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First edition cover
|Cover artist||Mazyar Kashani|
First edition cover
|Cover artist||Mazyar Kashani|
The Glass Menagerie is a four-character memory play by Tennessee Williams which premiered in 1944 and catapulted Williams from obscurity to fame. The play has strong autobiographical elements, featuring characters based on Williams himself, his histrionic mother, and his mentally fragile sister Laura. In writing the play, Williams drew on an earlier short story, as well as a screenplay he had written under the title of The Gentleman Caller.
The play premiered in Chicago in 1944. After a shaky start it was championed by Chicago critics Ashton Stevens and Claudia Cassidy, whose enthusiasm helped build audiences so the producers could move the play to Broadway where it won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1945. The Glass Menagerie was Williams's first successful play; he went on to become one of America's most highly regarded playwrights.
The characters and story mimic Williams's own life more closely than any of his other works. Williams (whose real name was Thomas) would be Tom, his mother, Amanda. His sickly and mentally unstable older sister Rose provides the basis for the fragile Laura (whose nickname in the play is "Blue Roses", a result of a bout of pleurosis as a high school student), though it has also been suggested that Laura may incorporate aspects of Williams himself, referencing his introverted nature and obsessive focus on a part of life (writing for Williams and glass animals in Laura's case). Williams, who was close to Rose growing up, learnt to his horror that in 1943 in his absence his sister had been subjected to a botched lobotomy. Rose was left incapacitated (and institutionalized) for the rest of her life. With the success of The Glass Menagerie, Williams was to give half of the royalties from the play to his mother. He later designated half of the royalties from his play Summer and Smoke to provide for Rose's care, arranging for her move from the state hospital to a private sanitarium. Eventually he was to leave the bulk of his estate to ensure Rose's continuing care. Rose died in 1996.
The play is introduced to the audience by Tom, the narrator and protagonist, as a memory play based on his recollection of his mother Amanda and his sister Laura.
Amanda's husband abandoned the family long ago. Although a survivor and a pragmatist, the sometimes voluble Amanda yearns for the comforts and admiration she remembers from her days as a fêted Southern belle. She worries especially about the future of her daughter Laura, a young woman with a limp and tremulous insecurity about the outside world. Tom works in a shoe warehouse doing his best to support them. He chafes under the banality and boredom of everyday life and struggles to write, while spending much of his spare time going to the movies — or so he says — at all hours of the night.
Amanda is obsessed with finding a suitor (or, as she puts it, a "gentleman caller") for Laura, whose shyness helped lead her to drop out of high school and a subsequent secretarial course, and who spends most of her time with her collection of little glass animals. Pressed by his mother to help find someone, Tom eventually invites an acquaintance from work named Jim home for dinner. Laura realizes that Jim is the boy she was attracted to in high school and has thought of since — though the relationship between the shy Laura and the "most likely to succeed" Jim was never more than a fairly distant teasing acquaintanceship. Initially, Laura is so overcome by shyness that she is unable to join the others at dinner. After dinner, though, Jim and Laura are left alone by candlelight in the living room, waiting for the electricity to be restored (Tom, planning to escape his family, has failed to pay the power bill). During their long scene together, Jim diagnoses Laura's inferiority complex, urges her to think better of herself, and kisses her. Jim and Laura then share a quiet dance, and he accidentally brushes against the glass menagerie, knocking the glass unicorn to the floor and breaking off its horn. After Jim reveals that he is already engaged to be married, Laura asks him to take the broken unicorn as a gift and he then leaves. When Amanda learns that Jim is engaged she assumes Tom knew and lashes out at him.
As Tom speaks at the end of the play, it becomes clear that he left home soon afterward and did not return. In Tom's final speech, he bids farewell to his mother and sister, telling Laura to blow out the candles, which she does as the play ends.
The Glass Menagerie opened on Broadway in the Playhouse Theatre on March 31, 1945 and played there until June 29, 1946. It then moved to the Royale Theatre from July 1, 1946 until its closing on August 3, 1946. The show was directed by Eddie Dowling and Margo Jones. The cast for opening night was as follows:
Laurette Taylor's performance as Amanda set a standard against which subsequent actresses taking the role were to be judged, typically to their disadvantage. In the 2004 documentary Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There, Broadway veterans rank Taylor's performance as the most memorable of their lives.
The play won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award as Best American Play. Williams gave credit to two Chicago critics, Claudia Cassidy and Ashton Stevens, for "giving him a 'start...in a fashion'..." Cassidy wrote that the play had "the stamina of success..." Stevens wrote that the play had "the courage of true poetry..."
The play was reworked from one of Williams's short stories "Portrait of a Girl in Glass" (1943; published 1948). The story is also written from the point of view of narrator Tom Wingfield, and many of his soliloquies from The Glass Menagerie seem lifted straight from this original. Certain elements have clearly been omitted from the play, including the reasoning for Laura's fascination with Jim's freckles (linked to a book that she loved and often reread, Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter). Generally the story contains the same plot as the play, with certain sections given more emphasis, and character details edited (for example, in the story, Jim nicknames Tom "Slim", instead of "Shakespeare"). Another basis for the play is a screenplay Williams wrote under the title of The Gentleman Caller. Williams had been briefly contracted as a writer to MGM, and he apparently envisioned Ethel Barrymore and Judy Garland for the roles that eventually became Amanda and Laura, although when the play was eventually filmed in 1950, Gertrude Lawrence was cast as Amanda and Jane Wyman as Laura.
Two Hollywood movie versions of The Glass Menagerie have been produced. The first, directed by Irving Rapper in 1950, starred Gertrude Lawrence (Amanda), Jane Wyman (Laura), Arthur Kennedy (Tom) and Kirk Douglas (Jim). Williams characterized this version, which had an implied happy ending grafted onto it in the style of American films from that era, as the worst adaptation of his work. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote, "As much as we hate to say so, Miss Lawrence's performance does not compare with the tender and radiant creation of the late Laurette Taylor on the stage."  The film has never been released on either VHS or DVD.
The second film directed by Paul Newman in 1987, starred Joanne Woodward (Amanda), Karen Allen (Laura), John Malkovich (Tom), and James Naughton (Jim) and, if anything, was even less well-received than the earlier film and sank without much attention. However, the New York Times reviewer noted "starts out stiffly and gets better as it goes along, with the dinner-party sequence its biggest success; in this highly charged situation, Miss Woodward's Amanda indeed seems to flower. But quiet reverence is its prevailing tone, and in the end that seems thoroughly at odds with anything Williams ever intended." It is available on DVD.
There is a critically acclaimed Indian adaptation of the play, filmed in the Malayalam language. The movie titled Akale (meaning At a Distance), released in 2004, is directed by Shyamaprasad. The story is set in the southern Indian state of Kerala in the 1970s, in an Anglo-Indian/Latin Catholic household. The characters were renamed to fit the context better (the surname Wingfield was changed to D'Costa, reflecting the part-Portuguese heritage of the family — probably on the absent father's side, since the mother is Anglo-Indian), but the story remains essentially the same. Prithviraj Sukumaran plays Neil D'Costa (Tom Wingfield in the play), Geethu Mohandas plays Rosemary D'Costa (Laura Wingfield), Sheela plays Margaret D'Costa (Amanda Wingfield), and Tom George plays Freddy Evans (Jim O'Connor). Sheela won the National Film Award for Best Supporting Actress, and Geethu Mohandas won the Kerala State Film Award for the best actress.
The first radio adaptation of the play was performed on Theatre Guild on the Air in 1951 starring Helen Hayes as Amanda with Montgomery Clift as Tom, Kathryn Baird as Laura, and Karl Malden as Jim. A 1953 adaptation appeared on the radio series Best Plays starring Evelyn Varden as Amanda and Geraldine Page as Laura. Jane Wyman recreated her film role of Laura for a 1954 adaptation on Lux Radio Theatre with Fay Bainter as Amanda and Frank Lovejoy as Tom and Tom Brown as Jim. The 1953 version is not known to survive but recordings of the other two are in circulation.
The first television version, recorded on videotape and starring Shirley Booth, was broadcast on December 8, 1966 as part of CBS Playhouse. Barbara Loden played Laura, Hal Holbrook played Tom and Pat Hingle played the Gentleman Caller. Booth was nominated for an Emmy for her performance as Amanda.
A second television adaptation was broadcast on ABC on December 16, 1973, starring Katharine Hepburn as Amanda, Sam Waterston as Tom, Michael Moriarty as Jim, and Joanna Miles as Laura. It was directed by Anthony Harvey. (Tom's initial soliloquy, so striking onstage, is cut from this version; it opens with him walking alone in an alley, sitting on a rampart to read the newspaper and having his sister's and mother's voices conjure up the first domestic scene.) All four actors were nominated for Emmys, with Moriarty and Miles winning.
The Glass Menagerie has had a number of Broadway revivals. Maureen Stapleton, Anne Pitoniak, Jessica Tandy, Julie Harris, Jessica Lange, Judith Ivey, Harriet Harris, and Cherry Jones have all portrayed Amanda Wingfield.
The 2013 Broadway revival began previews on September 5 with an official opening on September 26, 2013 at the Booth Theatre and closed on February 23, 2014. The cast featured Cherry Jones as Amanda Wingfield, Zachary Quinto as Tom, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura and Brian J. Smith as Jim and was directed by John Tiffany. This production received seven 2014 Tony Award nominations, including Best Revival of a Play, Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play (Cherry Jones), Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play (Brian J. Smith), Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play (Celia Keenan-Bolger), Best Scenic Design of a Play (Bob Crowley), Best Lighting Design of a Play (Natasha Katz) and Best Direction of a Play (John Tiffany). and three Drama Desk Award nominations, including Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play (Brian J. Smith), Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play (Celia Keenan-Bolger), and Outstanding Music in a Play (Nico Muhly).
In 1997, Kiefer Sutherland returned to his theatrical roots, starring with his mother, Canadian actress Shirley Douglas, in a Canadian production of The Glass Menagerie at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto.
The Glass Menagerie was parodied by Christopher Durang in a short one-act titled For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls, in which Laura is replaced by a wimpy hypochondriac son named Lawrence, and the "gentleman caller" becomes Ginny, a butch female factory worker with a hearing problem. Lawrence, instead of prizing a collection of glass figurines, here is obsessed with his collection of glass cocktail stirrers.