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  • From “Trivial Little Comedy” to “Legitimate Magic”: Music and the Making of The Glass Menagerie
  • Gabe C. Alfieri (bio)

The Glass Menagerie was Tennessee Williams’s first success, both commercial and critical, and remains one of the most frequently revived of all American plays.1 For its original production, Williams himself recruited master theater composer Paul Bowles to write an original score that helped turn “a trivial little comedy of domestic tribulation” into the “legitimate magic” that earned it a Drama Critics’ Circle Award and established it firmly among the great plays of the postwar period.2 An examination of Bowles’s Menagerie score adds new depth to our understanding of one of the most storied premieres in American theater history, of the play itself, and of the extent to which music aided Williams’s progressive vision for “a new, plastic theater” influenced by techniques and aesthetics of the cinema.3

The “Cinematization” of the American Theater

In a 1938 letter “To All Directors, Actors, Designers, and Producers on the Federal Theatre Project [FTP],” Hallie Flanagan, the project’s director, wrote: “The movies have beaten realism at its own game. . . . Just as architecture today stresses function, and emphasizes, rather than conceals, its materials, so the stage should stress the fact that it is a stage and should not be content to look like an imitation of a flat surface movie.”4 That same year, the stage designer, theater theorist, and historian Mordecai Gorelik voiced an opposing view of Hollywood’s influence when he wrote that “the stage, which once lent its technique to the cinema, is [End Page 143] now learning valuable lessons from the cinema in return.”5 Just two years later—after the Federal Theater had been shut down—Flanagan refocused her argument subtly but significantly toward Gorelik’s view when she warned that the movies, “in their kaleidoscopic speed and juxtaposition of external objects and internal emotions[,] are seeking to find visible and audible expression for the tempo and the psychology of our time. The stage too must experiment—with ideas, with psychological relationship of men and women, with speech and rhythm forms, with dance and movement, with color and light—or it must and should become a museum product.”6 In fact, experimentation is precisely what young playwrights and stage directors like Williams, Orson Welles, and others were up to in the late 1930s and early 1940s, bringing the techniques and aesthetics of cinema, as well as those of radio and newsreels, onto the stage from conception to presentation.

Though Flanagan fails to mention it, music might have been included in her list of elements with which the theater could experiment in its competition with film. She acknowledged the power of music in the theater more than once in Arena, her account of the FTP published in 1940, and wrote there of several collaborations between the FTP and the Federal Music Project.7 Music had proved itself an important tool in many of the FTP’s most successful productions—most notably those of Welles and John Houseman, who brought top-notch composers such as Bowles, Virgil Thomson, and Marc Blitzstein onto their creative team. The musicologist May Burton amassed ample data to support her claim, made in 1956, that dramatic music was generally on the ascendant again in the New York theater beginning in the late 1930s after a decline during the earlier Depression years.8

Although scholars of film music have long noted the influence of theater practice on the use of music in the early cinema, recent scholarship on American theater music has left largely unexamined the turnabout influence of cinema on the uses of music in the legitimate theater during the period of their shared history.9 Film audiences had come to accept—and enjoy—the subject-formation so effectively aided by filmic underscoring with its ability to smooth over discontinuity, anchor or generate meaning, and reinforce, comment upon, counterpoint, even create all manner of emotion, atmosphere, or psychology within the drama. In the theater, too, music could accomplish similar things, helping to minimize the impact upon subject-formation of a visual component that was increasingly less able to compete with Hollywood’s...


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pp. 143-171
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