Performance Review: The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

The Glass Menagerie is one of the classic pieces of performing art to have been made in the twentieth century.  First published by Tennessee Williams in 1944, it is a memory play with four main characters – Amanda Wingfield, Tom Wingfield, Laura Wingfield and Mr. Wingfield.  The Gentleman Caller is the other character in the play who serves as a catalyst to the plot. The Glass Menagerie is the story of broken promises and disappointments in the backdrop of economic turmoil.  The Wingfield family is torn apart due to the failings of its breadwinner – Mr. Wingfield.   The play has garnered critical acclaim both as a work of written word as well as an enacted play.  The further adaptation of this play into a movie is a testament to its enduring essence.

But many critics believe that the play is best experienced through theatre performances. Consequently, many production houses have performed it time and over during the last seventy odd years.  The intricate design of the plot and superlative performances from star casts of previous productions is now part of legend.  Laurette Taylor’s performance as Amanda Wingfield is now acknowledged by many veterans as the best of the century.  Just as the powerful script and excellent acting contributes to the success of the play, so does the direction, visualization, music, sound effects and other technical features.  The rest of this essay will present the ideal approach to each of these facets to the play, so that the end product would capture all the definitive qualities behind the play’s resounding success.

There are a few things to remember while choosing the cast for the play. The character of Amanda is central to the play and it should be assigned to someone who can portray the rugged southern belle image. She should be a strident and bold personality to fit with the description of someone who drove her husband away. The accent too should be spot on to reflect the southern mindset and sensibility.  The actor playing Tom Wingfield should reflect the dreamy nature of his character, because he has to deliver the dialogues and monologues equally efficiently.  The final speech by Tom in the final act of the play is especially crucial to the overall effectiveness of the play, for this passage is one of the most poetic, intensive and poignant in the entire play.  The virginal daughter Laura Wingfield is someone whose dreams are as fragile as the animals in her precious glass collection. The actor for this role should thus play with sensitivity and a restrained sense of quiet tragedy.

The challenge in shaping the character of Tom is to bring to life the idea that the viewer is watching Tom turn his memories, his pain and guilt, into a work of art.  To this extent it could be said that author Tennessee Williams was attempting to create a non-realistic theatre, using the literary devices and technical production tools available to him in the 1940s.  Hence, modern productions of the play can incorporate some changes, without actually losing the essence of the narrative.  For example, rather than a typewriter, Tom’s means of turning the stuff of his life into art can be through a video camera. It can always be with him, even when he’s disengaged from the action or sets the camera down momentarily. The other characters are seen from Tom’s viewpoint, and the projections of what he sees come to represent the layers of his memory. By removing the burden of realism, one is able to hear the play anew.

Coming to the scenic design, the director should ask ‘To what degree do we want to follow Williams’s copious stage directions about lights, clothes, projections and so on?’  The fact that walls and furniture don’t seem to be that useful for actors, makes the director look for less literal ways of solving the world of the play – in other words, capturing its essence without total adherence to author’s original and preferred mise-en-scenes. Lighting design for the play can also be challenging at times. For example, a reflective glass floor, streaming live video, etc, gives you brightness issues.  So too do all those glass figurines (symbolizing The Glass Menagerie) exploding from the corner of the set. But the resolutions for these issues can be found within the play itself. For example, glass is in and of itself a reflective material that refracts and breaks up light. It’s similar to memory in that way.  Finally, coming to the music suitable to the play, it is better to keep it low profile, for powerful scripts such as these do not need music that overpower the verbal effect.

Works Cited:

Bloom, Harold, ed. Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie.  New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

“Lange Is the Only Ray of Light in This Menagerie Misery; First Night Review: THE GLASS MENAGERIE by Tennessee Williams, Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue.” The Daily Mail (London, England) 14 Feb. 2007: 25.

Stage, Triad. “The Glass Menagerie.” American Theatre Nov. 2010: 44+.