The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams

While in a melancholic state of mind the other day, the mood struck me to reread one of American theatre’s most famous plays, The Glass Menagerie. While the play conjures up fond memories of college theatre classes, where we used this play to practice basic acting principles, it also hits much closer to home than it did while I lived in the bubble of college.

In Depression-era America, the Wingfield family—Amanda the mother, Tom the son, and Laura the daughter—live in a cramped apartment together. Amanda is a washed-up Southern belle who yearns for her departed youth. Tom spends his days working a difficult and listless job at a shoe warehouse, longing for the grand adventures he sees in the movies. And Laura is a painfully shy cripple who enjoys the peaceful, quiet activity of tending to her menagerie of glass animals. When Amanda pesters Tom to find a gentleman caller to come meet Laura, Tom brings home Jim, his handsome and athletic high school friend. When Jim comes to visit, the family sees one last chance to make their dreams come true…

Each member of the Wingfield family is desperate for control in their lives. Amanda has a near-obsessive devotion to her children, pestering Tom to take night classes to spur some ambition in him and enrolling Laura in business classes so she will learn skills and meet potential suitors. While Amanda is frustrated with her children’s lack of ambition, she doesn’t see that Tom and Laura simply want their own freedom.

Tom works in a shoe warehouse to support his family while dreaming of chasing a life of poetry and cinematic adventure. He has grown tired of holding his mother and sister on his shoulders, and so he escapes by going out to the movies every night after work.

Laura suffered from a crippling illness as a child, which left her with a limp. She spends each day tending to her glass menagerie, all while listening to Amanda endlessly wax romantic about her glamorous and vivacious youth. While Tom escapes to the movies and dreams of grand adventures, Laura likes the quiet of home, making up little stories about each glass animal and listening to old phonograph records. 

Amanda wants the best for her children, but she obsesses over the smallest kinks in their behavior, their posture, their language, et cetera, all with a woe-is-me kind of attitude. You do feel sorry for her when all of two times she wishes her children happiness and success. But she is so pushy and demanding and unempathetic to her children’s plights that you can’t help gritting your teeth when she’s speaking. She’s the kind of mother who will tell you that you’re acting like a child when she’s the one throwing the tantrum.

However good Amanda’s intentions are, she only further drives her children away from her. Tom cannot take her shrill voice and constant squawking about her youth and what could have been, and Laura stops taking her business classes because Amanda has instilled such a sense of self-consciousness and insecurity in her. Amanda wants the best for her children, but, as she says, her devotion has made her hateful to them.

This obsessive devotion has not instilled ambition in Tom, nor a drive for life in Laura: it just makes him want to get away, and it only pushes Laura deeper into her shell. Long story short: parents, don’t project onto your children because you can be sure they will resent you for it.

And then there is Jim, remembered most for his athletic and theatrical prowess in high school. I love how when Tom brings up these accomplishments to Amanda, she thinks Jim’s the best thing since sliced bread, only to find out later that he wound up in the same shoe warehouse as Tom. No matter that Jim had all the charisma and the skills: he still wound up paying his dues in some minimum-wage job like Tom.

I think this play could be a real eye-opener for people who think that the young generation just wants to slack off and dream their lives away. The thing is, like Tom and Laura, we just want the freedom to live our own lives on our own terms, without being made to feel like we don’t measure against some arbitrary standard. I related heavily to Tom’s frustration about being told how to live his life: that he could do better if he just found himself or did some deep soul-searching or some other proverbial crap. 

Despite this being a memory play, the characters are not spared from the harsh realities of life. Jim might have had the education and the charisma, but he still did not achieve what he or anyone else might have thought he would. He could have been “someone,” with a high-standing job, a fancy house, and a lot of wealth, but the world still bore down on him, and he’s stuck in the same soulless cycle of work as his peers.

So, then, what ever in the world went wrong, darling, a pearl-clutching Amanda would ask.

I’ll tell you what went wrong, Amanda.

Everyone has expectations for how their life plays out, usually thanks to how society conditions you based on your gender, your family, your socioeconomic status, and so on. But we are constantly fed these ideas of how to garner success and achieve dreams, because, as we are often told, what else are our lives for if not achieving some degree of greatness? What worth do we have if we do not contribute to society? If we do not give our souls to the machines and the so-called ideals that suck out our will to live, but lines another person’s pockets with money and other material gains?

Tom has just about had it trying to act out that script, and Laura already knows she doesn’t want to. And yet, Amanda keeps shoving old-fashioned ideals and beliefs down her children’s throats until she is nothing more than a noisy, near-deluded shrew that neither wants to be around. She makes no attempt to understand her children’s motivations, but even if she did, she would not listen. It’s her way, or the highway, with nothing in between, and that is a poisonous person to live with.

Basically, I read this play as a reminder: when the old ways are clearly not working, let them die. Whatever ideals you were taught to work toward are not always attainable, especially if you wind up intertwining your self-worth with achieving those ideals. Life has too many arbitrary rules and standards, and so you need to be comfortable with being a unicorn in a sea of horses, if necessary.

Might I be projecting my own life experiences onto a play that’s almost eighty years old? Perhaps. But it’s struck a hard-hitting chord every time I read it, and I cannot shake the anger, frustration, and melancholy that it evokes long after I’ve closed the script.

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