At the rise of the curtain, we see an old-fashioned tenement apartment. We can also see the narrow alleyways which surround the apartment. Tom Wingfield, the narrator, enters and addresses the audience. Tom explains that the play is a memory play and that he is one of the characters in the play. The other characters are his mother Amanda, his sister Laura, and a gentleman caller. There is another character who never appears. This is his father who deserted the family some long years ago — "He was a telephone man who fell in love with long distances!"
As the action begins, Amanda is instructing Tom about how to eat every bite of his food until Tom yells at her that he can't enjoy a bite of his food because of her constant nagging. Amanda then tells Laura to stay fresh and pretty for the gentlemen callers. Laura tells her she isn't expecting any, and Amanda tells how one Sunday afternoon in Blue Mountain, Mississippi, she had seventeen gentlemen callers all on one afternoon. Tom and Laura have heard this story many times but listen patiently to it again. Amanda then sends Laura into the living room to practice her shorthand or typing and to stay pretty for the gentlemen callers in spite of Laura's reassertion that there will be none.
The fire escape, a physical symbol, is used symbolically to represent various aspects of being trapped or as a method of escape. As Williams writes, the "huge buildings are always burning with the slow and implacable fires of human desperation." The play then presents Tom's frustrated attempt to escape from his intolerable job, situation, and life. For Amanda, the escape is seen in terms of the gentleman caller who will rescue her daughter from potential old-maidenhood. But then, for Laura the escape is seen as her means of retreating (or escaping) from the outer world. It is her protection from this outside world — a world which stares at her deformity. In other words, whereas for Tom it is an escape to the outer world, for Laura it is an escape from an outer world which she dreads so much. This will be symbolically portrayed later in the play when Amanda forces Laura to go to the store and Laura trips on the fire escape, symbolizing her dread of the hostile outside world.
The technique of using a narrator is often considered a trick by the artist so that he will not have to conceive of imaginative ways to convey exposition — that is, ways of communicating background information necessary to the present understanding of the play. (For example, a traditional technique, used by Henrik Ibsen, was to have two servants — one newly hired and one regular — on stage talking about their master and, in this way, the audience learned all that was necessary in order to understand the present action.)
The use of Tom, however, is integrated into the play. He presents the play as a memory and then steps back into time to become one of the participants in the action.
In his opening monologue, Tom says that the stage magician "gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion." Here he means that the regular dramatist creates a dramatic illusion on the stage which the audience takes for the truth. But this play, by its techniques, offers itself as illusion, but Williams maintains that it is actually truth disguised as illusion. Thus, the meaning of his later statement that the play is not realistic, is that the play is being presented through the memory of Tom.
The essence of Amanda's character is caught in her first speech. She seems to need to nag at her children, especially Tom, and she is not even aware that she is nagging. Essentially, she must have something to talk about, and she nags at Tom about little things because she fears that she has lost or is losing him as far as the big things, the significant things, in life are concerned.
Amanda's sense of unreality is caught in these first episodes as she lives in a world of servants and gentlemen callers. Always her language suggests another time and place.
Note that all of Amanda's so-called gentlemen callers either came from the wealthy or became wealthy. The question will arise as to whether she actually had these callers or not. Amanda might have been somewhat popular, but it is almost inconceivable to believe that she actually did have as many as seventeen gentlemen callers. But what is important is that Amanda now believes this story so strongly that the gentlemen callers have become a reality for her.
The scene ends again on Amanda's return to the subject of Laura's gentlemen callers. She closes her mind to the reality that Laura has no gentlemen callers. The question here is whether Amanda wants the callers for Laura or whether she wants them so as to relive her own youth. It seems in this scene that Amanda is thinking only of herself, but later we will see that she is afraid of what will happen to a young girl of Laura's position who is not married. Thus, Amanda's emotions are mixed at present but will become clearer as the play progresses.
Even though this is a short scene, note that the author has carefully filled it with most of the essential meanings of the entire play. The nagging, the gentleman caller, Tom's restlessness, and Laura's shyness are all presented in this first scene. Even the fact that Amanda tells Laura to practice her shorthand or to study the typing chart prepares the reader for the beginning of the next scene where Amanda discovers Laura's deception about her failure in school.