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New York Public Library, Billy Rose Theater Collection // Public Domain
New York Public Library, Billy Rose Theater Collection // Public Domain

15 Facts About Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie

New York Public Library, Billy Rose Theater Collection // Public Domain
New York Public Library, Billy Rose Theater Collection // Public Domain

The Glass Menagerie is an American classic that tells a tragic family tale of love, bitterness, and abandonment. But beyond its delicate glass unicorn and heartbreaking drama, this Tennessee Williams play proved to be a defining moment for the author—and for theater history.

1. THE GLASS MENAGERIE IS A MEMORY PLAY.

The play's story is narrated by a central character looking back on the events presented. The format gives the playwright more creative freedom in the narrative, as memories are affected by emotion and temporal distance. Williams says as much in The Glass Menagerie's notes on set design, which read, "The scene is memory and is therefore non-realistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart."

2. THE NARRATOR WARNS HE IS AN UNRELIABLE NARRATOR.

The story focuses on the impoverished Wingfield family at a time when their matriarch Amanda is pressuring her grown son Tom to find a suitor for his fragile sister Laura. Tom is the narrator of the tale. But in his first monologue, he warns, "The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic."

3. THE GLASS MENAGERIE WAS THE FIRST MEMORY PLAY.

Williams coined the phrase to explain this groundbreaking new style. In its production notes, Williams wrote, "Being a 'memory play', The Glass Menagerie can be presented with unusual freedom of convention. Because of its considerably delicate or tenuous material, atmospheric touches and subtleties of direction play a particularly important part." He goes on to encourage those staging the show to be "unconventional" in their productions, noting such exploration was essential to preserving the vitality of theater. Other examples of memory plays are Harold Pinter's Old Times and Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa.

4. THE GLASS MENAGERIE BEGAN AS A SHORT STORY IN 1941.

At 30, Williams wrote "Portrait of a Girl in Glass," which centered on the glass figure-loving Laura, rather than her brother Tom. She was presented as a desperately shy young woman with a fearsome mother, who went unnamed in this early incarnation. By 1943, Williams was in Hollywood, and so transformed the short story into a spec script called The Gentleman Caller. After MGM Studios passed on the script, Williams reconceived it as a stage play in 1944.

5. THE TITLE REFERS TO LAURA AND HER GLASS ANIMAL COLLECTION.

The Glass Menagerie's young female lead fawns over her titular collection, polishing them obsessively. Lovely but fragile, these prized figures are regarded as a metaphor for their owner. Notably, Laura's favorite is the glass unicorn, an unusual creature that her could-be suitor Jim says is “extinct in the modern world.” A popular reading of this exchange is that Laura is like this unicorn, out of place in the world around her.

6. THE GLASS MENAGERIE IS CONSIDERED WILLIAMS'S MOST AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL WORK.

The frustrated protagonist Tom is named after the author, who was born Thomas Lanier Williams III. (Tennessee was a nickname earned in college.) The unhappy family life at the center of the play mirrored his own. Like the Wingfields, the Williams family included a dominating matriarch, Tennessee's mother Edwina, who raised the family largely without the help of her husband, a traveling shoe salesman. Like Amanda, Edwina was a faded Southern belle. Laura—nicknamed Blue Roses—was based on his older sister Rose, who struggled with mental illness and retreated to a world of isolation, surrounded by her beloved glass ornaments. Even the description of the Wingfield's St. Louis apartment mirrored a home the playwright once shared with his family.

7. IT MADE WILLIAMS AN OVERNIGHT SUCCESS (EIGHT YEARS IN THE MAKING).

He'd written a slew of plays ahead of The Glass Menagerie's debut in Chicago in December 1944. But this was the first to earn widespread notice. In the Chicago Tribune, theater critic Claudia Cassidy declared that the play was "vividly written," "superbly acted," and, "paradoxically, it is a dream in the dust and a tough little play that knows people and how they tick." Rave reviews sparked such intense interest in Williams's very personal play that by March 31, 1945, the production had been transferred to Broadway, where it won a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award just two weeks after re-opening. It went on to run for 563 performances, and made Williams a rising star in American theater.

8. LAURETTE TAYLOR'S BROADWAY PERFORMANCE IS LEGENDARY.

The New York City-born actress performed on stage and in silent film, but she is best known for originating the role of Amanda Wingfield on Broadway. Once The Glass Menagerie opened, Taylor was nearly universally praised by critics and colleagues.

"I have never been that affected by a stage action in my whole life. It made me weep," lyricist Fred Ebb said. Actress Patricia Neal deemed Taylor's Amanda "the greatest performance I have ever seen in all my life." And writer Robert Gottlieb, who witnessed this portrayal as a teenager, said, "When I saw her, I knew it was the finest acting I had ever seen, and, more than 65 years later, I still feel that way."

9. WILLIAMS WAS ONE OF TAYLOR'S BIGGEST FANS.

Taylor's celebrated performance helped cement The Glass Menagerie's rarefied reputation. Looking back on her work in the production, Williams said, "There was a radiance about her art which I can compare only to the greatest lines of poetry, and which gave me the same shock of revelation, as if the air about us had been momentarily broken through by light from some clear space around us.”

10. SOME SAY THE SHOW HAS A UNIQUE CURSE.

The theatre is ripe with superstitions and lore. One story around The Glass Menagerie centers on the seemingly impossible standard set by Taylor. Even decades later, her performance is the one by which all other Amanda Wingfields are judged. And while there have been seven revivals of the show since its initial bow, none of her successors has won the Tony Award. The curse suggests that because Taylor didn't win the honor for that role—the Tonys were not established until a year after Taylor's run—no one will.

Since then, Maureen Stapleton (1965, 1975), Jessica Tandy (1983), Julie Harris (1994), and Jessica Lange (2005) performed the role with nary a nod. Cherry Jones scored a nomination in 2013, and Sally Field did the same in 2017. But neither took home the Tony.

11. THE PLAY GAVE WILLIAMS A SECOND SHOT IN HOLLYWOOD.

He left Los Angeles smarting from the failure of The Gentleman Caller, but came back with a heralded Broadway hit. In 1950, The Glass Menagerie became his first produced screenplay. But though Williams imagined the great American actress Ethel Barrymore as Amanda, director Irving Rapper cast English comedienne Gertrude Lawrence in the Southern belle role. The perturbed playwright later declared this a "dismal error." The resulting film was ruthlessly panned. "[The film] comes perilously close to sheer buffoonery in some of its most fragile scenes. And this makes for painful diffusion of the play's obvious poignancy," The New York Times's critic Bosley Crowther wrote.

12. THIS FILM ADAPTATION HAD ONE MAJOR, DAMNING CHANGE FROM THE PLAY.

In the play, the plot to woo a suitor fails. Tom decides to move out, and his sister is left without hope of finding a husband. But Warner Bros. wanted Williams to create a happy ending for the movie version. "In my heart," Williams replied, "the ending as it exists in the play was the artistically inevitable ending." Yet Williams agreed to a compromise. He wrote to Rapper, "I think it is all right to suggest the possibility of someone else coming. And that 'someone else,' remaining as insubstantial as an approaching shadow in the alley which appears in conjunction with the narrative line, 'The long delayed but always expected something that we live for'—it strikes me as constituting a sufficiently hopeful possibility for the future, symbolically and even literally, which is as much as the essential character of the story will admit without violation."

But that wasn't enough for Warner Bros. Against Williams's wishes and behind his back, the studio reached out to screenwriter Peter Berneis to give them the happy ending they wanted. Berneis created a second suitor named Richard, reasoning that Laura's tale could go from one of woe to inspiration. When Williams saw the final film, he was shocked and furious. He dubbed the film a "travesty."

13. THE GLASS MENAGERIE WOULD RETURN TO THE SCREEN.

The play was adapted for television four times between 1964 and 1977, including a version that starred screen legend Katharine Hepburn as the tenacious Amanda. Then in 1987, Paul Newman directed a big-screen adaptation with his wife Joanne Woodward in that coveted role. A young John Malkovich co-starred as Tom, while Raiders of the Lost Ark's Karen Allen played Laura. All of the above earned acclaim. Woodward and Allen achieved Independent Spirit award nominations, Malkovich scored an acting award at the Sant Jordi film festival, and Newman's efforts were nominated for the Cannes Film Festival's prestigious Palme d'Or prize.

14. IN REAL LIFE, "LAURA" DID NOT GET A HAPPY ENDING.

As a child, Tennessee's older sister Rose Williams was an extroverted girl of "good spirits," but as she grew older, she became withdrawn and "nervous." She would eventually be diagnosed with schizophrenia. To cure Rose, her mother turned to a trendy medical procedure believed to work wonders, a prefrontal lobotomy. Sadly, the operation made matters worse. Rose spent the rest of her life in hospitals.

15. WILLIAMS MADE SURE HIS SISTER WAS CARED FOR AND REMEMBERED.

He wove elements of her tragic tale into a string of works beyond The Glass Menagerie and its earlier versions. Their shared childhood inspired the short story "The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin." The strain Williams believed his sister felt between Edwina's Victorian standards and her own sexuality is explored in Summer and Smoke. In Suddenly Last Summer, a cruel mother plots to have a young woman lobotomized for her own ends. And in A Streetcar Named Desire, the much-abused Blanche DuBois finally finds a bittersweet end, when she relies on the "kindness of strangers" to lead her away to an asylum.

When he passed away in 1983, Williams left the majority of his estate to his sister, to ensure she would be cared for until her death. And when she died in 1996, at the age of 86, people around the world mourned for the fragile and big-hearted sister we all felt we knew.

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5 Things You Should Know About Chinua Achebe
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ABAYOMI aDESHIDA/AFP/Getty Images

Often referred to as the “father of African literature,” author Chinua Achebe was born in Ogidi, Nigeria on this day in 1930. Though he passed away in 2013, Google is celebrating what would be his 87th birthday with a Google Doodle. Here are five things you should know about the award-winning writer.

1. HE HAD PLANNED TO BE A DOCTOR.

Though he was always an avid reader and began learning English at the age of eight, Chinua Achebe hadn’t always planned to become a beacon of the literary world. After studying at Nigeria’s prestigious Government College (poet Christopher Okigbo was one of his classmates), Achebe earned a scholarship to study medicine at University College in lbadan. One year into the program he realized that writing was his true calling and switched majors, which meant giving up his scholarship. With financial help from his brother, Achebe was able to complete his studies.

2. JOYCE CARY’S MISTER JOHNSON INSPIRED HIM TO WRITE, BUT NOT IN THE WAY YOU MIGHT THINK.

While storytelling had long been a part of Achebe’s Igbo upbringing in Nigeria, that was only part of what inspired him to write. While in college, he read Mister Johnson, Irish writer Joyce Cary’s tragicomic novel about a young Nigerian clerk whose happy-go-lucky demeanor infects everyone around him. While TIME Magazine declared it the “best book ever written about Africa,” Achebe disagreed.

“My problem with Joyce Cary’s book was not simply his infuriating principal character, Johnson,” Achebe wrote in Home and Exile. “More importantly, there is a certain undertow of uncharitableness just below the surface on which his narrative moves and from where, at the slightest chance, a contagion of distaste, hatred, and mockery breaks through to poison his tale.” The book led Achebe to realize that “there is such a thing as absolute power over narrative,” and he was inspired to take control of it to tell a more realistic tale of his home.

3. HE DIDN’T THINK THAT WRITING COULD BE TAUGHT.

Though he studied writing, Achebe wasn’t all too sure that he learned much about the art in college. In an interview with The Paris Review, he recalled how the best piece of advice he had ever gotten was from one of his professors, James Welch, who told him, “We may not be able to teach you what you need or what you want. We can only teach you what we know.”

I thought that was wonderful. That was really the best education I had. I didn’t learn anything there that I really needed, except this kind of attitude. I have had to go out on my own. The English department was a very good example of what I mean. The people there would have laughed at the idea that any of us would become a writer. That didn’t really cross their minds. I remember on one occasion a departmental prize was offered. They put up a notice—write a short story over the long vacation for the departmental prize. I’d never written a short story before, but when I got home, I thought, Well, why not. So I wrote one and submitted it. Months passed; then finally one day there was a notice on the board announcing the result. It said that no prize was awarded because no entry was up to the standard. They named me, said that my story deserved mention. Ibadan in those days was not a dance you danced with snuff in one palm. It was a dance you danced with all your body. So when Ibadan said you deserved mention, that was very high praise.

I went to the lecturer who had organized the prize and said, You said my story wasn’t really good enough but it was interesting. Now what was wrong with it? She said, Well, it’s the form. It’s the wrong form. So I said, Ah, can you tell me about this? She said, Yes, but not now. I’m going to play tennis; we’ll talk about it. Remind me later, and I’ll tell you. This went on for a whole term. Every day when I saw her, I’d say, Can we talk about form? She’d say, No, not now. We’ll talk about it later. Then at the very end she saw me and said, You know, I looked at your story again and actually there’s nothing wrong with it. So that was it! That was all I learned from the English department about writing short stories. You really have to go out on your own and do it.

4. HE WAS WARY OF MACHINES.

Though typewriters, followed by computers, were ubiquitous, Achebe preferred a “very primitive” approach. “I write with a pen,” he told The Paris Review. “A pen on paper is the ideal way for me. I am not really very comfortable with machines; I never learned to type very well. Whenever I try to do anything on a typewriter, it’s like having this machine between me and the words; what comes out is not quite what would come out if I were scribbling. For one thing, I don’t like to see mistakes on the typewriter. I like a perfect script. On the typewriter I will sometimes leave a phrase that is not right, not what I want, simply because to change it would be a bit messy. So when I look at all this … I am a preindustrial man.”

5. HIS DEBUT NOVEL REMAINS ONE OF THE MOST TAUGHT PIECES OF AFRICAN LITERATURE.

Achebe’s status as the “father of African literature” is no joke, and it’s largely due to his debut novel, Things Fall Apart. Published in 1958, the book—which follows the life of Okonkwo, an Igbo leader and wrestling champion—has gone on to sell more than 10 million copies and has been translated into 50 different languages. Even today, nearly 60 years after its original publication, it remains one of the most taught and dissected novels about Africa.

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13 Fascinating Facts About Kurt Vonnegut
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Brad Barket/Getty Images

Best known as the eccentric author of Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut filled his novels, plays, and short stories with irreverence, satire, and wry wit. He wrote about dystopian societies, disillusionment with war, and skepticism, particularly connecting with millions of readers in the 1960s counterculture. To celebrate what would have been Vonnegut’s 95th birthday, we compiled a list of facts about the beloved science fiction writer.

1. HE MET HIS FIRST WIFE IN KINDERGARTEN.

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1922, Vonnegut met his future wife, Jane, in kindergarten. Although they dated as teenagers in high school, their relationship paused when Vonnegut went to Cornell University, dropped out to serve in World War II, and became a prisoner of war in Germany. After returning to the U.S., he married Jane in 1945. The couple had six children—three biological and three adopted—but divorced in 1971.

2. HIS MOTHER COMMITTED SUICIDE ON MOTHER'S DAY.

When Vonnegut was born, his parents were well-off. Kurt Sr., his father, was an architect and Edith, his mother, was independently wealthy from the brewery that her family owned. But due to Prohibition and the Great Depression, the family struggled to make ends meet, sold their home, and switched their son to a public school. Edith, who suffered from mental illness, became addicted to alcohol and prescription pills. In 1944, when Vonnegut came home from military training to celebrate Mother’s Day, he found Edith dead. She had committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills, and the 21-year-old Vonnegut soon went to Germany to fight in World War II. In an interview with The Paris Review, Vonnegut remembered his mother as being highly intelligent, cultivated, and a good writer. "I only wish she’d lived to see [my writing career]. I only wish she’d lived to see all her grandchildren," he said.

3. HE TURNED HIS PRISONER OF WAR EXPERIENCE INTO A BESTSELLING BOOK.


By United States Army [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Because Vonnegut was flunking his classes at Cornell, he decided to drop out and join the army to fight in World War II. During the Battle of the Bulge, in 1944, German forces captured him, along with other American prisoners of war, in Dresden. Forced to work long hours in a malt-syrup factory, he slept in a subterranean slaughterhouse. In a letter he later wrote to his family, Vonnegut described the unsanitary conditions, sadistic guards, and measly food rations. After surviving the February 1945 Allied bombing of Dresden, in which tens of thousands of people were killed, Vonnegut was forced by his captors to remove jewelry from the corpses before cremating them. "One hundred thirty thousand corpses were hidden underground. It was a terribly elaborate Easter-egg hunt," he said in his Paris Review interview.

Later in 1945, Vonnegut got frostbite and was discharged from the army (he earned a Purple Heart). Over two decades later, in 1969, Vonnegut published the bestselling novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which gave readers a fictionalized account of his wartime imprisonment. He later said that only one person benefited from the raid in Dresden: him. "I got three dollars for each person killed. Imagine that," he said.

4. CONTRARY TO RUMORS, HE WASN’T FRAT BUDDIES WITH DR. SEUSS.

An urban legend suggests that Vonnegut and Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) were college friends who spent time together in the same fraternity. But according to Snopes, the tale of Geisel and Vonnegut’s friendship is greatly exaggerated … that is, it’s false. The two authors probably never met, and they didn’t attend any of the same schools (plus, Geisel was 18 years older than Vonnegut). Geisel did, however, once visit a friend who belonged to Cornell’s Delta Upsilon fraternity. Geisel drew a mural on the wall of the fraternity’s basement, and Vonnegut saw his drawings at Cornell a decade later as a student.

5. HE HELD A SERIES OF ODD JOBS TO SUPPORT HIS FAMILY.

In 1947, Vonnegut began working in public relations for General Electric, an experience that he drew upon to write Cat’s Cradle. He wrote articles and short stories for magazines such as Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, and his first novel, Player Piano, was published in 1952. Vonnegut then briefly wrote for Sports Illustrated, managed a Saab car dealership in Massachusetts (the first in the U.S.), and worked as an English teacher.

6. HE ADOPTED HIS SISTER’S THREE KIDS.

In the late 1950s, Vonnegut’s sister, Alice, died of cancer and Alice’s husband died in a train accident within the span of a few days. Although Vonnegut already had three children with his wife, he adopted his sister’s three sons. Since he now had six children to support, Vonnegut spent even more time writing to earn money.

7. HE ATTEMPTED SUICIDE.

Although Slaughterhouse-Five made him a famous, bestselling author, Vonnegut struggled with depression in the midst of his literary success. After getting divorced in 1971, he lived alone in New York City and had trouble writing. His son became psychotic, and although he married his second wife in 1979 (and they adopted a daughter together), his depression got worse. In 1984, he tried to kill himself by overdosing on sleeping pills and alcohol, an experience he wrote about in 1991 in Fates Worse Than Death, a collection of essays.

8. HE GRADED ALL HIS BOOKS.

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Vonnegut discussed his grading system for his books (he also wrote about this system in Palm Sunday, a collection of his works published in 1981). He gave himself an A+ for his writing in Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five but wasn’t as generous with Happy Birthday, Wanda June or Slapstick, which both received Ds.

9. HE LOVED WATCHING CHEERS.

In 1991, while speaking to the press to promote his Showtime television show Vonnegut’s Monkey House, he extolled the virtues of the NBC show Cheers. "I’d rather have written Cheers than anything I’ve written," he said. Although he viewed television in general with skepticism, he made an exception for the long-running sitcom, calling it television’s one comic masterpiece: "Every time anybody opens his or her mouth on that show, it’s significant. It’s funny," he said.

10. HE TRIED TO STOP SMOKING BUT GAINED TOO MUCH WEIGHT.

A lifelong smoker, Vonnegut began smoking cigarettes as a young teenager. Interviews with the author described his chain-smoking, his preferred brand (Pall Mall), and his frequent coughing and wheezing. Vonnegut admitted that he quit smoking twice, but neither attempt succeeded long-term. "Once I did it cold turkey, and turned into Santa Claus. I became roly-poly. I was approaching 250 pounds," he told the Paris Review. The second time, his lack of smoking made him "unbearably opinionated" and curtailed his writing time. "I didn’t even write letters anymore. I had made a bad trade, evidently. So I started smoking again," he said.

11. THANKS TO CAT’S CRADLE, HE FINALLY GOT HIS MASTER'S DEGREE.

While studying anthropology as a young man at the University of Chicago, Vonnegut wrote his graduate thesis comparing 19th century Cubist painters to Native American artists. Vonnegut later explained that the faculty rejected his dissertation, and he dropped out of his master’s program there: "I left Chicago without writing a dissertation—and without a degree. All my ideas for dissertations had been rejected, and I was broke, so I took a job as a P.R. man for General Electric in Schenectady." But the quality of his novel Cat’s Cradle, published in 1963, persuaded University of Chicago faculty to accept the novel as his dissertation. So 20 years after he dropped out, Vonnegut finally earned his master’s degree in anthropology.

12. HE HAS OVER 210,000 TWITTER FOLLOWERS.

Although Vonnegut died in 2007 at 84 years old, his ideas live on in 140 characters or less. A Twitter account dedicated to the writer tweets his quotes several times a day to more than 215,000 followers. Examples of his tweets? "How embarrassing to be human," and "We could have saved the Earth but we were too damned cheap." Fittingly, the account follows just one person, @TheMarkTwain, for Vonnegut greatly admired the Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn author.

13. THE VONNEGUT MEMORIAL LIBRARY CONTINUES HIS LEGACY.

Located in his birthplace of Indianapolis, The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library honors the writer’s achievements and keeps his legacy alive. Opened in 2010, the library displays signed copies of Vonnegut’s books as well as early rejection letters. Visitors can also see his drawings, examine family photos, and view his typewriter, cigarettes, and Purple Heart. The library works to fight censorship, a cause that Vonnegut strongly believed in, by giving free copies of Slaughterhouse-Five to students whose schools have banned the book. So it goes.

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