Q: How does the breaking of glass animals function as a symbol throughout the play?
A: When Tom breaks one of Laura's glass animals, it corresponds with the shattering of his family's illusions about himself. But when Laura accidentally breaks one herself, while dancing with Jim, it suggests that she is poking a small hole into her emotional defenses, and opening herself up to the possibility of love (and of pain). The horn breaking off the unicorn depicts the animal now becoming "normal," while the breaking of the glass also symbolizes Laura's transformation into an ordinary girl who can love and hurt like everyone else.
Q: What is the symbolism of the fire escape?
A: Clearly the fire escape is the first step out of the Wingfield apartment for Tom. By retreating to the fire escape (by escaping the fire), he can preserve his sanity just a bit longer, until he finally is forced to make a clean break of it and leave altogether. Symbolically, Laura falls on her only attempt to go on to the fire escape. Indeed, she will break and shatter if she ever tries to leave like Tom.
Q: In Williams' character descriptions, Jim is described only as "a nice, ordinary young man" while the Wingfields each get much more substantial treatment. Why?
A: Because Jim is just that - a nice, ordinary young man, an intentional cipher. His importance is in his ordinariness. Amanda pins all the hopes and dreams of her family on this elusive gentleman caller, completely regardless of who this gentleman caller may be. He is a purely symbolic figure for the Wingfields.
Q: The original script of the play included direction for magic-lantern slides, projecting key images and phrases during the action. This device was not used in the original Broadway production, nor most subsequent revivals. What do you think of this device? Would you include it?
A: The slides are the one sure sign that Glass Menagerie is a first-time play - all else is tightly crafted professional writing, but the slides declame a lack of confidence in the material on its own. They are clearly unnecessary.
Q: Tennessee Williams writes particularly Southern plays, and has a fascination with the faded detritus of the antebellum period. Amanda Wingfield shares much in common with Williams' most famous heroine, A Streetcar Named Desire's Blanche Dubois. Compare these characters.
A: Both Amanda and Blanche cling to the mores of a departed social structure, and both escape into this fantasy to avoid the depressing reality of their lives. But Blanche's fantasy presses strongly into psychosis, while Amanda is merely in denial. Notable also is that Blanche remains firmly within her delusions at Streetcar's conclusion, while Amanda ultimately faces the truth of her situation.
Parallels can be drawn as well between Jim and A Streetcar Named Desire's Mitch. How are these characters similar in development and function?
Aside from both being gentleman callers, these characters are also both thinly drawn types - men who aspire to normalcy and achieve it. They are purposely bland cyphers on which the heroines can cast their charms and illusions.
Q: Many Williams plays have a non-present character - Skipper in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sebastian in Suddenly Last Summer, Allan in A Streetcar Named Desire, and Mr. Wingfield in Glass Menagerie. What is Mr. Wingfield's role in Glass Menagerie, and how does he compare to the other absentee Williams men?
A: Mr. Wingfield's non-presence looms over the proceedings, staring out at the apartment and the audience. Likewise, the specter of a husband - Amanda's or Laura's - looms over the Wingfield family's life. However, it is Tom who is more similar to the other absentee Williams men than Mr. Wingfield is. Like Allan and Sebastian, he is a poet. Like all three, he is probably gay. And at the end of the play, he too becomes an absent figure. In this way, Glass Menagerie is an origin story for the absentee men of Williams' later work.
Q: So where does Tom go at night?
A: It could be the movies, like he says. It could be the dance hall. He could be going to the movies in order to cruise for men. We don't need to know - all we need to know is that he escapes, and his escapes are growing longer and longer, and that eventually, like the dove on the Ark, he won't come back to his cage.
Q: How does the social situation of the world at the time of the play's setting affect the characters?
A: The play is set in the late 30s, and the outside world is brought in by Tom, who references Guernica and the Spanish Civil War (and audience members know that this was also the time of Hitler's rise to power). The references to the war raging in the world gives urgency to Tom's life - somewhere things are happening, somewhere revolutions are being fought, somewhere heroes are being forged, but here, only the tea is getting cold.
Q: One of the last lines of the play is Tom's observation that now the world is lit by lightning. How is this applicable to the play we just saw?
A: Lightning allows brief flashes of vision/insight, tableaus surrounded by darkness. Memory - and a memory play - function likewise. Tom has showed us isolated scenes in stark electrical light, far truer than real life could be. The lightning is the lens of memory.