The Wingfield apartment faces an alley in a lower-middle-class St. Louis tenement. There is a fire escape with a landing and a screen on which words or images periodically appear. Tom Wingfield steps onstage dressed as a merchant sailor and speaks directly to the audience. According to the stage directions, Tom “takes whatever license with dramatic convention is convenient to his purposes.” He explains the social and historical background of the play: the time is the late 1930s, when the American working classes are still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression. The civil war in Spain has just led to a massacre of civilians at Guernica. Tom also describes his role in the play and describes the other characters. One character, Tom’s father, does not appear onstage: he abandoned the family years ago and, except for a terse postcard from Mexico, has not been heard from since. However, a picture of him hangs in the living room.
Tom enters the apartment’s dining room, where Amanda, his mother, and Laura, his sister, are eating. Amanda calls Tom to the dinner table and, once he sits down, repeatedly tells him to chew his food. Laura rises to fetch something, but Amanda insists that she sit down and keep herself fresh for gentlemen callers. Amanda then launches into what is clearly an oft-recited account of the Sunday afternoon when she entertained seventeen gentlemen callers in her home in Blue Mountain, Mississippi. At Laura’s urging, Tom listens attentively and asks his mother what appear to be habitual questions. Oblivious to his condescending tone, Amanda catalogues the men and their subsequent fates, how much money they left their widows, and how one suitor died carrying her picture.
Laura explains that no gentlemen callers come for her, since she is not as popular as her mother once was. Tom groans. Laura tells Tom that their mother is afraid that Laura will end up an old maid. The lights dim as what the stage directions term “the ‘Glass Menagerie’ music” plays.
An image of blue roses appears on the screen as the scene begins. Laura is polishing her collection of glass figurines as Amanda, with a stricken face, walks up the steps outside. When Laura hears Amanda, she hides her ornaments and pretends to be studying a diagram of a keyboard. Amanda tears up the keyboard diagram and explains that she stopped by Rubicam’s Business College, where Laura is supposedly enrolled. A teacher there informed her that Laura has not come to class since the first few days, when she suffered from terrible nervousness and became physically ill. Laura admits that she has been skipping class and explains that she has spent her days walking along the streets of winter, going to the zoo, and occasionally watching movies.
Amanda wonders what will become of the family now that Laura’s prospects of a business career are ruined. She tells Laura that the only alternative is for Laura to get married. Amanda asks her if she has ever liked a boy. Laura tells her that, in high school, she had a crush on a boy named Jim, the school hero, who sat near her in the chorus. Laura tells her mother that once she told Jim that she had been away from school due to an attack of pleurosis. Because he misheard the name of the disease, he began calling her “Blue Roses.” Laura notes that at graduation time he was engaged, and she speculates that he must be married by now. Amanda declares that Laura will nonetheless end up married to someone nice. Laura reminds her mother, apologetically, that she is “crippled”—that one of her legs is shorter than the other. Amanda insists that her daughter never use that word and tells her that she must cultivate charm.
With Tom’s direct address to the audience, describing the play and the other characters, the play acknowledges its status as a work of art and admits that it does not represent reality. Tom’s address also identifies the bias inherent in the portrayal of events that have already occurred: everything the audience sees will be filtered through Tom’s memory and be subject to all of its guesswork, colorings, and subconscious distortions. The idea of a play with an involved narrator is not a new one. For instance, the Chorus in classical tragedy frequently plays a role much like Tom’s, commenting on the actions as they occur. But these Choruses are seldom composed of characters who also play a part in the action. The presence of a character who both narrates and participates in the play is quite unusual, and Tom’s dual role creates certain conflicts in his characterization. As narrator, Tom recounts and comments on the action from an unspecified date in the future and, as such, has acquired a certain emotional distance from the action. As a character, however, Tom is emotionally and physically involved in the action. Thus, Tom first appears as a cool, objective narrator who earns the audience’s trust, but within minutes, he changes into an irritable young man embroiled in a petty argument with his mother over how he chews his food. As a consequence, the audience is never quite sure how to react to Tom—whether to take his opinions as the solid pronouncements of a narrator or the self-centered perspective of just another character.
Williams’s production notes and stage directions emphasize his innovative theatrical vision. He felt that realism, which aimed to present life as it was without idealizing it, had outlived its usefulness. It offered, as Tom puts it, “illusion that has the appearance of truth.” Williams sought the opposite in The Glass Menagerie: truth disguised as illusion. To accomplish this reversal of realism, the play employs elaborate visual and audio effects and expressionistic sets that emphasize symbolic meaning at the expense of realism. To underscore the illusions of the play, Tom makes a point of acknowledging these devices during his monologues as narrator.
Among the most striking effects in the play is the screen on which words or images that relate to the onstage action appear. The impression that this device creates on paper is sometimes confusing. In fact, the director of the original Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie chose to eliminate the screen from the performance. Sometimes the screen is used to emphasize the importance of something referred to by the characters, as when an image of blue roses appears in Scene Two as Laura recounts Jim’s nickname for her. Sometimes it refers to something from a character’s past or fantasy, as when Jim appears as a high school hero in the same scene, and sometimes it provides what seems like commentary from a witty outsider, as with “Ou sont les neiges d’antan?” in Scene One (“Ou sont les neiges . . .” is the title of a poem in praise of beautiful women by the fifteenth-century French poet François Villon). At times, the very obviousness of the symbols or themes that the screen emphasizes gives an ironic tone to the device. Like Tom’s speeches, it reminds the audience of the importance of literary gimmicks and tricks in the creation of what the audience is seeing.