Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1235
This one-act play primarily consists of the characters speaking about the life and recent death of Sebastian Venable. His mother, Mrs. Venable, admired her son as a gifted poet. His friend Catherine Holly had accompanied Sebastian on his travels when his mother was ill, and she was with him around the time he died in Mexico. Catherine has spent the intervening time in mental hospitals. Sebastian's mother blames her for his death, and the action of the play brings Catherine to speak with her in the garden of Sebastian’s home. Catherine’s mother and brother also appear.
Dr. Curkowicz is a psychiatrist who will interview Catherine to decide if he will perform a lobotomy on her. As in much of Tennessee Williams’s work, issues of faith and doubt undergird worldly discussions, but here, his vision of humanity seems especially bleak. While many of his plays hint at themes gay sexuality, this play brings those issues closer to the surface.
Mrs. Venable is emphatic in expressing not only her devotion to her son but also her conviction in his talents as a poet and his fastidiousness. Mrs. Venable is elderly, apparently ill, and her speeches tend to ramble. In scene one, Dr. Cukrowicz is trying to learn about Sebastian, whom he never met. She tells him, “I’m devoting all that’s left of my life, Doctor, to the defense of a dead poet’s reputation.” Her deepest belief is about his calling and identity. She says,
You see, strictly speaking, his life was his occupation. Sebastian was a poet! That’s what I meant when I said his life was his work because the work of a poet is the life of a poet and— vice versa, the life of a poet is the work of a poet, I mean you can’t separate them, I mean— well, for instance, a salesman’s work is one thing and his life is another— or can be . . . But a poet’s life is his work and his work is his life.
At the play’s end, when the gruesome manner of Sebastian’s death is revealed, it becomes clear that Williams has been signposting some important details. This is not readily apparent during the play, however, and some of Mrs. Venable’s speeches seem overly graphic. As she explains the peregrinations that occupied her and her son, she describes birds of prey seizing newly hatched sea turtle eggs. This leads into a reflection on the search for God.
Mrs. Venable: I started to say that my son was looking for God and I stopped myself because I thought you’d think, 'Oh, a pretentious young crackpot!’— which Sebastian was not!
Doctor: Mrs. Venable, doctors look for God, too . . . I think they have to look harder for him than priests since they don’t have the help of such well-known guidebooks and well-organized expeditions as the priests have with their scriptures and churches.
As they begin discussing what Catherine has been saying about Sebastian, Mrs. Venable asserts again her position as his defender.
I’ve gathered enough to know that it’s a hideous attack on my son’s moral character which, being dead, he can’t defend himself from. I have to be the defender. . . . My son, Sebastian, was chaste. Not c-h-a-s-e-d! Oh, he was chased in that way of spelling it, too, we had to be very fleet-footed I can tell you, with his looks and his charm, to keep ahead of pursuers, every kind of pursuer!— I mean he was c-h-a-s-t-e!— Chaste . . . He lived a celibate life.
Scene two turns to Catherine and her family. Catherine is clearly obsessed with having failed Sebastian, whom she loved: “Why wouldn’t he let me save him?” She has been repeating her story of what happened to Sebastian, but no one will believe her; they are not just incredulous, but appalled. Nevertheless, she insists it is true:
I can’t change truth. I’m not God! I’m not even sure that He could, I don’t think God can change truth!
(The entire section contains 1235 words.)
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