(This essay appeared in The New York Times Drama Section,
November 30, 1947--four days before the New York opening
of A Streetcar Named Desire.)
Sometime this month I will observe the third anniversaryof the Chicago opening of "The Glass Menagerie," and even whichterminated one part of my life and began another about as different in allexternal circumstances as could be well imagined. I was snatched out of avirtual oblivion and thrust into sudden prominence, and from the precarioustenancy of furnished rooms about the country I was removed to a suite in afirst-class Manhattan hotel. My experience was not unique. Success has oftencome that abruptly into the lives of Americans.
No, my experience was not exceptional, but neither was it quite ordinary, andif you are willing to accept the somewhat eclectic proposition that I had notbeen writing with such an experience in mind--and many people are not willingto believe that a playwright is interested in anything but popularsuccess--there may be some point in comparing the two estates.
The sort of life which I had had previous to this popular success was one thatrequired endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface andholding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the onecaught hold of before, but it was a good life because it was the sort of lifefor which the human organism is created.
I was not aware of how much vital energy had gone into this struggle until thestruggle was removed. I was out on a level plateau with my arms still thrashingand my lungs still grabbing at air that no longer resisted. This was securityat 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 thisfirst-class hotel suite above the discreet hum of an East Side boulevard and Iwill appreciate its elegance and luxuriate in its comforts and know that I havearrived at our American plan of Olympus. Tomorrow morning when I look at thegreen satin sofa I will fall in love with it. It is only temporarily that thegreen satin looks like slime on stagnant water.
But in the morning the inoffensive little sofa looked more revolting than thenight before and I was already getting too fat for the $125 suit which afashionable acquaintance had selected for me. In the suite things began tobreak accidentally. An arm came off the sofa. Cigarette burns appeared on thepolished surfaces of the furniture. Windows were left open and a rainstormflooded the suite. But the maid always put it straight and the patience of themanagement was inexhaustible. Late parties could not offend them seriously.Nothing short of a demolition bomb seemed to bother my neighbors.
I lived on room-service. But in this, too, there was a disenchantment. Sometimebetween the moment when I ordered dinner over the 'phone and when it was rolledinto my living room like a corpse on a rubber-wheeled table, I lost all interestin it. Once I ordered a sirloin steak and a chocolate sundae, but everythingwas so cunningly disguised on the table that I mistook the chocolate sauce forgravy and poured it over the sirloin steak. Of course all this was the moretrivial aspect of a spiritual dislocation that began to manifest itself in farmore disturbing ways. I soon found myself becoming indifferent to people. Awell of cynicism rose in me. Conversations all sounded like they had beenrecorded years ago and were being played back on a turntable. Sincerity andkindliness seemed to have gone out of my friends' voices. I suspected them ofhypocrisy. I stopped calling them, stopped seeing them. I was impatient of whatI took to be inane flattery.
I got so sick of hearing people say, "I loved your play!" that Icould not say thank you any more. I choked on the words and turned rudely awayfrom the usually sincere person. I no longer felt any pride in the play itselfbut began to dislike it, probably because I felt too lifeless inside ever tocreate another. I was walking around dead in my shoes, and I knew it but therewas no one I knew or trusted sufficiently, at that time, to take him aside andtell him what was the matter.
This curious condition persisted about three months, till late spring, when Idecided to have another eye operation, mainly because of the excuse it gave meto 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 witha cataract on my left eye which required a series of needling operations andfinally an operation on the muscle of the eye. (The eye is still in my head. Somuch for that.)
Well, the gauze mask served a purpose. While I was resting in the hospital thefriends whom I had neglected or affronted in one way or another began to callon me and now that I was in pain and darkness, their voices seemed to havechanged, or rather that unpleasant mutation which I had suspected earlier inthe season had now disappeared and they sounded now as they used to sound inthe lamented days of my obscurity. Once more they were sincere and kindlyvoices with the ring of truth in them.
When the gauze mask was removed I found myself in a readjusted world. I checkedout of the handsome suite at the first-class hotel, packed my papers and a fewincidental belongings and left for Mexico, and elemental country where you canquickly forget the false dignities and conceits imposed by success, a countrywhere vagrants innocent as children curl up to sleep on pavements and humanvoices especially when their language is not familiar to the ear, are soft asbirds'. My public self, that artifice of mirrors, did not exist here and so mynatural being was resumed.
Then, as a final act of restoration, I settled for a while at Chapala to workon a play called "The Poker Night," which later became "AStreetcar Named Desire." It is only in his work that an artist can findreality and satisfaction, for the actual world is less intense than the worldof his invention and consequently his life, without recourse to violentdisorder, does not seem very substantial. The right condition for him is thatin which his work is not only convenient but unavoidable.
This is an over-simplification. One does not escape that easily from theseductions of an effete way of life. You cannot arbitrarily say to yourself, Iwill now continue my life as it was before this thing. Success happened to me.But once you fully apprehend the vacuity of a life without struggle you areequipped with the basic means of salvation. Once you know this is true, thatthe heart of man, his body and his brain, are forged in a white-hot furnace forthe purpose of conflict (the struggle of creation) and that with the conflictremoved, the man is a sword cutting daisies, that not privation but luxury isthe wolf at the door and that the fangs of this wolf are all the littlevanities and conceits and laxities that Success is heir to--why, then with thisknowledge you are at least in a position of knowing where danger lies.
You know, then, that the public Somebody you are when you "have aname" is a fiction created with mirrors and that the only somebody worthbeing is the solitary and unseen you that existed from your first breath andwhich is the sum of your actions and so is constantly in a state of becomingunder your own volition--and knowing these things, you can even survive thecatastrophe of Success!
It is never altogether too late, unless you embrace the Bitch Goddess, asWillimam James called her, with both arms and find in her smothering caressesexactly what the homesick little boy in you always wanted, absolute protectionand utter effortlessness. Security is a kind of death, I think, and it can cometo you in a storm of royalty checks beside a kidney-shaped pool in BeverlyHills or anywhere at all that is removed from the conditions that made you anartist, if that's what you are or were intedned to be. Ask anyone who hasexperienced the kind of success I am talking about--What good is it? Perhaps toget an honest answer you will have to give him a shot of truth-serum but theword he will finally groan is unprintable in genteel publications.
Then what is good? The obsessive interest in human affairs, plus a certainamount of compassion and moral conviction, that first made the experience ofliving something that must be translated into pigment or music or bodilymovement or poetry or prose or anything that's dynamic and expressive--that'swhat's good for you if you're at all serious in your aims. William Saroyanwrote a great on this theme, that purity of heart is the one success worthhaving. "In the time of your life--live!" That time is short and itdoesn't return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you readit, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, Loss, Loss unless you devoteyour heart to its opposition.