The Glass Menagerie is a remarkable play in its own right, full of poetic beauty and aching drama, but it is also remarkable in the context of Tennessee Williams' greater body of work. It was his first produced play, and it ricocheted the young writer into uneasy stardom. "I was snatched out of virtual oblivion and thrust into sudden prominence," Williams wrote in his essay "The Catastrophe of Success," and it unnerved and demoralized him.
Fame discomforted Williams just as much later in his career. His second play, A Streetcar Named Desire, was revered and lauded even more than Menagerie, and together the two works are considered a pinnacle of American theater. Williams had a long and prolific career, stretching many decades past his early success, but he never escaped the shadow of his first two magnificent plays. "I am widely regarded as the ghost of a writer," he wrote in the New York Times in 1977, bemoaning the neglect that his later work received in favor of his first triumphs.
This is not the place to issue a defense of or tribute to the second act of Williams' career. Rather, it is worth observing The Glass Menagerie not only as an isolated play, but as an entry into a oeuvre with repeating symbols, motifs, and themes. Elements of Menagerie can be used to shed light on Williams' other prominent works. Likewise, the symbols of Streetcar and other plays can be traced backwards to a new understanding of Menagerie.
One of the most famous features of the Williams' oeuvre is the figure of the absent male character – the "dead gay guy" who haunts the proceedings of A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, and the one-act Suddenly Last Summer. Blanche's husband, Allen, shot himself after Blanche discovered his homosexuality; Skipper drank himself to death after realizing the nature of his love for Brick; and Sebastian was brutally killed while on a hedonistic vacation. Two were poets (Allen and Sebastian), two were suicides (Allen and Skipper), all three were gay, and all three were killed by a sort of societal punishment for their homosexuality.
The Glass Menagerie, on the other hand, has a different absentee male character. Mr. Wingfield is not implied to be gay, and he isn't dead – he is a telephone man who fell in love with long distances. His image hovers over the stage and shadows Amanda's life just like Williams' similar figures, but Mr. Wingfield is only the structural prototype for the dead gay guy. It is Tom who provides the character prototype. And yet, Tom is never overtly stated as being gay. It is not even hinted at in an avoid-the-censors sort of way. He is a poet, yes, and he spends the evenings away from the apartment, but his claim to attending the movies is supported by his speech about the false adventure of cinema.
And yet it is not unusual for Tom to be read or played as gay. This is in no small part drawn from the fact that Tom is a semi-autobiographical character. But aside from the obvious connection between Tom and Williams, a reader or viewer of Menagerie who is also fluent in Williams' other major plays can view the symbols of Menagerie with the lens of those symbols' appearance in Streetcar and other plays.
The obvious example is the emphasis on Tom as a poet. Yes, this is another autobiographical connection, but it also reflects Hayes-era coding of "poet" for "homosexual" (cf: the film of Streetcar, in which Blanche confronts Allan for being a poet). Other symbols from Streetcar can be read back into Menagerie as well. In Streetcar, the concept of paradise is closely tied up with destruction and sexuality; dance halls are a place of sexual degeneracy and doom; and colored lights are a continued symbol for sexual pleasure. And a prominent set piece of Menagerie has Tom standing on the fire escape, waxing poetic about the colored lights at the Paradise Dance Hall. It is not too much of a stretch to apply the Streetcar symbols to this particular image and find further connection between Tom Wingfield and Allan Grey.
So what does that give us? Nothing concrete, except perhaps an interesting glimpse into the development of that most famous Williams prototype of the 'dead gay guy.' Tom is not only the prototype – he is the origin story. In the other three plays, the dead gay guy is already gone and dead, and we only see the effect of his haunting non-presence on the women he left behind. In Menagerie, however, we get to see the character before he leaves. The Glass Menagerie is the story of Tom, while A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Suddenly Last Summer are the story of Amanda and Laura, the women he leaves behind.