The Heart of an American Classic: The Glass Menagerie

Editor’s Note: This essay also appears in the playbill for The Glass Menagerie at Ford’s Theatre.

The Glass Menagerie is undeniably a classic in the American theatre canon. Since its Chicago premiere in 1944, this play by Tennessee Williams has been a staple in our theatrical landscape. But why is this the case? What keeps classic plays in our minds 50-plus years after they are written, and what is it about these plays that compels high schools, community theatres, regional theatres and Broadway to bring them back time and time again? In reviewing this and other American classics, there seems to be one common motif that continues to draw us to them: family.

Along with The Glass Menagerie, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night and August Wilson’s Fences are all plays that rightfully take their place atop the list of American classics. Similarly, all of these plays revolve around a family—not an idealized “white-picket-fence” family, but the unmasked, authentic family.

As to why theatres continue to program these plays, certainly the fact that audiences will likely attend is a key factor. But what keeps audiences returning to these plays, even when they oftentimes know how the story ends? Well, a family is a family. All families experience highs and lows, and just about everyone can connect and empathize with the experiences depicted in these plays. How can we truly appreciate the good unless we have experienced the bad? How can we fully appreciate the people around us, without having together fought through life’s many battles and come out on the other side stronger?

In Fences, a father contends with his unfulfilled life and the toll his unhappiness has taken on his son and wife. In Raisin, mother and son clash over how to use a financial windfall to better improve their family’s station. In The Glass Menagerie, a single mother tries to mask her own pain while working toward diametrically opposed outcomes for her children: hoping they flourish away from home, yet remain steadfast under her domineering care. These iconic American plays, while firmly rooted in their respective eras in America’s history, all speak to our closest relationships: our first relationships.

The pain of losing a mother or a father is universal. The ache of watching someone you love fall to pieces is universal. The joys of seeing a child take their first steps and the bittersweet excitement of seeing them off to their first day of school are universal. In The Glass Menagerie, the pain of seeing a brighter future just out of reach for those you love can be unbearable. While watching these shows, we see not just the characters on stage, but ourselves and our loved ones.

The Glass Menagerie has withstood the test of time. As the play moves toward its final moments and we have come together to hope, wish and root for these characters, we are still haunted by its outcome. I hope that after witnessing Williams’s honest and moving portrayal of family, we can see both ourselves and our families a little more clearly.

Shayla Roland is Special Programming Manager at Ford’s Theatre. Follow her on twitter @barefoottrees.