John Buchanan, Jr (Laurence Harvey) and Alma Winemiller (Geraldine Page)

Summer and Smoke: Elia Kazan’s Letter to Tennessee Williams

Opportunities are everywhere, one has to be alert to seize them. Recently, I vacationed in California with a dear friend, Jane, who lives in Texas. Our movie group came up during one conversation and I mentioned Summer and Smoke as our first movie for the fall. Jane promptly replied with information about her friend’s daughter who is married to Albert Devlin, a Tennessee Williams scholar credited with editing two books of the famous playwright’s letters. When presented with this connection, I was intrigued to learn that Jane’s book club traveled to New Orleans for the Tennessee Williams Festival and, while there, enjoyed a dinner with Al Devlin. My curiosity was piqued to learn more. Who knows, maybe I’ll make it to the Tennessee Williams Festival in New Orleans, now that I know there is one.

The excerpt that follows is from The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan, edited by Albert Devlin, highlighting correspondence between Williams and Kazan.

In 1949, Elia Kazan ran into a dejected Tennessee Williams in Rome, where Williams was licking his wounds after Summer and Smoke bombed on Broadway. Shortly thereafter, Kazan received a letter from the playwright in which he wrote, “The simple truth is that I haven’t known where to go since Streetcar. Everything that isn’t an arbitrary, and consequently uninspired, experiment seems to be only an echo.”

Kazan, who directed both stage and screen versions of the Pulitzer prize-winning Streetcar, responded in a letter that Williams never answered and which may in fact be an unmailed draft.

In Rome, in North African, in Mexico, etc. your essential identity is lost. I hope this letter doesn’t sound presumptuous or preachy or superior or moral—but here goes anyway. Maybe I’ve got no call to write anybody, because I’m kind of fucked up too in my own way. But here it is, for what it’s worth— It seems to me that the very things that make it uncomfortable for you here in the states are the things that make you write. I’ve seen it with a lot of writers (Cliff Odets for instance) that once they had dough and the power to live in a comfortable environment (as who doesn’t want to) the NECESSARY quality in their writing disappeared. It seems to me that the things that make a man want to write in the first place are those elements in his environment, personal or social, that outrage him, hurt him, make him bleed. Any artist is a misfit. What the hell would go to all the trouble—if he could make the “adjustment” in a “normal” way.

In Rome, I’d say, you felt a kind of suspension of discomfort. Things are distant, but in so far as they impinge at all, not unpleasant. You start a play about an American Dictator here in the states—I suppose in answer to things in our state of affairs that make it impossible for you to continue to be silent. You get to Rome or whatever and you can perfectly well remain silent. I don’t think you’ll ever turn out plays like Sidney Kingsley or Gar Kanin (to mention the best) purely out of ambition—or even in order to continue being T. Williams. You are not really Tennessee Williams in Rome. That fellow is a misfit, in his own way a rebel and a not-at-home in our Essentially Businessman’s Society.

Blanche was a fragile white moth beating against the unbreakable sides of a 1000 watt bulb. But in Rome the 1000 watt bulb doesn’t exist. The moth is more or less at home—especially with the checks and the Buick and all-around what appears to be a gentle, softly decaying civilization. But your very identity is in the quality of misfit and protest and rebellion (all in personal terms, not as conventionally thought of.) In Rome, in North African, in Mexico, etc. your essential identity is lost. That’s why I’ve always thought that, whether you like it or not, and in a way, especially since you do not, you should stay here in the States. I think you’d soon have some new plays writing that NO ONE could turn you off.

The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan, edited by Albert J. Devlin with Marlene J. Devlin, and is reprinted here courtesy of the publisher, Alfred. A. Knopf.