Theater can grasp the human experience in a way that no other art form can. Through a well-written script, we can see the unfolding of emotions before us, captured in the words and directions presented for the stage. There exists a raw intensity of scripts, insights into our very souls as living beings.
While there are many different scripts for the stage, it takes a rare combination of heart and intensity to create a story that leaves a lasting impact on its audience. Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams has done this for me.
Set in the town of Glorious Hill, Miss., at the start of the 20th century, Summer and Smoke follows the lives and the complicated, emotional affair between Alma Winemiller, the unmarried minister’s daughter with a passion for singing, and John Buchanan, Jr., the rebellious soon-to-be doctor who follows in his father’s footsteps. Alma and John meet at a young age and as they continue to grow up and face the challenges of adulthood, they drift apart over and over again, only to be reunited after life-changing circumstances. In the end, both leave a permanent mark on one another, seemingly changing the mindset of the other, whether for better or for worse.
What makes this script so effective is its realism to its characters, not limited to the just the protagonists. There were several moments in the story I could see happening quite vividly in real life, rather than simply in a production setting. Tennessee Williams is adept at describing the humanistic qualities of the self in relation to those around them, with every character seeming to have their own ideas and motivations guide them throughout the play.
These characters have different relations and thoughts, hold their own views, and, with each passing scene, seem to grow and adapt to every new setting. I could especially empathize with Alma, as she was forced into a role as a caretaker at an early age, acknowledging later that her youth had been stolen from her. Overall, it felt like I was reading an autobiography instead of a fictional tale of romance.
A heavy theme found in this story that I appreciated was how hard it is to be with the person that you love. In my experience, love is a constant crushing emotion, a feeling that plagues you in every thought, and this is perfectly resonated between Alma and John.
The script contains an intimacy that is different from most modern day telling of love for a good reason: not all love stories work out, even if they are meant to be. Alma and John have known each other since childhood, have lived across the street from each other for years, and care deeply about one another, yet it never works out between them. Why? Who can say? This is why I appreciate Tennessee Williams: he is not afraid to leave a bitter-sweet ending that leaves the audience guessing, while also introspective on their own perceptions of love.
What also struck me about this script was the seemingly distinct relationship between the identity of the soul and the body. At an early age, Alma connected to the spiritual realm, attached to the idea of a soul, while John believed merely in the physical realm, both mirroring their views according to their parents professions. I viewed this as symbolical for the disconnect that can exist within ourselves and how we seek to identify our very beings when faced with this uncertainty. However, by the end of the show, Alma adheres to the physical, while John has become enamored with the idea of the soul. There is no point where they both are in unison thought, and it is precisely this idea which shows how hard it is to realize ourselves as both material and immaterial.
Growing up and finding your place in this world has never been easy; the emergence of love seems to only make this process that much more difficult. Summer and Smoke is an insightful and somewhat depressing drama characterized by its underlying question on what makes us human: is it our soul or our body that makes us who we are? Tennessee Williams leaves it to the audience to make judgments and has left me questioning how to make sense of anything in this life, love and souls included.