LEARNING GUIDE TO:
THE GLASS MENAGERIE
One of the Best! This movie is on TWM's list of the ten best movies to supplement classes in Drama, High School Level.
Description: The film is an adaptation of Tennessee Williams' classic play about a son who works to support his family and struggles with his need to leave home and seek his own life. His father had earlier abandoned the family and his sister shies away from people and any new experience. Her inability to finish school increases the family's problems as the mother struggles to find some path in life for her daughter.
Rationale for Using the Movie: The Glass Menagerie is a film version of a "memory play" and provides examples of several literary devices. Its themes help students understand the issues faced by many children when they make a decision about leaving home.
Objectives/Student Outcomes Using this Learning Guide: Through discussion and assignments at the end of the film, students will develop greater clarity about the genre of "memory plays" as well as insight into important themes that affect the life of young people. Writing exercises and research skills can be advanced with these assignments.
Possible Problems: MINIMAL. Smoking and alcohol use are shown.
LEARNING GUIDE MENU
SUGGESTIONS FOR USING THE GLASS MENAGERIE IN THE CLASSROOM
Before Showing the Movie:
The following is a short sample lecture to provide background that will help students appreciate and understand "The Glass Menagerie". Adapt it to the abilities and needs of your class.
The events shown in the "The Glass Menagerie" took place in St. Louis, Missouri, during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The play was written by Tennessee Williams, one of America's greatest playwrights. It is the most autobiographical of William's plays and people from his family can be recognized as characters in the drama. His father was barely at home. His mother was overbearing and controlling. His sister suffered from mental illness.
The play was written during the Second World War. Before the 1940s, plays were told with a linear time line. The actors on stage would act out events in the order that they occurred. "The Glass Menagerie" is the first American "memory play" in which a narrator reflects on his past and shares events with the audience in a non-linear fashion. The "memory play" genre is in common use today. It is easily adapted to film.
Here are some terms used in the movie:
"DAR" is short for Daughters of the American Revolution. This is an organization of women with an ancestor who assisted in achieving independence during the Revolutionary War. The DAR is a social organization with some charitable purposes. It also has a reputation as a bastion of conservatism.
There are references to two writers in this movie. Tom had been reading a book by D.H. Lawrence that he got from the library. Mrs. Wingfield finds the book and returns it without asking Tom. She doesn't like the author and considers the book to be obscene. D.H. Lawrence wrote novels from 1913 - 1930. They include Lady Chatterley's Lover and Sons and Lovers. These books contain explicit descriptions of sexual activity and, for decades, they were banned in many parts of the U.S. and Great Britain. However, many people loved the novels and D.H. Lawrence is now considered an influential author. His novels are required reading for literature majors in most colleges.
Mrs. Wingfield also mentions a blind English writer named Milton. She is referring to John Milton who wrote an epic poem called "Paradise Lost" in 1667. The poem is as long as a book. It describes the Judeo-Christian story of Eden, the temptation of Adam and Eve by the devil, and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
In ancient and medieval times "unicorns" were believed to have been real animals. They had a single horn on their forehead, the beard of a billy-goat, a lion's tail, and cloven hooves. Later, unicorns were said to have the body of a horse with a single horn. Unicorns were said to be wild and powerful. They could be tamed only by a virgin. Stories about unicorns are often found in literature and the references to male sexuality are obvious. In this play, the unicorn is an important symbol.
"Pleurosis" is another way of saying "pleurisy". This is an inflammation of the membrane covering the lungs and the lining of the chest. Excess fluids may build up in the space. When the person inhales or coughs, the inflammation causes pain.
The Pirates of Penzance is an English operetta written by Gilbert and Sullivan. It is often performed by high schools.
Mrs. Wingfield refers to an actress named "Garbo". This is Greta Garbo, a beautiful and famous movie star of the 1930s and 1940s. For films featuring Garbo in a leading role, see Conquest and "Anna Karenina".
The term "Spartan endurance" refers to the legendary soldiers of the ancient Greek city state of Sparta. Sparta was famed for the training, ferocity, and endurance of its soldiers.
Jackson is the capital and largest city in Mississippi. The Mississippi delta is the flood plain of the Mississippi River, the largest river in North America. This expanse of flat land with very rich soils runs from Memphis, Tennessee, down the length of the state of Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. The plantation culture of the South flourished in the Mississippi delta.
"Still waters run deep" is a saying that means that the calm exterior of a person "often conceals great depths of character, just as the deepest streams can have the smoothest surfaces." Bartleby.com.
"Krauthead" (as in sauerkraut) is a derogatory term for a person of German descent. This play was written during the Second World War when the U.S. was fighting Germany.
"Union of Merchant Seaman" is the labor union for people working on ships which transport goods on the high seas. Before and during the Second World War the Merchant Marine was extremely important. Merchant ships transported goods to Europe and Asia. They brought raw materials to the U.S. They took the arms and soldiers from the U.S. to Europe and to the battlegrounds of the Pacific. Merchant shipping was a favorite target of German submarines and many merchant seaman died. In order to get a job in the Merchant Marine, Tom had to join the Union of Merchant Seamen.
[Review the words and terms in the Building Vocabulary section.]
As you watch the play, think about how a memory play allows the playwright to achieve dramatic effects that a chronological presentation of the story would not allow. The characters in "The Glass Menagerie", particularly Amanda, the mother, and Laura, the sister, may make you feel uncomfortable. If that happens, the playwright and the actors are doing their jobs. Think about why the playwright presented the characters in the way that he did. Ask yourself, "Was there anything that Tom could have done to avoid moving away?" Think about why Tom feels the need to tell this story. These questions will take you to the heart of the play.
[End of sample introductory lecture.]
After the film has been watched, engage the class in a discussion about the movie.
1. Was Tom's decision to join the Merchant Marine and thus leave home the right choice given the circumstances in which he lived ? Suggested Response: Answers will vary. Some will think that Tom needed to strike out on his own since staying at home would have left Tom working in a dead-end job all of his life. Others may think that he should not have abandoned a family that had already lost the support of a father. The point here is that Tom was caught in a situation in which each choice had advantages and disadvantages and he would have regrets whatever he did. All well supported answers which acknowledge Tom's conflicted situation are acceptable.
2. The symbol of the glass menagerie is important in revealing Williams' core ideas. What do you think the menagerie represents to the characters and to the story itself? Suggested Response: Laura surrounds herself with glass figures that, like her, are fragile and delicate. When she shows her figurines to Jim, Laura is sharing the most important and vulnerable part of herself. However, both men in this play, Tom and Jim, break an animal in the glass menagerie, thus foreshadowing the injury that they will cause Laura.
3. Is there an antagonist and a protagonist? What are the contending forces in this play? Suggested Response: There is no protagonist and no antagonist as such. There is a force in Tom that is driving him away from the family toward his own life and independence. This is the force of Tom's desire to live a fulfilled life, and it is not evil. Tom's sense of responsibility to his family resists this force (or is the counter force). It is personified in Amanda who resists Tom's leaving but knows that ultimately resistance will be futile. For Tom's sake she doesn't mind him leaving. But she needs him to stay until she can find some way to take care of Laura. (Tom recognizes a sense of responsibility to do this.) Unfortunately, Laura is already beyond help, Amanda just doesn't know it yet. Whether Tom knows it or not, he can't wait.
For additional discussion questions, click here.
Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:
1. Contemporary drama written before the 1940s was characterized by realism, an effort to make the characters and plots as true to life as possible. Realism itself was a revolt against melodrama, a style that dominated theater during most of the 19th century. To further your understanding of Williams' play, research characteristics of "memory plays," contemporary dramas which involve a synthesis of realism and melodrama. In an expository essay, specify the characteristics of memory plays and draw upon evidence from The Glass Menagerie to show how the film version remains true to the dictates of the genre.
2. Write an opinion essay in which you thoroughly analyze the issues involved in a decision to leave home in order to seek personal fulfillment as opposed to a decision to remain home in order to support the family. Refer to William's play to give credibility to your opinion and be sure to discuss the guilt or any suffering that may ensue when a family member abandons, for whatever reason, his or her family responsibilities. Also discuss the tensions within individuals who sacrifice their dreams to fulfill responsibilities to members of their family.
3. Use your narrative writing skills to illustrate the idea that memory is merely an interpretation of the past. You may draw upon your own personal experience or make up an entirely new story, but you must create a scene that, in retrospect, is viewed differently by the various participants in the event you are writing about. Show how the memory is shaped by each participant's personal desires and perceptions. Be sure to create symbols or motifs to help keep your readers aware of the different ways two people can look at one situation. Use at least four of the five ways to show meaning: action, dialogue, comparison, thoughts and descriptive language.
For additional assignments, click here.
Last updated August 9, 2010.
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