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…
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