You know it don’t take much intelligence to get yourself into a nailed-up coffin, Laura. But who in hell ever got himself out of one without removing one nail?
A bell tolls five times as Tom returns home. He has been drinking. After painstakingly extracting his key from a jumble of cast-off items in his pockets, he drops it into a crack on the fire-escape landing. Laura hears him fumbling about and opens the door. He tells her that he has been at the movies for most of the night and also to a magic show, in which the magician changed water to wine to beer to whiskey. Tom then gives Laura a rainbow-colored scarf, which he says the magician gave to him. He describes how the magician allowed himself to be nailed into a coffin and escaped without removing a nail. Tom remarks wryly that the same trick could come in handy for him but wonders how one could possibly get out of a coffin without removing a single nail. Mr. Wingfield’s photograph lights up, presenting an example of someone who has apparently performed such a feat. The lights dim.
At six in the morning, Amanda calls out her habitual “Rise and Shine!” This time, though, she tells Laura to pass the message on to Tom because Amanda refuses to talk to Tom until he apologizes. Laura gets Tom out of bed and implores him to apologize to their mother. He remains reluctant. Amanda then sends Laura out to buy groceries on credit. On the way down the fire escape, Laura slips and falls but is not hurt. Several moments of silence pass in the dining room before Tom rises from the table and apologizes. Amanda nearly breaks into tears, and Tom speaks gently to her. She speaks of her pride in her children and begs Tom to promise her that he will never be a drunkard. She then turns the discussion to Laura as the “Glass Menagerie” music begins to play. Amanda has caught Laura crying because Laura thinks that Tom is not happy living with them and that he goes out every night to escape the apartment. Amanda claims to understand that Tom has greater ambitions than the warehouse, but she also expresses her worry at seeing him stay out late, just as his father, a heavy drinker, used to do. She questions Tom again about where he goes at night, and Tom says that he goes to the movies for adventure, which, he laments, is so absent from his career and life in general. At the mention of the word “adventure,” a sailing vessel appears on the screen. “Man is by instinct a lover, a hunter, a fighter,” Tom says, and he points out that the warehouse does not offer him the chance to be any of those things. Amanda does not want to hear about instinct. She considers it the function of animals and not a concern of “Christian adults.”
Tom is impatient to get to work, but Amanda holds him back to talk about her worry over Laura’s future. Amanda has tried to integrate Laura into the rest of the world by enrolling her in business college and taking her to Young People’s League meetings at church, but nothing has worked. Laura is unable to speak to people outside her family and spends all her time with old records and her glass menagerie. Amanda tells Tom that she knows that he has gotten a letter from the merchant marine and is itching to leave, but she asks him to wait until Laura has someone to take care of her. She then asks him to find some decent man at the warehouse and bring him home to meet Laura. Heading down the fire escape, Tom reluctantly agrees. Amanda makes another call for the magazine subscription drive, and then the lights fade.
For the first production of The Glass Menagerie, the composer Paul Bowles wrote a musical theme entitled “The Glass Menagerie.” This music plays when Amanda discusses Laura at the breakfast table with Tom and at other crucial moments involving Laura. The title and timing of the music equate Laura with her glass animals. Like the objects that she loves so well, Laura is incredibly delicate (a typing drill is enough to make her physically ill) and oddly fanciful. Somehow, the fights and struggles that shape Amanda’s and Tom’s lives have not hardened Laura. Amanda and Tom argue constantly about their respective responsibilities to the family, but Laura never joins in. Interestingly, Laura does not participate in supporting the family and, though Amanda is upset when Laura deceives her about the business college, neither Tom nor Amanda resents Laura’s dependence in any way. Her physical and resultant emotional disabilities seem to excuse her from any practical obligation to the household.
Though she does nothing to hold the family together financially, Laura holds it together emotionally. Amanda hits on this truth when she reminds Tom that he cannot leave as long as Laura depends on him. Both Tom and Amanda are capable of working to support themselves, and, without the childlike Laura, this family of three adults would almost certainly dissolve. In addition, Laura’s role as peacemaker proves crucial to ending the standoff between Tom and Amanda. Laura valiantly tries to douse the “slow and implacable fires” of her family’s unhappiness—to play firefighter, in a sense. Interestingly, she trips on the fire escape when she leaves the apartment. This event contributes to the reconciliation between Tom and Amanda, who are united in their concern for Laura, and it also draws attention to the fact that, for Laura, escape from the emotional fires of her family is impossible. Thus, she has no choice but to do everything she can to extinguish them.
The closeness and warmth of Tom’s relationship with Laura becomes evident when Tom comes home drunk at the beginning of Scene Four. In general, when Amanda is around, she tends to dominate the conversation, and the siblings can exchange very few words exclusive to the two of them. Here, though, they are alone. Laura’s love and concern for Tom are great enough to prompt her to wake up at five in the morning to see if he has come home. Tom uses his account of the magic show to share his most intimate experiences and thoughts with Laura. He subtly confesses to her about his drinking when he talks about the magician turning water to whiskey. Then, the coffin anecdote reveals both Tom’s sense of morbid confinement in his job and family life and his impossible dreams of escaping the family “without removing one nail”—that is, without destroying it. A number of critics have suggested that Tom feels an incestuous romantic attachment to Laura. This theory is supported by the subtly presented intensity of the relationship between these two young adults, both of whom are, in their different ways, incapable of establishing complete lives outside their family.
The imagery in Tom’s speech about the magic show contains several layers of symbolic meaning. The coffin trick, with its suggestions of rising from the dead, is a reference to Christian resurrection. Christian themes are also suggested by Tom’s tendency, when he reaches the limits of his patience with Amanda’s reproaches, to see himself as a martyr committing a supreme sacrifice for the family’s good. In addition, the rainbow-colored scarf that Tom brings home and gives to Laura reminds the audience of the rainbow of colors refracted by her glass animals. On a social and historical front, the coffin is representative of the condition of the American lower middle classes, whom Williams describes, in the stage directions, as a “fundamentally enslaved” sector of America.