Suddenly Last Summer
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|Suddenly Last Summer|
First edition cover (New Directions)
|Written by||Tennessee Williams|
|Date premiered||January 7, 1958|
|Place premiered||York Playhouse
New York City, New York
|Subject||Aging, greed, hypocrisy, sexual repression|
|Setting||room and garden of Mrs Venable's mansion in the Garden District of New Orleans|
Suddenly Last Summer is a one-act play by Tennessee Williams. It opened off Broadway on January 7, 1958, as part of a double bill with another of Williams' one-acts, Something Unspoken (written in 1958). The presentation of the two plays was given the overall title Garden District, but Suddenly Last Summer is now more often performed alone. Williams said he thought the play "perhaps the most poetic" he had written, and Harold Bloom ranks it among the best examples of the playwright's lyricism.
1936, in the Garden District of New Orleans. Mrs. Violet Venable, an elderly widow from a prominent local family, has invited a doctor to her home. She talks nostalgically about her son Sebastian, a poet who died under mysterious circumstances in Spain the previous summer. During the course of their conversation, she offers to make a generous donation to support the doctor’s psychiatric research if he will perform a lobotomy on Catharine, her niece, who has been confined to a private mental asylum at her expense since returning to America. Mrs. Venable is eager to “shut her up” once and for all, as she continues to “babble” about Sebastian’s violent death and “smash” her son’s reputation by hinting at his homosexuality.
Catharine arrives, followed by her impecunious mother and brother. They are also eager to suppress her version of events, since Mrs. Venable is threatening to keep Sebastian’s will in probate until she is satisfied. But the doctor injects Catharine with a truth serum and she proceeds to give a scandalous account of Sebastian’s moral dissolution and the events leading up to his death, how he used her to “procure” young men for his sexual exploitation, and how he was set upon, mutilated and partially “devoured” by a mob of starving children in the street. Mrs. Venable launches herself at Catharine but she is prevented from striking her and taken off stage, screaming “cut this hideous story from her brain!” Far from being convinced of her insanity, however, the doctor believes her story could in fact be true.
From its first page, the script is rich in symbolic detail open to many interpretations. The “mansion of Victorian Gothic style” immediately connects the play with the literature of Southern Gothic, with which it shares many characteristics. Sebastian's “jungle-garden”, with its “violent” colours and noises of “beasts, serpents, and birds ... of savage nature” introduces the images of predation that punctuate much of the play's dialogue. These have been interpreted variously as implying the violence latent in Sebastian himself; depicting modernity's vain attempts to "contain" its atavistic impulses; and standing for a bleak "Darwinian" vision of the world, equating "the primeval past and the ostensibly civilised present".
The Venus flytrap mentioned in the play's opening speech can be read as portraying Sebastian as the "pampered" son, or "hungry for flesh"; as portraying the "seductive deadliness" concealed beneath Mrs. Venable's "civilized veneer", while she "clings desperately to life" in her "hothouse" home; as a joint "metaphor for Violet and Sebastian, who consume and destroy the people around them"; as symbolising nature's cruelty, like the "flesh-eating birds" of the Galapagos; as symbolising "a primitive state of desire", and so on.
Williams referred to symbols as "the natural language of drama" and "the purest language of plays". The ambiguity arising from the abundance of symbolism is therefore not unfamiliar to his audiences. What poses a unique difficulty to critics of Suddenly Last Summer is the absence of its protagonist. All we can know of Sebastian must be gleaned from the conflicting accounts given by two characters of questionable sanity, leaving him "a figure of unresolvable contradiction".
In spite of its difficulties, however, the play's recurrent images of predation and cannibalism point to Catharine's cynical pronouncement as key to understanding the playwright's intentions: "we all use each other,” she says in Scene 4, “and that's what we think of as love.” Accordingly, Williams commented on a number of occasions that Sebastian's death was intended to show how:
"Man devours man in a metaphorical sense. He feeds upon his fellow creatures, without the excuse of animals. Animals actually do it for survival, out of hunger ... I use that metaphor [of cannibalism] to express my repulsion with this characteristic of man, the way people use each other without conscience ... people devour each other."
Adaptations and productions
1958 Original production
The original production of the play was performed off Broadway in 1958, staged by the York Playhouse with lighting design by Lee Watson. Anne Meacham won an Obie Award for her performance as Catharine. The production also featured Hortense Alden as Mrs Venable and Robert Lansing as Dr. Cukrowicz, and was directed by Herbert Machiz.
The film version was released by Columbia Pictures, in 1959, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, and Montgomery Clift; it was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz from a screenplay by Gore Vidal and Williams. The movie differed greatly from the stage version, adding many scenes, characters, and subplots. The Hollywood Production Code forced the filmmakers to cut out the explicit references to homosexuality.
The movie received three Academy Awards nominations: Hepburn and Taylor were both nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role, and it was also up for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White.
1993 BBC TV play
The play was adapted for BBC television in 1993 under the direction of Royal National Theatre head Richard Eyre, and stars Maggie Smith, Rob Lowe, Richard E. Grant, and Natasha Richardson. It aired in America on PBS as an episode of Great Performances. Smith was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Actress in a Miniseries or TV Movie. According to Lowe, his personal driver during the production of the telefilm was also the personal driver for Montgomery Clift on the 1959 film.
1995 Broadway debut
The play made its Broadway debut in 1995. It was performed together with Something Unspoken, the other one-act play that it originally appeared with under the title Garden District. It was presented by the Circle in the Square Theatre. The cast included Elizabeth Ashley as Mrs. Venable and Jordan Baker as Catharine.
Michael Grandage directed a 2004 stage production at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, featuring Diana Rigg as Mrs Venable and Victoria Hamilton as Catharine. The production toured nationally before transferring to the Albery Theatre, London. The production received enthusiastic reviews, and Hamilton won the Evening Standard Award for Best Actress in a Play for her performance.
2015 Sydney Theatre Company
The play was part of the 2015 season at the Sydney Theatre Company. Director Kip Williams blended live camera work with traditional stage craft in a production starring Robyn Nevin as Mrs Venable. The production received three nominations at 2015 Helpmann Awards, with Nevin nominated for Best Actress, the production nominated for Best Play, and Williams winning for Best Director.
2017 ETC Oxford
The play was performed by Oxford University's Experimental Theatre Club at the Oxford Playhouse in February 2017. Sammy Glover directed a student cast including Mary Higgins as Catharine and Derek Mitchell in drag as Mrs Venable.
2017 Théâtre de l'Odéon, Paris
A French translation of the play was staged at the Théâtre de l'Odéon in March and April 2017. Stéphane Braunschweig directed Luce Mouchel as Mrs Venable, Marie Rémond as Catherine, Jean-Baptiste Anoumon as Dr Cukrowicz, Océane Cairaty as Miss Foxhill, Virginie Colemyn as Mrs Holly, Glenn Marausse as George, and Boutaïna El Fekkak as Sœur Félicité.
- Kolin, Philip C. (ed.) Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance (London: Greenwood, 1998), p132-3.
- Devlin, Albert J. (ed.) Conversations with Tennessee Williams (University of Mississippi Press, 1986) p86.
- Bloom, Harold, introduction to Tennessee Williams from the Bloom's BioCritique series (Chelsea House, 2003) p3.
- Williams, Tennessee. Suddenly Last Summer and other plays (London: Penguin, 2009), p41. Mrs Venable tells us that Sebastian’s fateful trip with Catharine, during which he failed to write a poem, took place in 1935. The play is set "between late summer and early fall" the following year (p3).
- Williams indicates that Cabeza de Lobo is in Spain, not (as it is sometimes assumed) in South America, by referring to Catharine's return "from Europe" aboard the Berengaria, an Atlantic liner (ibid. p24 and p14). Williams might have had northern Spain in mind, and in particular San Sebastián, as the private beach in Cabeza de Lobo frequented by Sebastian and Catharine is called Playa San Sebastian (p43).
- ibid. p14-16.
- ibid. p13-14.
- ibid. p23.
- ibid. p44.
- ibid. p50.
- ibid. p51.
- Williams, Tennessee. Suddenly, Last Summer and other plays (London: Penguin, 2009), p3.
- Robert Gross refers to the play as a “Gothic melodrama” in "Consuming Hart: Sublimity and Gay Poetics in Suddenly Last Summer. Theatre Journal 47 (1995), p229.
- e.g. after Mrs Holly says “don't laugh like that; it scares me, Catharine”, there is the stage direction “jungle birds scream in the garden”; Williams, Tennessee. Suddenly, Last Summer and other plays (London: Penguin, 2009), p25.
- van den Oever, Roel. Mama's Boy: Momism and Homophobia in Postwar American Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p85.
- Fielder, Elizabeth Rodriguez. "A Litany Seeking a Text: The Specter of the Conjure in the Sub-Tropical Southern Gothic" in Edwards, Justin D. and Sandra G.T. Vasconcelos (eds.). Tropical Gothic in Literature and Culture: The Americas (London: Routledge, 2016), p60.
- Thompson sees the opening stage direction as introducing "the dual role of victim and victimizer, predator and prey, engaged in a struggle for survival rather than salvation." Thompson, Judith. Tennessee Williams' Plays: Memory, Myth, and Symbol (New York: Peter Lang, 1987), p99 and p112.
- Sofer, Andrew. "Self-Consuming Artifacts: Power, Performance and the Body in Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer" in Modern Drama 38 (1995), p337.
- According to Pecorari, the plant is “a rather transparent metaphor for Sebastian himself: predatory yet vulnerable, perfectly handsome in a delicate, feminine way like the goddess of beauty, and also hungry for flesh, in his case, adolescent boys instead of flies.” Pecorari, Marie. “Chaste or chased? Interpreting Indiscretion in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer” in Miranda 8 (2013).
- Thompson, Judith. Tennessee Williams' Plays: Memory, Myth, and Symbol (New York: Peter Lang, 1987), p112.
- Ford, Marylyn Claire. "Parodying Fascism: Suddenly Last Summer as Political Allegory" in Publications of the Mississippi Pholological Association (1997), p19-20.
- Gabriel, Jo. "The Devouring Mother, the Oedipal Son & the Hysterical Woman" (2013). Retrieved 2017-03-30.
- Barberà, Pau G. "Literature and Mythology in Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer" (2006), p4. Retrieved 2017-03-30.
- Lance, Daniel. "Nature as a wild and sacrificial world: Tennessee Williams’ view point" (2004). Retrieved 2017-03-30.
- Interview of 1973 with C. Robert Jennings. Devlin, Albert J. (ed.). Conversations with Tennessee Williams (University of Mississippi Press, 1986), p250.
- Forward to Camino Real. Day, Christine R. and Bob Woods (eds.) Where I Live: Selected Essays by Tennessee Williams (New York: New Directions, 1978), p66.
- According to Sofer, "The poet Sebastian Venable ... is at once a blank text, like the empty pages of [his] notebook ... a palimpsest awesome in his ambiguity. Images of Sebastian repeat and refract until the play becomes a dizzying hall of mirrors." Sofer, Andrew. "Self-Consuming Artifacts: Power, Performance and the Body in Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer" in Modern Drama 38 (1995), p336.
- Gross, Robert. "Consuming Hart: Sublimity and Gay Poetics in Suddenly Last Summer. Theatre Journal 47 (1995), p239-241.
- e.g. Catharine tells us how Sebastian talked about people, as if they were - items on a menu, - 'That one's delicious-looking, that one is appetizing' ... blonds were next on the menu ... Cousin Sebastian said he was famished for blonds"; she describes the "hot, ravenous mouth” of the married man she met at the Mardi Gras ball. Williams, Tennessee. Suddenly Last Summer and other plays (London: Penguin, 2009), p20-21 and p36.
- ibid. p34.
- Interview of 1974 with Cecil Brown. Devlin, Albert J. (ed.). Conversations with Tennessee Williams (University of Mississippi Press, 1986), p274. Williams made similar observations with William Burroughs in 1977 ("It was about how people devour each other in an allegorical sense") and with David Frost in 1970 ("Yes, we all devour each other, in our fashion") ibid. p304 and p146.
- Kolin, Philip C. (ed.) Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance (London: Greenwood, 1998), p132.
- Class Menagerie
- Dame Maggie Smith at Television Academy: 
- Los Angeles Times, Williams Play a Different Role for Rob Lowe by Susan King Jan 6 1993
- "Suddenly Last Summer with Victoria Hamilton and Diana Rigg at Albery 2004". LondonTheatre.co.uk. 2004-05-14. Retrieved 2011-06-21.
- "STC Magazine: Video - Director Kip Williams". Sydney Theatre Company. 10 February 2015. Retrieved 25 February 2015.
- "ETC Oxford". Facebook. Retrieved 2017-03-29.