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Book Review of The Glass Menagerie

The Glass Menagerie
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Amanda Wingfield, the matriarch of "The Glass Menagerie," always tells her daughter, Laura, that she should look nice and pretty for gentleman callers, even though Laura has never had any callers at their St. Louis apartment. Laura, who limps because of a slight physical deformity, would rather spend her time playing with the animals in her glass menagerie and listening to old phonograph records instead of learning shorthand and typing so she can be employable. When she learns Laura has only been pretending to go to secretarial school, Amanda decides Laura must have a real gentleman caller and insists her son Tom, who works at a shoe factory, find one immediately. After a few days, Tom tells Amanda he has invited a young man named Jim O'Connor home for dinner and at long last Laura will have her first gentleman caller.

The night of the dinner Amanda does every thing she can to make sure Laura looks more attractive. However, when Laura realizes that the Jim O'Connor who is visiting is possibly the same Jim on whom she had a crush in high school, she does not want to go through with the dinner. Although she has to be excused from the dinner because she has made herself physically ill, Laura is able to impress Jim with her quiet charm when the two of them keep company in the living room and she finally loses some of her shyness. When Jim gives Laura her first kiss, it looks as if Amanda's plans for Laura's happiness might actually come true. But no one has ever accused Tennessee Williams of being a romantic.

"The Glass Menagerie" was the first big success in the long and storied career of playwright Tennessee Williams. Written in 1944, the drama consists of reworked material from one of Williams' short stories, "Portrait of a Girl in Glass," and his screenplay, "The Gentleman Caller." In many ways it is an atypical drama from Williams, with the character of Tom (a role I will confess to playing on stage) serving as a narrator who breaks the "fourth wall" and addresses the audience, which evinces Williams' affinity for Eugene O'Neill (e.g., "The Emperor Jones") at this point in his career. Tom tells the audience that this play offers truth dressed up as illusion, and in his stage directions (which are usually not taken full advantage of in the various performances I have seen because what was cutting edge in 1944 is overly quaint today) he uses not only monologues but also music and projections to enhance the memories on display. Williams also explicitly tells his audience that the gentleman call is the symbol of "the expects something that we live for."

This "memory play" tells of a family trapped in destructive patterns. After being abandoned by her husband, Amanda Wingfield, a woman of the Great Depression, has become trapped between worlds of illusion and reality. She says she wants what is best for her children, but seems incapable of acknowledging what that would be or actually providing it for them. Tom, tired of only watching adventure at the movies, is determined to break away from his dominating mother, but stays only for the sake of his sister. Laura may not be the glamorous belle of the ball her mothers wants, but she has her own inner charm and when confronted with Jim, a visitor from the normal world, there is the chance that she will finally claim her life as her own. This is a poignant drama on the importance of love and it represents a memory of not only family but also of loss.