Critical Context

Suddenly Last Summer represents Williams’ most expressionistic use of mythic elements, more subtle and complex than his earlier Battle of Angels (pr. 1940; revised as Orpheus Descending, pr. 1957) or his Summer and Smoke (pr. 1947; revised as The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, pr. 1964). Williams used myth increasingly throughout his career; its enigmatic quality lent mystery even as it concealed sensitive autobiographical details. An unfortunate consequence of such heavily mythic overlays is that Williams’ later plays themselves became enigmatic, and both critics and audiences were nonplussed by them. To make matters worse, Williams had the vexing habit, grown to an obsession in his later years, of rewriting even published and successful plays, introducing mythic elements at will. He thereby made them more potent instruments of personal catharsis but weakened them for whoever was unable or unwilling to sort out their mythos. As one might surmise, Suddenly Last Summer, though not an outright failure, was difficult for theatergoers to interpret fully. Most audiences accepted it as a modern horror story and went no further.

There is no way, however, to separate Williams from the mythic and religious symbols that became so much a part of his works. He had begun his fascination with myth, like so many young people, by reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. His fascination with religious iconography began through reading the lives of the saints; he moved on to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Die Geburt der Tragodie (1872; The Birth of Tragedy, 1909) and thereby came to see Dionysus and Apollo as emblems of irrationality and discipline which, when forced into fusion, produce art. He completely accepted Nietzsche’s definition as explanation of the creative tension in his own art; he was also pleased to discover that Dionysus, god of fertility and irrational ecstasy, was also the patron deity of ancient drama.