The Wingfield apartment is in a lower-middle-class St. Louis tenement building that faces an alleyway. Through the dim lighting, the audience first sees the apartment's fire escape, then the living room which features a typewriter, a display case with glass animals, and a blown-up photograph that the stage directions explain is of the absent Wingfield father. The stage directions also describe a screen located on stage upon which words and pictures will sometimes appear during the play.
The cramped apartment emphasize the tough times facing the Wingfields. The fire escape gives the glimmer of escape from the close quarters, but it's not a real escape. The father’s portrait dominates the scene just as his absence haunts the family. The onstage screen that displays images keeps the audience aware that the play is meant to be symbolic and stylized rather than realistic.
Tom enters, dressed as a merchant sailor and smoking a cigarette, and speaks directly to the audience. He explains that he is the narrator of the play as well as a character in it. Tom sets the historical and social background of the play in the late 1930s, when the working class of the United States was still suffering from the aftereffects of the Great Depression. He comments that the play is a memory play, his memory, and not a realistic depiction of life.
Tom’s direct address to the audience signals that he is creating this play. His out-of-place merchant marine uniform suggests he's creating it from some time in the future, after leaving. Since the whole play occurs in Tom’s memory, all the action is filtered through his perspective. Tom manipulates stage effects such as lighting and music to control the play’s emotional tone.
Tom tells the audience about the four characters in the play—himself, his mother Amanda, his sister Laura, and a man named Jim they knew from high school—and adds that the father is the fifth character, although he abandoned the family years ago and only appears as the portrait. The last that the family heard from him was a postcard from Mexico saying “Hello––Goodbye!”
The absent father looms large as a reminder of the Wingfields’ past. His abandonment haunts the family and sets the precedent for male figures who will abandon Amanda and Laura, just as his blown-up portrait suggests that the family doesn't face reality, the fact that he is gone and doesn't seem to care.
Tom enters the apartment and joins Amanda and Laura at the dining-room table. The words “Ou sont les neiges” [“Where are the snows”] are projected on the screen. Amanda nags him about displaying proper table etiquette until Tom, exasperated, gets up to smoke. Laura tries to rise to serve dessert, but Amanda insists she sit and stay fresh for gentlemen callers.
When Tom takes his role as a character in the play, the words on the screen reminds the audience that the play is still in Tom’s head. This is a stylized version of a typical dinner scene, and all three characters’ actions and reactions are habitual—it's like they are stuck in roles they are playing for each other.
Amanda tells a story of her youth in the South when on one Sunday afternoon she entertained seventeen gentlemen callers at her home in Mississippi, a story she has clearly told many, many times before. The lights dim and music begins to play. At Laura’s gentle urging, Tom mechanically plays along, asks his mother questions about the story, as though reading from a script.
The dimmed lights and music underscore Amanda’s romantic but helpless nostalgia. Amanda still sees herself as a young girl, and Laura plays along with her mother’s illusion. Tom indulges Amanda, but has to be nudged to do so, showing his frustration with the seemingly endless cycle of repetition.
Amanda suggests that Laura practice her typing as she waits for gentleman callers to arrive. The music of “The Glass Menagerie” plays as Laura tells Amanda that there won’t be callers coming for her, as she isn't as popular as her mother was.
Amanda tries to project two separate visions of success on Laura: one of Laura being a business success via her typing, the other of Laura becoming the sort of Southern Belle Amanda remembers herself being. Laura doesn't believe in these visions, though, and doesn't seem to believe in herself.