Playing the Indian Card

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Glass Menagerie

Tennessee Williams.

We know the play, “The Glass Menagerie” is full of symbolism. Tom, as narrator, alerts us to this at the beginning: “I have a poet's weakness for symbols.”

And the most obvious symbol is the glass unicorn and the glass menagerie. As the original meaning of “ménagerie” is “household,” the “glass menagerie” surely represents the family. A family of glass, an artificial and mythological creation.

But who is the unicorn, the star of the show? It seems most obviously to reflect its owner, Laura, who is singled out within the family as the “problem” member.

But the most obvious may not be true, in a family based on illusion and magic, in a play. Note what Jim, the gentleman caller, says of the unicorn when it first appears. “But aren’t unicorns extinct in the modern world?” This is an inane comment in the circumstances, and not literally true of unicorns. This should alert us to the presence of a symbol.

It also does not accurately describe Laura, making it seem less likely the unicorn symbolizes her. She is spoken of as an “old-fashioned girl,” but this is surely a polite fiction. Her personality is rather more extreme than that.

Yet, among the characters in the play, it is not Laura who lives in a fantasy world. It is not her who is out of touch with reality. At the beginning of the play, she is instead busy restraining her mother’s extravagant fantasies, reminding her of reality:

AMANDA: … Stay fresh and pretty! It's almost time for our gentlemen callers to start arriving. …
LAURA: … I don't believe we're going to receive any, Mother.

This other character in the play is more obviously something that is “extinct in the modern world”: Amanda, the mother. She represents herself as a southern aristocrat, a classic Southern Belle. But this is obviously at variance with her circumstances: she lives not in the rural south, but the urban Midwest; “one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living-units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centres.” She is not wealthy, but desperately poor. She is not courted by seventeen wealthy suitors at a time; she is abandoned by a husband who worked for the phone company. Nor could her supposed memories of her own supposed past be true. She speaks of being courted by wealthy planters and tended by black house-servants: a world that died with the Civil War in the 1860s. The time of the play, though, as pointed out in the prologue, is the 1930s, indeed the late thirties, during the Spanish Civil War. For her to really have had such experiences, she would have to be at least ninety years old.

Laura and the candles.

Her image of herself, her past, and her family are actually entirely mythological. Tom makes this yet clearer by warning us, in the prologue, that memory itself is mythic: “it is sentimental, it is not realistic.” She is, as she presents herself, a glass unicorn, lit by the reflected light of an audience’s willing suspension of disbelief.

She is by her nature an actress on a stage, and so the true centre of the play as play.

And like the unicorn in the glass menagerie, she is the star of the family. She is the first character mentioned by Tom as narrator, and the first character heard in the play.

Her image of herself is actually crafted of romance novels she has read: it is no accident that she speaks of “Gone With the Wind” with great admiration, as the compulsory reading of what must have been her youth, the years just after the first world war. She has invented herself as Scarlett O’Hara, reduced in her circumstances to St.Louis by the burning of Atlanta. Her enthusiasm for serial romances is obvious in her sales pitches on the telephone, which we are permitted to hear.

Her view of her children is similarly fictional. She speaks of Laura’s gentlemen callers, knowing she has none. She demands of Laura things she must know are unrealistic. She insists that Tom is not going to the movies every night—yet ironically, it seems he really is. To satisfy her, he invents a more lurid fantasy, in which he wears green whiskers and is known as “El Diablo.” Just as, to satisfy her, Laura must invent the fiction of going to business school.

Indeed, Laura seems to be acting out a script modeled for her by her mother. When Amanda returns home with the discovery that Laura has not been attending business college, she models all the behaviours that have forced Laura to drop out: she has skipped her DAR meeting just as Laura has skipped her typing course.

Tom, as narrator, makes it clear that the family is mythological: he describes Jim the caller, the one from outside, as the only “real” character in the play: “He is the most realistic character in the play, being an emissary from a world of reality that we were somehow set apart from.” The others are all manufactures of glass.

The image of glass carries the secondary suggestion that the illusion on which the family is founded is fragile. Glass creatures, as Laura points out and as the action demonstrate, are very fragile and require great care. Unicorns in particular.

So, for all that Amanda’s rule is tyrannical, it is also fragile. All it takes is a single intruder from outside, and the illusion begins to shatter. We find, once Jim is left alone with Laura, that she is not that shy after all. She will sit close to him; she is able to speak freely of her feelings for him; she is game to dance with him, and to accept a kiss. She turns out too to have her attractions for the opposite sex; it seems likely she could get, if not this gentleman caller, some other genuinely interested in a permanent relationship.

From the original Broadway production.

The unicorn falls, and loses its mythical qualities. It loses its horn, and becomes like any other horse.

So why, at the end of the play, is the illusion apparently still intact—Tom has perhaps escaped it, but apparently not Amanda and Laura?

It is Laura who is primarily responsible for this. She is the keeper of the menagerie. She is the keeper of the ancient phonograph. She is not the powerless creature she appears.

Tom seems well aware of this: it is Laura’s face that haunts him, and it is Laura to whom he appeals in the end to act: “blow out your candles, Laura.”

It stands to reason. As is pointed out, the beauty of the unicorn is borrowed: it is from the light of a candle playing through it; it does not shine by its own light.

Laura does seem to intervene regularly to keep the family together: urging, for example, her brother to apologize to her mother; warning her mother that Tom is not happy. Certainly it seems to be concern for her that keeps her brother from running off long before.

The fact that the children secretly control the illusion is brought out symbolically by the power failure in the play. This is secretly Tom’s doing: it is up to him to pay the light bill. When he departs, a major part of the light playing on the unicorn is gone.

But that leaves Laura’s candles, the three lit by Jim, which Tom urges her to blow out. Amanda remains sustained by the light of her belief.

Amanda goes on about what a burden her children are, and how she wishes they would succeed, and how incompetent they are without her. But it is they who are supporting her; she is making little money, it looks like, on sales commissions for her romance serials. She seems to be dong it largely because it gives her someone to talk to. She is telling her children, at the same time, that she wants them to leave and wants them to stay. She urges Tom to go ahead and live his dream of joining the Merchant Marine—“but not until you’ve found us a replacement.” She objects to his not staying home evenings. She wants Laura to begin a career, yet she wants her to get married.

No surprise that this double bind slowly drives Laura mad, just as the psychologist R.D. Lang would predict. “We know all about the tyranny of women,” Amanda ironically remarks.

We can imagine that Amanda, ultimately, feels lonely and needy: we suspect her fictions, her manipulations, and her dependence have driven her husband away, as soon as we see her interacting with Tom. We can see how hungry for conversation and how manipulative she seems in her telemarketing job. No doubt it is a craving for companionship that makes the job appealing to her.

Why does Laura sustain the illusion, since she suffers more than anyone for it—losing her chance at her own family, at career, ultimately losing her mind?

Perhaps she does it out of love; although perhaps misguided love. She seems to have a deep capacity for love: doting from a distance on Gentleman Jim since high school. She refuses to see him as anything less now.

Or maybe we should ask, why do we, as audience, come repeatedly to see this play? For our relation to it is Laura’s relation to her family: a willing suspension of disbelief. Although unpleasant in its portrayal of life, it lives illuminated by the light of our faith in it.

Ultimately, it is the attraction of beauty, of art, of myth. It is what attracts Tom to his films and his magic shows, what attracts Laura to her music and her art galleries. It is the beauty we all feel in a glass unicorn.

Given the chance at escape, given the unicorn operated on, no longer “freakish,” able to consort with common horses, Laura gives it away. It is no longer the wonderful thing it was.

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