The Glass Menagerie
“When you look at a piece of delicately spun glass,” Tennessee Williams wrote in the stage directions for The Glass Menagerie, the 1944 play that made his name, “you think of two things: how beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken.” The observation has obvious relevance to that particular drama, which famously features, as one of its symbols, a collection of delicate spun-glass animals owned by one of its soon-to-be emotionally broken characters. (As it happens, the reference to spun glass isn’t a bit of pontificating about the themes of the play: Williams is trying to suggest, with typically ample, even novelistic, descriptiveness, the quality of the musical leitmotif he has in mind for his play.) But it’s hard not to read that stage direction without thinking of Williams’s entire theatrical output: in one way or another, nearly everything he wrote is about beauty and brokenness.
Or, perhaps, about the beauty of brokenness. For Williams, those “two things”—the beautiful and the broken—were always connected. Even if you discount the by now well-known biographical details that seem to overdetermine this recurring theme—the once-distinguished family fallen into decline; the stunted career of the father; the slightly mad, overbearing mother; the institutionalized and then lobotomized sister—his place, time, and culture seem to have chosen his great theme for him: a recognition that the beautiful (love, romance, “art,” the glories of the past) will always remain out of reach or, if briefly achieved, will always be smashed.
He was, after all, a product of the deep South, where many families, like his, struggled to balance memories of a romanticized past with the realities of a less-than-exalted present; and he was, too, a homosexual living at a time when society still insisted on a certain furtiveness—a time when you couldn’t openly acknowledge what it was you found to be beautiful. (Not, as an even cursory perusal of his memoirs suggests, that Williams bothered about secrecy.) In The Rose Tattoo, there’s a stage direction that calls for two dressmaker’s dummies, “a widow and a bride who face each other in violent attitudes, as though having a shrill argument, in the parlor.” Although the argument persists throughout Williams’s work, you never really doubt that it’s the widow who’s likely to win. Williams was the great dramatist of the beautiful failure, the poet of the noble defeat.
The sense of inevitability that haunts Williams’s most powerful plays is the reason they are not tragedies in the classical sense but rather dra-mas of pathos. What makes classical tragedy irresistible is the spectacle of a great figure, powerful and competent, brought unexpectedly low by some flaw in himself, some bad decision rooted in his character that leads, with awful irony, to inexorable destruction. In Williams’s plays, the bad decisions have already been made by the time the curtain rises; the emotional core of his drama lies not in a critical moment of choice but in the spectacle of abjection, of an already doomed, ruined person struggling to hang on to something beautiful. Greek tragedians tend to be interested in character, which is why the suffering comes at the end of their plays (it’s the result of bad choices). Williams is interested in personality, which is why he begins with the suffering, with the poverty or the madness.
This is why his characters, while complex, rarely develop. He prefers, instead, to counterpose characters who represent monolithic and unchanging concepts or values—the raw energies of capitalism or of libido, say (to take the most famous examples, from Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire), and the delicate, even delusional, ideology of beauty and romance, an ideology that is, you could say, characteristically Southern and homosexual of a certain period—and then watch the hand play itself out as we all know it must. When you watch Antigone or Bacchae, you are always haunted by the possibility that things just might have turned out differently, because the characters seem to be independent subjects—seem, however briefly, to be in control of their own choices. When you watch The Glass Menagerie, you know from the start that the narcissistic Amanda Wingfield’s desperate attempts to find a suitor for her crippled daughter will end up crushing the girl forever; when you watch Streetcar, you know, from the minute Blanche DuBois appears outside her sister’s tawdry New Orleans apartment dressed in her dainty white garden party outfit, that she will end up in a loony bin.
And yet that same sense of inevitable doom, the spectacle of abjection rather than the drama of choice, is what generates the considerable emotional interest in Williams’s best work. This lies in the pathetic tension between the characters’ illusions about themselves (the dainty white outfit) and the crushing disappointments that, we know, await them (poverty, the sordid reality of lust). We respond to his heroines not because they are particularly good—they are, if anything, often unattractive; nobody in his right mind would want Blanche DuBois as a houseguest any more than Stanley Kowalski does—but because, since we all have secret fantasies and illusions, we are bound to be moved by the spectacle of characters who can’t, or won’t, give in to the sordid realities of life.
In his expansive stage directions for Menagerie, Williams amplifies his description of the music he wanted. This melody, he said, must be
like circus music, not when you are on the grounds or in the immediate vicinity of the parade, but when you are at some distance and very likely thinking of something else…. It expresses the surface vivacity of life with the underlying strain of immutable and inexpressible sorrow.
Surface vivacity competing with inexpressible sorrow: it would be hard to find a better characterization of Williams’s greatest characters. The question is not whether, but rather how long, the vivacity, the beauty, can hold out against the sorrow.
A crucial feature of Williams’s dramas of beauty crushed and heroic failure—a feature that does, after all, suggest a certain resemblance between his theater and Greek tragedy—is the playwright’s use of female characters to represent both the aspiration toward beauty and the inevitability of defeat. In the time and place and culture that produced him, women could still serve, without irony, as useful vehicles for exploring those qualities. Few dramatists in the Western tradition apart from Euripides have made such memorable and distinctive use of women and even girls—striving, pathetic, relentless, deluded, murderous—as mouthpieces for certain kinds of repressed emotional currents.
Like Euripides, Williams was, in his own lifetime, instantly marked, in the eyes of both critics and the public, by a rare imaginative sympathy for his female creations. Like Euripides, he exploited personal and cultural notions of the feminine (soft, poetic, silly, emotional, prone to madness and vengefulness, cunning) to create female characters who transcended them; like Medea and Phaedra and Iphigenia, Williams’s women and girls manage to be both memorably, even frighteningly, extreme and sympathetic at the same time. Even when they do repellent things, these characters successfully gain our sympathy by their ability to articulate, or in some way to represent, everything that has been left out of the worldview of the men with whom they come into conflict on stage: delicacy of feeling, spirituality, nostalgia, fantasy, art.
It is for this reason, I suspect, that Williams’s plays are themselves rather “fragile” just now. His dramatic preoccupation with suffering, with madness and desperation, can strike us, in the Prozac era, as excessive; even more, his vision of the feminine as pathetic—which is to say, as liable to pathos, as vulnerable, pitiable, as well as hopelessly striving—is likely to strike us, in the post-feminist era, as dated and perhaps embarrassing. This is why the line between his theater and camp can now seem a blurry one. A young comparative literature professor I know, when he found out I was writing about Williams, wrote an e-mail which he intended to be encouraging: “He pulls off the extraordinary feat,” he wrote, “of showing how the camp is—genuinely—tragic: how camp, in fact, is genuine.”
But of course Williams didn’t write his plays as camp. They only seem campy if wrenched out of the quite specific social and cultural contexts in which they organically developed. However much it can strike us as outmoded or the product of highly idiosyncratic circumstances—his family history, his homosexuality, the South, postwar sensibilities—Williams’s vision of the feminine is as much a part of his distinctive style as his idiosyncratic poetic language is. In his introduction to Williams’s collected short stories, Gore Vidal recalls the result of his attempts to edit Williams’s prose. “So I reversed backward-running sentences, removed repetitions, simplified the often ponderous images. I was rather proud of the result. He was deeply irritated. ‘What you have done is remove my style, which is all that I have.’” If you try to ignore Williams’s intellectual and cultural “style,” or to update it—to modernize or find feminist issues in it—the plays can’t mean what they’re supposed to mean, and won’t produce the emotions they’re supposed to produce.
This, at any rate, is the conclusion you’re likely to reach after sitting through the star-studded new productions of The Glass Menagerie and Streetcar currently enjoying limited runs on Broadway. (I will write about Streetcar in a second article.) In each, a failure in sensitivity to the cultural mise-en-scène, to the importance of the feminine pathetic, and above all to Williams’s specific requirements for its female and indeed male roles—each production features highly unconventional casting of a major male lead—demonstrates how fragile his work has become.
The Glass Menagerie is, in many ways, Williams’s most emotionally delicate work, perhaps because it is his most obviously autobiographical; the characters have not yet hardened into the types, almost the stereotypes (frail belles, abusive men), who inhabit some of the later works. If the play’s characters have the unresolved complexity of real life rather than the symbolic power of dramatic and psychological archetype, it’s because the relationship between the domineering and manipulative Amanda Wingfield and her two wounded children—the crippled Laura, for whom the once-much-courted Amanda strives to find a “gentleman caller,” and the sensitive, rebellious would-be poet, Tom—bears more than a passing resemblance to that between Williams’s mother, Edwina, and the playwright and his unstable sister, Rose.
Williams famously refers to Menagerie as a “memory play,” and he wrote at great length about the “unusual freedom of convention” with which it ought to be presented in order to bring out its dominant qualities of delicacy and fragility. He suggests the use of an onstage screen on which thematically significant “magic-lantern slides bearing images or titles” might be projected (“SCREEN LEGEND: ‘OÙ SONT LES NEIGES’”) and insists that the lighting not be realistic, either. (“A certain correspondence to light in religious paintings, such as El Greco’s… could be effectively used,” he goes on to say.) Music, as we know, also plays an important if impressionistic role, with that single, recurring, circus-like tune used “to give emotional emphasis to suitable passages.”