THE GLASS MENAGERIE
SUBJECTS — Drama/U.S.; U.S./Missouri;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Families in Crisis; Mother/Son; Mother/Daughter; Disabilities;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Responsibility.
1973 Made For TV Version: Age: 12+; No MPAA Rating; Drama, 100 minutes; Color; Available from Amazon.com. The supporting actors won Emmys for their performances and the leading actors received Emmy nominations.
1967 Movie Version: Age:12+; MPAA Rating — PG; Drama; 134 minutes; Color; (VHS only)
This is a film version of Tennessee Williams’ classic play about a son separating from his family and leaving home. The father has already left. The daughter shies away from people and any new experience. She can’t finish school. The mother is at her wit’s end trying to find some path in life for her daughter. The adult son, whose paycheck supports the family, is being drawn away by his need to seek his own life.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
The play won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best play of the season when it premiered on Broadway during the 1944/1945 season.
1973 Made for TV Version:
Selected Awards: 1973 Emmy Awards: Best Supporting Actor of the Year (Michael Moriarty); Best Supporting Actress of the Year (Joanna Miles); 1974 Directors Guild of America Nominations: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Specials (Anthony Harvey); 1973 Emmy Awards Nominations: Best Lead Actress in a Drama (Katharine Hepburn); Best Supporting Actor in Drama (Sam Waterston).
Featured Actors: Katharine Hepburn as Amanda Wingfield; Sam Waterston as Tom Wingfield; Joanna Miles as Laura Wingfield; and Michael Moriarty as Jim O’Connor.
Director: Anthony Harvey.
1967 Movie Version:
Selected Awards: None.
Featured Actors: JoAnne Woodward, Karen Allen, John Malkovich, James Naughton.
Director: Paul Newman.
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
“The Glass Menagerie” is an excellent example of the artistry of Tennessee Williams and the genre of the “memory play”. The play/film provides good examples of several literary devices. Properly presented, it will help adolescents understand the issues faced by many children when they make a decision about whether to leave home.
If your child is studying the play in English class, the temptation to see the film prior to reading the play should be resisted. The information provided in this guide will be helpful to a student writing an analytical essay on the play and will be helpful to a parent who may be viewing the film with a child simply for the pleasure of watching a fine film together. If your child has not studied the film in class, before showing the movie and to the extent that your child’s attention span will permit, review the major points described in Before Watching the Movie. After the movie, ask and help your child to answer the Quick Discussion Questions and several other Discussion Questions of your choice.
BEFORE SHOWING THE MOVIE
The following is a short sample lecture to provide background that will help students appreciate and understand “The Glass Menagerie”. Adapt it to the abilities and needs of your class.
The events shown in the “The Glass Menagerie” took place in St. Louis, Missouri, during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The play was written by Tennessee Williams, one of America’s greatest playwrights. It is the most autobiographical of William’s plays and people from his family can be recognized as characters in the drama. His father was barely at home. His mother was overbearing and controlling. His sister suffered from mental illness.
The play was written during the Second World War. Before the 1940s, plays were told with a linear time line. The actors on stage would act out events in the order that they occurred. “The Glass Menagerie” is the first American “memory play” in which a narrator reflects on his past and shares events with the audience in a non-linear fashion. The “memory play” genre is in common use today. It is easily adapted to film.
Here are some terms used in the movie:
“DAR” is short for Daughters of the American Revolution. This is an organization of women with an ancestor who assisted in achieving independence during the Revolutionary War. The DAR is a social organization with some charitable purposes. It also has a reputation as a bastion of conservatism.
There are references to two writers in this movie. Tom had been reading a book by D.H. Lawrence that he got from the library. Mrs. Wingfield finds the book and returns it without asking Tom. She doesn’t like the author and considers the book to be obscene. D.H. Lawrence wrote novels from 1913 – 1930. They include Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Sons and Lovers. These books contain explicit descriptions of sexual activity and, for decades, they were banned in many parts of the U.S. and Great Britain. However, many people loved the novels and D.H. Lawrence is now considered an influential author. His novels are required reading for literature majors in most colleges.
Mrs. Wingfield also mentions a blind English writer named Milton. She is referring to John Milton who wrote an epic poem called “Paradise Lost” in 1667. The poem is as long as a book. It describes the Judeo-Christian story of Eden, the temptation of Adam and Eve by the devil, and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
In ancient and medieval times “unicorns” were believed to have been real animals. They had a single horn on their forehead, the beard of a billy-goat, a lion’s tail, and cloven hooves. Later, unicorns were said to have the body of a horse with a single horn. Unicorns were said to be wild and powerful. They could be tamed only by a virgin. Stories about unicorns are often found in literature and the references to male sexuality are obvious. In this play, the unicorn is an important symbol.
“Pleurosis” is another way of saying “pleurisy”. This is an inflammation of the membrane covering the lungs and the lining of the chest. Excess fluids may build up in the space. When the person inhales or coughs, the inflammation causes pain.
The Pirates of Penzance is an English operetta written by Gilbert and Sullivan. It is often performed by high schools.
Mrs. Wingfield refers to an actress named “Garbo”. This is Greta Garbo, a beautiful and famous movie star of the 1930s and 1940s. For films featuring Garbo in a leading role, see Conquest and “Anna Karenina”.
The term “Spartan endurance” refers to the legendary soldiers of the ancient Greek city state of Sparta. Sparta was famed for the training, ferocity, and endurance of its soldiers.
Jackson is the capital and largest city in Mississippi. The Mississippi delta is the flood plain of the Mississippi River, the largest river in North America. This expanse of flat land with very rich soils runs from Memphis, Tennessee, down the length of the state of Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. The plantation culture of the South flourished in the Mississippi delta.
“Still waters run deep” is a saying that means that the calm exterior of a person “often conceals great depths of character, just as the deepest streams can have the smoothest surfaces.” Bartleby.com.
“Krauthead” (as in sauerkraut) is a derogatory term for a person of German descent. This play was written during the Second World War when the U.S. was fighting Germany.
“Union of Merchant Seaman” is the labor union for people working on ships which transport goods on the high seas. Before and during the Second World War the Merchant Marine was extremely important. Merchant ships transported goods to Europe and Asia. They brought raw materials to the U.S. They took the arms and soldiers from the U.S. to Europe and to the battlegrounds of the Pacific. Merchant shipping was a favorite target of German submarines and many merchant seaman died. In order to get a job in the Merchant Marine, Tom had to join the Union of Merchant Seamen.
[Review the words and terms in the Building Vocabulary found in the sidebar.]
As you watch the play, think about how a memory play allows the playwright to achieve dramatic effects that a chronological presentation of the story would not allow. The characters in “The Glass Menagerie”, particularly Amanda, the mother, and Laura, the sister, may make you feel uncomfortable. If that happens, the playwright and the actors are doing their jobs. Think about why the playwright presented the characters in the way that he did. Ask yourself, “Was there anything that Tom could have done to avoid moving away?” Think about why Tom feels the need to tell this story. These questions will take you to the heart of the play.
[End of sample introductory lecture.]
Contemporary drama written before the 1940s was characterized by realism, an effort to make the characters and plots as true to life as possible. Realism itself was a revolt against melodrama, a style that dominated theater during most of the 19th century.
A “memory play” is a synthesis of realism and melodrama. The writing style is naturalistic (i.e. not overly heightened, expressionistic, or avant garde). We can relate to the characters, their situations and their emotions because they are all real. However, the playwright can also color the characters and events based on the filter of the narrator’s memory. This adds to the tools at the playwright’s command. It introduces another layer of complexity and ambiguity that is missing from a realistic presentation.
Tennessee Williams suggested that during stage productions of “The Glass Menagerie” a film with relevant images and symbols be projected onto a screen behind the actors. This mixture of media reminds us that the events on stage are a recollection of past occurences.
The contrast between the unbearably shy sister and her relatively normal and well adjusted brother is clear. She is doomed to stay at home. He must move away to avoid being smothered by the situation. Some children remain in the same neighborhood as their parents and are even employed in the family business. But this arrangement works only if it provides an opportunity for the child to grow and develop a life of his or her own. That was not possible in this family because Tom needed to get away in order to live what to him was a fulfilled life.
Growing Up and Leaving Home: This play describes the experience of a child who matures and strikes out on his own, leaving behind unfinished business within his family. It has been said with great wisdom that a person’s primary responsibility is to live a fulfilled life. Young people are needed at home for all sorts of reasons: helping to pay the bills, assisting the parents in raising a difficult or disabled sibling, emotional support for the parents, protecting siblings from an abusive parent, etc. When a child’s need to live a fulfilled life takes him or her away from home, the child cannot fulfill home-based responsibilities. This was Tom’s situation. Many of us, to one degree or another, will feel or have felt some of the emotions described in this play.
On another level, and adding great poignancy to the play, are its autobiographical elements. The author left a situation in which his father was not at home, his mother was said to be controlling, and his sister was schizophrenic. The genius of “The Glass Menagerie” lies in the fact that Tennessee Williams took these personal elements and made them into several universal statements.
Contrary to appearances, Tom is not fleeing from Amanda’s controlling personality. Amanda’s strong personality is a dramatic device to show how most young adults who leave home feel about their parents. Had Amanda been the sweetest person in the world Tom would still have felt as if he were shut up in a coffin. Many young adults who are not in touch with their own emotions use feelings of resentment for real or imagined slights to break the strong bonds of affection that they feel for their parents. They must somehow free themselves of the love for their parents to make the break and move away. (Many teenagers realize later in life that the things about their parents that seemed intolerable to them when they were young are actually not so bad.)
Abandonment or, in other words, Living a Fulfilled Life vs. Responsibility to Family and Siblings: This theme is a counterpart of the first. Many children, when they mature and move away, leave behind siblings who must struggle with their own lives. Perhaps the parents are poor care givers or the family is very poor or the sibling suffers from a disability. The children that have moved away feel some guilt that they did not stay and help their sibling. Guilt can also come from leaving a parent in a bad situation, as Amanda will be left by the end of the play. But many children must move out and away because their conception of a fully realized life requires it. Tom knows that leaving means abandoning his mother and sister. He asks, “Who gets out of a coffin without removing one nail?” The answer, of course, is that only a magician can do this.
The theme of abandonment runs throughout the play. Mr. Wingfield abandoned his family and “fell in love with long distance”. Amanda needs to keep Tom in the family earning money at least until she can find someone to take care of Laura. However, Tom can’t wait. Part of him knows that there is nothing that he can do for Laura and that trying to help her would ruin him. Jim does not marry Laura because he is engaged to another girl. Each of these men went off to live their own lives and their “abandonment” is depicted as something that is inevitable, ultimately good for them, and painful to the Wingfield women. The play tells us that sometimes there is no way to live the life you need to live and avoid causing pain to those you love. The entire play can be seen as Tom’s (i.e., Tennessee Williams’) apology and justification for the abandonment of his family.
It should be noted that abandoning family members who need you and leaving some problems at home unresolved are not the only alternatives open to young people who want to live a fulfilling life. Staying, taking care of a parent or sibling, and giving up a dream you have had all your life can work for some. Look at the character of George Bailey in the classic movie It’s A Wonderful Life. The situations of Tom Wingfield and George Bailey are different in many respects but they have a basic similarity. Both men are faced with the question of whether to stay or leave. The solutions adopted by these two characters are fundamentally different. Tom leaves his family to fend for itself. George stays and takes care of his family and his community. Tom tries to find his dream while George gives his up. We don’t know if Tom was happy with his choice, but we do know that thoughts of his mother and sister haunted him. George Bailey, after some tough times, reconciled himself to his decision and found happiness.
The Uses and Limits of Fantasy: Each member of the Wingfield family uses fantasy to help them cope with a harsh reality. Amanda has trouble accepting the reality of Laura’s condition and escapes to memory in which she undoubtedly overstates her own popularity as a girl. (Or, perhaps, this is Tom’s memory overstating how obnoxious his mother could be in order to justify his decision to leave the home.) Amanda is also enraptured by the fantasy of a “Gentlemen Caller” for Laura. While these ideas are divorced from reality, they allow Amanda to continue living and trying in a desperate situation. Laura uses the fantasy world of the glass menagerie and her music to substitute for interactions with people. This is harmful to the extent that it allows Laura to avoid confronting her very serious problems. Tom hates his life and escapes to the unreal world of the movies, attending magic shows, and overindulging in alcohol. These allow him to cope as he helps his mother and sister. Eventually it is not enough and he decides that he must leave.
Memory: Amanda’s obsession with memory brings us to the next important theme. Looking back at events gone by is the point of departure for this “memory play”. The theme of memory ties in with the fantasy theme. Memory is not reality, but an interpretation of the past. An exaggerated memory of the past tortures Amanda in its contrast to her current situation and Laura’s isolation. Laura, too, has memories. The important memories described in the play are about Jim, the only boy she liked, and of her embarrassment at having to drag her brace in front of the entire chorus. Finally, memory is what haunts Tom and leads him to tell us his story. His final plea to Laura is to put out the light, to erase the images in his brain, so that he doesn’t have to remember any more.
Relations Between People can be Problematic: Laura loves Jim and he is certainly attracted to her. But Jim has “strings attached”, i.e., he loves Betty and they are engaged. Tom loves his mother and his sister but his need to live his a fulfilled life takes him away from his family. Amanda loves her children but she cannot help her daughter and she cannot stop trying to interfere with Tom’s need to live his own life.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTS ON THE CHARACTERS
There is no hero in this play. Everyone is flawed. Tom’s resolution of his situation, to escape the coffin of his family, is unsatisfactory because he cannot get free without hurting his mother and his sister (disturbing the nails). The entire play is his confession and attempt to understand what he did. The part of Tom that feels he should have done more to help Laura is expressed through the character of Jim: “I wish you were my sister. I’d teach you to have confidence in yourself.” The only thing that Tom is able to do for Laura is to bring Jim home and he does that only because his mother requests it. The effort to bring a “Gentleman Caller” home for Laura is a failure. But then there was nothing Tom could really do for Laura. Her shyness bordered on mental illness and, in fact, the playwright’s sister was diagnosed with schizophrenia, an incurable mental illness.
Nor is there a villain in this play. The two possibilities are Tom and Amanda. Tom leaves the family but in truth, there is no life for him in that house. Despite the fact that his earnings pay the rent, his mother controls the home. He says that, “There is no single thing I can call my own”. She even censors his books. Nor is Amanda a villain. She is trying desperately to provide for her daughter, asking Tom to stay only until Laura is settled. She wonders out loud: “What is to become of us? What is the future?” In fact, her controlling nature is probably exaggerated by Tom’s recollection. The mind reaches for a scapegoat, a reason to leave, even when mature reflection tells us that living your own life and fulfilling your own potential is reason enough.
There is no protagonist and no antagonist as such. There is a force in Tom that is driving him away from the family toward his own life and independence. This is the force of Tom’s desire to live a fulfilled life, and it is not evil. Tom’s sense of responsibility to his family resists this force (or is the counter force). It is personified in Amanda, who resists Tom’s leaving but knows that, ultimately, resistance will be futile. For Tom’s sake she doesn’t mind him leaving. But she needs him to stay until she can find some way to take care of Laura. (Tom recognizes a sense of responsibility to do this.) Unfortunately, Laura is already beyond help, Amanda just doesn’t know it yet. Whether Tom knows it or not, he can’t wait.
Tom loves his mother and his sister. He gets up every morning and goes to work doing something that he hates out of love for them.
Jim is certainly a breath of fresh air, but he can’t help anyone. He goes “way off the beam” when he kisses Laura and leads her on. Jim is America as portrayed in this play: high spirited, optimistic, giving, loving, and in this playwright’s formulation, fundamentally shallow. Jim is very different than the menagerie to which Laura usually relates. As he tells her, “I’m not made of glass”.
The Glass Menagerie: Laura surrounds herself with glass figures that, like her, are fragile and delicate. Laura tells Jim, “Glass breaks so easily no matter how careful you are”. They are beautiful in the light as Laura is beautiful in the light. (Light is another important symbol, see below). The glass figurines are direct symbols of Laura and her fragile emotional self. When she shows her figurines to Jim, Laura is sharing the most important and vulnerable part of herself. (Note that both men in this play, Tom and Jim, break an animal in the glass menagerie. This foreshadows the injury that they will cause Laura.)
Light and Dark: During the narration, Tom is shown in the dark. The animals of the glass menagerie sparkle in the light and Laura tells us that they love the light. Laura herself is caught in the light at various times in the play. Light comes into the house from “Paradise”, the dance hall. Tom fails to pay the light bill so that he can buy his membership in the Union of Merchant Seamen. Tom’s escape extinguishes the light. After dinner, Jim takes the lit candelabra to Laura, restoring her to the light for the short period of his visit. At the end of the play, Tom is haunted by the memory of his family. He pleads with Laura to put out the lights so that he can forget. So, what does light mean in this play? There are probably several ways to say it. The light is Laura’s innocence and goodness. The light is her life. The light is hope for Tom and Laura.
The Unicorn: The unicorn a fantastical animal, is a symbol of Laura’s love – special and different. She is the virgin who tames it. She allows Jim to hold the glass figure of the unicorn, telling him that she trusts him with it. When Jim breaks the unicorn’s horn, it becomes just any other animal, no longer out of the ordinary. Breaking the unicorn symbolizes the destruction of Laura’s dream that she could find love. By giving the unicorn to Jim, Laura is giving him her broken love, acknowledging that she will never have it.
Jim: This character symbolizes the “common man”: dynamic; emotionally healthy; and able to deal with his environment unencumbered by the problems that complicate the lives of the Wingfields (Laura’s handicap and feelings of shyness; Amanda’s poor choice of a husband, her memories of a better life in the past, and her overbearing personality; Tom’s responsibility for his mother and his sister). Jim is not a particularly remarkable man. He has no gift, except the gift of optimism and being a go-getter — typically American traits for that time. It is this strength and optimism that attracts Laura. But love between the two is not to be.
The Fire Escape: Another symbol that is used in different ways by different people is the fire escape. It is a way out, a retreat to safety.
The Coffin: Tom’s story about the magician and the coffin is an obvious description of the confines of his situation and his wish to escape. He admires the magician, and wants to escape from his own coffin without breaking the nails. The coffin symbolizes his situation and also the constraints that his family puts on him. Removing the nails symbolizes the injury that he will do to those he loves when he leaves. Tom does not want to hurt anyone by leaving, but he feels he must leave or be trapped for the rest of his life.
Dance and the Paradise Dance Hall: Dance is a symbol of the healthy activities and interaction of young people. No one in the Wingfield family dances, except for Mrs. Wingfield who danced when she was a girl. The “Paradise Dance Hall” next door is aptly named. You can hear the music and see the lights. However, no one from the Wingfield household goes there. When Jim tries to get Laura to dance he breaks the unicorn, the symbol of Laura’s love.
Did Tom do the right thing in leaving home to join the Merchant Marine? Explain the reasons for your position.
There is no one correct answer. A good answer will evaluate Tom’s need to strike out on his own to live a fulfilled life and his responsibilities to his mother and his sister. Here is an example: “Amanda’s demands were stifling Tom. They prevented him from progressing with his own life. Loving other people means that you will sacrifice many things for them, but you cannot be expected to sacrifice your youth and hopes for happiness and self-fulfillment. For Tom there was nothing at home except a dead-end job, his difficult relationship with his mother, and watching his sister sink.” However, for people who are different than Tom and who may find themselves in slightly different situations, staying and working through the difficulties at home is the better course of action. This alternative solution is exemplified by the character of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. For George Bailey, meeting his responsibilities to members of his family meant giving up his dreams of being an architect in the big city. However, while staying at home would have left Tom working in a dead-end job all of his life, George Bailey had a fulfilling life in his hometown. He married, had children, and had a responsible job at the Savings and Loan.
2. Did Tom love his mother? What does the fact that this is a “memory play” have to do with how Amanda Wingfield is presented?
3. Which character made you feel the most uncomfortable? Why did you feel uncomfortable and why did the playwright make the character like that?
4. Assume that Tom’s mother wasn’t controlling but was the nicest person you could imagine. Would Tom have eventually left home and joined the Merchant Marine? What effect would it have had on Tom if his mother had not been made to appear to be controlling?
5. Who is the strongest character in the play?
6. Many people see this play as the playwright justifying his own actions in leaving his family and at the same time apologizing for what he had done. Do you agree with this? Defend your position.
7. Amanda Wingfield says that she is bewildered by life. What does she mean by this?
8. Why does Tom go to the movies every night?
9. Define a “memory play” and describe the advantages it provides to a playwright.
10. Describe three themes in the film.
11. Describe three symbols in the film and what they stand for.
12. The unicorn is broken when Jim gets Laura to dance with him. What is the significance of this event?
13. Who is the hero and who is the villain in this story?
14. Is there an antagonist and a protagonist? What are the contending forces in this play?
15. There are two events which foreshadow other events in the play. What are they?
16. Does the fact that this play has autobiographical elements detract from it or make it stronger?
17. Memory plays are said to be non-linear. What is non-linear about the presentation of this play?
18. At the end of the play, Tom says, ” I didn’t go to the moon. I went much further for time is the longest distance between two places.” What type of literary device is this statement? What does Tom mean?
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)
See the Quick Discussion Question and Question #6 above.
1. What does this play show us about the limits of a child’s responsibility to his or her family?
2. Would your answer to the Quick Discussion Question change if there was some way that Tom could have helped Laura had he stayed in St. Louis?
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
2. Write an essay comparing the situations and the reactions of Tom Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie” and George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Is the difference in their responses to their situations due to different circumstances or differences in their personalities? Which solution ends up working out for the best?
3. Rewrite the ending of the film. Assume that there was some way for Tom to help Laura and he knows it. What does he do?
4. Rewrite the ending of the film. Assume that Jim goes to the station and finds that there was a train wreck and Betty was killed. A few months later, he starts visiting Laura regularly. What happens next?
5. Rewrite the ending of the film. One day Tom brings home a girl and confesses to Amanda that all the time he has said he was going to the movies, he’s been dating this girl. They tell Amanda that they want to get married. How does the story end?
6. Compare this play to another “memory play” focusing on the use of the devices of a memory play.
menagerie, secretions, “lesser of two evils”, induct, vivacity, cotillion, tommy gun, malarial fever, dogwood, jonquil, “shank of the evening”, “strings attached”, “cat’s out of the bag”, drummer, Guernica, cavalier, “cut the rug”, “what are you gassing about”, propaganda, “way off the beam”, “strings on me”. See also Vocabulary.com article on “The Glass Menagerie”.
- Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) was one of America’s greatest playwrights. He won a Pulitzer Prize for “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1947 and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1955). Other plays by Williams include “Sweet Bird of Youth”, and “Night of the Iguana.”
- The movie/play contains at least one beautiful metaphor. At the end of the play, Tom says, “I didn’t go to the moon. I went much further for time is the longest distance between two places.” See Discussion Question #18.