The Glass Menagerie is the product of a new breed of theater which asserts the intrinsic principles of the play. In his autobiographical memory play, The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams presents the ‘forgotten Americans’ and the issues surrounding poverty-stricken families post-WWII era. By employing memory play and new plastic theater, Williams frees himself from the confines of conventional theater in order to emphasize the underlying reality.
In order to understand the unconventional, it is best to define the conventional. Some conventions of drama include narration, music, use of placards, and lighting (“Epic” 1-11). Through memory play and new plastic theater, Williams is able to twist these conventions to fit his mold. “Being a memory play, The Glass Menagerie can be presented with an unusual freedom of convention” (Maiti 7). Memories are just a recollection of the last time you remembered an event or time. They are subjective and leave out key details which distance themselves from reality. Because of their subjectivity, Williams was granted this freedom, which he used to manipulate conventional techniques. This manipulation led to a “closer approach to truth” and a “closer, more penetrating approach and vivid expression of things as they are” (Maiti 7).
Narration is a common practice in dramatic theater and is often used to give the audience additional information. In most cases, the narrator is an outsider providing an unbiased perspective. This allows the audience to view the production in whichever manner they desire. In The Glass Menagerie, however, Williams makes the lead protagonist, Tom Wingfield, the narrator of his production, thus presenting the play through a biased lens. Tom’s memory distorts the characters and the situation, forcing the audience to align their view with his.
Amanda, for example, gets presented as someone whose “foolishness makes her unwittingly cruel” (Williams 751). Whereas if the narration was unbiased, Amanda possibly could have been presented as a loving mother, who does everything for her children. An emotional connection is achieved through this biased, unconventional narration. The connection draws the audience closer to Tom and where he is coming from, thus providing a more advanced understanding. This understanding allows the audience to see the reality of the situation more clearly. Through this, Williams’ intrinsic truth comes to light.
Lighting is often used to focus on the main action or enhance the current theme and/or mood of a production. Again, the memory play and new plastic theater leave room for Williams to manipulate this convention because they create an opportunity for unrealistic elements. Williams actually mentions the abnormality of his lighting in the author’s production notes writing, “The lighting in the play is not realistic” (Williams 751). In The Glass Menagerie, Williams sometimes uses the lighting to shift the audience’s focus to a subject outside of the action to highlight the effects of said action. This can be seen in scene three when Tom and his mother, Amanda, argue.
Rather than having the lights fixate on Tom and Laura, Williams chooses to direct the light on Laura eavesdropping. In doing so, Williams emphasizes how hurt Laura is by the situation, perhaps to reiterate the fragility of Laura, which is a central idea of this play. This also could be suggesting how impactful actions are on those outside of the conflict. Regardless of what the intention is, Williams manipulates this aspect of dramatic theater in order to clarify or enhance the deeper meaning. He uses music to achieve this same purpose through the expression of mood.
In theater, music tends to mirror the mood of the play during that scene or act, or a character’s feeling. In The Glass Menagerie, the purpose of the music is no different. Tennessee Williams incorporates a song titled “The Glass Menagerie”. This piece “expresses the surface vivacity of life with the underlying strain of immutable and inexpressible sorrow” (Williams 751). Williams also writes that the song serves “as reference to the emotion, nostalgia” (Williams 751). However, this convention is twisted into his new plastic theater too, as the piece reoccurs throughout the production. This repetition reminds the audience of the nostalgic, yet depressing mood of the play, which further assists Williams in communicating the immersed meaning.
Another convention of dramatic theater is placards or signs. Playwrights use placards to present additional pieces of information onstage. Alternatively, Williams implements an on-stage screen device, or legend, which projects images or titles. The screen legend plays a substantial role in the play and Williams seemingly uses this to clarify the true meaning. This can be seen throughout the play. In scene seven, after Jim breaks the news to Laura that he is engaged, the screen device projects, “THINGS HAVE A WAY OF TURNING OUT SO BADLY!” (Williams 782). The playwright literally spells out for the audience what he means so that they will not miss his point in that scene.
Williams does not stop with the screen device there, though, and takes advantage of the screen device to its fullest. In many instances, he has the screen device project images which foreshadow events in the play. Williams does this in the third scene before Tom and Amanda’s argument, writing: “LEGEND ON SCREEN: ‘YOU THINK I’M IN LOVE WITH CONTINENTAL SHOEMAKERS?’” (Williams 758). Here, he has the screen legend project a line from the argument in the following pages; therefore, foreshadowing the dispute. In the seventh scene, Williams has the legend project, “SOUVENIR”, foreshadowing Jim O’Conner never coming back, as he is engaged to Betty (Williams 781).
Furthermore, Tennessee Williams often reiterates the characters’ feelings or mood during specific scenes. After Tom accidentally breaks one of Laura’s glass figurines, greatly upsetting her, the device projects, “THE GLASS MENAGERIE”, possibly symbolizing that a part of Laura has shattered too (Williams 760). The legend in scene six displays, “TERROR!”, once Laura finds out this is the same Jim from high school who called her “blue roses” (Williams 774). Laura’s feelings in that moment are captured by this word.
In scene seven, Williams writes, “LEGEND: ‘THE SKY FALLS’”, to indicate that Amanda is in disbelief that Jim is getting married and her plan for Laura is ruined (Williams 783). Because Williams clarifies the characters’ feelings through the device, the audience better understands the situation. Essentially, the screen legend is Williams’ ‘Swiss army knife’ in this play as he uses it for a variety of reasons. Its versatility expresses the play’s underlying reality by channeling Williams’ deeper meanings, as well as foreshadowing later events. The legend also emphasizes the characters’ mood and feelings.
Using memory play and new plastic theater adds various elements to Williams’ production, The Glass Menagerie. By employing memory play and new plastic theater, Williams frees himself from the confines of conventional theater in order to emphasize the underlying reality. With this freedom came the opportunity to take advantage of atypical theatrical conventions or shape conventional ones. He took this opportunity, making it seemingly impossible to miss the truth and gave the audience, “truth in the pleasant guise of illusion” (Williams 752). In both his productions and life, Williams never shies away from societal problems and the rather harsh realities of life. Instead, he embraces the truth and wants to bring people closer to an undeniable reality.
- “Epic Theatre and Brecht.” GCSE Drama – Epic Theatre and Brecht – Revision 11. BBC News, www.bbc.com/bitesize/guides/zwmvd2p/revision/11. Accessed on 14 December 2018.
- Maiti, Abhik. “A Kaleidoscope of Fluctuating Memories: Exploring Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. 2017. University of Calcutta, Master’s Thesis.
- Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1976. PDF File.