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.

The Gruesome Medieval Masquerade That Inspired Edgar Allan Poe

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In March 1849, Edgar Allan Poe published a short story with one of the most macabre dénouements in his entire body of work. Called Hop-Frog, it was the tale of an eponymous court jester who endures repeated humiliations from an abusive king and his ministers before finally exacting his revenge. Like other works of the great horror master, it may have been inspired by historical events—in this case, by a particularly grisly episode from 14th-century France.

In Poe's short story, both Hop-Frog and Trippetta are people with dwarfism stolen from their respective home countries and brought as presents for the king from one of his generals. Hop-Frog is described as having a disability that makes him walk "by a sort of interjectional gait—something between a leap and a wriggle." Forced to be the court's jester, he's the target of the king's practical jokes, and while enduring near-constant humiliations grows close to Trippetta, whose status at the court isn't much better.

One day, the king demands a masquerade, and as the evening draws near, he asks Hop-Frog what to wear. After a scene in which he and Trippetta are abused once again, Hop-Frog sees the perfect chance for revenge. He suggests the monarch and his ministers dress as escaped orangutans chained together, which he calls "a capital diversion—one of my own country frolics—often enacted among us, at our masquerades." The king and his ministers love the idea of scaring their guests, and especially the women. The jester carefully prepares their costumes, saturating tight-fitting fabric with tar and plastering flax on top to resemble the hair of the beasts.

On the evening of the masquerade, the men enter in their special outfits just after midnight. The guests are duly terrified, and amid the hubbub, Hop-Frog attaches the chain that surrounds the group to one hanging from the ceiling that normally holds a chandelier. As the men are drawn upwards, he brings a flame close to their bodies, pretending to the crowd that he's trying to figure out who the disguised men really are. The flax and tar ignite quickly and the noblemen burn to death, suspended above the crowd. "The eight corpses swung in their chains," Poe writes, "a fetid, blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass."

Bernard Picart, "Bal des Ardents"
Bernard Picart, "Bal des Ardents"
Rijksmuseum, Europeana // Public Domain

The gruesome scene was likely inspired by a historical event: the Bal des Ardents (literally, "the Ball of the Burning Ones"). This obscure episode took place during the reign of Charles VI of France (1380-1422), known to posterity as "Charles the Mad." His periods of illness are well-documented by contemporary chroniclers, who tell us that he ran through his castle howling like a wolf, failed to recognize his own wife and children, and forbade anyone to touch him because he believed he was made of glass. After his first bout in 1392, when delirium led him to kill several knights, his physician prescribed "amusements, relaxations, sports, and pastimes."

Meanwhile, the royal council was controlled by his brother Louis d'Orléans and his uncle the Duke of Burgundy—who both had their eyes set on the throne. It was also the middle of the Hundred Years' War, and England was seen as a severe threat to national stability. In spite of the unrest, on January 28, 1393, Charles's wife, Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, held a ball in the royal palace of Saint-Pol to celebrate the third marriage of her lady-in-waiting Catherine de Fastaverin. The plan was also to entertain the king, as the royal physician had prescribed. One of the guests, the knight Sir Hugonin (sometimes Huguet) de Guisay, suggested that a group of nobles dress as "wild men" or "wood savages," mythical creatures associated with nature and pagan beliefs. The king liked the idea so much that he decided to join in as one of the masked dancers.

The six noblemen wore garments made of linen covered in pitch and stuck-on clumps of flax, so they appeared "full of hair from the top of the head to the sole of the foot," according to contemporary historian Jean Froissart. Poe preserved these details in Hop-Frog, though his characters weren't dressed as wild men, but as orangutans—an animal he had also used in The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) to great effect.

Unlike his fictional counterpart, Charles VI was aware that the costumes were highly flammable, so he ordered all torch-bearers to keep to one side of the room. As they entered the ballroom, five of the wild men were chained to one another. Only the king was free. The men probably humiliated the newlyweds, howling and dancing; some historians believe the wild dance was a charivari, a folk ritual intended to shame newlyweds at "irregular" marriages. (As a widow getting married for the third time, Lady Catherine would have been a target.)

But there was an important guest missing: the king's brother, Louis d'Orléans. He arrived late, carrying his own torch, and joined the dance. While the exact sequence of events is unclear, before long his torch had set fire to one of the wild men's costumes. The fire spread quickly. Two of the knights burned to death in front of the guests, and two more died in agony days later. Court chronicler Michel Pintoin, known as the Monk of St. Denis, describes the dancers' "flaming genitals dropping to the floor … releasing a stream of blood."

Only two of the wild men survived. One of them, named Nantoiullet, had reacted to the blaze by throwing himself into a barrel of water, which spared him a horrid death. The other was the king. He was saved by the Duchess of Berry, who used her gown to extinguish his costume before it was too late.

The event shook French society. It was seen as the height of courtly decadence, causing outrage and further unrest. That the king had engaged in this extravagant amusement, and that his life had been spared only by chance, was further proof that he was unfit for the throne.

Meanwhile, the part that Louis d'Orléans played in the tragedy was subject to some debate. Most chroniclers blamed his youth and recklessness for the terrible accident; some reportedly suggested it was a prank to "frighten the ladies" that got out of hand.

Although it seems that the Bal des Ardents wasn't a planned crime, the king's brother must have felt responsible for the fatal accident, since he founded a chapel in the convent of the Célestins shortly afterwards, hoping it would buy him a place in heaven. It didn't save him from a violent end, however: In 1407, Louis was assassinated on the orders of his cousin and recently minted political rival the Duke of Burgundy, which triggered a civil war that divided France for decades. The Duke of Burgundy justified the murder by accusing Louis of having used sorcery and occultism to attempt regicide on several occasions—one of them, he claimed, during the Bal des Ardents.

Regardless of the truth behind the matter, the horror of the event filtered down through the centuries to inspire one of Poe's most macabre works. (It's not clear where the author first heard about it, but it may have been in the pages of The Broadway Journal, where he was soon to become editor, and where a writer likened it to the accidental onstage burning death of the dancer Clara Webster in London.) Today, the shocking historical event lives on in Poe's story—and in Hop Frog's memorable final line: "I am simply Hop-Frog, the jester—and this is my last jest."

Additional source: Chronique du Religieux de Saint-Denys

25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes

By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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