Comparison of Settings between The Glass Menagerie and August: Osage County
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams and August: Osage County by Tracy Letts are two emotionally-charged plays about dysfunctional families in the 20th century. While the plays take place in very different settings and time periods, both households are affected similarly by their settings. In both plays, the setting seems boring and hopeless to some characters, causing them to escape by any means possible – both physically and emotionally.
The Glass Menagerie revolves around three main characters living in New Orleans – Tom, the warehouse worker protagonist who wants desperately to escape his overbearing household and find adventure; Laura, his ‘crippled’ sister who emotionally escapes by collecting glass animals and listening to old records; and Amanda, their seemingly overbearing mother. Amanda’s attempts to push her children towards success usually backfire, leading to Laura’s typing school failure and ‘gentleman caller’ who turned out to already be engaged. For most of the play, Tom drinks and sees movies as forms of escape. By the end, he leaves and joins the Merchant Marines – similar to his father, who abruptly abandoned the family when Tom and Laura were children.
August: Osage County takes place in rural Osage County, Oklahoma. When Beverly, the patriarch of the household, disappears and commits suicide, his wife (Violet) gathers the entire family to sort out her problems while their Native American maid takes care of the house. Violet is unkind to her family and very unstable, especially while she abuses prescription opioids. Her only daughter to stay in Osage County is Ivy, who feels neglected and eventually runs away with her half-brother and love affair, Little Charles (who she believes to be her cousin until Violet reveals it to her). Mattie Fay, Violet’s sister and the wife of Charles Sr., gradually takes charge of the family in a power struggle with Violet. Other characters include Karen, who is engaged to Steve; Barbara, who is married to Bill; and Jean, a rebellious teenager and the daughter of Barbara and Bill. By the end of the play, everyone has abandoned Violet for various reasons, leaving her alone with Johnna, her Native American caretaker.
The setting of The Glass Menagerie does not seem particularly isolated, since the Wingfield family lives in the city of New Orleans. Instead, it is the characters’ actions and attitudes that make the apartment feel isolated. Amanda seems to remain stuck in the past throughout the play, recounting her glory days to her children: “One Sunday afternoon in Blue Mountain – your mother received – seventeen – gentlemen callers! Why, sometimes there weren’t chairs enough to accommodate them all” (Williams 8). Laura seems to have isolated herself with her own avoidant behavior. Amanda tells Laura about her avoidance: “I don’t understand you, Laura. You couldn’t be satisfied with just sitting home, and yet whenever I try to arrange something for you, you seem to resist it” (Williams 52). Meanwhile, Tom often describes his boredom and feelings that he’s wasting his life: “You could see them kissing behind ash pits and telephone poles. This was compensation for lives that passed like mine, without any change or adventure. Adventure and change were imminent this year” (Williams 39).
In August: Osage County, the setting is geographically isolated and somewhat desolate. It can be inferred that the boring area is why Karen and Barbara moved far away when they grew up. However, it seems that Violet and Beverly isolated themselves over the years while abusing their drugs of choice: “Mattie Fae pulls back a set of drapes, finds the light is blocked by shades sealed with tape. MATTIE FAE (CONT’D) ‘Ivy, when did this start? This business with taping the shades?’ IVY ‘Been a couple of years now.’ Mattie Fae starts peeling off the tape. MATTIE FAE ‘Is it that long since we’ve been here?’ CHARLIE ‘Do you know its purpose? You can’t tell if it’s night or day.’ IVY ‘I think that’s the purpose’” (Letts 17-18). Meanwhile, the author uses imagery that describes and emphasizes the household’s isolation from the outside world: “And now we see the full beauty of the land, the distant horizon, the high cumulus clouds, the endless blue sky. Barb and Violet two dots, lost in the unforgiving prairie” (Letts 106).
While both plays focus on drama and turmoil within families caused by isolation within the household, they use different types of isolation in their settings. In The Glass Menagerie, the main characters are isolated psychologically despite living in the middle of a major city. While Tom escapes at the end by leaving his family (taking after his father), he spent most of the play ‘escaping’ by drinking and staying out all night at the movies. Similarly, Laura and Amanda use coping mechanisms such as collecting glass animals and telling stories from the glory days, respectively. Meanwhile in August: Osage County, the characters are primarily isolated by geography and internal conflict. Violet and Beverly resign themselves to drinking and abusing opioids, but the rest of the family gradually abandons Violet because of various conflicts. It can be inferred that the reason the family abandons the household in August is because of geographic isolation leading to petty argument and conflict. The Glass Menagerie pits its characters against one another in a similar manner, but the setting of New Orleans is less physically isolating and more behaviorally isolating.
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