Tennessee Williams: The Wine of Solitude

by Carolyn Vega
Associate Curator, Literary and Historical Manuscripts, Morgan Library & Museum

Tennessee Williams worked on early drafts of Summer and Smoke in the summer of 1946, while living in Nantucket with his lover Pancho Rodriguez and the writer Carson McCullers. It was the only period Williams ever comfortably worked in the same room as another writer, and over nightly after-dinner drinks McCullers gave him “the heart to continue a play that [he] feared was hopeless.” 1 Anxiety was not unusual for Williams. A few months later, living in New Orleans and suffering from what he called a “nightmarish” psyche, he feared the play was “grotesque, a creation of disease.”2

Though Williams abandoned Summer and Smoke five or six times3, it was in this play that he developed what he considered to be his best female character: Miss Alma Winemiller. “She simply seemed to exist somewhere in my being and it was no effort to put her on paper,” he wrote in his Memoirs4. The play can be traced to a short story, “The Yellow Bird,” which the follows thirty-year-old Alma as she rebels against her parents by taking up smoking, bleaching her hair, and running around-first with a younger drug store clerk and later with men she picked up on the highway-to the “good-time houses” of the Delta5.

After working intermittently on Summer and Smoke for more than two years6, Williams returned to it during a 1948 trip abroad. “The sun-glorious sun-is on my face, in my eyes, and I love it,” Williams wrote in his journal7. In Rome and single, Williams struggled with writer’s block and depression. “Travelling alone is a bit frightening at times. At other times it is a bit exhilarating,” he wrote, reveling briefly in the moments of clarity that came with this “wine of solitude.”8 Following the phenomenal success of A Streetcar Named Desire, this trip gave the playwright fresh ideas he needed to finish Summer and Smoke.

Summer and Smoke opened on Broadway in October 1948. Brooks Atkinson wrote that it was “tremulous with beauty,” but Williams, ever in search of lyrical perfection, kept working on the play for the next twenty-eight years.

Carolyn Vega curated the exhibition Tennessee Williams: No Refuge but Writing, which is on view at the Morgan Library & Museum through May 13.

1Tennessee Williams, “Carson McCullers,” in Saturday Review of Literature, 23 September 1961.
2 Tennessee Williams, journal entries dated “Monday” [28 October 1946], “Friday” [1 November 1946] and “Nov. 15” [1946], in Notebooks, ed. Margaret Bradham Thornton (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 445-447.
3Tennessee Williams, journal entry dated [4 December 1948], in Notebooks, p. 489.
4Tennessee Williams, Memoirs (New York: New Directions, 2006), p. 109.
5Tennessee Williams, “The Yellow Bird,” in Collected Stories (New York: New Directions, 1985), p. 221-228.
6 On 15 January 1946, Williams wrote his agent Audrey Wood about a long play “about a Spinster” he had begun in New York. See The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams, Volume 2: 1945-1957, ed. Albert J. Devlin and Nancy
M. Tischler (New York: New Directions, 2004), p. 36.
7Tennessee Williams, journal entry dated Nice, [27 or 28 January 1948], in Notebooks, p. 469.

Pictured: Tennessee Williams. Photo by Orlando Fernandez.