The following Greek translation of the play was employed here: E. Belies, 2001, Athens: Kedros Eds.
The relationship with an other, who has meaning for as (an object), begins with our double, (the other subject, the other self). We find-create the objective world of objects starting from the subjective world. In the beginning the other is our twin, s/he is created on the model of ourselves. A crucial step at this process is the transition from the passions to the investment of affects of tenderness that signify the inhibition of the aim of the drives. This transition constantly fails in Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie. Thom represents the author and the audience, the inside and outside. In their drama the protagonists regress to find their feelings of tenderness but they fall in a void. Then they create unbearable terrifying situations of passion. From such a fire of catastrophe, the reality that cannot be suffered, they constantly escape from an emergency exit.
Key-words : trauma, identification with primary object, states of impass
The fire escape
We were profoundly touched by the performance of The Glass Menagerie at the Dimitris Horn Theatre. We now look to psychoanalysis to find the words to give meaning, to translate-symbolize the unbearable inner reality set in motion by the play.
What does psychoanalysis have to say to Tennessee Williams about his Glass Menagerie ? It has nothing to say. For Freud, if psychoanalysis has something true to say, it has already been said by the poets. The play analyzes us. When it is performed, it is as if our psychoanalyst, the one we imagine knows us, is speaking in public. We believe that the play is speaking to our own case. It is speaking about us.
The play touches us because we identify with the movements and traces of the soul presented on stage. We can identify with what is presented because the playwright has “identified with us,” as if he knew each one of us personally. The author intuitively knows the deepest aspects (of our soul), and exposes these on stage. This is why we have the sense that we have already lived and felt and thought all that we witness.
Plays are not written to be read, but to unfold on stage. The theater’s stage resembles both playing and dreaming, where various experiences are rendered as hallucinatory reality. It also resembles our everyday repetitions, in which we do our own casting, distributing roles in the plot to our intimate experiences, memories in search of images to be presented in consciousness and perceptions to be reflected in reality.
The author of The Glass Menagerie was interested in “poetic realism,” by which he meant the use of everyday, material objects which if positioned again and again and tested in appropriate contexts become immersed in symbolic meaning. This immersion is translated through words which stir up deep networks of early, painful experiences in the viewer. And the viewer knows what risks this poses. This is why viewers are grateful to artists who undertake on stage the risk of being wounded on their behalf, of sacrificing themselves so that viewers may be redeemed.
The characters in a major work escape their author. For this reason, each of us, each viewer distinguishes aspects that no one else has seen. We attend carefully to the very personal expression of feelings in this “work of memory,” as The Glass Menagerie has been characterized. We listen to its lyrical, melodic, subjective, sensuous expression.
The poetry casts the inner shadows of men over the everyday, familiar scenes portrayed in the play. Memory is employed in a twofold fashion: on the one hand, it is as if someone remembers in order to escape his painful inner reality, to find beliefs in old scenes and seek refuge in these. On the other hand, it is as if someone were searching their memory to find beliefs that reflect unconscious representations in order to give them form and substance on stage.
Tom remembers the life of his family in a provincial city in the American South with his mother Amanda and his sister Laura. His father, who would have represented the Law, who would have done something on his own, autonomously, and brought news from the outside world of reality, has long since abandoned the family. They live by continually abandoning—each in his/her own way—reality. But reality continually proves itself hard for them to withstand. In the end, it smashes all their fragile defenses. Tom’s mother appears in the play as the classic type of fallen beauty recalling past glories. She now resorts in a compelling way to memories and fantasies of her childhood and youth in the old romantic South. What she herself failed to achieve, she now dreams of for the future of her children. But at the same time she despises (and secretly idolizes) her son because he is an egocentric, irresponsible poet who hides out in bars, in alcohol, at the movies, who fails to meet his obligations, who doesn’t take care of his family like a man is supposed to. Tom himself takes refuge in daydreams of flight, in which he follows in his father’s footsteps. Laura, a girl as fragile as glass, lame in one leg, avoids the outside world. She finds refuge in the delusional denial of loss, playing with her collection of glass animals (the “menagerie”) and listening to her father’s collection of worn-out phonograph records. At some point, the trio (mother-son-daughter) seeks out a solution in a quartet. They all place their hopes in Jim, the play’s fourth character. As a visitor from the outside world, he gives Laura the illusion of a brief flirt. However, he terminates the illusion and everything falls apart.
We are in the American South. We hear the idiomatic pronunciation. We listen to the jazz of New Orleans, where everyday expressions, repeated in appropriate sequences, produce music which constantly tends to escape its rhythm, as if wishing to fly away to freedom, but continually returns to its irrevocable course (Stravinsky, 1970). We’re in the year 1930 during the Depression, or in 1944, after World War II, when the play premiered in Chicago.
In times of destruction, all we have is one another. However, in such times we withdraw into ourselves, deploying autistic defenses. With these, we use our senses in our contacts with others (and not representations in light of which we focus, maintain our distance and provide meaning retrospectively). We remain unprotected from the invasion of objects. Through our senses, the objects fall through “holes in time” and rush in. Using autistic defenses, we build a world of narrow scope. Denuded, with nothing to call our own, we ask for something concrete to hold onto. And it is everyday life we hold onto: we cite facts to believe that what is traumatic is also real.
When we feel safe with one another, then we can withdraw to a legitimate illusion to engage in reverie. We go to a secret place where we keep our private collection—our uniqueness—the unicorn of the real self, one-member and one-body narcissism. We hide this self, we protect it. But another needs to find us. It would be catastrophic if they didn’t (Winnicott, 1963).
In this production of The Glass Menagerie , we continually heard music which in conjunction with the projection of images infused the play with a haunted, dream-like atmosphere. What was haunting the protagonists was seeking recognition. What was haunting them? What haunts us, each of us? Are these things rejected and excluded from thought?
And head-on collisions between powerful representations and outer beliefs became unbearable because they were not given meaning. To avoid everything falling apart, Tom continually fled by way of the fire escape. Every so often he left behind something unbearable, something terrifying. He lived beside the fire escape, ready to make a getaway at any moment from the fires of passion and destruction, an intolerable reality.
The so-called twin
Director Katerina Evangelatou presented moments of violent resonance between inner and outer reality. Amanda talked incessantly without Tom being physically present—he frequently ran off to the fire escape to smoke. Furthermore, the images projected on the wall often staged movements of finding self and other, in an effort by the protagonists to see and be seen auto-erotically in order to separate inner from outer. They fought to make possible emotional exchange possible. But daily life returned, and with it their need for the presence and availability of the external object.
Reality was frequently blinding, difficult for one to employ as a reflection. The treatment provided by the play is brutal, based on the logic of perpetrator-victim: the terrifying image of Amanda, the terrified image of Laura.
And a member of the audience wondered: is this how Williams processed the image, or was his mother this terrifying in reality? Did he confirm this horrible image of his mother in (real) life with its repetitions? Did he go to the theater to see her (real) on stage?
Green (1999) points out that Freud abandoned his theory of the seduction of the child in favor of his theory of unconscious fantasies. He had no criterion for distinguishing what came from within and what from outside. But he never claimed that children do not suffer real traumas at the hands of adults. It was only when he understood the mechanisms of denial, disavowal, and splitting of reality that he acquired the concepts with which to approach external reality.
Abused children take their parents to court and not just metaphorically, frequently relying on false memories. But there is one false memory commoner than any other: that of the ideal childhood. This is Amanda’s false memory in The Glass Menagerie , and it sustains her with its disavowals.
The author of the play did not take his parents to court, but in addition to his theatrical masterpieces he “staged” blatant scandals (sudden, inexplicable decisions in life and work) by which he announced to the world the compulsion to open old files and for others to delve into his case, so that the true guilty parties could finally be caught and punished. In enacting these scandals, the author was in distress, in search of the idea of a father who would acknowledge how he felt.
In an interview, Tennessee Williams once said that deep down his father must have recognized how awful it must have been for his son to be afraid of him, to not dare to say a word to him man to man when they were together. He recalled that at one point, he said—to say something—to his father that the weather was bad. His father answered by saying that “yes, it was awful,” something that for the child meant “yes, I do in fact know how awful you feel.”
It seems unbelievable how the author retained a memory of such a minor detail (as he must have shaped it through imagination), and how he held on to it.
Tom opens The Glass Menagerie by saying: “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 guise of illusion.” Tom starts by drawing a partition between stage and audience.
Thomas Lanier Williams was the author’s real name. The Greek name Thomas comes from Aramaic and means “twin.” John the Baptist called Thomas “the so-called twin.” It was he who would not believe if he did not touch reality, the scars from the wounds, the print of the nails, with his fingers.
The relationship with reality, with the other (the external object) starts with the twin, our double (the other object, the other self). We find and create the objective world of objects by starting with a subjective. The other is originally our twin, created in the image of our self.
In The Glass Menagerie , Tom represents the author and his public, inner and outer. Everyone in the play is looking for someone to respond to their gesture, to give it meaning, the value of communication. When Amanda is on the phone and manages to persuade a woman she knows from the Club to renew her magazine subscription, she finds a response and comes alive.
Like a magician, a hypnotist, Tennessee Williams violently imposed an atmosphere of occupation and threats against the inner framework, the place reserved for feelings and thoughts. The wildly passionate Amanda fills every gap with words which she delivers incessantly, without commas or periods. Why doesn’t Tom make her absent? Why doesn’t he maintain an inner distance from her? Why does he have to distance himself geographically, to fall in love with long distances, in order to make time exist (between two places), so that everything doesn’t happen all at once, with an omnipotent short-circuiting of his thought?
At another level, “long distances” present the child’s disinvestment from the depressive mother who is experienced as an object lost without leaving behind any traces. Some of the last remains (a photograph, a record) are used to attest to the painful loss, which is realer than any other object present.
What is unbearable and painful—and for this reason everyone is blinded, they don’t realize it, they reject perceiving it—is the role of the father, the function of the penis, the creation of the couple. The father is just a photograph. The third person, the one who separates the child from the primary mother and permits it to go out into the world, has been lost. Bonds to reality, thinking, are under attack.
Freezing the trauma
The play opens by recalling an old era of collapse, a breakdown that has occurred in the past. Throughout the play, the fear is that a collapse is imminent. What keeps returning again and again is the anxiety that everything will fall apart. The question is: In these grim times of destruction, do desire and longing have a place? Is the capacity to love life and to love threatened (Green 1999, 176)? Will those wild forces, the drives, be tamed? Will they become the menagerie’s pets? Will life experiences become silent, fossilized in the frozen traumas? Will they be trapped in glass forms, in frozen experiences and feelings that cannot be set free and become conscious?
How fragile the psychic work of creativity is. All the bonds can become pieces, become desolate in psychic reality and in relationships, with life becoming barren and sterile. The experience of satisfaction wants a solid auto-erotic substrate, not a glass menagerie-world. It wants a powerful, positive narcissism. It wants its words to speak, to be linked in the here and now, alive, with their primordial roots in somatic events and encounters with the object where they were first formed. Otherwise one remains empty: I have nothing that is mine. Kinesthetic and perceptual elements—the so-called extra-verbal elements by which meaning is also conveyed — are contained in the foundations of our words.
From the opening moment of the performance we feel ourselves waiting with longing, a fragile expectation … something is happening, and we want to grasp the representation at work. From the first scene at the table the question of the object’s acceptance is posed. Will we as fellow-diners be capable of allowing ourselves to be receptive, of depending on others? Will we enjoy one another? Will we be taken in by the process, or will we want to control it? Will we be socially acceptable, will they play with us, will we have something of our own to contribute, or will we be envious and steal the phallus of others, fugitives, loners, withdrawn?
How was it that director Katerina Evangelatou thought of placing the glass menagerie in the refrigerator? The refrigerator was a transparent retreat where Laura hid. The retreat represented fixation-regression to the developmental stage in which the infant “has/is the breast.” The trauma must have occurred in the early oral stage. Laura’s persecutor (in the performance I saw on 18 March 2012) is an external narcissistic object to which she will cling forever because she cannot appropriate it internally (internalize it). Her mother was not a mirror to become her double. She did not “look” at her and she did not touch her so as to make her body erogenous; she did not give her the chance to “be seen” and be touched, so that she in turn could engage in self-love. Laura’s handicap was the loss of the natural primal investment of the maternal object (Botella, C. & S. 2005, 63). At another level, we need to wonder about the last vestiges remaining in the refrigerator—a crypt for a frozen trauma created in place of an incorporation of the void of loss—as traces of a disinvesting and disinvested mother.
The theater of the mouth
In the beginning was the act, emanating from the body. We assume that the developing baby recaps that which Langer (1954) postulated for the human race: in prehistory, the first leaps of imagination created the myths which initially were dramatized in “song (and) dance.” Meltzer (1986) relied on this idea, believing that the mouth was the theater of musical and rhythmical improvisations which repeated phylogeny through the music and dance exchanged by mother and infant (Goldman, 2011). Meltzer also spoke of the “theater of the mouth.” An autistic child was playing with sounds in its mouth in parallel with a game with objects, not just as a commentary but as alternative theater for dealing with fantasies. He was treating sounds as concrete objects that drew their meaning from direct apposition to other sounds or objects in the oral mucous.
The ego begins in the mouth with the actual movements of nursing, from which are created kinetic hallucinations, images, and fantasies that link the object with the body and psyche. There is no separation of body-soul (Scott, 1950, Isaacs, 1952, de Alvarez de Toledo, 1996). The sense of self is interwoven with the first (memory) traces and interactions that comprise the major foundational networks of repetitions which fantasies interpret-narrate and shape. Through psychosomatic connections, the psyche begins to “dwell in” the body. The first movements and sensations are not differentiated as coming from mother or infant. The basic repetitions organize movements and sensations which are scattered along short discharge paths (primary auto-eroticism-narcissism). Gradually, with the intervention of the object the major repetitions organize the movements and sensations in hallucinations, images, phantasies (fantasies) that are integrated by the subject. They are collected around nursing and the auto-erotic game of hand and mouth (first achievement of the ego) (Hoffer, 1949). The infant “touches” its body and its mother as its double. The response it receives from the object confirms that it is touching its other self. It then turns this response inward and forms its sense of self.
We have another example of mutual response when the mother feeds her baby with a spoon—hopefully, this is not done mechanically. From her unconscious she transmits fantasies—enigmatic messages whose meaning even she herself does not know—which accompany the gestures with which she feeds her child. The child in turn attempts to translate these with psychic constructions (Laplanche, 1992).
The mother responds like a mirror to the infant’s gestures. Through her first echoing, the mother transmits to her child a meta-message, giving it the information that she is merely an echo, and that she herself is not the movement or sensation that the infant feels (Gegerly, et al,. 2002, Rousillon, 2013). Together with food, the mother gives her child a sign that what she does is surrounded by an aura, by another, metaphorical meaning. In this effort, the child turns the passive into active, and pretends that it too is feeding its mother with the spoon.
Winnicott (1941) says that the mother must not destroy this movement in a foolish and provocative way by actually putting the spoon in her mouth; rather, she too should pretend that she is being feed. This is genuine feedback (Parsons, 2000). The mouth initially comprises the area that contains the self since its psychic geography is formed by the tactile sensations, hand to mouth movements, tongue movements, and sounds that transmit what words cannot yet convey (Spitz, 1955; Scott, 1955; Goldman, 2011). The mouth is the theater for the first “testing-grounds” of reality. In an announcement to the British Society, Scott (1955) made blathering sounds with his mouth, “interpreting” for his inhibited and depressed patient that when she was a baby she made these sounds to her mother, but the mother did not respond with the same sounds by playing with her. Goldman (2012) mentions that Scott wanted to show that sounds can convey meaning. Scott described behaviors created on the basis of sensations, movements, oral perceptions, e.g. stiffness in contrast to flexibility, themes he discerned in the slow movements of the tongue, tightening of the lips, etc. in comparison with the freedom of speech after therapy.
Spitz (1955, 219), who studied intraoral experiences, believes that the mouth is a “primal cavity” which forges a connection with the outside world, even prior to birth. There are tactile and motor sensations that favor the transition to this primal state, to the strange, inchoate world where scattered pieces of the somatic ego converge. Oral polysemous and multi-sensory phenomena comprise an intermediary stage before the child emerges from primitive song-dance to symbolism.
Tustin (1986) has spoken about autistic, soothing, self-stimulating stereotypical movements whose objective is to fill gaps in the somatic ego. Oral sensations play an important role here. Autistic echolalia is one example. A child who continuously played with his tongue, with rumination movements, was anxious that he would fall to pieces, that he would pour out (of his body) and lose forever the existence (the mother-self) he had inside him.
According to Meltzer (1986), the infant has an innate sensory perception about the multi-form nature of external beauty, the source of which is the mother with her melodious voice, rhythmic rocking movements and attractive features, particularly her eyes. This “love at first sight” turns the child outward to the world. This sensory bombardment may bring about a retreat of autism. On the other hand, an infant’s mother can put a sudden end to this bombardment. Then the child can be turned to the inner aspects of the mother and get to know her.
The pre-psychic motor, sensory, and perceptual (especially visual) elements prevail in cases of early oral traumas like those we have posited for the protagonists of The Glass Menagerie . Their world was burning down and they were talking; instead of doing something about the facts of the reality that was threatening them, they put them in their mouth to get to know them.
From the start of the play, objects are placed on stage in crossfires of violent emotional and sensory bombardment. How do we confront this sensual overflow and all-threatening destruction? How can the desire for life and love find its way? Beyond conflicts, beyond desire and meaning is disinvestment, which is presumed to liberate a person from every dependency on anyone or anything, to the point that the price for meeting oneself is murdering the other (Green 1999, 185).
The feminine essence of being
At the play’s conclusion, Tom says that he does everything… he runs out to the cinema or a bar, has a drink, speaks to the first strange he comes upon… to be able to put out Laura’s candles. It is she who haunts him.
If the theater—like psychoanalysis—makes reparation, it is in recognizing what the parents erased from their perception and thought. At the end of the play Tom says: “Nowadays the world is lit only by lightning.” We can’t recount a fire. The flame of passion has no past tense, it has only the present (Steiner 2011). Real lives are being destroyed now; now a violent, exciting maternal care is manifested. And there is a discharge by means of a glass fetish which immobilizes the object in order to preserve and hold onto the coherence of self.
Behind the threnody for the lost paradise, behind the polite lament, we hear the oral violence. The fiasco at the Commercial School. Did anyone acknowledge the girl’s pain? She was going mad in the midst of her panic. Her entire existence would pour out of her. She found a refuge in the greenhouse. She “froze” an entire world. What would she hold onto? Her perceptions in the park. The music of her father’s records. Her perceptions of her memories of Jim. “We don’t even notice she’s crippled” – “I’ve told you never, never to use that word.” Disability restricts one’s freedom of movement. But when the author of The Glass Menagerie threw off the masochistic disability-resolution, he was destroyed by the success of the performance.
The coming of the “gentleman caller” proves decisive. Jim’s coming (Greek eleusis from the verb erchomai ) is connected with the Eleusinian Mysteries of the invisible side of the world and with freedom. The guest is the one who invites and provokes. Tom’s guest is also a student of public speaking. He will speak, express himself freely. But how does one express oneself, speak, put into words and make known to oneself and others that which is unconscious? Through Jim’s dance and song we are deeply touched by Laura. Tom seeks this “touching” in dives. Thomas Lanier (Tennessee) Williams became ill with diphtheria at the age of five—how terrifying that must have been. At the age of 72, he died choking on the cap of his bottle of eye drops.
As a psychoanalyst, I have nothing to say to Tennessee Williams. What did I manage to hear him say to me through Laura’s Glass Menagerie in this outstanding production? Two fundamental truths touched me. First: how awful, how unbearable reality must be. How many ways of evading it we can have (hallucinations of satisfaction, dreams, fantasies, perversion, psychosis, autistic withdrawal, self-destructive repetition). The second thing I heard clearly was the female essence of our existence. According to Freud, both men and women resist the concept of our female origins. We fear the passivity-receptivity which accompanies it.
Andrė (2011) explains that the desire to comprehend the feminine in man is an important motive for our becoming psychoanalysts. The anxiety concerning our female nature demonstrates the primacy of the other, and is linked with separations and losses. The infant’s initial passivity is female in nature. The infant receives the violent intrusions of the passions of the mother who cares for it. Her position is asymmetrical and violently intrudes in the infant’s world.
She installs herself as something “foreign” within us. This in turn haunts us despite the symmetries with which artists fashion the world in their work. They rely on their intuitive conception of the primal reciprocal mirrorings between infant and mother which create the first traces, inscriptions, of meaning out of chaos. With every formation of meaning, an island of subjectivity is also created.
 This text is based on a presentation of the Greek Psychoanalytic Society on 18 March 2012 at the Dimitris Horn Theatre for the production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie . Director: K. Evangelatou, Cast: N. Tsaliki, A. Albanis, A. Ninou, K. Gavalas. Sets- costumes: G. Patsas. Music: St. Gasparatos.
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