This article was originally written as an critical essay on Tennessee Williams’s 1945 play The Glass Menagerie.
Joshua Chong, Senior Arts and Culture Editor
When the golden age of Athenian drama began to decline in the third century BCE, Greek audiences saw a new type of production: the revival. Old works by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were brought back to life in order to compensate for the lack of new plays. Today, revivals remain an important part of the theatre tradition, allowing directors to breath new light on old texts and a new generation of audiences to experience classic works. Save for perhaps Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill, no other playwright has had their work more often revived than Tennessee Williams. The Glass Menagerie, his first major work, has been produced on Broadway almost once every decade since it first premiered in 1944, and it is easy to see why. Williams’s story about the Wingfields, a broken family living in depression-era St. Louis, contains themes that continue to resonate with audiences today. In addition, The Glass Menagerie is a play that many directors want to get their hands on. As a memory play that is not bound to strict stage directions, the work permits great artistic freedom, giving directors the liberty to push the boundaries when staging the play in an effort to uncover new themes hidden in the text. One of the most common variations between productions of The Glass Menagerie is casting. Originally portrayed by an all-white cast when it was first mounted in segregated America, many revivals have featured an all-Black or mixed-race cast. Selecting actors of colour to play the Wingfields can sometimes help to highlight certain facets of the text and to underscore the play’s ideas of what it means to be a hopeless outsider in American society. But not all productions of The Glass Menagerie featuring non-traditional casting succeed. While some interpretations subscribe to the method of colour-blind casting, a deep and layered production of The Glass Menagerie requires smart colour-conscious casting that respects the intentions of the author and acknowledges the racial tensions inherent to the subtext of the play.
A mere two years after The Glass Menagerie premiered on Broadway, the first all-Black production was staged, and since then, there have been countless productions with all-Black casts. Proponents of this interpretation argue that it “liberate[s] the text from racially-imposed constraints”, demonstrates the “universality” of the themes in the play, and reveals “certain dimensions of the subtext… [that] would never be privileged [sic] in a traditional (white) production because of the historical limits/possible preconceptions of the actors/audiences/director”. This is all true. Many African-Americans living throughout the depression-era are likely to have endured the same experiences as the Wingfields, living in the “implacable fires of human desperation” as they tried navigating racial segregation and living on the brink of poverty. Furthermore, all-Black casting injects added weight to some lines in the text. Williams’s description of the family as part of a “fundamentally enslaved section of American society” could not more aptly describe the African American experience in 1930s America. This interpretation, however, is flawed because it ignores the racial tensions embedded within the text and contradicts some of the references in the script. Amanda, Tom and Laura’s single mother, is a faded southern belle who holds subtle racist attitudes, due to her upbringing in a southern society built upon a slaved-base economy. She boasts how she had “so many servants” when she lived in the south and so many gentlemen callers that she had to “send the nigger over to bring in folding chairs from the parish house”. Amanda is also part of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), an organization that in the 1930s did not permit African-American members and was pro-segregation, a record “so ugly that Eleanor Roosevelt renounced her membership in protest”. Choosing a Black actor to portray Amanda contradicts the complex character Williams has crafted and ignores the racial undertones of the story. While some directors have tried to solve this problem by editing the script – omitting all derogatory references to slavery and changing the DAR to the Delta Club, a Black sorority – this is an overreach. Directors should not have to edit a script in order for it to fit their interpretation; their vision should fit seamlessly into the blueprint that the playwright has created. Though all-Black productions of The Glass Menagerie reveal certain ideas that may be buried in the play and show the universality of the Wingfield’s story, it also brushes over the complex character of Amanda and the racist mindset she possesses.
The first major production of The Glass Menagerie presenting a mixed-race Wingfield family was mounted 1991. Amanda was performed by a Black actor, while her estranged husband – whose portrait is all that remains in the apartment – is white; their adult children, Tom and Laura, are bi-racial. While this interpretation has the same problems as an all-Black interpretation, specifically regarding the casting of a Black actor to play Amanda, it brings a different perspective to Williams’s play. Director Whitney J. LeBlanc wanted to make his production highly political. Leaving the character of Mr. Wingfield white, while changing the other characters to be Black, was meant to “attack unscrupulous white men for their treatment of Blacks and the subsequent dissolution of the Black family”. Though the message of this interpretation is clear and pointed, placing all the blame on Mr. Wingfield’s abrupt departure absolves Amanda, Tom, and Laura of responsibility. In the end, it over-simplifies the story. The three central characters are supposed to be complex and flawed: Amanda “cling[s] to another time and place”, Laura is “exquisitely fragile”, and Tom “act[s] without pity” (Williams, Introduction). What drives the story is that they are not blameless characters; they have the ability to change their fates by changing their behaviour. So while LeBlanc’s interpretation adds a new dimension to this often told play, it strips away the blame from Amanda, Tom, and Laura, and as a result, their ability to recognize their own missteps.
Though there are numerous stagings of The Glass Menagerie that have employed non-traditional casting, there has not been a single major production that has cast a white Amanda beside a Black Mr. Wingfield; Tom and Laura would be bi-racial, while Jim O’Connor, Laura’s gentleman caller, would be white. This mixed-race interpretation would be more successful at revealing the themes of the story than the two other productions analyzed above because it respects the intentions of the author and acknowledges the racial tensions inherent in the play. In this version, Amanda’s backstory of her fall from grace as a former southern belle becomes more realized. In her youth, she received multiple gentlemen callers, who were “some of the most prominent young planters of the Mississippi Delta”; she “could have been Mrs. Duncan J. Fitzhugh,” “rais[ing] [her] family on a large piece of land with plenty of servants”. But, she “married no planter”, choosing to marry the Black Mr. Wingfield, instead. By choosing this life, she becomes rejected from her aristocratic family and must live modestly in “one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living-units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centers of [the] lower middle-class population”. But living in St. Louis poses its own challenges. Soon after relocating, Mr. Wingfield cannot tolerate the societal condemnation and Missouri’s severe anti-miscegenation laws, and chooses to abandon the family. At the rise of the curtain, sixteen years after her husband left, Amanda still lives in limbo. She is “of great but confused vitality, clinging to another time and place”, and questioning what led her to this point in her life. She “loved [her childrens’] father” greatly but now feels resentment towards him and other Black men, which she channels by joining the DAR. But even there, she is rejected by others who frown upon her past actions, constantly getting “hung up” on the phone by other members. She copes by reminiscing about her time as a southern belle and recalling past memories, which she “loves to tell” to her two children.
In this interpretation, Amanda’s disconnected relationship with her children can be explained by their racial differences: Amanda is a white southern belle, while her children are bi-racial outcasts in a segregated society. She fails to understand their experiences and often unconsciously uses racist remarks towards them due to her upbringing. When Laura wants to clear the dishes, her mother tells her, “you be the lady this time and I’ll be the darky”; when Tom eats his meal quickly, Amanda compares him to animal – like she would do with other Black men – and condescendingly remarks “animals have secretions in their stomachs which enable them to digest food without mastication, but human beings are supposed to chew their food before they swallow it down”. At other times, however, she sees her children as no different than herself and becomes disappointed when they cannot meet her expectations. When Laura fails to bring home a gentleman caller, Amanda openly mocks her, sarcastically saying, “It can’t be true! There must be a flood, there must have been a tornado”. Laura and Tom are left to be rejected by society and by their own mother: too Black to be white and too white to be Black. To add to that, Laura must also deal with her physical disability. In the end, Laura “never ha[s] much luck making friends,” and Tom’s only workplace friend is Jim, the sole person who did not “regard [him] with suspicious hostility”. Through the actions of their mother and the society around them, Tom and Laura and reduced to nothing more than social misfits.
When Jim is invited to the Wingfield’s apartment to meet Laura, there is an awkward conversation between the pair. Casting Laura as bi-racial and Jim as white can add a new dimension to this interaction, as it allows the scene to serve as a metaphor for how white people treat individuals of mixed descent. Jim sees Laura as extremely pretty, but “in a very different way from anyone else”. For him, Laura possesses an exotic beauty – a type of beauty that is perfect for a quick kiss, but nothing else. He ends up using her for his own amusement, kissing her passionately before admitting, “No, Laura, I can’t”. He, a white man, can’t be seen with her, a bi-racial woman, because of the societal norms. Instead, he must return to his girlfriend Becky, who is “Catholic and Irish”. The way Jim treats Laura is similar to how many Americans of mixed-race are treated in society today. A study discussed in an article in Pacific Standard revealed that “biracial Americans are perceived as unusually attractive people who struggle to fit in,” just as Laura presents herself to Jim. Laura, like many other bi-racial Americans, is treated like the glass menagerie mentioned in the play: admired for her beauty, but tucked away from the action on a display shelf.
The way directors choose to cast Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie drastically impacts the resonance of the play and the themes that are highlighted. Since its premiere in 1944, there have been multiple interpretations of the play, each featuring different forms of traditional and non-traditional casting. Each casting vision has its set of advantages and disadvantages. The interpretations that are most successful are those that respect the intentions of Tennessee Williams and acknowledge the racial subtleties within the subtext of the play. As the theatre industry becomes more diverse and inclusive, directors and producers are subscribing to colour-conscious casting, which thoughtfully examines each character and determines which roles can be enhanced by diverse casting. For nearly eight decades, directors have been experimenting with this form of casting and how it can bring out different themes in The Glass Menagerie. Perhaps it is time for theatre creators to re-examine other plays under this light.