The Glass Menagerie: Essay Q&A
1. The Glass Menagerie "seems to derive its continued if wavering force from its partly repressed representation of the quasi-incestuous and doomed love" between Tom and Laura" (Harold Bloom). Discuss.
As far as the text of the play is concerned, the only time Tom really expresses his feelings about Laura is at the end, when he confesses that even though he has escaped from the stifling effect of the family home, he cannot forget Laura. So many things remind him of her, and he is tormented by the memory: "Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!" This suggests a strong emotional connection between brother and sister, and probably a feeling of guilt on the part of Tom for having deserted her. And the word he uses, "faithful," seems an unusual one for a brother to use about a sister. The idea of being faithful is more usually applied to relationships between lovers or spouses rather than siblings. However, this passage is not in itself an indicator of an incestuous or even "quasi-incestuous" love. During the play Tom does not, in the text, show any unusual attachment to his sister.
However, the script of a play is only the bare bones of what it becomes in performance. There may be opportunities for the actors playing Tom and Laura to suggest a relationship between the two that might come close to the "partly repressed" incestuous love that Bloom writes about. This opportunity was indeed taken in the celebrated 1973 television production, starring Katharine Hepburn as Amanda. At the beginning of scene 4, when Tom returned at five in the morning and entertained Laura with tales of what had happened at the theater, there was a flirtatious manner between them that suggested something more than conventional love between siblings.
In short, the playwright does not seem to have presented the relationship between Tom and Laura as "quasi-incestuous" in any consistent, obvious manner. However, it is possible to suggest such a relationship in performance.
2. Discuss Williams's use during the play of a screen bearing images or titles.
Williams wanted productions of the play to use at certain moments a screen on which were projected slides bearing images or titles. The purpose, according to Williams's production notes, was to stress the most important points in each scene. He realized that his play was rather episodic and he was concerned that the audience might lose track of the structure of the play, making it seem fragmentary. Williams wrote: "The legend or image upon the screen will strengthen the effect of what is merely allusion in the writing and allow the primary point to be made more simply and lightly than if the entire responsibility were on the spoken word."
Directors and scholars have generally been unenthusiastic about this innovation of Williams. The screens (also described as legends) were omitted from the Broadway production of 1945, which Williams did not regret since Laurette Taylor's performance as Amanda was so powerful that he felt the production could be simplified.
Directors since have usually followed this lead, although Williams retained the use of the legends in the Reading Edition of the play.
Many of the legends seem unnecessary. When Amanda reminisces about her youth, the image, "Amanda as a girl on a porch, greeting callers," does not add much to the audience's understanding. Similarly, "A swarm of typewriters," the legend that is to appear as Amanda begins her story of her visit to Rubicam's business college, adds little to the story, since Amanda immediately goes on to explain that she went to see the typing instructor.
More use can be seen for an image stating (or illustrating) "Crippled", when Laura utters the word, since Williams wrote that Laura's lameness can be merely suggested on the stage. And when Tom says he likes a lot of adventure, the image that appears, "Sailing vessel with Jolly Roger," suggests Tom's later departure for the sea.
In general, however, the verdict of time has been that the legends are not necessary and add little if anything to the effect of the play.
3. Discuss Williams's use of non-realist techniques in The Glass Menagerie.
Williams repeatedly stressed that he was not writing realistic drama. In his production notes to The Glass Menagerie he disparaged realism in drama, comparing it to a mere photographic likeness, whereas "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."
At the very outset, Tom addresses the audience directly. This is a breach of realistic convention, in which the actors are obliged to pretend that the audience does not exist. Tom also hints at the nonrealistic nature of the play when he says that in contrast to a stage magician who provides illusion in the guise of truth, "I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion." Tom also brings out the nonrealistic dimension when he makes it clear that although he is narrating from the present, the characters and situations he is re-creating are from the past.
There are other occasions when Williams deliberately disrupts any sense of realism in the play. In scene 1, for example, when Amanda and Laura are seated at the table, "eating is indicated by gestures without food or utensils."
Music plays a large part in the play, especially the "glass menagerie" music that is heard in connection with Laura. Tom deliberately brings attention to this breach of realism: "In memory everything seems to happen to music. That explains the fiddle in the wings."
Williams also uses lighting in non-realistic ways. The stage is dim, but shafts of light illuminate selected areas or characters. Lighting often serves to keep Laura as the center of attention even when this is not apparent from the action in the scene. For example, as Williams himself points out in the production notes, in the quarrel between Tom and Amanda (scene 3), a scene that does not directly involve Laura, the light shines on her nonetheless. So too in the supper scene, when Laura lies on the sofa, taking no part in the conversation, the light is still focused on her.
4. What does The Glass Menagerie reveal about the lives of women during this time period?
The world depicted in the play is one in which men can shape their lives as they choose, even if it means behaving irresponsibly, while women must accept a circumscribed and dependent position. For a woman such as Amanda, deserted by her husband sixteen years ago, the economic situation is precarious. Amanda depends on her son to pay the rent and the other bills for their apartment. When she wants to bring in some income, she is reduced to selling magazine subscriptions from her own home.
Laura's position shows even more clearly the limited opportunities open to women during this time period. Although she does have the chance to attend a business college, what she learns there is shorthand and typing, which would be sufficient to get her a job as a secretary (to a male executive) but no more. When she drops out of college, her prospects are even worse. All she can hope for is to snare a man who will support her, and for that she must develop her feminine wiles. According to Amanda, all women should be a trap for men ("and men expect them to be," she says).
But the reality is that men are not trapped by women, since they are able to escape any situation that is not of their liking, with little consequence. The prime example of this is the father, Amanda's husband, who left his job with the telephone company and deserted his family. Interestingly, Amanda, far from despising him, seems to retain much affection for him, since she displays his over-sized portrait prominently on the mantel and points it out to Jim with some pride. If she feels any anger toward her husband, she does not show it. She lives in a world where it seems accepted that men will behave in this way, and there is little women can do about it.
Tom follows in his father's footsteps. He is prepared to be ruthless in planning his escape, paying his union dues with the money that should have paid the electricity bill. He has a freedom that Amanda and Laura can never have, simply because he is a man.
The world depicted in the play, of strictly segregated roles for men and women, typifies pre-World War II America. After the war, as more women remained in the workforce, roles and expectations based on gender gradually began to change. By the 1960s, the world depicted in The Glass Menagerie was rapidly becoming out of date.
5. What role does religious symbolism play in The Glass Menagerie?
Religious symbols and allusions hover in the background of the play and contribute to its meaning. Amanda regards herself as a Christian. When she sympathizes with the women she talks to about her subscription drive, she calls them "Christian martyrs," which may give a clue to how Amanda sees herself. Laura tells her that when she is disappointed she gets that "awful suffering look on [her] face, like the picture of Jesus' mother in the museum."
All Christians, especially suffering ones, await the coming of the savior, and this is the role in which Amanda casts Jim O'Connor. Scene 5, in which Tom breaks the news that Jim is coming for dinner, begins with the legend "Annunciation," a term which refers to the message brought by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary.
The person to be redeemed is of course Laura. She is also described in religious terms. According to Williams's production notes, the light that shines on her during the play should have "a peculiar pristine clarity, such as light used in the early religious portraits of female saints and madonnas."
But Jim O'Connor is unable to live up to the status that Amanda ascribes to him. When he and Laura are alone together he offers her not the wine and bread of the holy sacraments, but wine and chewing gum. And he preaches only a secular gospel of self-help rather than salvation through divine grace.
Whereas Christ the savior is presented in Christian scriptures as the light of the world, in The Glass Menagerie, the lights are always going out. When it transpires that Jim is unavailable for Laura, the "holy candles in the altar of Laura's face have been snuffed out." The lights go out at the dinner table too, a foreshadowing of how the world will soon be plunged into the darkness of World War II. Tom's final speech ends with candles being blown out. The only light now in the world is that of lightning, not the divine light.
The religious symbols and allusions therefore serve to give only false hope. They enhance the pessimism of the play.