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Character Analysis (for playwrighting.net)
2008 -- R&G are Dead
- VII: The Glass Menagerie - Scene 1 - Scene 2 - Scene 3 - - Scene 5 - Scene 6 - Scene 7 notes Introductory Note to Tennessee Williams and The Glass Menagerie
THE MODERN DRAMA of Ibsen and Shaw and O'Neill--the long period of three generations in which, as we have said, the drama flourished in Europe, in Britain, and in America successively--seemed to have closed with World War II. Life with Father, whose comedic scene is laid at the beginning of that sixtyyear era, was written and produced at its end. Very different from Clarence Day's family reminiscences were those of the young poet and playwright who wrote The Glass Menagerie, ushering in the postwar drama.
Thomas Lanier ( Tennessee) Williams was born in 1914 in Columbus, Mississippi, the son of a traveling shoe salesman and an Episcopal clergyman's daughter, of an old Tennessee family. He spent his boyhood in the Mississippi rectory, frail because of diphtheria and eye cataract, with an indulgent mother, a sensitive sister, and a clerical grandfather with literary tastes. When he was thirteen, his father's promotion took the family to St. Louis, where they lived in tenement apartments. He helped his sister Rose whitepaint the walls and furniture of her dingy room and brighten it with her collection of glass animals, which were for him an enduring symbol. After high school he went to the University of Missouri at Columbia. He started well in 1931, but failed R.O.T.C. and slipped badly in his grades after being pledged ATO. It was his fraternity brothers who nicknamed him "Tennessee," which he chose to retain as his name. After two ineffective years, his father insisted that he go to work and got him a job in the shoe factory. He hated his daily work in those Depression years, and spent his nights reading and writing poetry and fiction, sleeping hardly at all. In two years he collapsed, and went to Memphis, where his grandparents now lived, to recuperate for a year. After he returned to St. Louis, his grandmother paid tuition for him to attend Washington University for a year. Helped by his mother, he went up to the State University of Iowa, studying playwriting under E. C. Mabie, and taking his A.B. in 1938.
Then he moved restlessly from place to place, maintaining himself with all manner of odd-jobs--bellhop, elevator boy, theater usher, waiter (giving recitations) in Greenwich Village--and writing continuously. He was twenty-five when a group of one-act plays won him a Group Theater award ( 1939), and he received a Rockefeller fellowship in playwriting to study with John Gassner at the New School for Social Research. The play he then wrote, Battle of Angels, was accepted by the Theater Guild, tried out in Boston in 1940, starring Miriam Hopkins and directed by Margaret Webster. This drama of decadence, sexuality, and violence outraged the audience, was banned by the Boston Watch and Ward, and was withdrawn as a dismal failure.
Tennessee Williams' creative promise warranted further financial grants. From 1940 on his one-act plays, attracting interest in the little theaters, were published annually among the Best One-Act Plays. Written with a friend, his full-length drama, You Touched Me, based upon a story by D. H. Lawrence, was tried out by the Cleveland and Pasadena Playhouses in 1943. Williams was given a contract to write for M-G-M, but his temperament was hardly congenial to dialogue for Lana Turner and was revolted by assignment to a Margaret O'Brien picture. His services were not required during the remainder of his six months' contract. He lay on the beach at Santa Monica and began turning an original story-idea, that M-G-M had rejected, into a play.
With the unexpected success of The Glass Menagerie as a prize play in 1945--of which more presently--Tennessee Williams found himself suddenly the center of unaccustomed attention. Within a year his earlier drama You Touched Me! was given a distinguished New York production for a three months' engagement; 27 Wagons Full of Cotton and Other One-Act Plays was published, and a volume of his short stories was soon promised; he was included in a volume of Poems of Five Young American Poets; and the thirtyyear-old author was hailed as the white hope of the postwar Drama to come. With success came stifling affluence. After another cataract operation, he went off to Mexico, where he wrote A Streetcar Named Desire. It was produced late in 1947, with Jessica Tandy as Blanche and Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, Ella Kazan directing. Its picture of a frustrated Southern belle turned prostitute was both shocking and fascinating. Awarded the Drama Critics' Circle Award and also the Pulitzer Prize, it played for more than two years in New York, was acclaimed both critically and internationally, and was skillfully filmed. Summer and Smoke, a further study of Southern decadence and despair, ran for three months in 1948; The Rose Tatoo, for the best part of the year 1951; Camino Real, for only two months in 1953.
Tennessee Williams, who has devoted himself to "the longings, the futilities, the frustrations at the heart of life," is of less than average height, round-faced, blue-eyed, with an amiable, boyish smile, and disarming honesty and gentleness. He dislikes urban life, enjoys swimming, and is utterly unconcerned about his clothes and appearance. For the most part uninterested in politics, he considers himself a moderate liberal. He is unmarried and footloose. Though he maintains an apartment in the Latin Quarter of New Orleans, he is an inveterate wanderer. He returns occasionally to see his family in St. Louis. His clerical grandfather, well into his nineties, continued a lively interest in his writing. Williams leaves money matters, about which he cares nothing, to his New York agent, Audrey Wood, but made over half the income from The Glass Menagerie to his mother.
With Eddie Dowling as coproducer and codirector, The Glass Menagerie opened in Chicago on a cold December 26, 1944, with Laurette Taylor (returning to the stage at sixty) as Mrs. Wingfield; Julie Haydon as Laura; Eddie Dowling himself as Tom, the narrator. The enthusiasm of the critics gradually won the play an increasing audience. Then, after thirteen weeks, it was taken to New York, where it received the Drama Critics' Circle Award for 1945. Other awards followed, by a Catholic journal and the Playwrights' Company. Though the critical reviews were mixed, the play was an undoubted success, with 563 performances in New York, a West Coast company with Pauline Lord, and a London company with Helen Hayes. In 1950 a none-too-distinguished film version, abandoning the dream-mood for realism, was made with Gertrude Lawrence, Jane Wyman, and Arthur Kennedy. In The Glass Menagerie, so Tennessee Williams is quoted, "I said all the nice things I have to say about people. The future will be harsher." It was.
[ Preface to Drama: An Introduction to Dramatic Literature and Theater Art Book by Charles W. Cooper; Ronald Press, 1955 ]
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