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The Glass Menagerie | Study Guide

Tennessee Williams

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The Glass Menagerie | Stage Directions and Production Notes

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Story Structure and Language

The seven scenes of The Glass Menagerie evolve from winter to spring 1937. However, these scenes are Tom's memories of his last months at home, as his narration takes place years later. The change of seasons is shown in the seven scenes by the characters' costumes. The overall mood is somber and melancholy. Amanda Wingfield tries to infuse the action with nostalgic stories about her life as a young Southern belle and maintain optimism and good spirits in depressing surroundings. However, her actions and emotions sometimes seem forced, and Tom barely tolerates them. His mother's behavior stokes his annoyance with her constant nitpicking about his manners, his surliness, his reticence, his activities, and her expectations for him. In contrast, his sister Laura displays a benign tolerance for her mother's nostalgia and nagging, speaking of and to her as gently as she handles her glass animals. In his role of narrator, Tom speaks reflectively about the events and situations that led to his departure and have "held his heart hostage."

Memory Play

Tennessee Williams coined the term memory play because the characters and events in his dramatic works are rooted in his own life and seen through the filter of time. In his production notes preceding the written text of the play, Williams explains that "Truth, life or reality is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest."

In the stage directions for Scene 1 he explains the characteristics of memory: Because it is memory it is therefore nonrealistic. "It takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart." Since every detail is from the speaker's memory, each derives its truth from that person's perspective, whether reliable or unreliable. A memory play is an illusion that reveals a certain deep truth.

Screen Device

Another technique Williams uses is the screen device. Williams wanted a way to call the audience's attention to emotional insights and meanings that might be unclear among the conflicting viewpoints of characters who have difficulty connecting with one another. Throughout the play words or pictures that emphasize a focal point of a scene are projected from backstage onto a sheer screen situated behind the characters. These visuals highlight an emotion, action, motif, or a memory.

For example, every time Amanda discusses her days as a Southern debutante, the words, OÙ SONT LES NEIGES, meaning "Where are the snows?" appear on the screen. The complete phrase includes d'antan, meaning "of yesteryear," or "from a long time ago." Williams chose these words by French poet François Villon in his "Ballade of the Ladies of Bygone Times" because Amanda, too, yearns for the days of her girlhood. When Laura mentions that Jim called her Blue Roses, the image of these flowers appears on the screen.

In the production notes the playwright includes in the New Classics 1966 paperback edition, he explains that the screen device did not appear in the later acting version of the play because he did not want it to detract from the straightforward performances, and he wanted to minimize staging effects. He thought this technique "strengthened the effect of the written allusion," and added "emotional appeal" because of its dreamlike quality and correlation with memories, but he understood that some directors found it intrusive.

Lighting

Lighting in dramatizations creates mood and atmosphere and evokes emotions. Because of the ephemeral and illusory aspects of memory, the general stage lighting in The Glass Menagerie is subdued and shadowy. Lighting is softened for the apartment's interior, showing its furnishings as worn and shabby. Williams also uses lighting to accent characters or objects.

Often his goal is to call attention to the unexpected. For example, during the fight between Amanda and Tom in Scene 3, Williams calls for "A clear pool of light on her [Laura's] figure" for the duration of the scene instead of concentrating on the verbal combatants who remain behind her. In Scene 4 directly before Tom apologizes to Amanda, she is staring out of a dirty window onto the dingy alley behind the apartment building. Here the spotlight strikes her face and reveals her age, emphasizing her stern, cold features. The effect sharpens the reality of her appearance compared to the girlish features she holds in her memory and wraps in her illusions. Lighting projects moods from reality to illusion, objects from majestic to humble, emotions from happiness to despair, and personalities from benevolent to cruel.

Music

Williams specifically mentions music as integral to the play. "The Glass Menagerie" theme, played where indicated, usually highlighting Laura or the glass menagerie, is a distant-sounding, delicate, circus-like melody that creates emotional emphasis. Primarily Laura's music, it "serves as a thread of connection and allusion between the narrator with his separate point in time and space and the subject of his story." Other music appears in the play as well, serving as part of the action. The music from the Paradise Dance Hall reflects the outside world, and the records Laura plays are part of her illusory world. They are the signature of the absent father that hangs above the entire work.

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