Has the world changed so much that “The Glass Menagerie”–that southern Gothic play that launched Tennessee Williams’s career–is simply no longer comprehensible? That was my impression when I took in the play Saturday at the Kennedy Center.

“The Glass Menagerie is a dark play with plenty of bitter humor–but not the laugh riot humor. Yet, if you’d just listened to the audience at the matinee, you might have been forgiven for thinking it was a comedy.

You’d have thought that Sally Field (who, by the way, did a really, really good job) was reprising her successes as Gidget or the Flying Nun, not playing one of Tennessee Williams’ devouring mothers. (Note to audience: See Medea–she’s a hoot with her kids.)
But here’s why I think the audience viewed one of America’s darkest plays as comedy–the audience simply could not recognize the situation. It could not, so to speak, “identify” with the tragedy.

Take Tom, the struggling artist. He and his mother, Amanda, a faded southern belle who reminisces about her glory days when “gentlemen callers” came to pay court back in the Mississippi Delta, and his shy and crippled sister, Laura, live in a cheap apartment in an alley in St. Louis.Their father, alas, not a gentleman caller, was an alcoholic who worked for the telephone company and (in one of the great lines of the play) “fell in love with long distance.”

“Miss Amanda” holds onto her membership in the DAR, tries to sell magazine subscriptions, berates her children and utterly fails to come to terms with how different Laura is. She vacillates between a dream world and fear of destitution. The turning point in the play is her decision to find a gentleman caller for poor Laura after learning that Laura is so shy that she secretly left secretarial school.

To support the family, Tom works in a shoe factory, which he hates. He will eventually be fired for writing poetry on a shoe box and simply leave the family behind, suffering greatly for having deserted his sister, whom he loves.

I don’t think that a contemporary audience can begin to grasp the desperation of the situation’today Tom would apply for a federal grant and instead of the shoe factory go to college and graduate to produce anti-American art. His plays would not have to succeed commercially because he’d have all those grants to cushion him from having to appeal to the tastes of the middle-brow theatre-going audiences. (And wouldn’t there be some disability money for Laura?)

We are our struggles, and Tennessee Williams–I mean Tom–struggled to become a great (and very, very rich) playwright. He used the circumstances of his family to create “The Glass Menagerie.” He would have had it easier today, but would he have produced art?

Amanda Wingfield is one of the great female characters of stage and screen, a sort of southern mommie dearest. As somebody who grew up in a Mississippi Delta town fifty miles from where Williams lived in his grandfather’s rectory, I recognize Amanda Wingfield. Do I ever.

But how many people in our socially mobile, materialistic era can comprehend a failed woman’s attempts to preserve her prized gentility? Not the audience at the Kennedy Center, who seemed to believe that Amanda was essentially a comic role.

She belonged to the American equivalent of the class that, as the English writer George Orwell put it, had nothing to lose but their aitches. We know very few people today who fight to preserve manners and values in shabbiness. Her pathetic attempts to hold onto something intangible are as lost on us as her tales of the gentleman callers.

Of course, something’s lost and something’s gained–Laura, based on Tennessee’s mentally defective sister (who had a lobotomy) would have fared better today. But it all likelihood, we’d never have had the great plays of Tennessee Williams. He’d have gone to college and then written stylish pap for, say, the theatre at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.