Four days before the 1947 Broadway opening of A Streetcar Named Desire, theNew York Times published an essay by Tennessee Williams on the depression he’d experienced after the success of The Glass Menagerie summarily ended life as he’d known it.
Fame had turned Williams into a “public Somebody” overnight, a crisis that ultimately landed him in the hospital, “mainly because of the excuses it gave me to withdraw from the world behind a gauze mask.”
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.
After spending three months witnessing inequities that felt wrong in a luxury hotel, let alone in a functioning democracy, Williams sought salvation from fame’s spiritually-bankrupt life of leisure, hoping to distance himself from a toxic setup he believed hurt everyone it touched:
The sight of an ancient woman, gasping and wheezing as she drags a heavy pail of water down a hotel corridor to mop up the mess of some drunken overprivileged guest, is one that sickens and weighs upon the heart and withers it with shame for this world in which it is not only tolerated but regarded as proof positive that the wheels of Democracy are functioning as they should without interference from above or below. Nobody should have to clean up anybody else’s mess in this world. It is terribly bad for both parties, but probably worse for the one receiving the service.
Williams suggests we should let machines take up some of humanity’s unwanted tasks, then takes a poetic detour into the consequences of that automation. Removing work from the equation of living, he observes, creates a void of paranoid inertia. Just as he concludes that outsourcing this work to fellow humans breeds depression, he notes that advances in technology designed to lighten the load often render the average person fearful of struggle itself.
We are like a man who has bought up a great amount of equipment for a camping trip, who has the canoe and the tent and the fishing lines and the axe and the guns, the mackinaw and the blankets, but who now, when all the preparations and the provisions are piled expertly together, is suddenly too timid to set out on the journey but remains where he was yesterday and the day before and the day before that, looking suspiciously through white lace curtains at the clear sky he distrusts. Our great technology is a God-given chance for adventure and for progress which we are afraid to attempt.
The essay is available online as part of The New School History Project, a site where students curate a trove of recovered archival material to provoke critical and informed discussion.