“I know it’s a hideous story but it’s a true story of our time and the world we live in”- Catherine Holly
SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER (1959)
Suddenly, Last Summer was a one-act play by Tennessee Williams. It opened off Broadway on January 7, 1958. It was part of a double bill with another one-act play of Williams’ called Something Unspoken. Suddenly, Last Summer is considered one of Williams’ starkest and most poetic works, and I tend to agree.
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve 1950, A Letter to Three Wives 1949) based on Tennessee William’s play with additional work on the screenplay by Gore Vidal.
While writing this post, I discovered the same story surfacing about the working atmosphere on the set of the film, concerning the tensions between film stars Katharine Hepburn as well as Liz Taylor toward Mankiewicz’s abominable treatment of actor Monty Clift who had been struggling on the set with alcohol and drug use due to a car accident that disfigured his face. The actors had grown increasingly disgusted with the director’s blatant homophobic abuse of Clift who was openly gay.
Apparently this tension culminated into a moment of rebellion by Ms. Hepburn, who waited til the final scene was shot, and then proceeded to spit in Mankiewicz’s face. I have to say, that while Hepburn is not on my list of actors that I idolize nor whose film career I follow closely, I commend her intrepid defense, and would have expected more of a face slap with a long white linen glove. I am saddened by the revelation, if it is accurate that Mankiewicz was a homophobe. I just finished watching his film, Letter to Three Wives 1949 with 3 of my best loved actresses Ann Southern, Jeanne Crain and Linda Darnell. Not to mention his contribution to All About Eve 1950. It’s often hard to separate the person from the work, and while I will always admire his work as a director, it does taint the waters to think that Mankiewicz could be a neanderthal in his thinking.
Producer Sam Spiegel submitted Gore Vidal’s screenplay to the MPAA’s review board before production began, the board having expressed objections to the stories subject matter. Spiegel wanted to let Joseph Mankiewicz shoot the film as it was intended. Although the board first refused to approve the film, they gave the go ahead, after a few minor changes were made. Thus, the word homosexual never materialized at any time in the film.
The movie supposedly differs from the stage version, using added scenes, and characters. Also adding a few subplots. Due to the strict Hollywood Production Codes that were enforced, they had to cut out any explicit references to homosexuality.
Elizabeth Taylor conjures the psychically injured Catherine Holly with a volatile poignancy , Katharine Hepburn icy and filled with misconstructions about the relationship with her son Sebastian, emerges from her gilded elevator like a throne, as Mrs.Violet Venable. Both stars were up for Academy Awards for Best Actress in A Leading Role that year, but both lost to Simone Signoret for her role in Room at The Top (1959).
Montgomery Clift is the kindly and ruminating Dr. Cukrowicz Albert Dekker is head of Lion’s View Sanitarium Dr. Lawrence J. Hockstader, who is in desperate need of an endowment to overhaul his crumbling hospital.
Mercedes McCambridge plays Mrs Grace Holly, Violet’s opportunistic mother, and Gary Raymond plays Violet’s self absorbed brother George Holly. Mavis Villiers is Mrs Foxhill, Violet Venable’s dutiful assistant.
With a dynamic soundtrack by Buxton Orr, (usually working on Sci-Fi films like Fiend Without A Face 1958,First Man Into Space 1959) and Malcolm Arnold. Film editing by William Hornbeck and Thomas Stanford. And cinematography by Jack Hildyard.
Brooks Atkinson of the NY times writes “Mr Williams is at his peak as the poet of the damned” and “his most decisive denial of the values by which most people live, his most devastating statement about corruption in the world.”
In Donald Spoto’s biography – The Kindness of Strangers-The Life of Tennessee Williams, Williams underwent intense psychotherapy in mid 1957 frequently visiting his sister Rose who was institutionalized , eventually completing the play against the advice of Dr Kubie. ” I think if this analysis works” he said as the year drew to a close, “It will open some doors for me. If I am no longer disturbed myself, I will deal less with disturbed people and with violent material…It would be good If I could write with serenity” -Tennessee Williams
The intense therapy that Williams underwent with Dr. Kubie, actually triggered an even more violent self purgative exposition of his life’s journey, staying true to himself as a writer who would contribute something more visceral to the American stage. Spoto goes on to say “Williams had hoped at the beginning of his therapy to conform to the prevailing theatrical and cultural coziness of 1958 but the play was neither safe nor easy nor would it be for his audience.”
Suddenly, Last Summer essentially acts as confessional, partly out of the guilt he felt about his sister Rose’s treatment, and self reflection of the demons that were made manifest due to his intensive psychoanalysis.
Throughout Suddenly, Last Summer, there are threads of autobiographical allusions to his private life.Williams struggled with the sadness over his own sister Rose who was forced to undergo a lobotomy at the urging of their own domineering mother, not unlike Violet. During the time Williams started writing Suddenly, Last Summer, he began his psychoanalysis before finishing the play.
One of the narrative’s main arteries is the looming threat of lobotomy to Catherine Holly mirroring William’s sister Rose’s imposed surgery. Sebastian Venable’s pattern of exploitation was something that he wrestled with about his own behavior. “Yes” says Catherine, “We all use each other and that’s what we think of as love.”
“and for Sebastian/Williams sexual exploitation had masqueraded as love, and had become a kind of human devouring. The final horror of “Desire and the Black Masseur” was at last narrated in the extreme: “We were going to blonds…that’s how he talked about people, as if they were items on the menu. ‘That one’s delicious- looking, that one is appetizing.’ or ‘that one is not appetizing’ – I think because he was really nearly half starved from living on pills and salads.”- Donald Spoto
Apparently the connection between Williams and Sebastian was even made evident using the reference to “popping little white pills” And although Violet claims that Sebastian like the author , “dreaded, abhorred false values that come from being publicly known from fame, from personal exploitation,” she admitted “Time after time my son would let people go, dismiss them.”
As it often reveals itself with many of Tennessee Williams plays, the story uses elements from his own personal life acting as semi-confessional. Sebastian’s persona is one of a counterfeit poet, parasite and exploiter of people, such as his delicate cousin Catherine, ultimately being devoured by street urchins in Spain, literally and metaphorically consumed by the object of his own desire, setting the tone for Williams reflexive portrait of self condemnation and remorse. Suddenly, Last Summer as Donald Spoto once again states, “the perception of derailed creative energies and the abuse of love as any moralist could ever proclaim.” “Obsessed with what the play calls ‘the trails of debris’ that he believed had characterized so much of his life in the 1940s and 50s.”
Joseph L Mankiewicz had said, “There is something not only of confession in the play, but of wish-fulfillment too. Tennessee might have liked to have a garden with statues like Sebastian’s, a study with paintings like Sebastians’. If he had a distaste for anything, it was for his own aging, and his own humble background and circumstances. Suddenly Last Summer enabled him to have what he despised, in a way. And Mrs Venable is certainly a composite of the women who defended and accompanied him all over the world.”
It’s 1937 Montgomery Clift plays the sympathetic Dr. John Cukrowicz an upcoming neurosurgeon from Chicago, who has been summoned to the palatial Venable estate an old Victorian Mansion in the Garden District of New Orleans, by the sovereign widow, and wealthy matriarch Violet Venable inhabited imposingly by Katharine Hepburn who portrays Violet’s character like a Dragon Lady in a starched white exoskeleton. Violet is prepared to donate a large sum of money to fund the doctor’s research at the state mental hospital Lion’s View Asylum, with the stipulation that he perform a lobotomy on her supposedly insane niece and poor relation, Catherine Holly portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor in one of her most volatile roles.
Suddenly, Last Summer, harnesses integral visions and symbols of a predatory natural world. Overgrown plant life that seems to inhabit the ancient spirits of the forest, statues resembling an Angel of Death, and somewhat like that of a winged maternal bird of prey, a flesh eating bird as mentioned in the story Violet relates to Dr. Cukrowicz. We see Violet in several frames set against the figure of the skeletal harbinger. Violet is the embodiment of The Devouring Mother, as she escorts the gentleman doctor around her dead son Sebastian’s primordial jungle evoking the garden of earthly delights by Hieronymus Bosch.
Williams intended the environment to be a Savage place, the natural world. A domain where human frailty and compulsion breed a ravaging force that consumes not only the spirit, but essentially arouses the carnal, primal need to consume the weaker of the species not only to prevail as the unbounded agency of dominance, but to satiate oneself infinitely.
Bosch’s painting is a motif that I’ve focused my critical lens on in other films. Such as Angel Angel Down We Go (1969) and Roger Vadim’s Pretty Maids All In A Row (1971).
The epic painting is a biblical narrative about Creation. The three panels or scenes called triptychs are possibly considered to be read chronologically from left to right. The left panel shows God granting Eve to Adam, the central panel is a panorama of naked figures frolicking in sexual ecstasy surrounded by fantastical animals, and Bert I Gordon sized fruits. The right panel is a vision of hell and portrays the torments of damnation
Speaking of her son as if he were still alive, lionizing him as if a saint, a philosopher, a disciple of life. Sebastian was not only a poet, but poetry was his life, having written 25 poems, one for each year of his life.Violet tells the story of how last summer, her Sebastian, the tragically misunderstood cultivated gentleman died under very mysterious circumstances while vacationing abroad with his cousin Catherine. Catherine was with Sebastian when he died, and since his untimely death, has been locked away from the rest of the world at St. Mary’s Convent, to shield people from her obscene ramblings.
Violet must also protect her son’s godlike image from the ‘obscene babble’ as Catherine keeps trying to relate a grotesque and hideous story, a fantastical tale which is a dangerous and damaging reflection on her son’s moral character. Violet wants to silence Catherine, take away her torturous memories, her voice, and thus any attack on the memory of her beloved and flawless son. And so she orchestrates her power and influence to use Dr.Cukrowicz as the instrument to silence her niece permanently, urging him to cut these memories out of her brain.
As Dr. Cukrowicz meets with Catherine, he begins to put together the real dynamic of the Venable family as he looks behind the veil of propriety and accusations of insanity, revealing the raw truth behind the contrivances Violet has painted of her worldly and sainted son Sebastian. Thus, exposing his true nature and the details of his grizzly death.
Violet and her son Sebastian were the elite jet setters who took trips together, united as if they themselves were a romantic couple. In fact, the relationship impresses us with it’s incestuous likeness. Always surrounding themselves with the most fashionable and beautiful people. But once Violet suffers a stroke, she becomes less ‘useful’ to her son, who is merely using the cover of sophistication and female adornment to lure younger boys to ‘select’ for a sexual encounter. Needing someone who can equally attract the young men who’s attentions he requires, Sebastian moves on to his gorgeous and younger cousin Catherine to effectively be the ‘bait’ to attract his young ‘objects of desire’. Catherine was the ideal target, having been raped by a married man at a party one night, now having been left traumatized and vulnerable to her cousin Sebastian’s manipulative yet indulgent attentions.
Catherine has not only been victimized by the revelation that she was an instrument in her cousin’s tawdry game of luring young male inamoratos, but also by witnessing the circumstances of his grotesque murder. She is still foggy about the exact details of the events leading up to Sebastian’s death on the beach at Cabeza de Lobo. But she is clear on the fact that he had ‘used’ her as a pawn. Dr. Cukrowicz through slow regression/talk therapy tries to lead Catherine back to the horrific events of the day Sebastian was killed.
The steady and principled Dr. Cukrowicz brings Catherine back to the Venable Mansion, and gives her an injection of truth serum , so that she can finally process literally what happened that fateful day, when Sebastian was brutally murdered and actually devoured by a small group of starving boys. Boys who he himself had sexually exploited earlier. A vicious cycle of human cannibalism, and the act of consuming his physical spirit and perhaps the essence of his ‘soul’, and the trope for the object of desire, being the thing that destroys or devours you.
“There’s an affectionate side to cannibalism, you know, by devouring their remains, by consuming them they become part of you forever. They don’t leave.They’re not rejecting you; and so there’s an ambivalence in cannibalism and those who practice it.” –Jack Levin– Criminologist Northeastern University Boston.
The truth is something that Aunt Violet tries to block out, projecting all her rage and blame onto poor Catherine but once Dr. Cukrowicz chips away at the truth, eventually the flood of self awareness drives Violet’s fermenting and her own true madness out. When she can not succeed to ‘Cut the horrible story out of her brain’ Which runs closing to William’s personal story of his mother Edwina wanting the ravings of her daughter and William’s sister Rose cut from her brain in 1937.
The complexities of the story, go far beyond fear of homosexual desire, self-loathing homosexuals, predatory gay male sex, or ‘sissy boys’ forged from the bosom of a smothering motherhood. The word Homosexual is never invoked in the film, and Williams himself being openly gay, painted a world where ALL the inhabitants of this world, are flawed and reflect various phases of damage and usury.
Williams uses this story to accuse himself , as he did see Sebastian as a model for how he himself, felt like a ‘devouring’ force, bought sex from others. So then was Edwina Williams a potent model for Violet Venable.
Violet is like that of the formidable and tyrannical Medea or Phaedra who inhabits a private world like a she-devil moving about the garden as a mythical Pythoness/Raptor. A Dionysian figure who unwittingly sends her son to his death. The allusion of dismembered body parts being scattered on the island might not have escaped Tennessee William’s inspiration for the imagery of Sebastian’s demise. Medea is known in most stories as an enchantress , a poisoner and is often depicted as being a priestess of the goddess Hecate or a witch. Aside from her relationship with Jason, in some versions, Medea is said to have dismembered his body and scattered his body parts on an island. Similarly Sebastian’s body was scattered on the Island. Medea also murdered her two children by Jason.
Violet reigns in isolation, with a thriving consuming maternal instinct that feeds the Oedipal complexities of her relationship with Sebastian, oblivious to the outside world, the only relationship that sustains her is the incestuously emotional, intellectual and aesthetic bond with her own son. Both Violet and Sebastian Venable come into existence as bloodsucking elitists. Using each other and others, feeding off each others pathological desire to either use or possess the other.
In Greek mythology Medea is the niece of Circe, granddaughter of the sun god Helios. Violet like Medea envisions a mythical hierarchy surrounding her. She exudes an elevated sense of self and of her son Sebastian. As she relates back to his life, she makes him appear unrivaled in any way, almost Godlike, too precious to be living amongst mortal man.
One of the most prevalent themes of the story is the archetype of The Devouring Mother. And if we relate the planted set pieces that are to be seen as symbolism to the Venables’ as mythological archetypes, then you could consider Violet as an enchantress who poisoned Sebastian’s world. Filling it with gold, riches and a consuming maternal hunger, ultimately destroying his life, although not by her own hand, she ultimately did create an environment for him to be torn apart and scattered about the Island where he dies. Violet his mother, the devouring flesh eating bird of prey, who tears away at the soft underside of her son’s solar plexus or the pit of his stomach, just as the turtles met their deaths in the Encantatas.
William’s infuses his play with mythic themes of predation, as Sebastian’s dismemberment and virtual consumption by the objects of his sexual desire summons up the myth of Dionysus exacting his revenge in Euripides‘ play The Bacchae.
Where Dionysus calls out to his worshipers the female Bacchants dancing, and setting them upon Pentheus the king who would deny Dionysus as a god. Sitting atop the tree, the women are driven to violence. They become wild, as they grab the trapped Pentheus down from the tree and rip his body apart piece by piece.
– Aristotle’s notion of the unmoved mover. That is, god or some other being-of-greatness can ‘act’ in this world without lifting a finger. More specifically, the beauty of a female can encourage a self-sacrifice of men and gods alike without doing…by just being.
ARCHETYPAL DEVOURING MOTHERHOOD
OR PERHAPS A LAMIA: THE CHILD EATING DEMON
The Moral Affliction of Phaedra & Violet Venable
The tragedy of Phaedra culminates in the Hydra-several headed beast exacting it’s vengeful carnage. Phaedra is neither completely guilty nor is she without blame for the tragic events. It is due to her entanglement with ‘fate’ and her act of being unholy entangled in her son’s life that make even her passive actions ruinous.
As laws of nature are violated, the stain of her accountability ripples throughout the story touching many other lives. Her selfish intentions, delusionment, and the fatal disconnection to self-awareness act as catalyst for the eruptive nature of desire.
Much like Phaedra, Violet’s tyrannical rule of the circumstances surrounding her son and his death and the paranoia that consumes her, create a destructive situation. As she conspires to control and destroy all interference with her world, she ironically brings upon herself her own downfall, as well as the demise of her son, the potential ruination and mental disturbance of her niece, all in the defense of honoring the good family name and most importantly her son’s fictitious character.
Hinting toward the story of Phaedra it proves ultimately deadly to the central character Sebastian Venable, who although is never seen on screen, remains pinioned to the fate of the environment created by his devouring mother and his own destructive consuming desires.
Suddenly, Last Summer received three Academy Award nominations:and it was also up for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration in a Black and White film. The filmmakers were given special dispensation by the Breen office so that the homosexuality of Sebastian Venable could be “inferred, but not shown.”
Screenwriter Gore Vidal gives credit to film critic Bosley Crowther, for writing such a scathing review of the film. By using words like degenerates obsessed with rape, incest, homosexuality and cannibalism just to mention a few, it made theater goers flock to the picture, because he had advertised it with such titillating and vulgar verve, creating quite the opposite effect.
The filmmakers were planning on replacing Montgomery Clift because of his years of alcoholism and prescription drug abuse, but Elizabeth Taylor threatened to leave the film if they fired her good friend.
The film opens as Buxton Orr’s mythological horns herald a terrible augery, transforming itself by drifting into something sinister eventually swaying into the melodramatic as it goes through the phases of it’s metamorphic musical introduction.
Presented by Sam Spiegel –The Screenplay by Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams and art direction by William Kellner, Set Design Scott Slimon Edited by Thomas G Stanford. And of course, directed by Joesph L Mankiewicz.
Production Designed by Oliver Messel, Director of Photography Jack Hildyard and Music Composed by Buxton Orr and Malcolm Arnold having been conducted by Buxton Orr.
Suddenly, Last Summer, it could be said, acts somewhat like a subtle horror story, with it’s themes of a Monstrous Natural World, inhabited by a Monstrous Feminine Antagonist. The dialogue often alluding in metaphoric hyperbole to life and the natural order of things as a terrifying place, and an irony that takes the shape of a horrifying vengeance. It’s a portrait of moral ambiguity and part condemnation of the mental health establishment. Bringing together these themes is the central heart beat which is about the cruelty of a corrupting power and wealth that possesses a single mindedness. What makes the film so explosive is the exploration of the scene of Analysis in the 1950s, weaving in the trope of madness, cannibalism, psychic surgery or lobotomy, themes of procuring sex through the idea of using ‘bait’ or ‘baiting’ an individual to lure gay male sex. In addition to the archetype of the hysterical woman, there is also the figurative symbols of eroticism that are visually saturated on screen but not vocalized fully creating an unspoken spectacle of gay male sexuality as destructive and unspeakable.
1937 appears on the screen the camera pans along a aged brick wall, the horns lead us to a plaque that says Lions View State Asylum.
As if we walk thru the walls, we are now inside. A larger woman scrapes and shuffles her feet along the floor, til she comes to a table of inmates sitting, Grabbing her knitting then walking back passed other women also sewing and knitting.
She appears an overgrown child. Smiling, grinning until she comes upon another woman rocking back and forth in her chair. Giving her an unspoken look of displeasure, the woman rocking quickly gets up and she retakes her caned back rocking throne, and begins to knit.
Now another inmate is framed, holding up a doll, as if worshiping a statue of a saint, she seems graced with an inner peace. The shadows surround her like black bars, off in the corner of the frame is a non distinct woman who stares off at nothing but the blackness of the stone wall.
The scene is plunged into illumination and movement as a few attending nurses enter the room, switching on the light.. This does not shake the woman’s unwavering gaze at her exalted doll, obviously a replacement for a lost or invented child. The nurse framed by the doorway seems stern. and yet the woman does not seem to be moved by the new presence of the staff.
Buxton Orr’s moody horn arrangements once again help tell the story, as one of the nurses goes to take away the woman’s doll. She clings to it startled and defiant, her moment of serenity broken by this gesture. The other nurse stands in the doorway, impassive and grim, hands clasped, she is an iron maiden.
There is a woman sitting on the cold stone floor, hugging the walls without making a sound.
We hear the squeaking of the rocking chair, it’s an unbroken rhythm of the asylum, as the more demonstrative nurse takes the arm of the woman with the doll away from her invisible altar, walking her through the room.
The iron maiden looking on, waiting to help the other nurse escort the patient out of the large general recreation chamber.
The scene fades and now we see a woman sleeping, head bandaged. Men in white coats, the camera frames them with no heads, as they lift the unconscious woman out of her bed onto a gurney, draped in surgical whites, the wheels jingle a metal clangor song, as they make contact with the stone floor while they wheel her off. The camera frames the image of her doll, then closes in on it, left behind sitting on a chest, symbolic of what the woman will leave behind as they take her off to psycho-surgery at the asylum.
-Scene fades now into the large amphitheater where medical students are about to observe a surgery.
Dr. Lawrence J. Hockstader (Albert Dekker) announces with his sugary southern voice, “Gentlemen I want to welcome you new medical men to our new operating theater…as you can see it isn’t exactly what you would call new.” His goal is to acquire a large donation to fund the revamping of his crumbling hospital facility.
He tells them it used to be a library or maybe even a sugar warehouse, but the main thing it is the first room to be devoted to ‘psycho surgery’ as he tells them this, Dr Cukrowicz the new staff surgeon from Chicago enters the room in his scrubs. He will perform the operation.
Hockstader continues to tell them that they are about to witness an operation never performed before, in the state of Louisiana. A lobotomy on a brain of a woman, suffering from acute schizophrenic withdrawal.
The medical students, all men, look on from the balcony, As Dr Cukrowicz begins to cut with the scalp, a loose post from the balcony gives way, plaster dust scatters a little cloud in this sanitary room, and it draws Dr. Cukrowicz’s attention away from his work. He turns and looks upward at the distraction…
The men and Hockstader, are distracted momentarily as well, Hockstader looking annoyed at the incident, reminding him that the place is in disrepair and in need of money for vast reconstruction.
We hear a constant low droning buzz, as Dr Cukrowicz passes surgical implements back and forth to his nurses, a basin with liquid filled with steel tools, surgical implements and rubber gloves. A table covered in linen with surgical scissors of all sizes. Wearing his mask we see Cukrowicz’s brows furrowed as he works on the woman…now it’s apparent that the buzzing is coming from a large lab light that is threatening to burn out, crackling on and off, flickering overhead.
Again, another disturbance, another hindrance, Dr Cukrowicz turns his head once again, to see what is interrupting his procedure…the light goes dark. Whispers in the balcony, Cukrowicz looks up at Hockstader who is now leaving the balcony. Cukrowicz now finished, frustrated with these working conditions, tears off his latex gloves, as they snap audibly he addresses the men in the balcony.
“You have just witnessed a delicate performed under the most primitive surgical conditions i hope any of you will ever encounter” He storms out of the operating theater, slams his gloves down, as the glass door swings shut, and the scene fades, leading him into Hockstader’s office…
“I know I know I know you are not the State Board of Health, but I am not a Witchdoctor”
He tells Dr. John Cukrowicz that he can’t promise that this State hospital will ever have the money to have lights that stay lit. John threatens to go back to Chicago. But Hockstader hands him a letter to read.
“Who is Violet Venable?”
“You reveal your ignorance of our fair city of which Mrs Venable is the richest lady, at one time. at one time her husband owned most of it. Now she’s a widow and she owns it.”
“And was very interested in the work of your Dr Cukrowicz” He looks up at Holstader curiously.
“She must of read your write up last Sunday in the Herald”
Cukrowicz continues reading….”And I wonder if the foundation I”m establishing might be of some assistance”
“Son…with one signature on one check she can solve all the problems we got.”
“Also there’s a matter of some urgency, I’d like to discuss with him.” “What is her urgency do you know?”
“No but I know what ours is…lack of money.”
“I’ve been trying for years just to see the Venable lawyers, you’ve been invited by her…that’s a command performance…that’s how serious I think it is.”
“And this is serious too, more than 1200 mental cases Lions View isn’t capable of handling.”
Cukrowicz walks out, Holstader takes a sip of coffee, and the scene cross fades to Cukrowicz arriving at the Venable home.
The sound of the house elevator’s gears start to engage, the whirring underscores a distant voice “Sebastian always says Mother, when you descend it’s like the Goddess from the machine, she’s like an angel coming to earth as I float into view”
Foxhill cuts in and tells him that Mrs Venable is on her way down.
“Sebastian, my son Sebastian was very interested in the Byzantine, are you very interested in the Byzantine Dr?
Cukrowicz tells her, “I don’t know very much about the Byzantine”
“Well it seems that the Emperor of Byznatium when he received people in audience had a thrown which during the conversation rises mysteriously in the air,
to the fascination of the visitors. But as we are living in a democracy, I reverse the procedure…I don’t rise, I come down” She exits the gilded booth wide grinned and snickering tas she greets Dr.Cukrowicz.
“Cukrowicz… it’s a polish word meaning sugar…” a long pause ensues, the silence is telling.
He stares at her a little intensely and she asks him, “Am I wearing only one earring, did I forget my lip rouge?” He stumbles a bit, and answers that he was told she was a widow. “I am, I am in mourning…white was my son’s favorite color… perhaps Dr. Sugar… you expected an old widow…with a garnet brooch and a cane and a huge air trumpet, well I have all that to look forward to. Life is a thief… Sebastian said, life steals everything.”
Violet takes Cukrowicz’s arm and begins to walk him out to Sebastian’s garden…beginning her soliloquy exposing the neurotic fixation on her son.
“I want to show you his garden”
At first Dr. Cukwericz looks like he’s been plunged into a primal, prehistoric and savage world. A sort of Garden of Earthly Delights, or Garden of Eden. This too was Sebastian’s conflict. Was God great or a terrifying and a cruel force of nature? Pleasure and beauty were illusions. Implicit in this primordial garden, are devouring plants that look alluring yet feed on blood. A re-occurring iconography.
” It’s unexpected….” Cukrowicz decries.
“It’s the dawn of creation…it was Sebastian’s idea
part of his life long war against the herbaceous flora.”
“Not unlike a well groomed jungle and frankly a little terrifying.” He remarks.
“So was creation…so is creation.” Violet continues to lead Cukrowicz amidst the primitive vegetation.
“This way before our poor lady dies of hunger…and here’s my poor lady…they’ll never get away, the lady exudes this marvelous perfume which attracts them, they plunge into her chalice and they never come out.”
The grand plant of the garden, a Venus Fly Trap is referred to as The Lady, also a Devouring Female symbol. The Lady is fed imported fruit flies that her son Sebastian ordered from a supplier in Florida. It acts as metaphor for Violet and Sebastian, who consume and destroy the people around them. The Venus Fly Trap is an augury for the eerie parallel in which fate let’s loose its vengeance on both Mother and son, who was fated to be devoured himself.
Violet gets right to the consequential question, the reason she has asked him to the house. The problem of her niece Catherine and her insane ravings about her son Sebastian.
” This operation you performed what is it called?”
” Ah a lobotomy…that certainly is an unusual plant”
She cuts in and takes control once again.
“She love’s feeding, our wicked lady, ‘Foxhill!’, such an extravagance really from late fall to late spring the lady must be kept under glass and while she’s under glass we have to provide her with flies at great expense.”
Foxhill comes running, Violet hands her the box of flies and tells her to do the honors and that Lady is very hungry today…
“I’ve never seen an insectivorous plant before what is it called?”
“The Venus Fly Trap” A devouring organism aptly named for the Goddess of Love.”
Here Tennessee Williams injects his misgivings about the true nature of love and it’s pretenses.
“Mrs Venable what was your son’s work I mean aside from this garden?”
“As many times as I’ve had to answer that question, you know it still shocks me a little to realize that Sebastian Venable the poet was still quite unknown outside the small coterie of friends including his mother.”
“Your son was a poet” “strictly speaking his life was his occupation yes, yes 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… I suppose then the life of a poet is the work of a poet…I mean you can’t separate them… a poet’s life is his work. And his work is his life… in a special sense …”She becomes a little disoriented and tangled in her words. Cukrowicz asks if she’s alright.
Violet gives Dr.Cukwericz a sermon on practical esthetics, hers and Sebastian’s personal philosophy on life, culture and the endless pursuit of beauty.
“You see last spring I had a slight, a tiny convulsion of a tiny blood vessel, ”
“Oh, what did you doctor call it?”
” A malady of living what else… I buried a husband and a son, I’m a widow and a ….”She pauses and looks off , “Funny, there’s no word, lose your parents, you’re an orphan, lose your only son, and you are…she pauses…. sadness comes over her face like a shadow “Nothing.”
“All poets no matter what age they seem to others, die young.”
“This operation of yours…does it really work?”
“Yes, yes it does, however it is very experimental.”
“I was struck by something you said in the paper…about the sharp knife in the mind” Violet interjects but Cukrowicz continues.
“That kills the devil in the soul”… laughing he adds, “I’m afraid I got a bit carried away.”
“No, what you said was almost poetic itself”, she grins like a dragon lady amidst the primeval trees and giant foliage. Her starched white dress almost surgical, lacking sexuality nor tranquility. A walking Venus Fly Trap in search of it’s prey.
“Mrs Venable the work of a doctor is his life too…but we need help particularly in a field as experimental as mine, particularly at a state hospital like Lions View, but we have very little money practically none.”
“Yes I know…Doctor I have a niece by marriage at a place called Saint Mary’s.”
“I’ve heard of it.”
“It’s a custodial home for the insane, she suffers from something called Dementia Praecox”
Dr Cukrowicz questions the diagnoses, “From Dementia Praecox?”
“That is to say that she’s mad as a hatter, poor child…” She quickly changes gears. “Would you like to see Sebastian’s studio it’s at the end of the jungle in what used to be the Atelier. That’s an old New Orleans convenience the place where the young men could go to be private. You’re not from New Orleans?”
“No Chicago, actually… Dementia Praecox is a meaningless phrase” Violet cuts in again.
“Chicago, I’ve always wanted to see two places before I die. Hong Kong and Chicago…now I shall never see either. Because I must use every inch and ounce of what little strength I have left in doing just what I’m doing.”
“The foundation you referred to in your letter?”
“I’m building a memorial to my son… you see Sebastian had no public name as a poet, he didn’t want one, he refused to have one, he dreaded, abhorred the false values that come from being publicly known, from fame, from personal exploitation… Oh he’d say to me….Violet, Mother you’re going to live longer than me, when I’m gone it will be yours and to do what ever you please with. Meaning of course his future recognition. You’re very like him Doctor.”
“In what way?”
“Because you a doctor, a surgeon, are dedicated to your art, yes to your art, it is an art what you do…using people the way He did….grandly, creatively…. almost like God.
“I’m afraid my art is to help, not to use, but to be used.”
“Well us, it comes to the same doesn’t it…in the end anyway, I mean… I don’t know what I mean.”
She sits on the edge of murky garden pond with lilies floating atop. She bends over collecting her thoughts. The two figures are surrounded by ancient roots and vines that twist, writhe and dangling moss hang low creating a fairy tale backdrop.
“Um, there is the Atelier, Sebastian’s studio” She looks down into the reflecting murk of the pond water.
“Most people’s lives…what are they but trails of debris, each day, more debris more debris…. all long trails of debris. With nothing to clean it all up. Finally death.”
” I guess quiet desperation, death is the word for most lives.” She continues
“But ours were different, Sebastian’s and mine” She smiles, the memory of him animating her once again.
“I know it sounds hopelessly vain to say but we were a famous couple. People didn’t speak of Sebastian and his mother, or Mrs. Venable. They said Sebastian and Violet, Violet and Sebastian.”
“And every appearance, every time we appeared. attention was centered on us… everyone else eclipsed. My son Sebastian and I… constructed our days, each day we’d carve each day like a piece of sculpture. Yes we left behind us a trail of days, a gallery of sculpture, and then suddenly last summer” She looks downward, quietly reflecting.
Dr Cukrowicz simply says “your son died”, quick eye contact is exchanged and a word “yes”, then Violet gets up and walks away.
“You say that your niece suffers from Dementia Praecox. There must have been a more exact diagnosis.” He vehemently inquires.
Violet grabs hold of a fern dangling and grins back at Dr Cukrowicz.
“Such a pretty name for a disease, sounds like a rare flower doesn’t it? Night blooming Dementia Praecox.”
He walks toward her, “What form does her disturbance take?
” Madness, uh… uh obsession, memory. She lacerates herself with memory.”
“Memory of what?” he asks.
“Visions…. hallucinations… uhhh, it all started last summer. The first I knew, there was a cable from this clinic in Paris saying my niece is out of her mind what’ll we do? We’ll I was almost out of my own mind last summer. Sebastian had just dies, I was ill but I did everything I could… I said send her straight home with a nurse. So they put her on the Baron Garrier locked in her state room like a wild animal. She was taken straight to St. Marys. And now they can’t keep her there, they can’t help her or work with her fits of violence. Her babbling, her dreadful obscene babbling.”
“What kind of babbling”
Violet cuts in right away with her revelation of Catherine’s madness.
“Fantastic delusions and fantastic babblings of an unspeakable nature. Mostly taking the form of hideous attacks on the moral character of my son Sebastian. And now they tell me at St. Mary’s , the mother superior tells me that we must find another place for her. And then I read about you… about your operation. And I thought this may be the answer to all our prayers. “
“You must realize the operation I do is , it’s only for the unapproachable, for the hopeless.”
“But if she isn’t unapproachable and hopeless I don’t know who is, the things she says.”
“What does she say?”
“Terrible, obscene things.”
” Such as?”
“Oh anything, uh alright you asked… this happened recently at St. Mary’s. Catherine accused an elderly gardener of making love to her. They questioned the gardner, an old man. It was just the other way around, Catherine had made advances to him. Spoken obscenely to him. When confronted with her lies she screamed, it took 4 nuns to hold her. Now I’m put on notice that they won’t keep her there after this week. You see why I said urgent.”
“Yes I do, I certainly do, I think it’s important that I see her as soon as possible.”
“And help her because if you can’t I’m at my wits end.”
” I can get her transferred to Lions View, she won’t be as comfortable, but…”
” I understand, I understand, but the important thing is you doctor, and you’ll be happy to know that at this very minute, my lawyers are working on the Sebastian Memorial Foundation to subsidize the work of young people like yourself who are pushing out the frontiers of science, who have a financial problem.”
“Mrs Venable…loving your niece as you do, you must know that the great risk in this operation. Whenever you enter the brain with a foreign object.”
” A needle thin knife”
“In the hands of the most skilled surgeon”
“Still is a great deal of risk.”
“But it does pacify them, I’ve read that…it quiets them down it makes them peaceful.”
“Yes, yes, that it does do, but…”
“Well it will be years before we know if the immediate benefits of the operation are lasting or maybe just passing. Perhaps there’s a strong possibility that the patient will always be limited… relieved of acute anxiety yes!, but limited.”
“But what a blessing to them doctor, to be just peaceful.” She circles him predatory in her movements.
“To be just suddenly… peaceful. After all that horror, after those nightmares. Just to be able to lift up their eyes to a sky not black with savage devouring birds.”
” You said a sky filled with savage devouring birds?”
“Did I?…oh how odd I hadn’t thought about all that in years. Why should I suddenly… yes we, saw those birds one summer in the Pacific. You see my son Sebastian was looking for”
“Looking for what?”
” Rare hungry birds” She lifts her arm and waves them in a theatrical gesture.
“That isn’t what you started to say is it?”
“You’re too quick for me… no I was going to say my son Sebastian was looking for God.But I stopped my self because I thought you’d think, what a pretentious young crackpot. Which Sebastian was not. This is something I’ve never told anyone before.
Something so strange, so terrible, forgive me if I sound quite mad but it’s true all the same. Sebastian saw the face of GOD. “
“I’d like to hear about that.”
“Yes, one long ago summer sitting right here in this garden, Sebastian said to me Mother, listen to this, and he read me Herman Melville’s description of the Encantada’s, The Galapagos Islands.” Violet starts to tremble a bit, and Dr Cukwericz sits down beside her on an iron patio chair.
“He um, read me that description and said we had to go, and so we did go there that summer.”
She tells him how they chartered a boat that looked like something Herman Melville would have used.
“We saw the Encantadas , but on the Encantadas I saw something that Melville hadn’t written about, we saw the great sea turtles crawl up out of the sea for their annual egg laying, Once a year, the female of the sea turtles crawls up out of the equatorial sea up onto the blazing sand beach of a volcanic island to dig a pit in the sand and deposit her eggs there. It’s a long dreadful thing, the depositing of the eggs in the pits, but when it’s finished, the exhausted female crawls back to the sea half dead. She never sees her offspring. But we did… Sebastian knew exactly when the sea turtle eggs would be hatched. And we returned in time for it. “
“In time to witness the hatching of the sea turtles, and their desperate flight to the sea, the narrow beach, the color of caviar was all in motion. But the sky was in motion too full of flesh eating birds…and the noise of the birds. Their horrible savage cries circled over the narrow black beach of the Encantadas. while the newly hatched sea turtles scrambled out of their sand pit, and started their race to the sea, to escape the flesh eating birds, that made the sky almost as black as the beach. And I said Sebastian, no, no it’s not like that but he made me look, he made me see that terrible sight.”
“What was not like that?”
” Life, I said, No” Her fists clenched she draws closer to Dr Cukrowicz’s face.
“No, No that’s not true, but he said it is…he said, Look Violet, look, there on the shore, and I looked and saw the sand. Alive, all alive, as the new hatched sea turtles made their dash to the sea, the birds hovered and swooped to attack, and hovered and swooped to attack, they were diving down on the sea turtles, turning them over to expose their soft undersides, tearing their undersides open, and rending and eating their flesh… Sebastian guessed that possibly only one hundred of one percent of their number would escape to the sea.”
“Nature is not created in the image of man’s compassion” Dr Cukrowicz rises up from the bench meeting the disturbed Violet head on.
She screeches at him “Nature is cruel, Sebastian knew it all along. but not I, I said, no no those are only birds, turtles, not us. I didn’t know then…it was us. That we are all of us trapped by this devouring creation. I wouldn’t, couldn’t face the horror of the truth, even in that last day of the Encantadas, when Sebastian left me, and spent the whole blazing equatorial day in the crows nest of the schooner watching that thing on the beach, until it was too dark to see. And when he came down the rigging, he said well now I’ve seen him, and he meant God.”
” Do you believe he saw God?”
“He saw the whole thing there that day on the beach. But I was like you, I said no… I refused to believe…Until suddenly last summer… I learned my son was right.!!! That what he had shown me in the Encantada’s was the horrible, the inescapable, truth.”
Dr Cukrowicz and Violet enter Sebastian’s atelier and find the Holly’s rifling through Sebastian’s things.
The ambivalence about whether Sebastian was a nice person a kind and spiritual man, beyond his manipulative, exploitative nature goes to the heart of Williams own feelings. The only one who seems to have any decency is Catherine and Dr CuKrowicz.
Holstader is a user, as he wants Venable’s money. The Holly’s are willing to sacrifice Catherine for a payoff from Aunt Violet.
Violet and Sebastian created their own private world, a hell and a paradise. The paradigm to act out in their dysfunctional relationship as Oedipal son and Devouring mother. With the exception of the central characters of Cathy and Dr Cukrowicz, the film is inhabited by parasitic humans… taking, using, baiting, exploiting and ultimately destroying…devouring each other.
To be continued in Part II
3 thoughts on “Suddenly Last Summer (1959) Part I -The Devouring Mother, the Oedipal Son & the Hysterical Woman”
I think you’re analysis is close, but misses some of the marks, especially in regards to the “devouring mother” concept: if there is a “devouring mother” here, it is Sebastian – his mother was little more than a pretty lure to attract flies for the sweltering, ravening, primordial jungle that symbolizes her son and his fevered but suppressed appetites.
It’s not the mother which waits at the heart of Sebastian’s “garden’, but Sebastian’s little studio – a “convenience where the young men could go to be private”… the garden jungle is not Violet, but is a place which Sebastian has built in his own image.
One notable scene was the one where the mother Violet (a tiny flower symbolizing humility, modesty, and innocence) drops that single, tiny fly into the “fly trap” that she serves as caretaker for – she couldn’t finish the job, and turned the work over to a servant.
Add that scene to a line somewhere about how Sebastian was starving because “little white pills and salads” could not sustain him; he was hungering for meat – male flesh – which his mother, with her illusions about his purity and innocence, could not supply in the quantities he hungered for.
I think it’s telling that Violet insisted her son was chaste (a word that the doctor might have heard as both chaste, and chased)… I suspect that perhaps she was right, to an extent, and that it wasn’t until her “convulsion” prevented her from accompanying him on his summer trip that Sebastian was really free to indulge his appetites, and ultimately become consumed by them, while accompanied by a much younger and more attractive – and much less empowered and interfering – form of bait in his damaged cousin. (There’s also at least one telling exchange involving Sebastian chaffing against interference in the workings of his monstrous flesh-eating vision of nature, and another telling line about the flesh-eating garden being a part of Sebastian’s ongoing war against ordinary, herbaceous plant life….)
I think it’s notable that his mother was especially horrified by Sebastian’s meat-eating horror of a garden and flesh-eating vision of the “face of god”, and desperately tries to argue for a more “natural” version of nature.
I think it’s an easy mistake to make, confusing the “devouring mother” idea with Violet – Vidal and/or Williams actually apply so many feminine and abnormally motherly symbols to Sebastian that the confusion would be quite natural. For example, there is an interesting exchange between Violet and the doctor in which she mentions that Sebastian waits nine months between poems, like a pregnancy… or the exchange about that mother turtle limping back into the sea after a nightmarish birth, where Sebastian is present for the birth, and then, knowing exactly when the eggs would hatch, returns to the beach to watch his horror erupt from the sand and then be devoured by the predatory birds descending from his hellish white version of heaven, leaving only a tiny fraction of his brood to escape into the water as the sun sets….
Make no mistake: the fly-trap “lady” being kept under glass in the garden during certain seasons and fed by Violet at such great expense is not Violent, but rather nothing more or less than a symbolic new version of Sebastian, transformed by his “unnatural” appetites into an indistinguishable part of his carnivorous jungle garden, with the hollow remains of his feeble mother doomed to procure the occasional expensive but tiny fly for his sustenance….