Summer and Smoke is a two-part, thirteen-scene 1948 play by Tennessee Williams, originally titled Chart of Anatomy when Williams began work on it in 1945. The phrase "summer and smoke" probably comes from the Hart Crane poem "Emblems of Conduct" in the 1926 collection White Buildings. In 1964, Williams revised the play as The Eccentricities of a Nightingale.
Summer and Smoke is set in Glorious Hill, Mississippi, from the "turn of the century through 1916", and centers on a highly-strung, unmarried minister's daughter, Alma Winemiller, and the spiritual/sexual romance that nearly blossoms between her and the wild, undisciplined young doctor who grew up next door, John Buchanan Jr. She, ineffably refined, identifies with the Gothic cathedral, "reaching up to something beyond attainment"; her name, as Williams makes clear during the play, means "soul" in Spanish; whereas Buchanan, doctor and sensualist, defies her with the soulless anatomy chart.
By the play's end, however, Buchanan and Alma have traded places philosophically. She has been transformed beyond modesty. She throws herself at him, saying, "..now I have changed my mind, or the girl who said 'no', — she doesn't exist any more, she died last summer — suffocated in smoke from something on fire inside her.". But he has changed, he is engaged to settle down with a respectable, younger girl; and, as he tries to convince Alma that what they had between them was indeed a "spiritual bond", she realizes, in any event, that it is too late. In the final scene, Alma accosts a young traveling salesman at dusk in the town park; and, as the curtain falls, she follows him off to enjoy the "after-dark entertainment" at Moon Lake Casino, where she had resisted Buchanan's attempt to seduce her the summer before.
On 6 October 1948, after an opening run in Dallas, Summer and Smoke received its first Broadway performance at the Music Box Theatre in New York City, in a production staged by Margo Jones and designed by Jo Mielziner with Tod Andrews, Margaret Phillips, Monica Boyar and Anne Jackson. The play ran for 102 performances and, at the time, represented a downturn in popularity for Williams following his successful previous play, A Streetcar Named Desire, even though it explored similar themes.
In 1952, Geraldine Page played the lead role in a revival directed by José Quintero at the newly founded Circle in the Square Theatre in downtown New York (the theater was in its earlier Sheridan Square Playhouse location). Her legendary performance is credited with the beginning of the Off-Broadway movement, putting both herself and Quintero on the map and vindicating the play itself. Page starred in an hour-long adaptation of the play on the radio series Best Plays in 1953 opposite Richard Kiley (recordings of which still exist). She also portrayed Alma Winemiller in the 1961 film version opposite Laurence Harvey earning an Academy Award nomination (as did Una Merkel playing her mother). Additional Oscar nominations went to the Art Direction and Elmer Bernstein's evocative musical score.
The Broadway premiere of the revised version titled The Eccentricities of a Nightingale was staged in 1976. The production was directed by Edwin Sherin, with scenery by William Ritman, costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge, lighting by Marc B. Weiss and original music by Charles Gross. It was produced in conjunction with Marc W. Jacobs. The production stage manager was Henry Banister and press was by Seymour Krawitz, Patricia McLean Krawitz and Louise Ment. The show starred Betsy Palmer (Alma), Shepperd Strudwick (Rev. Winemiller), Grace Carney (Mrs. Winemiller), Nan Martin (Mrs. Buchanan), Peter Blaxill (Roger Doremus), Jen Jones (Mrs. Bassett), Patricia Guinan (Rosemary), W. P. Dremak (Vernon), Thomas Stechschulte (Traveling Salesman) and David Selby as Dr. Buchanan. The production ran for 24 performances at the Morosco Theatre.
In 1996, the play was revived at the Criterion Center Stage Right in New York, in a production directed by David Warren, with Harry Hamlin and Mary McDonnell. Laila Robins and Amanda Plummer have been notable Almas in regional theatre productions.
It was nearly sixty years before the London premiere of Summer and Smoke. It opened at the Apollo Theatre on 17 October 2006. The production, directed by Adrian Noble and starring Rosamund Pike and Chris Carmack, first opened at the Nottingham Playhouse in September, prior to its London transfer. It closed ten weeks short of its planned sixteen-week run due to disappointing ticket sales.
In January 2007, the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, presented a revival starring Amanda Plummer and Kevin Anderson, directed by Michael Wilson. In May 2008, the Off-Broadway group The Actors Company Theatre (TACT) presented a revival of the 1964 revision of the play, The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, which received a favorable notice from The New York Times.
In 2017, the Almeida Theatre announced a new production starring Patsy Ferran, directed by Rebecca Frecknall and designed by Tom Scutt. It is to run from 24th February 2018 - 7th April 2018.
Main article: Summer and Smoke (film)
In 1961, a film adaptation by Paramount Pictures was directed by Peter Glenville and starred Laurence Harvey, Rita Moreno and Geraldine Page reprising her role as Alma. A television version was produced in 1972, starring Lee Remick, David Hedison and Barry Morse. Another production, Eccentricities of a Nightingale, starring Blythe Danner and Frank Langella, aired as an episode of the PBS program Great Performances in 1976.
An operatic treatment of the play exists as well, composed by Lee Hoiby. It was produced most recently by the Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater in December, 2010.
I suppose most people, especially anyone reading an ostensibly theater blog, knows that Tennessee Williams’s mid-century plays Summer and Smoke and The Eccentricities of a Nightingale are related texts. If you read my blog post “The Lost Première of The Eccentricities of a Nightingale” (20 March 2010), you certainly know this. That article recounts some of the process by which Williams developed Summer and Smoke and then transformed it into Eccentricities. There’s a good deal more to that progression, however, and it’s much more complex and intricate than a superficial account suggests. From my research on the two plays, which resulted in the chapter on them in Phillip C. Kolin’s Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance (Greenwood Press, 1998) and “The Lost Première” (Journal of American Drama and Theatre, Spring 1999), I’ve pieced together the story of that nearly unique circumstance.
Tennessee Williams was a habitual rewriter and recycler. Many of his plays were developed through several versions and forms. Quite a number started out as short stories (the 1961 play Night of the Iguana was adapted from a 1948 story of the same title), others as one-acts (1952’s The Enemy: Time became Sweet Bird of Youth in 1959, and the 1953 full-length Camino Real started as the one-act Ten Blocks on the Camino Real in 1949), and one famously began life as a screenplay (The Gentleman Caller for MGM in 1943 was the basis for The Glass Menagerie in 1944). Almost all of Williams’s plays exist in two or more variations, usually considered an "acting" version for production and a literary version for reading (Summer and Smoke is one of these; the Broadway première in 1948 generated the shorter text, but José Quintero’s long-running Off-Broadway revival in 1952 was produced from the longer, “reading” edition); however, a few even rendered two separate scripts with different titles after the playwright revised and rewrote them, often after initial productions. Seventeen years after Battle of Angles, Williams’s first professionally produced play, closed on opening night in Boston in 1940, his revised “new play based on an old one,” Orpheus Descending, opened on Broadway. (I’m not even counting here the plays Williams used as the bases for films such as 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, 1946, which the dramatist redeveloped for the movie Baby Doll in 1956, or The Fugitive Kind, Williams’s 1959 film adaptation of Orpheus Descending—using a title he borrowed from a 1937 play of his with a completely different plot.)
Williams authority Nancy Tischler wrote that the playwright “does not abandon an unsuccessful or incomplete work”: “I revise continually, because I’m never quite satisfied,” the dramatist himself attested. “Finishing a play, you know, is like completing a marriage or a love affair,” he once said. “You feel very forsaken by that, that’s why I love revising and revising, because it delays the moment when there is this separation between you and the work.” In his introduction to Williams’s Collected Stories (1985), many of whose pieces had been reworked a dozen times or more over many years, Gore Vidal asserted: “I once caught him in the act of revising a short story that had just been published. ‘Why,’ I asked, ‘rewrite what’s already in print?’ He looked at me, vaguely, then said, ‘Well, obviously it’s not finished.’” He was such an inveterate reworker that one of his friends dubbed him “Tenacity” Williams.
But no other of Williams’s plays resulted in two independent scripts that generated such impassioned comparisons and which are still today seen as competing texts for the attention and admiration of theater professionals and audiences than Summer and Smoke and The Eccentricities of a Nightingale. In fact, the one-act predecessors of the full-length plays we know are almost never staged (Ten Blocks is performed in schools as if it were a cut-down version of Camino Real) and Battle of Angels, the early version of the better-known Orpheus Descending, is not in many theaters’ repertoires since it failed the first time around. Summer and Smoke and Eccentricities, however, are both fairly frequently produced and there’s a rigorous debate every time one is staged about which play is better and which one people like more. (In Williams’s estimation, Eccentricities “is less conventional and melodramatic,” but which is “better” is pretty much a toss-up, depending entirely on taste and personal interest. Even Williams vacillated.) Among Tennessee Williams’s works, that only occurs with regard to these two plays, and the wonderful things is—both scripts are readily available for production or reading. (When I did a production of The Wood Demon, Anton Chekhov’s early version of Uncle Vanya, in 1976, we had to use a photocopy of the translation prepared for the Actors’ Company’s U.K. revival because the published text was long out of print. Even the Russian-language version, which I consulted, was hard to locate.) A few other playwrights have multiple versions of related plays in print, such as William Inge, who rewrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning Picnic (1957) into the more obscure Summer Brave (1962; produced 1975), which was actually an early version of the better-known script that Inge resuscitated (if you can follow that), but even here the second in the pair is seldom done and little known.
All this makes the pairing of Summer and Smoke and Eccentricities of a Nightingale all the more fascinating to examine. Not just why did Williams go from Summer and Smoke to Eccentricities—a simple (and incomplete) answer to that would be that Summer failed in its first Broadway outing—but how did he get from Summer and Smoke to Eccentricities? The explanation, in my analysis, has as much, if not more, to do with the great writer’s personality as it does with circumstances and professional considerations.
In order to lay out the transformation as I perceive it, I have to recover some of the ground I reported superficially in “The Lost Première.” Bear with me if you’ve already read this; it all links up in the end.
Williams developed Summer and Smoke from a short story, “The Yellow Bird,” published in 1947, which introduces Alma Tutwiler (the name Winemiller first appears in the short story “One Arm,” published in 1948) as an incipient spinster and daughter of a small-town Southern minister. Aside from literary recycling, most of Williams’s writing also contains elements of his life and the lives of his family and neighbors, but next to the specifically autobiographical Glass Menagerie, none of the dramatist’s major plays are as tied to his private history as are the two Alma Winemiller plays. The character of Alma, for instance, contains elements of both Williams’s mother, Edwina, who in her youth had been called a nightingale, and his cherished sister, Rose; the egocentric hedonist of Summer and Smoke, John, is a portrait of Williams’s father, Cornelius Coffin Williams, the traveling salesman who preferred carousing to domesticity, and at the same time, the elder Dr. Buchanan, a remote and cold father, depicts another aspect of C. C. Williams. The Reverend Winemiller is inspired by (but not a portrait of) Williams’s beloved grandfather, Rev. Walter Dakin. (Port Gibson, Mississippi, where Reverend Dakin served as Episcopal minister from 1902-05, had a famous landmark: the steeple of the Presbyterian church was topped by “an enormous gilded hand with its index finger pointing straight up, accusingly, at—heaven,” as Alma describes her father’s Glorious Hill Episcopal church in Eccentricities.) The foundation of Summer and Smoke, in fact, are the tales of Edwina Williams about her youth in Port Gibson and Natchez, Mississippi.
In 1916, the year in which the play is set, the Williamses were living with Edwina’s parents, Walter and Rose Otte Dakin, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the town which became Glorious Hill. Like Reverend Winemiller in Summer and Smoke, Reverend Dakin was the Episcopal minister of the town and like “The Nightingale of the Delta,” Williams grew up at the rectory. Reverend Dakin’s father had been a small-town doctor like the Drs. Buchanan and Rose Dakin had taught piano and voice like Alma. There were Tutwilers in Clarksdale, and other names from Williams’s life appear in the play: Williams’s own first love was Hazel Kramer and the salesman in Summer and Smoke is Archie Kramer (who, like the playwright’s father, is a commercial drummer for a shoe company); Rosa Gonzales shares her first name with Williams’s sister and grandmother; and Williams, himself, had a hot-tempered lover, Pancho Rodriguez y Gonzalez (the inspiration for Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire), in the 1940’s.
Williams began composing Summer and Smoke, originally entitled A Chart of Anatomy, in St. Louis as early as February or March 1944. As was his habit, he continued to work on the script—in 1945 in Mexico, where he went to recuperate from a cataract operation, and in Texas, where he met with Margo Jones in Dallas; in New Orleans; in Taos, New Mexico; on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, in 1946, where he shared a cottage with Carson McCullers while she dramatized her novel The Member of the Wedding; andon until well after its successful Dallas première in 1947. (A typescript of Summer and Smoke in the theater archive of New York Public Library is labeled “Rome Version (March 1948)” and hand-annotated “Produced by Margo Jones at the Music Box Theatre, 6 October, 1948.”)
Summer and Smoke’s world première was presented by Jones and her Theatre ’47 at the Gulf Oil Theatre in Dallas on 8 July 1947. The original cast included Katherine Balfour as Alma and Tod Andrews as John, with the appearance of Jack Warden as the waiter at the Moon Lake Casino. It was a significant success, garnering even a laudatory review in the New York Times and extending its scheduled run, but because Streetcar had already opened on Broadway that December, the transfer of Summer and Smoke to New York’s Music Box Theatre was delayed until 6 October 1948, when nearly every critic unfavorably compared it not only to Streetcar but also to The Glass Menagerie. Though they praised Jo Mielziner’s set and the performance of Margaret Phillips, who replaced Balfour as Alma, the production closed on 1 January 1949 after 100 performances. (The production marked an early appearance of Anne Jackson, who played Nellie Ewell.)
Most critics condemned Williams for re-covering in Summer and Smoke the ground he previously covered more movingly and magically in Menagerie and more dynamically and powerfully in Streetcar. Alma was seen as a wan successor to Laura and a pale precursor to Blanche, and some reviews felt that Williams had overlooked the characters in favor of a theme which becomes unclear because the characters don’t actually represent the ideas Williams intended to place in opposition. The overall point was often deemed too obvious, with schematic characters representing superficial traits making a simplistic statement. Several critics remarked that Summer and Smoke’s short scenes don’t cohere into a whole drama. The play’s too symmetrical and too pat, they said, and the reversals too neat; Williams, some charged, had composed an elementary psychology lecture, not a play, because the text is larded with such obvious symbols.
Having sailed for Gibraltar in December 1948 with his long-time lover, Frank Merlo (the basis for Alvaro Mangiacavallo in The Rose Tattoo), and his friend, writer-composer Paul Bowles (who composed the music for Summer and Smoke), Williams was in Fez, Morocco, when he received the telegram announcing the closing. He was depressed, according to his brother Dakin, but the character of Alma Winemiller was indelibly imprinted on his soul. Indeed, Alma means ‘soul’ in Spanish, as Williams points out in the script, and the character was, indeed, the writer’s soulmate. She “seemed to exist somewhere in my being,” he wrote, and later, during rehearsals for the Broadway premiere of Eccentricities, Williams candidly acknowledged, “Look, I’m Alma.” As Williams explained, “You’re totally absorbed in the play or the novel or the piece of writing” so that it becomes “the center of your life.” Williams confessed once that “I cannot write any sort of story unless there is at least one character in it for whom I have physical desire.” That suggests that once having conceived of this desire, it was hard, even perhaps impossible to let it go. I don’t know which character in Summer and Smoke would have attracted the playwright physically—perhaps John Buchanan, Jr.—but Williams frequently acknowledged that his emotional connection to this story was the Nightingale of the Delta, and that relationship was likely just as compelling for the writer as physical attraction. Numerous critics have asserted that Alma was Williams’s favorite character of all those he created, including Blanche, Laura, and Maggie the Cat. Even Williams himself admitted, “Alma is my favorite—because I came out so late and so did Alma, and she had the greatest struggle.” He could not let her go.
Ronald Hastings, theatre correspondent of London’s Daily Telegraph in the 1960s and ’70s, reported that Williams “did not, eventually, like his play, but he liked the characters and decided to write another play for them.” So, while on one of his frequent retreats to Rome in the summer of 1951, the dramatist continued to rework Summer and Smoke. Correspondence from Williams to producer Cheryl Crawford and his agent Audrey Wood between January and September 1951 affirm that he’d completed a new version of the script.
Around New Years 1951, Williams wrote Crawford, who was producing The Rose Tattoo on Broadway at the time, “I am still working on the new ‘Summer’. It has turned into a totally new play, even the conception of the characters is different,” and in June, he wrote: “I am doing a completely new version, even changing the title as it now takes place in winter, and I think I have a straight, clean dramatic line for the first time, without the cloudy metaphysics and the melodrama that spoiled the original production.” By August, Williams was writing to Wood that he’d completed a draft of the new script, which he was still calling Summer and Smoke, and by September, he must have finished the revision because he wrote Crawford that he didn’t know which version the London company would present, “the new or old one.”
Producer H. M. Tennant’s London première of Summer on 22 November was already in preparation by this time, but Williams rushed off with his new version of the play. His friend Maria Britneva, who was playing Rosemary at the Lyric Theatre, met the writer at the airport but he arrived too late to substitute the new script for the one Britneva explained was “already deep into rehearsals” under the direction of Peter Glenville (who, ten years later, would direct the film version). “Crestfallen,” as Williams described himself at the bad timing, the playwright recounts that his friend told him, “Give me the new play and I’ll put it safely away . . . .” That script, which Williams says he didn’t see again for “10 or 15 years,” the dramatist insists was The Eccentricities of a Nightingale.
I found no archival evidence that Williams focused on Eccentricities, under either its old or new title, between 1951 and 1961, so apparently Britneva, a model for Maggie the Cat of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, did keep the script hidden away during the intervening decade. There doesn’t seem to be any existing typescript of the revised Summer and Smoke dated 1951 or 1952 in any archive I could search; the latest Summer and Smoke script of which I know is the 1948 “Rome Version” and the earliest Eccentricities edition is a 1961 text in the NYPL and New Directions archives. So Williams appears to have returned to his new Alma play in about 1961. A typescript of Eccentricities in the NYPL is dated 20 June 1961, and letters in 1963 and 1964 to Robert MacGregor and Jay Laughlin at New Directions, Williams’s publisher, state that he was working again on the play he now called The Eccentricities of a Nightingale. Except for a subtitle—The Sun That Warms the Dark (A very odd little play)—the typescript is nearly identical to the published 1964 text. A duplicate typescript is in the New Directions archive, but it was marked for typesetting. One change from the NYPL copy is that the subtitle had been crossed out, indicating that it never again appeared on any version of the play—which, with one exception, it didn’t.
In any event, Williams reworked the new play between at least 1961 and its première in 1964. (Even though by this time, the play was officially entitled Eccentricities of a Nightingale, many people still referred to it as Summer and Smoke.) New Directions announced in June 1964 the publication of a single volume to comprise the texts of both Alma plays and the New York Times’ report of the forthcoming publication noted that the new play would receive its première later in the month. The Eccentricities of a Nightingale premiered at the Tappan Zee Playhouse in Nyack, New York, on 25 June 1964 under the direction of George Keathley. Edie Adams, star of TV variety shows and Broadway musicals, was cast as Alma and Alan Mixon played John. Because of an early-morning backstage fire at the theater, however, the play’s scheduled Broadway try-out of 10 days was truncated after the Friday night performance on 26 June. Eccentricities of a Nightingale got a world première of two performances.
There wasn’t a lot of critical coverage for the début. The only New York City paper which reviewed the Tappan Zee Playhouse opening of a new play by one of America’s most renowned and respected playwrights was the New York World-Telegram and Sun. Review-writer Norman Nadel complained that “‘Summer and Smoke’ never looked better than it does in comparison with this revision” and that Williams “has made Alma and the play more, rather than less melodramatic.” Nyack’s own Rockland County Journal-News touted the “excitement” of seeing “variations on a familiar theme” in Williams’s new version of Summer and Smoke with the “added fillip” of “a new play, still in try-out.” Reviewer Mariruth Campbell, citing part of the subtitle in the production’s program, confirmed that Eccentricities was, indeed, “a very odd little play”—the Nyack production was, in fact, the only one that ever carried the subtitle as it appears on the title page of the NYPL collection’s typescript. Campbell objected that the play was “over-long” and noted that the cast “[a]ll worked valiantly to breathe life” into the play.
Nevertheless, the new Alma play was launched, and publication followed in February 1965. Over the rest of the decade, there were revivals and regional premières of Williams’s new play, and the British début was staged on 10 October 1967 at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, Surrey, directed by Philip Wiseman with Sian Phillips as Alma and Kevin Colson as John. Then on 16 June 1976, the play’s profile was considerably raised when it was aired on PBS for Great Performances’ Theatre in America, in collaboration with San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, starring Blythe Danner as Alma and Frank Langella as John, directed by Glenn Jordan. Following that broadcast, which Williams himself pronounced his “most successful” television adaptation, a staging at Buffalo’s Studio Arena Theatre starring Betsy Palmer as Alma and David Selby as John was transferred to Broadway’s Morosco Theatre for a long-awaited New York City première on 23 November 1976. Directed by Edwin Sherin, who’d staged a Long Island revival eight years earlier, the play was not well received in New York despite a successful run in Buffalo, with evaluations ranging from “a pleasing, small play” to “a pale outline of a play” whose “production was in every way substandard.” Clive Barnes, on the other hand, wrote in the New York Times that whilehe’d expected Eccentricities just to be “a rewrite of Summer and Smoke,” he was surprised to find “a different play with different characters and even a different theme.” Williams “new work effectively knocks Summer and Smoke off the map,” Barnes declared, “except as a literary curiosity.” The Times reviewer concluded, “This is a warm, rich play full of that compassion and understanding and that simple poetry of the heart that is Mr. Williams at his shining, gentle best. It may be an eccentric nightingale but its tune is still sweet.” Brother Dakin recalls that Williams felt good about Barnes’s response: “It was the best Broadway reaction he had received in a long time.” Nevertheless, The Eccentricities of a Nightingale on Broadway closed on 12 December after eight previews and only 12 regular performances.
Among the differences between Summer and Smoke and The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, possibly the most discussed are the changes Alma and John undergo. Alma, it has been observed, evolves from hyper-conventional and old-fashioned but essentially normal to truly eccentric. John, on the other hand, mellows from a rebellious, hedonistic egocentric to a decent, if somewhat dull, young man. The other significant alteration is the replacement of John’s father in Summer and Smoke with his mother in Eccentricities.
We have seen that both John and his father are, in part, depictions of Williams’s own father, the man who called him “Miss Nancy” and lost part of an ear in a fight over a card game. Shortly before C. C. Williams’s death in 1957, Williams acknowledged, he stopped hating him and began to understand, even love him. This adjustment, Williams has confessed, resulted from treatment by Lawrence Kubie, a Freudian psychoanalyst he began seeing in 1957. As a consequence of his treatment, Williams asserted, “I felt like a great load was lifted from my mind.”
Williams saw Kubie every weekday for nearly a year, and, according to Williams biographer Ronald Hayman, Kubie even telephoned his patient on Saturdays and Sundays to check on him. During the time of this treatment, the writer also began to become estranged from his mother, whom he had adored as a child just as he had hated his father. He described the shift in a 1961 radio interview with writer Studs Terkel: “My homelife was dominated by a very wonderful but rather puritanical mother, who was in conflict with a very wonderful but rather profligate father. . . . First I sided with the mother’s side and then after my father’s death, for some strange reason, I began to see his point of view better.” Under analysis, Williams came to see that his very survival had depended on his father’s fighting spirit, inherited, according to family lore, from 18th-century East Tennessee Indian fighters like John Sevier (Revolutionary War officer and first governor of the State of Tennessee), and the playwright himself later wrote of C. C. Williams: “I wonder if he knew, and I suspect that he did, that he left me something far more important [than inherited money], which was his blood in my veins? And of course I wonder, too, of there wasn’t more love than hate in his blood, however tortured it was.”
As for Williams’s feelings toward his mother, he came to blame Edwina for allowing his beloved sister’s lobotomy, which left Rose a hopeless invalid, surviving in what Dakin Williams said his brother “considered . . . a kind of living death.” Williams also felt that Edwina, whom the playwright called in his 1975 Memoirs “a little Prussian officer in drag,” had alienated him from his father and “that my mother had made me a sissy.” Under analysis, his affections shifted as did the personas of the parental villains in the Alma plays, from the remote and absent father in Summer and Smoke to the imperious and controlling mother in Eccentricities of a Nightingale. A similarly striking change for the worse takes place between the Mrs. Winemiller of Summer and Smoke, whom critic Felicia Londré characterizes as “a querulous and perverse child,” and the Mrs. Winemiller of Eccentricities, who’s become “a social liability.”
As Williams biographer Lyle Leverich asserts:
Although Tom’s mother and grandmother were giving him the concrete support he needed, paradoxically it was not so much their inspiration as his rage against his father that inflamed his burning desire to write. Tennessee Williams’s career could be called an act of revenge, until at length he entered analysis, understood his sublimated love for his deceased father, and turned his anger on his mother, thus changing the character of his plays.
It seems clear that Kubie’s influence on Williams’s feelings for his parents are reflected in the shifts in character manifested in the reworking of Summer and Smoke into Eccentricities. I contend that though he may have begun the new play in 1951, he certainly continued to work on it during the years he underwent psychoanalysis or just afterwards when he was still under the psychoanalyst’s Freudian influence, and the completed script illustrates the new-found Freudian outlook. Indeed, Williams acknowledged that his plays “reflect somehow the particular psychological turmoil I was going through when I wrote them.” Without a copy of the earlier revision from 1951 or ’52, it’s impossible to know for sure if that’s so, but that’s my sense of Williams’s process.
Rather than a cold and distant father, for instance, John now has a dominating, controlling mother, the “heavy” that theater historian W. David Sievers pointed to in his psychoanalysis of the American stage as a Freudian figure. John’s relationship with Mrs. Buchanan in Eccentricities is nearly classic Oedipalism, a distinctly Freudian concept. (It is also significant that Mrs. Winemiller transforms from a childlike personality to a potentially destructive one. Compare, also, the pre-analysis mother, Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, 1944, with the post-analysis Eccentricities mothers. The most salient manifestation of this attitude change is Violet Venable, Sebastian’s dragon-lady mother in Suddenly, Last Summer, 1958.) Sievers also identifies as Freudian developments “the dethroning of motherhood and the liberation of children from possessive parents,” both of which appear in Eccentricities but not so much in Summer and Smoke. John, himself, is no longer the undisciplined savage that was Williams’s other image of his father. Together, Summer and Smoke and The Eccentricities of a Nightingale are a study of a shifting parent-child relationship, a depiction of Williams’s own vacillating allegiance.
With the elimination of the fiery Gonzaleses, furthermore, the violence of Summer and Smoke is also eliminated in Eccentricities . (The Daily Telegraph announcement of the British première of Eccentricities was even entitled “Unviolent Williams.”) There’s no longer, for instance, a stabbing or shooting, and the Moon Lake Casino episode has been replaced with a visit to a cheap hotel. The excision of the violence of Summer and Smoke, a hallmark of Williams writing since the beginning, from Eccentricities was almost certainly also a direct response to Williams’s treatment under Kubie. “If I am no longer disturbed myself, I will deal less with disturbed people and violent material,” Williams acknowledged in a 1958 interview in the New York Herald Tribune. (This outcome of the psychoanalysis didn’t last long, as Williams returned to writing about violence in later plays like Suddenly, Last Summer and Sweet Bird of Youth. In 1959, after the playwright had stopped seeing Kubie, he wrote that in the previous 19 years, “I have only produced five plays that are not violent: The Glass Menagerie, You Touched Me, Summer and Smoke, The Rose Tattoo and, recently in Florida, a serious comedy called Period of Adjustment, which is still being worked on.” Most critics would argue with his appraisal of Summer and Smoke—unless, of course, the playwright meant the “new” Summer and Smoke which was actually Eccentricities of a Nightingale and which had been stashed away by this time for eight years.)
Another shift that takes place between Summer and Smoke and Eccentricities is the one from a summer setting to a winter one. It’s less clear that Kubie’s therapy had an effect on this change, especially since Williams noted that it had already taken place in the 1951 script on which he was working in Rome that June. Nevertheless, it reflects a change in the writer’s psychological adjustment—as well as the manifestation of his lifelong bugaboo, the destructiveness of “life’s destroyer, time.” As Williams said to New York Post writer Robert Rice in 1958: “It haunts me, the passage of time. . . . I think time is a merciless thing. I think life is a process of burning oneself out and time is the fire that burns you.” (Remember that his one-act precursor to Sweet Bird was entitled The Enemy: Time.) Summer and winter echo the two aspects of Alma: fire and ice, and the passage from one to the other accompanies Alma’s passing from “brief bloom to . . . decay.”
With the change from a summer setting to a winter one came also the title change. With that was also the elimination of a focus, almost an obsession, in which Williams engaged in Summer and Smoke: the life, and particularly the death by suicide, of poet Hart Crane. The title of Summer and Smoke is adapted from a line from Crane’s poem “Emblems of Conduct” and Crane, a homosexual like Williams, drowned himself on 27 April 1932 in a moment of deep despair by throwing himself overboard while aboard ship in the Gulf of Mexico. (The line, “By that time summer and smoke were past,” is from a stanza that seems to predict the poet’s own death.) Williams viewed Crane’s struggle to confront a hostile and indifferent world as a reflection of his own and even left instructions, which were ignored, that his body should be buried at sea near where Crane is believed to have drowned. In the 1937 one-act play Escape (presented under the title Summer at the Lake for its 2004 New York première; see my report, “Uninhabitable Country: Five By Tenn,” 5 March 2011), Williams depicts a young man who swims out into the sea to his death, a clear reference to Crane’s suicide, an act with which Williams was preoccupied. All this is gone from Eccentricities and I suspect that Kubie’s treatment had something to do with why Williams deemphasized the poet’s watery death—perhaps because he’d come to know himself better.Williams consistently identified two conflicting strains in his nature: the Puritan, representing the gentler, poetic side of his character, inherited, he felt, from the Dakin line of his family, as embodied by his mother, versus the Cavalier, vital, dynamic, even violent, side passed down through the Sevier-Lanier-Williams line, personified by his father. One reason, I think, that Summer and Smoke and The Eccentricities of a Nightingale were such important works for Williams, plays for which he had such a constant and irrepressible commitment, is that though this internal war plays out in most of his dramas (Blanche Du Bois-Stanley Kowalski; Lady Torrance-Val Xavier, Princess Kosmonopolis-Chance Wayne), in no texts other than the Alma plays is this conflict so front-and-center—dramatically, thematically, scenically, symbolically. Dakin Williams even asserts that the Alma plays “would haunt him all his life.” None of Williams other plays, including the autobiographical Glass Menagerie, is the dramatization of the playwright’s own inner struggle. Kubie’s psychoanalysis may have shifted Williams’ allegiances to one side of his nature or the other, but the fundamental focus on the conflict remained from Summer and Smoke to Eccentricities. Alma Winemiller may have been Williams alter ego, his soulmate, but the plays were, quite literally, about the writer’s own soul. No wonder he couldn’t let them go.