Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
Tennessee's Finest: Teaching "The Glass Menagerie"
You can keep your Liz Taylor screaming in her white sundresses, and your bellowing Marlon Brando in an undershirt bellowing outside Stella's window: I think Tennessee William's finest work isn't A Streetcar Named Desire or Suddenly Last Summer, or even Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Genius as they all are, I think his most magical, lyrical play is The Glass Menagerie.
My affection for the play is tried and true. Through circumstances not entirely of my choosing (having been cast as Laura and forced to direct several scenes from the play — not simultaneously — on my way to a BFA in Theatre), I've seen the play from several theatrical angles. When the time arrived for me to begin teaching it to my Sophomore English class, I was entirely skeptical that a 21st-century pack of robust teenage girls, all cell phones and body glitter, would relate to the fragile little heart that is that play. How wrong I was! For what Williams' masterpiece really is, when you get down to it, is a play about a bunch of people who do not fit in? and what are our teenage years but the time in which we most try — and often fail — to fit in to an unknowable, just-out-of-our-grasp norm?
It is easy to make fun of the play (and if you want to, I highly recommend Christopher Durang's brilliantly funny parody For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls), but I hope you'll give it a chance in your classroom. Here's why.
Is that a symbol, or did I just get hit on the head with a hammer?
Have you ever watched a teenager watch a soap opera? They often truly buy into every twist and turn with gleefully shocked delight. This is because, unless they had the world's worst parents, most teenagers are witnessing the schlocky plot-twisty nature of a soap opera for the first time. As adults, many of us are either numb to the predictable twists or watch them with ironic glee or forced naivete.
I bring this up because The Glass Menagerie employs symbolism in about the same way a soap opera employs a plot twist, only possibly less subtly. The unicorn! Could it stand for Laura? And its horn! Could it be her specialness? And might it break off! Could she now be? Just. Like. All. The. Other. Horses???
Ah, well, Tennessee Williams had many charms, but subtlety was not one of them. That works for us in the language arts classroom. Symbolism can be tricky to spot, and many students worry that they are not properly identifying what a symbol is, well, symbolizing. This play makes it relatively easy to figure that pesky literary element out. In fact, when a student would worry about not really getting symbolism, I would often say, "Come back to me after we read this play, and let me know if you still don't get it." They rarely had to do so.
And in Williams' defense, I would point out that his tremendous gift for dialogue, florid or no, makes the above mentioned scene work. Jim, Laura's long-sought-after gentleman caller, has turned out to be kind of a bumblebutt, and has broken her favorite glass animal, just as he's broken her heart. The point is made in William's dialogue, but the beauty of how it's written leaves open interpretation by actors and a director (or readers) — is Laura worse off now that her dream has died? Contrarian that I am, I think she's better off on some level. It wasn't a dream that was going to come true, and I think false dreams hurt more than reality. Buy me a drink some time, we'll discuss.
Oh, Yeah, Dreams.
The desires and dreams of the characters are what make this play go propulsively forward. After all, this isn't a play of big reveals and plot twists: the gentleman caller doesn't turn out to be Keyser Soze. It's a play about people wanting things really, really badly. They all want things on the surface: Tom wants to get the heck out of there. Amanda wants some stability. Laura wants Jim. Jim wants all the Wingfields, and really, everyone on the planet, to like him. They also want things that are far more subtle: Tom to leave assured his mother and sister are safe. Amanda to feel like a young woman, full of possibilities, again. Laura to avoid maturity. Jim to feel like he did back in high school, king of the campus.
Anyone can relate to these wants and needs, but teenagers especially can understand. I ask my class to read the first act of the play and then to write about which of the three characters (Jim doesn't enter until later) they most identify with. It fascinated me that inevitably I would get at least one essay naming each character. And almost always the essay would align the writer with Amanda, Laura or Tom, and then lash out at the character holding them back. Amanda-lovers wanted Laura outta there, while Tom-identifiers hated Amanda's meddling ways. Each character is so peculiar within his or her own constraints of dreams that identifying with one seemed to naturally create an antagonism for another.
This thesis and antithesis approach to understanding the play is instinctive for teenagers, and shows the depth of Williams' understanding of how family works. Our culture loves the idea of a family enmeshing itself together during a child's maturing years. The Glass Menagerie shows the underbelly of what sometimes happens which such an enmeshing occurs.
Charm! And Vitality! And?.Charm!
As I usually do, I've created a vocabulary word list to go with the work I'm discussing. You'll find this one here. Please note the word vitality in particular. You'll want to make sure your students understand this word before reading the play, as it comes up again and again, naming a quality that both Jim and Amanda (but rarely Tom or Laura) are described as having. I like to point this out to my students and discuss why they think Williams keeps coming back to this idea as, well, vital, in his characterizations.
And It's from the South, Y'all.
Just last month, writing about The Secret Life of Bees, I wrote about how wonderfully evocative of the South that book was. Tennessee Williams, of course, was a Southern writer (and I realize that my dreams to someday be known as Pennsylvania Reed will probably not reach fruition because Pennsylvania is squarely Mid-Atlantic), and his characters live and breath the South. But in this play, he endows Amanda with what was probably a tribute to his mother's genteel Southern roots (indeed, the play is often considered to be autobiographical) by making her a former Plantation princess. From her entrance until the end of the play, Amanda chatters on (and on) about life on the plantation, specifically her gentlemen callers. You'll want to be sure your students have an understanding of what that life was like, so they can contrast it with her life now.
And watch for Amanda's code-switching when Jim comes to dinner. Her long speeches to him — one is popularly known as "the jonquil speech" because she goes off about jonquils for a good two minutes — get more and more Southern. Your students can see it right on the page. Why, all of a sudden, she droppin' her g's and her voweeellls suddenly get lawngerrrr.
Yeah, like that. Ask your students why this happens here? What is Tennessee Williams evoking for this character? She's not just manipulating Jim with her charm, for she never uses this trick earlier when manipulating her children. Something about Jim genuinely brings back a world, of servants and mansions and jonquils, that's long gone but sorely missed. Williams' use of language to evoke that world is magical.
Multi-Media Extravaganza or Slides on a Bedsheet?
Another aspect of the play I like to point out to students is right at the beginning, when Williams' stage directions detail a series of scrims that move and change over the course of the play as well as a series of projections on a screen in the back or projected over the action. These projections sometimes reinforce the action on the stage and sometimes comment on it.
Here's the thing. No one ever uses those projections. Now, I know, the minute this story goes up, someone will comment that when they were in Berlin, they saw a production of the play in a basement that used projections. Cool. What I mean is that no major American production that I know of has used these projections. Why not? What was Williams thinking when he created them? I think it's both cool and kind of weird that a major element as envisioned by the creator of one of the major plays of the 20th century is routinely ignored!
No one knows what goes on inside the head of a creator, of course, but I think this has something to do with the dichotomy of the transition Williams was making, and the nature of theatre at the time of the play's debut. Williams originally wrote the piece as a screenplay while under contract at MGM in the 1940's. Eventually, he changed the screenplay into a play, but I think the projections and light changes are an attempt to preserve the cinematic quality he envisioned. At the same time, 1940's theatre wasn't a big time for multi-media elements. So, the show opened in 1944 in Chicago, and went forward as a straight-ahead realistic drama. This, despite Tom's early-on statement: "The play is memory."
Today, of course, is a hot bed of multi-media elements. Seriously, I was in Lancaster, Pennsylvania last weekend, and I had my choice between a three-screen multi-media extravaganza about the Amish, and a five-screen multi-media experience about the Amish. (We chose to go outlet shopping). So, ask your students? would you want to see the projections, or not? If you're already putting the show on its feet (good for you!) with a little scene work, try making a few signs that read as the projections do. Do you students feel that the signs add to, or distract from, the meaning of the scenes?
Pity and Loneliness: Not Just the Province of a Thousand Emo Songs
It's probably not news to you that no one ever feels like they fit in. And, having been a teenager yourself, you probably recollect that you especially felt this way back then. And thus, here's where I'll make my final stand that this play is genius and perfect for your classroom. Not a single character feels like they fit in. But Williams' play evokes a variety of emotions from the audience (or readers). We identify with, and are repulsed by all of the characters. Their isolation from their society, their lost or soon-to-be-lost dreams, their desire for something more? all move us and make us feel that most classic of feelings that theatre's supposed to evoke: pity.
How did Williams achieve this? The use of language to dialogue, and dialogue to create character, and character to create an emotional response in the audience may seem like the most basic of the playwright's task. But it is far more difficult then it seems to use specificity of voice to peg characters as unique individuals. Here, Williams does it with near perfection. Laura's hesitancy and yet laser-like memory come through, and her knack for details seems to have come from her mother. For Amanda remembers everything. Williams also captures that her unique voice, which manages to annoy her family even as it saddens her audience, a clever trick. Tom's longing to be away, and the tinge of guilt that colors everything he says is clear, especially in his simple statements like, "I went much farther than the moon." And Jim — Jim's combination of bravado and nostalgia for his good old days is perfectly captured in how he deals with Laura. To kiss her before mentioning Betty, his fiancée? The ultimate selfish act, and few watchers could be unmoved with pity for Laura, and for Jim, no matter what we thought of them before that moment.