Tennessee Williams’ plays typically presented the less attractive underside to family relations and often involved deeply repressed secrets or memories that, once exposed, help characters emerge from the psychological cocoons into which they had submerged themselves. Such is the case with the characters in “Suddenly Last Summer.” Williams’ characters, reflections of his own cynical perspective of human nature – it can’t go unnoticed that the characters in his plays who represent moral purity tend to be the most psychologically tormented – must break through walls of lies and deception in order to heal the mental illness that has destroyed their lives. Nowhere is this playwright’s tendency to present lies and deception given more graphic and horrific impact than in “Suddenly Last Summer.” Williams’ opening stage instructions provide the context for the battle between truth and falsehoods that serves as the central conflict of this play:
“Scene I: The set may be as unrealistic as the décor of a dramatic ballet. It represents part of a mansion of Victorian Gothic style in the Garden District of New Orleans . . . The interior is blended with a fantastic garden which is more like a tropical jungle, or forest, in the prehistoric age of giant fern-forests . . . The colors of this jungle-garden are violent, especially since it is steaming with heat after rain.”
The establishment of the opening scene as occurring inside a mansion the décor of which is innately deceptive and fundamentally dishonest is no mistake. The conflict in “Suddenly Last Summer” revolves around the efforts of Williams’ antagonist, Violet Venable, to prevent her niece, Catherine, whom Violet has had forcibly detained in a mental ward, from revealing the true nature of Violet’s relationship with her son, Sebastian, and, more importantly, of the manner in which died. Violet is a vicious, psychotically-dominating matriarch who will go to any lengths to prevent the facts from coming out – including having Catherine subjected to a full frontal lobotomy that will ensure the truth remains buried forever. In Scene I, as Violet leads a young psychiatrist through the aforementioned garden, she declares with absolute authority that her intention in having Catherine brought before her this day will be to force her niece to recant her “lies” regarding Sebastian, an aspiring poet’s life and death:
Violet: “I’ve waited months to face her . . . I’ve had her brought here to my house. I won’t collapse! She’ll collapse! I mean her lies will collapse – not my truth – not the truth . . . I’m not afraid of using every last ounce and inch of my little, left-over strength in doing just what I’m doing. I’m devoting all that’s left of my life, Doctor, to the defense of a dead poet’s reputation. Sebastian had no public name as a poet, he didn’t want one, he refused to have one. He dreaded, abhorred! – false values that come from being publicly known . . .”
In this brief dramatic exchange, Violet summarizes the conflict between truth and lies that permeates the play. Sebastian, as the play reveals through Catherine’s testimony, was a repressed homosexual and the victim of a very ugly, violent death the details of which are too much for any mother to absorb. Catherine represents the truth of what happened; Violet represents the false history she hopes will shield both her and her son’s memory from the public eye.