In Tennessee Williams’ play, The Glass Menagerie, the characters are a part of The Wingfield family in the 1930’s, a time that Williams knew much about. The main character, Tom, lives in an apartment with his mother, Amanda, and his sister, Rose. From Williams’ interviews and small stories in which he shared little bits of information about himself, it is evident that the people and events in Williams’ life were used to develop the characters in The Glass Menagerie.
Further examination of the play’s incorporation of the ideology of the time in which it was written and impact of Williams’ writing during the play’s first release and present time, provides an independent new historical view of early twentieth century culture. Analysis of biographical and new historical perspectives with knowledge about Williams’ family and his circumstances during the early twentieth century, allows readers to see how the times influenced Williams and how these influences were incorporated into The Glass Menagerie. The biographical perspective is used to understand the influences and analyze the process behind the work of an author. The extent to which a writer’s life should be brought to bear on an interpretation of his or her work is controversial (DiYanni, 2008). In my view, a writer’s life can help to illuminate the story and its dynamics. Understanding background information and details about Tennessee Williams’ life and family can help the reader understand Laura’s character and her relationship with her brother, Tom. Laura battled with finding direction and may have struggled from anxiety and depression, which kept her from completing her classes, something that pained their mother Amanda and created a lot of familial stress. Laura also had a slight disability that severely affected her self-esteem. Similarly, William’s sister, Rose, “had a mental illness,” which plagued her tremendously (King, 1973). The concern that Tom has for Laura, even after he leaves, as she haunts his thoughts when traveling, can represent the concern that Williams had for Rose.
Throughout his writing career, Williams was thinking about Rose and was concerned for her wellbeing. Gerald Weales states that the similarity of the character Laura and Williams’ sister, “shows the mechanism by which art is made out of the material of one’s life is not particularly surprising” (2008). Concern for Laura also has Tom inviting his friend over in a bid to try and help find a partner for her. Their mother Amanda seems focused on the idea of how Laura will find a husband and Amanda is critical of her daughter for not actively trying to pursue potential suitors. When Amanda was of marrying age, women were much younger and having children at Laura’s age. Amanda’s depiction of her own experience being pursued by multiple men creates a contrast that highlights the increasing feminism during Laura’s time. While Laura had more personal reasons for being reserved (her physical disability and shyness) in the pursuit of men, the twenties had brought about an increase in feminism and the ideas of women finding income-earning roles outside of the home and being more independent. In Gerald Weales’ examination of the many works of Williams, he states that there are many characters whose descriptions of their challenges are presented through soliloquies, sometimes satirically (2008).
He specifically mentions Tom’s attempts to be a poet in his dialogues throughout The Glass Menagerie, stating that, “they may mirror the challenges or issues that the author may have experienced” (Weales, 1974). Williams himself was a motivated writer, determined to be successful and to not be a factory worker. He went to college but was forced to drop out and work in a shoe factory by his father. Still, he was determined to graduate and always found himself back in school, eventually graduating with his English Degree from The University of Iowa (“Historical Missourians”). Tom’s dreams of becoming a poet, scribbling his prose around the factory and eventually leaving his family to pursue his desires for success are probably similar to Williams’ negative personal experiences that he endured while being forced to work at the factory. Williams began by writing short stories in his high school newspaper, and by 1928, he had his first professionally published story. He maintained success by doing small plays and by the 1930’s he had dedicated himself to developing playwrights. In December 1944, The Glass Menagerie opened in Chicago and received great reviews. By the spring of 1945, the play was being performed in New York City, forever solidifying itself as a great piece of work and recognizing Williams as a literary genius (Weales).
A New Historicist View The years of the early 1930’s were post World War I, when the belief was rampant that the United States was going to be a successful and independent nation following the roaring twenties and an upbeat idealism. President Coolidge’s 1928 address to Congress stated that, “citizens should regard the present with satisfaction and anticipate the future with optimism” (Presley, 1990). Going into the 1930’s people were assuming that there was going to be great prosperity, but The Great Depression happened, and by the end of 1939, The Second World War had begun. Tom’s character provides a great example of the historical viewpoint of trust and hope that rallied in many people after the end of the First World War and the opportunities for economic development that followed, with no awareness of the coming financial crisis. A new historicist perspective examines the culture and time in which the piece was written and how it was interpreted then and is interpreted now. Williams provides a setting of the time period with the first scene introducing the outside of the Wingfields’ “grim” city apartment with a fire escape, and the minimal accessories and furniture inside, including a typewriter and picture of a “young man in a doughboy’s first World War cap” (“The Glass Menagerie” 1164). Furthermore, the scene gives way to a pitiful introduction into urban American living at that time, depicting it as, “vast hive-like conglomerations” (“The Glass Menagerie” 1160).
Most people in urban settings worked in industrial manufacturing jobs. Many workers and their families found themselves living in apartments “filled with lower middle-class population…. of this largest and fundamentally enslaved section of American society” (“The Glass Menagerie” 1160). Setting the scene in unappealing imagery made it easy for many of the 1948 and 1949 audience members to sympathize with the events of the characters because they had probably experienced it themselves, or had seen its effects. Modern day audience members may be able to relate due to their experience with the recent financial crisis and the modern economic depression that has occurred in the past ten years. Today, viewers of The Glass Menagerie would largely see this play as a view into the 1930’s way of life and view it through a historical lens. The family dynamic and living situation would be distant and not something many would to be able to relate to, since there was a large exodus of city folk to suburbia in the many decades following the 1930’s. Professions have largely changed from factory jobs for men, and secretarial and homemaking for women, to office and desk jobs for the majority of both sexes. Many of the United States factory jobs have been outsourced to other countries as the cost of production in America has steadily risen.
The ground that has been gained in leveling gender difference in society has been significant in the years since this play, although gender equality is still a significant issue. The mention of terms like “gentleman caller” and the calling of Laura’s potential suitor by “Mister” sets an archaic tone for the text. Readers today would find many of the tones of this story unrelatable and outdated due to its vocabulary, conversation, strong male tones, along with the idea of Laura needing to find a suitor at the young age of twenty-four and the pressure that Amanda puts on the task. Thomas King’s 1973 interpretation of the play looked at the role that the play took due to performance changes by actors and interpretation by directors. He felt that the role of Amanda and Laura was overpowered due to the well-known actress, Laurette Taylor, who first got chosen to play Amanda in the Chicago production, and trying to satisfy her with stage time. King found that while the roles of Amanda and Laura took away from the strong narration and Tom’s soliloquies, the play showed the “yearnings of a former time” (King, 1973). King further noted that many of the male critics of the time were focused on Laurette’s acting job and mentioned some sort of feminist descriptions in their reviews of the play, a possible outcome of having such a well-known actress absorbing her audience’s attention (207). Williams’ work was influenced by the events of his life and used it as guidance for some of the story and characters in The Glass Menagerie. Other works of his are argued to have different characters that he pulled from his life for inspiration.
I would argue that Williams was not much of a planner of his writing, but would sit and write and see where he ended up using experiences as a base for his writing. While he may not have had the most impressive stories for how he became inspired, he was upfront about how he created his plays, “I have never been able to say what was the theme of my play and I don’t think I have ever been conscious of writing with a theme in mind” (Williams, 1948). With personal experience and his desire to be a successful writer and poet, it is impressive to note the impact of his literature contributions today. With examination of The Glass Menagerie through a new historicist and biographical lens, one is able to see the connections in Williams’ work to his family members and early life, and the historical tones of the era. The Glass Menagerie gives its audience a view into a dysfunctional family that is struggling with money and personal issues. Through the biographical undertones of the play, we are able to learn about some of the events Williams went through in his early life from which he developed characters. A new historicist perspective further develops the story with the examination of the era that the play was written during and how the audience interprets the play compared to their reality. The ideology of the 1930’s and Williams’ personal influences are apparent in the themes and characters throughout The Glass Menagerie.