The opening monologue from Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie is one of the 20th-Century's most haunted and haunting pieces of writing. While the play's original context slips further and further into the past, its themes remain frustratingly current. To that end Williams' first major success as a playwright, may also be the most timeless thing he ever wrote.
Menagerie wasn't Williams' first play. He'd completed a number of short, and full-length works including The Fugitive Kind,Battle of Angels, and many of the one-act plays eventually collected in American Blues. He'd consistently explored ideas related to authority, and of societal order trumping justice for those who didn't fit in — or weren't allowed to. The "lost" prison drama Not About Nightingales, with its anti-fascist core, multiracial cast, and sympathetic portrayal of homosexuals, suggested a radical in the making. All the while the young writer worked menial jobs that worked his nerves to the edge of collapse. Though not exactly autobiographical, Tom's story in The Glass Menagerie, is also the story of the making, and the breaking of that same young radical. 13-years before Jack Kerouac published On the Road, and 22-years before Timothy Leary made dropping out sound like a groovy idea, Tom, Williams' beat-to-his-socks protagonist, abandons the impossible, even tyrannizing fantasies of a merit-based American Dream, and follows in the footsteps of his absent father, the telephone man who fell in love with long distances.
Speaking of telephones...
So much is made of Laura Wingfield's glass unicorn, from her titular collection of fragile glass critters. But as central images go, the telephone— the play's prominent technology— is more pervasive, and more interesting. The phone, which Amanda WIngfield uses to sell magazine subscriptions, with diminishing success, had been around in some form or another for nearly a century when Menagerie first his the stage. But it had only really just become a household staple — a necessary expense for anyone hoping to connect with friends, business associates and modernity itself. The combined necessity and burden had been around just long enough to have had most of the virtue sapped from its potential.
"People said the telephone would: help further democracy; be a tool for grassroots organizers; lead to additional advances in networked communications; allow social decentralization, resulting in a movement out of cities and more flexible work arrangements; change marketing and politics; alter the ways in which wars are fought; cause the postal service to lose business; open up new job opportunities; allow more public feedback; make the world smaller, increasing contact between peoples of all nations and thus fostering world peace; increase crime and aid criminals; be an aid for physicians, police, fire, and emergency workers; be a valuable tool for journalists; bring people closer together, decreasing loneliness and building new communities; inspire a decline in the art of writing; have an impact on language patterns and introduce new words; and someday lead to an advanced form of the transmission of intelligence.
Privacy was also a major concern."
Sounds like a lot of the same stuff people said about the internet, right? Until people started documenting all the loneliness, and mapping polarization. To that end, Tom's larger-than-life mother, Amanda Wingfield, seems less like a fossil leftover from a more genteel age that never really existed, and more like the average single mom, with a disabled daughter answering every piece of Internet SPAM promising extraordinary opportunities to work from home and get paid. The only thing out of date about Amanda is her famously out of date world view.
Jim — the "Gentleman Caller" — rounds out the cast. Tom describes Jim as the long anticipated something we live for. Does it surprise anybody, in this bleak story, that everybody's last great hope is almost all artifice, just learning to mouth the mantras of success? That he sounds like he's destined to be the victim of some future Ponzi-scheme? That hope itself is kind of a jerk?
Yeah, other plays come and go, but The Glass Menagerie hangs in there.
Germantown Community Theater had critical, and presumably commercial success with last season's production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Menagerie is evidently an attempt to see if the struggling 45-year-old company can re-can the lightning.
Even if you can't make the show, do yourself a favor and reacquaint yourself with the script. At least the opening — and perhaps the hard, lovely, closing passages where Williams skips right past "to be or not to be," and straight on to "blow out your candles." And so, goodbye.
Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.
To begin with, I turn back time. I reverse it to that quaint period, the thirties, when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. Their eyes had failed them or they had failed their eyes, and so they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy.
In Spain there was revolution. Here there was only shouting and confusion.
In Spain there was Guernica. Here there were disturbances of labour, sometimes pretty violent, in otherwise peaceful cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Saint Louis. . . .
This is the social background of the play.
[MUSIC begins to play]
The play is memory.
Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.
In memory everything seems to happen to music. That explains the fiddle in the wings.
I am the narrator of the play, and also a character in it. The other characters are my mother Amanda, my sister Laura and a gentleman caller who appears in the final scenes.
He is the most realistic character in the play, being an emissary from a world of reality that we were somehow set apart from. But since I have a poet's weakness for symbols, I am using this character also as a symbol; he is the long-delayed but always expected something that we live for. There is a fifth character in the play who doesn't appear except in this larger-than-life-size photograph over the mantel.
This is our father who left us a long time ago.He was a telephone man who fell in love with long distances; he gave up his job with the telephone company and skipped the light fantastic out of town. . . .The last we heard of him was a picture postcard from Mazatlan, on the Pacific coast of Mexico, containing a message of two words -
'Hello - Good-bye!' and no address.
I think the rest of the play will explain itself ...