I am a huge fan of Tennessee Williams. He is my favorite playwright, having created some classics of American theatre such as A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Glass Menagerie. Summer and Smoke is a funny, heartbreaking, and poignant play about love and loss, and the agonizing way we are expected to present ourselves to the world even when we are silently suffering through inner calamity.
Characters of Summer and Smoke
Her very name means ‘soul’ in Spanish – and she is an old soul at that, having taken a giant leap past enjoying youth and resigning herself to spinsterhood at a young age. Although she exemplifies the old-fashioned, misogynistic expectations of who women should be and how they should act, she is far from one of Tennessee Williams’ most tragic female protagonists. She goes through a striking character arc from a weak and frail woman suffering from debilitating anxiety caused by her abusive family and fear of confronting her emotions to a strong, if heartbroken, woman. She is driven by her unflinching sense of morality. Nursing an entirely hopeless love for her childhood companion John, she clings to her belief in the spiritual nature of things. She is a piano teacher and singer, known throughout the town for her beautiful voice.
The flirtatious womanizer that Alma is in love with. They have known each other for their entire lives, and although Alma is hardly able to disguise her feelings for him, he eschews any connection they may have in favor of frequent one-night stands. He is handsome, smart, and charming, but chooses to live life alone, clinging to an obvious fear of intimacy, much to his father’s chagrin. His father constantly scolds him for his undignified behavior, making it clear that his way of life is embarrassing and unacceptable. His status as a doctor does not impede his impishness and love of adventure.
Dr. John Buchanan, Sr.
Father of John and father figure to Alma. He is sweet and gentle with her, everything her father has never been. He listens to her and takes her mental health seriously, one of the only people in the whole play who recognizes Alma’s issues and is willing to help her. She loves him dearly and goes to him for advice and comfort. Although he is very kind to Alma, he is hard on his son for being mischievous and unreliable, refusing to take his job or future seriously.
Alma’s father. Only her father by biology, he is cold and distant to Alma, more concerned about how her behavior affects the family’s appearance than her well-being. He is surprisingly patient with his wife, who is childlike and petulant. He still treats Alma like a child, insisting on being the menacing, overbearing father figure if any man comes to visit. He is very judgemental of everyone around him.
Alma’s immature, spiteful mother. She cares more about eating ice cream than she does about anything to do with her daughter. She constantly tries to sabotage anything Alma has any interest in for her own juvenile and vengeful sense of humor. Perhaps she is a true narcissist, or maybe a woman dealing with the intense jealousy of her youthful daughter. She has reduced herself to childishness, so Alma’s job is to take care of her despite her wickedness.
John’s sexy, Latin fling. She comes from Mexico, where she and her four other family members all slept in the same room, a stark departure from John’s charmed life. They had very little money, and she had to listen to her parents’ love making. She tells John that she likes making love to him because he doesn’t grunt like her father does.
One of Alma’s piano students. She is beautiful in a wholesome way, always happy and confident, knowing full-well that she is not good at the piano. She loves life and spreads cheer wherever she goes. We see her transform from naive child to confident young woman during the course of the show. Even as a child, she is comfortable in who she is as a person, having no qualms with discussing sensitive topics such as those relating to sex.
Rosa’s passionate father. He mostly speaks Spanish, but tells drunken, colorful stories to John in English.
A member of Alma’s book club, Has unrequited feelings for Alma. He is a French horn soloist in the band with which she sometimes sings.
Another member of Alma’s book club. Strong personality and opinions.
Another member of Alma’s book club.
Another member of Alma’s book club. Sensitive to Mrs. Bassett’s abrasive remarks.
Waiter at the Moon Lake Casino restaurant. Kind and obedient.
Traveling salesmen who Alma meets in the park at the very end. He is very sweet and understanding with her, the only person left in town who gives her any hope for her future. He makes her laugh and takes care of her.
A Brief Synopsis:
A beautifully tragic play with melodious dialogue, Summer and Smoke tells of Alma, who is in love with her childhood friend, John. Although her feelings are poorly disguised, John chooses to seek out other women rather than what’s right in front of him. He is a firecracker, a lover of mischief, and Alma, the preacher’s daughter with an anxiety-disordered mind, is too much for him to bear. Alma fights being the preacher’s daughter and the daughter of a mother who has never shown her love. Alma must find the strength within her to let John go and allow herself to fall for someone who will treat her how she deserves.
A Longer Synopsis:
The play begins just after a singing performance Alma gave for the 4th of July. She is shaky after having just suffered a panic attack. She is with her unconcerned parents, but soon John comes and flirtatiously comforts her. It is clear from the start that she is hopelessly in love with him, and we painfully watch him toy with her.
She ends up at Dr. John Sr.’s house later that night, suffering from further anxiety.
He gives her a sedative, while speaking to her gently, with great concern. She reveals her disdain for Roger, who has obvious romantic feelings for her, but someone she can barely stand to be around. John makes a drunken entrance. His father, embarrassed, states that John will no longer be welcome to sleep at the house if he continues his drunk and womanizing ways.
After this night, Alma spends some time trying to get John to take her out for rides in his new car and eventually gets him to agree to come to her next book club meeting. This is all enduring her mother, who is constantly taunting Alma about her feelings for John. Then, Nellie comes over for a piano lesson, where she tells Alma that she used to be in love with her, back when she used to like girls. This is rather shocking news, considering it takes place in Mississippi during the turn of the century.
Then, Nellie tells the story of what happened at her house the previous night.
She heard her mother downstairs, having a loud time with some other people. Then, Nellie said that the “most wonderfullest person” came into her room, mistaking it for a bathroom. It was John, and she talks about him as if she has a schoolgirl’s crush. He was there with a girl, Rosa Gonzales. In a fit of jealousy, Alma bitterly tells Nellie that he is weak, unfit to be a doctor. That’s when Mrs. Winemiller bursts in to vindictively tell Nellie that Alma has feelings for him, that she rushes to the phone when it rings and watches him out the front window.
Alma is furious at her mother.
However, she still cajoles John into coming to her book club meeting. He shows up late and they proceed with the meeting. But he decides to leave midway through a poem they start reading, with the flimsy excuse of an emergency with a patient, clearly a lie.
Alma follows him to find that his “emergency” was meeting up with Rosa Gonzales. Heartbroken, she claims to be looking for his dad, but he tells her that she’s just in a state of hysteria and she’ll be fine. He gives her a sedative, which she begrudgingly takes, shooting zingers at him for the rest of her time there. John finally asks her to leave, but not before telling her that he’ll call for her Saturday night. The lights go down with him and Rosa onstage.
It’s Saturday night and Alma is anxiously awaiting John’s arrival.
Her mother is making more snide comments and her father is very agitated, not wanting Alma to be taken out by a man. John comes and takes her to a restaurant outside a casino. There, John reveals to Alma that he’s thinking of quitting his father’s business and going to South America. They talk a little bit about Alma’s past romances before John makes the suggestion that they sleep together. Alma is incredibly offended that he’d take her for that kind of girl and leaves John at the restaurant.
Act two opens with Alma and Roger cuddling on the couch, obviously now a couple, although Alma is putting on a very strained show of enjoyment. It’s not long before she goes looking for Dr. John Sr., but instead finds John and Rosa talking explicitly about their lovemaking. We find out that John is throwing a party because he and Rosa have decided to run away together the next day. Dr. John Sr. walks in and sees the beginning of the party in his house. Angry, he starts whacking everyone with his cane, telling them all to get out of his house. Everything quickly escalates and we hear a gunshot.
The next scene starts at the Buchanan’s home.
Prayers are being chanted by Alma’s father for Dr. John Sr. John is disheveled, a mess, at his father’s critical state after having been shot. He blames it on Alma for coming to see him and calling his father down. He shows Alma a chart of human anatomy, telling her that there is no place “the part that Alma is Spanish for”, the soul. It’s all just bones and flesh, that the body is only hungry for truth, food, and love. He then tells Alma that he wouldn’t have made love with her at the casino even if she had agreed to.
Alma becomes a shattered woman, not bothering to dress in nice clothes or comb her hair. Her father is humiliated by her, telling her to grow up and move on with her life. But, the death of Dr. John Sr. has shaken her to her core, even telling her father, “I want to die!” John is predictably acting like the death of his father hasn’t affected him. Nellie makes an appearance in a shocking transformation from girl to woman in a flirtatious exchange with John.
Some time passes.
We find out that the book club has disbanded in Alma’s absence. Alma is wearing black, a haggard woman in her young age, after having had her heart broken so many times. She is like a widow to all of her losses. Nellie comes to see her, now an adult, from her clothes to her mature voice. She’s been off at school and has learned to talk properly and is enjoying her new-found freedom. During the course of the conversation, Alma figures out that Nellie and John have gotten engaged.
Alma, though it seems like her heart can’t be broken any further, receives this news as a severe shock. She confronts John, gently but firmly. She tells him that she’s been in love with him their entire lives, although he must have known it. He takes in her information and leaves, head held high, having finally taken control of her life and released the burden from atop her shoulders.
She goes to the park to take her sedative.
There, she meets Archie, a traveling salesman. He is kind, sweet, and understanding towards her, like John never was. The play ends on a hopeful note, that maybe Alma has finally found someone who will love her like she deserves.
Some Summer and Smoke Analysis
Tennessee Williams is a master at writing characters who are trying their best to escape the deluge of pain in which they have been swept away. Summer and Smoke is no different. Alma has legitimate concerns, worries, and fears, and yet almost everyone in her life happily gaslights her. They tell her that she is in a constant state of hysteria instead of listening to her. Sadly, this is an honest look at how women have been treated throughout history. Never taken seriously, always thought of as fragile things with laughable jitters.
Accordingly, all the men in her life prove themselves to be uncomfortable with her pain.
“Real men” aren’t sensitive; they are strong and don’t succumb to such weaknesses. This shows the tragedies of the male characters. John, for instance, is someone who clearly drowns his woes in hedonism, a common theme in Williams’ plays. He seeks out pleasure to ignore and bury his pain.
Although Alma and John are both fully-grown adults, they are still looked at as children by their parents. Alma’s father exerts control over her, not allowing her to see men without his consent. Her mother, the real child, infantilizes her and mocks her feelings for John. Although we never see John’s mother, his father does his best to maintain a strict hold on him. The tighter he holds on, the more John rebels. It’s not until his father dies that John finally settles down.
Throughout the play, Alma is forced to bear the fact that John seems to be seeing every woman in town except for her.
She sees him with Rosa, a passionate fling through which he is able to release his anger towards his father. Rosa is everything Alma wishes she could be; sexy, free, romantic. She has parents who support her and her fiery personality is irresistible to John. She is confident in her body, she dances John’s fears away.
Then, he ends up with Nellie, the girl that Alma feels she should have been: a confident and strong woman, comfortable with her own sexuality. She does not feel that she ever could have been Rosa, despite the fact that she clearly wishes she could have been. But, she could easily have become Nellie. However, she nursed her love and heartbreak for far too long, stomped on her entire life by her parents. She could not find it within herself to become the woman that Nellie became. Thus, the two women that John chooses are everything Alma isn’t.
She does find her strength at the end, however.
While many of WIliams’ female characters get broken by the events that transpire, Alma is able to stop trying to find the strength that others have and find the strength that she has within herself. She bravely confronts John at the end in a surprising turn of events, where she becomes the courageous, resilient one, and he ends up looking weak. Yes, the events are tragic, but these are characters with powerful arcs.
The very meaning of the title Summer and Smoke is representative of the struggles the characters face. ‘Smoke’ represents the soul, Alma’s name. How trying to find the soul of a person is as difficult as holding smoke in your hands. Summer is the heat of the physical body. The two, summer and smoke, are in contrast. While you can have someone’s body, it doesn’t mean you have their soul also. It is the difficulty of life, trying to create harmony between the spiritual and the physical.
My Summer and Smoke Takeaway
Yes, I am a big Tennessee Williams fan, so I do cradle a rather large bias. But, this is one of my favorite of his plays, despite it’s mediocre popularity. It is a true character piece, the people delicately and sensitively crafted. It has a gentle story that will chill you to the bone. The next time you see this play on a bookshelf, give it a read.
Want more Plays for Players? Check these out:
My name is Andrea and I live in Los Angeles, California. By day, I am an actor and by night I am working towards a degree in nutritional science.