Sunday, March 17, 2013

Summer and Smoke - Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams (1911-1983)

The play opens with our young heroine, Alma, sitting by a fountain. She is quick to tell the audience the derivation of her name, in Spanish Alma means soul, and she is the very embodiment of her name, light and airy, not quite a part of a social set instead she floats just above them, accused of putting on airs with fine pronunciations and affected speech. She is a preachers daughter and as such is presented as a champion of extreme moralism and propriety.

A young boy creeps onto the stage, shooting a pea-shooter at Alma's bent over back and as she utters a shocked cry of horror and whirls about he laughs, an impish, mischievous boy who has evidently had a runny nose. Much to his embarrassment, Alma has made him handkerchiefs and put them on his desk at school.

John: "Are you trying to make a fool of me?"
Alma: "You have a bad cold and your nose has been running all week. It spoils your appearance."  

Her evident love for the boy is of the variety that always sees the potential of the lover without recognizing the immediacy of who he is,  always seeing who he can become rather than what he is now. She describes this almost as a type of spiritual love. A love that waits and hopes. Constantly throughout the Prologue she describes ways for his improvement, "I was only thinking how handsome you'd be if your face wasn't dirty.." and so on, while John after finally taking a handkerchief and wiping his face tries to convince her to kiss him. She turns away, young and afraid of such presumptions, he steals a kiss anyway and then pulling her hair ribbon as a crescendo runs off with a mocking laugh.

As the play progresses, Alma and John have grown up, Alma now although in her early 20's is prematurely spinsterish with a touch of the neurotic. John, who is following in his father's footsteps in the pursuit of a medical degree, has not lost his predilection for chasing girls, although he no longer stops at stealing a kiss. As they meet at the same fountain from years before, during a summer festival, Alma doesn't lose a beat, she once again begins to perseverate on how John can better himself from his sullied reputation as a wild, disreputable young man. Her faith in what he could be is somewhat exhausting and he retaliates by first diagnosing her with a "doppleganger," a prognosis that horrifies Alma, who begs to know if it's a serious condition, and secondly by telling her of the reputation she has made for herself, one of a pretentious goody-two-shoes...Her feelings are obviously hurt and to make up for his somewhat harsh comments he offers to take her driving, but mid sentence sees Rosa Gonzales, a dazzling flirtatious beauty, and in a flash he leaves her alone by the fountain in the pursuit of something other than scholastics.

As the play continues, Alma becomes more and more obsessed with the person she's created and John becomes more and more the unruly philandering type he originally gravitates toward, culminating in a shoot out of sorts, a broken engagement with Rosa and the death of his father. Alma, pines away wondering why the love of her soul resists being so.

Finally after being jaded and disillusioned, in a shocking turn of events (that seems less shocking and more of just a tired plot twist) Alma propositions John. She no longer believes in love of a spiritual sort, and questions the veracity of the soul. She is tired of her stringent hold on morality and wants to throw it away in exchange for animalistic passion.

" I have changed my mind, or the girl who said "no" - she doesn't exist any more, she died last summer, suffocated in smoke from something on fire inside her..."

...But now John believes in true love of a pure and spiritual sort...only he's found it in another young woman and to make matters worse, this young woman was once Alma's singing pupil, Nellie. She has effectively been exchanged for a younger model! She retires, tired, jaded, exhausted back the fountain and waits for the first traveling salesman to debark from the nearby train depot. When one finally makes his way toward her she strikes up a conversation about the temperature of the fountain water  before suggesting they make their way to the casino to partake of whatever pleasures present themselves, a request she had earlier refused from John, and as she follows the salesman to his car, she has taken the place of Nellie's mother as the loose woman who spends her days waiting by the fountain in the hopes of encounters with strangers, the tangible exchange of bodies being the only form of communication left that she can understand.

1 comment:

  1. I've never read this one, but I remember being tremendously moved by The Glass Menagerie. The sister character, Laura, reminded me of my own sister. I also read Bloom's book, but I fear I don't have the ambition to read every tittle listed in his canon. Do you agree with the inclusion or exclusion of certain books from the lineup?


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