(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“Suddenly last summer” is a refrain that runs through the many interrupted attempts of Catharine Holly to tell a psychologist the truth about what happened to Sebastian Venable along the harbor of an Italian resort, Cabeza de Lobo. He had been protected all of his life by his mother, and he had used her the last few years of his life to procure partners for his sexual appetite. On her part, Mrs. Venable will go to any length to preserve the reputation of her son as a poet, for to her “the work of a poet is the life of the poet” and vice versa. Together, she and Sebastian traveled widely and luxuriously for twenty years. During each summer, he composed a poem, which Mrs. Venable had compiled into a gilt-edged volume. Then one summer he suddenly stopped writing. It is what happened this summer, the final one in Sebastian’s rapidly deteriorating life, that Catharine, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ancient mariner, must tell.

When Mrs. Venable had a stroke one summer, Sebastian asked Catharine Holly, his cousin, to travel with him in his mother’s place. Loving her cousin, even when she realized that she was being used as a lure to attract homosexual partners for him, she subsequently witnessed his physical mutilation by a mob of hungry young Italians who tore at his flesh, stuffing their mouths as they did so.

The play is set in the Garden District of New Orleans, a contrast with the old French Quarter setting of A Streetcar Named Desire. The setting includes the surrealistically lush,...

(The entire section is 628 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Mrs. Violet Venable summons Dr. Cukrowicz to her mansion in New Orleans’s Garden District. He comes as a result of his interest in an enormous endowment from the Sebastian Venable Memorial Foundation. Mrs. Venable and Cukrowicz stroll through the exotic garden that had been the realm of Mrs. Venable’s late son, Sebastian. Mrs. Venable and Cukrowicz discuss Sebastian’s occupation, which she insists was Sebastian’s life because “a poet’s life is his work and his work is his life.” She shows the doctor one of Sebastian’s poems from his collection, Poems of Summer. She explains that her son had written only one poem a year, and it took him nine months to write a poem. The rest of the year, Mrs. Venable and Sebastian had traveled to exotic locales.

Mrs. Venable recalls one specific summer that she and Sebastian had spent in the Encantadas, where they watched sea turtle eggs hatch. As the newly hatched turtles scurried to the sea, most were devoured by birds. Cukrowicz wonders why Sebastian was fascinated by this savage display of nature. Mrs. Venable explains it was Sebastian’s search for God. The doctor asks Mrs. Venable to show her a picture of Sebastian. The photographs demonstrate how Sebastian retained his youthful beauty for twenty years.

Miss Foxhill interrupts the discussion to announce the arrival of George Holly and his mother. Mrs. Venable tells Miss Foxhill to keep the Hollys upstairs. Mrs. Venable resumes her talk with the doctor, who asks her about Sebastian’s personal, private life. Mrs. Venable explains that her son, while chased, had been chaste. She insists that he had been celibate. She explains that during their travels, they were always spoken of as a couple. Mrs. Venable explains that the previous summer, Sebastian had traveled with his cousin, Catharine Holly. It was during the trip to Cabeza de Lobo that Sebastian died. Catharine had a terrible reaction to his death and was institutionalized at St. Mary’s. Mrs. Venable tells Cukrowicz that Catharine “babbles,” vandalizing the memory of Sebastian. To stop Catharine’s rantings and ravings, Mrs. Venable wants the doctor to perform a lobotomy on Catharine; insulin shock and electric shock therapies have not silenced her.

When Miss Foxhill announces that Catharine has arrived, Mrs. Venable refuses, at first, to face her. The doctor goes alone to see Catharine. He notices Catharine with Sister...

(The entire section is 993 words.)