Prince, don't ask me in a week / or in a year what place they are;
I can only give you this refrain: / Where are the snows of yesteryear?
Francois Villon, c. 1461
"Where are the snows of yesteryear?" asks Tennessee Williams in the opening screen of The Glass Menagerie (401), quoting a poem by Francis Villon. Williams explains in the production notes to this famous play that he has left in the manuscript a device omitted from the "acting version" of the play (Williams 395), a series of messages projected on screens, some verbal, some pictorial, that prompt and reflect the action on stage. Williams sums up the action in two lines before those notes as, preparation for a gentleman caller, and "the gentleman calls" (394). This summary is so understated as to suggest a possible joke, because The Glass Menagerie is such a rich a play that those lines hardly describe the complex emotions dealt with by his tormented characters. Such innovations as the screen projection or the tansparent walls Williams employs in The Glass Menagerie attempt "a more penetrating and vivid expression of things as they are" (Williams 395). The fact that The Glass Menagerie has captivated so many, called by Hale "the great American play" more performed and reprinted than most "in modern theater history" (27) indicates Williams was not alone in an obsession with a past he could never recapture, but could never fully leave behind.
This theme runs through The Glass Menagerie however the reader slices it. Key speeches and actions demonstrate how character, setting, plot and dialogue occur together to reinforce this theme of a present caught between a future that never stops arriving, and a past the characters cannot escape. Every single character looks back at a dream of the past while the future arrives faster than they would prefer and perhaps can handle. Amanda relives her girlhood through Laura's pathetic first date, while Laura herself cannot get past the often-scary dreams of adolescence. Likewise Jim finds disappointment after the triumphs of pre-adulthood, but the present for all of them is a let down from these past high points, and of course the entire story is just a memory of narrator Tom's, looked back at from a future spent running from the events unfolding on the stage.
Tom betrayed his family, just like his father did, goes the plot, but he helped achieve growth for some of his family if only by accident. Laura got her yearbook signed by the captain of the football team after all, even if this took the breaking of her favorite unicorn's horn. Jim encourages Laura to hope, and while she and Amanda return to the pantomime of their humdrum life and fade back into the unknown poor in the city all around them, Jim's encouragement achieves transformation for Laura even though this means the end of her childhood. This conflict and resolution was forced on her by her scheming mother Amanda, who is trying to find a husband better than the father who abandoned them. Nonetheless, even though growth is painful and disappointing, Laura does grow through Tom's reluctant and accidental introduction of Jim into the family scene. Beyond this glimmer of hope for Laura, every one else's future consists of looking back at better times, as life grows increasingly disappointing without much hope in sight. Amanda's fear for her children's future turns to obsessive nagging that drives Tom to abandon the family just like his father did, the only way he sees to escape a futile life working in a job with no future. Jim has a future with his absent bride to be, although his last 'engagement' was just "propaganda" (Williams 452) made up by the high school yearbook committee. Jim's enthusiasm about how he and his new fiance "get along fine" in "a great many ways" (Williams 463) is not entirely convincing. While her first date may be a dead end for Laura, Williams does not say that explicitly, and so while she and Amanda fade into the background, this does not rule out the possibility her future may be different if Jim's encouragement helps her grow beyond her fear of meeting new people. Likewise the intensity of Tom's regret must be balanced by the consideration that his disappointment might have been worse had he spent his life dispensing shoes. Williams also leaves this question unasked, but would Tom have been happier if he hadn't run away? A thorough analysis must balance these possibilities.
Tom escapes into the world at large but ultimately cannot leave behind the shabby, superficial but costly family rituals purchased on credit -- enjoyed in the present, but paid for in the future -- after repeating the crime of his father, abandonment. Amanda's nagging dreams for her children's improvement drives Tom to leave, but also creates the possibility for Jim's candlelight transformation of Laura. This first date is doomed from the outset it is revealed, but the storm breaks; Amanda 'baptizes' herself with spilled lemonade (Williams 461); a symbol of rebirth, and some tension at least is permanently resolved for Laura if she can focus on something else besides clumping up the stairs in chorus (Williams 450). Therefore perhaps the possibility of her marrying, and thus freedom and stability for Amanda, is not entirely ruled out. Tom is a man and can go off and abandon them like Amanda expects, since that is just what men do, more often than not leaving in the wrong, Williams suggests. These details of setting and character are important enough the author tells us the print pattern on the china plate Amanda brings in, even though no live audience could see that if the plate was full of macaroons (Williams 460). This level of detail indicates all these setting elements, the storm; the dance hall; the yearbook and of course the unicorn in The Glass Menagerie, among too many others to list them all, are important to the story or they would not be in the play.
Most of all, these setting elements indicate these characters are really all of us and these themes play out in our own lives. The audience views The Glass Menagerie within a theater that likely also holds musical performances; in the 1940s when the play was originally produced, this probably would have included dances. Therefore the audience watches the play from the dance hall across the alleyway on stage, viewing the events on stage through the transparent walls of a commonplace apartment set within millions of identical apartments across America and perhaps "all the world" (Williams 425). Jim is no Superman (Williams 446) but "other people are not such wonderful people" either, he tells Laura (Williams 451), and while she may be one in a million, and Jim pulls her out of her shyness such that they start finishing each others' sentences like a familiar couple (Williams 457), Laura was so special back in high school that he named her after a disease (pleurosis, Williams 450). But if Laura will look around her, Jim says, she "will see lots of people as disappointed as you are" (Williams 453), but who are "not so dreadful when you get to know them" (Williams 453). These people are in fact all of us. If these lines are not left in The Glass Menagerie by accident, then the lines are there for a reason. The reason is that Williams reveals the tiniest possibility of hope in the otherwise meaningless life around him. This apparently goes unrecognized by many critics, but if not, the point is simply social criticism and Williams is just telling his audience how stupid they are.
The underlying message, by this reading, then becomes that the audience could choose, like Jim, to be disappointed but not discouraged, if they can avoid giving up and chasing flashes of lightning like Tom (Williams 465), living in a past that can never be regained like Laura, Amanda and to a large degree Jim did up until the breaking of the storm and the unicorn's horm, or watching passively like the very audience itself as "compensation for lives that passed like mine, without any change or adventure" (Williams 425). Tom goes to the movies to escape his life; the audience goes to plays; but if we can stop hiding in other people's pretend lives and live our own, then maybe, "some day -- maybe," our signatures too will "increase in value!" (Williams 452). This takes hard work, for Laura and for us as well
Many critics have explained their own readings of The Glass Menagerie, but few of them discuss the possibility for growth Williams leaves for Laura C.W.E. Bigsby explains Chekhov's relevance to Williams and The Glass Menagerie in Cambridge's Companion (29-39). Bigsby quotes the legendary director Stanislavski explaining Williams' action takes place internally (31), within the characters themselves. This introspective focus and obsession with the past places Williams within the class of a Southern writers in the…