The Glass Menagerie
First edition cover
|Cover artist||Mazyar Kashani|
The Glass Menagerie is a four-character memory play by Tennessee Williams which premiered in 1944 and catapulted Williams from obscurity to fame. The play has strong autobiographical elements, featuring characters based on Williams himself, his histrionic mother, and his mentally fragile sister Rose. In writing the play, Williams drew on an earlier short story, as well as a screenplay he had written under the title of The Gentleman Caller.
The play premiered in Chicago in 1944. After a shaky start it was championed by Chicago critics Ashton Stevens and Claudia Cassidy, whose enthusiasm helped build audiences so the producers could move the play to Broadway where it won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1945. The Glass Menagerie was Williams's first successful play; he went on to become one of America's most highly regarded playwrights.
- Amanda Wingfield
- A faded Southern belle, abandoned by her husband, who is trying to raise her two children under harsh financial conditions. Amanda yearns for the comforts from her youth and also longs for her children to have the same comforts, but her devotion to them has made her – as she admits at one point – almost "hateful" towards them.
- Tom Wingfield
- Amanda's son, and younger brother to sister, Laura. Tom works at a shoe warehouse to support his family but is frustrated by his job and aspires to be a poet. He struggles to write for he is sleep-deprived and annoyed. Yet, he escapes from reality through nightly excursions, apparently to the movies but also to local bars. Tom feels both obligated toward yet burdened by his family and longs to escape.
- Laura Wingfield
- Amanda's daughter and Tom's older sister. A childhood illness has left her with a limp, and she has a mental fragility and an inferiority complex that have isolated her from the outside world. She has created a world of her own symbolized by her collection of glass figurines.
- Jim O’Connor
- An old high-school acquaintance of Tom and Laura. Jim was a popular athlete and actor during his days at Soldan High School. Subsequent years have been less kind to Jim, however, and by the time of the play's action he is working as a shipping clerk at the same shoe warehouse as Tom. His hope to shine again is conveyed by his study of public speaking and ideas of self-improvement that appear related to those of Dale Carnegie.
- Mr. Wingfield
- Amanda's absentee husband and Laura’s and Tom’s father. Mr. Wingfield was a handsome man, full of charm, who worked for a telephone company and eventually "fell in love with long distance", abandoning his family 16 years before the play's action. Although he does not appear onstage, Mr. Wingfield is frequently referred to by Amanda and his picture is prominently displayed in the Wingfields' living room. The unseen character appears to incorporate elements of Williams's own father.
The play is introduced to the audience by Tom, the narrator and protagonist, as a memory play based on his recollection of his mother Amanda and his sister Laura. Because the play is based on memory, Tom cautions the audience that what they see may not be precisely what happened.
Amanda Wingfield, a faded Southern belle of middle age, shares a dingy St. Louis apartment with her son Tom, in his early twenties, and his slightly older sister, Laura. Although she is a survivor and a pragmatist, Amanda yearns for the comforts and admiration she remembers from her days as a fêted debutante. She worries especially about the future of her daughter Laura, a young woman with a limp (an aftereffect of a bout of polio) and a tremulous insecurity about the outside world. Tom works in a shoe warehouse doing his best to support the family. He chafes under the banality and boredom of everyday life and struggles to write, while spending much of his spare time going to the movies — or so he says — at all hours of the night.
Amanda is obsessed with finding a suitor (or, as she puts it, a "gentleman caller") for Laura, whose crippling shyness has led her to drop out of both high school and a subsequent secretarial course, and who spends much of her time polishing and arranging her collection of little glass animals. Pressured by his mother to help find a caller for Laura, Tom invites an acquaintance from work named Jim home for dinner.
The delighted Amanda spruces up the apartment, prepares a special dinner, and converses coquettishly with Jim, almost reliving her youth when she had an abundance of suitors calling on her. Laura discovers that Jim is the boy she was attracted to in high school and has often thought of since — though the relationship between the shy Laura and the "most likely to succeed" Jim was never more than a distant, teasing acquaintanceship. Initially, Laura is so overcome by shyness that she is unable to join the others at dinner, and she claims to be ill. After dinner, however, Jim and Laura are left alone by candlelight in the living room, waiting for the electricity to be restored. (Tom has not paid the power bill, which hints to the audience that he is banking the bill money and preparing to leave the household.) As the evening progresses, Jim recognizes Laura's feelings of inferiority and encourages her to think better of herself. He and Laura share a quiet dance, in which he accidentally brushes against her glass menagerie, knocking a glass unicorn to the floor and breaking off its horn. Jim then compliments Laura and kisses her. After Jim reveals that he is already engaged to be married, Laura asks him to take the broken unicorn as a gift and he then leaves. When Amanda learns that Jim is to be married, she turns her anger upon Tom and cruelly lashes out at him — although Tom did not know that Jim was engaged, and Amanda knows this.
As Tom speaks at the end of the play, he says that he left home soon afterward and never returned. In Tom's final speech, he bids farewell to his mother and sister, and asks Laura to blow out the candles as the play ends.
Original Broadway cast
The Glass Menagerie opened on Broadway in the Playhouse Theatre on March 31, 1945 and played there until June 29, 1946. It then moved to the Royale Theatre from July 1, 1946 until its closing on August 3, 1946. The show was directed by Eddie Dowling and Margo Jones. The cast for opening night was as follows:
- Eddie Dowling as Tom Wingfield
- Laurette Taylor as Amanda Wingfield
- Julie Haydon as Laura Wingfield
- Anthony Ross as Jim O'Connor
Laurette Taylor's performance as Amanda set a standard against which subsequent actresses taking the role were to be judged, typically to their disadvantage. In the 2004 documentary Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There, Broadway veterans rank Taylor's performance as the most memorable of their lives.
The play won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award as Best American Play. Williams gave credit to two Chicago critics, Claudia Cassidy and Ashton Stevens, for "giving him a 'start...in a fashion'..." Cassidy wrote that the play had "the stamina of success..." Stevens wrote that the play had "the courage of true poetry..."
The characters and story mimic Williams's own life more closely than any of his other works. Williams (whose real name was Thomas) would be Tom, his mother, Amanda. His sickly and mentally unstable older sister Rose provides the basis for the fragile Laura (whose nickname in the play is "Blue Roses", a result of a bout of pleurosis as a high school student), though it has also been suggested that Laura may incorporate aspects of Williams himself, referencing his introverted nature and obsessive focus on a part of life (writing for Williams and glass animals in Laura's case). Williams, who was close to Rose growing up, learnt to his horror that in 1943 in his absence his sister had been subjected to a botched lobotomy. Rose was left incapacitated (and institutionalized) for the rest of her life. With the success of The Glass Menagerie, Williams was to give half of the royalties from the play to his mother. He later designated half of the royalties from his play Summer and Smoke to provide for Rose's care, arranging for her move from the state hospital to a private sanitarium. Eventually he was to leave the bulk of his estate to ensure Rose's continuing care. Rose died in 1996.
The play was reworked from one of Williams's short stories "Portrait of a Girl in Glass" (1943; published 1948). The story is also written from the point of view of narrator Tom Wingfield, and many of his soliloquies from The Glass Menagerie seem lifted straight from this original. Certain elements have clearly been omitted from the play, including the reasoning for Laura's fascination with Jim's freckles (linked to a book that she loved and often reread, Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter). Generally the story contains the same plot as the play, with certain sections given more emphasis, and character details edited (for example, in the story, Jim nicknames Tom "Slim", instead of "Shakespeare"). Another basis for the play is a screenplay Williams wrote under the title of The Gentleman Caller. Williams had been briefly contracted as a writer to MGM, and he apparently envisioned Ethel Barrymore and Judy Garland for the roles that eventually became Amanda and Laura, although when the play was eventually filmed in 1950, Gertrude Lawrence was cast as Amanda and Jane Wyman as Laura.
Two Hollywood movie versions of The Glass Menagerie have been produced. The first, directed by Irving Rapper in 1950, starred Gertrude Lawrence (Amanda), Jane Wyman (Laura), Arthur Kennedy (Tom) and Kirk Douglas (Jim). Williams characterized this version, which had an implied happy ending grafted onto it in the style of American films from that era, as the worst adaptation of his work. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote, "As much as we hate to say so, Miss Lawrence's performance does not compare with the tender and radiant creation of the late Laurette Taylor on the stage."  The film has never been released on either VHS or DVD.
The second film directed by Paul Newman in 1987, starred Joanne Woodward (Amanda), Karen Allen (Laura), John Malkovich (Tom), and James Naughton (Jim) and, if anything, was even less well-received than the earlier film and sank without much attention. However, the New York Times reviewer noted "starts out stiffly and gets better as it goes along, with the dinner-party sequence its biggest success; in this highly charged situation, Miss Woodward's Amanda indeed seems to flower. But quiet reverence is its prevailing tone, and in the end that seems thoroughly at odds with anything Williams ever intended." It is available on DVD.
There is a critically acclaimed Indian adaptation of the play, filmed in the Malayalam language. The movie titled Akale (meaning At a Distance), released in 2004, is directed by Shyamaprasad. The story is set in the southern Indian state of Kerala in the 1970s, in an Anglo-Indian/Latin Catholic household. The characters were renamed to fit the context better (the surname Wingfield was changed to D'Costa, reflecting the part-Portuguese heritage of the family — probably on the absent father's side, since the mother is Anglo-Indian), but the story remains essentially the same. Prithviraj Sukumaran plays Neil D'Costa (Tom Wingfield in the play), Geethu Mohandas plays Rosemary D'Costa (Laura Wingfield), Sheela plays Margaret D'Costa (Amanda Wingfield), and Tom George Kolath plays Freddy Evans (Jim O'Connor). Sheela won the National Film Award for Best Supporting Actress, and Geethu Mohandas won the Kerala State Film Award for the best actress.
The first radio adaptation of the play was performed on Theatre Guild on the Air in 1951 starring Helen Hayes as Amanda with Montgomery Clift as Tom, Kathryn Baird as Laura, and Karl Malden as Jim. A 1953 adaptation appeared on the radio series Best Plays starring Evelyn Varden as Amanda and Geraldine Page as Laura. Jane Wyman recreated her film role of Laura for a 1954 adaptation on Lux Radio Theatre with Fay Bainter as Amanda and Frank Lovejoy as Tom and Tom Brown as Jim. The 1953 version is not known to survive but recordings of the other two are in circulation. In 1964 Caedmon Records produced an LP version of the Glass Menagerie as the initial issue of its theatre series. The production starred Jessica Tandy as Amanda, Montgomery Clift as Tom, Julie Harris as Laura, David Wayne as the gentleman caller. The recording is now available in the form of audio app.
The first television version, recorded on videotape and starring Shirley Booth, was broadcast on December 8, 1966 as part of CBS Playhouse. Barbara Loden played Laura, Hal Holbrook played Tom and Pat Hingle played the Gentleman Caller. Booth was nominated for an Emmy for her performance as Amanda.
A second television adaptation was broadcast on ABC on December 16, 1973, starring Katharine Hepburn as Amanda, Sam Waterston as Tom, Michael Moriarty as Jim, and Joanna Miles as Laura. It was directed by Anthony Harvey. (Tom's initial soliloquy, so striking onstage, is cut from this version; it opens with him walking alone in an alley, sitting on a rampart to read the newspaper and having his sister's and mother's voices conjure up the first domestic scene.) All four actors were nominated for Emmys, with Moriarty and Miles winning.
Later stage productions
The Glass Menagerie has had a number of Broadway revivals. Maureen Stapleton, Anne Pitoniak, Jessica Tandy, Julie Harris, Jessica Lange, Judith Ivey, Harriet Harris, and Cherry Jones have all portrayed Amanda Wingfield.
- May 4, 1965 to October 2, 1965 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre
- George Grizzard as Tom Wingfield
- Pat Hingle as Jim O'Connor
- Piper Laurie as Laura Wingfield
- Maureen Stapleton as Amanda Wingfield
- December 18, 1975 to February 22, 1976 at the Circle in the Square Theatre
- Pamela Payton-Wright as Laura Wingfield
- Paul Rudd as Jim O'Connor
- Maureen Stapleton as Amanda Wingfield
- Rip Torn as Tom Wingfield
- December 1, 1983 to February 19, 1984 at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre
- Jessica Tandy as Amanda Wingfield
- Bruce Davison as Tom Wingfield
- John Heard as Jim O'Connor
- Amanda Plummer as Laura Wingfield
- November 15, 1994 to January 1, 1995 at Criterion Center Stage Right
- Julie Harris as Amanda Wingfield
- Željko Ivanek as Tom Wingfield
- Kevin Kilner as Jim O'Connor (Drama Desk Award nomination, Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play)
- Calista Flockhart played Laura in her Broadway debut. For her performance as Laura, Flockhart received a 1995 Clarence Derwent Award for Most Promising Actress.
- March 22, 2005 to July 3, 2005 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre
- Off-Broadway at the Roundabout Theatre Company, March 24, 2010 to June 13, 2010
- Patch Darragh as Tom Wingfield
- Judith Ivey as Amanda Wingfield
- Keira Keeley as Laura Wingfield
- Michael Mosley as Jim O'Connor
The 2013 Broadway revival began previews on September 5 with an official opening on September 26, 2013 at the Booth Theatre and closed on February 23, 2014. The cast featured Cherry Jones as Amanda Wingfield, Zachary Quinto as Tom, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura and Brian J. Smith as Jim and was directed by John Tiffany. This production received seven 2014 Tony Award nominations, including Best Revival of a Play, Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play (Cherry Jones), Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play (Brian J. Smith), Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play (Celia Keenan-Bolger), Best Scenic Design of a Play (Bob Crowley), Best Lighting Design of a Play (Natasha Katz) and Best Direction of a Play (John Tiffany). and three Drama Desk Award nominations, including Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play (Brian J. Smith), Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play (Celia Keenan-Bolger), and Outstanding Music in a Play (Nico Muhly).
In 1997, Kiefer Sutherland returned to his theatrical roots, starring with his mother, Canadian actress Shirley Douglas, in a Canadian production of The Glass Menagerie at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto.
The Glass Menagerie was parodied by Christopher Durang in a short one-act titled For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls, in which Laura is replaced by a wimpy hypochondriac son named Lawrence, and the "gentleman caller" becomes Ginny, a butch female factory worker with a hearing problem. Lawrence, instead of prizing a collection of glass figurines, here is obsessed with his collection of glass cocktail stirrers.
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- Detailed plot summary and analysis of The Glass Menagerie
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- Study resource for writing about The Glass Menagerie
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