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.

10 Amazing Facts About Harriet Beecher Stowe

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Over 41 issues, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was published as a serial in the abolitionist newspaper The National Era, the first installment on June 5, 1851. It was first followed by a only small group but its audience steadily grew as the story unfolded.

“Wherever I went among the friends of the Era, I found Uncle Tom’s Cabin a theme for admiring remark,” journalist and social critic Grace Greenwood wrote in a travelogue published in the Era. “[E]verywhere I went, I saw it read with pleasant smiles and irrepressible tears.’” The story was discussed in other abolitionist publications, such as Frederick Douglass’s Paper, and helped sell $2 annual subscriptions to the Era.

The popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin exploded once it was made available in a more accessible format. Some publishers claim the book edition is the second best-selling title of the 19th century, after the Bible.

1. Harriet Beecher Stowe's father and all seven of her brothers were ministers.

Harriet Elisabeth Beecher was born on June 14, 1811, in Litchfield, Connecticut. Her mother, Roxana Beecher, died five years later. Over the course of two marriages, her father, Calvinist preacher Lyman Beecher, fathered 13 children, 11 of whom survived into adulthood. He preached loudly against slavery. All seven of his sons followed him into the ministry. Henry Ward Beecher carried on his father’s abolitionist mission and according to legend sent rifles to anti-slavery settlers in Kansas and Nebraska in crates marked “Bibles.”

The women of the Beecher family were also encouraged to rise to positions of influence and rally against injustice. Eldest child Catharine Beecher co-founded the Hartford Female Seminary and Isabella Beecher Hooker was a prominent suffragist.

2. The Fugitive Slave Act—and a surprise $100 gift—inspired Uncle Tom's Cabin.

In 1832, Harriet Beecher moved to Cincinnati with her father, who assumed the presidency of Lane Theological Seminary. According to Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life by Joan D. Hedrick, the Ohio city introduced her to former slaves and African-American freemen and there she first practiced writing, in a literary group called the Semi-Colon Club.

She married Calvin Ellis Stowe, a professor at Lane, and eventually relocated to Brunswick, Maine, when he went to work at Bowdoin College. By then, Stowe had published two books, Primary Geography for Children and the short story collection New England Sketches. She was also a contributor to newspapers supporting temperance and abolitionism, writing “sketches,” brief descriptive stories meant to illustrate a political point.

Following a positive response to her The Freeman’s Dream: A Parable, Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the anti-slavery paper The National Era, sent her $100 to encourage her to continue supplying the paper with material. The 1850 passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, obligating authorities in free states to re-enslave refugees, took the slavery fight northward. It also encouraged Stowe to step up her game.

“I am at present occupied upon a story which will be a much longer one than any I have ever written,” Beecher Stowe wrote in a letter to Bailey, “embracing a series of sketches which give the lights and shadows of the ‘patriarchal institution’ [of slavery], written either from observation, incidents which have occurred in the sphere of my personal knowledge, or in the knowledge of my friends.” For material, she scoured the written accounts belayed by escaped slaves.

3. Uncle Tom's Cabin made her rich and famous.

According to Henry Louis Gate Jr.’s introduction to the annotated edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin, The National Era paid Stowe $300 for 43 chapters. Before the serial’s completion, Stowe signed a contract with John P. Jewett and Co. to publish a two-volume bound book edition, and that’s when it really took off. Released on March 20, 1852, the book sold 10,000 copies in the U.S. in its first week and 300,000 in the first year. In the U.K., 1.5 million copies flew off the shelves in the first year. Stowe was paid 10 cents for each one sold. According to a London Times article published six months after the book’s release, she had already amassed $10,000 in royalties. “We believe [that this is] the largest sum of money ever received by any author, either American or European, from the sales of a single work in so short a period of time,” the Times stated.

4. She went to court to stop an unauthorized translation of Uncle Tom's Cabin ... and lost.

Immediately after Uncle Tom’s Cabin became a literary sensation, a Philadelphia-based German-language paper, Die Freie Presse, began publishing an unauthorized translation. Stowe took the publisher, F.W. Thomas, to court. American copyright laws were notoriously weak at the time, irking British writers whose work was widely pirated. As someone who overnight became America’s favorite author, Stowe had much at stake testing them.

The case put her in the Philadelphia courtroom of Justice Robert Grier, a notorious enforcer of the Fugitive Slave Act. “By the publication of Mrs. Stowe's book, the creations of the genius and imagination of the author have become as much public property as those of Homer or Cervantes,” Grier ruled. The precedent set by Stowe vs. Thomas meant that authors had the right to prevent others from printing their exact words, but almost nothing else. “All her conceptions and inventions may be used and abused by imitators, play-rights and poet-asters,” ruled Grier.

5. Beecher Stowe visited Abraham Lincoln.

Though Stowe had criticized what she saw as his slowness in emancipation and willingness to seek compromise to prevent succession, Stowe visited President Abraham Lincoln at the White House in 1862, during the early days of the Civil War. Reportedly, Lincoln greeted her with, “So this is the little woman who brought on this big Civil War,” but scholars have dismissed the quote as Stowe family legend spread after her death.

Details of their conversation are limited to vague entries in their respective diaries. Lincoln may have bantered with her over his love of open fires (“I always had one to home,” he reportedly said), while Stowe got down to business and quizzed him: “Mr. Lincoln, I want to ask you about your views on emancipation.”

6. Beecher Stowe wrote a lot of things that weren't Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Stowe wrote more than 30 books, both fiction and nonfiction, plus essays, poems, articles, and hymns.

7. The Stowes wintered in the former slave state of Florida.

The influx of wealth from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the end of the Civil War allowed the Stowes to purchase a winter home in Mandarin, Florida, in 1867. It may have seemed strange—and perilous—for a famous anti-slavery crusader to buy 30 acres in a former slave state so soon after the war, yet six years after the purchase, she wrote to a local newspaper, “In all this time I have not received even an incivility from any native Floridian.”

8. Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain were neighbors.

The Stowes’ primary residence, beginning in 1864, was a villa in the Nook Farm section of Hartford, Connecticut, a neighborhood populated by prominent citizens, including Mark Twain. The homes of Nook Farm had few fences, and doors stayed open in sunny weather, creating an air of gentility. That did not prevent Twain from writing a somewhat unflattering portrait of Stowe, as she gave way to what was probably Alzheimer’s disease, in his autobiography:

“Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe who was a near neighbor of ours in Hartford, with no fence between. In those days she made as much use of our grounds as of her own in pleasant weather. Her mind had decayed, and she was a pathetic figure. She wandered about all the day long in the care of a muscular Irishwoman, assigned to her as a guardian.”

9. Beecher Stowe outlived four of her seven children.

While continuing a lucrative and prolific writing career, Stowe birthed and cared for seven children. When she passed away in 85 in 1896, she had outlived four of them, as bad fortune seemed to follow their offspring.

Their third, Henry, drowned in a swimming accident in 1857. The fourth, Frederick, mysteriously disappeared en route to California in 1870. The fifth, Georgiana, died from septicemia, probably related to morphine in 1890. (She was an addict.) The sixth, Samuel, died from cholera in infancy in 1849. These losses informed several of Stowe’s works.

10. There are several Harriet Beecher Stowe houses you can visit.

The Harriet Beecher Stowe House of Cincinnati is where she lived after following her father to Lane. The Harriet Beecher Stowe House on the campus of Bowdoin in Brunswick, Maine, is where she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It became a restaurant from 1946 to 1998 and is now a faculty office building, but one room is open to the public and dedicated to Stowe. The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center preserves her home in Hartford. Her home in Florida is gone but is marked by a plaque.

Letters by Otto Frank, Anne Frank's Father, Are Being Digitized for the First Time

Spencer Platt, Getty Images
Spencer Platt, Getty Images

Decades after his family was ousted from their attic hiding space, Otto Frank began corresponding with a pen pal named Ryan Cooper. Throughout the 1970s, Frank and Cooper exchanged letters, with Frank offering perspectives on his time in seclusion and captivity during World War II. His daughter Anne’s famous diary was written while the family was hiding from German forces in Amsterdam.

Now, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is making those letters available digitally for the first time to commemorate what would have been Anne’s 90th birthday on June 12.

Cooper, an artist in California who was then in his 20s, struck up a pen pal relationship with Frank. In addition to garnering advice on a variety of topics, Cooper was able to learn more about the young woman whose Diary of Anne Frank went on to become one of the best-known chronicles of the war and who tragically died of typhus while being held in a concentration camp in 1945. The letters also reveal more about Otto Frank, who appeared determined to keep the memory of his daughter alive even as his own health began to deteriorate. Frank died in 1980 at the age of 91 as the family's only survivor of the war.

Cooper amassed more than 80 letters in total, including some from Miep Gies, who protected Anne’s writings until the war ended. The museum is expected to make all of it accessible online in the near future.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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