Light and Music in The Glass Menagerie and Master Harold…And the Boys
Light and music are two elements of drama that can become significant in developing the plot and characters. Certain playwrights may further incorporate stage lighting including directional lighting and setting lighting in order to not only divert attention to the critical area of the stage, but as well to adequately present their ideas. Correspondingly, music as well can be indirectly implemented in plays through the characters’ dialogue and allusions to musical pieces; thus, becoming symbolic. Furthermore, this music can be directly presented in the background of the play. Both playwrights, Tennessee Williams and Athol Fugard employ the elements of lighting and music in their respective plays, The Glass Menagerie and Master Harold and the Boys in order to both intensify the reality of their plays as well as develop the theme of escapism and the accompanying theme of hope and hopelessness.
Williams uses light for stage directions and as a symbol in The Glass Menagerie in order to develop his theme of hope; more specifically, to portray Laura’s ultimate sense of hopelessness. The stage directions call for “gloomy gray” lighting with a “turgid red glow” and a “deep blue husk”. This form of lighting helps construct the images of memory and its unrelenting power as well as its associated mood of nostalgia and deep melancholy. Such a mood is one that alludes to a sense of hopelessness for which Laura experiences. This hopelessness is emphasized through the symbol of light rather than the stage lighting. That is, the following simile is developed where Laura is described to be “like a piece of translucent glass touched by light, given a momentary radiance, not actual, not lasting”. Such a description not only forecasts her inability to maintain confidence but as well suggests that her beauty is innately tied to her delicacy and the disadvantage she has with her condition. Moreover, it displays the impermanence of hope in her life, as it comes as quickly as it goes. Williams further emphasizes Laura’s delicacy through another character—Jim. Upon Jim’s arrival to their home, and Laura’s refuge, there is a “delicate lemony light” that appears and eventually a soft light that brings out Laura’s “unearthly prettiness”. As the light symbolizes hope, it becomes evident that Jim provides Laura with a temporary sense of hope upon his arrival. The “lemony” or yellow color that the light is described through, however, becomes of significance as it becomes cautionary of the damage that Jim will ultimately provoke in Laura. Though Jim enlists hope in Laura by providing her with comments that temporarily raise her self-confidence, he flees abruptly, leaving Laura hopeless once again and thus sparking the argument that the play ends on a rather pessimistic note. Williams underscores this lack of hope through Tim’s physical escape from the house; that is, his attempt to escape their reality suggests that he too has withdrawn all his hope in Laura having a better, happier life.
Williams further conveys the very theme of escapism and demonstrates the characters’ abstinence from confronting reality by incorporating music in his theatrical piece. Not only does the music hold a great degree of symbolic significance, but it as well provides emotion to the scenes. In the fourth scene, for example, Williams incorporates “Ava Maria” in the background in order to allude to the harsh responsibilities that Amanda has as a mother. These responsibilities are what ultimately fuel Amanda’s desperate efforts in obtaining a better life for her daughter. In the process of doing so, Amanda feels inclined to escape her reality and own failures as well as the reality of Laura’s handicap. As Tom attempts to make his mother face the reality of her daughter’s handicap, “the music changes to a tango that has a minor and somewhat ominous tone”. The music helps to provide a worrying impression and thus demonstrate Amanda’s fear of reality and the consequences that come with confronting reality. Another character whose attitude towards reality is described through music is Laura. That is, as Jim arrives, Laura becomes terrified and begs her mother to open the door, but she refuses and forces Laura to open it. Before reluctantly opening the door, however, she winds the Victoria to play music. Laura attempts to play this music in order to escape from the intense situation—to escape reality. With Amanda escaping from her past, Laura escaping her troubled existence and Tom escaping the house with its responsibilities including the burden of obtaining a better life for Laura, the characters ultimately push each other farther apart as they retreat into their own imaginations. Hence, music aids in conveying not only the idea of escapism but as well in depicting the alienation the characters feel from not only one another, but from society as a whole.
Fugard as well employs light in his play, Master Harold and the Boys merely as a symbol for hope. When Hally and Sam discuss ballroom dancing, and whether or not dance is considered a form of art, Hally argues and describes that in his imagination, dancing simply involves people “having a so-called good time”. Sam offers another description, claiming that it Hally’s imagination “left out the excitement” and that it is “not just another dance…there’s going to be a lot of people…having a good time…party decorations and fancy lights all around the hall…the ladies in beautiful evening dresses!” The lights evidently become symbolic for positivity and hope as the description of such lights aid Sam in defying Hally’s pessimistic outlook on ballroom dancing. Fugard associates “fancy lights” with the extended metaphor of ballroom dancing in order to present ballroom dancing in a rather positive and hopeful manner. By doing so, Fugard describes the dreamlike quality that the dance and dancers possess. This sort of description demonstrates the dance as a metaphor for social harmony. The symbolic element of light is again presented at the end of the play when the jukebox “comes to life in the gray twilight”. This gray light is incorporated at the end of the play in order to further emphasize the hope for such potential harmony and peace among Blacks and Whites. As gray is midway between black and white, Fugard deliberately incorporates this light as a means of conveying the hope for Blacks and Whites to come together as one. This very idea is further highlighted through Fugard’s employment of the motif of music and the corresponding theme of escapism.
Fugard uses music to not only provide movement to the play, but as well to develop theme of escapism; more specifically, escaping reality as attempted by Sam and Willie. Throughout the play, Sam and Willie practice the “waltz” and “foxtrot” for their ballroom dancing. Similar to light, music as well becomes associated with the extended metaphor of ballroom dancing. Thus, the music helps to allude to a dreamlike, collision-free world by which the dancers are capable of enlisting order in a disordered world, and respectively, an ideal society with no “collisions” between Blacks and Whites. Sam and Willie use music and ballroom dancing to escape their realities; however, Hally interferes with such an escape as he claims “The truth? I seem to be only one around here who is prepared to face it. We’ve had the pretty dream; it’s time now to wake up and have a good long look at the way things really are. Nobody knows the steps, there’s no music, the cripples are also out there tripping up everybody and trying to get into the act, and it’s all called the All-Comers-How-to-Make-a-[Mess]-of-Life-Championships.” As music becomes a symbol for escaping reality, Hally specifically indicates that there is “no music” in order to suggest that escaping reality is impossible. Fugard does not, however, allow these words to convey his final message. Rather, he officially ends the play with lyrics of a song sung by Sarah Vaughn called “Little Man, You’ve had a Busy Day”. This song becomes significant as it suggests that Hally is the little man who was compelled upon adulthood. The little man in the context of the song is in tears because he lost his toys; this seems so simple and foolish to the adult but heartrending to the child. Rather than neglecting his child or disregarding his sadness, the father comforts the child and suggests for him to go to bed. Correspondingly, Sam, who is presented as the ‘father’ of Hally provides him with unconditional support, and suggests for him to sleep so as to allude to escaping the harsh reality of the apartheid system. Though insulted by Hally’s spitting, he ultimately does not lose hope on Hally waking up and realizing that he can control his life and personal decisions and overlook the system of apartheid.
Both Athol Fugard and Tennessee Williams develop the theme of escapism and theme of hope and hopelessness in their plays Master Harold and the Boys and The Glass Menagerie through their incorporation of light and music in the form of stage directions and motifs. Though there is an evident similarity in the manner by which the two playwrights develop these themes, there is also an apparent difference in the final meaning that the two are attempting to convey. That is, Tennessee Williams uses light to convey a sense of hopelessness while Athol Fugard employs this light to leave the audience with a more hopeful attitude towards the future by the end of his play. Williams’ use of light helps justify the characters’ desire to escape their reality and retreat into their fantasy world. Because there is no hope in enhancing their lives, all the characters cope through a complete escape. Fugard offers an antithetical message; rather than the characters’ hopelessness propelling them to escaping their reality, it is their ability to escape the harsh reality of the apartheid system that provides them with hope.
The difference in the two plays is further understood through the macrocosmic vision that the two playwrights allude to. In The Glass Menagerie, Williams portrays a sense of hopelessness and an ultimate desire to escape in his play in order emphasize the way in which individuals viewed the 1940s as an exciting escape from the 1930s. Hence, Amanda, Laura, and Tom become associated with other Americans in the Great Depression who sought relief from their distressing lives by escaping their reality through films, false identities, and fantasies. By making such an association, Williams demonstrates the negative affect of The Great Depression. In Master Harold and the Boys, Athol Fugard ends on a more optimistic note in order to send out an anti-apartheid message—a message that transcends the norms of South Africa at the time. He encourages the fight against the racial segregation as he suggests that society can be a whole and can be harmonious if Blacks and Whites function in unison with each other. Thus, it becomes evident that the manner by which the two playwrights present their themes in their plays correspond with their macrocosmic visions—with and without hope.
Comprehension Through the Smoke, Awareness Beyond the Glasses in A Confederacy of Dunces
In his novel A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole casts Burma Jones in a stereotypical role in society. By hiding Jones’ face behind space-age sunglasses and a cloud of smoke, Toole maintains Jones’ ambiguity while gradually diverging from his stereotype. During Jones’ employment at the Night of Joy bar, he knows his limitations regarding Lana Lee and his own duties. Jones becomes familiar with his surroundings to the point that he not only recognizes his own exploitation, but also the many other atrocities committed by Lana Lee. When Jones exposes Lana Lee at the end of the novel, he breaks his stereotype altogether. Throughout A Confederacy of Dunces, Jones remains fully aware of his circumstances and uses his stereotype to effectively manipulate his situation.
From the moment Toole introduces Jones at the police station, he makes routine references to Jones’ glasses and the cloud of smoke that seems to surround him in order to subtly deemphasize Jones’ identity. Along with keeping Jones relatively anonymous, Toole uses the smoke and sunglasses as metaphors to symbolize the stereotype in which society casts Jones. When Lana Lee physically attempts to see Jones through his dark glasses, she also attempts to see Jones beyond his stereotype. Her lack of success in doing so often makes her feel uneasy.
“I told you to take the glasses off, Jones.”
“The glasses stayin on.” Jones bumped the push broom into a bar stool. “For twenty dollar a week, you ain running a plantation in here.
“Stop knocking that broom against the bar,” she screamed. “Goddammit to hell, you making me nervous.”
Then the cloud of smoke and the broom moved off across the floor (Toole 70).
Toole uses the word “nervous” to reveal Lana Lee’s feeling of discomfort. Lana becomes nervous not only because of Jones’ seemingly reckless sweeping patterns, but because of the anonymity he manages to maintain throughout his employment. Toole reveals that Lana Lee senses something out of the ordinary concerning Jones, and she cannot make sense of his sarcastic comments and sharp remarks. Physically hidden behind his glasses and metaphorically hidden behind his stereotype, Jones skillfully escapes any interpretation from Lana Lee. Lana sees Jones only as “the cloud of smoke and the broom.” Toole employs this metonymy to emphasize Jones’ lack of identity in the eyes of Lana Lee and the rest of society. Toole refers to Jones as “the cloud of smoke and the broom” to present society’s nescient view of Jones.
While hidden behind his stereotype, Jones also recognizes the security of his job due to his codependent relationship with Lana Lee. He understands Lana Lee’s economic dependence on him and regularly tests his limitations while working. Jones knows he cannot quit for fear of vagrancy, but he regularly asserts his opinions. When asked to run an errand for Lana, Jones flatly refuses.
You cain scare color peoples no more. I got me some peoples form a human chain in fron your door, drive away your business, get you on the TV news. Color peoples took enough horseshit already, and for twenty dollar a week you ain piling no more on. I getting pretty tire of bein vagrant or workin below the minimal wage. Get somebody else run your erran (Toole 71).
Toole employs the verb “scare” to emphasize Jones’ sense of confidence as he responds to Lana Lee. Along with this confidence, Jones applies his understanding of his circumstances to ascertain his own limitations at the Night of Joy. Knowing that Lana Lee will not fire him, Jones routinely tests and manipulates Lana Lee to make the most of his imprisonment. In response to Jones’ refusal, Lana Lee replies, “Aw, knock it off and finish my floor. I’ll get Darlene to go” (Toole 71). With regard to Lana Lee, Jones knows exactly how far he can go. Jones’ understanding of his circumstances leads to his composure when confronting Lana Lee. Lana attempts to appease Jones only because she has “an investment to protect” (Toole 72). Lana sees Jones as no more than a cheap and stereotypical piece of property, and she unconsciously treats him as such.
Aside from recognizing his own limitations, Jones also remains aware of his environment in order to determine the best way to use his inside information. Jones cannot immediately report Lana Lee’s obscene pornographic activities, so he uses his knowledge to further manipulate Lana.
“Whoa! I knowed it all along. Well, if you ever plannin to call up a po-lice about me, I plannin to call up a po-lice about you. Phones at the po-lice headquarters really be hummin. Ooo-wee. Now lemme in peace with my sweepin and moppin. Recor playin pretty advance for color peoples. I probably break your machine” (Toole 219).
Jones recognizes that he and Lana Lee both have information to hold against one another. Along with his elaborate plan to expose Lana, Jones uses his knowledge to attack her. Jones’ comical sarcasm referencing his own record playing abilities serves only to further insult her intelligence. Lana immediately dismisses the idea of Jones’ intellectual dexterity because she cannot see past his stereotype. Toole explains, “Lana studied Jones’ face, but his eyes were invisible behind the smoke and dark glasses” (Toole 219). Perfectly hidden under the guise of his stereotype, Jones uses Lana’s nescience against her. Lana continues to ignore Jones’ motives and quick wit, and lets him continue “goofing off behind them goddam glasses” (Toole 167). Ironically, Jones plans to “break” more than Lana Lee’s record player.
Through the course of Jones’ planned sabotage of the Night of Joy, Toole includes several seemingly inconspicuous hints to foreshadow the effects of Jones’ actions. When Jones manages to manipulate Darlene and Lana into incorporating the bird into Darlene’s dance routine, Toole adds that Jones “created a dangerous-looking nimbus that seemed ready to burst.” Toole uses this metaphor as an omen to Lana Lee, which she fails to recognize due to her underestimation of Jones. As Jones manipulates his situation to the best of his ability, Lana Lee cannot determine his true motives.
Toole again alludes to Jones careful manipulation of Lana Lee when Jones briefly removes his stereotype. Toole describe that Jones, “for the first time in the Night of Joy, took off his sunglasses” (Toole 224). In briefly removing his glasses, Jones removes his stereotype as well. By actually writing the Night of Joy address on the packages, Jones completely emerges from the cover of his stereotype. Ironically, Lana Lee had left the room immediately preceding Jones’ removal of his stereotype for the first time in the novel. While Jones undoubtedly benefited from a lucky series of events following his planned sabotage of Lana Lee, he undeniably made the most of imprisonment through clever use of his stereotype.
Jones ultimately succeeds in his sabotage through a combination of luck and dexterity. While he could not have sabotaged Lana Lee without the coincidental help of Ignatius and Officer Mancuso, he skillfully puts these characters in place to execute his plan. While vigilantly manipulating other characters in the novel, Jones manages to simultaneously escape any interpretation from the outside world by hiding behind his stereotype. Rather than accepting confinement by his stereotype, Jones uses it to his advantage.
Manufacturing Illusions: Irony in The Glass Menagerie
Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is a play founded on illusion. Williams uses the devices of illusion and metaphor to illustrate truth, which he sometimes reveals through the use of irony. In the production notes that preface the play, Williams writes that “expressionism and all other unconventional techniques” in a play “should be attempting to find a closer approach, a more penetrating and vivid expression of things as they are” and that “truth, life, or reality is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest.”
The role of Tom, the poet, is as a fabricator or conveyor of illusions: Tom functions as the play’s narrator and “as an undisguised convention of the play” (Sc. 1). He states in his introductory monologue: “Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion” (Sc. 1). His statement removes any doubt that he is the play’s primary illusionist, controlling the memories of his family like puppets on strings for the audience to witness.
Critic Joven indicates that the isolation of the Wingfields and their “untenability” with the modern world necessitates their removal into something more illusory: “The Wingfields cannot co-exist with the real world around them because to live as they wish is to deny the existence of [the outside] world.” Additionally, she points out that the entire family has fallen victim to worlds of their own making: “Amanda’s dreams deny the passage of time. Laura’s life denies the outside world completely” (54).
Tom, as the messenger of memory (“This scene is memory and is therefore nonrealistic”), and the conveyor of poetic device, is accused by his frustrated mother of precisely what he has already admitted to (Sc. 1). Amanda, after her efforts to find a match for Laura have been frustrated, blames Tom: “You live in a dream; you manufacture illusions!” (Sc. 7).
Amanda’s accusation is both fitting and ironic. The reader of the play has already been informed that such is Tom’s function, but his mother fails to see the truth behind the illusions—perhaps because she is within the play and therefore part of the past and Tom’s memory. Joven notes that “[i]t is Tom the poet who associates Laura with bits of colored glass and with familiar phrases of music. It is the poet’s mind which perceives the ironic contrast between the hopes of Amanda and Laura and the harsh reality of Paradise Dance Hall” (60).
In a similar manner, Amanda’s accusation is ironic; she misses the point entirely. She is, on one hand, a practical woman, a planner of occasions, and it may not be within her scope to comprehend the underlying truths that Tom attempts to project. But on the other hand, the irony lies partly in the fact that she manufactures her own illusions, and accuses Tom of something she is guilty of as well. Presley supports this idea, noting: “Ironically what the playwright reveals is a cast of characters caught up in illusions of their own making. All of them…have built their lives on insubstantial premises of deception” (34). Their deception is an intentional self-deception created from necessity and self-preservation.
But what is the truth that Tom intends to convey? The answer may be multi-faceted. One aspect may be social commentary. Williams indicates in the notes to Scene 1 the harsh conditions in which the family lives. Their building is, he describes, “one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living-units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centers of lower middle-class population and are symptomatic of the impulse of this largest and fundamentally enslaved section of American society.” The term “enslavement” can be fittingly applied to the Wingfields. The illusion they create is an attempt at escape from the very environment in which they are trapped. Laura is more a bird in a cage than anyone else in the play: in addition to her environment, she is both physically disabled and emotionally stunted.
The play’s tragic characters indicate another potential truth. At the play’s end, Tom’s narrative is wrapping up and the reader comes to understand the guilt he carries with him. The colored glass he sees in shop windows in his travels reminds him of Laura. He exclaims, “Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!” Bigsby’s interpretation indicates the narrative itself as a catalyst to the tragic events, and possibly, even, Tom’s guilt:
For Williams, narrative itself is the origin of painful ironies. It implies causality, the unraveling of a time which can only be destructive of character and relationship. […] Hence he and his characters try to stop time. They react, in a sense, against plot. In a way the narrative of their lives does not generate meaning; the meaning ascribed to those lives by history and myth generates the narrative. And as a result they wish to freeze the past and inhabit it, or they spin their own autonomous fictions and submit themselves to a logic dictated by symbol and metaphor (95).
Tom’s guilt over leaving his sister has resulted in his “freezing” the past and weaving a narrative “dictated by symbol and metaphor;” their lives are without meaning except by whatever truth is ascribed to them by the reader, the audience.
Seen in this light, Amanda’s accusation to Tom is all the more tragic. It holds both more truth and irony than she will ever understand. After all, she is only a figment of Tom’s imagination, and more Tom, even, than she is herself. The same is true of Laura—like the other characters in the play; they are all facets of Tom: his imagination, his memory, his poetic interpretations and illusory, ironic narrative weaving.
Bigsby, C. W. E. “Celebration of a Certain Courage.” Modern Critical Interpretations: Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988. 89-99.
Joven, Nilda G. “Illusion Versus Reality in The Glass Menagerie.” Readings on The Glass Menagerie. Ed. Bruno Leone, et al. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. 52-60.
Presley, Delma Eugene. The Glass Menagerie: An American Memory. Woodbridge, CT: Twayne Publishers, 1990.