Tennessee Williams: “Summer and Smoke” (1948)

You talk as if my body had ceased to exist for you, John, in spite of the fact that you’ve just counted my pulse. Yes, that’s it! You tried to avoid it, but you’ve told me plainly. The tables have turned, yes, the tables have turned with a vengeance! You’ve come around to my old way of thinking and I to yours like two people exchanging a call on each other at the same time, and each one finding the other one gone out, the door locked against him and no one to answer the bell! (Alma, 638)

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Summer and Smoke opened in 1948 a year after the author, Tennessee Williams, put out his Pulitzer winning play A Streetcar Named Desire. The play, can be easily overshadowed by its greater sibling, but it remains an interesting effort looking at the difficult of two people incapable of finding love for each other because of the liquid nature of their worldviews. Although a bit troubling, Summer and Smoke is dramatically more liberating than some of Williams’ other plays. The Glass Menagerie suggests how people are unable to escape their condition or their ways of thinking, They are stuck in the past. A Street Car Names Desire suggests the possibility of change but paints a horrific picture of mental decline. Summer and Smoke suggest more benign chances. Alma becomes less coy about her love for John overtime. John starts out the story a bit earthier and open about his desires for Alma, but eventually settles down and become a good boy. So, they fly past each other. I do not want to so easily forgive the social forces at work. Alma begins the play a product of an overly romanticized view of the world, clearly a product of her upbringing and culture. John abandons his sensual origins in the pursuit of a career and a family. Alma outgrew her socialization while John becomes socialized. Alma ends up going her own way by seducing (or accepting the suggestions) of a young man, reversing the situation of the early part of the play.

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I suspect many wonderful moments are lost because people pass each other at different places in their life. I am also certain this would be less common and less tragic in a truly free society where people were allowed to be honest and open about their desires, needs, and points of view. Williams knows quite well that culture is horribly oppressive, most importantly to our psychology. Repression of desire (when mostly harmless at least) is one of the greatest possible crimes a culture can impose on individuals.

At the beginning, Alma suggests she is shocked by John’s sexual advances. He is to be a doctor and therefore should be above such lurid interests.

I’m afraid that you I move in different circles. If I wished to be as outspoken as you are, which is sometimes just an excuse for being rude—I might say that I’ve yet to see you in the company of a —well, —reputable young woman. You’ve heard unfavorable talk about me in your circle of acquaintances and I’ve heard equally unpleasant things about you in mine. And the pity of it is that you are preparing to be a doctor. You’re intending to practice your father’s profession here in Glorious Hill. . . But you have a gift for scientific research! You have a chance to serve humanity. (587)

Notice the moralism and class assumptions that invade that statement. It was probably lectures like this, given by many people through his life that convinced him to reform himself and settle down. Alma may, in the end, have regretted giving that lecture to him.

All in all, a play that should not be ignored for those interested in the relationship between sexual freedom and culture.

 

 

Tennessee Williams, “The Glass Menagerie” (1944)

I mean that as soon as Laura has got somebody to take care of her, married, a home of her own, independent—why then, you’ll be free to go wherever you please, on land, on sea, whichever way the wind blows you! But until that time you’ve got to look out for your sister. I don’t say me because I’m old and don’t matter! I say for your sister because she’s young and dependent. (422)

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This is part of a short speech by Amanda in Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie. I put it on there as an example of how the language of freedom is so easily a part of the lexicon of American literature. One could hardly say that the characters in the 1945 play are free. With the exception of the “gentleman caller,” Jim, none of the characters are able to break themselves free of their chains. Yet freedom remains the goal. This is part of the argument of this blog. The discourse on freedom is deep in the American mind, as evidenced by its literary heritage, despite—or perhaps because of—the authoritarian institutions, capitalism, family, and all the other shackles.

Williams produced a handful of plays during the war. I am skipping over, for now, the one-act plays collected in 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (published in 1946) to look at the great run of plays he produced in the decade between The Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. This was period saw Williams rise in the theatrical world and the awarding of two Pulitzer Prizes (not that we should judge the works based on such standards).

I have never seen A Glass Menagerie, or any other Tennessee Williams plays, performed live. I suspect that it would be a very claustrophobic experience. Williams took great pains in the stage directions to create the setting for his “memory play.” There are only four characters. The setting is an apartment near an alley in St. Louis. Escaping even for a minute is presented as a victory. Amanda Wingfield is the mother and she lives entirely in the past, often repeating banal lessons about the way life if to her near captive children. At every moment she reinforces the idea that her children are incapable of moving beyond the home, despite demanding that of them. Laura, her daughter, is the owner of the titular glass menagerie, which occupies much of her time. She has a leg brace and this had led to her mother being overly protective of her. By the time of the play, Laura lacks any self-confidence and is completely dependent on her mother and brother. Williams writes about her that “Laura’s separation increases till she is like a piece of her own glass collection, too exquisitely fragile to move from the shelf.” (394) Tom, the son, has a meaningless job but has greater ambitions. The needs of his mother and sister keep him at the apartment. He is the one most directly enslaved by the situation and the one most capable of rebellion. The final character is a breath of fresh air. Tom brings in Jim as a “gentleman caller” for his sister, although there is little hope that it will go anywhere. Jim is not a brilliant man but he is quickly able to diagnosis the situation in the apartment and knows enough to stay away.

The structure of play is suggested on the first page. “Part I. Preparation for a Gentleman Caller. Part II. The Gentleman calls.” This is more or less the end of Amanda’s dreams for her daughter. In Amanda’s mind, the only hope for her daughter is if some man saves her by marrying her. Amanda seems to live in a deluded past that recalls an endless train of suitors for her own hand. This reaches the level of a tall tale when we learn about one day with seventeen suitors. Tom wants to get out desperately. He often goes to movies just to escape the apartment and his queer mother and banal sister. Amanda assumes he is engages in all sorts of other activities, but Tom denies this. Eventually, he brings in Jim who politely gets to know Laura and leaves. It was not a serious date for Jim, although Amanda and Laura envisioned it as a central event in their life. All in all, it is quite horrible to watch unfold.

The date was more like a brief therapy session where Jim desperately encourages Laura to go out into the world and make something of herself on her own terms. “Why, man alive, Laura! Just look about you a little. What do you see? A world full of common people! All of ‘em born and all of ‘em going to die! Which of them has one-tenth of yoru good points! Or mine! Or anyone else’s, as far as that goes—Gosh! Everyone excels in some one thing. Some in many! All you’ve got to do is discover in what.” (454) There is a bit pomposity in this lecture (he looks in the mirror when he comments how some people excel in many things), but it is a lesson that a woman like Laura, who has been told all of her life that she is inadequate and needs the support of a man, needs desperately.

Tom is probably the only character who can escape. He has a job and some dreams of his own. He spends most of the play with one foot outside the door anyway. There seems to be to be little hope for Amanda or Laura. Amanda is too married to the past. She must live in the delusional house she created. Laura long lost any chance for emotional autonomy. The lesson of this play for our thinking about freedom is the devastating impact family can have. Oppression is much more likely to be something intimate. People like Bill Gates and Terry Guo may be worth billions and run little empires, but it is our immediate boss, the tedious middle manager who oppresses us day to day. To talk about the patriarchal marriage system seems besides the point in a play like The Glass Menagerie. The damage done to Laura was done by the ones closet to her. As long as living in freedom requires a free mind, the problem of the oppression of familial expectations will need to be addressed. I have no doubt that there are countless Lauras out there (and no small number of Toms). The people who create the chains around these victims need to be accountable.

Watch it for yourself.