“I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion” -Tom, The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams
As an author who uses life experiences as inspiration for his work, Williams writes about the inner goings on of the Wingfield family, revealing their tragedies, their delusions and their dreams. As a caring brother, Williams lived with the burden of his sister Rose’s psychological captivity. The creation of the character, Laura, from The Glass Menagerie, is an example of how Tennessee Williams romanticizes the memory of Rose’s mental condition.
It is no secret the Tennessee Williams’ life inspired his work. Part of his mystique was his original ways to incorporate the past into fiction. In a summary of Williams’ life and works, Thomas Gale writes “Williams has remained aloof from trends in American drama, continuing to create plays out of the same basic neurotic conflicts in his own personality.” This explanation accounts for some of the nuances of Tom’s character. Thomas Gale goes on to write about another significant member of this family: “Williams was very close to his older sister, Rose, who was institutionalized for schizophrenia for much of her life. The character of Laura in The Glass Menagerie is based upon this beloved sister.” Too see the play through this lens, with Williams reflected in Tom, and Rose in Laura, heightens the tensions between the characters and gives poignancy to the real story of a woman with schizophrenia.
The play is not an exact recounting of truth. First, as a fictional play, it does not require any sort of commitment to strict autobiography. However, real life cannot be separated from the many dimensions of the characters. Tom, the lead, is a trapped poet, who bears responsibility for his
family. Echoes of the author’s voice can be heard through Tom words. There are inescapable parallels, such as a writer who escapes through going to movies, and a writer who escapes through writing plays. Both writers seek redemption, recreation, or even a desperate renaissance through the medium of fiction. The necessity for escape permeates the pages of this play, eventually manifesting itself in Tom’s actions, when he leaves his family.
While Tom’s character openly approaches the audience with his thoughts, the narrator of the play also provides insight into the world that Williams is creating. Williams’ alternate reality is based on his own reality turned into art. His narrator describes the modus operandi for the play: “The scene is memory and is therefore non-realistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details: others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart.” With this description the author’s motives and intentions become lucid. This is a story that’s warp and woof stem from the heart. It is not the naked truth of a camera’s lens. It does not hold the impersonal concrete structure of a timeline, a fact sheet. Similar to how William’s sister is valued for her own person, and not for her sanity’s limited capacity, the propensity towards reason that she cannot claim, the story is valued for its heart.
Details are key to The Glass Menagerie’s presentation. Williams’ writes with great intension. Overall there is a texture, where every thread and stitch work together to make this tapestry of truth. Music and Lighting are factors that Williams’ makes sure to address.
One critic, M. A, Corrigan, studied the role of memory in TGS, and pointed out the significance of Laura being presented in the light of a Madonna. The comparison to a Madonna gives Laura a sacred quality. An interesting parallel between Rose and the Virgin, is that neither chose their enigmatic predicaments. This is not to say that carrying the Christ is similar to living with a mental illness, but only to compare the weight of psychological impact that these women had to bear. And, to add to that, this was not a choice they made. In the case of the character Laura, her pleurosis is the constant watershed of her life. By pointing to a spiritual figure, Laura and Rose are given statuses sometimes associated with martyrdom. Also, in Rose’s case, the spiritual connection sheds further light, as mentally ill patients often have hyper-spiritual epiphanies.
Later in the play, this Laura’s light is referenced. When Laura hears a high school crush and potential suitor is coming, her mother dresses her for the occasion. The narrator describes the metamorphosis: “A fragile unearthly prettiness has come out in Laura: She is like a piece of translucent glass touched by light, given a momentary radiance, not actual, not lasting.” This description brings to mind portraits of saints. The original title of the play was “Portrait of a Girl in Glass.” It does not take much imagination to envision a halo around Laura’s head. Also, the fleeting nature of the moment is like the temporary nature of a life on earth that is finite, but in Heaven lasts for eternity. Again, the portrait of insanity can be painted, as patients with mental illness may break from reality to experience a sense of euphoria. Williams’ may have witnessed his sister, lost in the confusion of schizophrenia, experiencing enigmatic happiness.
Schizophrenia is a disease that can have stronger and weaker moments of dominance over a patient’s mind. Sometimes, moments of stability can be experienced, and these may be sustained by medicine. However, the expectation of stability is transitory. The situation is unarguable fragi
le. Laura’s fragility is capitalized on through her pieces of glass, her demeanor, and her physical ailments. Williams makes it clear how easily she can become distraught. In one scene, her angry mother, Amanda, rips apart Laura’s school supplies, a keyboard diagram and alphabet card. It is as though these papers are an extension of Laura’s self. They are symbols of the working world, of any chance of success that Laura might have. Although Laura herself had stopped going to the classes, Amanda put the final nail in the coffin by ripping apart her future. A mother’s character that is supposed to be encouraging and nurturing, is instead a threat.
As Laura explains how she has spent her time when she is supposed to be in class, Williams continues to buttress the story with symbols. Laura goes on walks to the art museum, the bird house and the “jewel box,” where they keep tropical flowers. An art museum is a place of hidden treasures. A bird house is a place of beautiful creatures that can fly away. A tropical flower garden is where they keep rare things that bloom and die. All of these point to a girl who sees herself in poignant, precious items that society may generally dismiss or forget. In the same way, Rose was someone precious, who was often hidden from society.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines romantic as “having an imaginative or emotional appeal.”
A play that deals with the working of memory and symbolism could be categorized as such. An expanded definition might include the way life is idealized in one’s mind. The concept of an author to seeing pain and suffering through rose-colored glasses is somewhat of a paradox. However, this is the job of the poet is it not? Jim O’Conner, the youthful suitor in the play, is on example of a person seeing harsh reality in a softer light. In high school his mispronouncing of Laura’s disease, pleurosis, becomes the nickname, “Blue Roses.” Here, hidden right within the fabric of a whimsical nickname is Rose’s name. Also, a name that makes Laura, like one of the rare flowers she might see at the Jewel box. Williams giving someone the nickname of something beautiful that does not exist is one of the details of the subtle details of the play that cannot be ignored. Similarly, the symbol of a unicorn is used.
One critic, Sam Blufarb, describes the symbolization of the unicorn breaking, correlating it with time, itself, saying, “It is the present with its shattered hope, that lies smashed, no longer a cohesive unit, around her. . . . They [the glass] have more substance than mere memory.”
The unicorn loses its fantastical quality, as Jim accidentally causes the horn to be broken off. If Blue Roses were only Roses, they would be real and tangible, but they would no longer be Laura.
In the end of the play Tom leaves his family, but is still haunted by memories. His last soliloquy reverberates with angst and love for his sister, as he cries out, “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 of a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger—anything that can blow you candles out!” The same kind of pathos and brotherly affection can be felt in a quote from Williams himself, when he defended the importance of Rose’s quality of life:
“She isn’t any more a body than you and I are, and if you looked at her, at her tortured face
and observed her desperate efforts to meet the terrible moment of facing the person she loved most as a girl, and to whom she was closest, and knew that she was a lunatic being visited by him in a bug-house, a plush-lined snake pit, I don’t see how you could call her just a body. Madness doesn’t mean the cease of personality, it simply means that the personality has lost touch with what you call reality, and I think, personally, myself, that their mental and emotional world is much more vivid than ours is.”
These are two powerful excerpts, both stemming from the heart of Tennessee Williams, giving credence to the plight of Rose Williams. Somehow, despite this tragedy, beauty can be seen by a girl whose world is vivid and by a character who lives in candle-light.