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.

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

8 Facts About Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein was a multi-talented children’s author, comic artist, poet, playwright, and songwriter, and above all else, a rule-breaker. From The Giving Tree to Where the Sidewalk Ends, his titles are beloved by children and adults alike. At the time they were written, though, they defied common notions about what a "children’s" story could and should be. This isn’t all that surprising, considering that the Chicago-born author, who passed away in 1999, led a pretty unconventional life. Here are eight things you might not know about him.

1. One of Shel Silverstein's first jobs was selling hot dogs in Chicago.

Shel Silverstein didn’t always want to be a writer, or even a cartoonist or songwriter. His first love was baseball. "When I was a kid—12, 14, around there—I would much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls," he once said in an interview. "But I couldn’t play ball, I couldn’t dance. Luckily, the girls didn’t want me; not much I could do about that. So I started to draw and to write.” The closest he came to his MLB dream was when he landed a stint at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, selling hot dogs to White Sox fans.

2. Silverstein never finished college.

Silverstein was expelled from one school (the University of Illinois) and dropped out of another (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). Finally, he managed to get through three years of the English program at Chicago's Roosevelt University, but his studies came to an abrupt end when he was drafted in 1953.

3. Silverstein was a Korean War veteran.

In the 1950s, Silverstein was drafted into the U.S. armed service. While he was stationed in Korea and Japan, he also worked as a cartoonist for the military publication Stars and Stripes. It was his first big cartooning gig. "For a guy of my age and with my limited experience to suddenly have to turn out cartoons on a day-to-day deadline deadline, the job was enormous,'' Silverstein told Stars and Stripes in a 1969 interview.

4. Silverstein worked for Playboy magazine and was Part of Hugh Hefner's inner circle.

That’s right: the lovable children’s author was on Playboy’s payroll for many years. He started drawing comics for the men’s magazine in the 1950s and ended up becoming close friends with Hugh Hefner. In fact, he often spent weeks or even months at the Playboy Mansion, where he wrote some of his books. His cartoons for the magazine proved so popular that Playboy sent him around the world to find the humor in places like London, Paris, North Africa, and Moscow during the Cold War. Perhaps his most off-color assignment, though, was visiting a nudist camp in New Jersey. These drawings were compiled in the 2007 book Playboy's Silverstein Around the World, which includes a foreword from Hefner.

5. Silverstein wrote Johnny Cash's hit song "A Boy Named Sue."

Few people know that Silverstein was a songwriter, too. One of his biggest hits was the comical tale of a boy who learned how to defend himself after being relentlessly bullied for his feminine-sounding name, Sue. The song was popularized by Johnny Cash and ended up being his top-selling single, while Silverstein was awarded a Grammy for Best Country Song. You can watch Silverstein strumming the guitar and shouting the lyrics alongside Cash on The Johnny Cash Show in the video above. Silverstein also wrote a follow-up song from the dad’s point of view, The Father of a Boy Named Sue, but it didn't take off the way the original did.

6. Silverstein is in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Three years after his death, Silverstein was inducted posthumously into this exclusive society of songwriters. He wrote more than 800 songs throughout his career, some of which were quite raunchy. But his best-known songs were performed by country legends like Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings. “His compositions were instantly identifiable, filled with elevated wordplay and captivating, humor-filled narratives,” the Nashville Songwriters Foundation said of Silverstein's music.

7. Silverstein wrote the first children’s book to appear on The New York Times best sellerS list.

A Light in the Attic (1981) was the first children’s book to ever make it onto the prestigious New York Times Best Sellers list. It remained there for a whopping 182 weeks, breaking all of the previous records for hardcover books at that time.

8. Silverstein wasn't a fan of happy endings.

If you couldn’t already tell by The Giving Tree’s sad conclusion, Silverstein didn’t believe in giving his stories happy endings. He felt that doing so would alienate his young readers. "The child asks why I don't have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back,” the author said in a 1978 interview. This turned out to be a risky move, and The Giving Tree was rejected several times for being too sad or too unconventional. Fortunately, after four years of searching for a publisher, it found a home at HarperCollins (then Harper & Row) and has gone on to become one of the best-selling—and most beloved—children's books of all time.

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