At the end of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, the play’s protagonist, Tom, declares, “Time is the longest distance between two places.” Rereading the play recently, I thought instantly of “narrative distance,” an aspect of writing craft that my undergraduate students and I discuss when studying personal essay and memoir. I use “distance” not as a stand-in for time, but for intimacy, immediacy, humility, or authority. Distance is where we negotiate the artifice of nonfiction, I tell my students: When writing about ourselves, we might feel a certain amount of authentic proximity or detachment between two “places,” between now and then, us and them, self and subject, but we always make decisions in representing or manipulating it.
Tom’s assessment—that time is the longest distance—has often rung true for me in life, but not in literature. Writing in the present tense, I’ve found, does not guarantee “closeness” or urgency, just as writing in the past tense does not always create emotional remove. Proximity and distance can live in any number of elements beyond verb tense, from point of view to sentence structure to the balance of scene and analysis. All of these contribute to how emotionally invested—or disinvested—a piece of writing feels, helping to establish what Matthew Salesses, in his book Craft in the Real World, calls the work’s “orientation toward the world.”
The Glass Menagerie takes place in a St. Louis tenement not unlike the one where Williams spent his youth (and just a few miles from the apartment that I, like him, gave up to pursue writing). Tom is an unhappy young man working at a shoe factory—as Williams once did—to provide for his overbearing, impenetrable mother, Amanda, and his fragile, anxious sister, Laura, who spends her days tending to a collection of miniature glass animals. In his opening monologue, Tom explains that the play originates from his own memory. “Being a memory play,” he says, “it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.” The play is comprised of a series of “episodes,” or remembered scenes that map the family’s disintegration. Many episodes end abruptly, unnaturally, leaving you grasping for closure. It’s vaguely frustrating, like trying to pinpoint a familiar scent.
In the production notes for The Glass Menagerie, Williams describes a cryptic element of the play that never made it to Broadway: a “screen device” that would project images and text directly onto the wall through an instrument called a “magic lantern.” The technique dates back to the early horror shows of the 18th century. They were called “phantasmagoria”—a crowd of phantoms. Williams hoped the magic lantern would serve as a kind of poetic exoskeleton, emphasizing the “architectural” nature of the play’s episodic structure. Throughout the manuscript, instructions for the magic lantern appear in the style of stage directions, indicating what should appear on the wall and when. Sometimes the image or legend operates like a section heading, foreshadowing an important phrase or event; other times it seems to work more like an intertitle in a silent movie, narrating in real time.
As I lost myself in The Glass Menagerie’s crowd of phantoms, I became even more certain that narrative distance is not so much about time and space as it is about filtration and mediation, about obstacles and illusions. Williams anticipated that “the screen [would] have a definite emotional appeal, less definable but just as important” as its structure. When Amanda calls Laura onto the fire escape to make a wish on the moon, a moon appears on screen. When Laura recoils at the news that an old flame will be coming for dinner, the screen reads, “Terror!” These slides package nostalgia and anxiety into discrete, digestible units. They also keep us aware that we’re perceiving them, forcing us to contend not only with the play’s architecture, but its artifice. As in memory, the core emotion isn’t visceral feeling—love, hope—but the longing for it, which, as we all know, can feel a lot like the real thing.
This kind of meta-awareness can be frustrating, even alienating. In my undergraduate literature course last spring, I taught Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, a hybrid work that incorporates visual elements like photographs and diagrams to interrupt and reinforce Rankine’s exploration of American exceptionalism, racial violence, family strife, mental illness, and mass media consumption. Most students identified with the speaker’s numbness and grief at the state of the world, but that didn’t mean they liked reading the book. They complained about the “depressing” tone and the onslaught of images, despite acknowledging that their sense of cold detachment and distraction might be exactly the point.
There’s an interesting tension here between a reader’s desire for intimacy—a Western reader, at least—and a writer’s need for distance, achieved in The Glass Menagerie through the magic lantern. Hidden in the screen legends throughout the play are fragments from poems by writers like François Villon and Emily Dickinson, poems that, when they aren’t fractured into tiny shards, read like death breathing close and hot on your neck. Meanwhile, on stage, Laura nearly faints at the arrival of her “gentleman caller,” at the outside world knocking at her door. This layering of text and image and experience certainly creates a mood, but scholars suggest these grim allusions also hold deep personal significance for the playwright. Williams based the character of Laura—nicknamed “Blue Roses” by her girlhood crush in the play—on his own sister Rose, who, after being diagnosed with schizophrenia, received one of the country’s first frontal lobotomies. In his introduction to The Glass Menagerie: A Collection of Critical Essays, R.B. Parker writes, “Rose’s tragedy was a traumatic experience for Williams from which he never freed himself. He spent much of his career addressing in his artworks his desire to atone for the guilt he felt for being unable to protect or save her.”
Like Williams, I left someone in St. Louis. I left a whole life there, a whole self, and I don’t think my leaving will ever stop feeling like a betrayal. I have spent years trying to write my way back, trying to find a way in. I’ve written through the “screens” of color theory, architectural theory, logical determinism, Newton’s laws of motion, and even Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” all in the hopes of distancing myself enough from that time to make sense of it.
When we write around or under or through, it can feel like easing ourselves into a very hot bath. But I want to believe that this can benefit the reader as well as the writer. The numbness of mediation can force us as readers to confront our own modes of feeling, thinking, or relating to others. In the case of The Glass Menagerie, for example, the screen device reminds me that my own memories of St. Louis—particularly the most salient, painful ones—are just emblems of a story I’ve told myself about the past. I’m reminded that nostalgia flattens conflict and regret into a shape we can live with.
What does it mean, then, that Williams axed the screen from The Glass Menagerie’s debut? He writes in his introduction that the actors’ talent made it superfluous. And so the magic lantern was gone, just like that. It strikes me as an act of extraordinary self-restraint, and of courage, to unhitch the play from its scaffolding. What would Rankine’s “American lyrics” be like, I wonder, without their images, icons, and interruptions; without the maps that help us lose ourselves in the phantasmagoria of modern life?
At the end of the play, Tom leaves his family and St. Louis behind, as Williams himself did. He travels to outrun his past, “attempting to find in motion what was lost in space.” Williams may have realized that he needed the magic lantern more than his audience did: as a way to screen himself from the truth that he had abandoned the people who loved and needed him, who made him who he was. It must have been painful to recreate a version of his own claustrophobic, volatile household on the page, his sister’s evolving mental illness, and his desertion. “When a play employs unconventional techniques,” Williams wrote, “it […] certainly shouldn’t be trying to escape its responsibility of dealing with reality, or interpreting experience, but should be attempting to find […] a more penetrating and vivid expression of things as they are.” Perhaps once he found his way to the truth, he could stop projecting and just remember.
It’s possible that the biggest lesson here might not be about narrative distance at all, but about revision: that it happens at all stages of the writing process, and that until the lights go down, it’s not too late to pull back or move closer. That in the early stages, it is not a failure to get lost in the dream. We can surround ourselves in a crowd of phantoms and emerge alone.