The Glass Menagerie: Memory Play The Glass Menagerie is Tennessee Williams most autobiographical work. However, it is not a true autobiographical work in the sense that there is chronological order and true documented facts to his life. Instead the play is more along the line of an “emotional” autobiographical piece. At times individuals exhibit selective memory, this is a period whereby we choose to remember certain things the way we would like them to be rather than the way things actually happened.
The Glass Menagerie is similar to the author’s life and his biographers often rely on it as a thematic source. The play centers around three family members – Laura, Tom and their mother Amanda. Missing from the family group is the father. He is represented in the play by a photograph that sits on the mantle. It is learned early on in the play from Tom that the father had abandoned the family and that the father had sent a postcard one time.
Tom says in Scene One, “The last we heard of him was a picture postcard from Mazatlan, on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, containing two words: ‘Hello-Goodbye! and no address” (Williams 5). Also in Scene One Tom tells us that the play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental and not realistic. Here the audience begins to have the feeling that it is a flashback to a type of recollection – whether it is true enough to the reality of the event is yet to be determined. In memory plays everything seems to happen to music. The tone and the timing of the music give another type of dimension to the audience. It sets the mood and even foreshadows events to come.
Given the strong emotional similarity to William’s life and the fact that the main character tells us the play is memory, the play begins to obviously feel more like a dream and because of that element there is an abundance of themes, motifs and symbols that permeate the play with literary significance. Tom is the narrator of the play and Amanda and Laura rely on him for their financial well being. He is usually situated out on the fireplace which again allows the audience to also be viewing what had already happened.
He is physically removed from the current activities that are going on in the play and he becomes the storyteller. Giving is opinion to what happened from recall. Tom works at a shoe warehouse and despises his work. Tom escapes through literature, movies and liquor. Amanda is a genteel southern woman with what she paints as a glamorous past. She often discusses the many suitors of “gentlemen callers” she had in her youth. She too is living from memory and not on the present. Laura is a physically handicapped girl who is agonizingly shy. She also appears to have strong mental vulnerabilities.
One example is her maintaining a lie about going to business school even though she spends countless hours wandering around the streets of St. Louis. Laura lives in her own glass house. A world of fragile glass figurines, fragile just has her mental state. However she is able to care for them and mesmerize herself. She is kept in a world of glass out of touch from everything and sometimes out of touch with reality. Amanda’s main goal which eventually becomes her obsession is to find her daughter a husband or at the very least a suitable “gentlemen caller”.
After a fair amount of coaxing and pleading with Tom, Amanda finally manages to manipulate Tom into inviting a work associate home for dinner with the premise of finding Laura a suitor. Not only does Amanda view her daughter as having physical crippling issues, she further continues with the crippling of her daughters psyche in being able to choose her own companions. Tom too after all of the duress that he lives under by his over powering, overzealous mother caves into yet another request from her.
In Scene Six Tom says “And so the following evening I brought Jim home to dinner… In high school Jim was a hero…He seemed always at the point of defeating the law of gravity… But his speed had definitely slowed. Six years after he left high school he was holding a job that wasn’t much better than mine… He was the only one at the warehouse with whom I was on friendly terms. I was valuable to him as someone who could remember his former glory” (Williams 50). But Jim has become ambitious and has definite plans for the future.
Jim’s future plans also include a fiance which no one, including Tom is made aware of until he is almost ready to leave after his supper visit. This becomes yet another fault of Tom’s for not having informed Amanda that Jim was about to be married. Even though Tom did not know that Jim was already betrothed. We also learn that Laura had had a crush on Jim in high school and that Jim had even given her the name “Blue Roses”. This just escalates the tensions within the family unit and heightens the frustrations between Tom and Amanda.
Earlier in the play during one of the angry confrontations between Tom and Amanda, Amanda yells at Tom, “Go, then! Go to the moon – you selfish dreamer! ” (Williams 96). Near the end of the play their angers yet again converge and Tom leaves and informs us that, “I didn’t go to the moon, I went much further – for time is the longest distance between two places… I left St. Louis, I descended the steps of the fire escape for a last time and followed, from then on, in my father’s footsteps…” (Williams 97). The play then ends with the enormous weight of guilt left upon Tom. There are numerous key themes in The Glass Menagerie.
The first theme that comes along is the characters inability to accept reality. Laura escapes into the delicate, fragile world of her glass menagerie. It is unclear whether Laura recognizes her physical and emotional weakness and her dependence on Tom and loses herself in the menagerie. Or does she hide behind her glass menagerie because she has no idea of her weaknesses and hides where it is safe in an effort to create an alternate reality (Kolin 69). Amanda has the most obvious inability to accept reality. She lives in the present but dwells on a faded and glamorous past.
She has tremendous amounts of regrets and constantly discusses her numerous past paramours. It’s as though she hold up a looking glass to Laura in wanting what she had in her past for Laura’s present and hopefully her future as well. She refuses to see Laura (and Tom for that matter) for who she is. Tom however, may appear that he has a decent grasp on reality but chooses to mask it with fleeting moments of escape by writing literature, attending the movies or self-medicating himself with alcohol. The second theme that occurs is the impossibility of true escape.
Not the moments of falling into the momentary type of escape – but the actual, physical permanent type of escape. Tom is the character that dwells the most on physical escape. In Scene Four, Tom tells Laura about a magician that “nailed himself” into a coffin and he got out of the coffin without removing one nail… There is a trick that would come in handy for me – get me out of this two-by-four situation” (Williams 27). Tom is in no way secretive about how he feels with regard to his living arrangement. He thinks his life with his mother and sister is stifling and numbing.
He in turn tries to numb himself by his desire to drink and go to the movies in order to subside his yearning for true escape. He also dwells on joining the merchant marines and traveling the globe. The fire escape is Tom’s refuge from having to deal with all of his problems, whether it is his relationship with his domineering mother, his frail and vulnerable sister or his dead end place of employment. The very nature of the word escape as in fire escape suggests that he is ready to move on without them. However the weight of the guilt is as heavy as the wrought iron bars that the fire escape is made of.
The fire escape is the most literal symbol of the play and represents Tom’s desires to flee from his family and all the bags and baggage that come along with them in the sense of his dutiful obligations. The audience also learns from Tom in both Scene One and the again in the final scene that the longest distances between two points is time. As opposed to the fact that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Therefore we begin to understand that a long period of time has passed from when the actual events took place, to the point in which Tom tells the story as to the way things happened.
Tom has left Amanda and Laura several years ago but it is from the power of his memory that allows him to recant their story. He has living memories of his past as if they had just occurred. Tom’s memories are of the past living in the present, whereas Amanda lives in the present of memories from her past. Memories are meant to be cherished and dwelled upon, but not for reasons of ill or contempt. The play seems to carry an underlying tone from Tom of disdain, for all things around him except for his feelings for his sister, Laura.
The weight of the guilt of leaving his family behind is excruciatingly heavy but he appears to have been able to reconcile those feelings of guilt in his memory towards his mother Amanda. However, he sees Laura in everything and everywhere he goes. There is just no escaping the guilt and remorse he has for leaving her behind. He continues to see her everywhere. This theme of memory and family encompasses his entire life and his own emotional issues. He has yet to be able to reconcile his past with them to the present he is attempting to live.
He carries it with him every day. The final scene in the play where Laura blows out the candles is a symbolic moment that he is done with thinking about the triangular relationship for the moment. However, candles are meant to be relit and memories are meant to be rekindled. So is the same with this memory play. It will be told and retold, lit and relit and have different effects through various interpretations of the audience. And one can only image the countless nights the author had to agonize over his memories and deal with the realism of what truly took place.
Without still be able to truly escape the memory of it all. Works Cited Devlin, Albert. Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams. New York: New Directions, 2000. King, Thomas L. “Irony and Distance in The Glass Menagerie. ” Educational Theatre Journal (1973): 85-94. Kolin, Philip. A Guide to Research and Performance. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998. Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams. New York: Brown, Little, 1985. Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. New York, 1945.
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