What is a memory? Is it selective or all encompasing, subjective or objective? It might be defined as a mental recollection of past events. Psychology tells us that a when we remember, we aren’t actually recalling a memory of the event, but recalling the last time we remembered it. For Tennessee Williams, memory seems more like an exercise. A way of uncovering truth in the guise of misinformation and reverie.
Tennessee Williams’ first commercial success, The Glass Menagerie—now playing at Trinity University’s Stieren Theatre—is Williams’ exercise of his own memory. The play is highly autobiographical (Williams’ avatar is Tom, Laura his sister, Amanda his mother) and is clearly the product of an exorcising of inner demons. The text feels true to life, or at least true to the playwright’s life. Even though our narrator, Tom, lets us know at the beginning of the play that his interpretation of events is skewed and full of illusion, none of the action of the play feels untrue. Perhaps it is Tom’s/Williams’ disconnectedness from the events that allows for this truth; Tom’s character routinely stands onstage and watches the action of other characters while removed from the action.
This distance allows Tom, and by extension the audience, to recognize the other characters for their qualities and not their familial ties: Amanda is a loving relic, but obsessed with the money and status of the Old South; Laura is loved intensely, but is burdensome as an unmarried woman past the age of majority. Even Jim, whom Tom calls the most real character in the play—who represents the capitalist dream— proves to be unattainable. Tom himself isn’t exempt either; he “goes to the movies” (drinks) to escape his life.
Trinity’s production captures all of this and more. The set design is perfect for a memory play, highlighting only the most important aspects of the home: the furniture, the door frame, the fire escape, the eerie picture of the absent father. The sparseness of the set and the contrast brought to the stage by the lighting get to the heart of why memory is so fascinating and engaging. Memory is slipping away; it is fleeting. Memory vanishes. Just like Amanda’s ideal of the Old South must vanish, just like the opportunity Jim represents must vanish, memory will always become more selective as our memory becomes less specific. It is interesting then, as our memories become increasingly vague, that memory exceeds what can be said and hints at a larger scale of what is true.
Three more chances to see Trinity’s production of The Glass Menagerie, playing at the Stieren Theatre Thursday at 7PM and Friday, Saturday at 8PM.