Critical Overview of The Glass Menagerie – Tennessee Williams
The play “The Glass Menagerie” is conceived as a memory play with the audience watching it through Tom’s memory. Tom is also the principal male character here. Williams uses elaborate stage directions so that the audience can distinguish between the two roles. While within the play there is scope for actors to explore their own idiom, the directions help to accentuate the unreal dreamlike quality of the setting, develop the characters and hint at events that are yet to come. The Glass Menagerie is one of the first plays to explore cinematic elements through the use of lighting and the screen on which images and words are projected. It may appear contrived and heavy to modern audiences but when it was first staged, it was perceived as the cutting edge of technology.
The stage directions deal to a large extent with music that is an integral part of the play. Music is symbolically used to heighten the impact of a scene. The music does not play at a regular pitch right through a scene but swells and recedes according to the emotions of the characters. The stage directions help the reader understand the connection between the glass menagerie and Laura. She is fragile and breakable and cannot take the rough and tumble of life. Tom finds his house suffocating and he is torn between his love for his family and escape. The directions often refer to the absent father who “fell in love with long distances” and escaped the tyranny of domesticity. Many of Williams’ plays have an absent male character; no doubt, it is a throwback to his own father who was a travelling salesman who was often absent from home.
Tom has a double role to play in The Glass Menagerie. He is the narrator of the play as well as the main male character. Tom is the first character that appears on stage. Tom is pulled in several directions, he is suffocated by the atmosphere at home; he is stuck in a boring job, he is poorly paid and the weight of caring for his family hangs heavily on him. His mother Amanda has a loving nature but she wants him to get ahead in life. Like his father, Ton is drawn to an adventurous life where he has no cares or responsibilities. It is another matter that even when he gets his freedom, he finds no escape from memories of his dear sister, Laura.
Laura is the unicorn in the glass menagerie. She is different and strange. She has an unworldly beauty but is painfully conscious of her physical imperfections. Her lack of confidence prevents her from looking for advancement in life. Her mother, Amanda, wants Laura to equip herself for the world but unlike her brother, she does not realize the extent of Laura’s problems. Jim, the gentleman caller, diagnoses Laura’s problems straight away but is unable to help her.
Amanda swings between present and the past. She relives the glories of the days when she was a sought after Southern belle. Life is very harsh now but those memories sustain her. Though Amanda lives often in the past, savoring memories of her salad days, she is surprisingly conscious of the present need for her children to get ahead in life by doing courses. She is warmly appreciative of Jim for this reason. Amanda can be dominating, brooking no opposition once she has decided on something. She is tragic and comic at the same time. She is candid about the poor choice she made for a husband though she had many rich and eligible beaus during her heyday.
This is the gentleman caller for whom Amanda spruces up her house. For Laura, he is a shaft of light that brightens her world for a brief moment before dying away. It is Jim who is prescient enough to recognize that Laura lacks self confidence as she is acutely aware for her physical imperfection. He points out the way out for her but cannot be there to hold her hand as he is engaged to be married.
The action in The Glass Menagerie being a memory play, hinges on the memories of the main male character in the play, Tom Wingfield who is also the narrator. Tom is a young man who aspires to be a poet while being stuck to a boring job which he needs to support his mother and his sister, Laura. The father is absent having skipped the town wanting to lead the life of a wanderer. Amanda, the mother often regales her children with stories of her salad days when she had scores of admirers. But not having the best judgment she chooses a handsome but thoroughly unsuitable man as her husband. Now she wants her children to equip themselves to get on with their lives and find success. But Laura, her daughter, is painfully shy and very conscious of a physical infirmity that destroys her confidence completely. She had been enrolled in a business college but she finds the experience of there so unnerving that she skips classes and spends all her time wandering the city without the knowledge of her mother.
Tom finds the situation at home so stifling that he takes off to the movies as a means of escape. Increasingly his thoughts go in the direction of escape from his home. The fake jollity of his mother and the drudgery of his job are all things that push him towards escape. Amanda belatedly realizes that Laura will never make a career for herself and launches into plans to get her married. Tom is exhorted to bring home friends (he has none!) so that Laura has a chance to meet young men. The one man who comes calling happens to be the young person on whom Laura had a huge crush on. But Laura is so overcome by shyness and confusion that she refuses to come for dinner. Amanda is not one to let this chance go amiss and contrives for Laura and Jim to be together. Jim has no recollection of Laura but she jogs his memory and he recalls the shy girl whom he used to call Blue Roses. She had once had pleurosis while in High School and he humorously referred to her as Blue Roses ever since. Laura confesses to her feelings for him. Jim is touched by this and wants to help her. He praises her uniqueness and tells her to overcome her shyness in order to succeed in life. They dance and in the processes Jim knocks over the glass unicorn that Laura cherishes. Laura does not mind it as the unicorn has lost its horn and become like the other horses in the menagerie. Jim fleetingly kisses Laura but her hopes are dashed because Jim reveals that he is engaged to be married to another girl. Laura gives the broken unicorn to Jim as a memento.
When Amanda comes to know that Jim is engaged, she maintains a civil appearance until he leaves but is later furious at Tom for having brought home this ‘unsuitable’ suitor for his sister and exposed her to more disappointment. After one terrific row, Tom leaves home. This is the final escape for him but not real freedom as in all his wanderings his sister’s face continues to haunt him.
The Glass Menagerie is an intensely autobiographical play with the characters thinly veiled representations of Williams’ family. Tom is the playwright, Laura is his sister Rose (hence “Blue Roses”), and Amanda is his mother, Edwina. His frequently absent father is also there as Tom’s father who “fell in love with long distances”. The play is set in the Great Depression of the Thirties when jobs were few and family wealth disappeared faster than spring snow. When the play was first staged in 1944, America was going through the many of the difficulties of the Second World War. Tennessee William’s troubled childhood when they moved from city to city along with his alcoholic father, his mother Edwina’s bouts of hysteria and his sister Rose’s mental illness all went to shape his psyche. Williams’ school and college education were frequently disrupted by his father’s vagaries.
When the play opened for the first time in Chicago for the first time, the response was lukewarm. But critics championed the play and it ran to packed houses where ever a show was on. Williams became a household name and that brought him money. But he was not happy with the instant fame as he sets forth in his “Catastrophe of Success”. Alcoholism, depression and substance abuse were part of his life ever since then till his death.
Williams uses every day language in The Glass Menagerie. The diction is not dominantly Southern. But when Amanda speaks to Jim, she is eager to please him as he is the ‘gentleman caller’ and she slips unconsciously into the long vowels of the South. Amanda’s conversations with her RDA friends also have a different kind of language than when she speaks to her children.
Critical Overview of Death Of A Salesman – Arthur Miller
Using stage directions and special effects, Arthur Miller creates tone and atmosphere while at the same communicating nonverbally with his audience. Lighting and sound are used to create images, irony, tone, metaphors and transitions. Directors have interpreted these stage directions variously, often giving it a personal idiom and touch that differs widely from each other. Several directors have used them exactly as the author intended. Miller’s stage directions are concise and clear. Often they go beyond being mere stage directions but interpret the character of the persona in the play. An example is the analysis of Linda Loman’s love for her husband that Miller provides as part of her description.
Some of the stage directions are open ended which can be interpreted in a metaphorical way. For example, the description of Willy Loman’s house as having “the air of night and a dream” is very suggestive but also open to various treatments. Directors have the license to follow the author’s meaning; alternatively, the director can interpret it in his or her way too.
Settings and props do not during the course of the play. Changes in mood and time are achieved through the extensive use of lighting. The green leafy pattern that appears on the stage signifies happy days and somber and stifling present is shown by the images of high rise buildings as a back-drop that seems to hem in the Loman residence. Music is also used to summon various moods. A single flute plays to indicate Loman’s confusion when he drifts in and out of the past and the present.
Willy Loman is the salesman hero of the play “The Death Of A Salesman”. He leads a life of delusion imagining himself to be a well liked and successful salesman pursuing the American Dream. It is not that he does not have the potential but his goals are misguided ones and he steadfastly refuses to see the writing on the wall. In his saner moments he has self doubts which he resolutely pushes away. When he feels insecure he lies to himself and his family. In his world of make believe, he is a hugely successful salesman. He tries to overcome his self doubt by being arrogant and aggressive. Every now and then, his insecurities get the better of him and he pleads for support and guidance. To the audience it is clear that he has never been successful or popular. As he grows older, his problems keep compounding. He wants his children to be better than others. He wants his son Biff to chase the American Dream though he knows that Biff’s ambitions lie elsewhere.
As he loses hold on reality, Wily escapes into the past, having conversations with imaginary family and friends. Escape becomes his goal. Seeking escape from reality, he has an affair with “The Woman” as that gives him an ego boost and makes him feel in control. Even at the moment of death he deludes himself that the money that insurance brings will set Biff on the road to business and prosperity. He refuses to acknowledge that his son has dreams of his own.
Linda is Willy’s doting wife who tries to protect him from disillusionment. She is wrapped in the pursuit of being a perfect wife that she does not realize her husband’s failings. Even when Willy cheats on her she remains unaware of it. She has no idea of their finances as she thought that her husband was the best person to take care of the family’s finances. She too is a victim of the American Dream as she equates material possessions with happiness.
When it comes to her children, she is not so delusional as her husband. She perturbed by Biff’s poor performance in Maths and his kleptomania but her husband does not give her support. When Willy dies, Linda is genuinely perplexed by the absence of mourners because in her estimate, Willy was a well liked person.
Biff is the only Loman is not a devotee of the American Dream. He starts off as an All American High School hero but soon finds that his life is on a downward slide. He fails in Math in High School so though he had a football scholarship, he cannot go to the university. He is also a kleptomaniac who cannot keep his hands off other people’s possessions. Somewhere along the line he realizes that a simple life in the country close to nature is what gives him satisfaction. He tries to make his father understand that but his father has been dreaming of living his life through his son’s. Willy wants Biff to enter business and make money. Respect for his father disappears when Biff discovers that he has been cheating on his mother. Biff wants his father to love him for what he is and not what he should be.
Happy is Willly’s second son. Willy has been so besotted with Biff, his first son, that he does not give much attention to his second son. Nevertheless he has inherited his father’s unrealistic dreams. He moderately successful in business but that does not bring him satisfaction. He thinks the way to joy is to have more possessions. To overcome his inadequacies he leads a promiscuous life pursuing call girls. In spite of doing everything that he thinks is right, Happy cannot find happiness. The name that his father has chosen for him is ironic as happiness eludes him.
Charley is Willy’s neighbor. He seems to be unlike Willy in every way but to Willy’s chagrin, Charley is successful in work and has a son who is doing well. Charley is contented with his life and is sure of what he is doing so he does not brag all the time. Willy is jealous of his neighbor’s success and puts him down all the time but Charley does not let it affect him but tries to help with advice and the offer of a job.
Willy Loman, an aging salesman is returning home from yet another unsuccessful sales trip. In a rare candid moment, he realizes that he cannot drive himself about anymore. Linda suggests that he move to a desk job in New York. Willy deludes himself that this should be easy as a valued employee of his company. Willy and Linda have two grown sons, Biff and Happy. Their names are misleading as Biff is not a confident large individual nor is Happy, happy. Biff started off as being a High School hero winning a football scholarship to the university. His life unravels as he fails Maths and cannot go to the University. Now he works as a farm hand somewhere in the West. Willy is bitterly disappointed in his son. He had wanted Biff to enter business and be a success so that Willy could forget his own failures.
Later in the night, Willy starts hallucinating and talks to imaginary people. His loud talk wakes up the house. The sons, Biff and Happy are worried. Biff feels that maybe he should stay at home and enter business so that he can stay close to his father and fulfill his ambition. He decides to ask a previous employer for a loan. That night Linda, Willy’s wife reveals to the sons that they have little money to live on. Willy has been suicidal too. Linda blames Biff for being the cause of Willy’s problems. Willy now enters the conversation and argues with Biff as he does not approve of Biff’s desire for a life in the country. Hoping to calm both of them, Happy reveals Biff’s plans of asking his old employer for a loan. Willy fools himself into thinking that Biff will now go into business and be successful. The whole family waits for next day when their American Dreams will come true.
Everything goes wrong for the family the next day. Willy, contrary to being given a local job, ends getting fired. Biff is thrown out with no loan. The stress sets off Willy’s hallucinations again. When he meets his sons for lunch in a restaurant he is so wrought that he refuses to believe that Biff does not want any part of the American Dream. He slips into the past rapidly. Seeing the father in this state, the sons go off with their dates. When they come home Linda is mad at them for leaving their father alone in the restaurant. Biff tries to make the family understand that all of them are failures though they have pretending otherwise. Willy still cannot accept that. He feels that if Biff gets money he will stay behind and chase wealth. He drives off in his car and crashes it so that the insurance money will go to Biff. Even at death, he does not abandon his dream of material success. At the funeral, there are no mourners. Linda cannot understand why such a popular man’s passing is not being observed. She still believes in that lie.
Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman has at its core the tragic conflicts within a dysfunctional family. It is also an indictment of what can be called the American national values, especially the ones that existed in the years following the Second World War. Miller was very critical of the myth of capitalist materialism that was widely propagated as the only way to prosperity. Post-war, industries turned from manufacturing goods meant for war to domestic goods. Advertising agencies unleashed an aggressive blitz in order to coax buyers to spend money. Material possessions were equated with happiness. Success was measured in terms of automobiles and appliances. Racial tensions simmered under the surface of the American society and often burst out into the open. As a reaction to the nauseatingly smug American attitude regarding its golden age, several artists mounted scathing attacks on the prevalent beliefs. Writers and artists were influenced by the philosophies and theories of scientists and thinkers like Fre ud, Jung and Kafka. Existential philosophy found many followers. Anyone who spoke against the dominant theory was viewed with grave suspicion and branded Communist. The dominant super powers of Miller’s times viewed each other with distrust and rank suspicion and worked to undermine each other’s influence around the world. Countries had to belong to one block or the other.
Death Of A Salesman was loosely based on Miller’s troubled relationship with his uncle, Manny Newman. He imagined that his son and Miller were in competition for success in the world. Newman could not take failure and demanded that everyone at home be supremely confident. Miller’s portrayal of the fictional character of Willy Loman touched the hearts of many in America who identified themselves in Willy Loman.
The language of Death Of A Salesman is purposeful, complex and fascinating. There is a combination of powerful sweeping images, word choices, strange tenses, symbolism and realism. At time some of the utterances by characters seem not to fit in. But these are conscious choices made by the playwright. The language spoken by a character can be a clue to the nature of a character. It gives insight into how that character is to be played by an artist.