Closer Readings Commentary

Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie”: Seventy Years on the American Stage!

This week marks the 70th anniversary of The Glass Menagerie’s Broadway premiere.

The play has been produced seven times on Broadway—more than any other American classic with the exception Tennessee Williams’ subsequent masterpiece, A Streetcar Named Desire!

EDSITEment’s new unit of three lessons Why Expressionism? The Glass Menagerie: A Common Core Exemplar for grades 9–10 examines Williams’s use of expressionist techniques. How do expressionist techniques continue to create drama and meaning for 21st-century audiences?

The opening

“March left the theater like a lioness.”  

That was how The New York Times described The Glass Menagerie’s spectacular opening at the Playhouse Theatre on the night of March 31, 1945. That production continued to roar for 563 additional performances and established playwright Tennessee Williams as a major voice in American theater.

The show received rave reviews, and for its entire Broadway run “everything fit”—the music, the lighting, the sets, and the talented ensemble cast. Actress Laurette Taylor, a recovering alcoholic in real life, was “completely perfect” as Amanda Wingfield, a role she had originated in the pre-Broadway Chicago production. Eddie Dowling played the “quiet, easy” Tom/narrator; Julie Haydon graced the stage as “ethereal, slight” Laura; Anthony Ross did justice to the Gentleman Caller. Although the Tony Awards did not exist for another two years, this production of The Glass Menagerie was honored two weeks after the opening with the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for the Best American Play of the 1944–45 season!

This activity from Extending the Unit asks students to compare reviews from the first two productions of The Glass Menagerie with reviews from two contemporary renditions. They will consider how the play’s expressionistic techniques either transcend or are influenced by the social milieu of the time in which the production is mounted. Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.7: Analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums, determining which details are emphasized in each account.

The birth

Every artist is born in jail and Tennessee Williams’ jail was called St. Louis. If you’re the creative type, the first thing you do when you’re born in jail is decorate your cell. The next thing you do is plan your breakout…to execute an escape from the initial circumstances of your life. Some call this escape transcendence. When Tennessee decorated his cell, the play was entitled The Glass Menagerie… John Patrick Shanley

In 1941, thirty-year-old Tennessee Williams had penned a short story, Portrait of a Girl in Glass, featuring a character, Laura Wingfield, a disabled young girl plagued with a nagging mother. Williams put that aside and turn his attention to a different play, Daughter of the American Revolution: A Dramatic Portrait of An American Mother, where he conjured up the character of Amanda Wingfield.

Williams returned to the Portrait story in the summer of 1943, and converted it into a screenplay entitled The Gentleman Caller. At the time he was working in Hollywood as a screenwriter, subsisting on the MGM studio payroll. That year he submitted two versions of the script to MGM, which they promptly rejected. The next year, Williams adapted it into a stage play and The Glass Menagerie was born. 

The many parallels between The Glass Menagerie and Williams’s own family of origin are well documented. An autobiographical portrait of a disgruntled factory-worker and would-be writer is manifested in the narrator, Tom; Williams’s own older sister, Rose, who was disabled and eventually lobotomized, appears in role of Laura; Williams’s mother Edwina is the basis for the strong-willed, genteel, but decidedly faded Southern belle, Amanda. The paternal abandonment Williams experienced in his own life as well as the shabby St. Louis apartment he emerged from both have direct counterparts in this play.

“Memory play”

Williams departs from theatrical realism in The Glass Menagerie. He incorporates expressionist techniques into the play because he believes they have the ability to express reality more vividly. His stated aim is a “closer approach to the truth.”

He opens his production notes to The Glass Menagerie by calling it a “memory play” and offers the director a lot of latitude to depart from the usual theatrical conventions of the day. From scene one onward, Williams underlines the importance of establishing an interior world—“dim and poetic” that resonates in the language of the emotions and nostalgia.

Memory is nebulous—similar to dream states, and Williams intends The Glass Menagerie to be framed in such a way as to make the audience feel they have entered a dream. In his stage directions he calls for incorporating innovative atmospheric devices—music, lighting, and ongoing screen projections, to infuse the ambiance of memory into every scene. He hopes his “new, plastic” form of drama will be able to rejuvenate the American theatre.

Forty years later, fellow playwright, Arthur Miller would pay Williams the ultimate compliment saying, “in one stroke the play lifted lyricism to its highest level in our theatre’s history.”

The fallout

Three years after The Glass Menagerie opened on Broadway, Tennessee William would write an essay entitled, “The Catastrophe of Success.” In it, he details the profound effect the play’s overnight success had on his life. He lays out the ramifications of his Cinderella story for our society—exposing the communal love affair Americans have with the trappings of celebrity and fame. EDSITEment offers a guide for students to complete an independent close reading of this informational text, perhaps more pertinent today than when it was written in 1948.

Suggested classroom activities

Lesson 1 engages students by asking them to identify what elements in The Glass Menagerie contribute to expressionist theatre and toward what apparent ends. Aligns with CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

Lesson 2 moves past identifications to an analysis of expressionism’s effects on themes in the play. Aligns with CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.2: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

Additional background information on the life and work of Tennessee Williams is available from EDSITEment-reviewed Poetry Foundation and in “The Gorgeous Unstoppable Tennessee Williams” featured article by John Patrick Stanley in NEH’s Humanities magazine.