A critical and popular success, Tennessee Williams was one of the most important playwrights to emerge onto the American theatrical scene soon after World War II. Graduating from the University of Iowa in 1938, Williams earned a Rockefeller Fellowship to write Battle of Angels (1940). The Glass Menagerie (1944) won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for the 1945 season. He won Pulitzer Prizes for A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). His plays are both regional and naturalistic with vivid, highly individual characters—debauched and debased—in drama that has an air of fantasy about it. Exotic settings and strange, often perverse personalities populate Williams’s plays. Those in Suddenly Last Summer are excellent examples.
The play deals with homosexuality, while never using the word. Because Sebastian Venable is dead when the play begins, he is defined only by what other characters say about him. Their statements about the dead poet tend to polarize into two extremes; between these two disparate views lies the truth. It is the dead poet’s homosexuality and how it affects his reputation—both when he is alive and when he is dead—that is the crux of the play. Sebastian seems both an exploitative outsider and an alienated victim.
The play weaves an interesting set of variations of the theme of exposure for gays in society. At the time the play was written, homosexuality, while no longer “the love that dare not speak its name,” as English poet Lord Alfred Douglas famously called it, was not a subject openly discussed. Sebastian, both the man and poet, chose to distance himself from public recognition, in an endeavor to conceal his sexuality from society. When Cukrowicz asks to see a photograph of Sebastian, Mrs. Venable produces two of Sebastian in disguise....
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