Who doesn’t like a play? Since I’ve been reading many lengthy novels this year I like to intersperse them with some shorter pieces of literature. Many of us are assigned plays in high school English class. For those of us from non-literary families, these may be the only plays we’ll encounter in our youth. Shakespeare and Arthur Miller ran the entire gambit for my high school career, but I’ve done some exploring on my own since then. I’d heard quite a bit about Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie over the years, but I’d never read it. I found a used copy at a book sale and so my excuse for not reading it was at an end. Unlike when I read A Streetcar Named Desire, I really had no idea what to expect. Dysfunction, it seems, spurs creativity.
I suspect the play is well enough known that my musings about its symbolism and impact wouldn’t add much to the discussion. (Besides, I suspect few English teachers read this blog.) My particular edition, however, comes with the essay “The Catastrophe of Success,” written by Williams after he found fame. It reminded me a bit of a speech Ursula K. Le Guin gave late in her career, after receiving an award. Both writers note that money drives far too much of what we consider creativity. Williams notes in his essay that success leads to pampering and pampering is good for no one. His description of staying in a hotel is a familiar one—poorly paid employees treat paying guests as if they were wealthy, cleaning up after them and tidying other people’s messes.
As many critics have noted, Williams grew up in a dysfunctional family and drew heavily on that for his fiction. Another aspect, perhaps related to that, was the sense of pressure on his writing. In his essay he mentions that writing grew more difficult when life was easy. I often think about this myself. My fiction suffered a bit when the pressure of the daily commute to New York ceased. I had to catch an early bus and I was determined to get some writing done every day. That was the origin of what now seems to be my permanent early wakefulness. That pressure of knowing I had a very limited amount of time before I had to be showered, dressed, and at the bus stop, led to a tremendously creative output. I see from my limited experience of reading Williams that I still have much to learn from those whose experience has become a lesson.