The Glass Menagerie
By Tennessee Williams
Over the course of the season, our assistant directors and student dramaturgs will be compiling dramaturgical resources relating to each production as it develops. Below are some links to websites which relate to the history of the play, the biography of the playwright, and sites that contextualize and, we hope, shed light on the directorial approach to the dramatic material.
We hope you find these resources of interest.
Tennessee Williams (26 March 1911 – 25 February 1983)
Thomas Lanier Williams was born in 1911 as the son of a traveling salesman and an overbearing mother from a traditional genteel Southern family. He spent his early years in Mississippi, where he contracted diphtheria when he was five years old. At age eight, he moved with his family to St. Louis, Missouri. There, his mother’s obsession with improving social status and the unhappy marriage between her and his abusive father became more and more apparent.
The parallels between Williams’ own early family life in St. Louis and the setting of The Glass Menagerie have been extensively analyzed. Like Tom Wingfield, Williams had an older sister, Rose, who suffered from a different type of crippling disease (schizophrenia), which led to her eventual institutionalization. His father was a heavy drinker who spent much of his time away from home, and Williams himself went through stages of depression, alcoholism and drug abuse in later years.
Williams attended both high school and college in St. Louis, during which time he began to write extensively. However, he was forced to drop out of school in order to work in his father’s shoe factory, which only furthered his hatred of working-class life and the city itself.
After a nervous breakdown, Williams quit the factory, opting instead to finish his education at Washington University in St. Louis and then the University of Iowa. By the time of his graduation, several of his essays had won local and national contests, and two of his plays, Candles to the Sun and The Fugitive Kind had been produced by the Mummers of St. Louis.
After being awarded a Rockefeller Foundation grant in 1939 for his play Battle of Angels, Williams (who by then was known as “Tennessee,” after a college nickname) moved to New Orleans where he worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and signed a contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer.
There, he finished two of his greatest masterpieces, The Glass Menagerie, his first work to be produced on Broadway, and A Streetcar Named Desire. The Glass Menagerie was awarded the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award for best play of the season, while Streetcar was the recipient of the 1948 Pulitzer Prize. Over the next decade, he went on to write seven more Broadway plays, gaining international attention and earning a second Pulitzer (for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955).
However, Williams’ personal life was not received the same way. Being openly gay in the 1940s and 50s meant that he was subjected to much public criticism despite the success of his career. The death of his partner, Frank Merlo, in 1961 plunged Williams into a deeper bout of depression and drug abuse. He died in 1983 choking on a bottle cap in a hotel in New York City. Despite his demands to be cremated and buried at sea, his family had him buried in St. Louis.
Letters from Williams to his mother and sister can be read here.
See also the Tennessee Williams Annual Review.
Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is arguably one of the most important creative and emotive examinations of the social, political and economic environment of 1930s America. The decade witnessed the crippling force of the Great Depression, the enactment of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, and a cultural revolution vested in the singular importance of the radio, the growth of Hollywood glamour and burgeoning of the film industry.
Although the stock market crashed in October 1929, the real effects were not felt until the onset of the ‘30s. By 1933, one quarter of the workforce in America was unemployed. The years of 1936 and 1937 saw particularly fraught labor relations, culminating in riots such as the Memorial Day Massacre in Illinois, where ten steelworkers were killed and dozens more injured.
Rifts between those in labor unions and their superiors caused some corporations to hire their own vigilante police forces. Skirmishes like the Memorial Day Massacre were seen in places all over the country, such as Youngstown, San Francisco, and Minneapolis.
The strong, occasionally violent rise in the lower and middle-class workforce has been associated with the rise in radical liberal thought. In the midst of a faltering capitalist economy, many Americans formed labor unions and political groups that supported communist, Marxist, or socialist principles. Not only those in dire financial straits, but artists of all social classes were also attracted to the American Communist Party (CPUSA) because of its humanist ideals as well as the international solidarity it provided.
However, the grassroots communist front began to falter by the end of the decade with mounting questions about Stalin’s use of power in the Soviet Union, as well as the USSR’s non-aggression pact signed with Germany in 1939.
At the same time, there was an equally radical right-wing presence in the country, with dozens of fascist and totalitarian factions springing up. The Christian Front, one of the largest of these groups, strove for a kind of order and power that they saw exemplified in Hitler’s Germany, which they believed could revive America.
Culturally speaking, new media and mass culture helped to unify the nation where politics sought to divide it. There was a new drive to redefine American culture, particularly in isolation from Europe, as a country with its own artistic roots.This type of community was especially fostered by the heyday of the radio.
By the end of the decade, the medium reached over 80 percent of the nation’s population. One of the most defining programs of the era, of course, was FDR’s collection of fireside chats. Broadly speaking, the radio proved a crucially important medium to level cultural and regional differences within the country.