Ask Philippa: The Glass Menagerie

“I wasn’t prepared for what the future brought me,” says Tennesee Williams’ Amanda Wingfield. Looking back to genteel Southern roots that haven’t yielded the kind of life she imagined for herself, Amanda tries to shape success for her children, Tom and Laura. Amanda’s indomitable spirit and childlike optimism refuse to be quashed by experience, and her sassy humor peeps through the most dire situation to give us one of the most famous voices of 20th century American Theater. Looking back on his experience to bring forth the story of Amanda, her two children, and her absent husband, Tom unfolds, in The Glass Menagerie, the coming-of-age story of playwright Tennessee Williams. The Glass Menagerie is a “memory play” for Tom, and it is a “memory play” for Williams, who, Gore Vidal has suggested, “could not possess his own life until he had written about it.”

Dr. Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater, is also a professor and author. Her 2010 book, The King and I, a meditation on Australian culture through the lens of King Lear, garnered international praise in its very personal examination of themes of abandonment, loss, and humor).

You can email Philippa at pkelly@calshakes.org, or post below to ask her a question.

The Glass Menagerie begins performances July 5 and continues through July 30. Click here to learn more and buy tickets!

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25 Responses to Ask Philippa: The Glass Menagerie

  1. Tony Farrell says:

    About 20 years ago, I was a merchant for a Bay Area catalog with customers all over the country. We offered rewards for customer reviews of our products, and through that avenue, I became acquainted with a lady customer in New Orleans; when traveling there for a trade show, she invited my catalog team over for a drink at her home in the Garden District. Her directions to her home made no mention that it was a grand Southern manse, occupying an entire block, at 1525 Louisiana Avenue. It was a bit faded, and the water marks of floods stained the hallways. Bethany escorted us to her living room for cocktails. This living room was strange and exotic, filled with plants, with several large trees growing up through its floor and ceiling. One of us remarked, “This is, like, out of ‘Suddenly Last Summer’!” And our host responded, “That’s exactly right. Tennessee Williams wrote that in a room upstairs.” The house had belonged to Fritz Bultman (Bethany’s father-in-law), who had befriended “Tom” in New York City in the ’40s. So, if anyone ever wondered why Williams created such an odd set, he was simply describing the place he was crashing!

    • philippa M kelly says:

      Tony, this is a lovely story. It reminds me of what Gore Vidal said: that Williams couldn’t truly possess his life until he’d written about it. I often think that this is one of the mysteries of theater – it enables us to put a glass up to our lives and refract it through the light, seeing something greater than ourselves and finding (or making) meaning in illuminating ways. And through art we also have the lens to contemplate ambiguity (ambiguity being something we often, in the cut and thrust of life, run away from). Now I will think of that tree! What a wonderful image! Are you coming to Black Odyssey and Measure4Measure? I hope so.

      • Tony Farrell says:

        Yes, we’ve seen every play since 2000! I think Cal Shakes Amanda and Tom totally out shone Hepburn and Waterston (from the 70s TV movie), and I bet no one has extracted quite as much humor from Williams’ text as your Cal Shakes team. Along with Nicolas Nickleby, this was my favorite of all the plays I’ve seen here.

        • philippa M kelly says:

          Tony, I also love the humor in this show. It reminds me of how, in 1977, apparently Williams was thrown out of a production of The Glass Menagerie in London because he was laughing so hard and the theater management thought his laughter would “spoil” the play for other patrons. BUT it is indeed really funny as well as incredibly poignant!

  2. William Oman says:

    There is so much that is new and fresh about this production of an American classic….the brilliant direction and staging; the fact that Tom scurried around setting props as he tells the story; the fact that Laura is actually disabled; the fact that the candles are not blown out by Laura during the epilogue. I was especially taken by the performances of the actors playing Amanda and Tom. The actors gave me new insights into these characters, their motivations and their feelings (both expressed and unexpressed) and made them come alive on stage so effectively.

  3. philippa M kelly says:

    Hi William,
    It’s so lovely to get this feedback. Yes, it is a pretty amazing show, isn’t it? I also love the way Tom brings on the pieces of the set as his memory unfolds – and then those pieces take on their own life as the stories unfold and take their own life.

  4. Joan Sullivan says:

    Hi, Phillippa,
    I’m sending this for you to pass on to Lisa Portes and the amazing actors.
    I found the play and the performances very moving, taking those “hold your breath” scenes with Laura and the gentleman caller to a perfect pitch of gentleness, suspense, and worry.
    About midway I realized that this family story had not been turned into a tale of oppression by racism. This is a human story and the themes are those of abandonment, poverty, denial and disability. And as you said, hope, for Laura’s improved self-image and maybe sociability, (and hope that Tom will send enough money home.)
    I also appreciated that Amanda was not portrayed as ridiculous, as I have seen in the past.
    All in all, a wonderful production!

    • philippa M kelly says:

      Joan, this is a beautiful comment, and I will indeed send your response on to Lisa, cast and crew.

  5. John LoBue says:

    Last night, on a spur of the moment impulse, we attended the July 7th preview performance of The Glass Menagerie. We arrived just in time to hear Philippa’s insightful and enthralling background of the author and the play. Her passion for the production, the play and the Arts were interwoven into the very fabric of her presentation. She was absolutely wonderful! If we had left after her presentation, we would have considered it the highlight of our day. Fortunately, we didn’t. The play, Amanda’s performance especially and the set production were masterful! This will be the Glass Menagerie performance that I will always remember. Thank you Philippa and Cal Shakes!!

    John and Barbara …..Walnut Creek

    • philippa M kelly says:

      John and Barbara, this is such a lovely comment – in terms of the grove talk, now I will have to try to be on my game for the next show, for fear of being a one-hit wonder.

      Yes, this production dusts off the Hepburn-style Southern belle, and gives us an Amanda whose struggles, eternal hopefulness, humor, moments of sagging despair, are all parts of a character who embodies, in her wondrous spirit, all the hues of early 20th century America: the American dream, the descent of fortunes experienced in the Great d=Depression, the memories of grandeur past; the hopes for grandeur and fulfillment to come….And she is really fun! I also love the way that Tom “manages” the narrative unrolling, with his own force and humor. And Laura, who sees that everyone is a piece of glass, prone to shattering; and Jim, whose spirit and perceptions so vigorously mirror Amanda’s.

  6. Geoff chandler says:

    I really enjoyed this production Thursday night. One thing though stuck out — Amanda’s references to the DAR. At first I thought, well this is MY problem. We have a black actress but that does not necessarily mean the character is black, any more than a Christian playing Shylock means that Shylock is a Christian. But then it became apparent that this was only the case for Tom. In this production Tom IS a black son (played by a white man) of a black mother.

    Historically I was aware of the upper crust black society in the South. (My students in junior high school fifty years ago called that behavior “sididdity” and made fun of them by pretending to hold teacups with two fingers delicately while extending the pinky, and slowly making a delicate gesture with the other hand, saying ”tsk”.) I believed Amanda’s pretensions to class. But — the DAR? What to do with Williams’ words? I guess the best choice is to leave them as they are, ie, to leave the reference in, but I must say,I really jumped in my seat when I heard the reference!

    • philippa M kelly says:

      Geoff, yes, we wrestled with this issue, because Williams’ words can’t be changed. Eventually we felt that in our own minds the D.A.R. might stand for something like, “Daughters of the American Resistance” – that it was a signal of self-identification more than a thematic thrust (sorry I am not expressing myself too succinctly – I just realized with horror that while answering this blog page I have eaten a pint of ice cream.)

  7. Lisa Valentine says:

    By the end of the play, I’m optimistic about Laura’s potential. I think she’ll be OK. Tom, though. I fear that he won’t leave, that he’ll sink into more self-destructive behavior. It all left me feeling very sad.

    • philippa M kelly says:

      Interesting when he says, “Goodbye,” isn’t it? Goodbye to that depressing life? Or good-bye to hope?

  8. Emily says:

    Dear Philippa,

    Thank you for your wonderful pre-show talk! It was illuminating to have you describe the groundwork that was set for this production. This Glass Menagerie is unique, clearly based on thorough research by you and your team; it was fascinating to hear the process.

    You mentioned in passing that you found some information which supports the background of Jim O’Connor in this production. He is Black and also Irish (“on both sides”)! Could you elaborate on that?

    The actress playing Amanda is astounding! Vivacious, hilarious, and strong as an oak. She was a joy to watch!

    • philippa M kelly says:

      Hello Emily,
      Thank you for your lovely response. In our production we have the suggestion that Jim, as an African American man, might have perhaps taken an Irish name (or his family did?) This happened quite often, particularly in the 19th century. Regarding your question about the Irish – it’s interesting that in the late 1890s, Irish immigrants were considered to be very low on the country’s socio-economic scale. They comprised the social pool from which servants/waiters were drawn. By the 1930s, however, the Irish had moved up quite a bit. There were some important American power-brokers of Irish descent – among them Joseph Kennedy, father of John Kennedy, and Eugene O’Neill, who won a Nobel Prize.

  9. Victoria siegel says:

    Philippa, I loved your introduction to Glass Menagerie. It was enlightening to get the background on Tennessee Williams as well as African American debutante society and how it can form a background for the story. It was great to see the humor in the play through Amanda’s vivacity and Tom’s sardonic yet nostalgic delivery. Laura’s naturalness was wonderful. The friend I was with had seen the Sally Field production and thought the Cal shakes production was better.

  10. philippa M kelly says:

    Oh this is lovely all-round, Victoria! And thank you for your generosity in letting us know your response.

  11. Phil Grover says:

    Philippa, you asked in the Grove Talk why Laura did not blow out the candles, as she does in the original. I suppose that depends on what one considers the symbolism to be. If the candles represent Laura’s spirit, her fragile inner light, then I suppose it means she will not give up on herself. She will continue on, nurturing her delicate (like the glass) inner glow. Tom (his world is lit by lightning) asks Laura to blow it out, so if it also symbolizes his wish to sever the connection to her (his memory of her), she does not want to do that.

    Are you going to give us your answer?

  12. philippa M kelly says:

    I love this response, Phil! I think you are so right. I love the fact that Lisa and Phoebe decided to stage the candles this way. Your ocmment also reminds me of what Phoebe said: “we are all pieces of glass, vulnerable to being shattered.”

  13. Mark Pickus says:

    Phillipa, you gave some background on some of the implications of casting actors of color to play roles that Williams probably envisioned for white actors. You pointed out that there were well-to-do African-American families in the South that held debutante cotillions. Of course “back in those days” these and other aspects of life were strictly segregated. But let’s not presume all of that was in the past. Just yesterday on NPR’s Latino USA there was a piece about a white woman in a Texas town who was trying to bury her husband in the town cemetery. Because he had a Hispanic surname and even though his family had been in Texas for generations, she was informed that he would have to buried in the Mexican cemetery outside of town. Turns out nearly all cemeteries in Texas towns are still strictly segregated. Check out the podcast here:
    http://www.npr.org/2017/07/14/537266674/segregated-six-feet-under?utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=storiesfromnpr

  14. philippa M kelly says:

    Thanks for sending this, Mark. I’m imagining how it would be if we lived there – would we protest? I hope so. Human venality, and our (human) capacity to excuse or ignore injustice, is the strangest thing. Are we at times willing to be complicit with malevolence/spite/bigotry because it is not in our interests (or it is against our interests) to protest; or because we might think, “It’s not in my backyard… I can’t influence it”? Last night I was walking along and felt down for a personal reason. A man asked me to buy him dinner and I said, “Sorry, not tonight.” If it took that level of destitution for him to ask, how could I say no? I am still ashamed of myself. We humans have to be better.

    • philippa M kelly says:

      ps Mark, I had time to listen to the program – I am so glad you posted. Amazing to think of (and yet, in this 2017 America, unfortunately not really….)

  15. David Hirata says:

    Hi Phillipa,
    My family and I have been home for less than ten minutes after getting home from tonight’s performance, which obviously had the power to get me to the keyboard right away.
    The set design, the blocking of the actors and manipulation of the set pieces and the casting all made this venerable classic fresh and alive to me (after having read it twice in school, seen one full production, and seemingly endless excerpts in scene study classes, and never really enjoying the play all that much along the way). The staging reminded me a bit of Karin Coonrod’s staging of “Hamlet” at Cal Shakes back in 2000, another production with a lively, creative approach that I enjoyed very much. The wonderful acting in “Glass Menagerie” and the way that Lisa Portes allowed the humor of the piece to shine through gave the show a texture and depth that I enjoyed very much.
    The reaction of Laura at the end in this production made me feel a greater weight of sadness at the end–for Tom and the way his memories mark him, and for the prospects of Laura, Amanda, and the Wingfield family as a unit. I reflexively (and flippantly) remarked to myself, “Well, that’s a real bummer ending” and immediately corrected my reaction to, “That’s a *poignant* ending–one that will stick with me for awhile.”
    We all enjoy your Grove Talks very much (they’re especially nice for parent who’s introducing his teenager to theater here). And, yes, I’d love to read your additional material about the play–please send!

  16. Ann Tipton says:

    Hi Philippa, We had the pleasure of chatting after your dramaturg talk Saturday evening re “Glass Menagerie” (I thanked you for the insight about post-diphtheria paralysis – a Guillain-Barre like syndrome). Last night, we saw ‘An Octoroon’ at Berkeley Rep and sat in for the latter part of Eric Ting’s post-show discussion. Really interesting parallels/contrasts in the two productions – both of which explore human beings’ struggles against feeling trapped by race/gender/class/disability stereotypes. I mentioned to Eric Ting that Zoe’s plight in ‘An Octoroon’ reminded me of a story I’d read in high school. I finally resurrected the story’s name and author!. Could you please pass this on to Eric Ting? (The story has an O’Henry kind of ending.)
    https://www.katechopin.org/desirees-baby/
    Thanks so much! See you at ‘Measure for Measure’

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