'The Glass Menagerie' Review

The Glass Menagerie
Billy Rose Theatre Collection/Wikimedia Commons

The Glass Menagerie is one of Tennessee Williams more sedate plays, but what it lacks in the southern fire and passion of ​​​A Streetcar Named Desire and A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, it more than makes up for in its poetry and emotional power. Semi-autobiographical — dealing brilliantly with the rift between the world as one would like to see it and the world as it actually is — The Glass Menagerie is a convincing portrayal of family members that love each other but cannot live together. This play deals with a man's guilt — as he follows his own path.


The play is narrated by one of its principal characters — Tom Wingfield — who works at a shoe warehouse but secretly wants to be a poet. He lives with his mother and his sister, Laura; he is the man of the house because his father left them with nothing. Tom's mother is obsessed with the rituals and the values of her Southern upbringing. She desperately wants her daughter to be a Southern belle as she remembers from her own past; instead, she is desperately disappointed.

Laura is crippled by her timidity. With her leg brace, she is not interested in leaving the house. She whiles away her time at home with her menagerie of glass animals — fragments that are her only pride and joy.

The Great Escape?

Stifled by his family, Tom drinks. Then, following the example set by his father, he plans to join the merchant navy. He wants to see adventure and gain experience so that he can write. Before he leaves, he brings home one of his work colleagues (his mother believes that Laura's future is in marriage). He brings home Jim O'Connor, a former football hero (Laura knew this man and secretly loved him). She is too shy to come to dinner but finds common ground with Joe when she shows him her glass menagerie.

Joe and Laura dance, but then he accidentally breaks one her glass animals. Laura slowly seems to be coming out of herself and they kiss. Joe leaves in hurry. He also says that he has a fiancé. Laura's dreams are crushed, and Tom's mother calls him a bad son, and a cruel brother. In the ensuing argument, Tom walks out. Not long after this incident, he leaves his family for good. But, this narration gives voice to Tom's guilt — for the sister that he left behind.

Trapped in the Menagerie of Memories and Unreality

Tennessee Williams evokes the hopes and dreams of his characters. Tom needs escape and adventure. His mother looks back and wants to recreate a more gentile world that probably never existed (except in her own imagination. Laura desperately wants to be part of a more gentle, dream world — represented by her glass animals, particularly that mythical creature, the unicorn.

The symbolic feel to the play — filtered through the memory of one of its central characters — underlines the distinction between hopes and reality and gives the drama an ephemeral quality. The characters are trapped in a menagerie of Tom's memories, and they have become unreal like the glass animals that Laura loves so much.

A Chasm Between Worlds

Williams also plays on the chasm between the old Southern world and the newly industrialized civilization. With clarity and power, Williams draws upon his Southern upbringing to add atmosphere and passion. Here, he investigates the old world: where men came calling for women, couples attended dances, and love was easily arranged. He shows how this former Southern experience is obsolete. Tom's mother is trapped in this world, Tom is desperate to the trappings of this former mode of existence. Even as Tom flies free, the past maintains its hold on him. Even in its illusionary state, the past is still "real" in his memory.

A beautiful, slightly haunting play, The Glass Menagerie follows a family as it falls apart — along with the dreams that had given them some fragmented substance. The work is touching, and sad. Though it self-consciously foregrounds the illusionary nature of the drama, Tennessee Williams taps into a deep seam of truthfulness. Williams has created a representation of a changing world. He depicts how change affects the individual (as well as the group), even as it rips them asunder.