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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES
Tennessee Williams gives you a lengthy set of stage directions at the start. He wants you to see the run-down tenement where the Wingfield family lives, and he wants to create a mood that combines dinginess, desperation and depression. After you are familiar with the play, return to the opening scene and reexamine Williams' choice of details: the fire escape, the alley, the blown-up photo of smiling Mr. Wingfield, and the typewriter keyboard chart. All, you will see, play important roles somewhere in The Glass Menagerie.
When Tom steps out on the fire escape to talk to the audience, he tells you the social background of the play (the 1930's). He introduces himself and the play's other characters, including his father. Although Mr. Wingfield shows up only in his photograph, he's an influential character in the play. Later on you'll see why.
By the end of Tom's opening speech you know a great deal about him. From his appearance you know he is a merchant sailor. You know, too, that he has a way with words and a "poet's weakness for symbols." His first words-"Yes, I have tricks in my pocket"- alert you to his playful disposition. He's going to trick you by giving you truth in the guise of illusion. That is, he's going to tell you a true story but make it seem unreal. Illusions, you'll soon see, pile up one after the other as the play proceeds.
NOTE: ON ILLUSION
The very nature of theater depends on illusion. When you watch a
play you make believe that the actors on stage are the characters they
portray. The better the acting, the more easily you accept the illusion.
Here Tom forewarns you that the play is unreal. The characters, setting,
props, effects, and so on are not meant to be real but rather to serve
as metaphors and symbols of reality.
While illusion is part of any play, it is particularly vital in this one. Illusion, in fact, is a major theme. The characters survive because their illusions protect them from the painful facts of their lives. As you continue, keep in mind that illusions can prove to be self-destructive as well as helpful. Do the Wingfields' illusions create damage, or are they merely harmless aspects of their personalities?
The very first "trick" Tom has in store is a quick change in identity. In a moment, he leaves his role as narrator and as a younger man walks into the Wingfield dining room to join his mother Amanda and sister Laura at supper.
Tom shifts between his role as narrator and his role as a character several times during the play. As narrator Tom moves the story from one episode to the next, informs you about himself and his family, and describes the social and political context of the play. Try to compare Tom's personality in his two roles. The narration takes place years after the story's events occurred. Do you notice differences between the two Toms? Which do you prefer? Think of what might have happened to him between the time he left his family and the time he comes back to tell his story.
Tom wishes he hadn't sat down, for no sooner does he start to eat than Amanda begins to lecture him on the need to chew his food properly. If you've ever been scolded about your table manners, you know how Tom feels. His mother gives advice kindly, but Tom can't stand it. He bolts from the table and reaches for a cigarette. But Amanda doesn't like Tom's smoking any more than his chewing.
NOTE: ON STAGING THE PLAY
Tom's cigarette is probably imagery, just like the knives and forks. Remember, the play is not supposed to be realistic. Still another unrealistic feature is the use of legends and images projected on a screen. The legend which preceded this dinner scene reads "Ou sont les neiges," a phrase from an old French poem which asks, "Where are the snows of yesteryear?" The answer, of course, is "gone," just as the past is always gone. This legend lends an element of nostalgia to your feelings for Amanda. Throughout the play you will find other phrases and pictures. What, if anything, do they add to the play? Some critics have said they detract from the drama. Do you agree?
Laura offers to bring in the dessert. Is she being helpful or does she simply want to avoid listening to her mother nag Tom? Either way, Amanda stops Laura and says she'll play the "darky," a word that gives you a clue to Amanda's origins. She's from the South.
From the kitchen, Amanda begins to tell her children about the gentlemen callers she had as a girl in Blue Mountain. You can tell from Tom and Laura's reaction that they've heard the story before. Laura listens politely. Tom, on the other hand, is skeptical and impatient. Their reactions are important clues to their personalities and to the roles they play in the family. Because the facts of the tale change from time to time, Tom teases Amanda and utters sarcastic comments. He doesn't believe a word she says.
Does Amanda herself believe the story she's fond of telling? Does she really think that seventeen wealthy young admirers came to call on her one Sunday afternoon in Blue Mountain? You'll see later in the play that Amanda often twists truths. Does that mean she's a liar? She doesn't deceive anyone, and she's not out to harm anyone with her inventions. In fact, her intent is quite admirable, for she wants to help Laura find romance in her life. Many think that she deserves a pat on the back for her efforts. Tom, however, rejects Amanda's fantasy.