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Theatre / The Glass Menagerie

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The Glass Menagerie is a 1944 play by Tennessee Williams. His first major work, it is an important part of the American theatrical repertoire and continues to be performed successfully by both professional and amateur companies.

Set in St. Louis, Missouri during the 1930s, the play centers around the Wingfields (Amanda, Tom, and Laura), whose relationship has become strained since Mr. Wingfield abandoned them. While Tom works in a shoe warehouse to support the family, he dreams of leaving home and frequently goes out to the movies as an escape. Amanda obsesses over finding a suitor for Laura, who's so painfully shy that she locks herself up in her room and admires the eponymous collection of glass animal figurines she keeps.

Williams based the Wingfields on his own family; he himself was the basis for Tom, his mother Edwina for Amanda, and his sister Rose (who was diagnosed with schizophrenia in real life, and had undergone a lobotomy a year before the play's debut) for Laura.

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This play provides examples of:

  • Anti-Escapism Aesop: Tom's desire for adventure causes him to abandon his family... Which leaves everyone much worse off and miserable in the long run, with Laura and Amanda's fate unknown but likely decidedly unpleasant given they won't have enough money to support themselves, and Tom wracked with guilt for the rest of his life.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall:
    • The play opens with Tom explaining to the audience that the play is based on his memories.
    • After Tom's first speech, the literal fourth wall of the apartment lifts.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: The subtext was definitely there between Tom and Laura in the movie remake, although very nonexistent in the original play, where Laura essentially served as Tom's Morality Chain instead, via Big Brother Instinct.
  • Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangster!: Parodied/Discussed. After Amanda questions Tom about what's actually happening when he's "going to the movies" every night, he goes on a long angry rant about his (fictitious) double life as crime boss "Killer" Wingfield, who lives this trope to the full. This is all done to obfuscate the real reason he keeps going out.
  • Downer Ending: Not only is Jim already engaged, Tom finally decides he has had it and abandons his family.
  • Dysfunction Junction: The Wingfields have something approaching the complete opposite of a healthy family dynamic. Amanda, after being abandoned by Mr. Wingfield, is paranoid about her children's lives, spends most of her time living in the past and is extremely controlling, leading to clashes with the independently-minded Tom who is also resentful of his father's departure, forcing him to work an awful job to support the family, whereas Laura's anxiety isn't being made any better by the constant conflict nor Amanda's repeated, foolhardy attempts to model her daughter after herself.
  • The Film of the Book: Several adaptations of varying quality. The two theatrical versions, Irving Rapper's 1950 film with Gertrude Lawrence, Arthur Kennedy, Jane Wyman and a young Kirk Douglas, and a 1987 adaptation directed by Paul Newman and starring Joanne Woodward and John Malkovich, have mixed critical reputations; while two made-for-TV productions, a 1966 version starring Shirley Booth and Hal Holbrook and a 1973 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Sam Waterston, are much better-regarded.
  • Flower Motifs: Blue roses and jonquils.
  • The Great Depression: The play is set during this, in 1930s St. Louis.
  • It Will Never Catch On: Jim remarks with starry-eyed glee on how wonderful the future in America is going to be, coming off as a daydreaming Wide-Eyed Idealist- but considering the unprecedented prosperity of the US in the 50's and 60's, it could be argued that he turned out to be somewhat correct.
  • The Last Straw: Amanda yelling at Tom for inviting a man who's already engaged, which causes Tom to leave.
  • Like Brother and Sister: Jim keeps bringing up "If you were my sister" to Laura.
  • Make a Wish: Played with. Tom assumed Amanda's wish on the moon would be a gentleman caller for Laura, but was actually the best for her children. Both wishes are subverted when the potential suitor Tom finds turns out to be taken and neither Tom nor Laura are happy in the end.
  • Minimalist Cast: The play only features four characters.
  • New Media Are Evil: Tom goes on a long rant about how cinema pacifies people by offering them adventure through the medium of the silver screen, blinding them to the fact they aren't experiencing any adventures of their own.
  • Parental Abandonment: Mr. Wingfield.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Tom doesn't tell Jim that the dinner is supposed to introduce Jim as a suitor to Laura. Jim is already engaged. Amanda is suspicious that Tom did this on purpose but there's no clear indication of this, especially since after Jim revealed his engagement to Betty, he said that “the cat wasn’t out of the bag” at the warehouse, indicating that none of Jim’s co-workers knew.
  • Priceless Ming Vase: The glass menagerie itself, especially the little unicorn. Not Played for Laughs.
  • The Reveal: Jim is already engaged..
  • Roman à Clef: The play is very strongly based on Tennessee Williams' own life - he takes the form of Tom, Laura stands in for his mentally disabled sister Rose (who he also felt guilty over not being able to help, especially after she suffered a botched lobotomy), Amanda, his mother, and Mr Wingfield his abusive, often-absent salesman father.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: The entire plan to bring Jim to a "casual dinner" is ruined, and their sacrifices are made in complete vain.
  • Source Music: The theater near the tenement. Its music conveniently stops during The Reveal.
  • Title Drop: Happens twice, with both Amanda and Laura referring to the latter's collection as a "Glass Menagerie".
  • A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: Tom and Amanda's arguments get increasingly bitter; a significant escalation is when Tom accidentally breaks one of Laura's figurines. He's sorry for it at once.
  • Whole Episode Flashback: Most of the play is a flashback.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: Just when you think Laura will "win" Jim due to their little dance and kiss, The Reveal hits.