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The whole play is set in the Wingfields' apartment, which faces an alley in the downtown slums of St. Louis. In the stage directions Tennessee Williams draws a vivid picture of the place. It's cramped and dark, almost like a jail cell. You can't tell it apart from the thousands of other apartments occupied by people trapped in drab and joyless lives. No one in the family wants to live there. But poverty forces them to. It shouldn't surprise you that "escape" develops into a major theme in the play.
The drawing shows you how the apartment might be arranged for a performance. In addition to the usual rooms, there is an important fire escape off to one side. The characters in the play sometimes stand on the fire escape. Tom delivers his speeches to the audience from there. The family uses it to go in and out every day. But it's an "escape" only in name because the people living here are "fundamentally enslaved" in their lower middle-class lives.
Across the alley you see the Paradise Dance Hall. Much of the music you hear during the play comes from there. Sometimes the melodies are subtle comments on events taking place in the Wingfield apartment. Almost every detail of the setting in some manner suggests a theme or contributes an idea to the play. Consider, for instance, the name "Paradise Dance Hall." The young people who meet and dance there will soon be going to war. Many will be killed. Could Williams be implying that this two-bit dance hall is as close to paradise as those boys and girls will ever get?
Think also of the smiling photo of Mr. Wingfield prominently displayed on the wall. Isn't it odd that Amanda, who expresses disdain for her husband, keeps it there? Perhaps Amanda preserves the photograph as a souvenir, a remembrance from the past. Or the photo, which hangs in the living room, may also be kept there to serve as a daily reminder to the Wingfields-especially Tom-that escape is possible.
When Tom steps onto the fire escape to introduce you to the play, the 1940's have begun, and World War II is raging. In his story, he takes you back to the 1930's, a decade of hopeless depression.
You might ask why Tennessee Williams wants you to know the world situation during the time of the story. After all, affairs of state don't directly touch Tom and the other characters. Is the play, then, meant to be more than just a drama of family life? Can you find parallels between the events in the apartment and events in the world? Would the play be less poignant if you didn't know about the civil war in Spain, the massive poverty of the Great Depression, and the growth of Nazism? As you think about the play, these are questions worth considering.