The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer is set in a Victorian Gothic mansion in New Orleans’ Garden District. The mansion surrounds an exotic garden filled with “violent” colors and “massive tree-flowers that suggest organs of a body, torn out, still glistening with undried blood.” This garden was the late Sebastian Venable’s creation, and it is of central importance in the play. Wild noises, thrashings, and hissing sounds emanate from it at certain points during the play, underscoring the strange story which unfolds. Williams specifies that the entire setting be deliberately unrealistic, suggestive, and threatening.

Violet Venable, mother of Sebastian, presides over this fantastic scene, alone in her mansion except for the companionship of Miss Foxhill, her private secretary. Mrs. Venable has settled into a state of vengeful anger, a consequence of her son’s curious death the previous summer. She is particularly provoked by her niece Catharine Holly’s account of the episode: Before Catharine’s eyes, a horde of street boys in the resort of Cabeza de Lobo tore Sebastian limb from limb and devoured parts of his body. She is obsessed with the memory.

Mrs. Venable has determined to silence Catharine at any cost. To do this, she seeks the help of a rising young psychiatrist-surgeon named Cukrowicz. Cukrowicz specializes in treating potentially violent mental patients through a procedure known as prefrontal lobotomy. This procedure involves surgically cutting into or across the frontal cerebrum of the brain; it causes complete passivity and often results in mental regression to childhood. The enormous endowment Mrs. Venable offers Cukrowicz through the Sebastian Venable Memorial Foundation for his work at Lion’s View Sanatorium tempts the young doctor, and in the first scene of the play he appears at Mrs. Venable’s home to hear the details of the case as she interprets them.

What Dr. Cukrowicz hears during this interview has clear (and unsettling) implications concerning Sebastian’s way of life and the nature of his relationship with Mrs. Venable. Sebastian was a poet, though he had written only twenty-five poems, or, more accurately, one poem in twenty-five parts completed after each of the summer vacations he and his mother had taken together. He printed these himself on an eighteenth century hand-press at his atelier in the French Quarter, then bound them into a continuing volume called Poem of Summer. Each yearly addition represented nine months of gestation and reflected his impressions of the three-month tour taken the previous summer. These poems are their “children,” and Mrs. Venable notes, with rueful satisfaction, that no poem would be added as a result of Sebastian’s last trip, the only one taken with Catharine and without his mother.

One of Sebastian’s experiences, on tour in the Encantadas (Galapagos Islands) with his mother, recalled during her interview with Cukrowicz, involved their witnessing the massive destruction of newly laid sea turtle eggs by a huge flock of flesh-eating birds....

(The entire section is 1263 words.)