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!
In scene three, the doctor gives Catherine an injection to make her speak the truth. The significance of the play’s title emerges as she describes the changes in her friendship with Sebastian. As she grew fonder of him, he pulled away: “suddenly, last summer, he began to get restless.” It emerges that this change included Sebastian ceasing to write poetry, which his mother blames on Catherine. Catherine repeats, over and over, that she has failed him—which his mother interprets in regard to his poetry. She continues describing how he changed, suddenly last summer, including the places he went in Cabeza de Lobo. It ultimately comes out that Catherine had been helping him meet other men, “procuring for him,” and that his mother had also done so, albeit unwittingly. She “made contacts for him, but she did it in nice places and in decent ways and I had to do it the way that I just told you.”
She continues describing the poor, naked children who followed Sebastian around, begging for bread and playing music on makeshift instruments. Finally, one afternoon while eating at a café, Sebastian became so disturbed by the clamor that he complained to the waiter, who chased the children off, beating them with a stick. Later, as he and Cathie walked toward their hotel, the children pursued them.
The band of naked children pursued us up the steep white street in the sun that was like a great white bone of a giant beast that had caught on fire in the sky!— Sebastian started to run and they all screamed at once and seemed to fly in the air, they outran him so quickly. I screamed. I heard Sebastian scream, he screamed just once before this flock of black plucked little birds that pursued him and overtook him halfway up the white hill.
Terrified, Cathie had run off to get help, but when she and the police returned, it was far, far too late.
Cousin Sebastian had disappeared in the flock of featherless little black sparrows, he—he was lying naked as they had been naked against a white wall, and this you won't believe, nobody has believed it, nobody could believe it, nobody, nobody on earth could possibly believe it, and I don’t blame them!— They had devoured parts of him. . . . Torn or cut parts of him away with their hands or knives or maybe those jagged tin cans they made music with, they had tom bits of him away and stuffed them into those gobbling fierce little empty black mouths of theirs. There wasn’t a sound any more, there was nothing to see but Sebastian, what was left of him, that looked like a big white-paper-wrapped bunch of red roses had been torn, thrown, crushed!— against that blazing white wall.…
While the family reacts in horror, with Mrs. Venable is on the verge of collapse, the play ends with the doctor’s line, “I think we ought at least to consider the possibility that the girl’s story could be true.”
Even though somewhat clued by some of the play’s dialogue, the first audiences of the play, in the 1950s, were shocked at its subject matter and graphic descriptions. Since then, numerous possible interpretations have been put forward for Williams’s inclusion of cannibalism.