The Memory Play in American Drama

What kind of drama lies in the depths of your memories?


Key Staff

Classroom Teacher

Key Skills

Making Art: Producing, Executing and Performing, Analyzing Assessing and Revising


This lesson explores structural and technical devices of the "memory" play by focusing on a Tennessee Williams' masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie. Students will examine the concept of memory, first from a personal perspective, and then as an element of modern American drama.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Become aware of innovative techniques that translate the inner workings of the human mind into art expression.
  • Experience growth in the writing process, oral skills, skills of research, contextual analysis, and collaboration.
  • Gain deepened insight into ways historical and cultural contexts shape themes and forms in art expression.
  • Recognize the widespread impact of philosophical and psychological theory in transforming themes and forms of art genres.
  • Understand and appreciate the dramatic power playwrights can achieve using non-linear "memory" structure to build their plays.
  • View drama as a vehicle of social conscience.

Teaching Approach

Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Cooperative Learning
  • Discussion
  • Large or Small Group Instruction

Assessment Type

Informal Assessment


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Small Group
  • 1 Computer per Learner
  • Projector
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

The teacher should have specific knowledge about the plot, characters, themes, historical background, and literary analysis of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. See the Wikipedia entry for more information.

Prior Student Knowledge

Students must have some knowledge of:

  • The use of symbolism as a literary device.
  • The elements of a story.
  • The writing process.

Physical Space



Small Group Instruction

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.

Build Knowledge


The "memory" play is a very successful non-linear structural pattern in modern American drama. The following activity is designed to help students understand the use of and appreciate the power of memory to build structure in drama.

1. Ask students to close their eyes and call up the memory of one of the following:

  • A happy event
  • A traumatic event
  • A "panoramic" account of a particular summer
  • A return to a favorite place of one's childhood
  • A weekend afternoon spent with family members
  • An intense conversation with a parent
  • The encounter of meeting someone you knew in the past

2. Ask students, with their eyes still closed, to scan their specific memory from the following points of view:

  • What are the sensory experiences embedded in the memory? i.e., Is your chosen memory mainly visual? Are you experiencing any audio recall? Tactile? Olfactory? Sense of taste?
  • What dominates the memory? Is it the details of the environment? Could it be the personalities of a person or people? The dialogue? The impact of the experience on you at the time it occurred?
  • Is your mind making cross-current connections simultaneously from past to present? For instance, are you weighing what kind of a person you were or how you looked then in relation to the person you are now and how you look in the present?
  • Are all faces in your memory equally dominant? Or are one or two faces the main center of the recall - almost larger than life—and others subordinated in the background?
  • Do you remember all the names of people surfacing in the memory? Or do the names of just one or two who appear in your mind stream?
  • Is your memory in color or black and white? If in color, are some colors more vibrant than others are?
  • Is there any special focus in your memory on a real object; for instance, a painting, a sofa, a car, a swing on a playground?
  • Does something in the initial memory kick you off into a whole new memory? What do you think is the trigger?

3. Ask students now to open their eyes and record, in free-style writing, specifics from their memory based on the above scan and from any other aspect in their recall.

Encourage students to share some of their memories and points of analysis of their scan. Ask the students whether or not any immediate thoughts or outside sounds from the present environment intruded or were simultaneously operating in their consciousness during the memory. Note: You may wish to contrive a distraction during the exercise, such as dropping a book, to interrupt the stream of the students' memory.

4. Arrange students in small collaborative groups and ask each group to initiate an open-ended discussion about the processes of the mind, drawing from their individual scans to negotiate some conclusions about the following:

  • Does the mind operate with simultaneous threads of experience - threads of memory pulsating at the same time the mind is processing extrinsic experience, weighing options, anticipating and/or conjecturing future experience?
  • During intense concentration - evoked perhaps by coping with strong emotional response, facing a difficult decision, or dealing with a traumatic situation - does the mind become more one-dimensional, shutting out other forces and compulsively concentrating on one thing or problem?
  • How "selective" is memory? Are only the good things remembered? -Is memory built on illusions about what has happened in the past? Or does it recall things exactly the way they happened?
  • What are some of the effects of memory? (Does it disturb? Support? Reaffirm? etc.)

5. Have the students share their ideas in a large group discussion.

Build Knowledge

1. Give students background information on the use of memory in American drama and on the playwright, Tennessee Williams. Tell the students that post-World War II many American playwrights began to tap into the power of memory as a narrative device. Influenced by the forces that were shaping American society, especially the psychoanalytical concepts of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, these playwrights used the concept of memory to fuel non-linear plots and intense character development.

One of these playwrights was Tennessee Williams, whose Glass Menagerie is one of the seminal pieces of American theatre. Refer students to the Biographical Information of Tennessee Williams handout located under 'Resources in Reach'. Discuss the information included in the handout.

2. Divide the class into play reading groups for oral reading of The Glass Menagerie. Ask that one member of the group be selected to take on the responsibility of Director, assigning roles for oral reading of the play and realigning the assignments to have different voices project the characterizations.

3. Initiate the small-group play reading activity with a large-group discussion of students' perceptions of the terms "linear" and "non-linear." You may wish to examine Williams' stage set description in large group format to help clarify the term "non-linear." Encourage students to differentiate the "non-real" and "actual" properties of the set as described by Williams in his Scene I set description.

4. Pass out the Study Questions Handout located under 'Resources in Reach' and encourage each group to collect notes as they negotiate conclusions about the questions. Advise students that notes could be valuable for later discussion and writing assignments.


1. Have students answer one or more of the study questions from the Essay Topics handout, located under 'Resources in Reach', in a short essay. Collect responses for assessment.

2. Conduct a follow-up discussion on the topic of Williams' use of memory as a narrative and dramatic device. Compare students’ responses about their own memories to the way Williams uses Tom’s memory in the play.

3. Divide students into working partners to write original scripts. Ask each student to return to the memory he or she recalled in the Warm-up activity. Assign each pair the task of developing a written script that emulates Williams' structural, non-linear pattern, giving attention to the following guidelines:

  • Frame the memory with a narrator (yourself or another person in the memory).
  • Recreate the "real" details of the environment of the memory.
  • Develop dialogue for key elements of the memory.
  • Build in specific directions for "non-real" ("unconventional") devices that will help externalize the memory for the reader/viewer.

Note: Depending on time allotment, each pair could "co-author" one of the partners' memories, a script of a memory of both partners, or perhaps blend the two memories together as episodes within the framework of one narrator.

4. Ask students to select one or more of the scripts to be dramatized for the class. Assign groups to act out each script. Give class time for groups to prepare if necessary.


Ask students to respond to the following questions in their journals (or on notebook paper):

  • How did your use of memory in your play differ from those you saw performed?
  • In what ways was it similar?
  • Were you surprised about the way you remembered the events you inlcuded in your play?  If so, how?
  • How has writing the play affected the way you feel about the memory you used to write it?


Assess the students’ written work and class participation based on the following criteria:

  • Level of serious and cooperative participation in research and collaborative assignments.
  • Level of discernment in contributions from research and to collaborative work.
  • Substantive contributions to class discussion and special projects.
  • Range and depth in analysis.
  • Evidence of creative thinking.
  • Organization, meaningful substance, rhetorical skill, and poise in formal oral presentation.
  • Thoughtful response in pre-writing, pre-discussion "brainstorming" activities.
  • Seriousness of purpose in following through on creative writing assignments.
  • Solid preparation for performance activities.
  • Alignment of written performance with good practices of the writing process.
  • Willingness to volunteer for special activities.
  • General level of engagement in all activities and assignments.

Extending the Learning

1. This activity can be used before or after the lesson. Distribute the Vocabulary Handout and have the students research the forces that contributed to changes in the American economic, political, sociological, philosophical and cultural landscapes in the last half of the 19th and in the 20th century. Divide the class in collaborative groups and have them select a topic to research. Encourage students to draw from past work in history, literature, art, science, music classes, etc. to build an overview of the time period. Also, encourage students to divide their topic into sub-topics, and have each member of the group research and analyze one of the segments.

Topic Suggestions:

  • A brief definition of key ideas of Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Carl Jung (evolution as "progress"; the impact of heredity and environment; "survival of the fittest"; Social Darwinism; the divided consciousness: ego, id, super-ego; racial memory; the inward and outward personality of the individual, etc.)
  • A definition and brief background on the role of the "drummer" in American society.
  • A probe of the implications inherent in the terms "Victorianism," "Puritanism," and "Southern Puritanism" as influences on the outlook of American society.
  • Brief definitions of the late 19th and early 20th century literary movements: Realism and Naturalism as reactions to Romanticism and as extensions of the influences of Charles Darwin, Spencer, Marx, Freud, and Jung.
  • Experiments in innovative art forms dedicated to capturing the new "reality" of a changed world ; for instance, the Imagists, Symbolists in fiction and poetry; the visual art forms of Impressionism, Expressionism, Surrealism; the extensions of these innovative art forms in music composition and Modern Dance (for instance, the work of Martha Graham.)
  • Some background on the Great Depression of the 1930's and the build-up to World War II, including Franco's Spain.
  • The "Cavalier" attitudes, manners and mores of the pre-Civil War South versus those of the "mechanized" industrial antebellum South.
  • The impact of the Industrial Revolution on the realignment of the American rural/urban population.

2. Have students present their findings to the class.

3. As a culminating experience, if time allows, teachers may want to show students video clips of a performance of The Glass Menagerie.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

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Jayne Karsten
Original Writer

Amy Heathcott

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