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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams-Book Notes
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POINT OF VIEW

Tom is both a character in the play and the play's narrator. At the very beginning and at several points along the way Tom, as narrator, stands on the fire escape outside the Wingfields' apartment and addresses you directly. He tells you about a period of time-about three or four years ago-when he broke away from his mother and sister and became a wanderer. He also sets the scene, establishes the mood, comments on the world situation, and gives you background information.

You know how hard it sometimes is to remember details of events that happened only yesterday? Tom knows, too, that you can't always depend on your memory. So rather than trying to re-create precisely what took place several years ago, he presents the story unrealistically. At dinner, for example, the characters don't use real dishes and utensils. They pretend to be eating. And if the actors are good, the illusion is quite satisfactory.

"Memory," the playwright tells you in his stage directions, "takes a lot of poetic license" because it is "seated predominantly in the heart." Consider Williams' words a fair warning that what you see on stage is only approximately what happened in reality. Every event has been filtered by time and by Tom's feelings. Amanda's nagging is supposed to irritate you, just as it irritates Tom. If at any time you find Laura particularly lovely or especially helpless, consider those impressions to be Tom's, too. In short, Tom is your emotional guide through the play.


You may notice that Tom's vision extends even beyond what he actually saw or experienced. Some scenes include only Laura and Amanda or Jim O'Connor. Since Tom can't know exactly what happened when he wasn't there, he invents dialogue and action and shows you what might have occurred. Is that a flaw in the play?

When people look back to the past, do they recall the good things more readily than the bad? Does Tom? Or do his memories seem more bitter than sweet? Or are his recollections flavored by both? Tom often speaks ironically. Note how he describes Amanda on the phone in Scene Three. Is Tom's humor biting? Or do you find it gentle, touched by nostalgia? Tom calls the play "sentimental," which suggests Tennessee Williams' intentions.

FORM AND STRUCTURE

The play has seven scenes. The first four take place over a few days' time during the winter season. The remaining scenes occur on two successive evenings during the following spring. Since the play contains no formal "acts," a director can prescribe an intermission at any time. How would you divide the play if you were directing a performance? In formulating your answer take into account the passage of time, climactic moments in the play, and the development of the characters. Why do you suppose Williams chose not to tell you where to break the action?

Williams attempted to unify the several episodes by devising a series of projected images and words on a screen, but most directors don't bother using the technique. The story, they feel, can stand unaided, despite repeated jumps between present and past.

Tom, the narrator, exists in the present. He talks directly to the audience at the start of the play, at the openings of Scenes Three and Six, and again at the end. Also, he steps briefly into the narrator's shoes part way through Scene Five.

The rest of the time Tom is a character in the play. Even at those times, however, your focus is shifted to the past. Amanda, for example, frequently recalls her life as a young girl, and Laura and Jim refer to their high school days, which ended six years before.

Because the play comes from Tom's memory, time loses its usual sequence and structure in The Glass Menagerie. In your memory, thoughts can bounce at will between the recent and distant past. That may explain the play's flow of events. During most of the play Tom's memory is fastened to the period just before he leaves home. Each episode in the play helps to explain why in the end Tom had no choice but to escape. If you examine his closing speech, however, you'll see whether or not he truly escaped.

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