The Use of Stage Directions in "The Glass Menagerie"
Some plays like Sophocles' Antigone do not require elaborate stage directions because the setting is not important to the play's structure. The lighting, music, costumes, props and movement of the actors are not necessary for the development of the play's characters or theme. In Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, however, stage directions are essential to the understanding of the play. Detailed stage directions intensify the unrealistic setting, foreshadow and emphasize events, and develop the characters.
Dim colored lighting and symbolic melodies create the unrealistic setting for the memory play. In his opening narration Tom says, "Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic. In memory everything seems to happen to music. That explains the fiddle in the wings" (699). Throughout the play the stage directions call for "a turgid smokey red glow," "gloomy gray" lighting and "deep blue dusk" which create the hazy images of a memory. For a short while, as Jim enters, there is a "delicate lemony light" (688), and a soft light from the new lamp brings out Laura's "unearthly prettiness" (695). Yet, at the end of the play, and throughout its majority, the set is grim, characteristic of Tom's sad memory. Music in the play can be symbolic or simply add to the emotion of a scene. In scene four, "Ave Maria" plays softly in the background, symbolizing Amanda's duties as a mother. Throughout the play, music swells and recedes with the rising and falling of the characters' emotions. For example, as Tom is confronting his mother with the reality of his sister's handicap, "the music changes to a tango that has a minor and somewhat ominous tone" (687).
Describing characters' appearances and presenting messages upon the screen, the stage directions foreshadow and emphasize events. The description of Tom standing on the fire escape looking "like a voyager" (692) foreshadows his escape to the Merchant Marines. Also, the description of Laura as "a piece of translucent glass touched by light, given a momentary radiance, not actual, not lasting" (688) foreshadows Laura's brush with self-confidence that leaves as quickly as it comes. Finally, the screen images also foreshadow and emphasize events. For example the screen legend that says "Plans and Provisions" (681) foreshadows Amanda's plan to find her daughter a husband and emphasizes Amanda's sense of duty to protect her family. The screen legend that reads "Annunciation" foreshadows Tom's announcement that he has found a gentleman caller. It also emphasizes, through its biblical allusion, that the coming of the gentleman caller is a very special and long awaited event.
By specifically stating the characters' actions, the stage directions develop the characters more than their dialogue alone. For example, the stage directions describing Amanda's actions and dress exemplify her pretenses and her inability to part with her past. Amanda sits on the fire escape "gracefully and demurely as if she were settling into a swing on a Mississippi veranda" (683). The night the gentleman caller comes, Amanda "wears a girlish frock of yellowed voile with a blue silk sash. She carries a bunch of jonquils--the legend of her youth is nearly revived" (689). Although the stage directions show Amanda's inability to face reality, they leave the audience with a sense of admiration for Amanda and her attempt to protect her family. In the last scene the audience sees Amanda comforting her daughter with "her silliness gone, [having] dignity and tragic beauty" (707). Through her dialogue and the stage directions which describe her actions, Laura is portrayed as fragile, translucent and stagnant, just like her glass collection. The stage directions continuously show how delicate her mind and body are. As Jim and Tom arrive, Laura is incapacitated by fear. According to the stage directions, she "darts through the portieres like a frightened deer" (691). The stage directions tell the audience that "while the incident [Laura's encounter with Jim] is apparently unimportant, it is to Laura the climax of her secret life" (696). This point may never be detected by an audience that is not familiar with the stage directions, yet it is very important to the development of Laura's character because she fails at her one chance to change. A final stage direction important to the development of Laura's character is her returning to the Victrola when Jim leaves. This action indicates that Laura has not changed from her experience with Jim, and she will continue to escape reality through her music and memories.
The stage directions in The Glass Menagerie are as important to the theme of the play as the dialogue itself. Without the stage directions specifically describing the lighting, the costumes, the music, and the characters' actions, an entirely different message might be conveyed. Without the dim lighting and the music, the play might seem too real to be a memory. Without certain actions of Amanda and Laura, an audience might believe that Laura has come out of her shell for good or that Amanda is simply an overprotective mother who cannot face reality. Yet, with the elaborate stage directions, Tennessee Williams creates a distinctive memory play with each character tragically failing to reach his or her goals.