Historical Context of The Glass Menagerie

Including social history and a biography of Tennessee Williams

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The Glass Menagerie: Research
Biography ­ Tennessee Williams
"[He was] born Thomas Lanier Williams on March 26, 1911. His father, Cornelius Williams, was a shoe
salesman and an emotionally absent parent. He became increasingly abusive as the Williams children
grew older. His mother, Edwina, was the daughter of a Southern Episcopal minister and had lived the
adolescence and young womanhood of a spoiled Southern belle. Williams was sickly as a child, and his
mother was a loving but smothering woman. In 1918 the family moved from Mississippi to St. Louis,
and the change from a small provincial town to a big city was very difficult for Williams' mother. The
young Williams was also influenced by his older sister Rose's emotional and mental imbalance during
their childhood.
In 1929, Williams enrolled in the University of Missouri. After two years his father withdrew him for
flunking ROTC, and he took a job at his father's shoe company. He despised the job but worked at the
warehouse by day and wrote late into the night. The strain was too much, and in 1935 Williams had a
nervous breakdown. He recovered at his grandparents' home in Memphis, and during these years he
continued to write. Amateur productions of his early plays were produced in Memphis and St. Louis.
Rose's mental health continued to deteriorate as well. During a fight between Cornelius and Edwina
in 1936, Cornelius made a move towards Rose that he claimed was meant to calm her. Rose thought
his overtures were sexual and suffered a terrible breakdown. Her parents had her lobotomized
shortly afterward.
Williams went back to school and graduated from the University of Iowa in 1938. He then moved to
New Orleans, where he began going by the name Tennessee, a nickname he'd been given in college
thanks to his southern drawl. After struggling with his sexuality through his youth, he finally entered a
new life as a gay man, with a new name, a new home, and a promising new career.
In the early 40s, Williams moved between several cities for different jobs and playwriting classes,
also working at MGM as a scriptwriter. In 1944 came the great turning point in his career: The Glass
Menagerie. First produced in Chicago to great success, the play transferred to Broadway in 1945 and
won the NY Critics Circle Award. Around [the 1950s], Williams met Frank Merlo. The two fell in love,
and the young man became Williams' romantic partner until Merlo's untimely death in 1961. He was a
steadying influence on Williams, who suffered from depression and lived in fear that he, like his sister
Rose, would go insane.
He gave American theatregoers unforgettable characters, an incredible vision of life in the South,
and a series of powerful portraits of the human condition. He was deeply interested in something he
called "poetic realism," namely the use of everyday objects which, seen repeatedly and in the right
contexts, become imbued with symbolic meaning. His plays also seemed preoccupied with the
extremes of human brutality and sexual behaviour: madness, rape, incest, nymphomania, as well as
violent and fantastic deaths. Williams himself often commented on the violence in his own work,
which to him seemed part of the human condition; he was conscious, also, of the violence in his plays
being expressed in a particularly American setting. As with the work of Edward Albee, critics who
attacked the "excesses" of Williams' work often were making thinly veiled attacked on his sexuality.
Homosexuality was not discussed openly at that time, but in Williams' plays the themes of desire and
isolation reveal, among other things, the influence of having grown up gay in a homophobic world.

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The sixties brought hard times for Tennessee Williams. He had become dependent on drugs, and the
problem only grew worse after the death of Frank Merlo in 1961. Merlo's death from lung cancer
sent Williams into a deep depression that lasted ten years. Williams was also insecure about his work,
which was sometimes of inconsistent quality, and he was violently jealous of younger playwrights.
His sister Rose was in his thoughts during his later work.…read more

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Jazz was still the popular form of music, but it advanced into Big Bands, jazz orchestras that played in
a ballroom while people would dance to them. The bleak economic situation closed the gap between
high and pop culture.
World Wide Political Climate
The world was facing a tense time. The League of Nations had been established in 1919 (ironically, at
the insistence of Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States.…read more

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