27 December 2009

The Glass Menagerie

The Wingfield family is in sad shape. Domineering mother Amanda clings to memories of her aristocratic Southern childhood, perhaps to block out her impoverished life in a St. Louis slum after being abandoned by her husband. Her son, Tom, feels trapped and has become bitter. He hates his boring warehouse job and seeks escape in late night movies and D.H Lawrence novels. His emotionally fragile, disabled sister Laura has withdrawn into her own private world, which centers on her collection of glass figurines (The menagerie of the title.) Amanda decides that the only way the painfully shy Laura will ever be able to amount to anything is to marry well, so the willful mother badgers Tom into inviting a friend over to help coax Laura out of her shell. If only Amanda knew what devastation this plan ultimately brings...

Tennessee Williams' classic drama The Glass Menagerie is a moving exploration of shattered dreams and shattered families. As you may recall from last week, I had a hard time choosing between this play and Williams' other classic, A Streetcar Named Desire. I still debated over which one to do to the last minute, but I ultimately decided on this play because, as much as I love A Streetcar Named Desire, I think this play offers a more satisfying reading experience. (On the other hand, reading A Streetcar Named Desire is great, but watching it is even better. Watch the 1951 version with Brando. I am not just biased because I think he's the greatest actor ever, well, maybe just a little. If you've never seen it, go watch it now!)

I thoroughly enjoyed The Glass Menagerie. This play, unlike many others, does not rely on convoluted plot devices or outrageous scenarios. Instead, it focuses on a very authentic situation and advances its plot based on dramatic tension. I know that's not every one's cup of tea, but this play is masterfully crafted and never once did it lose my interest. Furthermore, at less than 100 pages long, it's easily read in one setting. The characters are also so realistically drawn that's impossible to not relate to them. Growing up in the South, I have met my fair share of Amandas (some even in my own family) and their smothered offspring; consequently, I found Amanda the most interesting character, even though Tom's the narrator and Laura's the centerpiece. I especially liked the interactions between Amanda, Laura, and Tom. Their petty disputes and heated arguments are something anyone with family will relate to and, even more importantly, their relationships ring true. Williams based all of these characters on members of his own family, and I believe that adds to the realism. Finally, I was pleased with the dialogue - the Southern dialect is perfect. This is something I am nitpicky about, but Williams nailed it perfectly, everything from the sentence structure to the frequent insertions of "honey, " especially when employed after an insult...

My only problem with this play is some of the stage directions. Williams intended this as a "memory" play, in which the scenes are presented as distorted by the human memory, rather than as fact. The result is a dreamy atmosphere that, for the most part, I found effective. However, the stage directions also call for the use of a screen to flash images and text throughout the play. Although occasionally the instructions were amusing, for the most part, I found this distracting. Williams conveys so much through plot and dialogue, so I didn't see why this was needed at all. Most directors of the play seem to concur, since this element of the play is usually not seen when staged, even when the play was first released in the 1940s.

I am a firm believer that, though plays are fun to read, they are still best experienced in their intended state - as performed drama. Sadly, I have never seen The Glass Menagerie performed. It's a popular play, so you may be able to catch it at a local theater. If not, you could watch one of the several film/TV versions available. The best known is probably the 1987 version, directed by Paul Newman. I have never seen it, but I read that it is a faithful adaptation. Critics, however, squabble over the quality of the acting.

The Glass Menagerie is a compelling combination of family drama, tragedy, and Southern Gothic. Easy to read and achingly authentic, this play is a great way to while away a winter afternoon. The Glass Menagerie is one of the most renowned post-WWII American plays and is well worth your time.


Next Time: I will be reviewing Erich Maria Remarque's classic war novel All Quiet on the Western Front. I love the acclaimed movie that is inspired by this novel and bought myself a copy of the book with my Hanukkah money. (Yay!) I was trying to decide what to read next and Scott voted for this one. I am over halfway through the book, have enjoyed every bit of it, and should have a review up soon.


  1. Sad story, ain't it? Is it just me or is family uniquely in the blood of Southern writers?

  2. Eric, It isn't just you! As a proud Southerner, I like to brag that we own the dysfunctional family genre of fiction. :)

  3. Lol that's the most entertaining kind!