I was one of those major theater nerds in high school; my nerd-dom, however, did not usually translate to reading many well-regarded Classics of Theater. I did not read Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie until college, and, looking back, I would have read it much earlier, had such a thing been possible. The Glass Menagerie, written in the early 1940s, is one of Williams’ works that continues to get quite a bit of mileage out of the “faded Southern belle” archetype (if I may quote The Simpsons). It is notable also because of its depiction of disability in the character of young Laura Wingfield—who has a limp due to an adolescent bout of pleurisy. Though Laura, as a character, is problematic in some aspects, she is still worth a look because she does not totally conform to many dominant cultural narratives of disability. Certainly, The Glass Menagerie is an old play. One could argue that since it premiered in 1944, it no longer matters because of its age, and an examination of its depiction of disability is not interesting or current enough to fall under the banner of a “feminist response to pop culture.” As a person with disabilities, however, I have found and continue to find the play—and especially Laura—compelling, even though some of the gender politics in the play aren’t exactly feminist.
For those who have not read the play, here is a short and rather ridiculously simplistic summary: The Glass Menagerie centers around the lives of the Wingfield family, particularly son Tom’s struggle to leave the family and his mother Amanda’s “struggle” to get daughter Laura married off to a nice young man. The play takes its name from Laura’s collection of small glass animals. Of course, there is quite a bit more depth to the play, but Amanda’s wistful nostalgia for her younger days takes up a lot of stage and page space.
Along with nostalgia for her own youth, Amanda’s expectations for Laura tend to become the whale-in-the-room, at least thematically. After Laura is caught skipping her classes at secretarial college to go on walks—mostly due to her “pathological shyness,” as Williams calls it in the play’s stage directions–Amanda is distraught that Laura is escaping from the very traditional feminine path that has been laid out for her, and manages to minimize Laura’s emotional pain in one monologue early in the play: “We [meaning Laura] won’t have a business career—we’ve given that up because it gives us nervous indigestion! What is there left but dependency all our lives?” Amanda seems to repeatedly connect her daughter with “dependency” because of her limp, but arguably, Amanda herself is emotionally dependent on her children (particularly Tom). She soon hints to Laura, “Of course, some girls do marry,” thus beginning the process of shunting Laura down another path of “traditional” femininity. While it could be argued that Amanda is, on some level, encouraging Laura to become independent, the fact that Amanda depends upon her children for income complicates things; her insensitivity, too, prevents her from understanding Laura, her disability, or her inner life.
Laura attempts to defend herself from her mother’s scorn by bringing up her disability: “But, mother—I’m…crippled!” Amanda, however, cannot be dissuaded, and effectively erases Laura’s disability and her experience of it: “Nonsense! Laura, I’ve told you never, never to use that word. Why, you’re not crippled, you just have a little defect—hardly noticeable, even! When people have some slight disadvantage like that, they cultivate other things to make up for it…That’s all you have to do!” Amanda’s perspective is a decidedly ableist one: she clearly does not understand Laura’s disability and how it affects her, and calls Laura’s limp a physical “defect” while denouncing Laura’s self-identification as “crippled.” In Amanda’s view, Laura’s disability is a defect, and using “that word” to refer to oneself is always a bad thing. Laura, however, is not as black-and-white in her feelings about her disability, and this is reflected throughout the rest of the play.
Laura’s evolution throughout the play is one that places her in what can best be called a liminal space for several reasons. She is repeatedly portrayed as naïve and child-like, yet her mother is perhaps more so, due to her rosy view of her past and especially her “popularity” with suitors–much of which may or may not be exaggerated. Laura is neither Good Cripple nor Supercrip, though her pathos and occasional martyrdom show through. She is repeatedly harangued by her mother about her failures to live up to a version of femininity that is both outdated and greatly exaggerated by Amanda’s own need for validation, but for the most part, manages to escape the arbitrary binds of traditional, graceful femininity that her mother has set for her; if we are to believe Amanda and her ruminations on her past, she fulfilled this impossible paragon in a near-perfect fashion, and Laura’s “defect” should not stop her from trying to do the same.
Although the play does not offer much hope for Laura, her glass menagerie does provide something of an escape. Readers and viewers are supposed to associate Laura’s “fragility” with that of her numerous glass animals, but she might be the strongest character in the play; unlike her mother, she does not have to rely on a make-believe version of the past to get her through the difficult present, and unlike her brother, she does not feel that she has to save her family, either through financial or other means. Of course, the fact that Laura has the least number of lines of any of the play’s major characters is problematic, as it seems to reinforce both notions of women as near-silent and undemanding, and of persons with disabilities as unable to speak for themselves. However, Laura’s overall complexity speaks volumes about how far representations of people with disabilities in popular culture still have to go. Though she is stereotypically feminine in some aspects, she has still managed to become an iconic and complex disabled character. Unlike the vast majority of disabled characters in many popular culture mediums—past and present–Laura cannot be reduced to a set of stereotypes so easily.