The Glass Menagerie - fragility and beauty in Tennessee Williams' defining play
The Glass Menagerie
by Tennessee Williams
Perhaps Tennessee Williams' defining play, The Glass Menagerie was written in 1944 and first produced on Broadway the next year, where it won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best American play.
In Williams' opening notes, he describes the work as a "memory play", coining the term and highlighting that "emotion, nostalgia … is the first condition of the play". We are also told: "When you look at a piece of delicately spun glass you think of two things: how beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken."
We are first introduced to the play's narrator, Tom, who recounts the story of his sister, Laura, and their mother Amanda's fervent, almost obsessive, desire to find Laura a suitor. Laura is slightly handicapped - "a little defect", as Amanda calls it, while Laura uses the word "cripple" - and lives largely isolated from the outside world because of her shyness. She keeps company instead with her collection of small glass animals.
Laura's titular collection, both fragile and beautiful, reflects her character. In particular, the glass unicorn - her favourite figurine - is beautiful yet unreal, since unicorns are magical, fictional creatures. Laura, too, doesn't fit in the normal world. Her delicate nature leaves her alone, undervalued and divorced from reality in the fanciful, imaginative world of her collection.
Tom, pressured by his mother to help Laura break out of her introversion and find a suitable "gentleman caller", invites his colleague Jim to visit. Laura realises Jim is a high-school crush of hers and, embarrassed, can't even eat dinner in his company. Later, though, she is alone with Jim and he encourages her to have more self-confidence. While dancing with Laura, Jim accidentally breaks the horn of her glass unicorn, making it a "normal" horse.
At this point, Jim kisses Laura, instilling her with a sense of normalcy as well. But afterwards he tells her he is already engaged, and shatters the illusion. Laura asks Jim to take home the broken unicorn as a present. After he leaves, Laura is angry with Tom, assuming he knew Jim was engaged.
The play gives us a glimpse into the playwright's own life: he, too, had a mentally fragile sister. At the end of the play, Tom says he will always associate Laura with pieces of coloured glass behind shop windows - glass behind glass; delicate things that must be protected from the outside world.