“The Catastrophe of Success” by Tennessee Williams: An Informational Text

Excerpt 1 | Excerpt 2 | Excerpt 3 | Excerpt 4 | Excerpt 5 | Note to Teacher

Success and failure are equally disastrous. —Tennessee Williams

Tennessee WilliamsAs a complementary close reading to the analysis of Why Expressionism? The Glass Menagerie, this Launchpad provides a guide for students to work independently on an informational text.

This is an examination of the nonfiction essay written by Tennessee Williams entitled “The Catastrophe of Success.” He wrote this piece three years after The Glass Menagerie first opened on Broadway. It is a reflection on how the triumphant opening and successful run of this play dramatically affected his life, and it offers insight into how to combat the fallout of such a “disaster.”

The essay was originally published in The New York Times on November 30, 1947. “The Catastrophe of Success” is often included in print versions of The Glass Menagerie.

Instructions:  Follow your teacher’s direction to complete the following analytical exercise.

The text of Tennessee Williams’ non-fiction essay, “The Catastrophe of Success,” can be broken up into five short excerpts. Each excerpt is noted here by its first and last sentence. Each excerpt is followed by several comprehension questions and a brief writing activity. There are two summative writing activities at the end of the essay which offer links to two additional readings for your comparative analysis.

Excerpt 1.

This winter marked the third anniversary of the Chicago opening of “The Glass Menagerie,” an event that terminated one part of my life and began another about as different in all external circumstances as could well be imagined.

Excerpt 1 continues through:

No, my experience was not exceptional, but neither was it quite ordinary, and if you are willing to accept the somewhat eclectic proposition that I had not been writing with such an experience in mind and many people are not willing to believe that a playwright is interested in anything but popular success—there may be some point in comparing the two estates.

Questions

  • Williams makes the following statement: “The Cinderella story is our favorite national myth.” Do you think this is true or false? Why?
  • Are there any elements of the Cinderella story evident in The Glass Menagerie? Give evidence from the text.
  • Do you agree with Williams that the Cinderella story is also “the cornerstone of the film industry” “if not of the Democracy itself?”

Writing Activity:

Go back into the Cinderella story and generate a list of elements of the plot and characters.  (EDSITEment Cinderella lessons Variations in Plot and Setting and Variations in Character may be enlisted to identify the main elements of the story.) Then choose one of the following scenarios and write an essay applying these elements to it:

  • Cinderella story as our favorite national myth
  • Cinderella story as the foundation of the American film industry
  • Cinderella story as the foundation of democracy

Excerpt 2.

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.

Excerpt 2 continues through:

Once I ordered a sirloin steak and a chocolate sundae, but everything was so cunningly disguised on the table that I mistook the chocolate sauce for gravy and poured it over the sirloin steak.

Questions

  • Describe Williams’ life before he achieved popular success with The Glass Menagerie.
  • Why does he say it was the sort of thing for which human organisms are created? Do you agree?
  • What was the letdown after he had achieved “security”?
  • Paint a portrait in the author’s words of the “American plan of Olympus” as he experienced it. Then, describe in your own words the “American Dream” in the 21st century. Are there any similarities? How do the two dreams differ?
  • Describe Williams’ ambivalence about the green satin sofa. What two conflicting forces does it represent for him?

Writing Activity:

Identify an object (i.e., the “green satin sofa”) or a food item (i.e., the “chocolate sauce” Williams mistook for gravy) that once charmed you but came to represent disenchantment in your own life. Explain how that item came to be transformed.

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Excerpt 3.

Of course all this was the more trivial aspect of a spiritual dislocation that began to manifest itself in far more disturbing ways.

Excerpt 3 continues through:

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.

Questions

  • Describe Williams’ life of luxury and ease in hotels. Explain how he believed that contributed to the path of “spiritual dislocation” that he was on. Describe what more disturbing aspects lay ahead for him.
  • How did Williams’ eye operation offer a new lease on life?  How did that change his relationship with his friends?  How was his world readjusted after the operation?

Writing Activity

Describe a painful experience you have had that served a deeper purpose and actually liberated you afterward.

Excerpt 4.

When the gauze mask was removed I found myself in a readjusted world.

Excerpt 4 continues through:

It is no longer safe for a man even to declare them!

Questions

  • What did Williams do after the operation? Why?
  • How did Williams escape the “artifice of mirrors” and find his “natural being”?
  • Do you agree with Williams that an artist can only find himself in his work? Explain.
  • Why did hotel service embarrass Williams?
  • How was Williams ahead of his time when he called on “glorious technology that is supposed to be the light of the world?”
  • Does his metaphor of a man fully prepared with a camping trip provisions, but too timid to set out for a trip, ring true for life in the 21st century? If so, give examples.
  • Are there aspects of “great technology as God-given chance for adventure and progress” our 21st-century society is still afraid to attempt?

Writing Activity

Describe the setting and condition where you work best. Is there an ideal setting where you think you could work better? Explain.

Excerpt 5.

This is a long excursion from a small theme into a large one which I did not intend to make, so let me go back to what I was saying before.

Excerpt 5 continues through:

It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.

Questions

  • Williams said he cannot go back to a life before success. Why?
  • Explain his metaphor of the wolf at the door. What are the wolf’s fangs? What is the benefit in understanding the danger?
  • What is Williams’ formula to combat the catastrophe of success and achieve what is “good”? Is this truly a way to beat the march of time?

Writing Activity:

Compare the passage in which Tennessee Williams describes the falsehood of “the public Somebody” with the sentiments expressed by Emily Dickinson in the poem, “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” (260), available from EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets. Describe each writer’s attitude toward fame. Do they come to the same or different conclusions about how to deal with it? Explain.

Summative Writing Activities

After working through the previous excerpts and questions (and/or writing activities), follow your teacher’s direction in reading these articles, and respond to the following prompts:

  • Read another article also entitled “The Catastrophe of Success” by Andreas Kluth from The Harvard Business Review, February 17, 2012. In addition to Tennessee Williams, Kluith puts forward additional examples of historical figures (i.e., Hannibal and Einstein) to support his thesis: “So it is possible, albeit difficult, to escape the prison of success before it turns into failure.” Think of two additional historical characters that support (or refute) this thesis and develop an original essay/article around those examples. Explain how these figures were able to surmount (or not surmount) the prison of their success.
  • Read the editorial column on “The Danger of Fame” by Pat Lencioni in The Catholic Business Journal (2011). Write an original blog that speaks to the “universal and growing obsession in our society with becoming famous.” Use example(s) of current celebrities that have fallen into the trap of success and describe how they have or have not emerged to achieve the “good” life that Williams describes at the conclusion of “The Catastrophe of Success” essay.

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*Note to the teacher: This exercise aligns with Common Core State Standard English Language Arts exemplar text for grades 9–10. (Appendix B.)]

The questions posed in this Launchpad align with the following CCSS individual grade ELA standards for Reading: Informational texts: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.8 and CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.3. Each follow-up writing activity aligns with one of these CCSS individual grade ELA standards for Writing: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.1 and CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3.