The play takes place in St. Louis, at the Wingfield apartment, which is in the rear of a sprawling apartment building, and in which Laura, her brother Tom, and their mother Amanda live. Williams' note here mentions that the vastness of the building is symbolic of the way in which the lower middle classes are conglomerated into a mass by American society -- regarded as one undifferentiated group, rather than as distinct and valuable individuals. The Wingfield apartment faces an alley, and the entrance is off a fire escape, rather than an interior hallway. The fire escape is part of the set and Williams points out that the concept of a "fire escape" is meant to denote the constantly burning fires of "human desperation," of which the Wingfields will each partake in different ways. The interior of the apartment is lighted dimly, according to Williams, because the scenes are meant to take place as memories, and as such are not expected to conform exactly to reality. The dimness, that is, is meant to be poetic.
The room closest to the audience is the Wingfield living room, which is also Laura's bedroom. The dining room is attached. In the living room, there are many glass animals on display: this is the glass menagerie.
Tom enters and discloses himself as both a character in and a narrator of the play. The action takes place in the 1930's, he tells us, when the American economy was collapsing, and when Spain was in revolution.
Tom explains that as a "memory play," what he will tell us is not realistic. The audience hears a fiddle playing. Tom remarks on it, saying that memories seem to unfold to music. Tom lists the characters in the play -- himself, Laura, his mother, the gentleman caller that will briefly and ambivalently court Laura, and a fifth character: Tom and Laura's father, who left the family years earlier. He was a "telephone man," Tom says, who was so in love with long distance that he made his love literal and left town.
The play begins as Tom enters the dining room and we see Laura and Amanda sitting at a dining room table. They mime eating, without utensils or food. Tom and Amanda have a fight about his dining room etiquette, and he gets up from the table soon after he sits down, and stands and smokes in the doorway. Amanda and Laura have an argument about who will bring in the dessert. Amanda orders Laura to sit down in case any gentlemen callers should come to the apartment; she wants Laura to appear fresh. Amanda launches into a discussion of one of the times in which she was surprised by 17 gentleman callers in a single day in her hometown of Blue Mountain. Amanda goes on at length, much to her childrens' irritation, about who came to see her that day. Tom announces that he doesn't believe that Laura will receive any gentlemen callers that evening. Amanda is incredulous. Laura looks uncomfortable and notes that Amanda is afraid that she -- Laura -- will be an "'old maid.'"
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