“The idea for The Glass Menagerie came very slowly, much more slowly than Streetcar, for example. I think I worked on Menagerie longer than any other play. I didn’t think it’d ever be produced. I wasn’t writing it for that purpose. I wrote it first as a short story called ‘Portrait of a Girl in Glass,’ which is, I believe, one of my best stories. I guess Menagerie grew out of the intense emotions I felt seeing my sister’s mind begin to go.”
The Paris Review interview
Watching actors perform Tennessee Williams’ words on stage, TV, and in movies—or even on the Internet—may not make you a better writer, but I believe they can make you more human. If you’re tired of, or need a break from special effect extravaganzas or high-concept schlock that, to borrow Shakespeare’s phrase, are “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” get a copy of The Glass Menagerie and read it slowly.
When I was driving through Mississippi last month I picked up a used copy of the printed play The Glass Menagerie for under five dollars at Square Books in Oxford. The pages had fallen out of my old original copy of the book and there was something poetic about buying the play again by the Mississippi born Tennessee Williams in the town square where Mississippi born William Faulkner used to wander. (And for what it’s worth Faulkner wrote a book titled The Sound and the Fury.)
The Glass Menagerie, a four character play, premiered in Chicago in 1944 and it debuted on Broadway the following year where it won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play of that year. Critics championed the play from the very beginning. Even today when critics question a revival performance it tends to be in casting choices and stage direction. I recall one reviewer who once wrote something to the effect that poorly performed Williams was better than no Williams at all.
One of the greatest creative opportunities of my life was doing a three month acting workshop with Arthur Mendoza working on The Glass Menagerie. This was back in the ’80s in Los Angeles shortly after Williams died and just before the Paul Newman directed version was released in 1987. Mendoza had studied with Stella Adler for ten years before turning to teaching himself, and embraced the view that it was worth it for the actor to study the playwright as well as the play. (Some acting teachers stress importance only on the written word.)
Believe it or not we only worked on the opening monologue of Tom. Three months of working on a long monologue which begins:
“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”
I didn’t know much about acting, writing—or life—back then, but I knew that both Tennessee Williams and The Glass Menagerie were special. Beyond Williams’ poetic style of writing is a primal story. A story of loss and broken dreams. It’s an emotional story full of external and internal conflict that touches on basic human relationships between mother and son, father and son, mother and daughter, husband and wife, brother and sister—can you get any more universal? Mix in themes of love, hope, and dreams and it’s no surprise that the play still has life today.
In fact, just two months ago The Glass Menagerie once again opened on Broadway (for a limited run through February) and the reviews have been outstanding.
“This production makes clear that ‘The Glass Menagerie’ belongs on the same exclusive shelf as ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night,’ ‘Death of a Salesman’ and Williams’s own ‘Streetcar Named Desire.’ It is not a lovely little memory play; it’s a great memory tragedy.”
Wounded by Broken Memories
NY Times, September 26, 2013
Below are some links to past productions of The Glass Menagerie, including the full 1973 version starring Katharine Hepburn. Another thing that keeps The Glass Menagerie in circulation is there is never a lack of great actors who would like their shot at playing one of the four roles.