Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams

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Summary

Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams focuses on the life and death of Sebastian Venable, a poet who had a secret life as a gay man and is brutally murdered while on a trip to Italy with his cousin Catharine. Sebastian writes one poem every year. According to his mother, Mrs. Venable, it took Sebastian nine months to finish a single poem. Sebastian has a close relationship with his mother, and they travel to exotic locations regularly. During these trips, Sebastian uses his mother to lure young men. Mrs. Venable keeps her son’s secret safe to protect his reputation.

One day, Sebastian requests Catharine to travel with him to Italy where he also uses her to lure young men. During their visit, Sebastian is cannibalized and killed by a group of young men and Catharine witnesses the murder. Once Mrs. Venable realizes that Catharine knows Sebastian's secret and intends to reveal what happened to him, she tries to silence her to protect her son’s reputation. Mrs. Venable tries to convince Dr. Cukrowicz to perform a lobotomy on Catharine so that she can never reveal the events that led to Sebastian’s demise.

Summary

(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, fantastic garden “which is more like a tropical jungle.” Everything about the garden is violent—its colors, its harsh and sibilant noises that resemble “beasts, serpents and birds, all of a savage nature.” Throughout the play, harsh noises as background underscore the harshness of the action.

In this setting, one year after her son’s death, 1936, Mrs. Venable, in an attempt to preserve her son’s memory, threatens to contest her son’s will, which leaves a substantial amount of money to Catharine. Suffering from the trauma of witnessing the death of Sebastian and from her inability to stop his mutilation, she has been under intense psychological stress. The plot of the play involves the arrival of Catharine, her mother, her brother, a doctor, and a Catholic sister at the Venable residence. The psychologist has come to discover the truth and Mrs. Venable to preserve her illusion about Sebastian.

When Catharine finally reveals all, with the help of a drug, her revelation includes an even more lurid detail: Mrs. Venable had, like Catharine later, been a procuress for her son’s sexual habits. The play concludes with Mrs. Venable’s attempt to strike Catharine upon the latter’s concluding her story with the graphic details of Sebastian’s mutilation.

At one point, Catharine’s need to tell the truth, a truth so horrible...

(The entire section is 1,815 words.)