The Glass Menagerie and Fences: Artist Figures and Unfulfilled Dreams

 

The Glass Menagerie and Fences make for a good pairing on an American literature syllabus. I have taught them in together in introductory-level courses, but they would pair as well in a course on drama or in a survey. They fit together nicely because they circle around common themes—what it means to be an artist or desire to be an artist, how societal structures encourage or limit those dreams, and what duty is owed to family while those dreams are/are not being pursed. In this post, I’m going to highlight a few of the ways my students and I talk about these plays in conjunction with each other.

I will discuss these texts at the same time, but I usually teach The Glass Menagerie first before Fences. I do this not only because it is set earlier but also because Williams is very overt with the themes and ideas he is trying to transmit. Once the class nails down some of the main themes in The Glass Menagerie a discussion of Fences can really take off by building on those themes.

I’ve broken down the points of interest in the text into three main categories. I will cover one main point from each play, but since there is a lot to discuss in these plays, I have added some further discussion ideas at the end of the post.

I would also like to draw your attention to other pairing texts posts on PALS. The benefits of pairing texts that I would really emphasize are that it makes for smooth transitions between texts and spurs the generation of lesson plans. (Aside on this pairing: if you wanted to go for a triple dose of mid-century sadness, you could easily throw Death of a Salesman into this mix.)

The Artist Figure

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Zachary Quinto as Tom and Cherry Jones as Amanda

Tom is the central artist in The Glass Menagerie; he is a poet who feels limited by the role of breadwinner he has been forced into after his father leaves the family. He believes he does not have time to truly explore his talents because he has to work all day at a shoe factory. Tom is not a good employee; he is distracted at work and does things like write poetry on the shoe boxes. Even though he feels very disconnected from his job, he cannot separate himself enough from it. He thinks it is sucking the life out of him. He complains to his mother about his job: “For sixty-five dollars a month, I give up all that I dream of doing and being ever!” As I said earlier, The Glass Menagerie is not subtle. Here Tom is blatantly saying how limiting he finds his job and how much it is squashing his true desires. Of course, he is also going to the movies and drinking almost every night, so a class discussion could center around how Tom’s job is limiting him and also how he is limiting his self. If you have artistic desires, do you owe it to yourself to pursue them?

In Fences, I would broaden the idea of the artist to include Troy’s desire to play baseball. It might be a stretch to define sports as an artistic endeavor, so I would lean into that reaction and ask students how we define sports in relation to other activities that are creative. Troy personally still maintains his athleticism as one of the central parts of his identity even though he has not played in a long time. He says that his baseball career was over before it started because of the color barrier in professional baseball. He is envious of Jackie Robinson and thinks that he still has the talent to play against the current professionals. Troy’s sense of himself is contradicted by his wife, Rose, who says that he couldn’t play ball because he was in prison and when he got out he was too old. The fact that Troy exaggerates continually throughout the play is of interest to the discussion of his character. Does his lying make us dismiss him? What kinds of things does he lie about and how do those lies connect with or diverge from the main ideas explored in the play? Do we believe that he is as talented as he says he is? And does it matter if he isn’t?

Dreams and Limitations

FencesCort Theatre
(l-R): Viola Davis (Rose Maxson) & Denzel Washington (Troy Maxson)

Troy couldn’t pursue his dreams and his current life is not focused around fulfillment but rather his responsibilities to his family. He repeats several times in the play that he feels a duty to his family and does his best to meet those duties. Unfortunately for them and him, his family repeatedly asks more of him than just satisfying his responsibilities. His son, Cory, wants to understand why he hasn’t ever felt loved by Troy. Cory asks Troy, “How come you ain’t never liked me?” Troy believes that this is not his central role in his family; he is more interested in making sure that Cory is taken care of and is steered away from the path that Troy took. When Rose pushes Troy as to why he can’t let Cory play football he responds by saying, “I don’t want him to be like me! I want him to move as far away from my life as he can get.” While Rose wants him to let Cory make his own decisions, Troy cannot see how his view of his own life is limiting his relationship with Cory.

Tom feels the pull of duty too, but he is less willing to accept it as one of the fundamental guiding principles of his life. At the end of the play, Tom abandons his family. He leaves them behind physically, but in the last scene he tells the reader that he is constantly reminded of what he has left. Tom sees his sister’s face reflected back at him in storefront windows; he cannot seem to escape her. The play is semi-autobiographical and students will be interested in the connections between the play and Williams’ own life. Thinking of Tom as a Tennessee Williams-like figure may change their perception of his actions at the end of the play. If you have true artistic desire, do you have to separate yourself from what is holding you back? Or does duty override desire?

Societal Concerns  

While there are a lot of comparisons between these two families, they also inhabit fundamentally differently places in pre-Civil Rights era American society. Discussion of race is largely absent from The Glass Menagerie except for one crucial element. The mother in The Glass Menagerie, Amanda, uses racist language in the beginning of the play that reveals her idealization of the past. She describes growing up in the deep South and being courted by various suitors while she was waited on and taken care of by black servants. Her romanticization of this past is part of her desire to avoid the current circumstances of her family. When her mind rests in the past, she can ignore the precarious financial situation that her family is currently in. For students, a discussion of Amanda’s desire to recreate her past experiences can transition into a general conversation about the interplay between past and present in this play. How do we carry the past with us without letting it override our relationship to the present?

Fences too makes a lot of the character’s relationship to the past. Troy does not want his son Cory to play football because of Troy’s own experience. The achievements that Troy could have attained were limited by several factors, most significantly that he was playing baseball in a segregated system. Cory does not think that he will face the same barriers that Troy faced; Cory points to the integration that has taken place in professional sports as an indication that he faces different possibilities than Troy. Cory wants to play football in college but has to abandon that dream when Troy will not budge from his view that focusing on sports will lead Cory nowhere. Cory sees this as only one of the many ways that Troy has hindered him. Cory cannot understand why Troy is holding him back and out of this a rift between the characters is cemented and never reconciled.  While the conflict is ultimately between the two characters, it originates in larger societal forces that Troy and Cory have very little control over.

As mentioned above, there is a lot to discuss in both of these plays. Here are a few other ideas broken down into the same categories detailed throughout the post.

Further Discussion Points

The Artist Figure:
The Glass Menagerie

  • Laura and the glass collection
  • Tom as the creator of the play. The entire play is told through his memory.
  • Jim as a “ordinary” person. What do we make of characters who have very little desire to express themselves creatively?

Fences

  • Lyons and music
  • Gabriel and his horn
  • Gabriel’s dance at the end of the play
  • The songs that are sung throughout the play

Dreams and Limitations:

  • Almost every character in both of these plays wishes they were living a different version of their lives. Dreams can be an overarching theme to explore characters one by one in both texts.

Societal Concerns:

  • The Glass Menagerie takes place after World War I and references are made to growing fascist sentiments in Europe. Fences is set after World War II and Troy’s brother Gabriel has a metal plate in his head that he got serving in the war. The fact that these historical elements are backgrounded in the text can provide fertile avenues for discussion.
  • While Tom and Troy are the protagonists of the plays, both plays have very interesting and complex female characters. A class period could be made out of a discussion of the women in these texts.
  • Are these particularly American texts? Is Tom’s attempt to reimagine himself possible because of the American context? Are the dreams and ideas of success tied to the American Dream?

I would love to hear about any can’t miss pairings of texts. What pieces work especially well together? And what pairings do you wish you had never attempted?

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4 thoughts on “The Glass Menagerie and Fences: Artist Figures and Unfulfilled Dreams

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