Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Suddenly Last Summer, on its most basic level, illustrates the precarious balance between rational and irrational, between what is considered civilized and what barbarous. The peace of the Encantadas is broken by the orgiastic cannibalism of the attacking birds; the sleepiness of Cabeza de Lobo is shattered by the orgy of violence the hungry boy victims collectively direct at the sexually rapacious Sebastian. More subtly, the civilized patrician elegance of Mrs. Venable masks her irrational plan to use lobotomy, an acceptable barbarity of science in the mid-twentieth century, to exact vengeance on a family member; indeed, she attempts to transform her family and a representative of modern science into a tribal conspiracy united by the civilized totem of money.

Ancient Greece portrayed this uneasy balance as the tension between the rationality represented by Apollo and the irrational ecstasy of Dionysus. Euripides’ final play, the Bacchae, at least as controversial when it was produced in 48 b.c.e. as Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer, is a reworking of the Pentheus myth in which the young man is torn apart by Maenads (female worshipers of Dionysus, who in this case include Pentheus’ mother and aunts) for not acknowledging the primacy of Dionysian ecstasy. Read with Euripides’ play in mind, Suddenly Last Summer proves that the ancient deities continue their struggle, though...

(The entire section is 518 words.)