But the wonderfullest trick of all was the coffin trick. We nailed him into a coffin and he got out of the coffin without removing one nail. . . . There is a trick that would come in handy for me—get me out of this two-by-four situation! . . . 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?
At the beginning of Scene Four, Tom, returning home from the movies, tells Laura about a magic show in which the magician performs the coffin trick. Tom, who dreams of adventure and literary greatness but is tied down to a mindless job and a demanding family, sees the coffin as a symbol of his own life situation. He has been contemplating an escape from his private coffin since the beginning of the play, and at the end, he finally goes through with it, walking out on his family after he is fired from his job. But Tom’s escape is not nearly as impressive as the magician’s. Indeed, it consists of no fancier a trick than walking down the stairs of the fire escape. Nor is Tom’s escape as seamless as the magician’s. The magician gets out of the coffin without disturbing one nail, but Tom’s departure is certain to have a major impact on the lives of Amanda and Laura. At the beginning of Scene One, Tom admits that he is “the opposite of a stage magician.” The illusion of escape that the magician promotes is, in the end, out of Tom’s reach.