The Glass Menagerie and Expressionist Theater

Tennessee Williams at 20th anniversary of The Glass Menagerie opening
Photo caption

Tennessee Williams at 20th anniversary of The Glass Menagerie opening.

"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:

  • to show reality as subjective;
  • to find value in the nebulous experience of “memory”;
  • to expose the dehumanization and grotesqueness brought about by modern urban culture;
  • to present the modern angst of life in mid-20th-century America.

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.)

Guiding Questions

How is The Glass Menagerie an example of expressionist theatre?


How does Williams’ application of expressionistic techniques develop the play’s themes?