Even if “Stella!” is all you know about Tennessee Williams’ plays, a new edition of “The Glass Menagerie” coinciding with the late Mississippian’s hundredth birthday should persuade you that something monumental was occurring in theater in Chicago on December 26, 1944.
That evening—while on the other side of the world German combat divisions were hurling themselves at the battered and beleaguered U.S. 101st Airborne at Bastogne—the Civic Theatre was mounting the premiere of Williams’ pre-war-set, very interior drama “The Glass Menagerie.”
Just as the face of the world would be changed by the ensuing rollback of the Nazis’ last desperate military offensive, “Menagerie” marked a quieter but nonetheless dramatic shift in theater. Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) reports that not only was “Menagerie” Williams’ first great success, but argues indisputably that it raised expectations for Williams’ work and for American drama.
Millions have been affected by both stage and film dramatizations of “The Glass Menagerie,” moved by the plight of a dysfunctional American family whose matriarch, Amanda Wingfield, has never really recovered from the fall of her perceived grand life in Mississippi to the working-class streets of St. Louis. She hopes for better for her introverted unmarried daughter, Laura, as fragile as the tiny glass animals she tends.
Framing this drama are the voice and sense of failure of older brother Tom. In the midst of the late Depression, he works a low-paying, low-status job and seeks refuge in a nightlife of which his mother deeply disapproves; he yearns escape. Somehow the hopes and disappointments of all three focus on the imminent arrival of Laura’s first “gentleman caller.”
Arthur Miller said the play “in one stroke lifted lyricism to its highest level in our theater’s history.” The promise of “Menagerie” for Williams’ own career did not disappoint. He went on to write many other plays, including at least two bona fide masterpieces. And while Tom Wingfield need not have been a homosexual, Kushner finds clues in the masking of his behavior that he may have been closeted. In any case, Kushner argues “Menagerie” gave Williams license to be more explicit in future portrayals, paving the way for his own later coming out of the closet.
The collection includes Robert Duncan’s influential essay “The Homosexual in Society,” one of many pieces of content in addition to the play. There is material here for all fans of Williams and the theater, including reviews, Williams on his own success, his stab at a one-act happy-ending version of “Menagerie” and the short story that was his own source for the play.
Especially welcome here are photographs of casts and scenes from various productions of “The Glass Menagerie.” Who could ever forget the doe-eyed Jane Wyman as movie Laura?
And despite the sadness, writes Kushner, “Menagerie” illustrates perfectly Williams’ “deep-seated faith in the power of connection… It is because of this faith, perhaps, that the first word spoken … is ‘yes.’”
The plight of the Wingfields has moved audiences for nearly seven decades. Learn or rediscover why here. (Martin Northway)
“‘The Glass Menagerie’: Deluxe Centennial Edition”
By Tennessee Williams with an introduction by Tony Kushner
New Directions Books, 256 pages, $27