters, ergo resonating with a vast majority of its audience, reminding us of our never-ending internal battle in becoming a realist or a dreamer. A play that even today lingers in many minds.
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