Examining Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and writing a memory play.
In her 2005 memoir about growing up with a loyal, but dysfunctional, family, Jeanette Walls began with one of her earliest childhood memories, setting fire to her skirt while boiling hotdogs at the age of three.
The Glass Castle chronicles the life of Walls’ and her three siblings, living a transient lifestyle across America with well intentioned, but inept, parents. From hospital stays and life-threatening burns, to poverty and starvation, Walls recounts her life without judgment, Upon its debut, The New York Times review praised Walls’ for her lack of judgment over her parents’ behaviour past and present. Instead, the reviewer commended the author for “[refusing] to indulge in amateur psychoanalysis, to descend to the jargon of dysfunction or theorize … about the sources of her parents’ behavior.”
Is objective observation the key to accurately publishing a memory play? A question suited to both non-fiction authors and playwrights, how can a writer turn to factual personal experiences as a source of inspiration and create a narrative with limited personal bias?
“Expressionism and all other unconventional techniques in drama have only one valid aim, and that is a closer approach to truth … [it] should be attempting to find a closer approach, a more penetrating and vivid expression of things as they are.”
As the first playwright to coin the term, Williams’ idea of a memory play is now understood as a play whose narrator recalls experiences from their memory that subsequently unfold for the audience.
Though Walls’ memoir has not (yet) been adapted for the stage, the book’s film adaptation is to be released August 2017, and both draw parallels to Williams’ work. Susan Sontag reflected on the role of the writer in her 2004 lecture on South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, noting that:
“Every writer of fiction wants to tell many stories, but we know that we can’t tell all the stories — certainly not simultaneously. We know we must pick one story, well, one central story; we have to be selective. The art of the writer is to find as much as one can in that story, in that sequence … in that time (the timeline of the story), in that space (the concrete geography of the story).”
Both Walls and Williams’ selected stories were from a time in their lives when they and their siblings still lived with their parents. Walls, autobiographically, and Williams, in a more abstract manner with the aid of dramatic convention, allowed readers and audiences to witness the behaviour of the people in their lives, the culture of the era, and geographic landscape, without personally analysing or sharing an opinion on the specific behaviour witnessed.
Both authors confine their memory to a specific concrete space. Although Walls’ narrative shifts locations as their family moved from town to town, each childhood memory is kept within America during the 1960’s and 70’s.
As to be expected, both stories have their differences. Williams searched for the underlying meaning of his life’s experiences – best described by Eamon Flack, Director of Belvoir St Theatre’s 2014 production of The Glass Menagerie, as Williams’ attempt to “look past the obvious for the truth.” Walls does not reflect so hauntingly on the effect her parents had on the later years of her life, but rather recounts events as they happened, oscillating between past and present.
Williams did reflect on his sister’s presence – through the fictitious Laura Wingfield – but left the narrative unfinished, the characters’ outcome left to linger in the audiences’ minds. Walls closed her narrative, confining the story to a specific space and time, highlighting the transition she and her siblings made from their childhood to pursue functional, adult lives.
As mentioned, neither Walls nor Williams analyses the motivations for their parents’ behaviour. It is through simple recollection and retelling that both authors lay the facts of their upbringings on the table and allow the reader to draw moral conclusions for themselves.
This latter fact forces us to ask – how do authors separate their remembered stories from personal bias? Anne Bogart reflected on the very act of remembering in ‘A Director Prepares.’ Bogart suggests that “the act of expressing what is remembered is actually … an act of re-description. In re-describing something, new truths are created.”
Echoing Williams’ belief that “expressionism … [has] only one valid aim, and that is a closer approach to the truth”, Bogart believes the task of the creator “… and the task of every artist … is to re-describe our inherited assumptions and invented fictions in order to create new paradigms for the future.”
If re-creating our experiences through expression is a way we can ‘re-describe our inherited assumptions’, are both Walls and Williams’ excellent examples of a writer regurgitating an experience years after the fact, thereby finding a way to relearn and retell the memory? If this was one of the approaches taken by either author to mould their wildly successful personal stories and accessible narratives, it is worth considering if the same method could be used for all authors contemplating writing a memoir.
Be it a memory play, an autobiography, a novel or film, writing from memory and re-creating a personal narrative is a viable option for every creator. As seen in both The Glass Menagerie and The Glass Castle, and reiterated by Susan Sontag, every writer can access one of their many stories, mine the experience for information, and create a narrative of their life. A unique challenge faced when writing from memory may be the extent to which the author can objectively portray the experience, while limiting their personal bias. Could accuracy, without opinion, be the key to telling a personal tale, allowing the audience to come to their own conclusions about life and humanity?
- Bogart, Anne. A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theatre. Psychology Press, 2001.
- The Glass Castle. Dir. Destin Daniel Cretton. Lionsgate, 2017. Film.
- Flack, Eamon. A Note From Eamon Flack on Tennessee Williams’ Famous ‘Memory Play’. Malthouse Theatre, 2016.
- Prose, Francine. The Glass Castle: Outrageous Misfortune, The New York Times, 2005.
- Walls, Jeanette. The Glass Castle. Little, Brown Book Group, 2005.
- Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. Penguin Books, 1959.
- Williams, Tennessee. The Catastrophe of Success. The New York Times, 1947.
“Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither.”
“Obviously, I think of the writer of novels and stories and plays as a moral agent… This doesn’t entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense. Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate — and, therefore, improve — our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.”
- Susan Sontag on storytelling, what it means to be a moral human being, and her advice to writers, Brain Pickings.