Clothes for a Summer Hotel by Tennessee Williams

clothessummerhotelHere’s how I got here. First, the disappointing Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, as a consolation prize, renewed my interest in the Fitzgeralds. (I have purchased, used, two biographies of Zelda based on the interest piqued by Z – the ones by Cline and Milford, respectively.) And next, I read an excellent book called The Trip to Echo Springs by Olivia Laing (sorry, it’s not published til January; you’ll see my review closer to then), about the alcoholism shared by, among others, Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams. From Laing I learned that Tennessee’s last play, entitled Clothes for a Summer Hotel, dealt with the Fitzgeralds, with Zelda at center stage. And here we are.

Apparently this is not one of Williams’s better-regarded plays, and I suppose it does lose out to the likes of The Glass Menagerie; but I found it a fine work. It is first and foremost dreamy – Williams calls it a “ghost play,” referring to the chronological liberties he takes with the Fitzgeralds’ lives. Scott visits Zelda in the North Carolina asylum, Highland Hospital, where she died; his visit takes place just before her death, at which point he would have been dead more than 7 years. But this is no great concern, because many of the characters who take the stage are dead at different times, and yet walking and talking. The extent to which they are aware of this fact varies, or is unclear. The timing is not chronological; they zoom backwards from the asylum, to Paris of the 1920’s, and then forwards again. Zelda’s death is outside the action of the play, but heavily foreshadowed throughout. She died in a fire, locked in her barred room on the top floor; Williams, and his Zelda, are here obsessed with fire, and wind, and refer to both throughout.

I found Scott and Zelda here to be true to what I know of them, and I found Williams’s portrayal to be nicely fair in accusing them both of madness or alcoholism, and yet sensitively making allowances at the same time; which seems to me to be the proper treatment. With Williams’s stage directions, even though I was merely reading a written play, I could picture the stage set, treated with wavering ribbons, wind, and smoke (from dry ice, Williams notes), and I could feel the effect these props would have of blurring the lines between past and present for the half (or more) crazy characters onstage. I found it all rather magnificent, and I would like to see it performed, although I suppose that’s unlikely, with Williams plays like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire to compete with. Ah well.

Tennessee Williams’s reputation as a fine playwright is confirmed here. And my interest in the Fitzgeralds continues.

Rating: 7 rubies.

6 Responses

  1. performed on Broadway for only 15 nights in 1980; in the Berkshires in 1989 and last in NYC’s Hudson Guild in 2010 – from what I found…

  2. If you’re interested in the Fitzgeralds, get a hold of a copy of The Disenchanted by Budd Schulberg — it’s a fictionalized account of his time trying to collaborate/babysit Fitzgerald on a screenwriting assignment at the end of his (Fitzgerald’s) life. Heartbreaking but really compelling. I’m afraid to read those Zelda novels. I did read Milford’s bio as a kid (teenager maybe) — my dad of all people had a copy, which is weird because he was kind of an old school chauvinist. But he did at least read widely.

    • Thanks, Nan! I didn’t know Schulberg. It looks like he did work with Fitzgerald so it’s a fictionalized version of a true collaboration; do I have that right? Interesting. And more promising than the novel I didn’t like. I appreciate that anecdote about your father. 🙂 Good for him for being catholic in his reading, “at least”!

  3. It is pretty clearly a fictionalized Fitzgerald though there’s a note at the beginning with a quote from a Henry James novel claiming it’s not supposed to be a roman a clef, exactly … for one thing, the Zelda character isn’t in an asylum, she’s in a New York apartment, and I think they have a son, not a daughter. But overall, it seems to be Fitzgerald and it is really sad. But a good read nonetheless.

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