Tennessee Williams at 20th anniversary of The Glass Menagerie opening.
Credit: Fernandez, Orlando, photographer, 1965. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC.
Everyone should know nowadays the unimportance of the photographic in art: that truth, life, or reality is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest, in essence, only through transformation, through changing into other forms than those which were merely present in appearance.
—Tennessee Williams’ production notes to The Glass Menagerie
Tennessee Williams’ classic play, The Glass Menagerie, was an extension of the expressionism that came out of Europe in the early 20th century. In essence, Expressionism interprets the world through the artist’s internal, subjective lens, not as an objective reflection of reality.
The expressionist movement was marked by certain characteristics: a rejection of realism in favor of dreamlike states; non-linear, often disjointed structures; a utilization of imagery and symbolism in the place of naturalism; a focus on abstract concepts and ideas. Artists in this movement paid witness to the alienation of the individual which they saw as a main characteristic of modern life. Expressionism conveys angst in the knowledge that our spiritual needs will not be met through modern societal constructs. It rails against the dehumanization of man in the modern, urban landscape.
In The Glass Menagerie, Williams used expressionistic techniques to develop several of the play’s themes:
In Lesson 1, students identify what Expressionism in theatre is and explicate Williams’ application of expressionist techniques in The Glass Menagerie. In Lesson 2, they analyze how those techniques create meaning in the play, i.e., how they help develop the play’s themes. And in Lesson 3, they express their evolving comprehension through a thesis-driven essay. In the summative assessment, students write and annotate an expressionist scene of their own based on the play.
Common Core State Standards English Language Arts and Literacy lists The Glass Menagerieas a Grades 9–10 Text Exemplar for Drama. (See Appendix B.)
The expressionist movement in literature had its roots in Germany in the 1910s and in the work of Swedish playwright August Strindberg. Unifying features included rebellion against artistic and social conventions of the day, and bold innovation. The overall aim of expressionism was to offer a total spiritual renewal by confronting the darkest aspects of reality. The movement influenced a number of artists, writers, and poets around the world, including James Joyce and T.S. Eliot. Among them were 20th-century American writers who questioned widely-accepted beliefs. They opened new psychological and emotional dimensions within their works. In the 1920s, expressionism found an outlet on the American stage through experimentalists from the Theatre Guild and Provincetown Players such as Susan Glaspell and Eugene O’Neill. Starting in the 1940s Tennessee Williams adopted expressionist techniques and incorporated them through dialogue, action, sound, setting, stage design, and lighting into his dramatic works such as The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Camino Real (1953).
The Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on Production Aspects for Expressionist Theatre provides background context on the movement related to theatre.
Certain theatrical techniques can be classified as expressionist. See Modern Theatre in Context: Expressionism from Canada Research Chair in Performance and Culture for a detailed description. A synopsis is noted below:
Tennessee Williams adopted such expressionistic techniques and integrated them into The Glass Menagerie as a way to present several of his themes. He used them to highlight reality as subjective, expose the dehumanization and grotesqueness effected by modern urban culture, and express the resulting angst over that condition. This drama is characterized by dreamlike states rather than realism, and imagery and symbolism rather than naturalism.
For more information on the Expressionist techniques of Tennessee Williams, click here (PDF).
Tennessee Williams’ oeuvre has always been difficult for critics to categorize. In the seven decades since The Glass Menagerie premiered on Broadway, this play has been diversely classified as idealist, naturalist, symbolic, poetic, and romantic, among others. Indeed, in this and other plays Williams often combines different elements in pursuit of what critic John Gassner calls “a fusion of naturalistic detail with symbolism and poetic sensibility.” According to drama critic Kenneth Tynan, Williams achieves a new kind of romanticism “not pale or scented but earthy and robust, the product of a mind vitally infected with the rhythms of human speech.” His subject is the often “terrifyingly ambiguous” human nature as he observed it—brilliantly rendered into dramatic form. Nancy Tischler sums it up:
This play, unique among Williams’ dramas, combines poetic and unrealistic techniques with grim naturalism to achieve a gossamer effect of compassion, fragility, and frustration typical of Tennessee Williams at his most sensitive and natural best.
A detailed biography of this author’s life and work is available from the EDSITEment-reviewed Poetry Foundation, which offers myriad assessments of Tennessee Williams’s dramatic techniques by lead scholars and critics.
Students compose and annotate an original, additional scene for The Glass Menagerie using expressionist techniques to advance one of the play’s themes. They will treat a theme from the play that they have traced through the unit’s activities. Students should annotate their work to clarify their intentions and illustrate their understanding of this theatrical technique and the rich themes Williams infuses into his drama.
Distribute and review the Summative Assessment Rubric document with students before they begin their compositions, as a guide to ensure that they understand the criteria and as a tool to assess their work.
Reviews of original productions:
The New York Times review of the play’s original 1944 production in Chicago;
The New York Times review of the play’s subsequent 1945 debut on Broadway.
Reviews of contemporary productions:
The review “Wounded by Broken Memories” of the 2013 Broadway production at the Booth Theater;
The review “The Shape of Memory, Both Fragile and Fierce” of the 2013 production at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Curriculum unit of three lessons explores Williams’s use of expressionism to more fully comprehend the theatrical devices and themes in The Glass Menagerie. In Lesson 3, they express their evolving comprehension through a thesis-driven essay.
Curriculum unit of three lessons explores Williams’s use of expressionism to more fully comprehend the theatrical devices and themes in The Glass Menagerie. In Lesson 2, they analyze how those techniques create meaning in the play.