Summer and Smoke

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First edition
(publ. New Directions)

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.

Synopsis[edit]

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.

Stage performances[edit]

On 6 October 1948, Summer and Smoke received its first 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).

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.[1]

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.[2]

Adaptations[edit]

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, appeared on television in 1976, starring Blythe Danner and Frank Langella.

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.

References[edit]

External links[edit]