Tennessee Williams (1911-1983), born Thomas Lanier Williams, is considered by many to be the leading playwright of his age, post-World War II America. He drew many of the elements of his plays from his own life. He was born in Columbus, MS, to a violent, aggressive traveling salesman and a high-minded, puritanical, preacher's daughter. He had an older sister named Rose, whom he adored, but who suffered from mental problems that eventually caused her to be institutionalized. Rose was the model for several of Williams' characters, "whose inner beauty is too delicate to be disclosed to the world." His family moved to St. Louis at some point in his childhood. Williams attended a succession of universities before he finally received his degree in playwriting. Between stints in college, he worked for three years in a shoe factory.
Williams began writing plays in the 1930s, and his first play to receive a major production was Battle of Angels (1940), which folded on the road. The Glass Menagerie (1944), his next play was a major success, and the first of a series of successes. Later plays include: A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Summer and Smoke (1948), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). Both A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof won the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics' Award, the two most prestigious awards given to any American play. After 1960, Williams increasingly met with failure, as he was accused by critics of merely repeating himself (he was fond of re-writing plays-Summer and Smoke became Eccentricities of a Nightingale; Battle of Angels became Orpheus Descending). His writing style is classified as modified realism.
The Glass Menagerie is a "memory play," in which Tom recalls scenes from his youth during the height of the Depression. It shows his mother, Amanda, trying to maintain a lost gentility in the midst of overwhelming poverty and cajoling her children into her idea of happiness. Tom also has a crippled older sister, Laura, who resembles her collection of class animals in her delicate [inner?] beauty and fragility. Tom works in a shoe factory to contribute to the family's support while dreaming of becoming a poet. At his mother's insistence, he brings a friend from work home as a possible suitor for Laura. The suitor, went to high school with Laura. He is the only boy that she ever had a crush on. The evening turns into a disaster. After Jim leaves, Amanda scolds Tom, who runs off to join the merchant marine shortly after that disastrous night. But, as Tom tells the audience, he was never able to leave his guilt behind. So, in the end, none of them escaped from the traps in which they were caught.
While The Glass Menagerie is one of Tennessee Williams's most popular plays, it is also one of his least characteristic. The play is fragile and poignant. Although the scenes and characters are very vivid, there is a sense of unreality about the whole play, much like many of our memories. Williams introduces a major recurring theme in this play-"What place can be found in the modern world for 'lost souls'-the artist, the natural man, the aristocrat, the non-conformist?" His protagonists are almost always out of tune with accepted norms and generally use something- sex, drugs, alcohol-to escape an unfriendly present or to recover a dead past. (Laura uses her glass animal collection.) The action usually shows the protagonist forced to face the truth-often after being subjected to physical or psychological degradation.
Likenesses within The Glass Menagerie to Williams' life-TW's first name was Tom, tenement in St. Louis, worked in a shoe factory, dreaming of being a writer, father was a telephone man who fell in love with long distance/real father was traveling salesman (although he did not abandon TW's family, he was gone for long stretches of time), mother had come down in circumstances/social status, Rose/Laura both fragile (Rose mentally, Laura physically, psychologically), glass menagerie (although Rose only had 2 or 3 glass animals), Amanda based on TW's mother, Tom's guilt over not being able to save Laura.