Featured are two activities that help students focus on the theme of memory in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.
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The Power of Memory
When Tom Wingfield begins to speak in Scene 1 of The Glass Menagerie, one of the first things he tells the audience is, “The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic." The influence and power of memory is one of the central themes of the play, and it is an idea students can explore in different ways.
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Understanding Character Development
Divide the students into groups. Assign each group one of the four main characters of the play: Tom, Laura, Amanda, and Jim.
Have each group create a list of the ways that memory has influenced the life of their assigned character.
Let the groups share their findings with the class. Some examples of what they have found could include:
Tom: Even though he has left home, his memories of abandoning his mother and sister continue to haunt him. He seems to feel especially guilty over his desertion of Laura. Here, it is often beneficial to explain to the class the parallels between Williams’ life and his play. He is using his own memories in his literary creation; this includes his memories of working in a factory and the guilt he felt his entire life over not being able to stop the lobotomy of his sister, Rose.
Amanda: Amanda’s attempts to relive her girlhood in Blue Mountain are her means of escaping into memory. Recapturing her time as a pampered belle must seem very appealing compared with her real life where she must struggle against poverty, accept the fact that her husband has deserted her, and deal with the idea that her children are turning out to be different people than she would have hoped.
Laura: Laura is almost an “enabler" for people like Amanda and Jim who yearn to recapture their glory days. She encourages Tom to let Amanda talk about her life as a Southern belle; her rapt attention allows Jim to once again be a “star" as he was in high school. Laura herself spends much of her time listening to the old phonograph records that belonged to her father, memories from a time when their family was different.
Jim: Much has changed for Jim since his days as a high school hero. In Scene 6, Tom explains that Jim accepts him as a friend because Tom was “valuable to him as someone who could remember his former glory, who had seen him win basketball games and the silver cup in debating." Even though Jim, of all the characters, has the biggest hold on the present, he is still entangled by the memories of his past as someone who seemed capable of accomplishing anything but has not lived up to that promise.
Have the class discuss what liberties Williams is allowed as a playwright by creating a “memory play." How does that influence what the audience sees and hears? Does it make Williams’ job as a writer easier or harder? What are the advantages and disadvantages of constructing the play this way?
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Writing a Memoir Essay
This play lends itself to teaching students how to write a memoir essay. Explain that a memoir essay takes an event from memory and shows its significance.
Begin the assignment by having the students make a list of at least five significant memories. Usually, this assignment works best when the students avoid “bad" memories and instead stick to good ones. Give them an example of a memory that is significant in your life to help them get started. For example, I discuss my memories of playing in the yard while my mother worked in her garden.
Once they have a list, they will choose one of these to be the subject of their paper. The essay should run two to three pages in length.
What the paper must have:
They need to use details (sight, sound, scent, touch) in order to create the scene so that a reader can visualize the setting of the memory.
They must choose whether to tell the memory in chronological order or tell it as a flashback (looking back on the memory from the present time).
They must describe the characters’ personalities and characteristics. They need to make them come alive. They should include detail, description and dialogue.
The essay should have a balance between thought and action. Things should happen in the paper, but the student also needs to explain the meaning behind the action.
By the end of the paper, they need to show the reader why the memory is important. For instance, using my memory of my mother gardening, it is an important memory because it was a time when my mother taught me the names of plant and how to take care of them. She instilled in me a love of nature that is even now an important part of my life.
When grading the papers, look at:
Event selection: The memory is shown to have significance to the student’s life.
Structure: The essay is told in a logical manner and is easy to follow. There are no digressions. The writing stays focused.
Style: Did the student include detail, description, and dialogue? Did the student include thought and action in the story?
Mechanics: Few, if any, mistakes in grammar, spelling, and punctuation.