Tennessee Williams The Glass Menagerie as Problem Play

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by – Kshetrapal Sharma

Tom, is a spoiled child of a broken home. It was broken due to the great depression of 1930 in Europe. It is said to be auto biographical, but the narrator, at the outset, cautions about it (deception), hence “similarity” and “auto biography” are so interwoven to be taken care of as is the case of a “drama” and a “play”.
J. Rousseau, in the Social Contract, said “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself (as) the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are”. He also said that man was naturally good but becomes corrupted by the pernicious influence of human society & institutions.]

‘The Glass Menagerie’ is the title of a play written by Tennessee Williams. Tennessee was a popular playwright of his time, who had won Pulitzer prize for the play, A Street Car named desire. Tennessee has had a turbulent life personally hence this play is a “memory play independent and an autobiographical”. In all 7 independent Scenes, the traces of his own experiences are there.

The age of Tennessee Williams was not peaceful. It had witnessed war with Spain the country was already entered into the world war and the war with Japan. Economically, it had witnessed the depression of 1930; the situation was so much worse than most of the youths were Jobless. A youth, who has good ideas but empty pockets would turn either to “easy money”, idleness; giving further rise to “illusions”.

By the mid 19th C, the blacks & women were not given right to franchise, viz right to vote. So under the given circumstances, obtained at that point in time, the identity of youth was, as T S Eliot put it a “non-being”. A synthetic image of a youth based on the factual record of memory. The tale of regression of values in the society and the land of a jungle, a youth resolves to take a stand but reverts to the old position.

At that time, the play was popular in Broadway and famous heroine Elizabeth Taylor did participate in it. Tom is anti-hero (contrary to Aristotle’s concept) who has no inclination to be a good person despite benign advice by her mother rather careless and so far his mother Amanda [a fashionable but good at heart] and sister Laura are concerned, they are totally uncared for. Tom is a typical spoilt personality who could not overcome his habit of going to movies, smoking, drinking etc. He is the person to bring misfortunes to the family and could not arrange a “suitor” i.e. a match, to the ailing sister Laura.
References are there of some images of dance-houses (Paradise). Readers are left to reconstruct the scenes. He has a friend Jim, who had once dreamt to be in the “White House”, who alas finally lands up in a sultry place of shoe-warehouse where Tom also worked . At last like his father who left Amanda, Tom leaves the family in the lurch.

For a poor family an ailing sister, having no job, utter poverty are not a ground to be a “wayward” as the Tom was. Americans were very enthusiastic about their new found freedom and this freedom of country from foreign dominion to the freedom excessively enjoyed by a person like Tom projects poorly. U.S, a colony of different settlers from various regions of the world is a third largest country in the world encompasses different life styles and traditions of every lifestyles and tradition of every region but mainly influenced by western life style. Americans even if they invite one to come anytime, one should not visit without prior appointment, one must not while away the time on highways else you will be fined, parents are not dependent & part of his/her family, after graduation every youth has to move out separately, several marriages may take place and divorce are frequent, even children without wedding are, just common.

Youths, by nature, bubble with energy but we seldom find them like as is Tom depicted in the play. Here Tom imitates/copies his father. Hawthorn one’s Scarlet Letter, in contrast, is a case at hand though dealing with mainly a theme of sin but the Hester Prynne, the heroine leaves no stone unturned to prove her innocence nevertheless in raising and showing Pearl a very good world to live in.

Examples of rare exceptions were of G. Washington, A Lincoln who rose to the top from rags only. Courtesy BBC Hindi, a life of Indian) Abid Soorati, the cartoonist (plumber) of famous caricature, “ Dhabboojee”. And take the example to emulate of our hermit Valmiki, who abhorred the path of “evil”. To recall some instances of recent past there are people who have made it to the top rising from a grass root level only on the strength of hard work, honesty, truthfulness such as, the turns saw by Sippy of Sholay Film, to make a life, decent and worth Amanda by her nature is soft, tries to convince Tom to live a normal life but the protagonist is unmoved. It is a defect of the past that had happened. The audience was enjoying Tennessee Williams past, be it was good, bad & whatever it was. Tom while introducing characters of the play the photograph of his father is a symbol, a symbol of tyranny, not represented on the stage but missing from the set of characters of the play. His memory looms large. Amanda & Laura remind Tom, to rise & shine, “Neither Tom rises nor shines.”

Amanda is hysterical, not confident like a true housewife tries to make a home and her daughter Laura does help but because of drunkard Tom, Amanda is helpless. Tom escapes from suffocating apartment in St. Louise. He wants to be a writer but earns a living in a warehouse (filth).

Mother and son are constantly at logger’s heads. One quarrel follows the other, Tom has no considerations or concern for Laura. But all three, in a family, have had a happy past. Tennessee Williams own life, which attracted viewers most, not realistic altogether draws a parallel fiction Laura & real life[Rose].

Laura is in centre of the play, a silent & withdrawn person. Whatever bodily defects, no one cares about her treatment. In a way it also indicates the society’s treatment towards women & girls viz. cruelty Tom’s father deserted the family and the resultant effect is disillusionment and despair. There by pneumatic -nagging hence a row over the word. “ Crippled” & Tom saying “ I will go and want to go the movies” To confine women and girls within four-walls of the house is a crime. They should be encouraged, supported & treated with respect was (and still is) the utmost need of the hour. Jefferson the President signed the Declaration of Independence for equality & emancipation of the human being but interpreting it in its own way and living life as per that doctrine is a different thing. The Americans are capitalist, they have manners, self-respect and hard working but their views in respect of marriage [particularly sex] are altogether different bodily contact, per will, with men does not constitute sin, but in Indian parlance, it is a sin.

Recent scholarly criticism has markedly convinced that this play is most autobiographical and accurate to the imaginative reality of his experience even when it departs from the facts in detail [R.Brian Parker. The G.M.A collection of critical essays], Prentice Hall 1983.

Tom says “I am going to opium dens …. I am a hired assassin”. Tom comforts Laura by saying that everyone here is eager to put last nails in the coffin but rarely one bales out from the imperilled. He too betrays his words and deserts the home.

Alcoholism is a disease that affects not only the victim but the whole family as well and its permanent scar is left on the child, Tom, in such a warped home. [for that matter not drinking alone, the evils departing the established norms of social life viz rape, incest, gambling too] to understand it from the utterance, “ ……..so let us respect each other … ”but it is not stable or maintained, remains only illusory.


Kshetrapal Sharma, used to work as Joint Director (Retd) with ESIC, New Delhi. He has contributed various academic articles in Hindi and English magazines and newspapers. He is, now working as Consultant (Rajbhasha) in Ministry of Finance, Dept. of Revenue, North Block, NewDelhi.

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