Success can be catastrophic.
In the case of Tennessee Williams, his play The Glass Menagerie catapulted him into the landscape of grand prosperity and fame. This leap into notoriety brought along with it significant struggles for Williams, which he explored—in great detail—in his essay, The Catastrophe of Success.
I cannot conceive of any human being who would not be blown away by—and utterly relate to, in some capacity— Williams’ spot-on depiction of the discomfort of all-consuming success.
Read on for excerpts from the essay, and to learn how he boldly navigated the waters on his own terms.
I was snatched out of virtual oblivion and thrust into sudden prominence, and from the precarious tenancy of furnished rooms about the country.
The sort of life that I had had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before, but it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created.
I was not aware of how much vital energy had gone into this struggle until the struggle was removed. I was out on a level plateau with my arms still thrashing and my lungs still grabbing at air that no longer resisted. This was security at last.
I sat down and looked about me and was suddenly very depressed. I thought to myself, this is just a period of adjustment. Tomorrow morning, I will wake up in this first-class hotel suite above the discreet hum of an East Side boulevard and I will appreciate its elegance and luxuriate in its comforts and know that I have arrived at our American plan of Olympus. Tomorrow morning when I look at the green satin sofa I will fall in love with it. It is only temporarily that the green satin looks like slime on stagnant water.
Perhaps it was even more challenging for Williams to receive such recognition from this particular play because it mimics his life more than anything else he has written.
Williams (whose real name was Thomas) would be Tom, his mother, Amanda. His sickly and mentally unstable older sister Rose provides the basis for the fragile Laura (whose nickname in the play is “Blue Roses”, a result of a bout of pleurosis as a high school student). Though it has also been suggested that Laura may incorporate aspects of Williams himself, referencing his introverted nature and obsessive focus on a part of life—writing for Williams and glass animals in Laura’s case. (For more on The Glass Menagerie, click here.)
Williams, who was close to Rose growing up, learned to his horror that in 1943, in his absence, his sister had been subjected to a botched lobotomy. The Glass Menagerie was to open in Chicago the following year, in 1944. Rose was left incapacitated (and institutionalized) for the rest of her life. With the success of The Glass Menagerie, Williams was to give half of the royalties from the play to his mother. He later designated half of the royalties from his play Summer and Smoke to provide for Rose’s care, arranging for her move from the state hospital to a private sanitarium.
Eventually he was to leave the bulk of his estate to ensure Rose’s continuing care. Rose died in 1996.
I soon found myself becoming indifferent to people. A well of cynicism rose in me. Conversations all sounded as if they had been recorded years ago and were being played back on a turntable. Sincerity and kindliness seemed to have gone out of my friends’ voices. I suspected them of hypocrisy. I stopped calling them, stopped seeing them. I was impatient of what I took to be inane flattery.
This curious condition persisted about three months, till late spring, when I decided to have another eye operation mainly because of the excuses it gave me to withdraw from the world behind a gauze mask. It was my fourth eye operation, and perhaps I should explain that I had been afflicted for about five years with a cataract on my left eye which required a series of needling operations and finally an operation on the muscle of the eye. (The eye is still in my head. So much for that.)
As far as my physical vision was concerned, this last operation was only relatively successful (although it left me with an apparently clear black pupil in the right position, or nearly so) but in another, figurative way, it had served a much deeper purpose.
When the gauze mask was removed I found myself in a readjusted world. I checked out of the handsome suite at the first-class hotel, packed my papers and a few incidental belongings and left for Mexico, an elemental country where you can quickly forget the false dignities and conceits imposed by success, a country where vagrants innocent as children curl up to sleep on the pavements and human voices, especially when their language is not familiar to the ear, are soft as birds. My public self, that artifice of mirrors, did not exist here and so my natural being was resumed.
This essay is ultimately a gorgeous sketch of a man who has lost himself in the heap of his own prosperity. He must hunker down and decide how to proceed. Does he sink to the bottom of the pile, or map a route back to sunlight and fresh air?
To read the entire essay, start to finish, which I utterly recommend to anyone who hopes to succeed, who has not succeeded (as is personally defined), or who is breathing, click here.
Afterwards, it may not be a bad idea to sketch out an emergency escape route for the moment success comes a’knocking on your door.
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Editor: Bryonie Wise
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