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Growing Up

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Adolescent concerns regarding burgeoning feelings of sexuality, responsibility, and social connection have been the subject of many modern dramas. The children we witness growing up in these plays are as varied as the problems they face. But wherever they reside, all are teenagers facing typical adolescent concerns regarding their place in society and their relationship to others. In many plays, writers draw on their own experience growing up, making the drama as much confession as a representation of the joys, dilemmas, and difficulties children face as they turn into adults. Modern dramatists are largely in agreement that adolescence is a period of profound change, and one that needs sympathetic treatment, and, to this end, many representations of adolescence on the stage have been depicted, predominantly, from the child’s point of view.

Carson McCullers’s Member of the Wedding was first published as a novel in 1946, but she adapted it into a play four years later at the suggestion of Tennessee Williams, who saw its dramatic possibilities. Though McCullers only wrote one more play, her contribution to drama is important in the way in which she went against traditional dramatic structures of the time in Member of the Wedding . By constructing a play that consists mostly of dialogue with very little action, she helped to expand the boundaries of theatrical possibility. The play portrays the development of twelve-year-old Frankie Addams from childhood into teenage adolescence.

Brighton Beach Memoirs by Neil Simon is the first of a semi-autobiographical trilogy about fourteen-year-old Eugene Jerome (Neil Simon) and his upbringing in Depression-era Brooklyn. We witness Eugene discover puberty and the complicated interrelationship between family members that ensures the continued survival of all. Eugene, like Simon, is a keen observer of life, so the  action unfolds through his eyes as he comments on what occurs like a teenage Greek Chorus figure.

The Glass Menagerie , by Tennessee Williams, is strongly autobiographical, informed by the adolescent behavior and concerns of the young Thomas “Tennessee” Williams, and his relationship to his mother and his sister Rose. With its portrayal of a family abandoned by the father and a mother who devastates the lives of her children in her efforts to maintain control, we see depicted many of the difficulties faced by adolescents. These difficulties are often caused as much by the failings of their parents as by their own fledgling personalities.

Member of the Wedding follows the development of twelve-year-old Frankie Addams, who grows tired of playing with the young children and wants to become a part of the adult world she sees around her. Her childish plot to join her brother on his honeymoon and be accepted by this adult world is easily defeated, so she runs away in disappointment. Realizing that this, too, is an inappropriate response, she returns home after she cools down and stops trying to accelerate her growth. By the play’s end she has grown past her reliance on the motherly Berenice, been accepted by the older children, and is beginning to show an interest in boys.

McCullers saw Member of the Wedding as an “inward” drama, in which the movement is propelled by internal conflict rather than external action—that conflict being the development of its protagonist, Frankie Addams. To convey this sense of internal drama, McCullers locates the main actions of the drama offstage—the wedding, Frankie’s attempt to go with the newlyweds, and the deaths of young John Henry and Berenice’s foster brother, Honey. These events are just reported to the audience. This directs the audience’s attention to the emotional effects of these events themselves. We witness Frankie Addams’s feelings as she feels trapped between childhood and adulthood and yearns for acceptance in adult society, while still needing the comfort of her childhood world.

Frankie feels isolated and caught between two worlds, those of children and adults, uncomfortable and awkward in each as she plays out the angst of most adolescents regarding her interest in the opposite gender, her fears of being accepted by society, and her annoyance at being treated as a young child. She wants to become a member of the older girls’ clubhouse, and is crushed when a contemporary of hers, Mary Littlejohn, has been accepted, but she has not. She is forced to watch and listen from inside the kitchen as the girls cross her yard on the way to their clubhouse and sing their songs.

It is within this kitchen that she seems to be kept as a child, having to play with her seven-year-old cousin, John Henry West. The hot summer kitchen emphasizes her frustration with this childish world she longs to escape. Her restlessness in playing with such young children, and her dissatisfaction with the doll her older brother, Jarvis, has brought her, show her impatience with childhood. She aspires to be an adult like Janice, her brother’s fiancée, and   resolves to change her name to Jasmine to sound more like her and to accompany her brother and his new wife on their wedding trip. Her desire to be grown up is undercut by her childish expectations about what it will mean to be adult. She has the temper and lack of proper understanding of a child, so it is little wonder that the adults continue to exclude her. The inappropriate outfit she obtains for the wedding further underlines her unpreparedness for the adult world, as does her running away when they refuse to allow her to depart with the newly married couple.

Yet Frankie is twelve, and has a strong desire to embrace adulthood. Her vision of herself as growing from an “I” person into a “me” person, indicates an innate understanding between the self-absorption of childhood, and the more socially demanding world of adulthood, even though she still thinks of boys like Barney MacKean as “nasty.” Her fear that she may become a freak because of her height reflects her concern with social norms, as well as her worries about her impending puberty. With her mother dead and her father and older brother emotionally distant and unable to understand the needs of a young girl, it is left to the family’s motherly cook, Berenice, to help Frankie through this troubled time, which Berenice does by patiently listening and by offering calm advice.

Berenice comforts Frankie when she needs to be comforted, taking her on her knee as a mother would. So it is significant that by the close of the play Berenice decides not to go with Frankie and her father into their new house; this indicates that Frankie has sufficiently outgrown her need for a mother by this point. We are prepared for Frankie’s growth in the final act, by our knowledge that the sheet formerly hung in the arbor as a curtain for Frankie’s plays is gone, indicating her changing interests and abandonment of childish games. This is further underlined by Frankie’s altered reaction to Barney MacKean, whom she now views as a “Greek god.” She has also been accepted by the older girl crowd and no longer feels so isolated. The death of her young cousin could act as an additional symbol of the death of the childhood she has now left behind. Frankie’s growth is finally a natural one, reliant on the processes of time that she had unsuccessfully tried to accelerate.

Brighton Beach Memoirs introduces the Jerome family, who are financially struggling to survive during the Depression years. The family’s head, Jack Jerome, works at two jobs to support his own family and that of his widowed sister-in-law, Blanche. His eldest son, Stanley, who is eighteen, tries to help, while the younger son, Eugene, only fourteen, takes us through the resulting ups and downs of their endeavors and the changing pressures and relationships between family members, up to news of more relatives likely to join them as Jews begin to flee fascist Europe. Through it all, Eugene explores the world of adult responses and fears that he soon must join.

At turns comic and serious, many of the play’s more humorous moments deal with Eugene’s burgeoning sexuality as he blackmails his brother into de- scribing what their cousin Nora looked like when he caught her coming out of the shower, and the two discuss girls and masturbation. In act two, Stanley gives his brother a postcard of a nude woman, provoking Eugene to declare to his journal that his sexual interest is now at a peak. Simon suggests that the onset of puberty is a time of joy and wonder, and certainly not a shameful stage of life, as it has been depicted in more Puritanical times.

At fourteen, Eugene still possesses the innocence and idealism of youth, reflected in the era of comparative innocence in which he was raised, before the horrors of World War II arrived on the scene. Life was difficult, but not impossible, and Eugene’s optimism and faith in the strength of his parents serve to make this an uplifting portrayal of a young man growing into manhood. Eugene learns by watching his family about the difficulties and challenges adulthood will bring, and because his family resolve their problems through compromise, what he learns is predominantly positive.

Although Eugene is the central character, he is only in the initial stages of growth. Actually on the verge of adulthood are Eugene’s brother Stanley, and their cousin Nora. At eighteen, Stanley already works to add to his family’s income, but finds himself under the threat of being fired unless he writes a letter of apology for defending a black colleague insulted by his boss. Once Stanley has explained his principled reasons for having been fired, he continues to show adult resolve by deciding to apologize as asked to keep the job his family needs. However, it is not always so easy to make the right decision, and Stanley is still prone to immature responses, even though he is throughout motivated by his regard for his family’s welfare.

After his father has a heart attack from overwork, Stanley tries to increase their income by gambling, and loses an entire week’s wages. Shamed by his mistake, he runs away to join the army, but after a day realizes that he needs to return home. His impulse in this circumstance is a measure of his growth—he returns home not because he wants to remain a little boy but because he is ready to fully accept the burdens of adult responsibility and knows his family needs him with them.

Nora, two years younger than Stanley, has a less secure relationship with her immediate family, possibly because her father recently died and her mother suffers from uncertainty. For much of the play Nora and her mother, Blanche, are at odds, as Nora strives to become independent and her mother worries about her growing away from her. Nora is given the opportunity to audition for a professional dance role in a Broadway musical, but Blanche and Jack insist that she stay in school until she graduates. Nora childishly resents what she sees as her chance at fame slipping away, refusing to view the larger picture the adults see. This leads her to treat her mother meanly, until the pair finally sit down and talk through their mutual fears and needs, and come to a better understanding and realization of the extent of their love for each other.

The world of adulthood is not shown as an attractive one, but full of burdensome responsibility, which weighs heavily on Jack, his wife Kate, and Blanche. Jack shows this strain by his heart attack, and Kate and Blanche in their sisterly dispute as they violently argue and lash out at each other. Kate feels overwhelmed by having to assume Jack’s leadership responsibilities while he is sick, and Blanche both grieves for her husband and feels uncomfortable having to rely on her sister’s family. Harsh words are exchanged, but finally, like sensible adults, they resolve their dispute, working out a plan by which Blanche can become more independent. In Simon’s subsequent plays in this trilogy, we see Jerome grow up into a sensible and responsible figure, which is unsurprising given the flexible and supportive family in which he was raised.

The Glass Menagerie is narrated by Tom Wingfield, who explains why he ran away to sea, leaving his painfully shy, disabled sister, Laura, and domineering mother, Amanda, to fend for themselves. He relates the failed attempts by him and his mother to draw Laura out by sending her to college and by bringing to supper one of Tom’s workmates, Jim, who already has a girlfriend, but who momentarily brings Laura out of her shell.

The play is a memory play, and all we are shown is related through the lens of Tom’s guilty memory, after he has abandoned his family in search of adventure. Williams’s staging captures this emotionally driven mood, as he autobiographically recreates much of his own childhood, with dim lighting, recurring musical themes, and screen images. We watch Tom replay his early life as he recalls the formative moments of his past. Williams too had lived in poverty without a father, dominated by a strong mother, wasting his talents working in a shoe factory, and feeling guilt over his neglect of a shy sister (who had been given a lobotomy in the absence of his protection).

Tom and Laura’s father left when they were young, and their mother seems trapped in memories of her youth, as if she has retreated to the past to avoid the impoverished unpleasantness of living in the present and the sad fact that her husband left her. Her efforts to maintain the fantasy she has created of the South and her idealized childhood seem increasingly detrimental to the development of her children. Amanda is even willing to sacrifice her daughter’s potential happiness by co-opting Jim, as if he were one of her own suitors, to boost her spirits. She is also as unforgiving of her children as she is of the husband who left, and voices constant disappointment at all they do. It is little wonder that neither exhibits much self-esteem.

As a mother, Amanda is in danger of seeming like a monster. She relies on young Tom as the family provider and so refuses to grant him any freedom to pursue his own dreams, even though she knows he is unhappy. She dominates by maternal privilege, treating him as a small child, for to allow him to see himself as an adult might lead to rebellion. But growth cannot be halted, and as he grows into an adult—ironically, sooner rather than later, given the responsibilities she places on him—Tom tries to rebel, although Amanda quells such moments of rebellion by reminding him of his responsibility to Laura. She forces her illusions on both her children and manipulates them to create her own ideal environment. Through dramatic posturing she ensures their guilt, and uses that to force them into doing what she wants.

Laura hides behind her difference from her mother in a world created for her by her records and glass animals. Her records are old and evoke a euphoric past where she can be happy. Through her glass creatures she creates a safe, innocent world where she is in charge, in contrast to the scary, confusing world she glimpses outside her room—an exaggeration that reveals how many children feel at times. Neither the outside world nor her own mother can accept Laura’s extreme sensitivity, but she does not reject the world so much as it rejects her. The only place she has left is her fantasy world. Her home life has been whittled away as her father leaves and then Tom. Outside of her fantasy world she is utterly dependent, so much so that she must even ask her mother what it is she should be wishing for on the moon.

Before leaving, Tom felt trapped in a routine job that was crushing his sensitive spirit and desire to be a writer, but could not quit out of responsibility toward his family. Amanda constantly took pains to remind him of this responsibility to keep him there. At work Tom is as isolated as Laura is at home, and at home Tom feels as though he has been nailed up inside a coffin and cannot breathe. He desperately wants to escape, but Tom cannot leave home as cleanly as his father did, and his only escape, initially, is into dreams of adventure stimulated by the movies. Tom is aware that the movies are not real, but he tells himself they might be because he can see no other form of escape. What he wants is to live someone else’s life, as is the case with so many adolescents, because he has no idea what to do with his own.

When Tom does leave it is only a physical escape, as his family continue to psychologically torment him. After his initial sense of freedom, disillusionment sets in and turns to guilt as his imagination transforms innocent and unconnected items into cruel reminders of his poor sister, and Tom becomes trapped by his own remorse—unable to return, but also unable to progress. His feelings of guilt for Laura are greater than Amanda’s because he sees Laura’s difficulties, whereas Amanda ignores them to avoid such guilt.

Laura is as easily broken as her glass animals, which make up the menagerie of the play’s title; her mother’s attempts to relive her youth through Laura completely desiccate Laura’s last shreds of self-confidence. Amanda continuously expects too much of Laura, especially when she refuses to acknowledge her daughter’s limitations. Yet Williams insists that there is “much to admire in Amanda” and we should include love and pity in our judgment of her (228). She is admirable in her endurance, for her life has not been easy: abandoned by a husband and left to raise two children on her own.

Amanda’s use of “we” and “us” rather than “you” when talking of Laura, denotes the bond she has forged for her daughter’s future—she intends to hold onto Laura for life. But we need not see anything sinister in that, because this ensures Laura’s safety as she has no one else. Amanda has been a failure all her life and tries to make up for this by organizing everyone around her and   forcing them to be successes. What goes wrong with this plan is her limited imagination; she cannot accept the roads of life her children would choose, and tries to manipulate then onto roads of her own choosing, as do many parents. But, in this case, these are roads that are entirely unsuitable. Laura’s job as a secretary and Tom’s in the shoe factory are both entirely antagonistic to their natures. Each escapes their mother’s plan, but have nowhere else to go, so remain in a kind of “Peter Pan” stasis, unable to fully develop into adults and take on proper social responsibility.

[back] Grove, Sir William Robert

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