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Analysis

Summer and Smoke is a 1948 romantic play, written in two parts, by American playwright Tennessee Williams. Set in Glorious Hill, Mississippi, in the early twentieth century, the play tells the love story of the sensitive and virtuous Alma Winemiller (the minister’s daughter) and the playful and sensual John Buchanan Jr. (the doctor’s son), who is her next-door neighbor. According to some analysts, Williams chose the title from the Hart Crane poem “Emblems of Conduct":

The wanderer later chose this spot of rest
Where marble clouds support the sea
And where was finally borne a chosen hero.
By that time summer and smoke were past.

In the first part of the play, titled “A Summer," we meet the main protagonists: Alma and John, two very different people who are obviously attracted to one another. For the young doctor, this attraction is purely physical, and we learn of his numerous conquests at the Moon Lake Casino. For the quiet music teacher, however, the attraction is more spiritual than physical. She falls in love with John, but she is appalled by his lewd behavior and doesn’t confess her feelings to him.

In the second part of the play, titled “A Winter," their lifestyles abruptly change when John’s father dies and the young doctor leaves to deal with an epidemic in Lyon and to finish his father’s work. When he returns, he realizes that Alma has been right all along, and he experiences some sort of a spiritual awakening, deciding to dedicate his life to medicine and settle down with a young, respectable lady (in this case, the pretty Nellie Ewell), as any honorable gentleman would do. Alma, on the other hand, gives up on music and gives in to her physical needs and desires. She finally confesses her love to John, but he refuses her advances, telling her about his future plans. The play ends with the heartbroken Alma, who leaves to Moon Lake Casino with a young traveling salesmen by her side, after “winning an argument she didn’t want to win.”

The play covers several themes, such as spiritualism, sexuality, religion, love, heartbreak, loneliness and second chances. Essentially, Summer and Smoke explores the clash between the spiritual and the physical, or the soul and the body. This is an interesting element, as Alma’s name means "soul" in Spanish, thus representing the spiritual side of human nature. In contrast, John is a man who spends his time drinking and engaging in sexual encounters with various women. He shows Alma an anatomy chart from his office to explain to her that the soul doesn’t exist and that humans are more physical than spiritual beings—thus, he may be said to represent the body.

Summer and Smoke had a few successful stage adaptations, even though the first Broadway performance didn’t receive a lot of positive reviews. Several years later, Williams revised the play as The Eccentricities of a Nightingale.

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...

(The entire section is 2,096 words.)