Summary of Scene 1 of The Glass Menagerie
The Glass Menagerie, written by Tennessee Williams (born Thomas Lanier Williams III), is an unusual play because it is a memory play that is full of poetic imagery and symbolism. The play has stage directions that are as important for a true understanding of the play as the characters' speeches. Williams uses the stage directions to get across his themes. His themes are that people's memories are different from reality, that people (especially those in the lower and middle classes) cannot truly escape from the reality of their lives, and that in order to achieve their own dreams, individuals sometimes must stop helping others.
The play begins with complex stage directions which create a set intended to show the audience that memory and life can be cloudy, uncertain, and emotional. When the audience enters the theater and looks at the stage, they see a curtain. When the curtain rises, they see a transparent wall. (The wall can be made of a wood frame with cloth which can be painted to look like a back tenement wall—the back of a run-down apartment building. When lights are dimmed in front of it and turned on behind it, viewers can see through it). Through the wall, they can see the living room and through a second transparent wall, they can see a dining room at the back of the stage. On the left-hand side (actor's stage right), they see a fire escape.
Williams writes that the only entrance to the St. Louis apartment is through the alley fire escape because he says apartment buildings symbolize "the slow and implacable fires of human desperation." (Williams uses the fire escape to show that the characters (and lower classes of people) are trapped and have few chances to escape. This creates a sad mood.) Although the stage directions say the apartment is on the ground floor, there probably are steps up to the front entrance. Since the play's characters live in the rear of the building, their stairway is the fire escape. On both sides of the stage, viewers see dark alleys filled with clothes-lines, garbage cans, and neighboring fire-escapes. These help create a dark mood and develop the theme that people cannot truly escape the reality of their lives. Even if people can leave the building by way of the fire escape, they arrive only at a depressing alley.
Williams develops his theme of memory not accurately reflecting reality in his stage directions when he writes, "The scene is memory and is therefore non-realistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits [leaves out] some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart. The interior is therefore rather dim and poetic."
Williams describes the living room. It has a sofa which folds out into a bed where Laura Wingfield sleeps. Laura's transparent glass animals are on a "what-not" (a stand with several shelves). A large photo of Laura's father hangs on the wall of the living room, facing the audience. The picture shows a handsome young man wearing a First World War cap. He is smiling, as if to say, "I will be smiling forever." A typewriter keyboard chart and a Gregg shorthand diagram hang on the wall near the photo. Under them, there is a typewriter on a small table.
According to the stage directions, Tom “takes whatever license with dramatic convention is convenient to his purposes.” (This allows Williams to show the inconsistency and inaccuracy of memory.)
The play begins when Tom Wingfield (Laura's brother) walks from an alley to the fire escape near the front of the stage. He is dressed like a merchant sailor and is smoking a cigarette. He speaks to the audience, "…I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion. (Tom's words give a dreamlike quality to the play. The play will consist of his memories, some factual, some distorted. ) Tom continues speaking, "To begin with, I turn back time. I reverse it to that quaint period, the thirties…" Tom continues, explaining the social and historical background of the play: the American working classes are still suffering from the effects of the Great Depression and there are labor riots. The civil war in Spain has just led to a massacre of civilians at Guernica.
Stage directions call for music to begin to play. Tom says, "The play is memory." He adds, "Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic." He says, "In memory everything seems to happen to music." Tom also describes his roles in the play (narrator and character in the play as well as the writer of the play) and describes the other characters: his mother Amanda, his sister Laura, and a gentleman caller who appears in the final scenes. Tom says that the gentleman is the most realistic character in the play, because he is "an emissary," a representative from the world of reality that the other characters were somehow set apart from. (Tom is saying that he and his family were dreamers, set apart from reality.) Tom says that he has a "poet's weakness for symbols" and the gentleman caller is the symbol of "the long-delayed but always expected something that we live for." (The gentleman caller represents the hope people have that somehow their lives will get better.) Tom says his father, who had worked for the telephone company, appears only in the photo in the living room. He abandoned the family years ago and, except for a postcard from Mexico with the words, "Hello - Good-bye!" and no address, has not been heard from since.
Tom concludes his speech to the audience by saying, "I think the rest of the play will explain itself ...."
The audience hears Tom's mother – Amanda – speak, but they cannot hear her words. They see words appear on a screen by the fire escape, ""Où sont les neiges?" ("Where are the snows?"). This is a line from a famous 15th century French poem entitled "Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis" (Ballad of Women from Long Ago). In the first stanzas, the poem's speaker asks where famous women of long ago—women of history and myth—have gone. (The poem also mentions several men who associated with the women.) In the final stanza, the speaker addresses his listener, a prince, telling him never to ask about these women unless he also asks where the snows of long ago have gone. This conclusion is a reminder that death claims everyone, even women immortalized by their deeds, just as the warming temperatures of spring melt the snows of winter. (Source: http://www.cummingsstudyguides.net/Guides7/Villon.html)
Tom walks up the fire escape and goes into the now lit dining room at the back of the stage. His mother faces the audience. She tells Tom to come and sit down, so they can say "grace" (a prayer thanking God for food). (Since Tom has not sat down, he is separated from mother and sister and symbolically from God's blessing.) He and his sister Laura sit at the ends of the table. They all use eating gestures, but there is no food or utensils. (This helps viewers think of the play as being like a dream, like a memory, instead of being realistic.)
After Tom sits and begins eating, his mother keeps nagging him about how he eats. She tells him not to use his fingers and to chew slowly. He gets upset, says he can't enjoy his meal, and is going to go have a cigarette. His mother says he smokes too much and isn't excused from the table, but he leaves anyway.
Laura gets up to get something, but Amanda calls her "sister" and insists that she sit down to keep herself fresh for gentlemen callers (visitors), even though none were expected. (Calling her daughter "sister" shows that Amanda is trying to hold on to her youth.) Amanda then begins to tell her often-told story about the Sunday afternoon long ago when she entertained seventeen gentlemen callers in her home in Blue Mountain, Mississippi. Tom, standing off to the side while he smokes, doesn't want to listen but kind Laura asks him to listen again, so he does. He asks his mother what appear to be questions he has asked before. Amanda answers by describing the men who had visited her as wealthy, polite gentleman from plantations. who visited her: Champ Laughlin who later became vice-president of the Delta Planters Bank, Hadley Stevenson who was drowned in Moon Lake and left his widow one hundred and fifty thousand in Government bonds, and the brothers, Wesley and Bates Cutrere. Amanda says Bates fought with the "wild Wainwright boy" at the Moon Lake Casino where Bates was shot in the stomach and died in the ambulance on his way to Memphis. He left his widow eight or ten thousand acres, but Amanda says Bates never loved his wife because he carried a picture of Amanda always, even on the night he died. As she speaks, a picture of a young Amanda is projected onto a screen. Then the words "Où sont les neiges d'antan?" (Where are the snows of yesteryear?" are projected. (By projecting the picture of Amanda as a young woman and following it with the question asking where the snows of yesteryear are, Williams creates a very sad mood and develops his theme that, although they will try to avoid reality, people cannot escape the reality of their lives and the reality that they will die. People's lives are like the snow, melting away into nothingness. Most of the men Amanda discusses have died. This shows she lives in the past. By living in her memories, she and the men she knew remain forever young. Amanda is trying not to think about her aging and eventual death.)
As Amanda finishes her story, she finally does acknowledge reality by mentioning a man named Fitzhugh who is still alive. She says he made a fortune on Wall Street, and she could have been rich if she had married him instead of choosing Tom's father. (It is Tom who forces Amanda back into reality by asking what Fitzhugh had left his widow. To reply to his question, Amanda must enter back into the present, revealing that Fitzhugh has no widow. He is alive and better off than Amanda is. Amanda knows her life could have been different if she had married someone else.)
Laura gets up to take the dishes off of the table, but her mother stops her. She says Laura needs to go practice her shorthand (a method of rapid handwriting that uses simple strokes and symbols to represent letters, words, or phrases) and typing and keep herself ready for gentlemen callers.
Laura explains that no gentlemen callers will come for her, since she is not as popular as her mother once was. Tom groans. Laura tells Tom that their mother is afraid that Laura will end up an old maid. (Tom clearly loves Laura, but he wishes she would stand up to their mother instead of doing whatever their mother wants.) The lights dim as the Glass Menagerie music plays.