"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Sense of Isolation in The Glass Menagerie


Many of the women in Tennessee Williams’ plays have a poetic fragility – an ability to describe the lost worlds they inhabit with a lyricism that is unmatched in modern theatre.  Laura in Menagerie is perhaps the best example, but she is in the good company of Alma in Summer and Smoke (and especially in Williams’ re-write Eccentricities of a Nightingale) and Blanche in Streetcar. 

All of these women share the same Williams’ paradox – they live in this rich, Southern world of the past, a world of gentility, manners, and morals, but want to be saved from it.  Laura’s gentleman caller, Blanche’s Mitch, and Alma’s Tom are all these hoped-for but yet feared saviors.

Laura lives in the closed world of her house in a poor section of St. Louis.  It is on an alley across from a dance hall and has none of the grandeur, openness, and warmth of the family’s Delta home. 

On both sides of the building [where Laura lives], dark, narrow alleys run into “murky canyons of tangled clotheslines, garbage cans, and sinister lattice-work of neighboring fire escapes”. The meaning of these alleys is clear if the reader recalls Tom’s picture of “Death Valley”, where cats were trapped and killed by a vicious dog.  The predicament becomes a symbol for his factory work, murderous to his creative imagination.  For Laura the alley represents the ugly world from which she retreats to gaze into her tiny glass figures.  For Amanda, too, the alley is the world of her present, hopeless poverty amid confusion from which she retreats into her make-believe world of memory and pretense. Inside the apartment where she tries to create an illusion of gentility, her husband’s portrait grins at her futile efforts (Tishler, The Glass Menagerie: The Revelation of Quiet Truth)

Her fragility or her madness – and the distinction is important in these Williams plays where women, because of their sensitivity to the roughness and horrors of the real world and their inability to adjust it, retreat and isolate themselves in a fantasy of the world long before left behind.  They are lyric poets whose existence is important as almost religious lights (his stage directions indicate that the lighting for Laura should resemble that “used in early religious portraits of female saints or madonnas”).  In the real world, they are suffering from a madness similar to, but not as acute as that of Rose, Williams’ sister; but in the world of the plays, they are visionaries, saints.  Williams himself says: “Personal lyricism is the outcry of prisoner to prisoner from the cell in solitary where each is confined for the duration of his life”.

The critic Frank Durham says: "It is the myth of the alienated, the lost, seeing some sort of tenable posture in the present chaos.  It is the poet’s vision” (Tennessee Williams: Theatre in Prose)

The religious tone is not limited to this lighting effect, but is central to the play, for Laura’s isolation is more than just a poetic or secular visionary one, but a religious one – she has seen an apocalyptic vision and stands pure and unsullied within it.  Religious imagery occurs throughout – the gentleman caller’s name is O’Connor, meaning fish, the symbol of Christ.  The unicorn (Laura’s most precious glass figurine) since Greek times was a symbol of purity and grace which could only be caught by a virgin.  The vulgar play that Tom sees is a religious one where Malvolio turns water into wine and then goes on to turn it to beer, then whisky.  The scene where Tom, the Savior, enters, is in the Readers Version, announced as The Annunciation.  While some critics see the play as a very Christian play (books of criticism have been written about the religiosity of Williams’ works) and deconstruct almost every utterance through this lens, it is more reasonable to interpret the play as stated above – the fragile poet as visionary who sees the horror and absurdity of the real world and who retreats into the fantasy world of her past. 

As Nancy Tischler says:

Unable to adapt to the modern scene of electrodynamics, [Laura] lives in a world of candlelight and fantasy.  The encounter with the machine age is brief and useless…Unlike Tom (her brother) Laura seems not to feel the ugliness and entombment of heir lives.  Incapable of this violence, she never steps into the world for fear it would be impossible to bear.  She merely stands on the brink and catches what she can of its beauty without becoming part of it – a lovely picture of the simple Rose who all through her brother’s (Williams) life represented to him everything good and beautiful, soft and gentle.

Williams’ conviction was that the modern world was not a good place and becoming worse not better.  He saw a very unstable and frightening world of 1939 when the wrote Menagerie. The Great Depression was still destroying people’s lives and world war imminent. The times were the worst he and most Americans had ever seen; and his conviction is understandable.  In his early plays, while not a social reformer, he was a social critic and had periods of fringe belief in an apocalypse caused by the idiocy of Man.  Retreat from this world was a natural, logical, state, not a neurotic and maladjusted one.  The alley, in a play of symbolism, represents this dirty, degrading, and hostile world.  As Tischler states:

Moving from the Deep South to St. Louis for his story, Williams retains the memory of the South, as a haunting presence under the superimposed Midwestern setting,. The audience, never seeing the gracious mansion that was the scene of Amanda’s girlhood, feels its remembered glory and its contrast to the mean present.  Awareness of the past is always an element in Williams’ plays.  His characters live beyond the fleeting moments of the drama – back into a glowing past and shrinking from a terrifying future.  For both Amanda and the later Blanche of Streetcar, the South forms an image of youth, love, purity, all of the ideals that have crumbled along with the mansions and the family fortunes.

At the same time his characters have the belief that the world outside cannot be all that bad.  After all, they all have memories of the idyllic past on the Delta.  Amanda often sits on the fire escape (again in a play of symbols, the escape to that past) and dreams of it. As symbolically, the illuminated picture of the departed and vagrant father sits in prominence on the mantelpiece – a smiling, confident, purposeful figure who left the sanctuary and went out into the world.  The gentleman caller is relevant on many levels – he is a prospective husband for the virgin Laura.  He is her Savior, as above; and he is the symbol of a world which could be. She wants to be saved by someone as pure and noble as herself but stronger to blunt the oppression of the world while protecting her spiritual virginity.

Inevitably, she is not saved:

At the end of Jim’s rapturous evocation, the illumination of his passage in Laura’s life is completely gone: “The holy candles in the altar of Laura’s face have been snuffed out. There is a look of almost infinite desolation”.

After a pause of crushing despair, Laura “opens her hand again on the broken glass ornament.  Then she gently takes his hand and raises it level with her own.  She carefully places the unicorn in the palm of his hand, then pushes his fingers closed upon it...

Laura retreats to the only refuge still available: “She rises unsteadily and crouches beside the victrola to wind it up”. This slight motion underlines Laura’s renunciation of the world; it makes clear, as Nelson has noted, that “she will never allow a Jim O’Connor to happen to her again”.

The characters in the play move in and out of time, and in and out of their isolation.  Laura takes the brief but disastrous step to trust in the gentleman caller, but then retreats forever.  Amanda has never been able to escape the real poverty of her life except by fugues to her past.  Tom struggles to leave his sister and mother and their fantasy worlds, but finds he cannot exist in the real world without them.  He realizes that he has neither the delicate nature which gives Laura her poetry, nor the lyrical past of his mother.

Williams sums up this play and his very personal feelings that led to it:

In this continual rush of time, so violent that it appears to be screaming, that deprives our actual lives of so much dignity and meaning, and it is, perhaps more than anything else, the arrest of time which has taken place in a completed work of art that gives certain plays their feeling of depth and significance….If the world of the play did not offer us this occasion to view its characters under that special condition of a world without time, then, indeed, the characters and occurrences of drama would become equally pointless, equally trivial, as corresponding meetings and happenings in life (Five Plays by Tennessee Williams).

In Menagerie time is stopped because of the countervailing forces of reality and fantasy.  They are deadlocked, stalemated.  Neither one exists except through the illusions of the play.  We are never in the real world, nor in the remembered world of the Delta.  Time is at a standstill because all is happening in imagination.  Only the brief encounter with Jim O’Connor breaks the stillness of no-time for an instant, and then he is gone and the world goes back to stasis.  Isolation is restored.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.