Tweaking Facts to Create Fiction

Last week I read The Notebooks of Tennessee Williams, collected and annotated by independent scholar Margaret Bradham Thornton–all seven hundred pages. The book is back at the library, so I may have the number wrong, but the point I am trying to make is that I have been deeply immersed in the personal life of the playwright.

Imagine my satisfaction when my husband Paul came home with tickets for The Glass Menagerie performed by the Kansas University Theater. I had seen the play many years ago; now I wanted to view it from the standpoint of examining the relationship between the facts I now knew about Tennessee’s own nature and family life, and what he had created to drive the dramatic action of his first acclaimed play. At least six real life pulsating facts went into the forming of the prickly, mournful drama.

Fact 1 about Tennessee: From early youth, he was an aspiring writer. Fiction 1 about The Glass Menagerie: Tom Wingfield, the narrator, is an aspiring poet.
Fact 2 about Tennessee: he was an alcoholic. Fiction 2 about the play: Tom Wingfield is well-on-his-way to becoming one.
Fact 3 about Tennessee’s sister, Rose: She suffered from schizophrenia. Fiction 3 about the play: Laura Wingfield, Tom’s sister, lives in a more robust way with her collection of glass animals than she does as a member of the Wingfield family, and is so sensitive she can’t function at all in the world outside her home.
Fact 4 about Tennessee’s father: he was an alcoholic. Fiction 4 about the play: though only a picture on the wall, because Tom and Laura’s father has long since abandoned his family, he was an alcoholic.
Fact 5 about Tennessee’s father: he was abusive. Fiction 5 about The Glass Menagerie: Amanda Wingfield–with killing merriment–carves away at the hearts of both her adult children. (Tennessee has switched the gender of the abuser in creating the fiction.)
Fact 6 about Tennessee: he was gay. Fiction 6 about the play: Tom Wingfield goes “to the movies” night after night, coming home at 2:00 a.m., long after the movies are over. The audience gets the idea of where he’s really been, and what he’s been doing.

Tennessee Williams may not be everyone’s favorite playwright–my husband Paul, did not really like the play, and he hated Amanda Wingfield–but I did like it. I was mesmerized by the way Tennessee Williams used the pain from his own life so effectively, the way he worked with it, shifted it, refocused it, and drew on it to create his memory play.

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