"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, July 29, 2011

Summer and Smoke and Eccentricities of a Nightingale


Tennessee Williams wrote Summer and Smoke before he wrote Eccentricities of a Nightingale and felt that the latter was the better of the two plays as do I.  In fact, he tried to have it performed in London instead of Summer but production had already begun.

Nightingale is by far the more lyrical and poetic, and reaches much farther into the character of Alma than Summer.  Reviewers too were critical of Summer:

The characters are excellent as allegorical figures, but are not living people.  They do not stir the sympathy of the audience like Blanche or Amanda.  Alma, to many auditors, is an affected and silly hypochondriac.  Her symbolic role as “spirit” is too obvious. The symbolic role of John, the young doctor, is equally obvious in its representation of the flesh and the world of science…(Tennessee Williams: Rebellious Puritan, Nancy Tischler).

Summer is too rushed, too symbolic and less sympathetic, especially to Alma, and has none of the more obvious sexual tensions of Nightingale.  Nightingale, on the other hand, allows Alma’s eccentricities to be more fully expressed.  In Act One, in an exchange with her father who criticizes her for her lack of work in the parish, rather than answer simply – as she does in Summer – Alma goes on an eccentric fugue into her own world:

I made all their little costumes for the Christmas pageant, their angel wings and dresses, and you know what thanks I got for that! Mrs. Peacock cried out that the costumes were inflammable! Inflammable!…and so the candles weren’t lighted.  They marched in holding little stumps of wax! holding little dirty stumps of wax! The absurdity of it as if the wind had blown all the candles out….

A comparison of Alma’s soliloquys in Summer and Nightingale when she talks of the wonders of being a doctor are indicative of the lyrical quality of the latter play:

Such a wonderful profession, being a doctor! –Oh! – With his wonderful ability to relieve – human suffering, of which there is always – so – much! (Her tongue runs away with her).   I don’t think it’s just a profession, it’s a vocation.  I think it’s something to which some people are just – appointed by God! (She claps her hands together and rolls her eyes)

In Summer she is much more practical and controlled, talking of scientific horizons.  She is preachy (referring to the example of John’s father), and uninspired as she is in Nightingale.

And again in Nightengale, when she is berating John for not coming to her intellectual soiree she says:

And when you marry, you’ll marry some Northern beauty.  She will have no eccentricities but the eccentricity of beauty and perfect calm.  Her hands will have such repose when she speaks.  They won’t fly about her like wild birds, oh, no, she’ll hold them together, press the little pink tips of her fingers together, making a – steeple – or fold them sweetly and gravely in her lap….

There is nothing like this in Summer.

The sexual fantasies of Alma are much more explicit in Nightingale.  In her long soliloquy when she expresses her love for Johnny, a love that began in childhood, she says:

One time in the movies I sat next to a strange man.  I didn’t look at his face, but after a while I felt the pressure of his knee against mine…I didn’t look at him.  I sprang from my seat.  I rushed out of the theatre.  I wonder sometimes.  If I had dared to look at his face in the queer flickering white light that comes from the screen, and it had been like yours, at all like yours, even the faintest resemblance – Would I have sprung from my seat, or would I have stayed?

In both plays John invites Alma to sleep with him in a cheap room at the Casino.  In both plays it never happens; but in Summer, Alma runs away; while in Nightingale she goes with him and in a very lyrical scene, they both realize that this intimacy is not to be.  There is much symbolism with the fire, the plumed hat, and Alma’s ring.  It is John who captures the mood:

Sometimes things say things for people. Things that people find too painful or too embarrassing to say, a thing will say it for them so that they don’t have to say it….The fire is out, it’s gone out, and you feel how the room is now, it’s deathly chill.  There’s no use in staying in it.

In short, I feel that Nightingale in all its patient lyricism allows the character and eccentricities of Alma to be expressed – her neediness, her aloneness, her frustration and confinement.  It is her play, and a very beautiful one.

I saw a movie version of Summer with Lawrence Harvey and Geraldine Page (who twenty years later played Princess in Sweet Bird of Youth).  It was a good performance by Page who played Alma as the prim, Victorian lady who flutters and demurs; but she expressed none of the very complex inner life of Alma.  Workmanlike would be a good way to characterize her performance – true to the text to a large degree, but little personal insight.  Lawrence Harvey was cast as a lowlife playboy.  Williams’ text is very oblique in its references to John, but the director of this movie felt it important to show all the drinking, knife fighting, cock fighting, and debauchery of the Casino.  It didn’t add anything.  In fact, it was a burlesque caricature.  In addition, although Williams describes John’s charisma and sexual attractiveness, none can be found in the movie. 

I have ordered the movie version of Nightingale which I have seen before and loved; but now that I have re-read both Summer and Nightingale, I look forward to seeing the movie again.

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