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....

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Dionysus represents the fertility of the wine vine, torn to its stock in autumn only to return perennially to full potency the following summer, and Williams reconstitutes the torn Sebastian in the form of the equally handsome Cukrowicz. Both are described as dressed in white; they are “glacially brilliant,” and though no character in the play explicitly remarks on the resemblance, the “rebirth” is implied through Mrs. Venable’s oblique comparisons as well as through Catharine’s fascinated stares and obvious attraction.

The irony is that the figure of Sebastian in the form of Cukrowicz could turn mutilation, essentially his own manner of death, against Catharine, a symbol of purity and innocence. One should note that Williams prefers the spelling of her name which most closely transliterates the Greek word katharos (pure). Williams himself preferred dressing in white and wore suits of this color even in the dead of winter; this allows identification of Williams with both Sebastian and Cukrowicz. Williams blamed himself for his sister’s lobotomy, believing that he had agreed to it through a conspiracy of silence. Significantly, the audience never learns whether Cukrowicz, however reluctantly, will perform the operation on Catharine; it hears only his final statement, loaded with qualifiers, that her story may possibly be true.

Mrs. Venable is a mother goddess in every sense. To emphasize this ancient identification with passive...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*New Orleans

*New Orleans. Louisiana city at the mouth of the Mississippi, on the Gulf of Mexico. Although for the young Williams, it exerted a liberating influence, nevertheless he was aware of sinister and malign elements in the old French city. One factor contributing to Blanche DuBois’s mental collapse in A Streetcar Named Desire (pr., pb. 1947) is the casual decadence of the French Quarter, which is almost a living entity in the drama. In this play it is the uptown Garden District of New Orleans, home to wealthy nonbohemian residents, which is a metaphor for oppression. The topography and people of the Garden District stand in sharp contrast to the more easygoing lifestyle of the old Quarter.

Garden District mansion

Garden District mansion. House in which all the action of this short play occurs. The mansion is described in Williams’s stage directions as a house in the Gothic style. The word gothic is of particular significance, since the setting, the action, and at least one of the characters put the play in the tradition of Southern gothic literature. Its strange configuration as described by the playwright—a house with a tropical garden—is the perfect setting for the disturbing story and story-within-the-story that unfolds in the drama. There is a decadent and terrifying air about the place, its steamy unworldly atmosphere filled with carnivorous plants such as the Venus flytrap.

This eerie and menacing...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bloom, Harold. Tennessee Williams. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. A collection of essays that gives the reader a sense of how Suddenly Last Summer fits into the scope of Williams’ oeuvre.

Bruhm, Steven. “Blackmailed by Sex: Tennessee Williams and the Economics of Desire.” Modern Drama 34, no. 4 (December, 1991): 528-537. Argues that Sebastian is in a system of power relations that he cannot control. For critics of the play, the incident in the Encantadas foreshadows Sebastian’s death at Cabeza de Lobo.

Clum, John M. “Something Cloudy, Something Clear’: Homophobic Discourse in Tennessee Williams.” South Atlantic Quarterly 88, no.1 (Winter, 1989): 161-179. Notes that Suddenly Last Summer weaves an interesting set of variations on the theme of exposure of the artist as homosexual. Sebastian’s carnivorous sense of life is linked with homosexuality.

Debusscher, Gilbert. “Minting Their Separate Wills: Tennessee Williams and Hart Crane.” Modern Drama 26, no. 4 (December, 1983): 455-476. Examines the influence of Hart Crane on Tennessee Williams and the writing of Suddenly Last Summer.

Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985. An accessible, accurate biography of Tennessee Williams that discusses Williams’ homosexuality and its influence on his life and works.