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Essay

Backstory: The Livin' is Easy

Jasper Francis Cropsey, Indian Summer on the Delaware River, 1862

Summer, that enchanted season, overflows with romance, mischief, and joy. The sun shines down, signaling an escape from the confines of everyday existence. We throw off our clothes and leap into the waves, leaving all our cares and worries behind us for three glorious months. But sometimes we are blessed with an Indian summer, a “margin of sun-lit warmth after the end of August that always feel exceptional, like a pocket of unexpected time, a little reprieve between seasons,” as the character George says in Indian Summer. Whether prolonged or not, summer flits by so quickly it imbues everything it touches with ephemerality, such that artists have long tried to trap this elusive season in prose and song. 

The belovedly ubiquitous granddaddy of summer stories is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, during which the confined and regimented drudgery of Athens breaks open into the freedom of the enchanted forest with few rules and even fewer expectations. Think of Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius, and Helena as students on vacation, unbound from homework and free to pursue their various and fleeting passions while the mischievous Puck flits in and out as if he were the spirit of the summer itself. The sprite says it best, calling this lovers’ romp a “weak and idle thing/no more yielding but a dream,” a description that could just as easily be attached to the very season.

Perhaps no one in the modern era has captured this weak and idle thing as well as Ingmar Bergman in his sun-soaked sex comedy Smiles of a Summer Night, adapted brilliantly by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler into A Little Night Music. Pushing the idea of summer trysts to their entertaining extreme, both the film and the musical take place on a freakishly endless Scandinavian summer night, when passion has no moon to guide it. The upper-class lovers and lusters trapped in this infamous weekend in the country bake in tight dresses and stiff jackets — “The atmosphere's becoming heady/The ambiance thrilling/The spirit unsteady/The flesh far too willing.” 

But not all summer love stories have such a comedic bent. Perhaps the greatest love tragedy of the past century, The Great Gatsby, is set during one impossible, party-filled, boozed-soaked summer. As Gatsby reaches across the water to that green light, he imagines a life outside of his own lonely reality, full of the possibilities of a never-ending summer romance with Daisy. But the cruel realities of fall set in and Gatsby’s bubble bursts; the night that Daisy decides to abandon Gatsby “had made a sharp difference in the weather and there was an autumn flavor in the air.” And before the butler drains the pool to keep falling leaves from clogging the pipes, Gatsby takes one last fateful swim. 

And then there is that occasional meteorological blessing: an Indian summer, granting a few extra weeks of swimsuits and hot dogs and bliss. It is into this blip of the seasonal calendar that Gregory S. Moss ventures in his new play. Diving deeper than the traditional trope of a charmed summer clashing up against the harsh reality of autumn, Moss asks us to ponder what lies in the liminal space between. In Indian Summer, the seemingly limitless stretch of possibilities grows hazy on the horizon as a cool breeze threatens and a school bell rings, and we’re asked to wonder how long the reprieve of summer can last in our mercurial world.

Dylan Pickus
Literary Fellow