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The Glass Menagerie is an evocative, four-character memory play by Tennessee Williams. It was originally written as a screenplay for MGM in 1941, to whom Williams was contracted. Initial ideas stemmed from one of his short stories, and the screenplay originally went under the name of 'The Gentleman Caller' (Williams envisioned Ethel Barrymore and Judy Garland for the roles that eventually became Amanda and Laura Wingfield). The play premiered in Chicago in 1944, was championed by critic Claudia Cassidy there, and in 1945 went on to win the prestigious New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Laurette Taylor originated the role of the all-too-loving mother, Amanda Wingfield, and many who witnessed it consider that performance to be an incomparable, defining moment for American acting. In the 2004 documentary Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There, Broadwaymarker veterans nearly unanimously rank Taylor's performance as the most memorable of their entire lives. The Glass Menagerie was Williams's first successful play; he went on to become one of America's most highly regarded playwrights.

The play was reworked from one of Williams's short stories "Portrait of a Girl in Glass" (written June 1943, published 1948). The story is also written from the point of view of narrator Tom Wingfield, and many of his monologues from 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 she owned about a one-armed orphan) and an area by the house known as "Death Valley" that Laura's room looks out on. Generally the story contains the same plot as the play, with certain sections given more emphasis, and character details edited (Jim originally calls Tom "Slim", not "Shakespeare").

The Glass Menagerie is accounted by many to be an autobiographical play about Williams's life, the characters and story mimicking his own more closely than any of his other works. Williams (whose real name is Thomas) would be Tom, his Mother, Amanda, and his sickly and (supposedly) mentally ill sister Rose would be Laura (whose nickname in the play is "Blue Roses", a result of an unfortunate bout of Pleurosis as a high school student). It has been suggested as well that the character of Laura is based upon Williams himself, referencing his introvert nature and obsessive focus on one part of life (writing for Williams and glass animals in Laura's case.).

Characters

Persons Represented:

  • Amanda Wingfield, a woman abandoned by her husband some 15 years ago, trying to raise her children under harsh financial conditions. Her devotion to her children has made her, she admits at one point, a "witch," and she longs for the kind of Old South gentility and comforts which she remembers from her youth for her children. Once a Southern belle, she still clings to whatever powers vivacity and charm can muster.
  • Laura Wingfield, Amanda's daughter. She is slightly crippled and has an extra-sensitive mental condition.
  • Tom Wingfield, Amanda's son. He works in a warehouse but aspires to be a writer. He feels both obligated toward yet burdened by his family.
  • Jim O'Connor, a workmate of Tom's (a shipping clerk) and acquaintance of Laura's from high school, he is also the physical representation of all Laura's desires and all Amanda's desires for her daughter. He is invited over to the Wingfield's house for dinner with the intent of being Laura's first gentleman caller. He seems like a dream come true for the Wingfields.


Persons Not Represented:

  • Mr. Wingfield, Amanda's absentee husband, he is represented by a large portrait on the set and is referred to frequently by Amanda.


Plot summary

The play is introduced to the audience by Tom as a memory play, based on his recollection of his mother Amanda and his sister Laura.Amanda's husband left the family long ago, and, though a survivor and a pragmatist, Amanda yearns for the illusions and comforts she remembers from her days as a feted Southern belle. She yearns especially for these things for her daughter Laura, a young adult with a crippled foot and tremulous insecurity about the outside world. Tom works in a warehouse, doing his best to support them. He chafes under the banality and boredom of everyday life and spends much of his spare time watching movies in cheap cinemas at all hours of the night. Amanda is obsessed with finding a suitor for Laura, who spends most of her time with her collection of little glass animals. Tom eventually brings a nice boy named Jim home for dinner at the insistence of his mother, who hopes Jim will be the long-awaited suitor for Laura. Laura realizes that Jim is the man she loved in high school and has thought of ever since. After a long evening in which Jim and Laura are left alone by candlelight in the living room, waiting for electricity to be restored, Jim reveals that he is already engaged to be married, and he leaves. During their long scene together, Jim and Laura have shared a quiet dance, and he accidentally brushes against the glass menagerie, knocking the glass unicorn to the floor and breaking its horn off ("Now it's just like the other horses," Laura says). When Amanda learns that Jim was engaged she assumes Tom knew and lashes out at him: ("That's right, now that you've had us make such fools of ourselves. The effort, the preparations, all the expense ! The new floor lamp, the rug, the clothes for Laura ! all for what? To entertain some other girl's fiancé ! Go to the movies, go ! Don't think about us, a mother deserted, an unmarried sister who's crippled and has no job ! Don't let anything interfere with your selfish pleasure. Just go, go, go - to the movies !") At play's end, as Tom speaks, it becomes clear that Tom left home soon afterward and never returned. In Tom's final speech, as he watches his mother comforting Laura long ago, he bids farewell: "Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger -anything that can blow your candles out! [LAURA bends over the candles.]- for nowadays the world is lit by lightning ! Blow out your candles, Laura - and so good-bye." Laura blows the candles out as the play ends.

Original Broadway Cast

The Glass Menagerie opened in the Playhouse Theatremarker on March 31, 1945 until June 29, 1946. It then moved to the Royale Theatremarker 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:



Film and television adaptations

At least two movie versions of The Glass Menagerie have been produced, the first directed by Irving Rapper in 1950, starring Gertrude Lawrence, Jane Wyman, Kirk Douglas, Ann Tyrrell and Arthur Kennedy,and the second by Paul Newman in 1987, starring Joanne Woodward, John Malkovich, Karen Allen, and James Naughton. Williams characterized the former, which had an implied happy ending grafted onto it, 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." It is not currently available on VHS or DVD.There is a moving TV adaptation by Anthony Harvey, which 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. (Tom's initial monologue, 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. An earlier television version, recorded on videotape, and starring Shirley Booth, was broadcast on December 8, 1966 as part of CBS Playhouse. Hal Holbrook played Tom and Pat Hingle played the Gentleman Caller. Booth was nominated for an Emmy for her performance as Amanda.

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. Music was scored by M Jayachandran.

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.

Maureen Stapleton, Jessica Tandy and Julie Harris in New York, as well as Judith Ivey and Harriet Harris in regional theatres, have all played Amanda in admired revivals of the play. In Tandy's, Bruce Davison was Tom, John Heard Jim and Amanda Plummer Laura. Calista Flockhart was the Laura to Julie Harris.

Parodies

The Glass Menagerie was parodied by Christopher Durang in a short one-act entitled 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.

Ryan Landry and The Gold Dust Orphans did a parody called The Pickaw Menagerie, set in a FEMA trailer in post-Katrina New Orleans, with Landry playing Amanda in an all-male cast.

King of the Hill did a parody of the Glass Menagerie on Season 3 episode "Escape from Party Island"

References

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