The Glass Menagerie as a Memory Play

While describing The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams called it a ‘memory play.’ The term ‘memory play’ was first used by Williams. The concept is a complex interwingling of time and technique.

A memory play includes a narrator who is also an actor in the play. In this case, Tom is the narrator and also a character in the play. In his initial monologue he explains the structure of the play and informs the audience that the play is based on his memories. In the play we get to know that Tom is an artist; he writes poetry. Here, Tom has written about his memories and turned them into a play. So, a memory play has a narrator/ character who will share his/her personal experiences or the story of the play may have some autobiographical aspect. Williams himself, and many critics as well, have pointed out that The Glass Menagerie is autobiographical. The play has a character /narrator, whose experiences are based on the author’s own life. The memory play is similar to the concept of ‘meta-theatre’; where a character in the play draws the audience’s attention to the fact that the play is an artistic creation;

The fact that The Glass Menagerie is a presentation of autobiographical memory further complicates the dramatic construction through its point of view. While traditional theatre makes the spectators aware about the difference between showing and seeing, the desired viewpoint in The Glass Menagerie differs in this aspect for the viewer has to identify his viewpoint as the seeing eye of Tom, the narrator. It thus more resembles the cinematic technique of the camera choosing the viewer’s viewpoint. (Maiti, 4)

Next comes the idea of illusion and truth in the memory play. The play, as an art form, exaggerates emotions and characteristics to some extent to create an illusion of reality for the audience. In a memory play, memory is both content and narrative technique. The illusion shown on the stage is the memory of Tom, the fictional artist, based on Williams, the writer. So, by introducing the idea of the memory play, Williams also plays with the idea of illusion and truth.

Last but not the least is the flexibility related to the memory play as a technique. The playwright can experiment liberally with the time frame, continuously oscillating between present and past. For example, in the initial scene Tom is delivering his monologue in the present and the next moment he has entered the past and joined his mother and sister on the dining table. The author can use minimal settings and use them symbolically; for example, the fire escape. The structural freedom is just the cherry on the top.

Presented as a memory play, The Glass Menagerie complements the poet’s lifelong perception of and fascination with illusion and reality and shows William’s notion on the subjectivity of memory. In the post World War II backdrop of trauma and disillusionment and equipped with the heritage of Freud’s psychoanalysis theory, the functioning of the memory became an important theme in theatre as well as in other arts. American theatre when compared to other art forms was slow to change and hand in hand with Kingsley Amis, Tennessee Williams embraced the post war genre of realism and horror. (Maiti, 2)

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