Cat on a Hot Tin Roof | Critical Essay by Georges-Michel Sarote

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Critical Essay by James Reynolds

SOURCE: "The Failure of Technology in The Glass Menagerie," in Modern Drama, Vol. 34, No. 4, December, 1991, pp. 522-27.

In the following essay, Reynolds discusses the significance of modern technology in The Glass Menagerie, which he views as a commentary on progress and the effect of technology on the individual and society.

Laura's fragile collection of glass animals gives Tennessee Williams's play its name and a central symbol with both an esthetic and a personal focus. But the play is punctuated with another set of references, an array of ordinary products of twentieth-century technology, that expands its significance beyond the personal even as it illuminates the narrow lives of its protagonists.

Williams introduces The Glass Menagerie through a context of social upheaval—war already in Spain, imminent in Europe; labor unrest in American cities. Tom's opening narrative announcing the "social background of the play" sounds like a manifesto of both esthetic and social reform. Yet the only specific allusions to these events during the rest of the play are the incidental headline in Tom's newspaper about Spain, and Tom's narrated contrast between the Europe of Berchtesgaden, Chamberlain, and Guernica, and the St. Louis of the dance halls. Roger B. Stein sees in the allusions to the Depression and impending war a "note of social disaster [that] runs throughout the drama, fixing the lives of individuals against the larger canvas." But the prominent focus of the play is on personal levels of inadequacy—the fragile lives and the conflicts of the Wingfield family—rather than on a specific set of social, economic, or political issues. So Gilbert Debusscher should not be faulted in criticizing Bulgarian critic Grigor Pavlov for making of the work a "kind of dramatized social pamphlet, a play whose overall aim is to denounce … the deplorable effects of capitalism."

Short of so specific a socio-political program, though, Williams does encourage us to place the play in some larger context. Terry Eagleton states that "all major art is 'progressive' in the limited sense that any art sealed from some sense of the historically central, relegates itself to minor status." If the play's milieu beyond the St. Louis tenement is significant—if the social background impinges on the lives of the characters—we must look for a pattern that consolidates those lives in a "historically central" sense. One pattern that looms in the background of the Wingfield family is the way that changing economic and social modes can restrict the potential for happy and successful lives. We are always aware of Amanda's grand past in the Old South, her wealthy suitors and her servants, as we watch her make do in a walkup tenement. And Tom and Laura are pushed into commercial careers that conflict with their temperaments and aspirations.

A specific agent for change that Williams alludes to time and again in the play is technology, one of the strongest forces to redirect society in the twentieth century. While one character, the "realist" Jim O'Connor, sees the future of America as tied to progress in technology, the play consistently reiterates the failure of technology to achieve social or individual values—or, for that matter, even to function at a practical level. Lights go out, the telephone is hung up; cinema and phonograph serve merely as escapes, for men whose lives are governed by impersonal commercial enterprises embodied in warehouses, and for women who are expected to live by serving business through mechanical clerical work, or by marrying successful radio engineers.

Williams's recurring use of common domestic technologies—the phonograph, telephone, cinema, radio dynamics, and the electric light—in critical episodes throughout the play would seem to render futile [Karl] Marx's hope for a society in which technology satisfies human needs. While many social upheavals have contributed to the Wingfields' personal situation, it is technology which confirms the hard boundary of elements beyond their control. Their lives have been limited by a number of forces; the shift from old agrarian to modern urban life; the breakup of the traditional family economic structure; the dependence upon impersonal manufacturing and marketing employers. These bear on the Wingfield family's daily lives implicitly, Amanda and Tom victims of their impact but unaware of them as historical forces. More explicitly, the ordinary technologies already taken for granted in American households by 1939 serve as markers that define within the play the limits imposed on the Wingfields.

The entire Wingfield family repeatedly demonstrate their failure under the new dispensation. Amanda comes from an agrarian Delta society, where her beaux are planters and sons of planters—but she marries a telephone man who falls in love with long distance. He escapes to Mexico (then a pretechnological society) to find freedom and adventure. She is left to deal with the twentieth-century American city, described in Williams's stage directions as "overcrowded urban centers of lower middle-class population" where this "enslaved section of American society … exist[s] … as one interfused mass of automatism." Amanda is vaguely aware of the central role technology ought to play in the world, but retreats to naive faith when confronted by its complexity. Of Jim, she burbles "Then he has visions of being advanced in the world!… Radio engineering? A thing for the future!"

But this future is not hers, either in technology's daily operations or in its place in the cosmos. When the lights flicker and go out, Amanda hopes for a solution within Jim's ken if not hers or Tom's: "Mr. O'Connor, can you tell a burntout fuse? I know I can't and Tom is a total loss when it comes to mechanics." Her lack of knowhow arises not from gender (Tom is no more apt than she) but from dislocations of time and class in the history of her world. Whether her dependency in such matters is the result of her having been displaced from the Old South plantation to an urban setting, or of a genteel early life where Delta servants provided for her needs, she is uninformed about the most basic practical level of controlling this domesticated manifestation of Edisonian invention.

More generally, she is awed by scientific advances not on account of their practical value or the complexity of the theories that explain them, but the sense of "mystery" that surrounds them: "Isn't electricity a mysterious thing? Wasn't it Benjamin Franklin who tied a key to a kite? We live in such a mysterious universe, don't we? Some people say that science clears up all the mysteries for us. In my opinion it only creates more!"

Revealing her own basis for understanding life, she lights the candelabrum from the Church of the Heavenly Rest, melted out of shape by a lightning bolt sent by God to punish the wayward parishioners of Blue Mountain. This tall tale by Gypsy Jones down in Mississippi is as valid a hypothesis in Amanda's world as any based on the experiments of Franklin. Her background prevents her entry into the Century of Progress.

Distant from both the practical and theoretical elements of technology, she is made its servant. She earns cash through the telephone, an early telemarketing slave who sells popular women's magazines by summarizing their soft-porn plots to D.A.R. housewives. Her opportunity is limited because her clients can control her by hanging up the phone. The instrument of communication, developed by a man interested in advancing the abilities of the deaf, has been taken over by entrepreneurs who trade on the public's interest in the mildly salacious. The family eats on credit when Amanda's connection is broken at the other end of the line.

Telephone, electric lighting, radio and television. To these technological developments Williams adds the phonograph and the cinema. These two devices serve Williams's dramaturgy as symbols of the world of illusion which Tom and Laura escape to, symbols as strongly relevant to the play's personal level as the eponymous collection of glass animals. But they also reinforce the pervasive pattern of technological elements in the play, the telephone, radio and TV, and electric light replacing its antecedent the candelabrum. In their dual symbolic roles, film and phonograph bind together the levels of the play—the personal level of the specific characters' illusions and escapes, with the broader historical significance of technology's impact on society. (It is ironic that Williams depends on technological innovations for staging the play—the lighting which is essential to maintaining the visual center of attention, and which continues its ethereal effects even as the on-stage prop lights flicker and go out; the magic-lantern projections of images and legends; even a narrative technique akin to that of cinematography.)

Louis Dupré, in his discussion of Marx's views of cultural and social alienation, notes that the German philosopher attributes the "antisocial quality [of the division of labor] to the dominance of technology over human activity." We see Tom escaping from the warehouse with its celotex ceiling and fluorescent lighting by retreating to the movies, a world of adventure analogous to the life he dreams of as a merchant seaman. And whatever else he does on his nightly forays—drinking, cruising for companions—it is the movies which provide his cover. The movies were the nation's escape mechanism throughout the Depression and on into the war years, until displaced by the newer technology managed by the Jims of the electronics world, ever slicker technologies with ever slighter provocation to adventure.

For Laura, the phonograph provides similar escape from the pressures of earning a living in a commercial world, relentless memorizing of charts to serve business interests. Unlike the typewriter, the mechanics of which are so alien to her temper that she throws up in class, the phonograph is soothing. She avoids difficult conversations by retreating to it: the text draws our attention as much to the cranking of its mechanism as to the music it reproduces. Laura turns to it nearly as often as she does to her glass menagerie.

Nancy M. Tischler has aptly characterized the brother's and sister's relation to technology. Tom believes that "many, like himself, are poetic rather than mechanistic" and considers "surrender to the machine a perversion of man's nature," while of Laura, Tischler writes: "Unable to adapt to the modern scene of electro-dynamics, she lives in a world of candlelight and fantasy. The encounter with the machine age is brief and useless." Technology "succeeds" in providing escape from hard realities of life rather than easing the economic, political, and social problems of the time. For Tom, movies are analogous to drinking, and for Laura, the phonograph is the machinery that enables her withdrawal from the world.

Only Jim, the visitor from outside, concerns himself actively with technology. His interest "happens to lie in electro-dynamics. I'm taking a course in radio engineering at night school … I believe in the future of television … all that remains is for the industry itself to get under way! Full steam—(His eyes are starry) Knowledge—Zzzzzp! Money—Zzzzzzp!—Power! That's the cycle democracy is built on!" It is capitalism, rather than "democracy," that Jim sees built on these. He is not only the play's "realist," the foil for the illusory worlds of the Wingfields: he is also the potential entrepreneur of technological capitalism. "Knowledge" means inventing new technologies and capitalizing on their financial success, which in turn gives the system power over those without technology.

But Jim's more specific comments on progress and invention suggest a severely limited conception of what technology is about: "Think of the fortune made by the guy that invented the first piece of chewing gum…. Century of Progress…. What impressed me most was the Hall of Science. Gives you an idea of what the future will be in America, even more wonderful than the present time is." He is an average representative of his class, hoping to advance in society through mastery of the new tools, without abandoning his predilection for chewing gum and the sports page. Pavlov, comparing Jim to Willie Loman, characterizes him as "another member of the blind American middle class [who] just doesn't realize that men's destinies under capitalism are not shaped by personal virtues and self-perfection but by the operation of the ruthless economic laws of capitalist development."

Jim's limited conception of what constitutes technology aside for the moment, he is Williams's ultimate chip in the series of tokens representing technology in society. It is his view of progress which is set against the inadequacy of the Wingfields, showing in the language of drama the impact of that view. Those without access to the real power of technology are limited as mere users unable to understand or control it. They remain outside the sphere created by larger forces that place technology not as the servant of humanity but as a venture for capital investment, nationalistic rivalries, and costly toys.

When we see the play performed, we are drawn of course to its personal issues: inadequacy, failures of love and other illusions, conflicts of goals and responsibilities and family. With Debusscher I agree that the play is not "about" a specific set of social, economic, and political devastations which happened to coincide in time with the personal events of the play. But great literature strikes home in more than one way, the familiar or local issues and the larger milieu: Shakespeare's kings live both public and private lives. The Glass Menagerie, too, is "progressive," in Eagleton's sense. The Wingfield family exists in a specific time and place that defines their origins and position in society. Williams merely alludes to the threats of war and labor unrest; he shows us in more detail a society intent on a future altered by technological development but one in which that development fails to give ordinary people any significant progress.

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This section contains 2,259 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by William Becker