Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Summer and Smoke: Literary Citations

               Summer and Smoke as a Citational Drama

Other than his experimental Camino Real, Tennessee Williams invested Summer and Smoke with more literary citations and allusions than in any of his other major plays. Following are some of the most important sources for these:

William Blake:

Blake (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827), the mystic, prophetic British poet, is represented by his poem "Love's Secret," which itself works as a prophetic text within Summer and Smoke, quietly signaling the play's denouement:

NEVER seek to tell thy love, 
  Love that never told can be; 
For the gentle wind doth move 
  Silently, invisibly. 
I told my love, I told my love,         5
  I told her all my heart, 
Trembling, cold, in ghastly fears. 
  Ah! she did depart! 
Soon after she was gone from me, 
  A traveller came by,  10
Silently, invisibly: 
  He took her with a sigh.

The poem, in Alma's rendition, is slightly altered from the original. The gender of the pronouns has been changed for a heterosexual woman's recitation. Other changes include a single "fear" in line 7. Line 8 appears as "Did my love depart," while Line 9 and 10 read "No sooner had he gone from me/ Than a stranger passing by." There is no information on why Williams might have chosen these subtle changes.

Williams might have had the poet in mind when he named the travel company that the fallen Reverend Shannon worked for in Night of the Iguana: Blake Tours.

Hart Crane:

Crane (July 21, 1899 – April 27, 1932), an American poet, was one of Williams' favorite writers. Like Williams, Crane was an open homosexual at a time when it was dangerous to be so. His relationship with his native country was often contentious, and he died by drowning at sea as he was returning to New York from Mexico. Although there was no note left behind, his death is widely considered a suicide. Crane's high reputation among his fellow writers and poets rests on two books of his poems: White Buildings (1926), his first collection with a preface by Eugene O'Neill and Allen Tate (O'Neill struggled with his responses to the poems and asked poet Tate to finish the introduction), and The Bridge (1930), Crane's more positive response to Modernism which was inspired by his reading of T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland.

Williams' title, Summer and Smoke, comes from Crane's poem "Emblems of Conduct," which appears in White Buildings:

"Emblems of Conduct"

By a peninsula the wanderer sat and sketched
The uneven valley graves. While the apostle gave
Alms to the meek the volcano burst
With sulphur and aureate rocks…
For joy rides in stupendous coverings
Luring the living into spiritual gates.

Orators follow the universe
And radio the complete laws to the people.
The apostle conveys thought through discipline.
Bowls and cups fill historians with adorations–
Dull lips commemorating spiritual gates.

The wanderer later chose this spot of rest
Where marble clouds support the sea
And where was finally born a hero.
By that time summer and smoke were past.
Dolphins still played, arching the horizons,
But only to build memories of spiritual gates.


Marsden Hartley's Eight Bells Folly: Memorial to Hart Crane (1933)
See also:

Williams, who was writing A Streetcar Named Desire in tandem with Summer and Smoke, used Crane's last poem, "The Broken Tower," as his epigraph for that play, while the poem's images serve as metaphors throughout Streetcar ("The Broken Tower" has also been used as the title for James Franco's film on Hart Crane).

One of Williams' last plays, a one-act titled Steps Must be Gentle (1980) is a "ghost play" on the relationship between Crane and his mother. But prior to that, Crane is mentioned by the character Hannah Jelkes in Williams' The Night of the Iguana (1961):

"When the Mexican painter Siqueiros did his portrait of the American poet Hart Crane he had to paint him with closed eyes because he couldn't paint his eyes open--there was too much suffering in them and he couldn't paint it."

That painting appears above: "Hart Crane" by David Alfaro Siqueiros (1931).

Finally, in Williams' Memoirs he writes: "A codicil to my will provides for the disposition of my body in this way: Sewn up in a clean white sack and dropped over board, twelve hours north of Havana, so that my bones may rest not too far from those of Hart Crane."

Tennessee Williams reading Hart Crane's poem "Eternity":

(Film courtesy of Don Yorty).

Ernest Dowson:

Dowson (2 August 1867 – 23 February 1900), one of the principal writers in the British Decadent Movement, was another of Williams' favorite poets. Dowson's work has certainly been mined for titles, having supplied both for the teleplay and film The Days of Wine and Roses and for Margaret Mitchell's novel (as well as its film adaptation) of antebellum and the post-bellum South, Gone with the Wind. Dowson is slyly referenced in Summer and Smoke by the character of Mrs. Bassett, who has a habit of confusing poets (see below). First, Mrs. Bassett confuses William Blake with Arthur Rimbaud, and then compounds the error by assigning to Rimbaud the line "bought red lips." The line is Dowson's, though even here Mrs. Bassett is confused as the image in Dowson's poem, "Non Sum Qualis eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae," is of a "bought red mouth":

All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was gray:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

The poem is referenced in two other works of drama, though they are quite different from each other: Eugene O'Neill's autobiographical tragedy Long Day's Journey into Night and Cole Porter's musical version of Taming of the Shrew, Kiss Me Kate.

Arthur Rimbaud:

Rimbaud (20 October 1854 – 10 November 1891) is one of the most influential poets in French literature, whose work had a major impact on 20th century literature, and was one of the pivotal writers to influence Williams' own poetry, particularly Rimbaud's poems in The Drunken Boat (1871). Rimbaud's appearance in Summer and Smoke is again through Mrs. Bassett's comical mangling of literature and literary figures. She confuses William Blake with Rimbaud, referencing him with the French symbolist poet, Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), who was Rimbaud's lover: "I just don't see why we should encourage the writings of people like that who have already gone into a drunkard's grave...He traveled around with that Frenchman who took a shot at him and landed them both in jail!"

                        Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud in a painting by Henri Fantin-Latour (1872)

Verlaine, "in a drunken rage," fired a revolver at Rimbaud after a quarrel. Rimbaud, then 18-years-old, was wounded in the left wrist. Mrs. Bassett's withering line to the confused Rosemary is wonderfully ironic: "There's nothing like contact with culture!"; Mrs. Bassett's contact, of course, is nothing less than tenuous.

In his Memoirs, Williams wrote that "a poet such as the young Rimbaud is the only writer of whom I can think, at this moment, who could escape from words into the sensations of being, through his youth, turbulent with revolution, permitted articulation by nights of absinthe. And of course there is Hart Crane. Both of these poets touched fire that burned them alive."

Oscar Wilde:

Wilde (16 October 1854 – 30 November 1900) would still have been considered a highly questionable personality in the pre-war setting of Summer and Smoke due to his imprisonment at Reading Gaol after being found guilty of sodomy in 1895. This is evinced when Alma is "taken aback" after discovering  that she's quoted one of Wilde's most famous aphorisms:

Alma: Who was it that said that--oh, so beautiful thing!--"All of us are in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars!"

John: Mr. Oscar Wilde.

Alma: Well, regardless of who said it, it's still true.

A Wilde allusion appears in Act II when John is talking with Rosa Gonzalez on the eve of their marriage. While analyzing the depth of his dissipation, John says: "And there isn't a sign of depravity in my face." This immediately conjures up the image of the portrait of Dorian Gray from Wilde's novella of that name.

Albert Lewin's 1945 film version with Hurd Hatfield as Dorian examining the portrait by painter Ivan Albright

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