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What kind of Play is The Glass Menagerie

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* Comes from the Greek tragos meaning goat sacrificed to give thanks for the harvest and expel any evil in the community; hence the term scapegoat

* The ingredients of Greek tragedy were the scapegoat, that is the person who had brought evil to the community who must therefore be sacrificed or expelled, Oedipus and Agamemnon. family strife, (Oedipus, The Oresteia); the high status of the hero, the fatal flaw, and the role of the Gods

* Aristotle said that ‘a perfect tragedy should imitate actions which excite pity and fear’ and these emotions are exorcised in the denouement of the play in a process more commonly referred to as catharsis.

Tragedy and The Glass Menagerie

* Although Tom and his father before him sacrifice others for their own ambitions we cannot say that the play contains a sacrifice in the sense I spoke of above consequently we cannot say that there are any scapegoats in the play.

* We are on slightly stronger ground with family strife. Amanda constantly tries to force Laura to do things Rubicam’s business school to learn typing, or to marry and she criticises Tom’s eating habits, (1: 6), she censors his reading matter (3: 21) and demands to know where he goes every evening (3: 23 & 4: 33). However, this is very mild compared to Greek tragedy where sons kill their father and sleep with their mother, where wives slice open their husbands as they relax in the bath, and where sons plunge swords into the breasts which once fed them milk.

* Also, we cannot say that the hero, Tom, has a high status since he lives in a lower middle class area, works at Continental Shoes, and because his mother never married any of her gentleman callers who were prominent planters (1: 8-9), instead she married ‘a telephone man who fell in love with long distances and skipped the light fantastic out of town’ (1: 5).

* We can say that no-one character has a flaw but rather that all of them are flawed in the same way: they prefer a dream world to the real world. Amanda is nostalgic about the past (1: 8 & 6: 54) and does not face facts about her children (5: 47-8) which leads her to try and shape their lives as she wants rather than as they want (5: 42), Laura ‘lives in a world of her own’ (5: 47-8) and cannot tear herself from her menagerie and her records (4: 35), while Tom dreams of adventure (4: 33) and Amanda says that he ‘lives in a dream, that he manufactures illusions’ (7: 95) they are not fatal.

* The role of the gods is probably the least applicable of the elements of Greek tragedy to this play. The basic idea was that the Gods willed your fate and there was nothing you could do to escape it; Oedipus is the prime example. But in this play there are no Gods and two people do escape if not their fate at least the condition into which they were born: Tom and his father.

* Nevertheless, the sense of fate lingers in the play. Amanda says ‘things have a way of turning out badly’ (7: 94) and if fate is too strong a word we can talk about character instead: can we imagine Laura overcoming what Jim calls her ‘inferiority complex’ and being ‘comfortable with people’ (7: 88)?

* The point to stress is that our experience of tragedy depended on the idea of a god or gods who gave meaning to our lives but once we move to a secular age then we are faced with the prospect of no meaning and perhaps that is modern tragedy. Jim is an important figure ‘he is’ as Tom says, ‘the long-delayed but always expected something that we live for’ (1: 5) in other words the thing that gives meaning to our lives. Samuel Beckett explores this condition in Waiting for Godot. But instead of waiting, perhaps we should act to create meaning.

* Finally we have Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. The first thing to be said is that there is no action; everything is recalled in memory. The play is more poetic than dramatic. The same could be said of Hamlet. There we have a character rather like Tom, though the comparison should not be pushed too far. Both are cut off from those around them by the intensity of their own introspection and both consider their fathers as some kind of role model and neither act. Secondly, although we may feel pity for Laura and even Amanda we are unlikely to feel fear. Furthermore, do we have any other feelings towards the characters admiration, sympathy, irritation and so on? Finally, do you feel that whatever emotions the play rouses in you are purged, if indeed it arouses any emotions at all?

* In short, although there are tragic elements in the play, we cannot call it a tragedy unless we are very clear about what we mean by tragedy, a word that is used far too loosely these days.


* The Greek word koma means ‘sleep’. Hence comedy is linked with dreams rather than reality and, according to Freud, dreams are wish-fulfilments

* The Greek word kome means ‘country village’ and the country has always been seen as a setting for comedy, think of any Shakespeare comedy and the comic figure of the country bumpkin. The country setting is a reminder that comedy also has a connection with the harvest. Indeed comedy and tragedy are closer than you think, both contain a scapegoat that’s either killed or laughed at.

* Comedy was also a fertility rite involving wild orgies. The fact that comedies end in marriage is a reminder of this distant practice. In the ancient world, the country was a place beyond the jurisdiction of the city fathers and so behaviour there was more free. The fertility festivals re-enacted the chaos before the creation of the world and were ways of letting off steam to ensure the ultimate stability of society. They are also a pointer to the communal nature of comedy, a sharing and therefore celebration of values held in common.

* The agon or conflict of the first comedies usually a debate or principle can be seen as the ancient struggle between winter and spring

* Comedy in its pure form is simply surrender to the senses, the triumph of instinct over intellect, revel without a cause. It is therefore a licence to lose one’s social and sexual identity hence the prevalence in comedy of masks, costumes, and mistaken identities.

Comedy and The Glass Menagerie

* One strong comic element in this play is that it is more dream than reality: As the stage directions make clear, ‘The scene is memory and is therefore non-realistic’ (3).

* Another comic element is the agon, the conflict, which was the major feature of old comedy-new comedy, broadly speaking, relied on the obstacles lovers had to overcome to be together. The conflict in The Glass Menagerie is between reality and dream or between routine and adventure (4: 33) but unlike in old comedy, for example Aristophanes The Frogs, the conflict is neither presented humorously, nor is it satisfactorily resolved.

* Although the setting of the play is in one sense comic (see above), in another it is not for it takes place in the town rather than the country. Similarly there is no celebration of the life force and nor does the play end, like most comedies, in marriage. On the contrary, we see that both plans for marriage and marriage itself break down in the play. And in place of the united community of comedy we have the fractured family who are displaced both from their roots (the deep south) and the wider society.

* We could argue that there is a desire for the comic surrender to the senses in Tom and Amanda’s argument about the life of instincts and the life of the mind (4: 34) but in general this is no more a comic than it is a tragic play though it contains elements of both.

* So, if it is not comedy or tragedy, if it does not end in either death or marriage, tears or laughter, what sort of play is The Glass Menagerie?

Social Problem Play?

* The editor of the Methuen edition considers the arguments for seeing this as an autobiographical play (xlviii-lvi) and tries to account for its appeal partly in terms of the way it deals with family problems which everyone can relate to in their own way.

* While this is a valuable approach it ignores the larger social dimension of the play. The most obvious point to make here is that it is not just the characters who are caught up in a dream world but the whole society.

* Tom makes this clear in his opening speech when he refers to the American depression and the struggle between communism and fascism in Europe (1: 5). Later he refers to Chamberlain (5: 39) who famously declared, after his meeting with Hitler, that there would be ‘peace in our time’; his blindness to what was happening parallels Amanda’s refusal to face facts. The whole of American society is seen to be withdrawn from reality: ‘In Spain there was Guernica! But here there was only hot swing music and liquor, dance halls, bars, and movies, and sex that hung in the gloom like a chandelier and flooded the world with brief deceptive rainbows’ (ibid.).

Note the connection between the chandelier and the glass menagerie, both are associated with being removed from the world. We should not forget Tom’s frequent visits to the movies here either since it is something of a truism that during the 1930s, the period when the play is set, Hollywood was churning out Busby Berkley musicals as a way of taking people’s mind off the great depression started by the Wall Street crash in 1929 (6: 61).

* We need to try and understand the idea of ‘escapism’ in a bit more depth. At one point Amanda says that she is ‘bewildered by life’ (2: 13) so one reason why people retreat into dreams is because they do not have the means to understand what is happening around them. Let’s look more closely at that.

* The stage directions tell us that the Wingfield family live in a ‘hive-like conglomeration’ with other ‘lower middle class’ people all of whom are ‘enslaved’ and who ‘function as one interfused mass of automatism’ (3). This is a harsh version of comic loss of identity and communal celebration.

* The character of work in this society is not fulfilling. If she had stayed at the college, Laura would have taken down other people’s words and typed out other people’s thoughts. Tom would rather die than have to go work at Continental Shoemakers everyday (3: 23). Amanda who is ‘a woman of action as well as words’ (3: 19) presents us with a slightly more interesting insight, namely that the American economy depends on selling people dreams. For example she recruits subscribers for The Homemaker’s Companion which encourages women to think of themselves as ideal types of femininity and to involve themselves in the lives of fictional characters (3: 19-20 ; 4: 37).

* The romance of the dance hall is a compensation for such blighted lives (5: 39) but it is no solution to the problems described in the play.

* There are three solutions offered: the first is an individual one. Jim says that Laura ought to have ‘more faith’ in herself and that everyone ‘excels at something’ (7: 81); the second is a social one. Amanda tells Tom that in these trying times ‘all we have to cling to is each other’ (4: 31).

* We can put both these solutions into the wider economic context of the American depression. The pursuit of individual wealth could not help and had indeed led to the recession. The way of out of the recession was Roosevelt’s new deal: unemployment benefit, programme of public works, minimum wage and so on. This emphasised America as a whole nation not just business interests. It might be possible to interpret the absent father in this play as a kind of Hoover figure, one who withdraws from the American people before he is finally replaced by the more father like figure of Roosevelt in 1933

* The third solution is to look to the future rather than the past and this is what Jim does: the future he says ‘will be even more wonderful than the present’ (7: 72) and he plans to get in the emerging television industry (7: 82). The irony is that television imprisons us in dreams more than we do ourselves. In fact, how can we have hope for the future when the play seems to suggest that the past continually repeats itself? ‘More and more you remind me of your father’ (4: 35); or when it always pursues you (7: 97). How indeed can you look to the future in a play which is based wholly on looking back? This brings us to the final section of the lecture the dramatic technique of the play.

Dramatic Techniques

* Ibsen and Brecht provided the models for the depiction of social problems in drama. Ibsen used naturalism while Brecht used epic theatre

* Naturalism consisted of presenting a social problem in detail, Ghosts, A Doll’s House but it did not really try to show how that problem had arisen nor how it could be solved. It tended to present the problem in terms of individual behaviour rather than social structure.

* Epic theatre also presented social problems but instead of concentrating on the characters it concentrated on how those problems had arisen and how they could be resolved. In order for the audience to concentrate on social analysis Brecht used various ‘alienation’ techniques to prevent them from becoming involved in the story or identifying with the characters. Some of these techniques, the use of a narrator, the use of captions (or legends/screen images) or the formalized movements of the actors (1: 4, 5: 38 ; 7: 96) are present in The Glass Menagerie.

* But where Brecht uses these effects to make the audience think about what is wrong with society and how it might be changed, Williams uses them to create mood, atmosphere and emotion. Hence they complement the use of music, the gauze curtains, the split focus (characters who are speaking being dimly lit and those listening). So if the play is about social problems and we could add to the ones we’ve mentioned the position of women, secretaries or marriage, it rather oddly takes a technique for understanding those problems and transforms it into a means of theatrical illusion.

* We could argue that these techniques, by drawing attention to The Glass Menagerie as a piece of theatre show us, by analogy, that social life too is theatre and can be changed, that is not set in stone. Jim, for example is very theatrical, pointing out that what counts in life is social poise (6: 59) hence his taking up public speaking (7: 81). But we are not asked to think about change we are there to have our senses caressed as the play makes a virtue of nostalgia. In short, if Williams criticises his characters for preferring illusion to reality he himself seems guilty of the same fault.

* Why is the play like this? Because theatre is having to compete with Hollywood. It too must treat the audience to spectacle if it is to compete with the big screen.

* Consequently this play is more like the symbolic drama of Strindberg than the theatre of Ibsen or Brecht. If you have time, look at A Dream Play (c.1900) which also treats, in much the same the same way as Williams, of the idea of people being imprisoned in their own dreams, of things repeating themselves and so on. Both plays, unable to find a satisfactory way of comprehending their times, retreat into a sort of poetry.

* And here we come to the final element in the play, its language. The epigraph ‘no-one, not even the rain has such small hands’ comes from E. E. Cummings’ poem ‘somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond’ which in brief deals with how the lover, by her very fragility, is able to is able to get the poet to open and close his heart. There are at least three connections with the play; the idea that no matter how miles you travel, the longest distance is between two people, the idea of fragility picks up the glass animals and also perhaps the scene where Jim is able to get Laura to open up momentarily, and thirdly the use of roses is a key element in both poem and play.

* At school Jim had called Laura Blue Roses because he had misheard her when she had said she had pleurosis (2: 17). Beauty is often born of mistakes, a positive meaning arises from a negative experience.

* This is linked to a more deliberate use of language in the play. Amanda does not like the word ‘crippled’ and tells Tom not to use the word but Tom sees that as symptomatic of her ability to face facts (5: 47-8). But if we change the way we speak about things, we change the way we feel about them and the way we treat them. The word disabled has more connotations than crippled.

My point is that the play shows us that language can transform the way we see the world and thus how we act in it. That is by describing or presenting something in a new way we can make it different. When Jim and Laura look back over their school days, Laura is able to see herself in a better light and we can thus argue that Tom by re-presenting his past can eventually escape it and move on. But perhaps this is a too optimistic reading. After all Amanda, at the end of the play uses the word ‘crippled’ (7: 96). She has ceased to try and change reality and has instead come to accept it.


* What kind of play is The Glass Menagerie? It contains bits of tragedy, bits of comedy but is neither. It concentrates on social problems but is far more poetic than practical.

* It is in short a mixture of numerous elements that like the innocent look of the absent father ‘enchants’ us (5: 46) but does not educate us. It shows what can be done with theatre but not what theatre can do for the world. This is because it has severed its connection with the world in the sense that it is a degradation of different theatrical genres all of which related to the world in specific ways. The Glass Menagerie offers the comfort of illusion.

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