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.