The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Summer and Smoke calls for a fixed set. On the viewer’s left is the interior of a rectory, in the center a fountain with a kneeling stone angel, and on the right the interior of a doctor’s office. A sky cyclorama, always visible, records afternoon, evening, and night, and together with music and lighting indicates changes of scene and time of day.

In the prologue, John Buchanan, the doctor’s son, startles ten-year-old Alma, daughter of the Episcopal minister, with a peashooter. He wants to return her gift of handkerchiefs, which evidently embarrassed him, but she mollifies him and shows him the angel’s name on the fountain, “Eternity,” which she says is “what people’s souls live in when they have left their bodies.” Her own name, she explains, means “soul” in Spanish, and he admits that he has been called “devil” at home. The scene ends as John kisses her roughly and runs off, snatching her hair ribbon.

Part 1, “A Summer,” begins on July 4, 1916, about fifteen years later. Band music is heard in the background, and fireworks light up the sky. Alma, now a music teacher about to sing at the town’s celebration, is announced offstage as “The Nightingale of the Delta.”

While John has become a restless young physician with “the fresh and shining look of an epic hero,” Alma is prematurely spinsterish, with a nervous laugh and gestures. Her social life seems to be confined to a pathetically small literary group that meets Wednesdays, whereas John is one of the “wasters, drunkards and lechers” for whom, according to his father, the medical profession has no room. John’s affair with Rosa Gonzales, the provocatively sensual daughter of the owner of the gambling casino at Moon Lake, soon becomes an object of town gossip.

John still teases and embarrasses Alma as he did when they were children, but now he also gives his professional opinion. Her frequent attacks of “heart trouble,” he believes, are caused by her nervous swallowing of air, a symptom of her “doppelgänger,” a term he refuses to explain. When he hurts her by telling her that some people find her speech and manner affected, Alma explains that she was forced at too early an age to assume many of the duties of a minister’s wife because of her mother’s incompetence. Her demented, perversely childish mother has deprived her of her youth, and she grew up surrounded more by older people than those of...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Tennessee Williams’s stage directions for Summer and Smoke emphasize production details. The interiors of the symbolic set are suggested as minimally as possible, and the dominant sky is always visible through the mere indications of walls.

Central to the set, the angel seems to preside or brood over the ironically named town of Glorious Hill and over the crucial opening and closing scenes. The soul/body dichotomy is also reflected in the set itself. There is a suggestion of the Gothic, which Alma associates with cathedrals, around the rectory. In the doctor’s office, the most prominent feature is the chart that portrays the human anatomy, in which the soul is not visible. The external action of the play shifts back and forth between the two interiors at the opposite sides of the stage, just as its interior action emphasizes the polarity of the physical and the spiritual.

Williams explains that the set and lighting effects should evoke a mood; they are emphatically not to appear realistic. Lighting is also used symbolically, as when the light lingers on the anatomical chart after John puts out the office lights to embrace Rosa. When the reformed John returns from Lyon and passes the rectory, Alma, at the window, is struck by a shaft of light so intense that she staggers back and collapses on the sofa.

Another mood-enhancing device is the intermittent use of background music, a device routinely associated with film....

(The entire section is 498 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Bloom, Harold. Tennessee Williams. Broomall, Pa.: Chelsea House, 1999.

Boxill, Roger. Tennessee Williams. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.

Crandele, George W. The Critical Response to Tennessee Williams. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Falk, Signi. Tennessee Williams. Boston: Twayne, 1978.

Griffin, Alice. Understanding Tennessee Williams. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994.

Gunn, Drewey Wayne. Tennessee Williams: A Bibliography. 2d ed. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1991.

Kolin, Philip G. Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985.

Weales, Gerald. Tennessee Williams. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.