Critical Context

Summer and Smoke was the first of Tennessee Williams’s two dramatic treatments of Alma’s story. A substantial revision, The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, was written in 1951 but not performed or published until 1964. Williams preferred it as less melodramatic than the earlier work, but what it gained in simplicity it lost in subtlety and the poignancy of Alma’s ambivalent torment in Summer and Smoke.

Summer and Smoke was a failure on Broadway in 1947 but became the hit of the season in 1952 in its Off-Broadway revival on an arena stage, when it made the reputations both of its director, José Quintero, and its star, Geraldine Page, who also played Alma in the film version. Such themes as that of the outsider and of a poorly integrated sexuality, both prominent in Summer and Smoke, inform many of Williams’s numerous plays. There is a particularly close connection, however, between three of them.

Virtually every critic commented on the kinship between Alma and Blanche DuBois of A Streetcar Named Desire (pr., pb. 1947), both begun in 1945 and first produced in 1947. Both women desperately cling to notions of their own gentility that seems curiously, sometimes comically, outmoded. Each is disgusted at the Moon Lake Casino by a man she loves. Blanche’s loss of her love happened a long time ago; she has already lived the promiscuous life on which Alma is just embarking. Both encounter strong, virile men who ultimately destroy them, and both have made tormented attempts to suppress their own strong sexuality.

Alma’s other kindred spirits in Williams’s plays include Amanda and Laura Wingfield of The Glass Menagerie (pr. 1944, pb. 1945). Like Alma and Blanche, Amanda is eccentrically old-fashioned, a faded southern belle, while her daughter, Laura, shares Alma’s and Blanche’s sensitivity and psychological frailty. Finally, Alma, Blanche, and Laura are all both outsiders and artists, not because of what they create but by temperament and taste. Alma sings, Blanche loves literature, and Laura collects delicate glass animal sculptures.

Summer and Smoke defies classification in a conventional critical category. Williams’s reality is a subjective one, so that a realistic treatment is anathema to his intent. To call the play an allegory or parable is to overlook the powerful individuality of its characters. Williams himself used the term “drama of sensibility” to describe the unique blend of the novelistic, psychological, subjective, poetic, and dramatic in his work.